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Meet the Anton Fellows: On the road

Interview with Susan Munroe

Susan Munroe is an English major who enjoys writing and acting. In a recent conversation, summarized below, she talked about why she decided to use an Anton Fellowship to fund a road trip and explore the genre of travel writing.

What prompted you to apply for an Anton Fellowship?

My best friend Laura and I have talked about doing a road trip for as long as we've been friends. We wanted to do it soon because we weren't sure where we'd end up living after graduation. But after doing some research, we realized that we couldn't afford such a trip, because car rentals are so expensive.

Clark sends emails out to students about research funding you can apply for. I began to think about how I might turn our dream into a real project, and apply for an Anton fellowship to fund it.

I met with my honors thesis advisor James Elliot and came up with some ideas about travel writing and the idea of journeying, and how travel can lead to personal and social change. I thought this direction would be fascinating to explore. I wanted to see how my thinking would change when I was removed from everything that was familiar and could experience different landscapes, cultures, and climates. I wanted to experience these places actively, by writing about them and processing what I was seeing. So I went ahead and wrote a proposal for the Anton Fellowship, but I never thought I'd get it.

Did you do any preparation for your trip, like reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road?

I haven't read that yet, but I'm going to! I wanted to get in the mode of travel and observation. Before the trip I read Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, John Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie, and some other things. I also brainstormed a little to figure out what I should be looking at. But I didn't want to do too much, because point of the trip was to be open to new experiences. As part of my honors thesis I plan to read the works of other writers who've made similar journeys.

Did you keep a journal?

Yes. I made an effort to write everyday, even if it was nothing more than a log of where we went and what we saw. It's really difficult to do that after the fact because you forget all the little details. When Laura was driving I really made an effort to write about what I was thinking and seeing. Laura's a photography student at Simmon's College, and she was also keeping a journal and taking photographs for an independent study project. I wish I'd been able to tape some of our conversations about what we were experiencing.

What route did you choose to travel?

We wanted to go places we'd never been before and to stay off interstates as much as possible. I really wanted to explore the Southwest, and Laura wanted to see Memphis, Graceland, and New Orleans. We planned a loop encompassing those areas that began and ended in Las Vegas, where we rented our car. We traveled for about a month and logged 6,914 miles.

Is there a particular experience you might want to share?

After leaving Las Vegas, we drove through the Mojave Desert, and planned to spend the night at a free campground in Kingman, Arizona that we'd heard about. That evening we turned off the main road onto the dirt road that supposedly led to the campground. By then it was dark and cold, and the desert animals were out. There were rabbits everywhere and wild horses. We almost hit some kind of big bird. The dirt road was leading us straight up into the mountains and we were trying hard not to admit to each other that we were getting more and more nervous. The road was narrow, and one side dropped off sharply. After driving about 10 miles into the middle of the desert, we found the campsite, which appeared to be just a cleared area, at the top of the mountain. Our cell phones were out of range. So we decided to turn around. We drove back to the main road, found a Walmart and slept in the parking lot.

If we'd had that experience at the end of the trip, I think we would have been able to stay at the campground, but it was too intimidating our first night out.

A lot of evenings we ended up in places with no campgrounds, just RV parks. So we slept in Walmart parking lots a lot. It was free, there was a bathroom with a flush toilet inside, and every morning we could go in and get something for breakfast. I developed a new appreciation for Walmart!

It sounds like you learned a bit about being a homeless person living out of a car.

That's exactly what it was-living out of a car. And finding a bathroom when we needed one in sparsely inhabited country was a real challenge!

You must not have slept very well in the car.

Actually, we got used to it very fast. While a bit of a gas-guzzler, our rental car (a PT Cruiser that we named Scarlett) was comfortable. The seats reclined, so we could curl up even though we couldn't lie completely flat. I didn't really like PT Cruisers before this trip--I thought they were kind of silly. But I'm a changed woman!

And has this trip lead to personal change for you? Are you still processing your trip?

I'm definitely still processing it. I know I've changed. We saw amazing things, and my experiences are coalescing into more specific thoughts and impressions.

How are you planning to proceed with this project now that you're back?

I plan to research other writers-for example, Jack Kerouac and William Least Heat Moon-who have taken similar trips. I want to see if there are any connections between their experiences and mine, and to see if I can make a larger connection with the potential of travel as a catalyst, first for personal change, and then for broader societal change.

I actually got back feeling very nervous about my thesis, because I didn't have a concrete hypothesis about the social change idea and I didn't know what I wanted to write. So my advisor and I talked again about the direction I wanted to go in. Did I want to write a personal memoir, or something more analytical? I've decided on the memoir.

So what I need to do is write about the trip and use the writing as an exploration. I need to figure out what happened, to use my outside reading to tie into that and supplement it, and then try to make my point about social change. So right now I'm trying to write everyday and keep my thoughts open and moving.


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Susan Munroe
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