Thoughts on Theses: Caelen McQuilkin

Caelen McQuilkin ’24E is majoring in American Studies and English. In her thesis, she takes a deep dive into her home town of Lee Vining, California. Through over forty interviews with residents of the area, Caelen explores the process of documenting and sharing stories.

Thoughts on Theses: Caelen McQuilkin
Caelen McQuilkin ’24E smiling in Lee Vining. Photo courtesy of McQuilkin.

Caelen McQuilkin ’24E is majoring in American Studies and English. In her thesis, she takes a deep dive into her home town of Lee Vining, California. Through interviews with over forty residents of the area, Caelen explores the process of documenting and sharing stories.

Q: What does your thesis focus on?

A: My thesis is about the town of Lee Vining, California, [where I’m from]. It’s located in the high desert of eastern California, and my thesis is about people’s stories … different experiences in it, and beliefs about it … based on interviews. [Currently, the thesis highlights] around 40 people who have some kind of connection to the place … As I’ve worked on it, what I’ve come to learn is that it’s also a thesis about stories and how to share them … in a way that is positive and uplifting for the people that are telling them. I thought about that a lot while I was doing these interviews with people. A lot of them were family and friends, like coaches, neighbors — just a lot of people who I’ve known … but since it’s such a small town, with only around 300 people, a lot of the interviews felt more like conversations. I had questions, but it was also very unstructured — and I would kind of just ask people: ‘What do you want to share about your story in this town that you would want more people to know about?’

I then begin thinking about how you use those stories in a thesis. What does it mean that I’m using them in this academic context? Because I feel like oftentimes, that context tends to be a bit exploitative, and [consists] of … extracting from someone’s experience to fit into your research paper. Since I started the project, I’ve been trying to design it so that it is uplifting, helpful, and, honestly, just cool for the people it’s about, myself included.

A short summary of the thesis structure is that it’s going to be a traditional paper and a zine, or little booklet-type thing. The first and second chapters are my research, and it’s all  about context: my methods, research on community archive projects, research about memory and history and interviewing, the approaches to this type of work and its amazing power but potential issues. I’m also writing a historical chapter about the place that’s meant to disrupt this really glorifying narrative about the white gold miners and ranchers, and show that the history and meaning of this place extends far before their arrival. Then, the rest of the thesis is stories and quotes from interviews. Right now, I think I’m going to arrange them by location, like stories from the market, stories from the elementary school, and places like that. Because the stories are often tied to location, I think it’s cool to highlight how people experience these shared spaces differently and sometimes overlap. Then, another chapter of the thesis is going to be one that’s meant for sharing, and that’ll be the zine. It’s going to have one or two quotes from everyone and be much more digestible than a long essay. I’m going to share it with everyone I interviewed, other people from Lee Vining who are interested, and maybe even have it in the post office or market or something. The paper is also open for anyone to read, but since it’s just so long I feel like I want to make something that’s more fun and accessible for people.

By sharing, I hope that the thesis can help us be more curious about each other’s lives, and say something about the power of community and storytelling in a small, rural place. I want to respect the importance of other people’s stories and, through this project, uplift them using a printed format.

Q: Tell me a little bit more about your hometown.

A: The town is right on the line where desert turns to mountains and forests, so you get some of both. The area is the homelands of the Mono Lake Kootzaduka’a Tribe. Here, and throughout the broader region, there’s a lot of really important conversations about returning land back to Indigenous people and looking towards traditional ecological knowledge. The town itself is super small, around 300 people live there, and it’s very rural. The closest Target is, like, three hours away in Nevada. Lee Vining is also located at the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park, so the economy of this place pretty much runs on ecotourism — hotels, restaurants, things like that.

My story with the town is that my parents ended up both moving there for environmental-conservation-related jobs. In college, they took internships with the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] Forest Service and an environmental nonprofit called the Mono Lake Committee. They ended up deciding to stay, and so that’s why I ended up being born and raised in this place. There’s a pretty big population of people like my parents who are in the area for environmental stuff. But it’s also a really dynamic place …in that not everyone has the same story about why they’re there. There’s a lot of immigration to Lee Vining, primarily from Mexico.

Also, many people [who live in the town], probably the majority, work in service industry jobs like the hotels and restaurants. So this town has a lot of different people living all together. It’s taught me a lot about community and building connections with people who are different from you. But I also think this doesn’t go without there being tension and, honestly, violence in the place. There is a significant history of gold miners and ranchers dispossessing land from the Indigenous people, and the inequities and divisions of race and class that are really persistent today.  

Q: Tell me more about the people you interviewed.

A: I started with asking people who I thought would be interested in doing an interview, and those who I thought would enjoy getting to talk and reflect. I’ve also tried to really make sure that the interviews match the demographics of the town and that they highlight the different voices and groups that make it up. It’s not necessarily the most diverse place in terms of how many different people there are, but people often would think that these towns are all white or super conservative, yet it’s interesting to see that a lot of the places and towns around that area aren’t like that. So I wanted to make sure through the interviews that they didn’t just focus on one group or highlight one thing. I started out tending towards people my age, a lot of people I grew up with or went to highschool with, but then I started to branch out more.

