Book Title: The Lost Continent. Travels in Small-Town America
Author: Bill Bryson
Promotional Blurb:‘I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to’
And, as soon as Bill Bryson was old enough, he left. Des Moines couldn’t hold him, but it did lure him back. After ten years in England, he returned to the land of his youth, and drove almost 14 000 miles in search of a mythical small town called Amalgam, the kind of trim and sunny place where the films of his youth were set. Instead, his search led him to Anywhere, USA; a lookalike strip of gas stations, motels and hamburger outlets populated by lookalike people with a penchant for synthetic fibres. He discovered a continent that was doubly lost; lost to itself because blighted by greed, pollution, mobile homes and television; lost to him because he had become a stranger in his own land. (Source: http://www.penguin.co.uk)
For those people who don’t know me well, I am a planner and an organiser. Yes, I would like to be more chilled and ‘go-with-the-flowish’, but after 50-odd years on this earth, I have found that approach just doesn’t work for me. I need goals and I need exciting things on my horizon to keep me motivated and interested.
Many years ago I developed an aversion to birthdays. Not that I despised getting older, although who wouldn’t want to turn the clock back a tad, it was just that I would look back on the previous 12 months and wonder, ‘where did that go’ and ‘what did I achieve’?
Most times I felt like I had accomplished a big, fat nothing. This was inaccurate and no way to think about my life, so I decided to change. Each birthday I would sit down and set myself some small challenges for the next 12 months. Then, I would stick this list, big and bold, on my fridge door. This provided no end of amusement for visitors to my house, but more importantly it kept me honest and kept me focused. Subsequent birthdays were greeted with slightly less trepidation, and a degree of excitement, as I set myself even more ambitious goals.
Without wishing to be morbid, I am now at a stage in life with more years behind me than in front, and it is time to really ‘up the ante’ on the goal-setting front.
Yes, the list is back on the fridge door, and as a sign of the times, it is now termed a ‘Bucket List’. Perhaps this is a poor choice of words, and I do not plan on going anywhere soon, except to remarkable, exotic overseas and Australian destinations.
I am always open to suggestions and here, in no particular order, is the Bucket List so far:
The Mississippi River Trail: A cycle route that starts in Lake Itascain Minnesota, USA, and finishes near the mouth of the river in Venice, Louisiana. It covers 3 600miles (5 794km), using the Mississippi River as the common theme or motif. In the past, the USA was never really high on my travel wish list mainly because the cultural contrast was not significant enough. However, this trip has captured my imagination because of the many states we will pass through – their different climate, architecture, history, scenery and accents. Yes, it will take us around three months, but what a way to experience a country.
Trans-Siberian Railway: This adventure has been on The Brave Man’s* wish list for quite some time. Not as energetic as the first bucket list entry, but no less fascinating. I understand the best ways to tackle this one are to either book on a guided/organised tour or get some assistance with booking tickets and accommodation. Happy to take suggestions on the best ways to approach this adventure.
India: How do they cram so much chaos, colour and culture into one five-letter word? The thought of the scale of the population in India frightens the pants off me, but I am busting to get there to experience such their vibrant culture. I am not brave enough to do this solo or via independent touring so I am currently researching cost-effective and well-regarded tours that will give me a small insight into this country. Fingers crossed, I get to tick this one off the list in 2017.
Turkey: Has always been lurking on the list since we had a short visit to the Marmaris region back in 2003. I loved the collision of Asian, European and Middle Eastern culture and history. We found the people incredibly friendly, and the architecture and arts fascinating. To be on the safe side, we will wait until the dust settles a bit in that region before venturing over. As an aside, there is a 509km walk called the Lycian Way that follows the Turkish coast line from Fethiye to Antalya. Perhaps we could incorporate that stroll into a visit?
Trains Through Asia: I am not sure if you have come across The Man in Seat 61? He has to be world’s largest train nut, and what a wonderful resource he has created for rail-travel fans. The loose plan is to fly into Singapore and then train (and bus where necessary) north through Malaysia, Thailand and finishing in Luang Prabang, Laos. Again, a fantastic way to experience a variety of Asian cultures, move slowly through the changing countryside, and meet the locals.
