What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Judson Barber on Rollercoastering Through the South

In the final installment of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” UT AMS doctoral student Judson Barber takes us on his road trip to find the best rollercoasters in the American Southeast. Read on to join the adventure—and for Judson’s excellent photographs. 

Years ago, I heard from somebody that one of the tricks to surviving grad school is having a good hobby. Anything that can give you a break from the rigors of academic life—something that lets you disconnect from the burdens of books to read and paper deadlines to meet—will get you a long way. Luckily, I’ve never had a problem distracting myself.

I’m not sure where it comes from, but since I was a kid I’ve always had this compulsion to collect stuff. Back then it was stamps, coins, action figures, whatever I could get my hands on. As I grew up and started to travel that evolved into collecting different places, or pieces of them, and now each summer I attempt to visit different regions of the country that are new to me, if I can. After spending most of my life in the hazy, brown, concrete deserts of Southern California, what some might consider the most mundane aspects of different parts of the country—dense foliage, remote highways, scenic vistas—bring me a very special and unique delight. Getting away from urban sprawl of mass suburbia to more rural parts of the country is a welcome treat in itself.

In recent years, those trips have been guided principally by one thing: new roller coasters and amusement parks. Corny, I know. But it’s something that still grabs my interest year after year. These trips through the Midwest, Northeast, Southwest, and this year Southeast, have allowed me to collect place in a more experiential way than through kitschy tchotchkes from wherever.

This summer I had my sights set on a major oversight in my regional experience. My trip started in Atlanta where I spent my first day. From there I went up I-75 to I-40 through Knoxville to Pigeon Forge, TN to visit a place that should be on everyone’s to-do list, Dollywood. Pigeon Forge also offered up a unique research opportunity—a trip to the newly opened “Alcatraz East” crime museum. But this isn’t a venue for that sort of academic writing, so I’ll leave you with just a few photos of the façade of that industrial building, nestled comfortably between Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Island Inn and the Comedy Barn Theater.

From Pigeon Forge, Highway 441 South took me through Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to the epic Newfound Gap lookout which separates the Volunteer and Tar Heel states. From there, Highway 19 reconnects with Highway 74 and then I-40 to about Asheville, and then I-26 turns south for about 35 miles until it reconnects with Highway 74 again, headed into Charlotte. There’s a theme park that straddles the NC and SC border, called Carowinds (“Where the Carolinas come together!”) where I spent the next day and a half.

After my time at Carowinds, and a quick stop in the small town of Belmont, NC for some of the best Barbeque in the state, it’s a straight shot down I-85 through South Carolina back to Atlanta.

In all, the four days in July added up to about 16 hours of driving which took me through 4 states (39 new counties), and on 31 new roller coasters.

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What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Janet Davis on Touring for American Experience Miniseries, The Circus

In this fourth installment of “What I Did On My Summer Vacation,” UT AMS professor Dr. Janet Davis tells us about touring for the new American Experience miniseries, The Circus. Be sure to tune into PBS on October 8th and 9th!


This summer, I was part of the Television Critics Association Press Tour for The Circus, an upcoming American Experience miniseries that will air nationally on PBS October 8th and 9th. I’ve been actively involved in the series from start to finish—I’m a talking head onscreen and over the last year, I’ve reviewed the script and the rough cuts of the film.

Here are some photos of me and my fellow panelists on July 30th at the TCA event at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills. I am also part of other discussions and screenings at the New York Historical Society and the Portland Art Museum before The Circus airs in October. The series provides a remarkable multifaceted and intersectional exploration of how the circus made modern America.

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Left to right: Dominique Jando, Janet Davis, Jonathan Lee Iverson, Sharon Grimberg, and Susan Bellows

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What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Caroline Johnson on Interning at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

In this third installment of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” UT AMS doctoral student Caroline Johnson takes on the near impossible task of telling us what it’s like to be a Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum intern. 