I also wanted the interviews to be in comfortable settings. I interviewed people while we walked around the block of our neighborhood, while they were cooking, while we sat at a restaurant together. I even interviewed my kindergarten teacher in her classroom and we sat in the tiny kindergartener chairs, which are probably the same ones I used to sit in when I went to school in that classroom. Sometimes, I also interviewed people in groups, usually because they asked if that was possible, and we’d just talk for hours. A lot of the interviews included catching up on life with people I hadn’t been in touch with recently. I didn’t have one set list of questions, sometimes I’d ask similar ones, but usually I’d just see how the interview went and ask what people seemed passionate about sharing.

Q: Were there any particularly noteworthy stories people told you?

A: Yeah, there are so many. I think that in every interview, I learned something new, even about people that I know really well. There were always more stories from people’s lives that made me see the world in a new way. There’s a range of so many different things that people talked about: … what it’s like attending such a small school — the high school [in Lee Vining] has around 40 students. I graduated with six people. So that was really crazy. There were a lot of stories about playing sports, getting to know different people through school, and about what people learned there — like classes that we would take and what that looked like. And then there’s also a lot of fun,kind of random, but still really interesting, stories from people’s lives. Like ‘this is the corner where I would always slip on ice during the winter,’ or ‘this is where I first met my husband.’

People told stories about each other sometimes, like significant conversations that changed their lives, or times that neighbors really helped them out … Mixed into all those stories, and sometimes through those stories … are many … really salient themes.

One thing that has come up a lot is environmentalism and how it’s changing in this area. I think one really important thing to think about is the idea of environmental conservation, and the traditional ecological knowledge of Indigenous people in the area, and how both of those things interact. The Kootzaduka’a Tribe is working on a lot of different projects and initiatives that center their cultural and environmental knowledge. Some of the stories in the interviews are about this. Others get into the idea of ‘What might it look like to move away from the white environmentalism that looks to people like John Muir, and constructs wilderness as empty of people in order to erase Indigenous people? How can environmental organizations that are mainly run by white people reckon with those histories in their work and adjust their visions and priorities?’

Another big theme I see is labor, and work, and how that is one way of looking at these really big inequities that the town’s economic system kind of runs on. There are a lot of tourism-industry jobs where a lot of exploitation can happen. Many of the business owners in town are white, and it’s definitely this racialized thing. Another really important topic that comes up is the experiences of queer people in a rural small town. I heard stories of really hard experiences, and also some more hopeful ones, and all of it disrupts the idea that queerness only exists in metropolitan areas.

These are some examples. And I can’t really put any specific stories into my own words, so I’ll just say that they’ll be in my thesis, which I’m sharing with anyone who wants to read it in December. Because I think something that’s special about these stories is how they’re told into people’s different voices too, you know. And obviously, it can’t all come through on paper, but I like that you can hear the different ways that people decide to tell a story, or, what they choose to emphasize. Like some people would even tell some of the same stories, but say it differently, you know. So that’s something that I’m trying to think about: how to share and preserve that in written form.  

Q: How are you attempting to preserve the humanity of these stories?

A:  That’s a question that I’ve grappled with a lot, because I do think that at the end of the day, it’s not going to be the same as a completely natural conversation. Those conversations are ones I’ve been having for my whole life, and they inspired me to do this thesis. But I’ve realized that interviews aren’t necessarily equivalent. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into that. For one thing, sitting down to actually set up an interview with someone, having them sign the consent forms that I got through the IRB [Institutional Review Board] of Amherst, and recording them. It’s already a slightly different dynamic, and the way that people might tell a story is going to be different. And so I’m not trying to replicate conversations that I’ve had with people in Lee Vining. It’s more about, ‘How I can think about this thesis as a way to engage with those stories and with those ways of communicating that are already there, and already shaping this place and people’s lives in it? How can my thesis create a space and a way for people to continue sharing those stories?’ So I would say that writing these stories down on a paper isn’t even the ultimate goal. I think it’s part of a longer process that already exists, where people share these stories, build community, learn about each other’s lives, have conflicts, and learn to think about ourselves differently.

But I still hope humanity can show through in a written form. I do hear people’s voices in the interview transcripts. And another thing that I think might help add to this is including some stories of my own. I’m imagining that I might have kind of a second line of story in the endnotes at the thesis, where I will tell a short story about each person I interviewed, something that I have experienced with them. Like, this person stopped and gave me a ride to the store when I was trying to walk down the sidewalk on one of those days where it’s so windy that it feels like it’s blowing straight through you. Or, I sat with this person at the park for five hours until we got too cold last summer. Trying to give some more of those really rich details that make up a web of people and a community, and that surround all these stories even as they are pulled into a written format.

Q: What made you choose to write about a topic that literally hits so close to home?