Houseboat Trip on the Hawkesbury River: This one is much closer to home, and probably the shortest travel adventure. I have always thought a houseboat, a bit like the canal boats in England and France, would be a relaxing and different way to ‘play tourist’. The Hawkesbury River is one of the main rivers that forms a rough border on the northern side of the Sydney basin. Only three hours from home but a world away from the chaos of Sydney.
thrown into the mix. This walk starts at Irun, near the border of France, and follows the Spanish coastline until you cross into the province of Galicia, then turning south-west towards Santiago de Compostela. This is a tough walk apparently, due to the mountainous terrain, so we had better start training now!
Overseas Volunteering: We also plan to spend some time giving back. With The Brave Man’s* extensive education skills, and my bag of tricks, perhaps we can make a small positive difference to someone’s life.
That is just a small sample of what’s currently on the list. I think it’s a nice mix of active, overseas, cultural and the Aussie, but I am more than happy to print out a longer list or buy a larger fridge to display it!
So, now it’s your turn. What is missing from our list? What cracker destinations must we add?
What: The Bucket List is open to all suggestions. I figure once the appeal of sitting on a long haul flight fades, our focus will change and we will travel much closer to home.
When: Anytime, and any length of time.
Why: Who needs a reason to travel?
How: Planes, trains, automobiles plus by boat, on foot, by bicycle.
Who: Myself and The Brave Man* and anyone else up for adventure.
I imagine that tourism is a tricky business. What attractions and businesses do you need in a community to capture and keep a visitor for more than one day? Not every community can have a Disneyland, nor every town an Eiffel Tower.
Personally, I feel it is the simple things that are sometimes the most attractive, but few communities realise they have it in their power, or have the energy and initiative, to create something special.
Greenville, South Carolina, is a living, breathing example of how to create something out of nothing. The residents are obviously passionate and proud of their city and are not afraid to invest their energies, and their all-important dollars, to benefit both locals and visitors alike.
We visited Greenville as part of a short but convoluted road tour of the USA (see my post about looking for James Taylor). On the surface, Greenville could be viewed as basically another smallish city in the deep south of the USA. It is bustling, super-friendly (Hi Y’all), mad-keen on American football and full of flapping banners from competing universities. It is when you get out of the car and onto the streets that you get the true sense of the city and how it has been rejuvenated to stand out from the crowd.
In the early days, Greenville was a mill town. Cotton mills were prolific, and woollen mills and a paper factory all clustered along the edges of the Reedy River. In 1915 it even branded itself as the Textile Centre of the South. Viewing historical photos, I can only imagine the impact these industries had on the local economy but also the environment.
Today there is little evidence of the negative impacts of the mills, and the Reedy River has been restored and enhanced to make it virtually unrecognisable in comparison to those industrial days.
The Reedy River, at the foot of Greenville’s main street, is now part of the Swamp Rabbit Trail. This trail stretches a superb 21miles (33.8km) through forests, valleys and riverside parks, linking four communities in Greenville County. Each year the trail grows and snakes (or should that be ‘hops’?) through the picturesque County as funds become available.
While any community can create a park or a trail, the thing that really caught our imagination was that much of it was, and continues to be, funded via philanthropy. Reading the Swamp Rabbit Trail promotional material, opportunities to sponsor and donate abound, and include benches/seating, bike racks, mile markers or even ‘buying’ a section of the trail.
I realise that Australians do not have a strong philanthropic culture but just think what we could create in our communities if we did?
I spent many hours walking through Falls Park and Cleveland Park – adjoining parks in different parts of Greenville – but all connected by the Trail. It was obvious to me just how popular this walk was, with locals of all ages walking and cycling, and visitors such as myself armed with cameras and smartphones.
The valuable thing is that the community has recognised this ‘infrastructure’ as not only good for a healthy lifestyle, but also a solid economic generator. Research conducted in 2014 showed that businesses neighbouring the Trail reported up to 85% increase in trade due to the passing foot and cycle traffic. It also found that 25% of trail users were visitors and they invested $6.7million in the local tourism economy. Yes, there is money in the great outdoors and we, as individual donors, can influence that.
