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.


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.


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.


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.

Undergrad Research: This Mongolian Life

The following post comes to us from Stephanie Kovanda, a recent graduate of the program in American Studies here at UT Austin. Since graduating from UT, Stephanie has been working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia. Many thanks to Stephanie for sharing her story with us!


March 16, 2011, 6:13 PM

I receive a text from a friend staying at my place in Cedar Park, Texas. “A package just arrived… something about Peace Corps?” This is the invitation I have been waiting for since I began the grueling application process nearly a year ago, an invitation I’ve been waiting for since I was seven years old. And of course, I have just started my 6-hour shift volunteering at a South by Southwest venue. The details of the next two years of my life will have to wait until the final band finishes their set and all amps, cords, and instruments are transported back to their designated vans.

March 17, 2011, 3:28 AM

I arrive back at the house. Surrounded by three friends, I open one neat little government-issued envelope containing my fate. My friend has the BlackBerry video camera recording. “It is with great pleasure that we invite you to begin training in… Mongolia???” I wish I can say my first thoughts are of intelligible details regarding Mongolian politics and culture or even a clue about the spoken language. No, my first thoughts are of BBQ and something about Chinggis Khaan making the Chinese so nervous that they built a long wall. A quick Google search and I realize that I will be going to a country that is rich, fascinating and about 100 degrees colder than my current location. One big question on my mind, though, is how exactly I will put my bachelors in American Studies to use in an Asian country where the livestock outnumber the human population ten to one.


December 2, 2012, 4:37 PM

I write to you from the Gobi Desert region of Dundgobi Province, Mongolia. I literally live in “Outer Mongolia.” This country has some of the most diverse and rich nature and culture I’ve seen, both of which have been beautifully preserved throughout the centuries. I’ve even acquired a taste for airag, Mongolia’s traditional beverage of fermented mare’s milk.

Since taking Dr. Hoelscher’s “Intro to American Studies” a few years back, I have a thing for sense of space. So allow me paint you a picture of my place right this moment. I live in a Mongolian ger. To me, it is a miniature circus tent and quite the intellectual one-room design for the Nomadic lifestyle that Mongolians have sustained for more than a thousand years. Every so often, I leave my laptop to adjust the central heating system, a coal stove located in the center of the ger. It’s a balmy five degrees Fahrenheit outside, up from last night’s subzero temperatures. My 12-year-old Mongolian host brother is taking a break from fetching water from the community well by sprawling out on my couch, absorbed in a game of “Zombie Highway” on his Blackberry-esque cell phone. His cell phone goes off. It blares out the Korean viral video sensation, “Gangnam Style.”

The dichotomy of technology and tradition never ceases to amaze and amuse here. I am connected to the internet in my ger but must run to the outhouse in between sending out an email and checking up on Pinterest. I cut up hunks of mutton for dinner with a meat cleaver while listening to This American Life. I digress.


December 3, 2012, 6:07 AM

The fire died out a few hours ago. I can see my breath inside the ger and I drag myself out from under the layers of a camel wool blanket to start another fire. Soon, I will head to the local secondary school where I work as a Peace Corps TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Volunteer.

Besides being aware of and analyzing the space around me, how did my work at the University of Texas’ Department of American Studies prepare me for This Mongolian Life? My students are fascinated with all that America entails, so obviously a degree in American Studies has been conducive for teaching on that subject. More importantly, though, American Studies has influenced the way in which I teach my Mongolian students. I draw from many disciplines as I teach the English language and challenge my students to do likewise as they learn it. Critical thinking is a newer concept within the school system here and something for which the American Studies department has provided great tools I now try to develop in this Mongolian generation.


Most importantly, though, I feel that I was provided with a comprehensive and challenging education in the American Studies department, a learning environment that fostered a wide range of skills I now pass on to the Mongolian students and teachers of Dundgobi’s Fourth Secondary School.

Over a year and a half since opening that Peace Corps invitation in Cedar Park, Texas, I can confidently answer a big question regarding my American Studies degree. This degree can take you anywhere, even all the way to Outer Mongolia!

Stories from Summer Vacation: Greg Seaver on Finding “New York” in the U.S. South

We are counting down the days until the firstclasses of Fall semester, but summer’s not quite over yet–enjoy today’s story from Masters student Greg Seaver!