A: I’ve learned so much from this place. One time one of my friends said that she feels like people there just have really big hearts. And I think that is so true. I’ve learned so much about generosity and care and love from living in Lee Vining. I wanted to share that with people, but I knew that I couldn’t do it through my story alone, so I decided to talk to other people.

And so I think if your thesis is supposed to be a way of going back and thinking about what you’ve learned in college and using some of those skills, I was like, of course it has to be about Lee Vining, because it’s been so related to what I’ve thought about being at Amherst. When I learned a new term in class, I would often think of how I’ve seen that happening in my life or in somebody’s life, at home. So I think that was an idea that I just wanted to explore more. And I think also, through writing for The Amherst Student here, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways that sharing stories and documenting stories through a written format can help amplify people’s voices, and help bring more solidarity to those issues. Or even if it’s not necessarily like an issue — even if it’s just someone’s experience of living in this place, I think that’s worth listening to and writing down. And I also just love talking to people. I’ve been interviewing people from my town for a while because I’ve worked in the newspaper there too. And throughout my time living there, I would see examples of how sometimes finding those written forms of sharing things can be really cool.

In my high school, there was this newspaper article from the Los Angeles Times that hung in the office. I would always go in there — and it was this article that was written, I think, in 2006 about some sports teams at the high school — and every time I went into the office to print something or go ask a question, I would see that article hanging up on the wall. It was this really cool thing where they interviewed a bunch of people from the sports teams and the coaches, and they were like, ‘This town has 300 people, and they have these really good sports teams.’ But I always just saw that. And I think, maybe subconsciously, it made me think that, when done in a way that’s collaborative and respectful of people, sharing stories in a written and more public format can be really cool. It can be a really awesome thing to see your words shared with more people, and that’s part of why I’ve liked doing journalism and writing too.

The other reason I chose to write about Lee Vining is because it helped me sort through a lot of questions I was having about the place, my place in it, and people’s different experiences in it. One of the most important things I’ve learned in the last few years is that loving a place means hating it sometimes, too, or at least pointing to its worst flaws and trying to change them. I want to get better at doing that in Lee Vining. When I was younger, I cared for the place in a way that when people would say bad stuff about it I would feel offended almost. I think that comes from a very privileged place where I didn’t experience a lot of the pain and really hard experiences that come with this place. So I’m trying to think about how I can be a better person, how I can be a better friend or neighbor, for all these people I interviewed. For my community.

Q: What do you want your thesis’ impact to be?

A: I think the idea with the zine part is to have something that can be passed around between people to give to everybody who I interviewed, maybe even to have in some of the stores or in the library in Lee Vining. My hope is that people can read it and feel like their voice is well reflected. And I also think it would make people happy to share around. A lot of people actually shared stories about each other, and they highlight how much we can change each other’s lives in positive ways when you’re in this really tight-knit community. Another part is, hopefully, to push people to have some more empathy and think about what other people’s different experiences look like in the place. You can really fall into this narrative of “this town is so small and people overlap, so we really moved past a lot of the divisions that are really only issues in big cities.” But I think a lot of the systemic issues that we talk about show up in [Lee Vining] too. So in helping us reckon with the problems in this town, maybe I also hope that these stories can lead to more solidarity and change.

The other part of my answer is that it’s very much for people who aren’t from the place. I or anybody who happens to pick it up when they’re passing through, will stop and consider people’s lives in this place. Because it’s so close to Yosemite, sometimes people see the town as a pit stop on their road trip or just a place to stay the night before driving into the park. I think it would be really good for people to stop and consider the land they’re on, the people who work in all the industries serving them, the stories of this place they happen to be staying in.

Q: What obstacles have you faced while writing your thesis?

A: I think one, and this is the more basic answer, is just trying to actually stay organized with all the information. Right now, I have around 40 interviews, and that has meant that it’s over 300 single spaced pages of just transcripts of interviews.

The other, bigger part of my answer, is that I don’t want the project to just capitalize on other people’s stories for my own benefit. Because, at the end of the day, I am turning this in as credit for me graduating from Amherst. I know that dynamic is part of it, and so I think I’m always just trying to really interrogate how this is something that is helpful for the people that I interviewed. How can my project be something that engages with people and their stories, and kind of points to them as a jumping off point for more of that kind of thing, rather than sort of trying to capture it, and then just turn it in? I think one example of that is that when I initially started this project, I thought that it’d be a bit more of an ethnography style thing, where I was going to do all the interviews, and put them in conversation with a bunch of academic texts about some of the themes that came up in the interviews. But then I began to question whether or not that was helpful for who I interviewed. People already understand their lives and what’s going on in them. Having an academic term for it doesn’t make it any more real. I think it’s more helpful to create a space for sharing those stories and thoughts as they are, creating a project that will help us remember them as a community. And I guess that’s ultimately the goal of my thesis. I thought maybe it’d be better to actually just let the stories have a bit more of their own space — to let them speak for themselves, you know what I mean?