I breached the surface of the L’Enfant Plaza metro station as the escalator carried me toward a particularly dismal day in Washington, D.C. Wearing my spirited red Toms and holding an umbrella to block the drizzle, I made my way to Independence Avenue. As I rounded the corner and saw the familiar blue and yellow of the Smithsonian symbol, my mind churned over a sea of questions—was I too old to be an intern? What would it be like? Will I fangirl over everything I do and see? Not to ruin the post, but the answers were no, near indescribable, and absolutely.


I always thought it a sad reality we can’t put special narratives on our resumes, so I have decided to use this post to give you the two versions of my summer at the Smithsonian.

The first is what I like to call the “LinkedIn description,” and it is as follows:

As a curatorial intern in the Aeronautics Division at the National Air and Space Museum, I worked with the curators of the permanent military suite galleries spanning WWI, WWII and the Cold War. My primary duties included conducting archival research at the National Archives and Library of Congress as well as contacting key personalities and their families for participation in the exhibits. Since I specialize in visual history and the Cold War gallery will be a new addition to the military suite, most of my energy was spent collecting media relating to topics such as Vietnam airstrikes and photo transparencies from the Berlin Airlift and Korean War. (If you’re thinking that sounds like history nerd heaven, you are 100% correct.)

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Caroline at the National Air and Space Museum, Summer 2018

The second version of my summer contains the narratives that don’t quite make it into the bullet points on my resume. As a devoted FRIENDS fan (the TV show), I have titled each experience accordingly:

“The One Where She Almost Breathed on Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit”: During my first week, my supervisor gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of NASM’s Udvar-Hazy Center, located in Chantilly, Virginia. While in the preservation lab, a specialist pulled back a large sheet draped across a human-shaped figure. I stared at the freshly revealed artifact laying before me—it was a spacesuit. That alone was a special moment, and then I saw the label, “Armstrong.” Yes, friends, there in front of me, with no glass and subject to my very own mortal breath, was Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. Keep in mind, this was my first week.

“The One Where She Befriended the Berlin Candy Bomber”: One of my first tasks was to track down Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen (USAF, Ret), better known as the “Berlin Candy Bomber” or “Uncle Wiggly Wings” for his efforts in dropping parachutes containing Hershey bars and bubble gum to the children of West Berlin during the Berlin Airlift in 1948. After weeks of calling various air bases and historical societies, I received a phone number. Much to my surprise, Col. Halvorsen picked up! At 97-years-old, he is one of the most humble, kind, and enthusiastic human beings I have had the pleasure of speaking to. He referred to me as “sunshine” on subsequent calls, and I assume that makes us friends.

“The One Where They Went to the CIA”: “I’m going to need your social security number. We’re heading to CIA Headquarters on Thursday.” My supervisor casually dropped this line as he stopped by my cubicle on his way back down the hallway lined with model spacecraft. This vignette is shorter than most, as I feel it keeps the air of mystery alive. I can say, we spent a little too long in the gift shop. As I sit here sipping my coffee from my official CIA mug, however, I have no regrets.

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The view from the top of the Naval Observatory

“The One Where Marine II Landed Thirty Yards in Front of Her”: I often accompanied my supervisor on tours he would provide visitors and other groups of invited guests. On this instance, I met a group of interns at the Naval Observatory, and their supervisor extended an offer for me to tour their facilities. In addition to viewing the telescopes and incredible library with copies of works by Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, the VP decided to make a guest appearance during the tour. We stood outside as Marine II landed on the front lawn, and then watched a secret service agent chase the VP’s dog across said lawn.


The WASP Congressional Gold Medal, located at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia

“The One Where She Cemented her Dissertation Topic”: A few times this summer, I found myself at a seminar table consisting of brilliant individuals who work around the clock to provide the most exciting digital content to NASM audiences. The 160th anniversary of aerial photography, and the 75th anniversary of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) were fast approaching. With some encouragement from my supervisor, I volunteered to write these posts, and I ended up doing a bonus story on archival WASP images. My favorite part of this experience was seeing the public interact with the posts on social media, and it only confirmed my desire to return to UT and churn out a prospectus focusing on women in aviation. Yes, this is a shameless, self-promotional plug for you to read these posts, as I greatly enjoyed writing them!

