I found By Road Across the U.S.A. by Robert Bell at an Op Shop last year Christmas and suggested to Miss S, who was with me, that I would be thrilled to find this book under the tree for me on Christmas morning. Miss S did her thing and by the time Christmas came, I’d forgotten all about the book and was genuinely delighted to unwrap it.
The author was part of a Travel Book Club, all of whom went here and there, writing and publishing their findings in order that others could learn from their experiences (or enjoy from the comfort of their armchairs). This trip took place in 1963 and the book was published the same year. Some of the anecdotes made me roar with laughter while others made me grateful that we’ve come so far over the last 55 years…
Although the book is titled By Road Across the U.S.A., it probably should have been called ‘By Bus Across the U.S.A.’, with Greyhound being the bus company of choice. Honestly, the author and his travelling companion, Michael, must have spent a large portion of their 28 days in the U.S.A. sitting on the bus or waiting in a bus station. I read about the comfort of the seats on the bus, the convenience of having a toilet on the bus (unheard of in England at the time), where the author and Michael sat on the bus, where everyone else on the bus sat, and from time to time, what they saw out of the window of the bus. The author’s advice included information about the bus stations they stopped at, including what food was available from the cafeterias of each and at what cost, the cleanliness of the toilets and the cost of a local telephone call from the telephone in the bus station (10 cents for three minutes) or the cost of a shoe-shine (ordinary 20 cents, wax 30 cents and a sports shine 40 cents, whatever that might be).
I laughed when the author said that outside of New York, they noticed that women wore the “shortest of short shorts in a cool-looking material, no stockings and only sandals.” I know the author was writing in a different time, but his comments about women began to grate eventually. He commented on blondes on and off the bus, the attractiveness of the women they sat next to on the bus, the unexpectedness of women wearing bikinis into casinos in Las Vegas (okay, I’ll give them that one…), where to find a strip club in every town the bus stopped in, gave his opinion that the girls in New Orleans must be amongst the loveliest in the world and said that Michael thought American women have very good legs… There was more, but you get the point…
The author also commented regularly on Negro passengers on the bus, including where they sat, how they were dressed and how they were treated by other passengers. These comments felt a bit along the lines of, “Look at how cosmopolitan I am, I’ve seen a Negro person,” but there is no doubt that the author witnessed Negro, Mexican and people of other ethnicities being treated disgracefully by white Americans (on and off the bus) at that time and that as an Englishman, he found this unacceptable but felt unable to intervene while a guest in another country.
Regardless, the author’s humour kept me interested the whole way through the trip. At the top of the Empire State Building he comments that the safety rails, inward-curving overhead spikes are “a safety precaution against those who would like to jump over the side without the benefit of a parachute” and struggling to finish eating a massive piece of steak feeling “that the honour of England lay in the balance.” There was a ‘how-to’ guide to using the automatic doors at Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International) and a section on the joys of air conditioning in American cars.
Other fascinating titles in the Travel Book Club include The Grand Cruise, Beyond the River of the Dead (would love to get my hands on that one), The Splendour of Israel and The Lost World of Quintana Roo. I suspect these travelling authors were each other’s best audience and loved to think up exotic trips to outdo their peers. This was as much a trip back in time as a road trip across the U.S.A. and was an enjoyable few days of armchair travelling for me.