The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America

ISBN: 0060920084
ISBN 13: 9780060920081
By: Bill Bryson

Check Price Now


Currently Reading Favorites Humor Humour Memoir Non Fiction Nonfiction To Read Travel Travel Writing

About this book

'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. Travelling around thirty-eight of the lower states - united only in their mind-numbingly dreary uniformity - 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.The Lost Continent is a classic of travel literature - hilariously, stomach-achingly funny, yet tinged with heartache - and the book that first staked Bill Bryson's claim as the most beloved writer of his generation.

Reader's Thoughts


The quote on the cover of this book is by New York magazine and says, "The kind of book Steinbeck might have written if he'd traveled with David Letterman instead of Charlie the Poodle."Thus proving my theory that any and every situation can be improved by the presence of a dog. As others have mentioned, Bryson tends to be fairly degrading towards minorities in this book, depending on the situation. HOWEVER, throughout this book, Bryson is degrading towards everything... all people, white, black, male, female, fat, thin, child, adult. So it's a bit fanatical to flat out say that he is racist - he just doesn't like anyone (at least in this book). All places, too, whether it be in a city or suburbs or countryside. I've been to most of the places he talks about and was really surprised to read him talking about, for example, how a particular stretch of highway was boring and/or ugly. I remember some of these areas as amazingly beautiful. Sure, he wrote the book twenty years ago but many of these areas are old wood forests and deserts that would have been the same twenty years ago, if not more beautiful because now there's more of a chance that places are being overpopulated and modernized. Bryson is always amusing and witty and this balances the book out a bit but not enough to make me recommend it to anyone.


Bill Bryson's road trip in the Autumn of 1987 and then Spring of 1988 around the inland part of America. The journey was made just after Bryson's father passed away, much like the last part of Jim Rogers' Adventure Capitalist: The Ultimate Road Trip as the author comes to terms with this moment of life transition.For most readers, this book is too close to home. They will be offended. Many reviewers on Amazon call Bryson an "cynical, arrogant, snob". For readers living outside America, the book will ring true and be more enjoyable. Bryson actually attacks this "America is Forever the Greatest" notion toward the end.Back in 1987, I recall a similar road trip that my parents arranged from Seattle to Florida and back, passing through some of the same locations that Bryson documents. Turns out that the Interstate project, though started with the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, was mostly completed by the mid-80's, easing nationwide travel by road, and inspiring many road trips.I've driven the Seattle to San Diego portion of America several times, and it's surely much more exciting than the inland portion of America that Bryson chose to document. I planned to do Seattle to San Diego to South Texas to Florida to Maine via car last year, but ended up cancelling. After considering all that Bryson wrote, I still don't have much interest to see the inland portion of the country. Bryson just confirmed it for me. Population density is too low, regions and attractions are too far apart. Perhaps if you are a private pilot.On a side note, in Early 2011, the Chinese Expressway system (85,000 km) surpassed the length of the US Interstate Highway System (76,000 km) though the US total jumps to 92,000 km if you include State Highways. Of course, the Chinese will surpass this in another year or two.Back in the late 80's, Bryson's "Small Town America Tour" points out that:* American Small Town's are either: Expensive Tourist Traps, Abandoned Ghost Towns, or FSG (Fast food, Strip malls and Gas stations)* Small town Americans are Stupid. Provides lots of examples.* America is a violent country. Guns are everywhere.* American Television is Stupid. Provides lots of examples.* Even in the 80's, America was already full of fat fat people (5 x worse now - see's Bryson on the women of his native state: "I will say this, however--and it's a strange, strange thing--the teenaged daughters of these fat women are always utterly delectable ... I don't know what it is that happens to them, but it must be awful to marry one of those nubile cuties knowing that there is a time bomb ticking away in her that will at some unknown date make her bloat out into something huge and grotesque, presumably all of a sudden and without much notice, like a self-inflating raft from which the pin has been yanked."Publishers Weekly wrote: "Some of Bryson's comments are hilarious--if you enjoy the nonstop whining wisecracks of a 36-year-old kid".

