Summer Hirtzel: Traveler. She’s also a fantastic artist. Born in the valley of Northern California, this Hampshire College alum started feeling restless in her adopted hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts after her fifth year. She bravely shifted gears, uprooted, and took on the lifestyle of a traveler, seeking inspiration. She’s a poet. A student of art history with a knack for curating. A classical singer. She’s a bohemian babe who showed the 21st century that romantic train travel is still alive and well. Plus, she shared some traveling tips with us.
What inspired you to flee New England for the California Bay initially? What about the idea to go across country by train? (Which we find to be possibly the most romantic choice, by the way.)
I think I caught the post-grad wanderlust that a lot of people get after finishing undergrad. It’s practically a rite of passage for people our age in the U.S. to traverse the continent in some form or other. There were a couple of things that pushed me to leave when I did, mostly the realization that while I loved the smalltown, Massachusetts lifestyle I was living for a year after graduating, there was no way I was ever going to really appreciate how beautiful Amherst, MA really is until I had seen more of the world. I was also looking to experience city life for the first time and to find a new place to call home for a little while that might have more abundant career opportunities than either Amherst or my hometown of Sacramento, CA. The thing that really convinced me to go, however, was how right a weekend trip I took to NYC a few months beforehand felt. I went by myself by bus to see an art exhibition by my favorite contemporary artist and spent a few days in the city afterward. The freedom of travelling alone and exploring a city on a whim felt so empowering and important that I decided I needed to do a lot more of it as soon as possible, so I made plans to quit my job and travel across the United States via plane, train, and bus a few months later.
The romance of train travel is undeniable and played a big role in my decision to take mostly trains. For as long as I can remember, the wailing of locomotives going by has filled me with a yearning to travel, to escape, and to dwell in new, empty, lonely landscapes. But the decision of going mostly by train was just as practical as it was romantic. I looked into renting a car and ridesharing but those options just didn’t make financial or convenient sense to me. I find plane travel too sterile and stressful, plus the idea was to see as much of the country as possible. Trains made the most sense. Which made me one lucky duck, because it was an absolutely beautiful journey. I met strangers from all over the world with interesting stories to share, made friends with the café car employees, and delighted in all the reading, writing, and reflecting I got to do while watching America’s various landscapes fade into and out of each other.
Just before leaving on your journey you were given a gift in the name of Traveler’s Tradition. What’s the story behind that?
For a year in between graduating from college and leaving for this journey, I worked at an amazing little deli/café/bakery. In that year I very slowly got to know the head cook—a mysterious, territorial, and sensitive force in the kitchen who was notoriously hard to make friends with. We didn’t interact much, but I knew the coworker connection I had tried so hard to cultivate with him was special on my last day of work. It was a busy morning, so all of my attention was directed at the endless order tickets stacking up and I did not notice him enter the deli in a flurry on one of his precious few days off, his Hawaiian shirt and greasy hair waving limply in the inadequate air conditioning. He plopped a lumpy parcel bound in a black bandana with a large feather protruding from it on the deli counter in front of me, muttered the words, “Pay attention. Make shapes while you’re in motion out there. The story and the characters are important; listen hard and be careful,” and stormed out. After I clocked off for the last time, I untied the bandana to reveal a veritable care package for the road that included everything I might possibly need: matches, towelettes, bandages, candles, tea, a pocket knife, emergency tequila, and various other survival items. In a handwritten note, he explained that someone had once put together a gear kit like this for him, and that tradition dictates that I must do the same for a fellow traveler one day. The thoughtfulness and care behind this gift, especially from someone with whom I had such a cautious friendship, completely bowled me over. I look forward to carrying on the tradition.
Did you ever start seriously thinking “I could live here!” when passing through any these towns? What piqued your interest the most in places you visited?
What was interesting about the way I structured this trip was that I stayed in each city just long enough (5-10 days) to begin to develop habits, establish favorite haunts, and imagine what it would be like if I lived there. I left my friend in Richmond with the parting words, “I’m going to miss this little life we’ve built together,” and she heartily agreed. The places I could truly see myself moving to were the ones in which this pattern-forming felt most natural. Living as a witchy art-nerd punk in Richmond felt perfect. Being a health nut, running every morning and walking all day in Denver felt effortless. Attending boardgame nights, singing karaoke, and eating sandwiches on the beach in Los Angeles felt so right I almost stopped my journey there. In the end, it was less about how much the city appealed to my aesthetic senses or perceived career opportunities and more about what kind of energy the places filled me with. Santa Fe was gorgeous but I felt so very out of place in that city. Richmond and Denver were not particularly friendly or fertile environments but I found my niches quickly in them and they felt right. This trip was so much about learning to trust my intuition.
What led your course? How far in advance was the journey made (and did it change very much along the way)? Talk to us about your process.
