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Six Places to Spot the World's Most Breathtaking Sand Dunes

Smithsonian Magazine

Windswept and rippled, sand dunes are some of the most magical places on the planet. Just a simple shift in wind direction can transform these majestic mountains into an entirely different landscape from one day to the next. Those very same wind gusts are what create a dune’s tell-tale waves—and help them form in the first place. The result is as beautiful and mysterious as the desert itself.

Dunes are rare environments in more ways than one: Because of their constant evolution, few species can survive in such a harsh environment, and the ever-changing phenomenon makes up just 20 percent of the Earth’s deserts. Each sand dune is unique, ranging in height from a few feet to taller than most skyscrapers and falling on a color spectrum that includes white, red and tan. And they're not just to be found in the Sahara Desert. Here are a few of the world's best dunes:

Huacachina, Peru

Image by javarman3 / iStock. Hucachina oasis in sand dunes (original image)

Image by DC_Colombia / iStock. Huacachina Oasis (original image)

Image by OSTILL / iStock. Huacachina lagoon (original image)

Image by nicolasdecorte / iStock. Oasis in Huacachina (original image)

Image by Zaharov / iStock. Huacachina oasis and sand dunes (original image)

Dune buggy driving and sandboarding are two popular pastimes for visitors to Huacachina, a small village punctuated by sand dunes that’s located 200 miles south of Lima, Peru. According to legend, the hamlet’s oasis formed after a local princess was arrested for bathing in its waters. As she fled, her billowing gown turned into the towering dunes that encircle what is really a naturally formed lake. During the first half of the 20th century, Huacachina, which the locals call the “Oasis of America,” was a luxurious getaway for the wealthy thanks to the supposedly healing properties of its sulfur-rich waters. Today, a boardwalk and shady palm and carob trees surround the water along with several bars and restaurants, making the oasis a welcoming sight after a day in the desert.

Badain Jaran Dunes, Mongolia/China

Image by gionnixxx / iStock. Lake in Badain Jaran desert (original image)

Image by gionnixxx / iStock. Badain Jaran desert (original image)

Image by gionnixxx / iStock. Badain Jaran Temple stupa (original image)

Image by gionnixxx / iStock. Badain Jaran Temple (original image)

Image by gionnixxx / iStock. Dunes reflecting on salt lake (original image)

If you’re quiet enough, you might hear the shifting sands of Badain Jaran Desert. Called “booming dunes” or “singing sands,” the dunes actually moan. Scientists believe this phenomenon is due to seismic waves, which result in a low-pitched rumble that can sound different depending on the dune. This 19,300-square-mile desert stretches between Mongolia and China and is considered a subsection of the Gobi Desert, and one of the best places in the world to witness the singing sands. Some of its dunes are the tallest in the world, with a few peaking at 1,600 feet, about 100 feet taller than the Empire State Building.

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Image by SumikoPhoto / iStock. White Sands National Monument (original image)

Image by RobertWaltman / iStock. White Sands National Monument (original image)

Image by SumikoPhoto / iStock. White Sand Dunes at sunrise (original image)

Image by pmphoto / iStock. White Sands National Monument (original image)

Image by bkkm / iStock. Pink wildflower at White Sands National Monument (original image)

Some 10,000 years ago, the first hunter-gatherers arrived in what is today White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico to hunt mammoth. Although now the likelihood of stumbling across one of these massive mammals is zero, visitors can still spot traces of the area’s prehistoric past in the preserved tracks left behind by the prehistoric herbivores. Scientists believe that the area, which was once a 1,600-square-mile body of water called Lake Otero, may represent the largest concentration of Pleistocene tracks in the country. As the lake dried up, it left behind the Tularosa Basin, home to White Sands, a 275-square-mile national monument defined by its glistening, snow-white dunes and famous for being the largest gypsum dunefield in the world.

Simpson Desert, Australia

Image by TonyFeder / iStock. Simpson Desert dune (original image)

Image by robbcox / iStock. Simpson Desert (original image)

Image by JurgaR / iStock. Simpson Desert (original image)

Image by TonyFeder / iStock. The Simpson Desert (original image)

Image by TonyFeder / iStock. Ruin in the Simpson Desert (original image)

Located smack in the center of Australia, the Simpson Desert stretches approximately 55,000 square miles across some of the remotest parts of the continent in an area that went from being a glacier to a sea to a series of lakes. It’s so desolate that the first European explorer to even recognize its existence was Charles Sturt in 1845—more than 200 years after the first Europeans began to explore the continent. Over the years, this desert, whose sand ranges in color from soft pinks to deep reds, has received more traffic and is a popular destination for hikers. Despite its location in one of the driest regions in the world, Simpson Desert is home to a wide array of wildlife. Birds, amphibians, fish and reptiles all live in the stands of vegetation that punctuate the otherwise barren landscape—a hint that the desert is located on one of the largest interior drainage basins in the world.

Little Sahara Recreation Area, Utah

Little Sahara in Utah is a popular place for hiking, camping and trail riding. There's also a designated "sand box" for kids to play in. (Scott T. Smith/Corbis)

Although practically the size of a postage stamp when compared to the Sahara Desert, which sprawls 3.6-million square miles, this 124-square-mile desert located about 100 miles south of Salt Lake City is one of Utah’s largest dune fields. Little Sahara formed as the result of sand deposits left behind by the Sevier River, which once flowed to an ancient body of water called Lake Bonneville. Strong prevailing winds helped shift the sands into dunes. Although dune buggies are permitted—one dune tops out at 700 feet—Little Sahara also contains a 9,000-acre, vehicle-free zone that’s a prime spot to see mule deer, antelope, reptiles and other fauna in their natural habitat.

Great Dune of Pyla, France

Image by Horst Gerlach / iStock. Dune of Pyla (original image)

Image by AgenceAnotherOne / iStock. Dune of Pyla (original image)

Image by -lvinst- / iStock. Dune of Pyla (original image)

Image by ruivalesousa / iStock. Dune of Pyla (original image)

Image by dvoevnore / iStock. Dune of Pyla (original image)

Located about 40 miles southwest of Bordeaux in France, the Great Dune of Pyla (also known as Dune du Pilat) is Europe's tallest sand dune, reaching more than 350 feet in height. What makes it stand out from other dunes around the world is its location, which drops steeply into the Bay of Arcachon. Over the years the massive dune, which stretches 546 yards in width, has been migrated away from the water and is overtaking the adjacent forest. Every year it moves back three to 16 feet and is continuing to shift. Scientists believe that maritime winds are to blame.

A Maze of Palatial Icebergs Has Floated Into a Washington, D.C. Museum

Smithsonian Magazine

In the past few decades, icebergs have become a kind of potent visual metaphor for the threats posed by climate change. The ice dwindles while world leaders debate what should be done.

To the curious general public, however, how climate change affects icebergs and what that means can seem abstract. That's why the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. will offer a chance to visit an iceberg this summer. Fortunately, a harrowing helicopter ride isn't needed.

"Icebergs," an installation designed by the New York-based landscape architecture and urban design firm James Corner Field Operations, is an artistic interpretation of the underwater world of a glacial ice field. From July 2 through September 5, visitors will be able to explore underwater caves and grottos, and climb up a 56-foot-tall "bergy bit" to peer above the waterline—created by a suspended blue mesh bisecting the installation.

"What we are trying to do is create a very unique experience for the museum visitors, where they are able to immerse themselves in a landscape," says Isabel Castilla, a senior associate with James Corner and the project manager for "Icebergs."

The installation is intended to be a fun, family-oriented space to explore, with a mix of open spaces for gatherings of large groups of people and enclosures where a couple of people can chat more intimately. There will be a kiosk selling refreshments, a labyrinth for children to play and a slide providing a quick ride down from one of the icebergs. It is also a space for learning about the science surrounding icebergs. Ideally, the artificial icebergs will help visitors grasp what is happening to real icebergs at the planet's poles.

The firm studied photographs and research papers to understand icebergs. "We really got very involved in the iceberg world," Castilla says. "It is not something you know as much about as say, a forest ecosystem or a river." That deep delve into an icy world of glaciers gave Castilla and her colleagues a wealth of "ideas about design, color and light." They ended up choosing to work with materials they had never worked with before. The towering, pyramidal icebergs they created are built of reusable materials, such as polycarbonate paneling, a type of corrugated plastic often used in greenhouse construction.

Ironically, the National Building Museum's construction team recommended adding better ventilation to the largest icebergs, since they were so good at trapping heat inside, museum vice president of marketing Brett Rodgers says. These bergs won't melt, but visitors might've.

This map of depths in the southern Atlantic and Southern Ocean near the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia Island shows tracks for two icebergs in red. (From Journal of Glaciology, Scambos, T et al, 2008)

Another part of the installation features facts about icebergs printed on the bergs themselves. "[An] iceberg known as B15 was the largest iceberg in history, measuring 23 by 183 miles, nearly the size of Connecticut," details one of the factoids. "If melted, the B15 iceberg could fill Lake Michigan, or 133.7 million National Building Museums."

Scientists are still learning about the factors at play in and around icebergs. Researchers like Ted Scambos take extraordinary risks to study the masses and examine what their role is in the Earth's complicated ecosystem. In 2006, Scambos, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado, and his team sailed on the icebreaker ship A.R.A. Almirante Irizar to take them close to an iceberg measuring roughly seven by six miles and towering more than 100 feet above the sea surface. There, they climbed aboard a military-style helicopter. Their goal was to set foot on the iceberg, place a group of scientific instruments and then remotely track the berg's movement as it floated north to disintegrate.

But on March 4, 2006, "the light over the huge, very smooth berg was almost hopelessly flat—no features at all, like flying over an infinite bowl of milk," wrote Scambos in a research log for the mission at NSIDC's website.

How could the pilot land the team in those conditions? Throwing a small smoke bomb to the surface provided a point of reference, but it wasn't enough. During the first approach, the pilot couldn't quite judge the helicopter’s angle and one of the landing skids struck the iceberg's surface. "The massive helicopter staggered like a lumbering beast that had tripped," Scambos recalls. Fortunately, the pilot was able to recover, throw another smoke bomb and land safely.

Scambos and his team's measurements would provide them with information about how icebergs move and melt, a proxy for how the great Antarctic ice sheet may melt as the climate changes and global temperatures warm. For the scientists, the risk was well worth the opportunity to contribute to the collective knowledge about how ocean levels may rise and endanger coastal cities.

Scambos has seen how a melting iceberg leaves a trail of freshwater in its wake. As the ice sheet that gave birth to the berg moved over the Antarctic continent, it picked up dirt and dust rich in minerals like iron. When the traveling iceberg carries those nutrients out into the ocean, they nourish the water and provoke a bloom of marine algae. The algae in turn are gobbled by microscopic animals and small fish, which feed larger animals such as seals and whales. An iceberg creates its own ecosystem.

"They are really interesting in their own right," Scambos says. "It is an interaction between ocean and ice." He says he's glad that the installation will give the public a way to learn about icebergs.

For example, physical forces can act on icebergs in surprising ways. Scambos and the team described some of these movements after tracking the iceberg they nearly crash-landed on and other icebergs. The data they gathered allowed them to describe the dance of those huge but fragile plates of ice across the ocean in a paper published in the Journal of Glaciology.

Icebergs are steered by currents and wind, but a major influence on their movements that came as surprise to the scientists was the push and pull of the tides. The ebb and flow of the Earth's tides actually tilts the ocean surface into a gentle slope—a difference of just a few feet over 600 miles or so. An iceberg drifting out to sea inscribes curlicues and pirouettes on this inclined surface.

Some of the counterintuitive tracks that icebergs take has to do with their shape. Even though Antarctic icebergs are sometimes hundreds of feet thick, their wide expanse makes them thin in comparison to their volume. Scambos likens them to a thin leaf that drifts across the surface of the ocean.