Jill Furedy

Huh. My dad liked Bryson's memoir, a friend liked his new one: At Home, and at work we sell lots of Short History. I like road trips, tourist traps and the rest so this seemed like a good place to start. Blurbs said it was funny. Don't think I laughed once. As it turns out, this was a fairly unwelcome journey on my part and I traveled it as begrudgingly as Bryson seems to have undertaken his trip. He's miserable the whole time...he hates tourist traps at some points, loves them at others, hates fast food and then can't wait to have some, he's searching for utopia by driving past everywhere as quickly as possible. I felt like I was yelling at him as he sped past...hey, you missed something good! In both of my homestates, he didn't even try to see anything worthwhile. On a road trip to see America, he skipped nearly all of Route 66, but griped about the loss of it and the Lincoln Hwy. Everyone he saw was fat and stupid, though he only stopped anywhere long enough to speak to waitresses and hotel clerks and if he's as much of a joy as he seems to be, then I can't blame anyone for avoiding conversation and interaction with him. He traveled at times when things were closed, which allowed him to be just as disappointed at he wanted to be at nothing living up to expectations. You get the idea. I get the idea that I picked the wrong book to introduce myslelf to this author, but won't be rushing out to try another one to remedy that impression. Too many other books on my list, and I deal with enough cranky people at work to want to deal with any others in my spare time.


The Lost Continental: A Look at Bill BrysonI must preface this essay by saying that if everyone didn’t like this Bill Bryson book as much as I didn’t, he would be about the wealthiest author on the planet. At least I bought it. I have several of his books and have read all of them. Bill Bryson can be assured that with detractors like me, he doesn’t need fans. I should also say that I have lived a full one fifth of my life outside of the United States and I don’t care if someone makes fun of anything and everything American (I’ve done a bit of bashing myself). A dyspeptic man in his middle thirties, whose constant bad mood seems more like someone in their mid seventies, drives around the U.S. and complains about absolutely everything he sees, smells, hears, and eats. If this sounds like your idea of a good time, read Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America (Abacus, 1990).He constantly mocks small towns in America by referring to them by such names as Dog Water, Dunceville, Urinal, Spigot, and Hooterville—and this is in the first five pages. Don’t worry about him running out of clever names for hick towns; Bryson has a million of them and he uses every single one.The only things about which Bryon has a favorable view are natural wonders and the homes of rich people. He marvels at the obscenely-posh residences of ultra-wealthy, early 20th century industrialists on Mackinac Island which were built before income taxes and most labor laws. He would probably be thrilled with pre-revolutionary France or Czarist Russia. One of his very few favorable reviews of American cities was of the ski town of Stowe, Vermont which caters almost exclusively to the rich.When he is traveling through the southwest he complains about the Mexican music on the radio. He seems more content to resort to chauvinism than to come to some sort of understanding about the culture he is visiting. In my opinion, it’s always more interesting to praise something that you understand than to mock something that you don’t. I would have taken the time to translate a few of the songs and tell readers what they are about. In fact, I have done this and Mexican ranchera music is all about stories of love, heartbreak, and often violence which describe the cowboy culture of Mexico’s northern territories. Bryson implies that the people who listen to this music are just too stupid to realize that it is only one tune played over and over.He gripes about a weatherman on TV who seems rather gleeful at the prospect of a coming snow storm yet Bryson seems to relish in the idea of not liking anything that he experiences in his journey. His entire trip is like a storm he passes through. Just once I wanted him to roll into some town that he liked and get into an interesting conversation with one of its residents.Here are examples of the cheeriness with which Bryson opens a few of his chapters:“I drove on and on across South Dakota. God, what a flat and empty state.”“What is the difference between Nevada and a toilet? You can flush a toilet.” (One reviewer called Bryson "witty.")“I was headed for Nebraska. Now there’s a sentence you don’t want to have to say too often if you can possibly help it.”“In 1958, my grandmother got cancer of the colon and came to our house to die.” This last event must have brought untold joy to the young writer.Tell us more, Bill. His narrative is more tiresome than any Kansas wheat field he may have passed on his road trip through hell. Most Americans seem to be either fat, or stupid, or both in the eyes of Bryson. I can only assume that Bryson himself is some sort or genius body builder. Just one time I wanted him to talk to a local resident over a beer or a cup of coffee. I wanted him to describe his partner in conversation as other than fat or stupid. Not even one time do we hear about a place from somebody who lives there. We could just as easily have read the guidebooks as Bryson did and he could have stayed home and saved himself thousands of miles of misery.


Ha, oh America!As much as I hesitated to read a travelogue about America while living abroad (I mean, shouldn't I be reading about my host country), my diminishing pile of books from home lead me to this humorous Bryson tale.I've now had a couple of encounters with Bryson's writing and each time, seem to grow more and more fond of his haphazard style of not only traveling but writing as well. How many other authors dare pay tribute to their deceased housmaid in the middle of a book or drop in random facts about world happenings in irrelevant places? Now that's the type of stuff that keeps you on your toes!As for the undying cynicism, well, what do you expect? The man left America to live in Britain of all places! I mean, come on, obviously he's going to find Friday night football and town hall meetings a bit trite!Personally I find his accounts of each state absolutely hilarious! Bryson's omnipresent cynicism and nack for pointing out the obvious (with out regards to political correctness) bring a bit of truth to 'small town America' that is probably often lost or overlooked in any other true 'guidebook.' To say that that the author is honest about what he feels would be, well, an extreme understatement! Each trip through each state is as steroetypically perfect as is the idea of a fat white man calling a long circular drive across an entire continent with no particular destination a 'vacation.' To find this book any less than humurous one would have to maintain a cynicism much more deeply rooted than Bryson portrays his own to be, or, perhaps, you might just have to come from one of the dozens of small towns that he makes fun of along the way!