Having friends in certain cities led the majority of my course, but I also had to play around a lot with routes on the Amtrak website. I started by contacting friends I wanted to see in cities scattered across the U.S. a few months ahead of time and asking if I might be able to stay with them. Then I searched for the cheapest tickets within the ballpark of when I wanted to arrive/depart each city, keeping in mind as much as possible my friends’ work schedules as well. Even though an itinerary eventually fleshed itself out after many discussions and much research, a fair amount of the journey ended up being revised on the fly. Amtrak has this amazing policy where they don’t charge you any extra to change your tickets, so even when I had a little too much whiskey and missed my morning train from Richmond to Washington, D.C., I was able to modify my trip so that I arrived in Austin a few days later than planned. It was amazing to treat the whole experience with the amount of adaptation, problem-solving, and going-with-the-flow as actual life regularly demands.
You’re a poet, and we love poets here at Luna Luna. How about sharing with our readers some places you passed through that appealed to your poetical side?
+ The 26-hour nonstop train ride from Chicago to Austin. Passing through endless fields and farms through what is called the “backyard of America,” watching the foliage transition from fields to plains to desert, having the entire observation car to myself all night, being all alone with my music and tea, experiencing my first sunrise in Texas. The Texas Eagle was my favorite train by far.
+ Belle Isle in Richmond—traversing a ridiculously long and high footbridge to get to the island, clambering over rocks to get to the middle of the James river with a pink sunset sparkling over the water all around me and my friend, seeking out the burial site of my friend’s recently-departed beloved pet rat… Both the alliteration and meaning of the name Belle Isle sum up its potential for poetics perfectly.
+ The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.—I’m a sucker for gorgeous churches, and this one is particularly interesting. It has an entire floor of meticulously rendered shrines to Mary from various cultural perspectives, the first thing you see when you walk into mass is a gigantic imposing golden Christ which scared the bejeezus out of me and made me laugh, especially when paired with the dramatic Bach tune playing on the organ during the procession. As someone who grew up Catholic and now takes the whole thing with a major grain of salt, this place was both awe-inspiring and chuckleworthy.
+ Roxborough State Park just outside of Denver—the azure sky and red rocks reaching out like rusty fingers into the sky reminded me of the set of an alien planet on the original Star Trek series. In a good way.
+ Drinking tea and discussing politics and morality with fellow travelers at sunrise in the common space of the Santa Fe Hostel. Need I say more?
+ Kayaking down the river in Austin at dusk, just as the bats swarm out from under the bridge for their feeding
These are all pretty grandiose and are definitely places I would recommend readers visit as they all inspired me poetically, but honestly the things I actually wrote poems about were the street art and punk shows in Richmond, the vegan taco trucks in Austin, doing impromptu sweaty power-Vinyasa in an un-airconditioned apartment in Brooklyn, feeling grateful for the blanket I brought with me on the train, running along the ocean for the first time in Goleta, CA, singing karaoke at a dive bar in Los Angeles with an old friend I used to sing in an a capella group with (we did an impromptu performance of our group’s version of Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Soul to Squeeze” and it was amazing), the way Berkeley smells like eucalyptus trees and glows in the glory of all the fuchsias growing in everyone’s yards. It’s always those little moments that you can’t recreate that inspire me to write poetry.
You’re also heavily involved in the museum and curatorial world. Tell us about the art and galleries you saw!
I saw some truly amazing artwork on this journey. The highlights include:
+ Every time I go to New York City, I try to make it to the Brooklyn Museum. They’re never afraid to mix old with new and treat contemporary art with the same mix of reverence and playfulness as they do the Old Masters. While I was there this summer I saw an amazing exhibition by contemporary artist El Anatsui called “Gravity & Grace.” I’m always a sucker for well-written and interesting wall-text and exhibition labels, and I learned a lot in this glorious exhibition about Anatsui’s “nomadic aesthetic,” a visual language informed by his interest in the circulation of forms and materials from culture to culture and his own travels and relocations around the world. I also always make a point to visit Judy Chicago’s magnificent piece of feminist work “The Dinner Party”. In fact, The Brooklyn Museum has one of the only wings dedicated to Feminist Art that I know of in a major museum. I love this.
+ Virginia Museum of Art in Richmond—If you ignore the rather egregious wing dedicated to a rich patron and his commissioned portraits and statues of his horses, this is one of my favorite medium-sized art museums. They have an excellent art nouveau section and there was an interesting exhibition on visions of apocalypse in monumental paintings from the 1980s — a topic which I happen to be well-versed in from college.
+ Denver Contemporary Art Museum—I absolutely loved this place, they don’t have a permanent collection, so everything they have there is always particularly charged with the energy of temporality. Plus, they have the most amazing reference library I’ve ever seen in a museum. Instead of stocking shelves upon shelves of art history tomes and exhibition catalogues, their library is full of artifacts from each one of their shows — pieces of the pieces they’ve shown as well as donated scraps from the artists — books, articles, models, ephemera, sketches, inspirations and tests. What a beautiful, living testament to the history of an ever-changing institution; a brilliant way to record the history of an impermanent space in a way that is interesting to viewers, almost a little exhibition in and of itself, and satisfies that need for record-keeping to please art history buffs (like me) and financial donors alike.
