The Wonder of Wandering
Taylor Bruce of Wildsam Field Guides on new views, old places and the art of stumbling into history
by Hannah Morrow
Photographs by Holly Cowart
It happens all the time. For the past few months, it’s been Crema, Italy, thanks to the harpoon to the heart that was “Call Me by Your Name.” I’m lying in the shade of a peach tree or splashing about in Canale Vacchelli. I bike past palazzos and read 16th-century French romance. It all feels very real, these not-quite-daydreams. When I think about the film, it feels like a place that I miss despite having never been, a past on which I reminisce despite having never lived. It’s a false nostalgia that the piece of art begs me to bethink.
In the case of Austin-based writer Taylor Bruce, John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” lends the same peculiar sensation. Set in California’s Salinas Valley, the epic novel follows Samuel Hamilton as he settles his family on an infertile blanket of land. The Irishman and two of his sons, while out digging a well, accidentally excavate a bit of black rock. The sons guess it to be a derailed locomotive or valuable ore, but Sam is slower to speculate, relishing in the possibilities of the unknown. Steinbeck wrote of Sam’s imagination, “The world was peopled with wonders.” For many readers, “East of Eden” renders the same sense of awe that I felt in “Call Me by Your Name.” Both use setting as another character, as alive and curious as any other persona in the work. It’s at this intersection of story and place that Bruce found inspiration for Wildsam Field Guides, a book series that delves deep into American cities.
The 36-year-old has long loved this concept of befriending a place through art — literature in particular. “Travel guides typically don’t capture the spirit of a place,” he says in Wildsam’s East Austin office. It’s a bungalow as pleasantly designed as the field guides themselves. “If I were going to Spain, I would read Hemingway. If it were San Francisco, I’d read Joan Didion. That’s more interesting to me as a travel companion.”Originally from Georgia, he attended college in Nashville and then spent the following eight years writing for magazines around the United States, covering music, food, and travel. While reporting, he’d stumble upon a story so lovably local that it was too niche for most publications. For example, in Louisiana, it was Juanita, who lived her whole life in a home painted top to bottom with folk art. In San Francisco, it was Guy, who has been selling flowers out of a bucket on the same corner for more than 30 years. Bruce wanted to create an outlet for these stories.
In 2010, Bruce took a detour from magazines to get his MFA at Brooklyn College. Outside his studies, he was hankering to start a new project, he says, and needed to fallow his creative fields. “I had this urge to get in with the small-batch, handmade goods, but I can’t make anything,” says Bruce. “I’m not a leather guy, I can’t make furniture. But a field guide — I can make that.” He decided the first edition of his passion project would focus on his college town. Bruce returned to Nashville, seeking out local voices — artists, chefs, and songwriters who genuinely fed into the local culture. In 2012, six months of research, interviews, and memoirs were bound, and 3,000 copies were printed. They sold out online and in Nashville stores in four months.
He juggled the self-funded project with his day job in New York. A partnership with J. Crew and a job opportunity in Austin for Bruce’s wife, Robin, allowed for a move to Austin. The city became the subject of Wildsam’s second edition, connecting with hotelier Liz Lambert, welder Jack Sanders, and club owner Steve Wertheimer through friends of friends.
A common observation of modern Austin is that natives are few and far between. Bruce, being a transplant himself, recognizes this both here and on a larger scale. “We’re kind of living in a time where people are a little bit unmoored and there’s a loss of deep connection to a place. That feeling of being rooted isn’t always baked in,” Bruce says. “Our hope with the field guides is that it will tap you into the deeper stuff so you can get a real, true deep sense of a place.”
That deeper sense, however, is not always as bright and shiny as best-of lists and illustrations of swimming holes. For the Austin edition, this meant including an excerpt of Pamela Colloff’s “96 Minutes,” an exemplary feature on the 1966 University of Texas Tower shooting originally published in Texas Monthly. It also includes a sampling of final words by inmates meeting their death by the state of Texas. One reads, “My brother, where’s my stunt double when you need one?”
“It’s like three-dimensional versus flat. The beautiful and the broken kind of in equal measure, together, can offer something more rich,” says Bruce.
Wildsam turned five this past November and now boasts eight city guides: Brooklyn, Charleston, Nashville, San Francisco, New Orleans, Detroit, San Antonio, and a first and second edition of Austin. Our city’s second edition, which was released earlier this year, builds on the first with the addition of new maps, lists, and interviews. Denver and Portland are slated to be released next, as Wildsam expands more into road-trip guides (New England and the Desert Southwest were released in 2016).
It’s an awful lot of trekking for a guy who grew up in rural Georgia, vacationing on the Florida Panhandle, and crossing the country only once, to California. But Wildsam is a tribute to towns and trails. It’s a home Bruce built at that intersection of story and place, where he invites readers in for coffee and an anecdote. Thumbing through Wildsam induces that same nostalgia for a place you may have never been, or maybe shines a new light on one you’ve already visited. Who knows, the next time you catch the travel bug, you may just need a deeper dive into where you already are.