Ok I am one of those people who loved Bill Bryson's pieces. This book made me painfully aware of his status quo whiteness as he traveled in 38 of the lower 48 states in the U.S. Care for me to be more specific? Here goes: he drives through the South and often doesn't get out of the car, generally if the town looks "poor" and instead notes the abundance of "black people" milling about. He does get out of the car and notes the pristine beauty of southern towns filled with middle class white people--shocking. I found myself grimacing in disgust and for some reason pressed on with this book. Probably because I still don't give myself permissions to put down a book that I don't like. Reader's guilt perhaps. Then he heads to the southwest and makes so many idiotic and prejudiced remarks about Native Americans that I can only conclude that he is a racist. I was bracing myself for the section when he enters southern California and all of the Mexicans he would see there. I shouldn't have expected anything better from a man who speaks with a British accent but is actually from Des Moines. (This is true. I saw him at a reading in town). I thought my bias would stem from the fact that he slammed the west and didn't bother hitting up the pacific northwest, but no, it is not my issue that the guy is a racist and like many, has no idea.


Bill Bryson is an excellent writer; this book reads quickly; I enjoyed the process of reading it, the general narrative, and the humor therein.That said, either Bill Bryson is a huge jerk and America is a great place, or America is awful and Bill Bryson is just a decent guy being honest. Seriously, the book runs something like this:1) I don't like this town, it's all shoddy motels and neon signs and fast food. I want a quaint little town.2) I don't like this quaint little town, all it does is use its quaintness to cater to tourists.3) I don't like this quaint little town, all it is is a quaint little town that is friendly to tourists (but doesn't cater to them)--I want shoddy motels and neon signs and fast food!Again, Bryson is an excellent writer--I definitely laughed out loud several times, but with a couple of minor exceptions (western Wyoming, a couple of small towns here and there) there is absolutely nothing that he likes in America. And while that's okay from time to time, after a hundred pages it starts to wear on you a bit, and by the end of the book you're sort of half hoping that he's set upon by hillbillies or angry ranchers or some such. So, I guess I can recommend the book in terms of it being a good read, but with the warning that this book is rancorous without that necessary sense that there's good humor hidden under the surface that can make a cranky person enjoyable to be around.


While in the Frankfurt airport killing time, I decided I needed something to read while waiting in the airport and on the long flight back. During my vacation, I had already read Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of Freedom, Judith Butler's Excitable Speech, and Yves Simon's Freedom and Community, as well as most of two issues of CCC and an issue of Hypatia. I was a bit tired of academic voices and theory (though I had enjoyed everything I read, except perhaps Simon, whose Thomistic perspective irked me and whose writing seemed dry), so I went to the bookstore and perused. The English section was limited, so I was left trying to decide between a collection of short stories by Margaret Atwood and The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson.Bryson, a native Iowan who had moved to Britain, had been haunting me for years. If someone was knowledgeable of travel writing, they asked me about him. I have some acquaintances who have been shocked that I hadn't read any of him. I was holding Atwood's book and Bryson's book, weighing the pros and cons of each. So I read Bryson first paragraph:I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to. When you come from Des Moines you either accept the fact without question and settle down with a local girl named Bobbie and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever, or you spend your adolescence moaning at length about what a dump it is and how you can't wait to get out, and then you settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever.and decided I had to read this. Iowa-deprecating humour? I was excited. Maybe this book would be worth the astronomical 14 Euros (which, with the exchange rate, is about 1 million dollars).I admit I was chuckling a lot during his first few pages, and even occasionally throughout the rest of his book. However, it wasn't before too long that his book just began to annoy me. Every attempt at humor in his book, besides some self-deprecation or making fun of his family, is targeted shots at those who are different from him. Bryson's book seems like a good example of how to enact the construction of "normal." Overweight? Here's a few jokes thrown at you. An accent that isn't accepted as standard? He'll mock you incessantly. Differently abled and in the same room as Bryson? You're there for one purpose alone: to stare at because you're a freak.I haven't quite finished the book, and I probably will (I only have about 50 pages left), but I have to say I'm greatly disappointed. The sour icing smothered the cake when he announced that, feeling incredibly visible and alone in a nearly all black Southern town, that he now knew what it was like to be black in South Dakota. I beg your pardon, Mr. Bryson, but you have no idea what it's like to be black anywhere. If anything, Bryson's book is a chronicling of his extreme naiveté at his own unearned privilege.It seems like the only group not worth mocking in his book are queer folk, and that's probably because they are so invisible to him that they're not even on the radar to mock. Jokes about other people can be amazingly funny, but a book constructed completely on mocking others, a book that seems to function mostly as a reinforcement of normalcy, fails to continue to be funny. It's just tiring.I should have picked up Atwood's book instead.

