Tag Archives: travel

The Road to Little Dribbling

The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in BritainThe Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Bill Bryson is probably the luckiest writer alive, for a few reasons.

For one thing, my wife adores him. This should give me abundant hope, as it implies that as I get older and grouchier, so as long as I remain bumbling, mildly humorous, and appropriately annoyed at the grammatical foibles of young people, she will continue to find me endearing. (She might even start reading my books.)

But he’s also lucky because the man has made a successful career of traveling about investigating interesting places and writing about what he finds. He gained all the credibility he’ll probably ever need doing this and doing this very well in his excellent articles for National Geographic. But now that he has this credibility, he can do whatever he wants with it. He can go where he pleases and season his accounts with whatever historical anecdotes strike his fancy and as much griping about litter, economic depression, or kids these days he feels inclined to include. At this point, he could conceivably return to the United States with the intention of writing a book on highway rest areas, and it would be an immediate success.

I hope it’s clear here how much I envy this guy.

Yet I also at times—and especially in this, his most recent work—find him quite frustrating. His bits of history on the places he visits, for instance, are presented without any real context. Of course, in this book he’s under no obligation as a historian or sociologist (which, to be fair, he never pretends to be) to build these observations into any thesis or use them as arguments toward anything beyond comments like “England is absurd and delightful” or “Things are getting pretty crummy here.” The Road to Little Dribbling is just Bryson ambling about Britain, sort of traveling from the far south to the far north, and also sort of retracing some of his steps from his great work, Notes from a Small Island. Really though, it’s just him being his familiar, garrulous, and somehow endearing self.

Now, Bryson has done fine work—let’s get that straight. I’m rereading his science book right now, and it’s solid. More than that, it’s written with what makes him so appealing: eyes wide with genuine wonder and delight. “This is your universe,” he says. “Pay attention.” I remember Notes from a Small Island being similar: exploring the wonder of a new and genuinely wonderful place. But a lot of that seems to be lacking in Little Dribbling. This is an older, more tired, grouchier Bryson taking us on an aimless tour with sidetracks to wait for a new baby’s arrival or attend a soccer match with the grandkids. Maybe that should make it more endearing, but instead it gives the sense that this whole thing is an afterthought, an excuse to write a book in which he can comment on whether shops have opened or closed since the last time he was in town, whether the village he’s passing through has a good high street, and how rude the clerk in the hardware store is.

In places it’s quite maddening, both for Bryson, clearly, and for the reader. It’s maddening for the reader because Bryson could do so much more. In some places, for instance his visit to Avebury, he gives wonderful and astonishing context on the standing stones. Yet in other places his comments are simply throw-away lines about certain museums being nice, pleasant, or interesting without any details. In one instance he explains the remarkable situation of the manor of a dwindling family being finally donated to the National Trust and turned into a museum and tells how some rooms hadn’t been opened for decades, but we get very little insight into what this place actually was like. (It was musty, according to Bryson.) Or where he points out the oldest public park in the world and explains that it’s a model for pretty much all other city parks, but then does nothing to actually take us there in his prose.

Maybe that’s my primary complaint. I’m used to Bryson taking me places. Here I just felt like I was getting an account of Bryson going different places and how they affected his emotional state. There’s some irony here too. Bryson apparently has become something of a patron saint for landscape conservation, walking paths, and eliminating litter in Britain. And yet in this book we spend a good deal of our time with him in the car, zipping from one sight to another, along the way getting updates about the things that annoy him about politics or culture or long expositions on the downfall of proof-reading followed by imaginary dialogue of what he’d like to tell people who are unpleasant to him.

A final complaint: we know he’s well-read, but it taxes even the most charitable reader’s patience when Bryson approaches a place like Blackpool and offers a solution to its economic and social woes in less than a page. I don’t begrudge him offering a solution, but it would be wonderful to have had some suggestions on where to dig deeper for information on Blackpool or any other interesting place Bryson finds himself. Bryson knows a thing or two about every place he visits. Where does he learn all this? He’s been my guide for the book, I’d like some guidance on where to go next to learn more. I’m not asking for footnotes or endnotes (okay, maybe I am), but at least a list of suggested reading would have been helpful.

Yes, my annoyance is probably primarily motivated by jealousy: I want to be there seeing those things and writing (or complaining) about them. In fairness, I’d likely be just as grouchy (hopefully to my wife’s delight). But I’d certainly have less credibility and undoubtably do a much poorer job than Bryson has done here.

Dispatches from Pluto

Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi DeltaDispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta by Richard Grant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My wife and I lived for a couple years in Oxford, Mississippi, and there was much that I, having been raised in the Midwest, did not understand. This was more than the accent, though the first time I had to get a vehicle inspection sticker I could only stare in incomprehension at the man behind the counter when he asked if I had “tents on my windows.” My confusion must have been obvious, because he repeated it with more insistence. When that didn’t work, he asked if I had windows that were “tented.” If I did, he informed me, we’d have to do a “tent test.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. This was, after all, Mississippi, so I assumed maybe a tent was some kind of slang for broken windows that had been repaired with plastic. It wasn’t until he spelled it out, obviously running out of patience for this clueless Yankee, “TENT, T-I-N-T,” that the lightbulb came on.