+ I saw an amazing installation piece called “Pearl” by Enrique Martinez Celaya that took up an entire warehouse gallery in Santa Fe. It would take me an entire short novel to describe the piece in full (I tried to capture glimpses of it in poems I wrote on the road) but to sum it up, it was an artistic journey both personal to the artist and universal. It masterfully invoked memory as physical space, intimately evoked melancholy and loss through narrative. It somehow made use of kitschy props, skillful paintings, clever mechanics, interesting layout and lighting, and yet felt cohesive and whole. It was absolutely amazing.
And we have to ask: how was it going Cute Girl Traveling Solo status? Did you experience any weird encounters there?
For the most part, it was really lovely, kind of empowering, and only a little bit scary. Of course, it did help that I had friends in every city I stayed in, but even the solo traveling bit was usually just fine. I carried myself (and all my luggage — I was very insistent that no one else haul my heavy duffel bag into luggage compartments, because I am prideful to a fault) with confidence and a keen, open eye, and I had pepper spray in my pocket at most times, so I didn’t feel like anyone was going to be able to mess with me. And they didn’t. I, of course, did have a couple of Creeper Moments, like the dude on the train who sat down next to me, even though I was clearly reading, asked me how to find my profile on Facebook, and asked if he could buy me a beer. I think his exact words were, “Are you sure you don’t want one? I would love to get you drunk.” He didn’t even attempt very much small talk beforehand! I just told him that yes, I was sure, and kept reading my book.
What would you say to other Cute Girls looking to Travel Solo? The two often being kept well apart due to fear and the like.
Man, just go for it. I get harassed way more often on a daily basis living in a major city than I did throughout the entirety of my trip. Of course things can go wrong, and it never hurts to be prepared with a little pepper spray (make sure you know how to properly use it! And make sure to check local laws in regards to carrying it!), perhaps a self-defense class or two, and whatever else you might need to make you feel safe. But in my experience, if you stand straight and ooze confidence out of every sweaty 3-days-straight-on-trains pore, most people will treat you with respect and you’ll be just fine.
What about tips for other aspiring artists looking to travel in general?
My two big rules for travelling, especially while being your most artsy self, are to allow yourself enough time to take long, aimless walks (preferably alone) and to carry your curiosity in plain view with you everywhere. Wear it on your sleeve, use it to flavor your drinks, let it bulge from your eyeballs. Be curious and inquisitive about everything. But if you’re going by train in particular, I jotted these quick tips while was on one of my very last trains of the journey:
- Wear pants, even in the summer. Air conditioning on trains and buses can be intense
- Bring a blanket. Nothing too big — something that will strap easily to your backpack should be fine. It’s nice for keeping warm of course, but it’s also essential for staying cozy during the long nights
- Tea & mug (and money for tips). You can end up spending a lot of money on Amtrak coffee if you’re not careful. But hot water is free, and most café car employees will think you’re cute for bringing your own tea and mug, especially if you leave money in their tip box.
- Make sure you follow the guidelines for carry-on luggage. A lot of Amtrak trips include sections where you have to transfer via bus, and the buses have significantly less room for storage than the trains
- Use your headphones sparingly. People you meet on trains are more open, interesting, and well-traveled than a lot of other people you will meet out in the real world. It’s well worth keeping yourself open to conversation on the train
- Figure out the mechanics of your seat first thing—how to raise and lower the back, what the heck the footholder is doing, and where the power outlet is. You don’t want to have to awkwardly fumble about noisily with your seat just as the lights are out in the car and everyone else is dozing off
- Wave back at all the people in the farmlands and small towns who wave at passing trains!
- When the conductor wakes up the entire train at 6:00 in the morning because the train is just coming around to the field where the buffalo literally roam, head for the observation car. Just trust me on that one.
San Francisco! What a place. How do you like where you’ve landed?
Besides the fact that it’s clear I landed here at the wrong time (rent prices are skyrocketing, everyone is grumpy about all the changes the tech industry and its current cashflow are bringing to the city, a lot of the art and culture is migrating to the East Bay), I really like it here. The various kinds of beaches, the adorable neo-Victorian architecture, the reverence for art, the legacy of gender and sexuality politics, and the overall ease with which I have found like-minded souls are all quite lovely. I love that the first thing question people ask you out here isn’t “Which neighborhood did you grow up in?” but “Where are you from originally”?” This is a city of travelers, foreigners, immigrants, and students. It feels just about where I need to be right now.
Do you have adventures planned for 2014? As both a traveler and an artist.
I have vague plans to visit a friend in Vietnam and to check out the countryside and arts culture at some point this spring. Now that I’ve seen a little more of the U.S. I am looking forward to venturing off to other countries in order to continue broadening my understanding of art and humanity and life. As an artist, it’s all about finding my groove here in the city, attending poetry performances and exhibition openings, taking a few classes, and developing artistic habits. It’s taken me a while to settle into a rhythm of work, bills-paying, and learning my way around the city. But I have some ideas brewing and I can’t wait to get a move on. Artistically, this time, rather than geographically.
All images taken by the artist.
Check out her art & other awesome things she’s been doing: summergracehirtzel.tumblr.com