On the Road with Colter Jacobsen


A Q&A with the San Diego-born artist who traveled by foot and train from San Francisco to San Diego to prepare for his first museum exhibition, currently on view at MCASD Downtown

MCASD: Could you tell us about your recent trip, from your longtime home of San Francisco to your first home in San Diego? What were your motivations for taking the trip?

COLTER JACOBSEN: For the last year or so I have had problems with my hands. I make a lot of drawings, so my hands are an essential part of my practice. I had to step back and take a hard look at the way I used my hands and my body really. I’d been reading about walking, from Thoreau’s essay on walking to Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust. So the itch to walk was there and though my hands weren’t in the best working order, my feet were in relatively good condition. Another thing that led to the decision to make the slow month-long approach to San Diego was an encounter with a placard I chanced upon at a rest stop near Mission San Miguel. It stated: the California Mission Trail stretches 600 miles from San Diego to Sonoma [essentially the distance of my own personal relocation]. Highway 101 roughly follows this original path known as El Camino Real, Spanish for “the Royal Road” or “the King’s Highway.” In 1906, the California Women’s Club unveiled the first of 450 roadside bells to commemorate the historic trail. Cast metal bells were hung on shepherd’s crooks or “Franciscan walking sticks.” I had never really thought about how the bells were adapted into the shepherd’s walking stick. And I found it poignant that the Women’s Club initiated them the same year as the Great Earthquake in San Francisco, which reminded me of the fault lines, much older paths that I followed along and that intersect El Camino Real. Also, before venturing out on the trip, I learned that the word “repair” means to return to one’s native land. It’s sort of the opposite of “au pair.” Of course, the purpose of the trip was not to hurt myself, and I did think of it as a sort of exercise in healing or repairing. So I chose to break up the walking with occasional train rides and sometimes local and regional buses. The primary point was slowness. I also like the idea that the train tracks—of which I often found myself walking along—lead straight to the Museum, which was once the old baggage claim to the downtown San Diego train station. I am definitely claiming my baggage in this show.

MCASD: Did you relate to people you met on the road?

CJ: I didn’t meet very many people. It was more of a lonely experience than I had anticipated, with the exception of people’s homes (friends and friends of friends) that I stayed with. I felt that because I had the look of a traveler, I was somewhat out of place. A person with a large backpack really stands out in places like the outskirts of San Jose or along the strawberry farms near Watsonville. I often felt eyed with suspicion by the homeless. The homeless could see that I wasn’t quite one of them while the people with homes and businesses thought I was possibly homeless. At least that’s how I felt I was being perceived. And to a certain extent, the “backpacker” was a costume I was wearing. Even fellow travelers who I might have met at hostels seemed to be in another time-zone that I wasn’t a part of. Perhaps if I had been hiking the Pacific Coast Trail I would’ve fit in a bit more. But I was very much interested in these between places, especially places that aren’t really made for walking.

MCASD: What were some of the more remarkable experiences you had while on the road?

CJ: I started out my trip by leaving from the Jack London Square train station in Oakland. I got there too early so I walked around the wharf and happened upon a statue of Jack London himself. I felt this was a good omen to begin the trip as I had just read his book, “The Road.”

Probably my best night was spent at La Purisima Mission State Historic Park. I had a miserable day of hiking into Lompoc with bad luck finding accommodations. I had read about an RV park not far from La Purisima Mission and so I started on the long walk from downtown Lompoc to the Mission. It turned out to be a much longer walk than I thought it would be and to make matters worse, I couldn’t find the RV park, walking several miles in the wrong direction. Road signs aren’t very efficient in those parts and I didn’t have an iPhone. I got to La Purisima Mission just when it closed around 6 PM. It’s a beautiful historic Mission with a working farm and behind it are many trails up into the mountains. I walked into the mountains and found a perfect meadow where I set up camp near a large oak tree with a canopy of long, haunted Spanish grass. Gradually the light left and the stars came out, with a minimal amount of light from the city of Lompoc on the horizon. It was a perfect evening, with the exception of a mouse that continually crawled atop my sleeping bag, and reoccurring loud sniffing sounds that caused me to jump up three times so that I might appear large in case the sniffing belonged to a mountain lion.

MCASD: Did you make artworks while traveling?

CJ: I collected a lot of stuff along the way, and I would try to make postcards or collages from these materials. I also collected things I didn’t know exactly what I would do with, like straws and cigarette butts, probably the two most frequent types of trash I encountered on the road (and funnily, two things you suck through). I sent postcards to the Museum and to friends and I kept a journal almost daily. However, it’s difficult to make art while traveling, especially after walking 13 to 15 miles a day.