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Books and resources for writing on women in aviation and conducting archival research

And so there we have it, the professional job description, and just a few vignettes to bring the experience to life. Though perhaps atypical in format, I figured it was the only way for me to convey the human element behind the trove of professional experience I gained this summer.

In academia, we are trained to teach, to write, and to distill and present information at a rapid rate, yet we often forget we are building a wide range of skill sets in the process of doing so. I never thought my family aviation history, archival work, enthusiasm for Cold War material, and research on women in visual culture would combine in the most unexpected fashion to qualify me for this experience. To me, that has been the beauty of working in an interdisciplinary field: if you pursue your varying interests with a passion and seize opportunities to expand your knowledge base (or even to write in unconventional forms), you might just find yourself spending a summer in the sky, where, at least at NASM, I saw no limits.



What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Leah Butterfield on Interviewing Women Solo Travelers in Spain

In this second installment of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” UT AMS doctoral student Leah Butterfield recounts her experience interviewing women solo travelers in Spain.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

Leah at the Plaza Mayor in Madrid


We were seated on a sidewalk terraza on a hot, cloudless afternoon. Over icy glasses of
Cruzcampo, a Spanish beer, Alexandria talked to me about her solitary travel experiences. As the conversation circled back to the expectations society often has for women—and the ways that traveling alone runs counter to those expectations—she pondered, “We’re warriors in a way.” “Backpack warriors,” she added, with a chuckle. With every solo trip, she suggested, women are fighting against cultural conventions and expectations: that they should remain in the home, that they should prioritize romantic and family ties, that they should avoid risk or adventure.

Alexandria is one of the twenty-six American women that I interviewed this summer as part of my preliminary dissertation research. Though not all of these women might label themselves as warriors, most expressed an awareness that their solitary travels are a challenge to traditional gender norms. Despite the often-negative reactions from friends, family and strangers, these women choose to journey solo, on trips ranging from a few days to a few months, to destinations around the globe. The individuals that I spoke with ranged in age from nineteen to seventy. They included women of color and second- and third-generation immigrants, though the majority of interviewees were white. Most women identified as somewhere between lower-middle and upper-middle class, and over 40% of the women claimed queer identities, from “mostly straight” to “fluid” to “Let me put it this way: I don’t usually like sleeping with men.”

El Albaicín district in Granada, Spain

El Albaicín district in Granada

I spent much of my summer listening to these women’s stories. They shared anecdotes of
afternoons spent in charming cafes, of forming unexpected friendships and of being followed by unknown men. They talked about the moments when they felt safe and at peace in their solitude and of the moments when they did not. They told me about the books and blogs and people who inspired their journeys. When I asked interviewees to describe how they feel when traveling alone, they responded with words like joy, exhilaration, terror, independence, self-reliance, worry and love. This discordant mixture of terms suggests that the emotional uplift of women’s travel is often weighed down by the burden of fear. While the vast majority of these women had never experienced sexual assault or violent crime during their travels, the possibility of such occurrences was constantly on their minds. As one interviewee put it, traveling alone is “empowerment tinged with fear.”

As I explored Madrid, where I rented a room for two months, and traveled to other parts of Spain, I experienced the truth behind these women’s words. I walked along the shore in Cádiz and through the winding streets of Seville. I marveled at the royal library in El Escorial and pet friendly, stinky goats at the Madrid Zoo. I watched flamenco from the cheap seats at El Teatro de Canal and danced along with the crowd during Madrid’s Orgullo Gay parade. I got pickpocketed, I got catcalled, and I broke down crying to more than one stranger in the Barcelona Sants railway station. I ate countless meals with only a book for company. And, like most of the women that I interviewed, these solitary experiences made me deeply, unshakably, embarrassing-to-try-to-put-into-words happy.