(In Greenland and other locations in the Arctic, icebergs tend to be smaller chunks, as they break off from glaciers that aren't as large as the Antarctic ice sheet. In "Icebergs," the mountain-like constructions are inspired by Arctic, rather than Antarctic, bergs.)

Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. Researchers and crew load up the helicopter used to take Ted Scambos and the team to an iceberg in Antarctica. (original image)

Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. The team leaves the icebreaker ship behind and sets out over the iceberg. (original image)

Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. A view from the helicopter window of the edge of an iceberg. (original image)

Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. Scambos (foreground) and the team set up scientific instruments and cameras on top an iceberg. Thanks to the timing of the good weather window, they had to spend the night on the iceberg. (original image)

Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. The sunset on an iceberg, with a sled carrying RADAR equipment in the foreground. (original image)

Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. Another view of the edge of a large iceberg (original image)

Eventually, every iceberg's dance stops. Warm air flowing across the surface of the iceberg gives rise to ponds of meltwater that trickle down into ice cracks created by stresses when the berg was part of the larger ice sheet. The weight of liquid water forces the cracks apart and leads to the rapid disintegration of the iceberg.

The instrument station on the first iceberg toppled over into slush and meltwater in early November 2006, about eight months after Scambos and the team installed it. On November 21, GPS data showed the station "teetering on the edge of the crumbling iceberg," according to the NSIDC. Then it fell into the sea.

Watching the breakup of the icebergs taught Scambos and the other researchers about how ice shelves could collapse. "Within a year or so, we can see the equivalent of decades of evolution in a plate of ice that stays next to Antarctica and all the processes that are likely to occur," Scambos says.

As the ice shelf slides off the coast of Antarctica—a natural process that happens sort of like a tube of toothpaste being squeezed, but instead of a giant hand at work, the sheet moves thanks to its own weight—the ice braces against the rocky islands it encounters. When icebergs move and melt away, the movement of the glaciers that feed the ice shelf can accelerate and squeeze out more ice into the ocean to melt.

Scientists have estimated that an iceberg's lifetime from when snow first falls on a glacial field and is compressed to ice to when that ice melts into ocean can take as long as 3,000 years. Global climate change could speed that timeline up, ultimately sending more water into the oceans than is able to fall again as snow.

That's heavy information to absorb at a fun summer exhibit like "Icebergs," but the designers hope that the theme will seem natural . "We were designing the exhibit with the mission to speak to the general public about the built environment and the science," Castilla says. The icebergs are intended to be beautiful and simple, while still showcasing how the materials and shapes come together to create a useable space. In the same way, the science behind icebergs and climate change should emerge through the exhibit's educational facts and lectures on the subject of climate change.

After all, climate change is increasingly a part of everyday life. "It's less news and more something we are always aware of," says Castilla.

To Bear Witness to Japanese Internment, One Artist Self-Deported Himself to the WWII Camps

Smithsonian Magazine

For many, Isamu Noguchi is the guy who invented the classic mid-century coffee table— the one with the heavy glass and elegantly curved wood base that’s part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and coveted by design addicts around world. Noguchi is indeed a design icon and is also considered one of the most influential artists in the United States. What’s lesser known is that during World War II, Noguchi voluntarily interned himself to try to improve conditions for his fellow Japanese-Americans, despite being personally exempt because he lived on the East Coast.

This February marks 75 years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcing those of Japanese ethnicity on the West Coast to inland relocation centers for the duration of the war. Two-thirds of people sent to these camps were American citizens. They were given only a few days to settle affairs— close their businesses, sell their homes— and gather the personal items they could carry.

Signed nearly two months after Pearl Harbor, Executive Order 9066 is a painful blight on America’s democracy, the epitome of a dark period of xenophobia and racism. Deemed a threat to national security, nearly 110,000 Japanese-Americans — including infants and children— were evacuated from their homes, confined by barbed wire and guarded at gun point in one of ten internment camps, across seven states.

Later that year, Noguchi, at the time an established artist who had already built the iconic News sculpture on the façade of 50 Rockefeller Center, then “the Associated Press building,” met with John Collier, the head of the National Office of Indian Affairs, and ended up admitting himself to the Poston War Relocation Center in southwestern Arizona. (With over 18,000 inhabitants, Poston was situated on a Colorado Tribe Indian reservation under Collier’s jurisdiction.) Noguchi was hoping to contribute meaningfully to the plight of Japanese-Americans through the social power of art and design— in his own words, to “willfully become part of humanity uprooted.” He proposed teaching traditional Japanese craft, and suggested designs for several parks, gardens and cemeteries in the camps. After all, nobody knew how long the war or the camps would last.

At first, writes biographer Hayden Herrara in Listening To Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi, the artist was “enthralled with Poston’s vast barren landscape” and “became a leader of forays into the desert to find ironwood roots for sculpting.”

But as the weeks went on, the broader social purpose of his internment did not go as planned. Art materials for his ceramics, clay and wood working classes never arrived; he wasn’t able to execute any of the public spaces he designed.  And when Noguchi applied to leave (since he had volunteered to enter), camp officials initially denied his request due to “suspicious activities.” 

This week, to coincide with the anniversary of EO 9066, the museum devoted to Noguchi’s career is opening Self-Interned, exploring the artist’s complex decision to enter Poston, where he lived from May to November of 1942.

“We don’t want to give the impression that Noguchi’s story is representative of the Japanese-American experience during internment,” says Dakin Hart, a senior curator at the Noguchi Museum.  After all, he chose his internment. According to Herrera’s biography, the other prisoners didn’t feel they had much in common with him, a famous Manhattan artist. “But his experience is prismatic,” Hart adds. “And of course, things changed for Noguchi once he was there and he couldn’t easily leave.”

“Noguchi was an intense patriot,” Hart says. “But a patriot of humanity first, of the planet and the global community.” In many ways, his personal story is one of profoundly typical “Americanness” that crisscrosses cultures and the country’s physical landscape. Born in Los Angeles to a Brooklynite mother and a father who was an itinerant, Japanese poet, Noguchi attended middle and high school in La Porte, Indiana, and is, in Hart’s description, “a true Hoosier,” in the old-fashioned sense of being “self-reliant and inclined toward efficiencies.” At that time, he went by the “Americanized” name “Sam” Gilmour (after his mother’s family). Biographies describe Noguchi’s middle-class teen years as fairly typical, complete with the requisite all-American, paper route. In these ways, World War II, Hart explains, was emotionally shattering because it pitted the two halves of his identity against each other as they committed the most “inhumane conceivable things to one another”

Image by ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/ARS. Photograph by Kevin Noble. Doorway, Isamu Noguchi, 1964, stainless steel (original image)

Image by ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/ARS. Photograph by Kevin Noble. Mother and Child, Isamu Noguchi, 1944–47, Onyx (original image)

Image by ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/ARS. Photograph by Kevin Noble. Double Red Mountain, Isamu Noguchi, 1969, Persian red travertine on Japanese pine (original image)

Image by ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/ARS. Photograph by Kevin Noble. Poston Park and Recreation Areas at Poston, Isamu Noguchi, Arizona, 1942, blueprint (original image)

Image by ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/ARS. Photograph by Kevin Noble. Untitled, Isamu Noguchi, 1943, wood, string (original image)

Image by ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/ARS. Photograph by Kevin Noble. Lily Zietz, Isamu Noguchi, 1941, plaster (original image)

In addition to sculptural work, Self-Interned presents documents from mailing lists and activist groups that Noguchi collected, explains Hart. “From these written materials, what you realize is the fundamental presumption [by government authorities] that someone of Japanese heritage was not part of the American community,” he says.  It was this built-in assumption of guilt or “pernicious otherness” that struck Noguchi from 3,000 miles away in New York. (The Smithsonian American Art Museum is currently exhibiting a retrospective of Noguchi's career.)

Noguchi is certainly the most famous Japanese-American to create art under these bleak conditions. But there is a wider body of work salvaged from internment camps— a testament to the power of art’s transcendence and dignity in times of extreme hardships. For example, a 2011 Smithsonian America Art Museum exhibition at the Renwick gallery, guest-curated by Delphine Hirasuna and based on her book, The Art of Gaman, displayed more than 120 objects—teapots, furniture, toys, pendants and musical instruments— made by Japanese-Americans, from 1942 to 1946, out of scraps and materials they found in captivity. And in 2015, The Art of Gaman traveled to Houston’s Holocaust Museum. Remarkably, Jews under some of history’s most inhumane conditions were still secretly painting and drawing in the ghettos and in concentration camps. Last winter, the German Historical Museum exhibited 100 pieces of art created by Jews amidst the Holocaust from the collection of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. Many of the mages evoke an alternative world, evidence of unimaginable strength and spirit in the face death and torture.

While at Poston, Noguchi was also helping to organize a retrospective of his work with the San Francisco Museum of Art (the predecessor of today’s SFMOMA). The exhibit opened in July 1942, with the artist still confined to an internment camp and San Francisco, as Hart explains, in the grips of “widespread racist paranoia that sanctioned such abominations as the sale of ‘Jap hunting’ licenses.” After Pearl Harbor, some of the museum debated whether to continue with the exhibit. Perhaps most moving, in a letter to the museum’s board of trustees, museum director Grace McCann Morley wrote, “The cultural and racial mixture which is personified by Noguchi is the natural antithesis of all the tenants of the axis of power.”

“The new arrivals keep coming in,” wrote Noguchi in an unpublished Poston essay. “Out of the teeming buses stumble men, women, children, the strong, the sick, the rich, the poor…They are fingerprinted, declare their loyalty, enlist in the war Relocation Work Corps…and are introduced to their new home, 20 x 25 feet of tar paper shack, in which they must live for the duration five to a room.”

In the 21st century, art is too often thought ancillary or supplementary—a by-product of society’s comfort and safety. And thus, art objects lose their rightful consequence. Paintings become pretty pictures; sculptures are merely decorative or ornamental. But Self-Interned reminds viewers that art is about survival. Artists always create, even when the rules of civil society are suspended and things fall apart around them (perhaps then, only more so). They do it to bear witness, as Holocaust archivists describe, and to give their communities hope and nobility with creativity and aesthetic beauty, no matter how much their government or neighbors have betrayed them. Decades later, sculptures like Noguchi’s from this period especially, show us humanity’s common threads, which history shows inevitably slip from our collective memory.

Ultimately, this is the power of Self-Interned. It is successful as both an ambitious art exhibition and a cautionary tale amidst modern-day discussions of a registry of Muslim immigrants. There may always be hatred and fear of ‘the other,’ but there will also be artists who manage to create things of beauty— to elevate us from our surroundings and remind us of our sameness— when we need it most.     

Faces From Afar: Through Wild Desert and Urban Shantytowns, Two Men Walk the Baja Peninsula

Smithsonian Magazine

Justin DeShields (left) and Bryan Morales, shown near of the Santo Tomas Valley, are venturing north to south down the Baja California peninsula. The Californians have gone about one-third of the way since early February. All photos courtesy of Justin DeShields.

“Faces From Afar” is an ongoing series in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at

The desert is simple, honest and frank. It is sparse and stoic, both patient and demanding, and something about this unforgiving environment continually draws people from comfortable, well-watered places into its dangerous heart. Compelled by this old attraction, two young Americans departed in early February on one of the most ambitious walks they will probably ever take, through some of the most barren, the most beautiful and—lately—the most misunderstood land south of the Mexico-U.S. border: Baja California.

