I think it’s pretty apparent to everyone–in and outside of the field of history–that I have a slight obsession with my dissertation topic. As an aspiring academic, I spend my days researching and creating historical data sets on loyalists. As a regular (ha!) person I spend my evenings and weekends going to historic sites and figuring out ways I can turn my vacations (also, ha!) into research trips. There isn’t a waking moment that I’m not thinking about my work, whether it’s actually working on my dissertation or watching TV and having anxiety over whether or not I should be watching TV when there is a dissertation to be written. I’ve been teased relentlessly for the better part of a decade for my enthusiasm. The most popular meme to be posted on my Facebook wall (outside of pugs) is this:
While I love my dissertation topic, sometimes sitting in front of a computer for hours on end and staring at the hundreds of miles of documents I’ve collected over the years can be a bit intimidating. How am I going to finish this on time? Am I going to miss something obvious and look like a fool? Man those are a lot of datasets I’m about to make. Is this going to work? In the words of John Adams in 1776 the Musical, “Is there anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?” If you’ve ever been in the dissertation phase, then you understand how even the most enthusiastic could be crippled by impostor syndrome and/or just being overwhelmed in general. I am determined to not become a statistic.
In order to keep myself motivated I realized that I needed to go back to some of my roots and remember that there used to be a Stephanie before I started all of these different degree programs. Growing up in Mississippi I was raised by a man who loved to get lost–on purpose. When school was out, Mom was busy, and Dad had errands to run, that meant that I got to have an adventure. I would get in Dad’s 1987 GMC (who we referred lovingly to as “Bessie”), with a watermelon Slush Puppy and ride all of the back roads of our community and southern Louisiana. Some of my best memories were sitting with my Dad, listening to stories of his childhood, with the windows rolled down and classic rock blaring in the background.
When I moved to Virginia I was lucky that my friend Travis Shaw had the same love for getting lost. We would take one day a week–Nerd’s Day Thursday– and ride around Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia looking for obscure historic sites. Windows rolled down and all. The Blue Ridge area I live in is not only covered in historic sites, but gorgeous geography that’s perfect for just staring at the window and daydreaming about absolutely nothing. Transitioning from the backwoods of Mississippi to being 45 minutes outside of D.C. was not the easiest. This throwback to my favorite childhood activity certainly helped ease homesickness. It’s also the only way I survived my first data class. However, after I transitioned the Nerd’s Day Thursdays stopped and I got knee deep in all of my work and research. Like a good grad student! Also, while Travis is a super cool Rev historian he is a man of many of hats and has an epic Civil War blog. Shameless plug, here.
A few weeks ago my adorable, yet unreasonably persistent husband decided we were going to take a Sunday morning drive to Warrenton so he could have a puck signed by two Washington Capitals at some car dealership event. I love me some Caps, but waiting in line on a Sunday morning in 32-degree windy weather is not my idea of a good time. While we don’t have a tit-for-tat relationship, he owed me big time on this one. After his puck was signed we headed back home and I decided that we were going to defy Google Maps and get lost. The area around Warrenton and Fauquier county is so beautiful and we were rarely in the area, so I decided we needed to explore what the region had to offer.
I’m not actually sure how we got home a lengthy three hours later, but along the way we saw dozens of historical markers and tiny communities we had no idea existed. The most inspiring place we somehow stumbled upon was Delaplane. One of the most memorable Civil War lectures I ever listened to was given by Susannah Ural when I was a MA student at Southern Miss. She’s the best lecturer when it comes to verbal imagery. She told us all about Piedmont Station and how Confederate troops were immediately put on a train (here) and jumped off at Manassas with zero time to compose themselves before walking right into a battle. And sure enough. Here I was–at Delaplane for no reason what so ever. It was glorious. The next day I finished all of my remaining dissertation data sets, high on history. I think I figured out what makes me productive… #wanderlust.
Both Ashton and I have decided that one day a week for the next year (within reason) to put the books and responsibilities away to get lost in Virginia for inspiration. How romantic. This is one of the best parts of living in the area that I study. We want to see and take a picture with all 1000+ historical markers across the state. Do you know where John Wilkes Booth got shot? Right next to James Madison’s childhood home. How do we know that? Because on our way back from Williamsburg we decided to get lost on highway 17. We had no idea that Chesty Puller was buried in the middle of Saluda, Virginia. To my Marine husband’s delight, we saw it in our latest copy of Virginia’s Historical Markers and tracked it down. It’s 10 years out of date, but still great! So far we’ve taken pictures with 73 of these markers. We have a long way to go before we hit them all, but my productivity level is at an all-time high. All of those fears about being an impostor and whether or not I’m going to finish on time are being defeated on a weekly basis. As we go and take pictures of all of these incredible places, we will also create a map of all the signs we are able to find. So if you ever decide you want to take a crazy adventure around a random county in Virginia, we will have you covered!
If you are interested in some of the historical markers in Virginia, please visit Marker History for an updated list. You never know what incredible historic sites could be in your own backyard. I highly suggest an Aerosmith playlist and a watermelon Slush Puppy.