Playa De La Caleta, Cádiz, Spain

Playa De La Caleta in Cádiz

As a PhD student feeling the pressure to be productive, it has been challenging to justify my choice to spend the summer in Spain. When people ask me the inevitable, “Why’d you do that?” I emphasize that the trip wasn’t all play, that I offset my costs by working as a nanny, teaching English to three sweet niños. I tell people that I wanted to escape from the Texas heat, that I wanted to practice my Spanish, that I wanted to return to the city, Madrid, that enchanted me as a study abroad student.

While these reasons are all true, what I yearned for, above all, was the experience that one interviewee described. Solo travel, she said, “is like when you’re in the shower, but for days.” She explained, “It’s time to really think through s—.” Perhaps, for a scholar-in-training, spending a summer really thinking through s— is the best justification of all.

Views of Greenland during the return flight to the US

Views of Greenland during the return flight to the U.S.

Some things I’m thinking through next? How American travelers conceive of their ties to the U.S., how age, race and physical appearance influence the anonymity of travel, and how the unsettled nature of travel can alter the value one places on “settling down.”


What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Nick Bloom on Touring with Bold Forbes

Each year, when UT AMS returns to campus for the fall, we ask our faculty and graduate students to report on their summer activities. First up is doctoral student Nick Bloom who toured the country with his band Bold Forbes. You can check Bold Forbes out at boldforbesmusic.com and stream their new album, High Time, on Spotify and Apple Music. Here’s Nick’s thoughts on “Defensible Reasons for a Fiddle Solo”:

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Bold Forbes at Rockwood Music Hall in New York

My three-piece folk band drove into Providence, Rhode Island three hours before showtime on a powder blue June evening. Here is what we decided we knew about Providence: the Italian mafia has historically controlled Providence; the Italian mafia owns restaurants as fronts; therefore, there must be good pasta and pizza in Providence.

“We will have to get some pasta, or at least some pizza,” said the fiddle player from the backseat. I nodded hard. The bass player next to me had regrettably moved on from thinking about Italian food, and was instead wondering aloud if anyone would be at our show that night, since we really didn’t know anyone in Providence.

I wasn’t worried about people coming to our show, because we had had pretty good luck on the tour so far. The night before we had played to a mostly full house at Club Passim, a legendary basement folk club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For four years we had been emailing Passim to get a show, and for some reason somebody decided to email us back last winter to let us know they’d take a chance on us.

Even though it turned out to be a Monday night show, it still felt a little bit like Moving On Up. This is mostly because there was a pleasantly decorated green room with free beer and salmon burgers for the artists; also, because we had lots of friends and family in the Boston area who came to our show to make it feel full, and so did the artist sharing the bill with us (fellow performing artists, please raise your voices in prayer: God Bless Our Friends and Family).

But there were also people who came to Passim that evening just because it was Passim. All the way from Green Bay, Wisconsin, an older man had come with his four sons-in-law to fulfill a lifelong dream of seeing live folk music at Club Passim. He bought a bunch of our CDs and told me, “the talent here hasn’t dropped off since Joni and Dylan were here.” Statements such as this, in the context of a famous folk basement, are liable to make a musician believe that no show he or she subsequently plays would dare go unattended.

Downtown Providence on a Tuesday night is the kind of place that can transform such optimistic notions into the stuff of the very worst supermarket sheet cakes. Mere moments after the substance enters you, as you find yourself both more nauseous and hungrier than before, you cannot believe your critical discernment of reality has failed you so.

So did my glory dreams seem to me—like a stale glittery supermarket sheet cake—against the backdrop of a weekday summer evening in downtown Providence.

Firstly, there was the landscape of downtown Providence itself: all sorts of buildings and streets and signs, i.e. the trappings of human community, but with hardly a human in sight. I thought, “this reminds me of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.” I feel great love for Harrisburg because I grew up near there, but there is not a city in this universe that wants to be compared to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Secondly, the pizza: the slices we bought from the corner market down the street from the venue were comparable to—perhaps worse than—the average slice of pizza in Austin, Texas. I have no love for the average pizza slice in Austin, Texas, and nor should anybody else.