Al Young

Bryson was a recommendation from a friend that I am just now getting to. He is also a writer born and raised in Des Moines, so figured he was worth looking into.Interestingly, the copy I have is autographed and I bought it here in DM for $4. I get a feeling that Bryson would get some sort of peculiar appreciation of it. The concept of the book is that Bryson travels the country to relive some of those family vacations we all took when we packed everyone in to the car years ago.I liked this book immensely. It is, as the back cover reviews claim, on the service cynical and sarcastic, but at its heart, nostalgic and appreciative (or as one reviewer said "like Steinbeck, if he traveled with David Letterman instead of Charly). My immediate thought was to recommend this book to everyone (although, maybe I am naive, Amazon gives it only an embarassing 3 stars) .I got a lot of laughs out of it, and the fact that so much time is spent in Iowa and Carbondale, Illinois (places I know and have lived) got a special kick. It is likely that you will recognize some locations from the 38-state trip as well.Ok, I'm still going to give this my highest recommendation, and hopefully next time I will be putting money directly into Bryson's pocket (although I still think the autograph is pretty cool).


I didn't get but a couple of pages into the book and I started laughing out loud. I have found that I like Bill Bryson's travelogues/stories. At times, he seems a bit of a sarcastic curmudgeon but that just adds to the humor. He puts on pages, some of the things we only dare to think in moments of frustration, irritation and amused observations. When my family heard me laugh as I read this book, I felt I had to read them some of the humorous excerpts. Now they want to read Bryson's book. Note: This was a book that I received as a bookring through

Lorenzo Pilla

Bad. Bad. Bad. While Bryson can be funny at times, I quickly grew tired of him and eventually he just annoyed me with this one. I would have stopped in the middle, but for my book club's sake, I plodded through, skimming some sections toward the end. This isn't real travel writing. Bryson was a longtime expat in England who returned to the US apparently so he could cynically criticize just about everyone and everything he saw here. I got the feeling that he had pitched the book idea to his publisher and gotten his advance money before thinking better of the idea when it was already too late. It sounds like this "journey" was a labor of hate.I also lived in England for a couple of years before returning to the US. But when I returned, I saw this country with fresh eyes and now feel better able to appreciate both its strengths and its faults. Bryson sounds like he just came back to show us how much better HE is than us. His wit just doesn't sound like it comes from someone who ultimately cares about his subjects. It just sounds like a schoolboy ripping on anyone who's different from him. His other books may be better but definitely give this one a pass.


This book: part humor, part travelogue, narrates Bryson's road trip across the United States and back again. Bryson travels without strict itinerary, and with frequent stops in small towns across the country. The narrative is written in classic Bryson style, with frequent diversions to explain the origin of many of life's oddities, and with constant sideline commentary. As is usually the case with Bryson, the narrative is illuminating, amusing, and shows Bryson's sense of adventure. It was a pleasure to read. Yes, Bryson is frequently critical, but it's important to note that he's an equal-opportunity offender. Wherever he goes he brings his decidedly sarcastic wit, but he also balances criticism with admiration. This is not a book with a weighty message about humanity or morality, but it is a fun read to pick up and put down at leisure. And the ability to dive in and out is one of the beautiful things about this book; one can enjoy it and put it aside at will, and it takes little time to become reengaged in Bryson's prose.