Justin DeShields, 26, and Bryan Morales, 25, departed San Diego on February 2. They crossed the border and immediately entered Tijuana, where the two travelers, who had been thinking logistically about desert survival for months, found themselves in a landscape blistered by traffic, freeways and urban shantytowns. They walked parallel to the border westward to the beach, where they officially began their walk. Their plan: to journey unassisted by motor vehicles all the way to the peninsula’s southernmost tip before June. DeShields, a documentary filmmaker who has worked with National Geographic, brought along several cameras. With an arrangement to blog for National Geographic, he and Morales—who works as an outdoor educator with urban youth—would document the ecological wonders and crises, the cultural colors and the raw beauty of the Baja peninsula, top to bottom.

DeShields hikes through the urban jungle of Tijuana’s outskirts.

Tijuana was simply an obstacle. Not known as Baja California’s proudest asset, it made for a discouraging beginning. Wearing 50-pound backpacks, it took the adventurers several hours to escape the city’s grimy, gritty influence. Concrete scribbled with graffiti, homes built of cardboard and sheets, and the din of urban traffic all faded into the distance at last, replaced by the softness of the sand and the drone of the breaking waves. But they hadn’t exactly escaped civilization. On the shore, the suburbs continued for many miles—and still ahead was the equally imposing city of Ensenada, located about 80 miles south of the border. On the beach, the pair encountered the obstacles of urban development—sometimes nearly to the waterline.

A surfboard appears out of place in what appears to be a scene from the Napa Valley or central Spain, but the northern Baja peninsula offers some surprisingly bucolic countryside.

“There were so many private properties that in order to follow the coast, we had to hop fences and walls, and duck through barbed wire,” says Morales, with whom I spoke by phone last week. “There were places where we couldn’t get around rocky points and had to go back up to the highway, but there was no access.” So the two hurried through yards, alleyways and vacant lots, not always sure if they were trespassing or not, but certain of at least one thing: that they needed to move southward if they hoped to ever escape the northern peninsula’s development and reach the unspoiled desert for which Baja is famous.

For Morales and DeShields, the privatization of the public coastline became one of the most disturbing and frustrating aspects of their journey.

“The thing that worries me is that the coastline is being bought up by Americans or other foreigners, and as a result Mexicans are losing their land,” Morales says. “If they don’t have land or access to the water, how can they come to cherish it and enjoy it as we have? They certainly won’t be able to afford to buy it back.”

Morales and DeShields eat lunch by the roadside—tortillas with peanut butter and jelly, again.

Though void of cacti and shrubs and open hillsides, this urban region was something of a desert, for most of the residences in places were entirely abandoned, Morales says. They passed vacant hotels and condos and the shells of empty buildings. The beach town of Rosarito—a thriving and popular destination for tourists as recently as six or seven years ago—has died. “It’s literally a ghost town now,” Morales says. He attributes the emptiness of this once-peopled land to “fear of violence, rape, robbery and even the police.” Parts of Mexico have experienced high crime rates in recent years, covered widely by the media. Morales believes such violence, civilian deaths and tourist holdups have unfairly impacted Baja, which has remained, to a large extent, off the path of criminals.

But the hospitality of Baja’s people defied every stereotype about the dangers of traveling today in Mexico.  The two encountered kindness and generosity at every bend in the beach, in each town and in each remote fishing camp where they stopped to ask for water. The commercial lobster season had just ended, on February 16, and so these camps were often all but uninhabited. Usually, one man—maybe two—would come out to greet the Americans, along with his barking dogs. Many strangers invited them into their homes for food, coffee and beds.

“Down here you find an experience that, in the States, is hard to come by,” Morales says. “There is a low standard of living, and people have almost nothing. They literally make houses out of our garbage—old garage doors, trailers, billboards—and yet these people are incredibly generous. They invite us into their homes, feed us, share what they have.”

Sunset near the Danish Compound, a mysterious complex built several years ago by a secretive Danish organization.

The two camped most nights on the beach, often tucked up against the cliffs in their tent to keep out of sight of passersby, and by day they walked, often on concrete and asphalt, other times along the beach, each carrying 50-pound backpacks loaded with camping equipment, cameras, a water desalinator and—for the odd hour of recreation—a surfboard. Finally, after 200 miles and three weeks of struggling through the development of northern Baja, Morales and DeShields found the solitude and silence of the desert. Here began the joys and hazards of classic wilderness exploration. Many times, the pair journeyed inland to avoid treacherous cliffs and waves. Once or twice they almost ran out of water. They showed up half starved and delirious in a fishing camp one hot day. In a land of sand, sun and solitude, they ate what they could. Peanut butter and jelly on tortillas were a staple—though strangers who greeted them in the road spiced up their diets with tortillas and bowls of beans. Often, the desert didn’t even look like one. The rains of December had had their lingering effect, turning what is known to be one of the most dry and bitter landscapes into scenery as green as Teletubby Land. Locals even told them that the desert flower blooms of the moment had not been seen in nearly a decade.

In the Baja California countryside, breakfast and coffee frequently arrive without planning in the homes of kind strangers. Here, the spread includes beans, tortillas, oranges and Coco Cola.

On March 19, they arrived in Guerrero Negro, a dusty desert city mostly unremarkable except as a chief destination for tourists hoping to watch gray whales, which enter the nearby Ojo de Liebre and San Ignacio lagoons to give birth. From here, the pair walks south. They will remain on foot as they pass San Ignacio Lagoon and walk inland around its shoreline. The plan is to then cut east, across the mountainous peninsula, and descend back to sea level at the date palm-studded oasis town of Mulege. Morales and DeShields intend to finish their journey on stand-up paddleboards, moving smoothly along the tranquil shoreline of the Sea of Cortez, all the way to San Jose del Cabo. Their journey can be followed via their blog “What is West?

The tent is pitched against a cliff, and the stars of the Baja sky come out.

A Changing Mecca Is the Focus of the First U.S. Exhibition to Feature a Saudi Artist

Smithsonian Magazine

In the year he spent living in Mecca, physician-turned-artist Ahmed Mater watched hotels shooting up around the Grand Mosque. He also trained his camera on both the workers, who came from all over the Muslim world to help construct the new city, as well as on the ways that Mecca’s history was being erased to make way for the new city.

Mecca is inaccessible to non-Muslims, and so the offering of an unprecedented view of the city through the eye of an artist is what Mater brings to his audiences. His photographic works and videos are on view through September at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery in “Symbolic Cities: The Work of Ahmed Mater.”

The show is the first solo museum appearance in the country for a contemporary Saudi artist, says Carol Huh, the Sackler’s assistant curator of contemporary Asian art. “We’re very proud of that.”

Trained as a physician, Mater—who was born in the village of Tabuk in northern Saudi Arabia in 1979—arrived at photography by way of the X-rays he relied on for his medical practice. In fact, he integrated X-rays into his first artworks. And he has served as one of the many doctors on call during the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj. 

Although he became a full-time artist a few years ago, Mater believes that drawing on his background, combines both scientific and subjective ways of looking at the world. He approaches photographing cityscapes as a doctor would.

Having trained as a physician, Mater, who was born in the village of Tabuk in northern Saudi Arabia in 1979, arrived at photography by way of the X-rays he relied on for his medical practice. Although he became a full-time artist a few years ago, Mater believes that drawing on his background, combines both scientific and subjective ways of looking at the world. He approaches photographing cityscapes as a doctor would.

“For me, it’s an inspection,” he says.

His work, he adds, is also activist, or as he puts it, “art with intervention” rather than simply capturing a moment.

In the year he spent living in Mecca, Mater watched hotels shooting up around the Grand Mosque. He also trained his camera on both the workers, who came from all over the Muslim world to help construct the new city, as well as on the ways that Mecca’s history was being erased to make way for the new city.

In his 2011 to 2013 photograph Between Dream and Reality, several figures appear in the extreme foreground set against an enormous poster depicting an imaginary rendition of how the Grand Mosque and its surrounding might look in the future. The mosque’s spires are juxtaposed with not-yet-built skyscrapers in the background. It has a clean, modern look—almost like Las Vegas—but it literally masks the construction project that is happening behind it, which is dismantling historic Mecca architecture. The “dream” is destroying the reality.

Between Dream and Reality, by Ahmed Mater, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13). (Courtesy of the artist and Athr)

“For me, it’s an inspection,” he says.

His work, he adds, is also activist, or as he puts it, “art with intervention” rather than simply capturing a moment.

In his 2011 to 2013 photograph Between Dream and Reality, several figures appear in the extreme foreground set against an enormous poster depicting an imaginary rendition of how the Grand Mosque and its surrounding might look in the future. The mosque’s spires are juxtaposed with not-yet-built skyscrapers in the background. It has a clean, modern look—almost like Las Vegas—but it literally masks the construction project that is happening behind it, which is dismantling historic Mecca architecture. The “dream” is destroying the reality.

From the Real to the Symbolic City From the series Desert of Pharan (2011-13) by Ahmed Mater, 2012 (Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries )

The weathered nature of the poster, which lends it the look of an old photograph, impressed upon Mater the way  that “the dream will meet the reality of life here … I thought Mecca is going to look like this in the future.”

Although millions of visitors come to Mecca for Hajj, there are also one million people living in Mecca. “It’s a living city. It’s not just about the pilgrims,” Huh says, comparing the phenomenon of tourists overshadowing residents in Mecca to Washington, D.C. “There are natives,” she says.

Many of those residents are immigrants who live in densely-populated areas of the old town, such as the ones that Mater photographs in the 2012 From the Real to the Symbolic City, one of two works of Mater’s held in the Sackler’s collections. Peeking through the haze above the homes is the Fairmont Makkah Clock Royal Tower, which represents the symbolic city. Mater hadn’t initially noticed it.

The layering of Mecca that Mater teases out is perhaps most pronounced in the 2013 Nature Morte—the second piece from the collections. It presents a view from within the Fairmont hotel of the main sanctuary of the Grand Mosque and the Kaaba, a shrine that is the most sacred site in Islam. But the frame of the shot is the interior of a $3,000-a-night hotel room, with a plate of fruit on a table and a comfortable chair. Pilgrims who come on Hajj wear all-white as a great equalizer, and everyone, poor or wealthy, is supposed to be the same, and yet, as Mater’s camera shows, some pilgrims are more equal than others.

Nature Morte From the series Desert of Pharan (2011-13) by Ahmed Mater, 2013 (Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries)

Not only do the wealthy get to stay in Mecca in five-star hotels, while millions of other pilgrims squat in tents, but those with great means also can skip lines at the various pilgrimage sites. The photograph shows how private spaces are taking over public spaces in the holiest of Islamic spaces. “It squeezes the public space,” Mater says.

For those who don’t get to skip the lines, a network of human highways defines many of the pilgrimage sites in Mecca. The 2011 to 2013 Human Highway shows throngs of pilgrims packed into tight spaces—their colored umbrellas are testaments to the sponsorship of mobile phone companies—many without hope of getting to the sparse emergency exits.

“People have actually died,” Huh says. In 2015, for example, more than 1,450 people, by some accounts, were killed in a deadly stampede during the pilgrimage.

At the center of the 2011 to 2014 Concrete Lapidation are three pillars, which have been extended to become walls to accommodate the massive crowds, against which the faithful cast 21 stones (seven per pillar) to symbolically cast out the devil. In Mater’s video Pelt Him! there are no worshippers depicted, but the hum of voices can be heard as the artist presents a close view of the stones hitting the wall.

Antenna by Ahmed Mater, 2010 (Courtesy of the artist and Athr)

“To take a video like this, you need a lot of licenses,” Mater explains. “It will take time.”

In his 2013 Disarm, Mater photographed views of Mecca being taken by surveillance camera within a military helicopter. In one image, a group of people illegally tries to enter Mecca without proper paperwork. Other views show the clock tower and the network of human highways. It is, the artist notes in an exhibition brochure, the city’s future: “a sprawling metropolis monitored from the skies, with an army whose mission it is to detect the undesired movement of illegal pilgrims navigating their way across the arid and inhospitable mountain terrain.”