I spent most of my time during that period of our lives in the physics department at Ole Miss, so interactions like this didn’t take place very often. My wife, however, taught in the county high school. At our first high school football game, I asked why her incredibly polite and cheerful students were constantly greeting her with the strange call “Muh-Kay!” She explained this was “Miss Case.” (She had spent her high school years in Texas, so she had a jump with me on the accent.)

But Oxford was great. The town was beautiful, the people were lovely, and you could get pimento cheese or fried hotdog sandwiches at the same place you fueled your car. The weather was wonderful, and in the summer there was air conditioning.

In Oxford, we heard stories about a strange place called the Delta, and one day I convinced my friend Chet, who was also the pastor of the tiny Nazarene church we attended, to take a road trip with me through a small portion of it. We must have stuck out like sore, idiotic thumbs: two skinny white men in my blue ’99 Firebird gawking, photographing, and trying to make small-talk with locals in the tiny towns we passed through. But images of that day trip stay with me: especially the tiny town of Friar’s Point on the Mississippi River, a place like a closet that you backed into with nowhere to go; the ruins of St. Cecilia’s Catholic church, empty and decaying; the Seventh Day Adventist we chatted with in the parking lot of a closed historical museum. We drove over the river to Helena, and finished with a gander at the spillway of the Sardis Dam, the largest earthen dam in the world. (Chet has stayed, learning the story of the Mississippi civil rights movement and telling its narrative.)

I thought of that trip reading Richard Grant’s account of his time in the Delta, Dispatches from Pluto. The work is a loose chronological narrative of how he fell in love with an old plantation home in the tiny hamlet of Pluto in the middle of the Delta and convinced his girlfriend to uproot from New York City and start a new life there. To him, it was as though he had discovered a new, foreign country called Mississippi and then an even stranger hidden kingdom within Mississippi called the Delta. (For confused Midwesterners: the Mississippi Delta is not the delta of the Mississippi River. It’s the confluence of the Yazoo River where it runs into the Mississippi, a low, swampy and incredibly fertile land only drained for farming after the Civil War. It makes up the northwest corner of the state, stretching along the western side of the state to Vicksburg.)

Dispatches from Pluto is Grant’s exploration of the culture, history, twisted and bizarre politics, and complex race relations of this isolated portion of our country’s poorest state. Race is a big theme in the book, with Grant (originally from London) continually frustrated and ultimately bemused in his attempts to categorize the relations between blacks and whites in the Delta in any meaningful way through the relationships he builds with his neighbors.

The book is not a travelogue, and Grant is at times frustratingly vague on the actual geography of the Delta. Nor is it a straightforward history or any sort of systematic survey of the social trends or economy of the region. And that’s fine, as the book doesn’t attempt to be this, but a section on “suggested reading” or at least some leads given in the narrative of what Grant’s reading in his attempt to understand his adopted home would have helped an interested reader know where to go to learn more.

Dispatches is instead a colorful, rambling account that makes this strange but charmingly enigmatic backwater come to life through Grant’s own discoveries. More than an exploration of a place you may never have heard of before (with a history and certain traits that are indeed troubling and often horrifying), it’s more importantly a testimony to understanding, hospitality, and neighborliness that transcends regionality and (in some cases) even race. To know a place, Grant seems to be saying, you have to know its people. And to know the people, you need to live beside them. Doing this with an openness and a genuine desire to learn and then writing about what it teaches him is where Grant succeeds admirably.

Cold Beer and Crocodiles

Cold Beer and Crocodiles: A Bicycle Journey into AustraliaCold Beer and Crocodiles: A Bicycle Journey into Australia by Roff Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first met Roff Smith in Northwestern Australia, as he was in the middle of his bike trip around the continent. Not in person, of course. I read one of his National Geographic articles among some back issues shelved at my folks’ house. But I recently finished Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country, and Bryson was right: this was an incredible place that I needed to learn more about. I recalled Smith’s articles and wondered if they were collected into a book. A bit of searching, an interlibrary loan, and I was off.

Roff’s book documents his 10,000-mile biking odyssey around the perimeter of Australia. Departing from Sydney, he travels north up the coast and proceeds to bike across every Australian state (and one territory), including Tasmania. Smith’s prose is that of a reporter, documenting his travels and the places through which he passes. His account primarily focuses on the people though– from ranchers to campers to Catholic missionaries. He sees the land on a level that makes Bryson’s account seem penned by a funny fat man breezing through the country in a car. But Bryson is the better writer, and Smith (perhaps because he’s pedaling the better part of 100 miles each day) doesn’t spend the time going into the natural history and accounts of past explorers that make Bryson’s work such fascinating read. If you want an eye-level account of the aching emptiness of much of Western Australia though, as well as snapshots into the life of those who make such out-of-the-way places home, Smith’s account is a good place to start.

My only complaint (besides the terrible puns he uses as chapter headings) is that because the account we get of the landscape is tied to this single bicycle expedition, by the time he’s reached Southern Australia he’s tired and sick and pushing for home. I would have liked to have spent more time here. Also, there’s a laconic nature to the descriptions. There are lots of spots on his maps he breezes through, and the only picture we get of them is what he ate, drank, and the room he slept in. After nine months and 10,000 miles, I would liked to have read more.

Still though, I came away from this book with lots of other leads of classical accounts of travel in the Outback to check out, but the main thing I took away?

I need to get a bicycle like that.