I left Chapel Hill on May 19th, all of my belongings tucked haphazardly into all of the crannies of my car. I drove 2000 miles across the country, by way of the hubs of the American South —- places I’d studied for so long but had never visited. I stopped in Nashville, Montgomery, New Orleans, Austin, Lubbock, Amarillo, and dozens of roadside rest stops in between. I ended my tour just outside of Denver, Colorado, where I now reside.

Cadillac Ranch / Image by David Kafer

Then I backtracked to the east coast for a week in early June, when I was flown to New York City by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to receive the History Scholar Award. I spent a week with fourteen other young scholars of American History and American Studies who are each uniquely and deeply impassioned by the intersections of our lives and the lives of those who precede us. There, I felt wholly intimidated and truly driven; the week affirmed and reaffirmed my desires to pursue historical work.

In early June, I returned to the Red Record research team, where I work remotely alongside half a dozen other researchers from UNC to help narrativize and geographically represent all of the lynchings that occurred within the American South following the Civil War. I work with my former thesis advisor and CHW co-founder Seth Kotch, CHW assistant director Elijah Gaddis, and CHW graduate research fellow Ina Dixon, among many other talented undergraduate and graduate students.

Concurrently, I work with the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a Route 66 Campaign Intern, where I spend my time working to Preserve Route 66 and hunting for new National Treasures. My first week on the job involved a road trip to Albuquerque for a training weekend, where we visited the Acoma Pueblo, drove along portions of Historic Route 66, and ate way too much green chile. But most weeks are local, involving phone calls to local preservation organizations across the country, entering data into spreadsheets, and office trips to the downtown food trucks.

Route 66, New Mexico / Image by David Kafer

In early July, I flew to Houston for a week, to wrap up my one-year tenure as an intern with the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, where I produced digital content aimed at destigmatizing substance use disorders in collegiate settings. My time at UNC was positively and permanently marked by networks of people who cared deeply about my well-being and my success, and I feel deeply fortunate and privileged to have had the opportunity to help advocate for similar resources for others across the country.

I was selected to be one of the National Trust’s #Preserve66 Roadies, which meant I got to spend a week on the Mother Road in late July, speaking with locals from Chandler, Oklahoma to Albuquerque, New Mexico about what community means to them, collecting petition signatures to help designate Route 66 as a National Historic Trail, and documenting the stories of historically underrepresented communities. In my travels, my greatest companion was The Negro Motorist Green Book — an annual travel guide created by and for African Americans during the Jim Crow era that allowed them to safely travel and find accommodations. I was constantly aware of what it meant to be a black person in a space where people who looked like me weren’t allowed to travel or stay fifty years ago. (I wrote several pieces about blackness and belonging on the Mother Road, tight-knit communities in wide open spaces, and serendipity for outlets like the National Trust, Polaroid, and Airstream, if you want to read more about my travels.)

Route 66, Oklahoma / Image by David Kafer

Habitually, August is a month of unwinding for me. I feel my psyche preparing for what would normally be back-to-school season — muscle memory at work. Those familiar pangs of nostalgia for school and for CHW have already started to creep into my life. Simultaneously, I feel as though I’ve been away from school forever, yet also as if I’m still nineteen-years-old, just about to walk into Phillips Hall for the first time and take my first American Studies class with Bobby Allen all over again.

My time at the National Trust ends in early September, where I’ll fly to D.C. for a reunion with all of my incredible fellow roadies and (hopefully) celebrate the designation of Route 66 as a National Historic Trail. My next big adventure includes studying for the GRE and applying to graduate school — not nearly as glamorous as Route 66, but an endeavor I am pursuing with absolute certitude.

One of the greatest lessons I learned in my time as a student in the Department of American Studies and with the Community Histories Workshop is, “Dig where you are.” To me, the saying means: there is history in your town, your community, your life, and your world; go find it.

I carry this saying with me wherever I go, whether that be in the middle of Vega, Texas (pop. 826) as I sit with a woman and ask her about her father’s Route 66 tractor business; in New York City, when I’m hungry on a Tuesday night and have to choose between ordering in food or checking out a tavern next door at which George Washington once made a famous farewell speech; or in my new home in Colorado, where every town boasts its possession of the greatest something west of the Mississippi.

CHW and the Department of American Studies taught me to be attentive, to think critically, and to always ask, “What other stories are here that need to be shared?” Or, as Mary Oliver once said, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

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