Stories from Summer Vacation: Brendan Gaughen Researches Place Collecting

In the last gasp of summer, here are a few words from Brendan Gaughen, who spent his summer taking several trips across the nation for his dissertation research –

I’m finally doing some dissertation research and did some traveling this summer to do some interviews and generally report on what I saw.  I’m looking at specific ways people interact with the places they visit and how some treat travel as a form of collecting, how technology facilitates or enables these practices, and the ways in which some of these practices can function as a sort of voluntary surveillance.

Geo-Woodstock, Lakeland FL

Geo-Woodstock, Lakeland FL

This is the largest annual gathering in North America for a community of practitioners of a GPS-based hobby called geocaching, in which people hide containers, post the coordinates online, and others go out and find them.  It’s pretty simple but some of these so-called “geocachers” take things to the extreme, turning the hobby into a full-time occupation.  There are more than 2 million geocaches hidden around the world, and an entire cottage industry has sprung up in the last several years catering to this community.  Geocachers often hide objects as a way to memorialize places they find significant, though non-geocachers (“muggles,” borrowing a term from Harry Potter canon to describe those without wizard powers) generally have no idea these containers exist.

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Extra Miler Club Convention, Reno NV

This is the only formal annual meeting for this group of people with intentional travel goals, generally that of visiting all 3141 counties in the United States.  Many members document their accomplishments by taking a photograph of themselves at every county line sign; others attempt to do certain things in each state (such as play golf, eat at a Dairy Queen, etc).  I spoke at length with one couple who drove their RV through all 48 states in a very circuitous manner, stopping to get an envelope stamped at the post office in every county seat in the US, something that had to happen during business hours Monday thru Friday.  They had a page for each county with a postmarked envelope, self-photograph in front of the courthouse, and short write-up about what the town was like.  This personal archive totaled 20 binders, something I would love to explore in further detail.

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Lincoln Highway centennial celebration, Kearney NE

The Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental highway built in the United States and Kearney is the closest city to the highway’s midpoint (it ran between New York and San Francisco).  A few dozen vintage autos started at either end of the highway and met up in Kearney, so the town was temporarily saturated with Packards, Ford Model A’s, and more cars my dad can more easily recognize than I can.  Aside from witnessing a lot of nostalgia for archaic forms of automobile tourism, I attended some presentations about the history of the current incarnation of the Lincoln Highway Association and its 12-year long effort to map every iteration of the entire route – over 5,000 miles counting all the bypasses, realignments, and modernizations of the route.  Some Lincoln Highway devotees wish to travel as many miles of the original route as possible, and at one stop on our bus tour I watched about 100 people feel compelled to walk a 500-foot stretch of century-old concrete, an original 1913 section of the Lincoln Highway.  I was BY FAR the youngest person there, so it seems this [firsthand] nostalgic feeling toward the Lincoln Highway, and postwar road culture in general, may be in danger of disappearing altogether.

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I made many contacts and took extensive notes at all three of these events, which, once I tie in a theoretical framework, will be beneficial for a couple chapters of my dissertation.  I still have to decide how to approach writing about these groups and their members, but these trips have resulted in a ton of raw data, photographs, and interview notes.  Being in these places reminded me that America is a big, fascinating, and complex place, and that there is a certain joy to discovering, interpreting, and complicating aspects of American culture.

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