Finally, the venue itself: set in a downtown backstreet row of office buildings, half of which were vacant, the venue resided on top of what appeared to be the most popular business on the block, a tattoo parlor.

Once we climbed the dirt-streaked gray linoleum steps to the venue’s entrance, we discovered that it was a capacious room, and almost all of it was painted black: the walls, the stage, the pool table, the arcade games, the bar.

“Most of what goes on here is metal, hard and dark kind of stuff,” the soundperson told me when he saw the fiddle player pull out his fiddle. He grimaced a little and said, “You guys might be the first acoustic act to get on stage here.”

We weren’t, because there were two acts before us, and they were both acoustic acts. The first to play was a relatively well-known singer-songwriter in Providence, and I wondered whether or not the people who came to see him would stick around for the next two acts.

This turned out to be futile question because nobody came to see him.

In the middle of his set, my old childhood friend from the Harrisburg area, who now lives in Providence, strolled solo into the venue and I said a very enthusiastic hello. In the ensuing two hours, nobody would follow her in. (Fellow performing artists, I again ask you to pray: May the Gifts of Happiness and Abundance Flow unto Our Friends and Family).

We listened to the first two performances and danced with ludicrous smiles and free beers. Nobody said, “hey, we’re about to play a show to one person.” The soundperson dutifully sound-checked each band, wearing a confidently concerned expression.

Then it was our turn to play.

Here is what getting on stage to play a folk music show to one person in a heavy metal club in Providence feels like: it feels like drinking two large beers without having eaten anything but a bad slice of pizza, the sun is just setting and burning the whole sky an indecent pink-orange, and you know you shouldn’t feel this free and full because soon you will realize that nothing, nothing constructive is occurring. In fact, you’ve already realized this, and also something else: there is no good reason to put on a musical performance. Ever. Not one defensible reason.

“Excessive, excessive, excessive…” I thought as the fiddle cut a gloriously surprising and meandering solo, an absolutely exhilarating sound which nobody besides a bartender, a soundperson, four musicians, and my friend from the Harrisburg area would ever hear; the powerful stage lights making me feel so shiny; amps stacked up three meters high so that the bartender half a football field away could feel like she was swimming through our rhythms; “…really excessive.” A shameful bounty.

Even though we cost the venue money that night, the soundperson handed us twenty dollars on the way out, and fiddle licks danced out of his eyes. We all went to a place informally known as the Home of Rhode Island’s Best Hot Wieners, because everyone including Yelp said it was the best place still open in Providence. We ate chili dogs and chili fries, and I felt smooth and warm as a piece of sea-glass on an early-evening beach in the summer.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Kate Grover on Volunteering with Girls Rock Austin

I’m a rock fan. I listen to rock music, go to rock concerts, watch rockumentaries, and write about rock culture as a graduate student. In fact, I’m more than a rock fan—I’m a full-blown rock nerd. So you can imagine I was pretty flippin’ excited to volunteer with Girls Rock Austin (GRA) this summer.

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Flyer for the GRA showcase. Image courtesy of the Girls Rock Austin Instagram page (@girlsrockatx).

A nonprofit and local chapter of the Girls Rock Camp Alliance, Girls Rock Austin puts on a variety of annual programs to empower “girls and women through music, education, and performance.” This includes weeklong day camps for girls, gender fluid/non-binary and trans youth (ages 8-17) every summer. At its core, GRA’s rock camp builds on the DIY ethos of punk rock feminism: anyone can do anything with the resources they have, including play instruments, write songs, and form bands. But the camps are more than an introduction to musical culture. Along with instrument instruction and band practice, campers engage in a range of workshops covering topics such as healthy relationships, identity, and intersectional feminism. Every aspect of camp is volunteer-run, and many (if not most) of GRA’s volunteers are musicians themselves.

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Campers participate in an icebreaker activity on their first day of rock camp. Image courtesy of the Girls Rock Austin Instagram page (@girlsrockatx).