Philanthropy was not only evident by the river, but also up and down Greenville’s main street. The whole street has been converted into a public art space with an easy stroll from one sculpture to the next. I realise sculpture is not everyone’s cup of tea, but if the aim is to slow down the foot traffic and encourage people to spend longer in the CBD (thereby benefiting business and economic turnover), then this is an ideal tool.
The 40-odd sculptures range from bronze busts of civic forefathers, accompanied by panels of historical explanatory information, to exuberant lifelike violin and flute players dancing in the forecourt of some non-descript corporate structure. The majority of these works were funded by private individuals or families in memory of someone, or for their own posterity I guess.
All the sculptures were linked together as part of an informal walking trail which moves you from the top of the main street to the bottom – yes, sharing the love amongst the business community.
The really clever thing they have done in this city is to include sculpture targeted at children. A dedicated Mice on Main sculpture trail has been developed which is literally one great mouse hunt. Nine tiny bronze mice are hidden in mysterious places along the main street and children use a treasure-hunt-type map to discover them all. How tricky is that? It engages the younger members of a travelling party, captures the whole family for longer (eating, drinking and shopping) as they walk, systematically moves visitors throughout the community, AND it is community-funded.
As you can tell, Greenville certainly left an impression and inspired us to think about what we could be doing in our own home town to enrich our community and add to the tourism arsenal. Greenville is a fantastic example of a community with a bit of vision and a lot of energy to bring their dreams to life. Their efforts have built a rich and vibrant community with a very high quality of life for themselves, but they have also created cultural and environmental tourist attractions that encourage people to visit, stay and spend.
Win, win, win.
What: Greenville has a population of around 62 000 people. We stayed at Hampton Inn and Suites situated on the Reedy River in downtown Greenville. Access to the Swamp River Trail and the sculptures is free but you can also join themed walking/cycling/segway tours with a variety of commercial tour companies.
Where: Greenville is in the north-west corner of South Carolina, USA. You can fly in/out of Greenville/Spartanburg International Airport or access it by every other mode of transport.
When: We were there in early Spring and the flowers were just starting to pop open.
Why: Greenville is a picture-perfect introduction to the southern states of the USA. Friendly and warm people, interesting arts, tempting shopping, historic architecture, southern cuisine, a jazz scene and plenty of outdoor activities.
How: We drove from Washington DC (as you do) in a hire car. The road network is excellent.
Who: One man pretending to be on a serious research project (well yes, he actually was) and me being a serious tourist!
Have you heard about the terrible medical condition that sometimes afflicts European travellers? There are a couple of different strains of this dreadful disease known as ABC including, Another Bloody Church, Another Bloody Castle or Another Bloody Chateau for the Francophiles.
Not to be outdone in the USA, they have ABM (Another Bloody Monument) but in Washington DC, I bloody loved it!
A couple of years ago we made a flying trip to the USA for The Brave Man* to complete a research project and attend a huge national conference in Washington, D.C. I was chief bag carrier and got to ‘play’ tourist to my heart’s content while he had to be serious. That worked for me!
Our introduction to Washington was on check-in at our hotel, the Gaylord National Harbour. It was an eye-popping 2 000 rooms and had a full-sized village constructed in its atrium area. This should have given us some inkling of the other big things waiting for us in this city. Yes, I know I am showing my small-town roots when I marvel at these things but having worked in the 5-star hotel industry in a previous life, I have some understanding of what it takes to run a hotel efficiently and effectively, yet I am still boggled by the idea of 2000 rooms.
We tossed our bags into our hotel room and headed out to explore. While the Gaylord was an amazing hotel, it was quite a distance from the centre of the city so it gave us a good opportunity to try out the local public transport system. It was our first experience with the concept of travel cards (that you load with credit) rather than paper tickets, so no doubt, we looked like typical dopey tourists as we inserted our unloaded travel cards into the turnstiles, only to have them spat back out. Oh well, all part of the fun.
We eventually arrived at the L’Enfant Plaza metro station in central Washington and strolled the block or two onto the Mall. It felt quite surreal to stand in that large open space with the Washington Monument at one end and Capitol Hill at the other. The Mall is like the glue that holds all the key sights together. It is an elongated, green expanse edged by all manner of monuments, museums and galleries. After seeing it on TV for so long, we were finally there.