This summer, I took an unfocused, meandering road trip with my college roommate that launched from Bedford, New York and landed roughly two weeks later in Athens, Georgia. Nick (my college roommate) had helped me schlep all my stuff from New Orleans to Austin last year when I moved, and I figured I’d return the favor by providing moral support while he looked for a new place in central North Carolina, where he’ll be teaching college Geology this coming year. If you haven’t travelled with a geologist, I recommend it. They’re full of all sorts of vaguely illuminating though not obviously useful information, like how to tell that you’ve just crossed over from one geophysical province to another (e.g. Piedmont to Coastal Plain), or how, roughly, to distinguish endemic from non-endemic rocks by chewing on them.

At some point fairly early on in the trip, it occurred to me that this coming semester will mark the beginning of my ninth consecutive year living in the U.S. South. Zounds! I certainly never planned it this way. And yet, after a year of studying American culture at UT, I was also feeling better equipped than ever to make sense of a region that, as a native New Yorker, has always struck me as somewhat foreign.

This turned out to be more or less the case. But something else happened, something much more interesting than the eight-hundred or so pithy Seinfeldian observations I made over the two week duration–stuff like how billboards in the South are on the whole more confrontational, or tipping situations less anxiety-producing. Something rather bizarre I started noticing, with increasing frequency as latitudes dropped, was various business concerns billing themselves as New York-style. So you’d see a storefront with a sign advertising a New York, say, Salon. Or Life Insurance Group. Genuine Pizza Parlor. Boutique. Chinese Food! Obviously some of these make more sense than others.

I can only speculate why such outlets chose to draw on Northern cachet to pitch their products: my guess is that “New York” connotes some sort of authenticity or trustworthiness with the more cosmopolitan Southern crowd (many of these self-proclaimed “New York” business were to be found in more upscale southern cities like Charleston and Savannah). Anyway, like any trend that’s gathered a bit of momentum, this one seemed to have spawned an underground counter-movement, to my great delight.

Stories from Summer Vacation: Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt’s Summer in Photos

Onward and upward we go until the end of summer! Here, Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt tells us what she did this summer through this photo essay…

Sometimes I have a summer that looks like this:

Other years my summer can look more like this:

This year, though, my summer looked a lot like this:

And this:

And even a little of this:

There was lots of this to fuel it:

And some of this to celebrate it:

But right in the middle, I got a little of this:

It’s a wild turkey feather that I picked up while walking around the homestead of one of my favorite authors, Wilma Dykeman. Her son and daughter-in-law were giving me a tour of the house, writing retreat, fresh water springs, and mixed forests outside of Asheville, North Carolina. Before Rachel Carson, Dykeman was sounding the alarm about the interrelated damage of poisoned waters, polluted air, and unchecked development in the United States. Immediately after the Brown v. Board decision, she and her husband drove around the US South interviewing anyone who would talk to them, trying to understand the reactions against and ultimately build a case for integration. Sitting in an alcove at the top of a typical mountain home made of stone and wood, the kind that always seems to gather a little moss on the shingles because of the thick shade and damp mornings, Dykeman created some of the best novels ever written about Appalachia. From that window, she looked out on the soft rise up from the road. That same rise today hosts wild turkeys, making their way from creek to creek, and it occasionally sees a professor who is right in the middle of remembering that sometimes we write because we are heartbroken. Sometimes we write because we cannot stand for injustice one minute more. And sometimes we write because a person’s story whispers to us, asks to be told, and brings us exactly what we need if we will just listen.

So I carefully wrapped that turkey feather in tissue, tucked it into my luggage and brought it back to Austin. Over the course of this year, I will begin a collaborative writing project about Dykeman. We will be collaborating as a department on projects, ideas, and themes.

Yet, an American Studies summer in Austin is not complete without a little oddity, a little surrealism, and a little reminder that sometimes all you can do is stop being so serious and instead just strike a pose. That was part of my summer too:

Stories from Summer Vacation: Carrie Andersen Explores the Icelandic Frontier

Our next summer story comes from Carrie Andersen, who spent two weeks road tripping abroad:

The highlight of my summer was a trip I took to Iceland with one of my best friends, a fellow former high school teacher with whom I share a love for Jim Carrey movies and karaoke rooms. The two of us have taken a trip together every summer since 2009, previous destinations being Australia, the UK and Ireland, and Alaska. This time, we spent two weeks driving Iceland’s Ring Road, a highway that runs around the entire circumference of the country, which is about the size of Ohio.