“This is a perspective that is unique,” says Massumeh Farhad, the Sackler's chief curator and Islamic art curator. “He’s the only art photographer who uses Mecca as his subject.”

The Disarm views are radically different from the 2011 to 2013 Golden Hour, an enormous photograph of the Grand Mosque and the clock tower which Mater took from atop a crane. The cityscape is like a spring landscape, in which cranes— like the first flowers—begin to peek out of the earth. Mater devotes nearly half the image to the construction that is occurring all around the mosque.

While those involved in constructing the new buildings and hotels might rightfully note that the city needs to expand to safely and comfortably accommodate millions of pilgrims, critics worry about the cost of those expansions and wonder if the city can’t grow without preying on its history. Mater is among those who see loss. That’s how Huh sees things as well. “There are many layers of history, even visually, across the public spaces of Mecca where the historical references are clear, and those historical references are being erased,” she says.

In the 2013 video Ghost, Mater discovers the human element that had been missing in so many of the other views of Mecca. Walking southeast out of the city, he came across drummers at a wedding. He trained his video camera on one particular drummer, an immigrant from Africa to Mecca.

“For me, it was a big relief about what’s happening in Mecca with the construction. This is the human part that is missing,” Mater says.

Another human element emerged in the preview of the exhibition. Mater pulled out his phone to snap a photo of the installation of nine wooden slide viewers titled Mirage (2015), in which Mater layered, for example, a London street atop a desert landscape. The artist subsequently confirmed that this was the first time he’d seen the work-in-progress installed.

“Symbolic Cities: The Work of Ahmed Mater” is on view through September 18, 2016 at the Sackler Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

12 Mesmerizing Places to Watch Flowers Bloom

Smithsonian Magazine

While heavenly in the first few weeks of spring, flowers are rarely the focus of an entire trip. Sure, you may be lured by a renowned botanical garden, or enjoy a hotel's impeccably landscaped grounds, but that's usually the extent of it. Not so with these colorful sites: from Morocco to Arizona, we've found the world's most unique floral regions, gardens, and, yes, flower festivals.

Medellín, Colombia

Image by Eugenio Prieto Soto via Flickr. Feria de las Flores (original image)

Image by Serge via Flickr. Desfile de Silleteros (original image)

Image by Eugenio Prieto Soto via Flickr. Feria de las Flores (original image)

Image by Eugenio Prieto Soto via Flickr. Feria de las Flores (original image)

Image by Iván Erre Jota via Flickr. Silleteros (original image)

Each August in Medellín, regional farmers compete to build lavish, oversized floral displays known as silleteros. The overflowing bouquets are then mounted on wooden pallets and carried through the streets to a backdrop of frenzied cheering and live music—the sheer spectacle of it makes Feria de las Flores one of Medellín’s biggest holidays.

Furano, Japan

Image by winhorse / iStock. Norokko Train (original image)

Image by trusjom / iStock. Lavender field (original image)

Image by AaronChoi / iStock. Furano, Japan (original image)

Image by kanuman / iStock. Furano, Japan (original image)

Image by goikmitl / iStock. Furano, Japan (original image)

The mild summers in Japan’s northern Hokkaido Prefecture make it one of the most ideal places in Asia to grow lavender. At Farm Tomita, wide streaks of the purple herb grow in tandem with fields of baby’s breath, red poppies, pink garden catchflies, and orange poppies—creating a dazzling rainbow that at first appears Photoshopped. At the farm’s lavender-themed souvenir shop, you can buy anything from soap to incense to lavender-flavored soft-serve.

Marrakesh, Morocco 

Image by Sammy Six via Flickr. Marrakesh, Morocco (original image)

Image by MoreISO / iStock. Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh (original image)

Image by alanfin / iStock. Lily Pond (original image)

Image by Bigandt_Photography / iStock. Marrakech rooftops (original image)

Image by ManuelGonzalezOlaecheaFranco / iStock. Marrakesh Jnane El Harti gardens (original image)

This lush desert city is home to precisely 54 public gardens, including the brand-new Mandarin Oriental Marrakech, whose villas are surrounded by 100,000 roses. In the Valley of Roses, about six hours south of Marrakesh, hikers can watch rosebuds being picked and dried for use in essential oils, potpourri, and rosewater.

Cape Floral Kingdom, South Africa

Image by Mike Cilliers via Flickr. Cape Floral Kingdom (original image)

Image by Dan Nelson via Flickr. Cape Floral Kingdom (original image)

Image by RapidEye via Flickr. Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden (original image)

Image by RapidEye via Flickr. Cape Floral Kingdom (original image)

Named by UNESCO as one of the world's 18 biodiversity hot spots, the Cape Floral Kingdom has long enchanted botanists and nature photographers alike. Cape Fox tour guide Jaco Powell recommends traveling north from Cape Town along the N7 highway, which passes by many flower-rich areas. In late summer, flower-spotters should visit Namaqua National Park, where spectacular fields carpeted with wildflowers can be viewed on 4x4 trails and hikes. (Keep an eye out for the lotus-like king protea, South Africa’s national flower.)

Arizona-Sonora Desert, Arizona

Image by tonda / iStock. Sonoran Desert (original image)

Image by tonda / iStock. Sonoran Desert (original image)

Image by Ron_Thomas / iStock. Sonoran Desert (original image)

Image by tonda / iStock. Sonoran Desert (original image)

Image by KenCanning / iStock. Sonoran Desert (original image)

Outside of Tucson, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum—home to a cactus garden with native wildflowers and even a butterfly garden—has two flowering peaks, in April and again in early fall (after August's monsoon rains). Still, in this abnormally lush desert, there's always something in bloom. By May, watch prickly pears sprout on the cacti and desert ironwood trees grow soft coatings of lavender flowers.

Keukenhof, Netherlands

Image by banarfilardhi / iStock. Monkey Eats Bananas Flower Car in Keukenhof (original image)

Image by banarfilardhi / iStock. The Annual Flower Parade in Keukenhof (original image)

Image by bhidethescene / iStock. Keukenhof garden (original image)

Image by VV-pics / iStock. Flowers and windmills (original image)

Image by Christian Mueller / iStock. Keukenhof Park in Lisse, Netherlands (original image)

Nothing spells spring like a pilgrimage to Keukenhof, a breathtaking, if slightly surreal, tulip festival in south Holland that lasts for two months each year. This year the festival will run from March 23, 2017 through May 21, 2017 and feature "Dutch Design" as the annual planting theme.

Tuscany, Italy

Image by bluejayphoto / iStock. Tuscany landscape with field of red poppy flowers (original image)

Image by Lenorlux / iStock. Cypresses and bright red flowers (original image)

Image by DNY59 / iStock. San Gimignano (original image)

Image by BreatheFitness / iStock. Tuscany, Italy (original image)

Image by taratata / iStock. Pienza street view (original image)

No botanical garden comes close to the encyclopedia-worthy rosarium known as Roseto Finischi, which spans just a single acre in central Tuscany. Its pale brick walls contain more cultivars—arranged in groups, meticulously classified with their Latin name and original year of introduction—than any other private rose garden in the world. Walking through the closely planted bushes, you’ll breathe in the scent of (literally) thousands of roses.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Image by CampPhoto / iStock. Chiang Mai flower market (original image)

Image by 501room / iStock. Chiang Mai Flower Festival (original image)

Image by yupiyan / iStock. Songkran Festival Day (original image)

Image by Katie_May_Boyle / iStock. Chiang Mai (original image)

Image by Lorraine Boogich / iStock. Chiang Mai (original image)

The annual flower festival in Chiang Mai—a region known for its traditional floral art—doubles as a beauty pageant. Alongside marvelously bright flower floats—sculpted of African marigolds, globe amaranth, ban chun, and chrysanthemums—young Thai women file through the streets in floor-length gowns holding baskets of orchids, while uniformed local high school marching bands bring up the rear. After the parade, pick up a bundle of fresh-cut lilies along the Ping River at Ton Lamyai flower market, which is open 24 hours a day.

Crested Butte, Colorado

Image by arinahabich / iStock. Crested Butte (original image)

Image by arinahabich / iStock. Crested Butte (original image)

Image by Adam-Springer / iStock. Crested Butte (original image)

Image by RobertWaltman / iStock. Crested Butte (original image)

Image by Adventure_Photo / iStock. Crested Butte (original image)

Up in the West Elk mountains, Crested Butte is renowned for its alpine views and first-rate skiing. But in July, during the weeklong Wildflower Festival (now in its 29th year), the town’s many hillside trails come alive with billowing crests of pink, orange, and gold. Hike up into higher elevations to glimpse alpine sunflowers—though small, these fist-size flowers are often decades in the making and bloom only once in their life.

Giverny, France

Image by siete_vidas / iStock. Spring gardens (original image)

Image by siete_vidas / iStock. Spring gardens (original image)

Image by digitalimagination / iStock. Landscape of Monet`s garden (original image)

Image by Kenneth Wiedemann / iStock. Boutique and restaurant at Giverny (original image)

Image by rusm / iStock. Spring garden (original image)

Visitors are not allowed to enter Claude Monet’s stone house at Giverny, but his painterly presence lingers outside, in the narrow footpaths bordered with nasturtiums and the luminescent water-lily pond immortalized in his Nympheas paintings. While strolling the gardens, which Monet obsessively designed and tended to himself in the late 1800s, be sure to have your camera handy—the brilliant flower beds, composed in wild strokes of purple, white, gold, and red, are a masterpiece unto themselves.

Kauai, Hawaii

Image by Pat McGrath via Flickr. Botanical Gardens (original image)

Image by Pat McGrath via Flickr. McBryde Gardens (original image)

Image by Richard Bitting via Flickr. Fern Grotto (original image)

Image by Steve via Flickr. McBryde Gardens (original image)

Image by Joanne C Sullivan via Flickr. National Tropical Botanical Gardens (original image)

Kauai’s Lawa’i Valley is one of the wettest places on earth, so no matter when you go, something is bound to be in bloom—though spring and summer pack the biggest punch. Brand new is the McBryde Garden Biodiversity Trail, which begins in an 80-foot tunnel of swirling mist and condenses the entire 450-million-year history of plant evolution into a tidy 10-minute hike. Keep an eye out for the tropical fruit orchard, flaming red coral trees, and pua kala blossoms. 

Mainau Island, Germany

Image by Kerrick / iStock. Dahlia garden (original image)

Image by BasieB / iStock. Mainau Island (original image)

Image by BasieB / iStock. Flowergarden with Dahlias (original image)

Image by Flavio Vallenari / iStock. Mainau Island, Lake Constance (original image)

Image by Flavio Vallenari / iStock. Mainau Palace, Germany (original image)

Happen to be in Zurich this spring? Hop up to Lake Constance, in Germany’s southwest corner near the Swiss border. Mainau Island, affectionately dubbed Blumeninsel, or “Flower Island,” features more than 110 acres of wide paved paths, sweeping lawns, and vast, radiating flowerbeds. While you’re there, climb a staircase waterfall brimming with tulips; after you leave, visit a seventh-century castle in nearby Meersburg.

Other articles from Travel + Leisure:

The Historic Saloons of Central California

Smithsonian Magazine

The owner of the Pine Street Saloon in Paso Robles, California, had a problem and requested that my traveling companions and I drop by to solve it. His security cameras were picking up a presence, but was it a mere illusion or something more ghostly? With that end goal in mind, our six-man entourage embarked on what just may be the most authentic and doable old-school saloon tour on the West Coast: a journey from the damp desires of Cold Spring Tavern in the hills above Santa Barbara to the Prohibition-beating trapdoors of the Elkhorn Bar in San Miguel near the Salinas River roughly 100 miles north, with more ghost legends, dollar bills tacked to ceilings and animal heads on walls than you can point your dowsing rods at.

