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Wednesday, 11 January 2006 00:00

The grumpy traveler department

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From time to time, I’ve contemplated compiling an anthology of travel writing from Western North Carolina. Such a volume would commence with the descriptions of the region compiled by the Moravian explorer Bishop Augustus Gottlieb Spangenberg in the early 1750s. Next would be William Bartram, who entered the western tip of the state in 1775 and published his famous Travels’ in 1791. In the 19th century, the accounts were numerous, with my favorite being In the Heart of the Alleghenies (1883) by William G. Zeigler and Ben S. Grosscup. And accounts were equally numerous during the next century. The difficulty would lie not in finding materials but in winnowing it all down to manageable proportions. One late 20th century writer that I’d insist on including would be the irascible Bill Bryson.

Most travel writers who have ventured into WNC during the past 250 years have been happy campers. They have, for the most part, enjoyed their sojourns and written glowing reports of the scenery and the people. Bill Bryson will have none of that. He belongs to what I think of as the Grumpy Traveler department of writing. These are the writers who, like their godfather Paul Theroux, are never so content as when they’re miserable in whatever place they happen to be. Taken in small doses, I find this literary stance to be a tonic of sorts. All travel, after all, isn’t inspiring or even pleasant.

Bryson, author of the recent best seller A Short History of Nearly Everything, has made at least two forays into WNC. The first of these was in the late 1980s as described in The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America (Harper & Row, 1989). The second was in the mid-1990s as described in his best selling A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (1998).

In the first book, Bryson crisscrossed America from sea to shining sea with increasing dismay. Headed into WNC on Interstate 26, he summarized in passing that, “South Carolina was boring.” Then, after being upset by the sizeable entry fee at the Biltmore House in Asheville, which he described as “a 255-room pile of stone,” our intrepid traveler motored over to Bryson City, the lovely village in which I have happily resided going on 33 years.

But, alas, Bill Bryson was not happy in Bryson City. For him, it was “a small, nondescript place of motels and barbecue shacks strung out along a narrow river valley ... There is little reason to go there unless your name is Bryson, and even then, I have to tell you the pleasure is intermittent. I was gratified to note that almost everything had a Bryson City sign on it — Bryson City Laundry, Bryson City Coal and Lumber, Bryson City Church of Christ, Bryson City Electronics, Bryson City Police Department, and Bryson City Post Office .... I regretted that I hadn’t brought a crowbar and monkey wrench because many of the signs would have made splendid keepsakes ... It didn’t take long to exhaust the possibilities for diversion in downtown Bryson City.”

From Bryson City, he directed himself toward Cherokee. As by now you can imagine, Bryson was not pleased with Cherokee either. He found it to be “the biggest Indian reservation in the Eastern United States and it was packed from one end to the other with souvenir stores selling tawdry Indian trinkets, all of them with big signs on their roofs and sides, saying, MOCCASINS! INDIAN JEWELRY! TOMAHAWKS! POLISHED GEMSTONES! CRAPPY ITEMS OF EVERY DESCRIPTION! Some of the places had a caged bear out front — the Cherokee mascot, I gathered .... At other stores you could have your photograph taken with a genuine Cherokee Indian in war dress for five dollars, but not many people seemed interested in this and the model Indians sat slumped in chairs looking as listless as the bears .... it was jammed with tourists .... fat people in noisy clothes and cameras dangling on their bellies. Why is it, I wondered idly as I nosed the car through the throngs, that tourists are always fat and dress like morons?”

So much for Bryson’s first venture into the wilds of WNC, which I read about shortly after The Lost Continent was published. “Well, he’s been here, done that,” I thought.

But along came A Walk in the Woods almost a decade later. Noting that it was about walking the Appalachian Trail, I didn’t see how he could avoid WNC. Would Bryson dare come down off of the AT at some point and make himself unhappy all over again? Yep. Being a certified member of the Grumpy Traveler department of writing, he was obligated to do so.

After a snowstorm drove him off the AT at Wallace Gap, Bryson made his way to Franklin for “a little holiday.” Pretty soon, of course, he became uneasy bordering on sullen. Franklin was, for him, “The sort of place where you find yourself, for want of anything better to do, strolling out to the lumberyard to watch guys on forklifts shunting wood about. There wasn’t a thing in the way of diversions, nowhere to buy a book or even a magazine that didn’t involve speedboats, customized cars, or guns and ammo ... I was plunged into a restless funk ... I was bored to the point somewhat beyond being bored out of my mind. I was reading restaurant place mats, then turning them over to see if there was anything on the back .... Late on the third afternoon I stood in a Burger King and studied, with absorption, the photographs of the manager and his executive crew ... then slid one pace to the right to examine the Employee of the Month awards. It was then that I realized I had to get out of Franklin.” And, thank goodness, he did.

Few if any of us who actually reside in WNC will agree with such hit-and-run assessments. But there is a humorous edge depicted in such viewpoints that has a weird sort of validity. It makes us look at things a little differently, seeing our world, as it were, through the eyes of scribbling strangers, certified members of the Grumpy Traveler department of writing. We could do worse than invite Bill Bryson next summer or fall to one of our regional book fairs and have him read to us about ourselves.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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