Since I’m a pretty mediocre guitarist at best, I volunteered in roles that were much more suited to my abilities: band counselor and workshop leader. Along with band coaches, or volunteers who have experience playing live music (in bands or otherwise), band counselors provide a support system for the campers throughout the week. We’re the cheerleaders, the clowns, the hype-people, the confidants, the referees, the whatever-the-campers-need to have a blast at rock camp. After the campers form bands on the first day, a coach and counselor pair is assigned to each band and sees them through the week. I worked with The Giants, a band of four teenagers who named themselves such because they were all about six feet tall.

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Campers’ creations from the zine-making workshop. Image courtesy of the Girls Rock Austin Instagram page (@girlsrockatx).

Sitting in on band practice everyday and witnessing young people work together to write songs and find their creative voices reminded me of the radical potential of music. As cheesy as this sounds, it also filled me with an incredible sense of hope for the future. This feeling only intensified during the Women Who Rock workshop, a rock herstory lesson that I co-lead with fellow volunteer, Eryn. We discussed Madame Gandhi, Miriam Makeba, Alynda Segarra (Hurray for the Riff Raff), Libba Cotten, Sadie Smith (G.L.O.S.S.), and Wendy Carlos, six women of various backgrounds, eras, body types, and musical styles that all rock in their own unique way. While this was great experience teaching the material I hope to cover at a collegiate level, it was even more awesome to see the campers get inspired by these women—to make the connection that their own diversity and creativity is what makes them special, what makes them truly rock.


At the end of the week, the campers performed in the Girls Rock Austin showcase at the North Door. Friends, family, and supporters gathered to watch each band play the original song they had written and practiced at camp, and GRA staff exhibited other projects the campers had produced in the various workshops. Girls rock camp was a week of music, feminism, and fun that I feel incredibly lucky to have experienced, and I can’t wait to volunteer again next year.


GRA Camp Song

Campers and volunteers close the day with the camp song. Image courtesy of the Girls Rock Austin Instagram page (@girlsrockatx).






Summer Slow Down: Making All-Night Art with Mystery Spot Books

In this third installment of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” UT AMS doctoral student Emily Roehl recounts her experience creating time-based, activist art in Minneapolis as part of the Northern Spark arts festival this past June.

In June, I traveled to Minneapolis to work with Chad Rutter, my Mystery Spot Books collaborator, on our first foray into time-based art. On June 10, we took part in Northern Spark, an all-night arts festival that popped up along the Green Line of the Light Rail between Minneapolis and St. Paul. For our project, The Slow Down, we commandeered a road construction sign and displayed a series of messages from participants, who were encouraged to consider practical ways to live with less of what the construction sign represents – a culture fueled by petrochemicals. On the night of the festival, we asked people why they might want to live with less oil. Their reasons were programmed into the construction sign and displayed on an ever-changing loop from sundown to sunrise.  


Here are some of our favorite reasons collected during the night:

…because things should matter.

…because I like to see my city at the pace of a slow walk.

…because fear keeps us from considering new, more resilient possibilities.

…because I need a lot less than I think.

…because it’s not all about comfort.

…because oil fuels conflict.

…because the world is changing and so are we.

…because *this* is our heaven. 


Oil shapes our everyday lives. Cars are a large part of this, but so is our food system, the microfibers in our synthetic fabrics, and the personal products we apply to our bodies. From fast food to electronic devices to interstate highways, oil contributes to the speed of our lives. Rarely do we slow down and think through the everydayness of oil. By asking participants to slow down and extract a small part of their daily lives from oil, this project explored new ways of being at home in the world that do not rely on fossil fuels. 


Our work for Northern Spark will find its way back into our primary medium: the artist’s book. Building on our recent series of publications called the Energy Landscapes of St. Louis, we will publish a book inspired by the reasons to live with less oil we collected at Northern Spark. This will be the first publication in our Energy Landscapes of the Twin Cities series.