As The Brave Man* only had the afternoon free before his conference commenced, we had to focus on what he would like to see and he chose the National Museum of American History. This museum was the ideal introduction to the entire country, both politically and socially. It had the most extensive coverage of USA military history which made The Brave Man* quip that it appears that the only countries the USA has not met in battle are Australia and New Zealand! (But perhaps if Donald Trump wins the Presidential race next month, that anomaly will be rectified!)
The next day dawned bright and clear and I prepared to play tourist while the other half prepared to play conference. I was rugged up to within an inch of my life as there were still patches of snow laying around, but the brilliant blue skies made the cold more than bearable.
With the day stretching out before me, I took a slightly different approach and jumped on the DC Old Town Trolley Company bus to help me to cover more territory. This was an effortless way to get an overview of the city and its history. First, I took the Green Line out to the north-west of Washington through historic suburbs, past all the embassies and then up and around the National Cathedral before returning back through Georgetown, Foggy Bottom (I love that name!!) and the White House. I jumped straight off that bus and onto the Orange Line, which travelled around the Mall – up to Capitol Hill, Union Station and the Jefferson Memorial. Both of these tours had comprehensive audio commentary and by the end of the day, my brain was fit to burst, it was so full of facts and figures. What it also achieved was to highlight all the places I wanted to visit on foot, and in depth, the next day.
With my running shoes on and firmly laced, I set out on my final day to cover a serious amount of territory. Stay out of the way of this tourist on a mission!
First stop was the Lincoln Memorial which was as imposing as I had imagined. They really know how to revere their presidents in that town, although I was a tad disappointed that Lincoln didn’t come to life as he does in the Night at the Museum II movie. Now that would have been memorable!
To continue the Lincoln theme, I spent a fascinating couple of hours at the Ford’s Theatre where Lincoln was fatally wounded by John Wilkes Booth. An absorbing snapshot of history, but far more American political shenanigans than this small Australian brain could ever process and retain. A tip for the unwary: get to the Theatre first thing in the day or be prepared for long queues.
The White House was high on the must-see list. Naturally, you couldn’t get close to the building, and who would want to with those crack snipers on the roof? Instead the official Visitor Centre provided useful videos and background on its construction, and many of its colourful residents. The next best thing to seeing inside the American seat of power.
The Korean War Memorial was powerful and sobering. Nineteen life size sculptures of men in army uniform make their way, in formation, through low shrubs as if on reconnaissance. At the same time, their images are mirrored in a marble wall, doubling the impact of the scene to 38 soldiers to reflect the geographic 38th parallel the War was fought on, and the 38 000 soldiers killed in the conflict.
Just around the corner, the Martin Luther King (MLK) Memorial was thought-provoking and ingenious at the same time. The massive stone statue of MLK links to one of his speeches that included ‘out of a mountain of despair, comes a stone of hope’. It is also surrounded by many of his iconic sayings – as if the sight of a nine metre tall man isn’t impactful enough, now it challenges me to have to think as well?? For once, my timing was good and I tacked myself onto a crowd standing around a National Parks ranger. You get so much more out of a visit when someone local, and passionate, shares their knowledge.
Time was running out as I jogged back up the Mall – with all the jogging locals – past the Washington Monument (closed to the public due to safety concerns after a recent earthquake), paying a quick visit to the Smithsonian Castle, and finally arriving at the National Museum of the American Indian. Thank goodness there were lots of interpretive videos and places to sit down in this facility, as that was all I was good for by that stage in the day – tired legs and overloaded brain.
As I stumbled back to the Metro, I felt a little guilty that I really hadn’t done Washington justice. This is a deeply fascinating city and you would need to commit at least a week to even scratch the surface…although, maybe short, targeted visits are just the ticket to avoid a bad dose of ABM!
The Basics Box
What: Two and a half days in Washington DC to capture the essence of the city. Definitely not long enough!
Where: Washington DC, United States of America – mostly within a 1-2km radius of The Mall.