The Pine Street Saloon wouldn’t be the only place where we’d find a use for those rods¬—lent to me by someone who claimed to have used them to rid his childhood home of ghouls years before—and the “ghost meter” purchased on eBay. Our visits to a handful of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo county’s longest continually ale-slinging establishments would indicate that ghost stories may be as old as the saloons themselves.

The Stagecoach Route

Our apparitional adventure kicked off bright and early Saturday, with a venison and buffalo chili omelet, coffee and perfectly spiced bloody mary at the Cold Spring Tavern, a stagecoach stop since the 1860s located in a shady, spring-fed canyon between downtown Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez Valley wine country. Though the tavern might be most heralded these days for its tri-tip sandwiches and raucous rock ‘n’ roll sessions every weekend, we were drawn to the secluded collection of cabins — from the transplanted Ojai jail to the “Road Gang House” where Chinese laborers slept while carving out the then-treacherous San Marcos Pass, to the creaky-floored main restaurant and roadhouse-style bar.

Following an old stagecoach route, we made a brief stop at Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos, only about a 15 minute downhill drive on Highway 154. Built in 1886 by the Swiss-Italian ranchero-turned-hotelier Felix Mattei as an inn and restaurant in anticipation of the coming railroad, today it is home to Brothers Restaurant, owned by cookbook authors and siblings Jeff and Matt Nichols. While spending a few minutes checking out the historic plaques and peering into the windows of the white-walled building, it wasn’t hard to imagine the locally famed Chinese chef Gin Lung Gin whipping up one of his dove pies for the hungry railroaders who’d stop at Mattei’s overnight during trips between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Another stagecoach stop-cum-railroad station is the town of Los Alamos, about 20 minutes by car from Los Olivos up Highway 101. Compared with the rest of California’s increasingly modernized Central Coast, Los Alamos is proudly locked in yesteryear — or as one of my companions noted, “It’s like every other building here has the ‘established’ date posted on it.” That was certainly true for the 1880 Union Hotel, established, of course, in 1880, and today featuring 14 rooms to rent — all appointed with Victorian-era niceties — as well as a bar that was already quite lively by 11 a.m. on a Saturday. On tap was their 1880 Ale, an excellent blond beer (made especially for the hotel by the award-winning folks at Firestone Brewery, which was founded just a few miles away), as well as billiards in the enchantingly — some might say hauntingly — dark back room and shuffleboard in the front bar, where you can also order empanadas stuffed with beef, olives, and egg or bratwurst with sauerkraut from the saloon menu.

Though the friendly bartender said she personally had only heard of ghosts in the place, I was crossing my fingers for a sighting of Michael Jackson, who filmed the video for “Say, Say, Say” here with Paul McCartney back in 1983, or perhaps Johnny Cash, who supposedly played the dining room in the 1950s. No dice on either front, but there was plenty to keep our eyes occupied, from the vintage signs (“check your guns,” of course, but also ads for corsetry shops and gunfighter paintings) and historic maps (showing the old stagecoach routes through the area) to the wacky collection of antiques — from snow skis to cellos — hanging on the walls. Upon reaching the bottom of our pints, we decided to leave our own mark in the saloon style, signing our names upon a dollar bill and employing a long pole to tack the greenback to the high wooden ceiling, where hundreds of other dollars flittered in the breeze.

Guadalupe’s Ghosts

Though most of my companions had lived in Santa Barbara County for more than a decade, almost none had visited Guadalupe, a small city along the banks of the Santa Maria River near the endless dunes of white sand where Cecil B. De Mille filmed The Ten Commandments and a mystic-minded community known as the Dunites lived in the 1930s and ‘40s. Taking in all the cowboy-hat-wearing Latinos who work the land in this rural northwestern corner of our county, a visitor to Guadalupe can be forgiven for thinking he meandered into a Mexican farming village. Well, at least it used to be that way, as the Guadalupe of 2011 seems almost deserted, no doubt due to the recession, but also because most of the main drag’s buildings are built with brick and have not been reinforced to withstand the next big quake. They sit empty, adorned with black-and-white signs to warn of the dangers of entry, an unfortunate sign that the whole town might slowly be turned over to the ghosts.

Inside the Far Western Tavern, however, there was a lively lunchtime crowd. Founded as the Palace Hotel in 1912, the establishment was taken over in 1958 by Clarence Minetti, who used to end his days of picking hay by chowing down on rib steak and spaghetti at the hotel’s restaurant for 65 cents. With his wife Rosalie and her cousin Richard Maretti, Minetti set about restoring the place’s former luster, keeping such elements as the mahogany bar (which some say came on a ship that sailed around the tip of South America), while changing the name to Far Western Tavern and adding the ranching-life touches (landscape paintings of cowboys working the hills, local cattle brands singed into the bar, etc.) to suit the new name. It’s been in the family ever since, attracting accolades for its Santa Maria-style barbecue from near and far, but even the Far Western is suffering from Guadalupe’s ailing brick bones. We were told over our Firestone Double Barrel ales that after many tears and tough decisions, the tavern will be relocating later this year from its birthplace to Old Town Orcutt, a little neighborhood a few miles to the south where there’s a food, drink and entertainment renaissance underway.

But we weren’t there to cry in our beers, so after snacking on some crispy mountain oysters (fried calf testicles, which were cheap, plentiful and fried-food tasty), we informed our servers of our ghostly mission. “Every time I have to go upstairs alone, I say ‘Jesus loves me,’” responded our bartender immediately, piquing our interest with tales of slamming doors and cold gusts of air when no windows are open. The manager, Barbara Abernethy — who’s the niece of Clarence Minetti and has worked at the restaurant since 1974 — relayed stories of noses being touched and ankles being grabbed, admitting that some “professional” ghost hunters had repeatedly investigated the establishment, finding the ghosts of children and a peg-leg man as well as “negative energy” near the upstairs bathroom. When they showed Abernethy their audio and video recordings, which revealed voices and orbs and other unexplained oddities, “It scared the crap out of me,” she said. “I get the chills now thinking about it.”

Minutes later, my friend was circling the upstairs with his ghost meter in hand, suddenly stumbling upon a spot above a table near the middle of the room where the device began beeping steadily. I snagged the dowsing rods and the metal sticks reacted as they were supposed to upon finding an anomalous energy field, swinging slightly open. There’s a significant amount of user error possible with the rods, so when I followed the instructions on communicating with the ghosts — they swing inward for yes, and outward for no, the lore goes, but you can’t ask about love, money or the future — I did so with a healthy degree of skepticism. But as the rods swang to and fro, something about the situation felt curiously authentic, as if we’d tapped into another world for a brief second. Or maybe the beer was finally starting to get to me.

Image by Brian Hall. Founded in 1858, Pozo Saloon still serves olives in its beer. (original image)

Image by Ryan Grau. Today, Pozo hosts on its back lawn some big-time concerts, from Snoop Doggy Dogg to Willie Nelson. (original image)

Image by Brian Hall. Founded as the Palace Hotel in 1912, the Far Western Tavern has been attracting accolades for its Santa Maria-style barbecue from near and far. (original image)

Image by Brian Hall. The 1880 Union Hotel features 14 rooms to rent—all appointed with Victorian-era niceties—as well as a bar. (original image)

Image by Brian Hall. A wide view of the Pozo Saloon and the dollar bills stuck to its ceiling. (original image)

Sippin’ SLO

The second-longest operating bar in all of California is in San Miguel, a tiny town north of Paso Robles of under 2,000 people that popped up following the 1797 founding of Mission San Miguel, where the vineyard-tending padres kicked off the region’s now dominant winemaking industry. Located on the one main drag of Mission Street, the Elkhorn Bar, established during the gold rush year of 1853, is both the predecessor and sole remnant of a once freewheeling strip, where — according to owner Gary Brown — “14 bars and 13 brothels” served the soldiers of the nearby Camp Roberts during the run-up to World War II. “For some of those guys, this was one of the last places they ever were,” said Brown, who bought the bar about five years ago and has set about reminding everyone of its history.

That goes back to even before the days of Jesse James, who came to hide out with his gentlemanly uncle Drury James and soak his robbery-related wounds in the nearby hot springs, and extends through Prohibition, when the Elkhorn’s front was a barbershop and patrons would toss their hooch through the still existing trapdoor into the cellar when the cops arrived. Today, there are antique guns on the walls, framed newspaper clippings from World War II across from the bar, modern day moonshines for sale, and constant ghost tales to entertain ale drinkers between sips.

One patron, without prompting, explained that he’d seen wine glasses fly across the room and crash into the corner, then the bartender relayed a story about a woman who went down into the cellar to find a table full of Old West apparitions playing poker, and then Brown — who showed us the said cellar — explained that many folks had seen a man in olden dress wander across the back room, where the stage is now. And then there were the multiple occasions of phantom grabs of posteriors, as various people have reported being touched down low. “There are always guys pinching ass around here,” said Brown with a laugh, “but those times, there was no one around.” Fittingly freaked out, we fled the otherwise welcoming Elkhorn to our final destination for the evening, and the genesis for this entire trip, the Pine Street Saloon, just off the main square of downtown Paso Robles.

Owner Ron French has been vexed by the “supercharged dust particles” (his words) that his night vision security cameras had been picking up. “To me, I’m not a ghost believer,” he said early on in our correspondence, “but I have no explanation for this.”

First opened by Ron’s mother, Pat French, in 1971, the Pine Street Saloon ditched its old location in 2002 to move into the circa 1865 building next door. That was just in time to avoid the massive Paso Robles earthquake of 2003, which knocked down their old brick building but only tilted their new wooden structure. French, it turns out, might just be the most hospitable saloonkeeper on the planet, having refurbished the upstairs brothel rooms into a boardinghouse of sorts to accommodate overly inebriated guests and purchasing a limousine to drive such patrons home for free, so long as they’re within Paso Robles’ city limits.

After some early experiments with candles and cameras led by French, our crew wasn’t super convinced that there was anything too supernatural going on upstairs at the former brothel, so we explored Paso Robles on foot, eventually taking in pizza and some rounds of bowling before returning to the Pine Street around midnight. The next morning, I managed to yank out the dowsing rods, but we were in a hurry to hit the last three destinations on our tour, so skipped town before finding any answers to Ron’s supercharged dust problem.

Take the Long Way Home

Once a centrally located hub with general store, hotel, blacksmith shops, numerous residences and its own school district along the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach route — which connected the San Joaquin Valley to the San Luis Obispo County coast — Pozo is now on the road to pretty much nowhere, with just a fire station and saloon left over, making it about as purely Old West as it gets these days. The Pozo Saloon, founded in 1858, still serves olives in its beer, and today hosts on its back lawn some big-time concerts, from Snoop Doggy Dogg to Willie Nelson. On our visit, the owner Rhonda Beanway and her son Levi were busy working the grounds and cooking up delicious blue cheese and mushroom burgers in the kitchen, but chatted it up with us as our group worked its way through a gallon of beer, served in a big jar, and listened to the live three-piece rock band out back. “It’s kind of a hard sell to get people to drive this far,” said Rhonda, who purchased the bar with her husband in 1984 when the previous owners literally handed them the keys on their way out of town. “That’s why we started the concerts. You have to come with a specific purpose and then fall in love with it. But it is one of the last real things like that in San Luis Obispo County for sure.”

Properly back in the saloon saddle, we decided to brave the Pozo Summit road, a pretty easily passable dirt path through the Santa Lucia Mountains and down into the Carizzo Plain National Monument, where tule elk and pronghorn antelope frolic amid Chumash pictographs on a relict landscape that once typified the entire San Joaquin Valley. With clear, unimpeded views as far as the eye can see, the Carrizo is wickedly wondrous any time of year, but catching it in the green winter or the wildflower-popping spring just might change your life by reminding you that silent, solemn places still exist in our cluttered world.

We stuck to our last suds and some tasty cheeseburgers as the hour crept toward dark on this Sunday afternoon, and hit the road with a stunning sunset lighting the way. We pointed our cars home to Santa Barbara, and slipped into bed to enjoy what even the most adventurous Old Westerner also sought: a good night’s rest.

Ernst Herzfeld Papers, Series 2: Sketchbooks; Subseries 2.01: Persia, 1923: Sketchbook 06

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives
- Title is provided by Xavier Courouble, FSg Archives cataloger, based on Herzfeld's original sketchbook title and Joseph Upton's Catalogue of the Herzfeld Archive.

"Ernst Herzfeld's years in Iran [Persia] from [February] 1923 to [the end of October] 1925 were made possible by a private company with limited liability called the Gesellschaft zur Förderung von Ausgrabungen und Forschungsreisen GmbH, which was founded in 1923. Its aim was to foster excavations and scientific expeditions in Asia and to publish the results. [...]. [Consequently] Herzfeld was able to travel freely in Iran and survey most major archaeological sites, including Pasargadae, Persepolis, and Kuh-e Khwaja, and develop for future excavations." [Jens Kröger, "Ernst Herzfeld and Friedrich Sarre", Ernst Herzfeld and the Development of Near Eastern Studies, 1900-1950. Edited by Ann Gunter and Stefan R. Hauser. Leiden: Brill, 2005. P.61 and P.64]

Finding aid, based on Joseph M. Upton's Catalogue of the Herzfeld Archive, 1974, is available in the Archives Department and on Internet

- SK-6 is the sixth of a series of thirty-five sketchbooks (Skizzenbücher), in which Ernst Herzfeld recorded his observations on topography, landscape, inscriptions and reliefs, archaeological remains, architecture, artifacts and decorative motifs related to Persepolis (Iran).

- Original handwritten title on cover reads: "Ernst Herzfeld; Skizzenbuch VI: Persien, 1923"

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 1 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], northern vorhalle [portico] of the Apadana: plan, [see FSA A.6 05.0878]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 2 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], [reconstruction of winged symbol with encircled figure of] Ahuramazda [inscribed in east jamb of eastern doorway of the southern wall] of Hundred-Column Hall [Throne Hall], [see FSA A.6 05.0904], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2350; FSA A.6 04.GN.2351]; sketch with color notes, fresh when unearthed; profiles of [campaniform] column bases of Apadana, [see FSA A.6 05.0986], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2314]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 3 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Hundred-Column Hall [Throne Hall]: drawings of niche, door, and window."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 4 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Hundred-Column Hall [Throne Hall]: plan of southern half, [see FSA A.6 05.0861]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 5 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Hundred-Column Hall [Throne Hall]: plan of northern half, [see FSA A.6 05.0861]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 6 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Hundred-Column Hall [Throne Hall]: plan of north vestibule [northern portico]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 7 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], column, lower base of capital from [Tripylon (Council Hall)]; [column base in northern portico] of Hundred-Column Hall [Throne Hall], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2358]; [detail ornamentation on addorsed bull capital from Unfinished Gate], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2295]; masons' marks."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 8 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Hadish [Palace of Xerxes], [east wall of main hall, south jamb of doorway], Cuneiform inscription [Xerxes trilingual inscription, XPe], on King's robe [royal garment] (a and b), [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0402]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 9 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Hadish [Palace of Xerxes, east wall of main hall, south jamb of doorway]: Cuneiform inscription [Xerxes trilingual inscription, XPe] (c) [on royal garment], and German verse on window."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 10 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Tachara [Palace (Palace of Darius)]: plans of northern [apartments], [see FSA A.6 05.0860; FSA A.6 05.0862]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 11 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Tachara [Palace (Palace of Darius)]: plans of eastern [apartments], [see FSA A.6 05.0860; FSA A.6 05.0862]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 12 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Tachara [Palace (Palace of Darius)]: plans of western [apartments], [see FSA A.6 05.0860; FSA A.6 05.0862]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 13 reads, "Naqsh-i Rajab [(Iran)]: Pahlavi [middle Persian] and Greek inscriptions; monograms on caps, Crown prince's headdress, and three masons' marks."

- In Finding Aid, captions for pg. 14 and 15 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Tachara [Palace (Palace of Darius)]: plans of south vorhalle [south portico] and [main] hall, [see FSA A.6 05.0860; FSA A.6 05.0886]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 16 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Hadish [Palace of Xerxes]: sketched ends of three dagger sheathes, [see FSA A.6 04.GN.1663]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 17 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Hadish [Palace of Xerxes]: plan of terrace foundations and of fountain (section on preceeding page)."

- In Finding Aid, captions for pg. 18 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], plan of south tomb [Tomb of Artaxerxes II Mnemon] and details."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 19 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Topographical sketch of southern part of enclosure wall on the mountain, high up [possibly, low mounds marking the course of the north-east fortress wall]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 20 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], topographical sketch of northern end of enclosure wall on mountain [possibly, low mounds marking the course of the north-east fortress wall]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 21 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Tripylon [Council Hall]: volutes [column, lower base of capital], [see FSA A.6 05.0857], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2359]; detail of relief of Darius and Xerxes."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 22 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Tachara [Palace (Palace of Darius)]: details of sculptures."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 23 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Hadish [Palace of Xerxes]: details of sculptures [including sketched end of a dagger sheath]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 24 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Tripylon [Council Hall]: left) costumes of two throne-bearers [on south jamb of eastern doorway of main hall], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.1643]; right) costumes of two throne-bearers [on north jamb of eastern doorway of main hall], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.1644]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 25 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Tachara [Palace (Palace of Darius)]: Syrian and Hebrew inscriptions."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 26 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Tachara [Palace (Palace of Darius)]: Arabic and Hebrew graffiti; Hadish [Palace of Xerxes]: palm tree and details on eastern stairway, [see FSA A.6 05.0899]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 27 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Hadish [Palace of Xerxes]: column base; Tachara [Palace (Palace of Darius)]: palm tree, palmettes, and masons' marks, [see FSA A.6 05.0899]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 28 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)] (?), [Tachara Palace (Palace of Darius): on southern wall of main hall, eastern jamb of central doorway, Sasanian inscriptions of the time of Shapur II, Middle Persian version], copied in situ 9, XII, '23, [see FSA A.6 04.GN.1979; FSA A.6 04.GN.2671; FSA A.6 04.GN.2672]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 29 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Tripylon [Council Hall]: [column] capital and base."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 30 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Hundred-Column Hall [Throne Hall]: [column] capital; Apadana: details of capital, [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2361]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 31 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], east vorhalle [east portico] of Apadana: fragments of lion capitals."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 32 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Tachara [Palace (Palace of Darius)]: details of [reliefs of servants on one of the stairway], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.0405; FSA A.6 04.GN.0984]; south-east palace [possibly Tachara (Palace of Darius)], [on one of the doorway of the main hall]: details of parasol, fly-switch and lotus."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 33 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Tachara [Palace (Palace of Darius)]: English [travelers] graffiti; Naqsh-i Rajab (Iran): lines of Pahlavi [middle Persian] inscription [of high priest Kartir]; Arabic Inscription of 826 H, [in Kufic script], [on window inside southern hall of the Tachara (Palace of Darius)]."

- In Finding Aid, captions for pg. 34 to 38 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Apadana: details of figures [on ceremonial stairway with reliefs depicting tribute procession]."

- In Finding Aid, captions for pg. 39 to 46 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], Hundred-Column Hall [Throne Hall]: details of [reliefs of] throne-bearers [on jambs of doorways in southern wall], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.2348; FSA A.6 04.GN.1628]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 47 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], plan of north tomb [Tomb of Artaxerxes III Ochus], [see FSA A.6 04.GN.1693]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 48 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], plan of [Achaemenian] building, in plain, south-west of Terrace [Complex]."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 49 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], [campaniform column base]; notes on remains of other buildings in city area."

- In Finding Aid, captions for pg. 50 and 53 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], measurements of levels for general plan of area."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 54 reads, "Naqsh-i Rajab [(Iran)], sketch plan of location of Sasanian reliefs."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 55 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], European [travelers] graffiti."

- In Finding Aid, caption for pg. 56 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], continuation of level measurements for plan."

- In Finding Aid, captions for pg. 57 to 60 reads, "Persepolis [(Iran)], sections of sketch plan in area of Terrace [Complex]."

Condors in a Coal Mine

Smithsonian Magazine

It was early winter, the end of deer-hunting season in Central California, and condor biologist Joe Burnett of the Ventana Wildlife Society was steeling himself for a task he had come to dread. Burnett and a team of four Condor Recovery Program members were at a remote site in the mountains east of Big Sur, where they were trapping condors and testing them for lead poisoning.

Three team members were restraining an adult female known as Condor 208. Their arms encircled her body, and one person clamped the bird's powerful jaws shut. Burnett grabbed a syringe.

"OK, here we go," he said. The team members tightened their hold, and Burnett plunged the needle into the bird's leg. The condor flinched.

Burnett transferred a drop of blood to a glass slide and inserted it into a portable instrument that tests blood for lead. It takes the instrument three minutes to give a reading; Burnett calls the waiting time "180 seconds from hell." An eerie silence enveloped the group as they awaited a prognosis on the bird's fate.

The machine beeped and displayed the test result: High. The bird's blood-lead level was elevated beyond the instrument's range. Condor 208 was in mortal danger.

The team rushed Condor 208 to the Los Angeles Zoo, where more sophisticated tests showed her blood-lead level to be more than ten times higher than acceptable. Veterinarians confined Condor 208 in a small pen and started twice-daily injections of a chelating agent to flush the lead from her body. It was the beginning of a desperate, round-the-clock attempt to save her life.

Prior to the gold rush, the California condor's population had been stable for thousands of years. The birds, with nine-and-a-half-foot wingspans, soared over much of the West. But beginning in the mid-1800s, a massive influx of new settlers upended the region's ecology and the condor began to plunge toward extinction. Shooting, egg collecting and especially poisoning from lead bullet fragments in hunter-shot game depleted the species' population. By 1982, only 22 condors remained.

Alarmed that our nation's largest bird was on its way to becoming a museum relic, a team of scientists embarked on one of the most controversial and high-profile recovery programs in conservation history. They captured every condor in the wild and established a captive-breeding program. The Condor Recovery Program has since increased the condor's population to its current level of more than 300 birds. About 150 of these condors have been released to fly free in California, Arizona, Utah and Baja California.

Lead poisoning was the main reason for the condor's decline, and lead remains the primary obstacle to the bird's recovery. Hunting season is a particularly perilous time; the number of lead-poisoning incidents spikes when condors eat game that has been shot but not retrieved by hunters.

Lead bullet fragments were first shown to be killing condors in 1984. As the years passed and evidence accumulated documenting the harm caused by spent ammunition, condor biologists determined that if they could not solve the lead bullet issue, the bird's future was hopeless.

Advocates for banning lead bullets point out that alternatives such as solid copper bullets are considered some of the best ammunition available. A simple switch to other ammunition would stop the dispersal of thousands of tons of lead across our landscape each year. At the same time, it would preserve the sport of hunting, which provides a significant food source for condors.

Some gun groups—including the National Rifle Association—have lobbied against any restrictions on lead ammunition. They object to the higher cost of alternative ammunition and say the research linking poisoned condors to lead bullet fragments is not definitive. Many opponents view attempts to regulate lead ammunition as an attack on their right to hunt. For more than two decades, their fierce opposition prevented the enactment of legislation to curtail the use of toxic lead bullets.

Last year, in one of the most significant developments in condor conservation history, California legislators passed a bill restricting lead bullets. Despite intense lobbying by gun organizations, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that requires the use of nonlead ammunition for big game hunting in much of California. The ban went into effect in July.

"The lead bullet ban is a huge step forward and gives the condor a real chance for recovery," said Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society. "But there are only a few game wardens to enforce this law. Its success will depend on hunters understanding that lead is deadly."

California's new lead bullet ban was designed to protect condors and other wildlife. But while the ban was being debated, intriguing new research was emerging to suggest that the biggest beneficiaries may be humans.

Image by USFWS/Los Angeles Zoo. An adult condor’s head and neck are a rainbow of colors that can change with the bird’s mood (original image)

Image by C. Parish / The Peregrine Fund. Condors can soar 150 miles in a day on their giant wings. The birds often fly for hours at a time with hardly a flap of their wings. (original image)

Image by USFWS / A. Fuentes. A released adult condor soars over the California foothills. California Condors have a wingspan of nearly ten feet and can weigh as much as 25 pounds (original image)

Image by C. Parish / The Peregrine Fund. All released condors carry number tags and either GPS or radio transmitters on their wings (original image)

Image by USFWS / D. Clendenen. An adult condor suns himself near his nest site. Condors live 50 or 60 years and often stay with the same mate for decades (original image)

In 2007, the condor's lead-poisoning problems caught the attention of William Cornatzer, a physician in Bismarck, North Dakota, who had joined the board of directors of the Peregrine Fund, a group that manages condor releases near the Grand Canyon.

An avid hunter, Cornatzer was intrigued by studies demonstrating what happens to a lead bullet when it hits a game animal. Condor biologists had shown that the bullet shatters into dozens and sometimes hundreds of tiny fragments that scatter widely from the wound site, leaving behind a deadly "snowstorm" of toxic lead that poisons condors and other scavengers such as ravens and bald eagles. Audubon California, an environmental conservation group, has identified 48 birds and other animals that are harmed by spent ammunition. Cornatzer wondered if humans might also be at risk.

Early in 2008, Cornatzer contacted the North Dakota Department of Health and arranged to collect 100 one-pound packages of ground venison donated by hunters to North Dakota food pantries. A radiologist helped Cornatzer run CT scans on the packages. They were stunned to discover that 59 of them contained metal fragments.

"The scans just lit up with tiny bits of metal," Cornatzer said. "I almost fell over. I could not believe how much metal was in the meat."

The North Dakota Department of Health ran additional scans that showed the metal fragments tested strongly for lead. Concerned about the potential risks for humans, North Dakota officials recommended the destruction of tons of venison still in storage at food pantries.

Spurred by the North Dakota findings, health departments in several other states ran similar tests and also found tainted meat. In the largest survey of donated venison, Minnesota officials X-rayed 1,239 packages and found 22 percent to be contaminated with lead.

"The lead fragments are so small that you can't feel them in your mouth when you are eating venison burger or sausage," Cornatzer said.

Because of the possible consequences for humans, North Dakota's Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are currently analyzing the blood-lead levels of 740 North Dakotans. The study participants were asked about possible sources of lead exposure—including game. The complete results are expected sometime next year. Chinaro Kennedy, a CDC epidemiologist leading the study, says "the number one thing people need to be aware of is the potential risk from lead—even in small doses."

The symptoms of low-level lead poisoning are insidious, ranging from hearing loss and high blood pressure to cardiovascular disease, stroke and kidney damage. Young children exposed to lead can suffer permanent intellectual impairment. In 2006, research conducted at Tulane University showed that blood-lead levels that were once thought safe are linked to a higher risk of death from a range of causes.

In May 2008, the Peregrine Fund sponsored a conference that brought together for the first time wildlife biologists and human health experts to examine the implications of ingesting spent lead ammunition.

"The overwhelming message from the conference was that people just haven't thought about the possibility that lead bullet fragments could be a source of sub-lethal human poisoning," said Rick Watson, vice president of the Peregrine Fund.

Calls have already begun for a nationwide ban on lead ammunition. The Humane Society of the United States, as well as a 2008 California Condor Blue Ribbon Panel sponsored by the American Ornithologists' Union and Audubon California, have recommended that hunters everywhere switch to alternative ammunition.

Condor 208 barely survived her massive lead poisoning. After she endured five stressful weeks of rehabilitation at the Los Angeles Zoo, veterinarians released her back into the chaparral-covered mountains near Big Sur. Then, in the spring of 2007, Condor 208 and a mate nested in a remote sandstone cliff, and she gave birth to the first condor chick born in Central California in more than 100 years. The baby condor was named Centennia.

Because the ban on lead ammunition is so new, Joe Burnett still has to test condors for lead poisoning. But he is hopeful that someday he can dispense with his syringe and field blood lab. For the first time in decades, the condor's prospects look brighter.

Additional research will be needed to investigate more fully the potential human health risks of ingesting lead from hunter-shot game. In the meantime, across the country most hunters continue to use lead bullets to shoot the game they bring home for their families to eat. Many of them are unaware of the hidden danger that could lurk in their meat.

Like canaries in a coal mine, the condors are acting as sentinels, providing a warning for anyone eating hunter-shot game. This ancient bird is telling us to pay attention—and to be careful.

John Moir is an award-winning science journalist and author of Return of the Condor: The Race to Save Our Largest Bird from Extinction.

The Best Places in America to See Fossils

Smithsonian Magazine

Fossils predate the written record by billions of years, but their impact on human history—and the way humans percieve the world around them—has been palpable for centuries. By offering a rare glimpse into worlds forgotten or unknown, fossils have long fascinated humans. Sometimes, fossils inspired mythology and folklore—in fourth century China, a historian mistook a fossilized dinosaur bone for a dragon bone. Other times, fossils gave scientists the physical evidence needed to piece together the natural history of life on Earth—in the late 1700s, fossil discoveries helped scientists understand the concept of extinction. Today, studying the fossil record remains as critical as ever. As the Earth's climate continues to change, understanding how previous species adapted (or didn't) to changes in the past gives scientists an indication about how we might respond to changes in the future. 

To celebrate National Fossil Day, take a trip back through the Earth's four main geologic eras, and check out places in the United States where you can see, firsthand, the evolution of life on Earth.

"The Age of Early Life"—the Precambrian Period (prior to 542 million years ago)

Image by Carl Bowman. Stromatolites in the Bass Limestone formation in the Grand Canyon National Park. (original image)

Image by © Dr. Marli Miller/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis. Cross section of stromatolite, Glacier National Park, Montana. (original image)

During the Precambrian Period, which ended 542 million years ago, life on Earth meant something very different than it does now. Most life existed in the planet's oceans, with soft-bodied organisms such as worms and jellyfish reigning supreme. Land, by contrast, was relatively barren. Fossils from the Precambrian show microscopic bacteria, the first form of life to emerge on Earth, coming into existence some 3.4 billion years ago. Multicelled organisms that survived the Precambrian include sponges, sea anemones, corals and flat worms. Fossils from this period mostly show mats of algae and very simple organisms. 

To see ancient algae mats, consider taking a trip to the Grand Canyon, which has Precambrian algae fossils embedded in its rocks. The oldest fossils you can see there are 1,200 million to 740 million-year-old stromatolites, which are the limestone structures formed by cyanobacteria, a phylum of bacteria that gets its energy from photosynthesis. Or head to Montana's Glacier National Park—the Altyn Formation, located on the eastern side of the park, reveals fossilized stromatolites in its layers of limestone and dolomite, some of which are nearly 1.5 billion years old.

"Age of Fishes"—the Paleozoic Era (542 to 251 million years ago)

Image by © Tom Bean/CORBIS. A trilobite fossil in a piece of the Bright Angel shale, from the Grand Canyon, dates from the early to mid-Cambrian period. (original image)

Image by © Dr. Marli Miller/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis. Permian Limestone, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico. (original image)

Image by © Dr. Marli Miller/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis. El Capitan is composed of massive Permian Limestone and forms the central part of the Permian Reef Complex that makes up the Guadalupe Mountains in Texas. (original image)

Image by USGS. Fossilized coral from the Paleozoic Era, found in the Mojave National Preserve. (original image)

Following the Precambrian, the world entered into what is known as the Paleozoic Era, a geological period that lasted nearly 300 million years. During this time, the diversity of marine life on the planet increased greatly, earning the era the nickname "the age of fishes." But it wasn't just marine life that made this period special: In the Paleozoic, plants also became increasingly common, and the first vertebrate animals, known as tetrapods, appeared on land. The first arthopods (the prehistoric ancestors of today's insects and crustaceans) also evolved during the Paleozoic—the most famous is the marine arthopod known as the trilobite, the single most diverse extinct class known to mankind (a new species is discovered nearly every year).

In the Grand Canyon, check out fossils of 500-million-year-old trilobites found in the Bright Angel shale. The Carlsbad Caverns contain some of the best known examples of marine fossils from the Permian period, which occurred at the end of the Paleozoic—there, you can see trilobites, brachiopods (marine animals that look like clams), sponges, bryozoans (microscopic "moss animals" that helped build Permian reefs) and more. The Mojave National Preserve also contains numerous Paleozoic fossils, including corals from the later Paleozoic periods. 

The Guadalupe Mountains National Park, in Texas, is home to one of the best examples of an ancient marine reef on Earth. 265 million years ago, during the Permian period, the area was part of a vast, ancient sea—today, the remains of what was once a 400-mile-long reef are exposed for all to admire, and replete with fossils, from ancient algae to prehistoric gastropods (the ancestors of today's snails).

To do some fossil hunting of your own, head to Lilydale Regional Park outside of St. Paul, Minnesota. The park is filled with fossils from the Cambrian and Ordovician periods, the first two periods of the Paleozoic era. However, note that you need to apply for a permit to collect fossils in the area.

"The Age of Reptiles"—the Mesozoic Era (251 to 65.5 million years ago)

Image by © Louie Psihoyos/Corbis. Excavation along an ancient shoreline of the Morrison Formation, in Southeast Colorado. (original image)

Image by © Tom Bean/CORBIS. Dinosaur bone fossils at the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. (original image)

Image by © Scott Smith/Corbis. Exposed fossil bones of Camarasaurus</I> at Carnegie Dinosaur Quarry, in the Morrison Formation, at Dinosaur National Monument. (original image)

Image by Wikimedia Commons. Fossilized dinosaur tracks in Glen Canyon. (original image)

For many, the Mesozoic Era might be synonymous with dinosaurs, and for good reason: it was during this geological era that the giant reptiles ruled both land and air. But dinosaurs weren't the only form of life around during the Mesozoic, and in fact weren't even very diverse until the Jurassic period, some 50 million years into the Mesozoic Era. Vegetation also began to diversify during the Mesozoic, with conifers—cone-bearing plants—becoming plentiful alongside flowering plants, which emerged during the late Cretaceous period. 

The Mesozoic Era came to a close with the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction, the Earth's most recent mass extinction event, which saw the disappearance of between 70 and 80 percent of all life on Earth, including all terrestrial dinosaurs. (Avian dinosaurs lived on—and eventually became the birds of today). For millions of years, the dinosaurs remained hidden in the Earth's crust as fossils. As of today, the most numerous and diverse dinosaur fossils have been found primarily in North America, China and Argentina, with the Western United States representing a large portion of all dinosaur fossils found. 

