Columns, Photos

Letter to Bill Bryson

Dear Bill,

I just finished reading your book The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America. Exploring the country and re-tracing some of the family car trips from your childhood is a fabulous premise for a story.

My family used to travel 800 miles each summer in a Buick station wagon from the mountains of North Carolina to sunny south Florida. Unlike your car trips, ours were never dreary.

There was the time my mother tried to cook a pot roast in the engine of the car. I swear it’s true. Somewhere off I-75 at a Stuckey’s in South Georgia, we stopped for our “carbecue” supper. Hungry and tired, we watched her lift from the engine a silver foil packet bulging with half-cooked meat, potatoes, carrots, and onions. It reeked of oil, and my father flung the hideous mess out into a field beyond the picnic table area. We ate hot dogs and pecan rolls instead, and my parents didn’t speak to each other until we got to Miami.

But, I digress. I’m no literary critic and you, Bill, are one of the world’s best-known travel writers. I’ve read all your books. So, naturally, I was disappointed that you skipped Delaware on your car excursion through America.

I know you didn’t actually skip it. You drove through Delaware up north along I-95 on your way to Philadelphia. The state, you wrote, was vanishing from your memory as you drove through it, like one of those children’s drawing slates where you erase the picture by lifting the transparent sheet.

A vague, semi-industrial landscape was how you described little Delaware. Well, maybe that’s true where you were. But you missed the best part of the state — Sussex County — where we have real American scenery like piles of watermelons at mom-and-pop roadside stands, old family graveyards, two-story trailer homes. There’s beauty in an abandoned chicken house and the rows of old wooden telephone poles. It’s all there, Bill, the picturesque countryside you set out to find on your travels. If you’d just taken another route.

You could have motored up through the heart of the state on the old DuPont Highway, now called Route 13 and sometimes Route 113 — I can’t keep it straight. But, it was Delaware’s first paved road, financed and constructed with private money given by Thomas Coleman du Pont. Yes, he is one of those du Ponts and also a U.S. Senator.

An early proponent of the automobile and a big thinker, Coleman envisioned a grand boulevard running north to south through the state, with a 200-foot right of way on each side for trolley tracks, bike lanes, and tree-lined pedestrian walkways. He wanted lampposts lining the highway, and room for air-landing strips.

Unfortunately, that’s not quite how it happened. Coleman started the concrete road in 1911, but it got too expensive and local farmers fought the land purchases. The state stepped in to eventually finish it in 1934. The final highway was much more modest than his original vision. It was, however, the nation’s first highway with two lanes divided by a grassy median.

About his highway, Coleman was quoted as saying, “others may build their monuments to the sky, but I am going to build a monument a hundred miles high and lay it down on the ground.”

I want to invite you, Bill, to give me a call or drop me an email anytime you want to come back to Delaware. I’d be my pleasure to take you out for a spin through the countryside in my aqua convertible. We’ll drive Coleman’s Highway. The car has a V8 engine, so we’ll air it on some of the smaller back roads. There’s nothing like the exhilaration of passing a big ol’ country girl driving a tractor or coming upon three big turkey buzzards gnawing some roadkill and wondering if they’ll move or if you’ll hit them.

You won’t forget Delaware this time.


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