In a different time, 34-year-old Tessa Hulls might simply be described as a Renaissance woman, but these days, it takes a lot of slashes to fully capture what she does and who she is. Most basically, you could call her an artist/writer/adventurer, but you'd be leaving out long-distance bike rider/painter/illustrator/comic/performer/lecturer. That last one — lecturer — is what brings her to mind at the moment; she's on tour with Humanities Washington, giving a talk on early 20th century female adventurers, and she's stopping in Spokane later this month.
We talked with her recently about her formative bike ride across America as well as her next adventure. (She's going into the woods this spring for a writing residency where she'll spend months alone in a cabin working on a book.) Our interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.
INLANDER: What compelled you to ride 5,000 miles from Southern California to Maine?
HULLS: I was really curious about my own country. Growing up on the West Coast — in Northern California — I was so used to hearing people speak disparagingly about the South, but nobody had ever been there. So I was really curious to see this swath of the country that I hadn't experienced before and I figured the best way to do that was at about 12 miles an hour. I was on the road for four months, and I only paid for a place to stay once because people just kept adopting me and bringing me in. So it was really this incredible experience of understanding what America meant to me, and it really made me fall in love with my own country.
Did that form the basis from which you developed this talk on solo women travellers?
Yeah, definitely. Even though the people that I met were incredibly generous and open, my day wasn't complete if somebody didn't tell me that a woman couldn't travel alone. So that was what gave me the seed to explore this line of questioning, thinking that that wasn't true, but bringing in these historical narratives as backup to say that. So what kind of began as a passionate frustration of research for myself has now become a really big part of what I do professionally.
How well does adventuring pay? How do you pull this nomadic existence off?
So there's a couple of ways that that balances. I work as a chef as my travel job. So I take cooking contracts all over the world and that's part of how I'm able to get paid to go explore places. So, I spent a number of seasons working at a wilderness lodge in Denali National Park, but the last couple of years, I've just been all-in on my creative life. ... I have pretty low overhead.
How have your solo adventures shaped your views on love and marriage?
That's a tricky one. I am really drawn to Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, with the idea that love is protecting someone else's solitude. So I think my notion of love definitely contains a lot of solitude. As for dating with the lifestyle that I have? That's an open-ended question that I don't have a good answer to.
What do you say to women who self-impose limits on their adventures for fear of their own safety?
Well, I think a lot of that is just a byproduct of growing up in a culture where women are told from such an early age to think about where they are and aren't safe. I think it's an organic transition to hear about what other women have done to enacting that in their own life. And I just encourage women to examine where their fear is coming from and to test limits. ♦
Tessa Hulls' talk, "She Traveled Solo: Strong Women in the Early 20th Century" • Free • Sat, March 23 at 7:30 pm • Spark Central • 1214 W. Summit Pkwy.