I started this book while I was sitting in the jury pool waiting room. The first chapter made me laugh out loud. I was sitting in the most uncomfortable, boring, and annoying place in the universe and it still made me laugh out loud. People looked at me. However, after the first few chapters I noticed a steady decline. I stopped reading about halfway through the book because I had read the word fat about 3,000 times. I get it. You don't like fat people. Noted. (But, by the look of the jacket photo, you are no where near slim, Billy.) I picked it up again a few months later to finish it because frankly, I want to give it away and thought I might as well finish it first. That being said, Bryson's writing throughout the book was clean and concise, regardless if I liked what he was saying. Unfortunately, the point of the book strayed from revisiting some of the places his father took him as a kid to visiting every boring sad town he could find, where he stayed at a boring sad hotel, and ate at the greasiest and saddest restaurants. He made no effort. Literally he rolled out of bed off of his empty cans of beer to the closest restaurant. I get it. Parts of Amercia aren't beautiful, wealthy, or exciting. But he made zero effort to even talk to anyone from these towns. Maybe he could have listened to a few stories about why they loved or loathed their town. The closest he ever came to talking to someone was over hearing a conversation, and those accounts ususally rang untrue. However, without talking to anyone besides a waitress and a hotel resptionists he makes this sweeping judgement, "I drove on, thinking what an ironic thing it was that the really beautiful places in America-the Smoky Mountains, Appalachia, and now Vermont-were always inhabited by the poorest, most uneducated people."I know he went out of his way to pick the worst and most boring towns in America because in California he visited LA, Fresno, and Jackson. Are you kidding me? There are 3,000,000 quaint sweet little towns up and down the coast and he chose to go to Fresno? I usually like people who have a negative sense of humor. Mainly, I like them because I have a negative sense of humor. However, Bryson refused to look for anything positive about a town unless the residents were wealthy. If he was touring a museum or area with big houses and a Ralph Lauren shop on the Main Street the guy lit up like a big FAT Christmas tree. Her are a few examples of his overwhelming negativity:"Poor guy! And on top of that here he was married to a woman who was slovenly and indiscreet, and had a butt like a barn door. I hoped old Harvey had sense enough to appreciate all the incredible natural beauty with which God had blessed his native state because it didn't sound as if He has blesses Harvey very much. Even his kids were ugly as sin. I was half tempted to give one of them a clout myself as I went out the door. There was just something about his nasty little face that made you itch to smack him.""It was a shock to realize that never again in the whole of eternity would he laugh over "I Love Lucy" or repair his car or talk with his mouth full (something for which he was widely noted in the family). It was awesome." (This was him reflecting on his Grandfather's funeral, by the way.)"...all the cigarette girl and ladies who gave change were dressed in skimpy togas, even if they were old and overweight, which most of them were, so their thighs wobbled as they walked. it was like watching moving JELL-O.""Not surprisingly, none of these dreams came true. (Which is perhaps just as well. Sally Ann Summerfield is a blimp now. She turned up at my high-school reunion two years ago and looked like a shipping hazard.)As you can tell, one of the themes of the book was sexist, misogynistic, and condescending remarks about women. I imagine his wife and kids at home celebrating every day he was gone wasting his time driving around boring, stupid, fat America. There is no way this judgmental sexist prick was missed by his family. I bet the whole trip was their idea.

Kevin Larose

It wouldn’t be mucho f an exaggeration to say that one of my lifelong desires is to take a cross-country car trip. My dad and I would sometimes talk about doing it someday; pointing the car east, sampling the local flavor, maybe take in some sporting events, who knew? We never got around to doing it, and I’ve long since made peace with the fact that this desire will almost certainly never be fulfilled. However, reading books like Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent allows me to at least vicariously travel the cross-country highways. Bryson’s style is highly entertaining. It felt like I was riding along with him in the Chevy Chevette he borrowed from his mom for the trip. He visited a total of 38 states, covering nearly 14,000 miles total. Sadly, neither the state where I’ve spent most of my life (Washington) nor the one where I currently live (Indiana) wound up being on his itinerary, but it was still an entertaining read nonetheless. I may never get to go on that long road trip, but books like this are the next best thing.


How can a man think he's seen America if he refuses to get out of his car? Bill Bryson perfectly embodies what Wendell Berry would describe as a "failure to encounter": Bryson doesn't encounter America. He doesn't find it. He treats it like a disposable tissue, with as little interest in where it came from and in where it's going. Our nation does have a problem in rampant, mindless consumption, but along with our (possibly fatal) flaws are millions of fascinating people, good hearts, heartbreaking tales, catastrophic disasters, systematic abuses of horror and hatred, and sublime skies and lands which claim our devotion even when our nation's history seems like one long, miserable tragedy. How did Bryson have the audacity to write a book about America and not visit an inner-city slum? How could he fail to get out and talk to the Native Americans in South Dakota, rather than just dismissing the state as 'empty'? How could he treat the Sequoias so thoughtlessly, be so little moved by the sadness and beauty of the Old South, the haunting eeriness of West Texas, how could he miss the pretty, solid, dependable beauty of Maine, or the sorrow of loss that arises as each new suburban development imposes the same mask over the gorgeous landscape that is our home? How did Bryson get paid for this? How did he miss his own country? I cannot understand.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *