Je suis Bill Bryson (and Robert Redford isn’t)


Okay, I’m not really Bill Bryson. Obviously. But if I could magically become the female version of a beloved male writer, I would choose to be known far and wide as Bill Bryson’s funny female counterpart. (I’ll get to the Robert Redford reference in a minute.)

If you haven’t read books by Bill Bryson, I’m going to suggest that you give this essay a miss. If you are unfamiliar with Bill’s hilarious writing and delightful nonfiction tales, including A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country and The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, to name just a few, then my little story will just have you scratching your head and wondering if it’s time yet for “Judge Judy” to come on.

As it happens, Bill and I were both born in 1951. He was born in Iowa and I, in Ohio. Since in many parts of the country, people get Ohio and Iowa confused, I think there’s an outside chance that we were separated at birth. I could be Bill’s fraternal twin. The less-talented, yet plucky girl child who was sent East to be raised by an intelligent but literarily clueless young couple who did not recognize or encourage her latent storytelling skills.

This would explain why Bill is a bestselling author with nearly twenty books to his credit and I am fumbling around, trying to be funny with occasional blog posts. You can see it, right?

Anyway, I went to the library last week to look for travel guides for the Netherlands and Hungary (there was nothing; huh) and sitting on the shelf right next to a Fodor’s Guide for Europe was Bill’s latest book, The Road to Little Dribbling, Adventures of an American in Britain.  A new Bryson book! Happy dance in the travel section!

I’m about halfway through the book and have been dribbling a bit myself, as I find myself laughing heartily and incontinently (it’s not a word, I know, but it should be) at Bill’s accounts of his adventures walking around England. Now, Bill has written about walking around England before in Notes from a Small Island and a few others I’m too lazy to Google to give you the correct titles. In fact, many of Bill’s books are about Bill walking around, whether in England or Australia or on the Appalachian Trail in the U.S. or wherever. His unique talent is to take us right along with him, marveling at the size of spider webs in a Sydney park or recounting the history of the Belle Tout lighthouse on England’s rocky south Atlantic coast.

11 belle tout
Here’s the Belle Tout lighthouse not too close to the edge of the cliff in southern England.

The thing is, you wouldn’t think you’d be interested in some obscure lighthouse in Great Britain, right? Big spider webs, maybe – especially if it involves a little screaming and dancing around to get free of the creepy tangles. But an old lighthouse that the Canadians used for target practice during World War II? Somehow, Bill makes me care that after it was restored, but in danger of toppling off of its cliffside perch, someone paid to have the lighthouse mounted on rails and moved back from the edge to a safer spot. I wish I could see it, though admittedly, not enough to carve out precious vacation time to drive on the wrong side of small, scary roads to actually find it and haul ass up that steep path.

But here’s what I love most about Bill. He gives us some history and describes the scenery so aptly, you can almost see it yourself, and then – boom – he makes you laugh. After Belle Tout he hikes down toward sea level, then back up the next summit to the more famous Beachy Head lighthouse where he notes:

“At the top of the hill, where it flattens out, is a parking area where busloads of schoolchildren can get off and scatter a little litter around – it’s a tradition, I guess; school groups come from all over to put their potato chip bags and candy bar wrappers in the gorse and bracken, bless their sweet, undersupervised little hearts – but I am pleased to say that this was the only place along the entire walk that I encountered litter.”

I was all into the sea views and restored lighthouses, and then this. That’s Bill. Learn a little. Explore a bit. Then comment on something and make it so funny, I’m snorting coffee out of my nose.

Robert Redford Nick Nolte
This photo provided by Broad Green Pictures shows, Robert Redford, left, as Bill Bryson and Nick Nolte as Stephen Katz taking in the view along the Appalachian Trail in the film, “A Walk in the Woods.” The movie was released in U.S. theaters on Sept. 2, 2015. (Frank Masi, SMPSP/Broad Green Pictures via AP)

So, Robert Redford. Redford played the part of Bill in the movie version of “A Walk in the Woods.” First, he doesn’t look anything like Bill. Robert Redford doesn’t even look like himself anymore, but that’s another story. Honestly, I do not say this to be mean, but how and why is Robert’s face so lumpy? Is it a skin disorder? I don’t think it’s just old age because I know plenty of old people, but I don’t know even one who got bumpy.

Robert Redford just was not Bill Bryson for me. Here’s what Bill looks like. Who should have played him? Thoughts? I’m drawing a blank. An actor named Ed something, but that’s all I’ve got.

11 bill bryson
Here’s Bill at Stonehenge. Note the big, happy smile. Bill smiles in practically EVERY PICTURE I’ve ever seen of him. Why did Robert Redford barely smile in the movie? Does Bill NOT smile in real life? Photo from the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

On the other hand, I have never heard Bill Bryson speak or watched him being interviewed on television, or anything like that. Maybe Robert Redford’s rather deadpan portrayal captured the spirit of Bill perfectly? I hope not.

The truth is, if Bill’s a little on the dour side, I don’t want to know. Bill Bryson is one of my very favorite writers. He’s an inspiration to me. I’m his wannabe twin. If he seems to be getting a little more cantankerous in these later books, I’m okay with that. I’m crankier, too. If Bill has a slight tendency toward the pedantic, each carefully explained fact or slice of backstory is well told and truly interesting, then lightened with a burst of comedy that propels you on to the next step of his journey. I will continue to believe that it would be great fun to sit down with Bill over a couple of cocktails (Bill might go for beer, but I’ll have a margarita, please) and hear his stories.

In lieu of that, thank you for each and every one of your wonderful tales, Bill, and most recently, for taking me with you on The Road to Little Dribbling.

I love you, brother.


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