After a brief misstep with our rental car that sent us careening into a ditch on a dirt road (one of our wheels detached from its axel and left our car pigeon-toed and thus undriveable), we took one of the most geologically diverse road trips I could have imagined. This was no Kerouac-style jaunt back and forth across the great plains: our route took us through winding fjords, comfortable walking paths surrounding craters, active volcanoes, steam vents, hot springs, sulfur pools, mountains, glaciers, moss-covered lava fields, farmland, and jagged cliffs. It’d be impossible not to feel the sublime terror and awe at the landscape (and, needless to say, I exhausted my camera’s memory card trying to capture the scenery – you can see my feeble attempts below).

Even after such an inauspicious vehicular start, the trip was somehow very relaxing, to my pleasant surprise. Listening to the always fitting sounds of Bruce Springsteen, the Steep Canyon Rangers, New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Justin Bieber, we often drove without speaking, lost in thought about what we were seeing and wondering how the initial visitors to Iceland a thousand years ago might have reacted upon seeing such awesome, but as yet undiscovered, geological formations. What a frontier to traverse, especially without the benefit of a mostly functional Hyundai SUV.

Although our journey was largely macroscopic (we did not have the luxury of time, so we hopped quickly from place to place), I could have spent more time in a town called Seyðisfjörður, nestled in a fjord on the east side of the island. While the drive down the mountains was more anxiety-inducing than I would have preferred – think hairpin turns and a 15% grade all the way down, so we thanked our lucky stars that our brakes still worked – our brief stay there could hardly have been more zen. With fewer than 700 residents, the town is known as a tiny bohemian center inhabited by plenty of artists and local fishermen.

The return ?

Seyðisfjörður, Eastfjords, Iceland

Which means, of course, you encounter some colorful and wonderful characters.  We stayed at a hostel run by a man who, upon seeing my companion and I reading quietly in the living room, insisted that we hear some of his favorite music (Avishai Cohen, a bass player from New York) and lit some incense as he discussed with us the ins and outs of the Israeli jazz scene.

Needless to say, I can scarcely express what a pleasure it was to chill out in this village for an evening. I hope to somehow rekindle my relaxation as I reenter the bumpy atmosphere of graduate school, but what happens in Iceland might have to stay in Iceland.

Stories from Summer Vacation: Dr. Nhi Lieu on Tourism and Escape

The following report comes to us from UT American Studies professor Dr. Nhi Lieu with photos by Toan Leung:


I often feel a sense of accomplishment when my students tell me I have taken the joy out of their leisure after they have honed their critical thinking skills. I knew this would be my greatest challenge when I planned our summer vacation to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, early in spring. My husband and I wanted to go to an all-inclusive, cookie-cutter resort where we could relax and unplug. Our intention was to escape the frenetic work pace we have been accustomed to all year long. We wanted to slow down, not be constrained by the clock, and spend some quality time with our children. For the few days we were away, we would enjoy the natural beauty of the environment (the topaz blue sea, white sandy beaches, and tropical Caribbean breezes), as well as the simulacra (contrived tropical gardens, immaculately maintained grounds, and fantastical feats of resort architecture) that invited visitors from around the world. The “all-inclusive” resort surely met our expectations, but stark realities of the tourism industry made it difficult for me to completely enjoy my stay. Tourism is the most powerful generator of revenue and capital of the island nation. The challenge was on as I tried to escape all of the realities of the hierarchies in order for me to do some pleasure reading. My book of choice, Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth, is a deeply troubling book about identity formation, racialization, and synesthesia, but that will require another discussion.

Stories from Summer Vacation: Dr. Jeff Meikle Travels by Postcard

The following report comes to us from UT American Studies professor Dr. Jeff Meikle:

Did someone mention summer vacation? This year I must simply reply as I always do when the exterminator or the AC guy marvels at all my free time–that summer is when the teaching’s done and I get down to my other work. Not to complain, but this summer is a kind of payback for all the fun of last summer, when I could have reported on a wide range of travels, foreign and domestic. This summer, however, I’m traveling mentally through American landscapes imagined 70 years ago by postcard artists in Chicago, and writing what could be likened to blog posts on individual cards, for which I’m relying on old-fashioned archival and library research, myriad websites yielding occasional nuggets of information totally inaccessible even 15 years ago, my own projective fantasies, and a loose script enabling me to organize the individual bits in some sort of intellectual but often associative narrative. What you see in this photo depicts the literal physical place I’m burrowing further into. I’ve turned down several requests this summer to review this or contribute to that, and I thought about pleading no time in response to this request. But something about it appealed to me, and the photo allows me to step back from everything both physically and mentally. Next summer I also intend to spend a lot of time wandering through landscapes–but real ones, not virtual, and mostly outdoors.