The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America
is the first book by American travel writer Bill Bryson. The book recounts his 13,978-mile trip around the United States in the fall of 1987 and spring of 1988. Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Bryson has stated his birthplace as a major influence for his book. Like most of Bryson’s work, The Lost Continent
is tinged with humor and offers Bryson’s perspective on the changing landscape and the people he encounters throughout his journey.
Bryson introduces readers to his hometown. He recalls growing up there and the boredom that ensued. He goes into detail about the kind of people one can meet in Iowa, and how generally people either accept that they are going to live out their lives there, or they can’t wait to get out. He recalls family trips to places like Gettysburg, which inspired him to plan a larger trip to travel across America.
Bryson divides the retelling of his travels into two sections: East and West. He begins traveling East, stating his intention of finding the perfect town, although he soon realizes that this is a lofty ambition. Instead, he finds various elements that would be essential to the perfect town scattered across various locations.
He begins his voyage by traveling to his grandparents’ house through the Mid-West. He then drives along Highway 218 to Keokuk. He eventually stops in Illinois, in a place he refers to as Dullard, where he rents a room in a motel. He moves on, through Missouri, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky before heading north.
Bryson arrives in Philadelphia where he sees two of his friends from Des Moines—Hal and Lucia. He drives past Fairmount Park, which he calls “perfection
.” He then travels to Gettysburg to visit the battlefields he saw as a child. From here, he goes to Bloomsburg to see his brother and his family. While there, he visits Lancaster County to see the Dutch, Mennonites, and Amish. The family goes to a Pennsylvania Dutch restaurant, where they eat large amounts of food.
Bryson goes to Hannibal to see the childhood home of writer Mark Twain. Along the way, he reminisces about movies and actors from his childhood, stating that these actors would be citizens in his perfect town, which he decides should be named Amalgam, meaning “to join.” Amalgam would be a lot like the locations in which Hollywood movies are set. He notes the lack of signage in America while making his toward Springfield, a town that proves to be a disappointment. He moves on to New Salem—Abraham Lincoln's hometown, which has several log cabins that are very repetitive for the visitors. He takes Interstate 55 South to Carbondale, rents a room, and goes to Pizza Hut, as well as K-Mart, which he is admittedly critical of but curious to see what sorts of things he can buy.
Bryson arrives in Mississippi, which prompts him to consider the nature of race in the South and the issue of racism. After visiting the University of Mississippi, he notes how things have changed quite drastically as he sees whites and blacks living in harmony. Bryson then visits Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis Presley. From there, he travels to Columbus, which he admits is close to his desired town, Amalgam. However, he cannot stand the southern accent.
The next stop is Warm Springs, by way of Pine Mountain, to see the Little White House, where Roosevelt lived and died. He writes of the objects he sees and the elderly people he encounters. From here, he travels to Savannah, with which he is very impressed. He heads to Beaufort, South Carolina, which he calls “officially unwelcoming,” before he stops in Charleston, which, like Savannah, he also finds charming and exceeds his expectations.
As he travels westward, Bryson writes that he hates the dull flatness of Kansas and can't imagine why the settlers ever stopped there. His journey is interrupted by snow, and he turns south from his position in Colorado, eventually making it to New Mexico where he spends a day with his niece in Santa Fe. A section of California that he had looked forward to turns out to be incredibly boring. He recalls being awed by the Grand Canyon as a child but is met with an overcast sky that prohibits a clear view on this trip. Bryson encounters the shabbiest town on his trip in Wells, Nevada, which is in stark contrast to the bright lights of Las Vegas.
When he nears Des Moines, he realizes that his trip is soon to end. Having traveled more than 13,000 miles, he enters Des Moines—the town he had vowed to leave as a child—and realizes that he thinks could actually be happy living there.