When: We were there in Spring – just after a few days of serious snow! Cold but beautiful.
Why: Visit Washington if you enjoy history of all kinds, politics, architecture, art, science and spacious parks and lakes. Yes, just about something for everyone.
How: We used the public transport buses and trains to get to/from our hotel. It was faultless once we worked out how the thing worked.
Who: Myself, The Brave Man* and thousands of patriotic Americans and international tourists.
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!
Is there anything more stressful than driving out of a foreign city, on the wrong side of the road, sitting on the wrong side of the car, and next to your husband?
Perhaps this would be a good pre-marriage test for the young and in love. If you can survive a road trip in another country and are still talking to each other by the end of it all, then you were meant to be together.
In 2013 my husband received a scholarship to the USA. I was the bag carrier and played tourist while he did scholarly things. We sampled parts of California before landing in the wonderful city that is Washington DC. Our ultimate destination was Greenville, South Carolina.
My husband is a massive James Taylor fan and, before leaving Australia, had trawled the Internet and found that James Taylor’s home town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina had
established a museum celebrating JT’s musical life. The resident JT fan thought that rather than flying, it would be a brilliant idea to drive from Washington DC to Greenville, SC via Chapel Hill. After all, on a map it is only about 5cm.
We set off into the DC dawn, doing our best to avoid the onslaught of grim-faced commuters. We were Aussies, on an adventure and on a mission – what could possibly go wrong? Our first real mistake was to place our faith in the GPS lady. We had no real idea where we were heading or how to get there other than to keep driving south. The precise directions were her responsibility.
All seemed to go quite smoothly until we argued against her spoken directions which conflicted with the printed directions on a good, old-fashioned paper map. Like rebellious teenagers we set off cross-country, heedless of her constant “recalculating, recalculating”. Honestly, that woman has the patience of Job.
No doubt the locals complain about the state of their roads but on the whole, we found them excellent. Beautiful, dual lane highways were described as minor roads on the paper map. If only the minor roads in rural Australia were as good.
After getting the hang of this “stay right, stay right” driving, and now talking to each other again, we felt confident that we could leave the highway in search of breakfast. As tacky as it might sound the neon of The Waffle House also had our names all over it with the bonus of being on the correct side of the highway and a car park bursting at the seams. That had to be a good sign.
Imagine our surprise as we opened the door of the diner to be greeted by a chorus of
“Hi y’all”. We quickly glanced behind us to see who had followed us in. No, the greeting was for us and obviously we were nearing the South.
It was an unspectacular breakfast but fuelled us for the rest of the journey to Chapel Hill. By this stage we had been driving for about three hours and had another five hours to go. Did I mention my husband was a JT fan?
Staying on the highways – and avoiding arguments with the GPS lady – we zipped through the early-Spring countryside. All around us the paddocks were dark and moist with the trees only hinting at greenery.
After eight hours on the road we slowed, took the highway off-ramp and rolled into Chapel Hill. My husband was on the edge of his seat as if there was a chance JT would be strolling the footpaths or perhaps putting out his garbage bin. The GPS lady counted down the distance and, at last, the official James Taylor Museum appeared.
To be honest it was a rather non-descript building with a very empty carpark. I couldn’t help myself – I started to giggle. The gardens were overgrown and random litter blew around the ground. Yes, it was closed. The JT fan leapt from the car, in disbelief that he could be so cruelly tricked. The doors were chained closed, the windows grimy and the rooms empty. Not only was the museum closed, it had been closed for a very long time.
Still not wanting to face reality, we drove in search of a Tourist Information Centre (also closed) or an alternate JT museum (non-existent). Instead we found a Chapel Hill resident who thought the museum had closed three years ago, and yet its website was alive and well.
Undeterred the JT fan knew that Chapel Hill had also named a bridge after their favourite son and our pilgrimage continued.
I couldn’t help but feel l a little silly taking a photo of my husband in front of a fairly stock standard, concrete bridge. We attracted the attention of a car load of locals who cheered us when I told them we had travelled all the way from Australia and driven eight hours to see a bridge! Maybe they were cheering our dedication but more likely our ridiculousness.
And Greenville SC was still another four hours drive away…