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Designing Retracement: Evaluating National Historic Trails as artifact, strategy, and experiment in flow


This dissertation investigates the concept of cultural routes, how they are planned, designed and developed as a unique type of landscape-based memorial/narrative project, and, as they ultimately present a possibility of travel, what sort of experience in mobility they afford a user. Cultural routes, taken globally, represent a broad and diffuse field of scholarship and an even broader physical setting. Therefore, this work considers specifically the case of cultural routes projects of the US National Park Service (NPS), the National Historic Trails System. The nineteen such National Historic Trails (NHT) in the NPS portfolio represent more than 37,500 miles of linear territory and are overseen by multiple US governmental agencies and citizen interest groups. However, the NHT are most often invisible to the eye and only loosely understood insofar as how this immense undertaking and those who “use” them are to activate the landscapes at hand. Almost no scholarship exists to look directly at the NHT despite their clear investment in the overlapping fields of landscape and public history.

This dissertation first attempts to situate the NHT within larger, established frames: the landscape Picturesque, pilgrimage and the anthropology of tourism, historical retracement, and the advent of neoliberal dynamics in historic narrative creation and the institutional approach to landscape and meaning-making. To draw these investigations together, an overarching theoretical framework of mobility geography emerges: the NHT are an unseen provider of a specific type of mobility. Therefore, in order to both test and synthesize the NHT, the aforementioned historical interrogations serve as a foundation for an experimental-method-driven attempt to capture the mobile experience.

In addition to a utilization of traditional methods of landscape history, this project proposes and reflexively tests its own experimental method, “hodology.” A convergence of other tools available for the research of cultural landscape phenomena, drawing from mobility geography, anthropology of pilgrimage, tourism and embedded ethnography, hodology goes one step further by integrating emerging geolocation technologies while simultaneously considering their own role in the design and experience of the NHT themselves.

The resulting research draws together disparate chapters in landscape history to reveal of what NHT are actually comprised. The synthesis offered by the hodological analysis builds upon this and represents a preliminary effort in capturing what the NHT offer as a mobility. However, operating within a wider gap in scholarship, it is the critique of this new method that serves as a building block for further focus and study, applicable to the expanding field of cultural route study and design. Critically, hodology places landscape architecture in a central position with respect to this field and its overlap with mobility geography.

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