A geological formation known as the Morrison Formation is one of the most productive places, yielding numerous exceptionally well-preserved dinosaur remains from Stegosaurus to Diplodocus. The Morrison Formation is made up of limestone, mudstone, sandstone and siltstone, and it extends through much of the Western United States, reaching from Montana to New Mexico. To see the Morrison Formation, head to Dinosaur National Monument, which straddles Colorado and Utah, although dinosaur fossils are only on display in the Utah portion. Wander along the Fossil Discovery Trail, a 1.2-mile path that features exposed layers of rock, several fossils and preserved dinosaur bones.

The Colorado Plateau, one of the last regions in the United States to be thoroughly mapped, is also a treasure trove of Mesozoic fossils. Head to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area to check out dinosaur tracks—the preserved footprints of dinosaurs—located in the area's visitor centers. 

"The Age of Mammals"—the Cenozoic Era (65.5 million years ago through today)

Image by © Michael Durham/Minden Pictures/Corbis. 33 million-year-old fossil needles surrounded by maple seeds at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon. (original image)

Image by © Tom Bean/CORBIS. The fossilized remains of a 35 million-year-old bee, in the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado. (original image)

From the fires of the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, a new geological era emerged: the Cenozoic Era, or "the age of mammals." The Cenozoic is broken up into three periods, over the course of which the Earth's climate changed drastically. Beginning with the Paleogene Period, 65-23 million years ago, the Earth was very warm and wet, with a mostly tropical climate. This period of warmth was followed by a lengthy dry period, where temperatures were much cooler, known as the Neogene Period. After the Neogene Period came the Quaternary Period (2.6 million years ago), which also saw cool temperatures.

At the beginning of the Cenozoic, small mammals that had survived the mass extinction event were the most prevalent form of life—later, small horses, rhinos and elephants begin to appear. Later still, primates came onto the scene, arriving in the Neogene Period. During the Quaternary Period, large mammals, such as cave lions, saber-toothed cats, giant deer, cave bears and wooly mammoths ruled the landscape. 

The John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon reveal the distinct layers of life during the Cenozoic Era. The area is home to seven assemblages, or groups of fossils, spanning from 44 million years ago to 7 million years ago. The Clarno Assemblage, the oldest, dates from a time when Central Oregon was a humid, semitropical area, and was home to animals such as ten-foot-long crocodiles and creodonts, large meat-eating mammals similar to hyenas (though not related to them). Almost forty million years later, aridification had turned Central Oregon into a desert—the most recent assemblage, Rattlesnake, recalls a time when fierce predators, such as sabre-tooth cats, roamed the area. The best way to see all the fossils the John Day Basin has to offer is to check out the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, which contains 40,000 fossils.

The Florissant Fossil Beds in Colorado are also an excellent place to see Cenozoic fossils—the area is renowned for having the richest and most diverse fossil beds in the entire world. All told, more than 1,700 species have been found in the fossil beds over 160 years, including remains of the brontothere, a rhino-like animal, and the first fossilized butterfly found in North America.

Urban Legends About the Smithsonian

Smithsonian Magazine

The Smithsonian Institution has been a part of the American landscape since 1846. Yet perhaps because of the breadth and eclecticism of its collections, people still aren’t sure exactly what the Institution does or know much about the objects it contains. With that in mind, we would like to take this opportunity to clear up a few lingering misconceptions.

Myth #1: The Hope Diamond is cursed.

Fact: It isn’t. A coincidental string of unfortunate events befell its handlers.

Backstory: The so-called curse originated as a marketing ploy devised by jeweler Pierre Cartier to entice Washington, D.C. socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean to buy the gem. Cartier created a fantastic story about the jewel’s provenance and how the stone brought grief to anyone who handled it. McLean purchased the jewel—an acquisition reported in the New York Times on January 29, 1911, with a recounting of Cartier’s dark tale. Over the years, other publications picked up the story, helping perpetuate the legend about the stone. McLean’s later misfortunes—her husband ran off with another woman and later died in a sanitarium, a car struck and killed her son and her daughter died of a drug overdose—contributed to the perception that the stone was cursed. After McLean’s death, the diamond came into the possession of jeweler Harry Winston, who later donated it to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, in 1958. The jewel was sent to the museum by registered mail and delivered by postal worker James Todd, who suffered several misfortunes the following year—a broken leg, the deaths of both his wife and dog and the loss of his house in a fire. Todd took it in stride. “If the hex is supposed to affect the owners,” he said, “then the public should be having the bad luck [not me]!” While the Smithsonian was pleased to receive the jewel—the centerpiece of its mineral collections—the public was less enthusiastic. “If the Smithsonian accepts the diamond,” one person wrote, “the whole country will suffer.” Museum curators, however, dismiss the idea of the stone bringing bad luck. The Hope Diamond has attracted millions of visitors to the Smithsonian over the past 50 years.

Myth #2: The Smithsonian mounted an excavation to find Noah’s Ark at Mount Ararat.

Fact: The Smithsonian has never conducted archaeological work on Mount Ararat; in fact, no one knows whether the mountain is indeed the site of Noah’s Ark.

Backstory: According to the Book of Genesis, after the flood, Noah’s Ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. This description has led many people to focus their search for the Ark on modern-day Mount Ararat (also known as Mount Masis and Agri Dagi), in Turkey. Furthermore, aerial photographs of the site reveal a strange formation, known as the Ararat Anomaly, which some speculate is the Ark.

Myth #3: A Smithsonian curator named Harvey Rowe working in the antiquities department turned down a so-called prehistoric artifact for the Smithsonian’s collections.

Fact: The Smithsonian does not have anyone on staff by that name, let alone an antiquities department.

Backstory: In the mid-1990s, a creative graduate student crafted a letter under the name Harvey Rowe, curator of antiquities, rejecting the claims of an amateur paleontologist who was convinced he had discovered signs of prehistoric life in his own backyard: a Malibu Barbie doll. (A version of the letter appears at The letter began circulating on the Internet in 1994 and quickly spread, tickling funny bones all over cyberspace.

Myth #4: The Smithsonian discovered Egyptian ruins in the Grand Canyon.

Fact: It didn’t.

Backstory: On April 5, 1909, the Arizona Gazette ran the following headline: “Explorations in Grand Canyon; Mysteries of Immense Rich Cavern Being Brought to Light; Jordan Is Enthused; Remarkable Find Indicates Ancient People Migrated from Orient.” The article includes testimony of one G. E. Kincaid who says that he, traveling solo down the Green and Colorado Rivers, discovered proof of an ancient civilization—possibly of Egyptian origin. The story also asserts that a Smithsonian archaeologist named S. A. Jordan returned with Kincaid to investigate the site. However, the Arizona Gazette appears to have been the only newspaper ever to have published the story. No records can confirm the existence of either Kincaid or Jordan.

Myth #5: Betsy Ross stitched the Star-Spangled Banner.

Fact: Mary Pickersgill stitched the flag that inspired the National Anthem.

Backstory: The making of the first standard of the United States is popularly attributed to Betsy Ross, a professional flagmaker who has become a national folk hero. The legend stems from Ross’ grandson, William J. Canby, who, in 1870, wrote down a story a relative had told him in 1857­—well after Ross’ death. The account goes that in spring 1776, George Washington approached Ross with a rough sketch of a flag and asked her to make a national standard. With the United States preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary, the story about the birth of the national flag captured imaginations. There is, however, no documentation that links Ross with making the first flag, and the events described in Canby’s account take place a year before the passage of the Flag Act—the legislation that dictates the style and substance of the national flag. Visitors to the National Museum of American History sometimes ask if the Star Spangled Banner—currently on display after extensive conservation efforts—is an example of Ross’s work. That flag was stitched by Mary Pickersgill and flew over Fort McHenry during the 1814 Battle of Baltimore, inspiring Francis Scott Key to pen the poem that became our National Anthem.

Myth #6: The Smithsonian Castle is haunted.

Fact: The only souls that haunt the Castle are tourists searching for food and information.

Backstory: Tales of otherworldly inhabitants stalking the Smithsonian’s hallowed halls have been floating around for over a century. The Institution’s founder, James Smithson, is said to be among these otherworldly visitors. Another rumored ethereal presence is paleontologist Fielding B. Meek, who lived in pitifully small rooms in the Castle with his cat. His first residence was under one of the Castle’s staircases before an 1865 fire forced him to move to one of the towers, where he died in 1876. “Many ghost stories have swirled about,” says the curator of the Castle collection Richard Stamm, “but in the 34 years I have been in this building, no ghosts have ever shown their faces to me!”

Myth #7: The Smithsonian owns something that once belonged to John Dillinger.

Fact: The Smithsonian does not own any personal effects of John Dillinger.

Backstory: According to some, a morgue photograph of the sheet-shrouded corpse of John Dillinger suggests nature was rather generous to the gangster. Newspaper editors fearing scandal prudently refused to run the image. However, a popular rumor arose asserting that the gangster’s organ was in the collections of the Smithsonian. This myth has proved so pervasive that the Smithsonian has created a form letter to respond to curious minds: “In response to your recent query, we can assure you that anatomical specimens of John Dillinger are not, and never have been, in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution.”

Myth #8: There is a subterranean archive center underneath the National Mall.

Fact: The Smithsonian’s storage facilities are mostly located in Suitland, Maryland.

Backstory: The notion that a labyrinthine network of storage space exists beneath the Smithsonian museums, under the National Mall, may have started with Gore Vidal’s novel The Smithsonian Institution and was most recently popularized by the movie Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Unfortunately, no such storage facility is to be found. The archive center depicted in the film is based on the Smithsonian’s storage facilities in Suitland, Maryland. However, there is a staff-only accessible underground complex of passageways that connect the Freer, the Sackler, the Castle, the African Art Museum, the International Gallery and the Arts and Industries Building.

There is also a tunnel that connects the Castle with the Museum of Natural History. Built in 1909, it is technically large enough to walk through; however, a person has to contend with cramped spaces, rats and roaches. A quick jaunt across the National Mall is the preferred means of traveling between the two museums.

Myth #9: The Smithsonian owns a steam engine that was lost on the Titanic.

Fact: While the museums cannot confirm this story, one thing is certain: the Smithsonian will not acquire or display artifacts culled from the Titanic wreck site.

Backstory: Inventor Hiram Maxim—who developed technological wonders such as the machine gun and the mousetrap—supposedly donated a steam engine used in a failed flying machine to the Smithsonian. The equipment was allegedly shipped from Britain to the United States aboard the ill-fated RMS Titanic. However, the ship’s cargo list—published in the New York Times in conjunction with the liability hearings that followed from the disaster—does not include any records of shipments made by Hiram Maxim. The Times article does state that “The cargo consisted of high-class freight, which had to be taken quickly on board and which could be just as quickly discharged.” Specifically listed are articles such as fancy foodstuffs and spirits, but it seems possible that a last crate of machinery could have been loaded on board.

Abiding by the sanctuary principle, the Smithsonian honors the site as a memorial to those who perished and will not disturb the remains of the disaster. While Titanic artifacts—such as articles of mail—have been on view at the Smithsonian, they were pieces retrieved from the surface of the North Atlantic.

Myth #10: James Smithson’s remains are housed in the sarcophagus in the Castle.

Fact: His body resides in the Tennessee marble pedestal beneath the sarcophagus.

Backstory: James Smithson, British scientist and founder of the Smithsonian who never set foot on American soil, died during a trip to Genoa, Italy. His remains were initially interred in the San Beningo cemetery, his gravesite marked with an elaborate sarcophagus (the one on view in the Castle). In 1904, the cemetery was going to be lost due to the enlargement of a nearby quarry, so the Smithsonian Board of Regents decided to collect Smithson’s remains and bring them to the United States.

Smithson was last disinterred in 1973. James Goode, former curator of Castle Collections, said it was because of ghost sightings. Officially, however, the reasons were more scientific: to mount a complete study of the coffin and the skeleton itself. Also, it was thought that documents about his life might have been buried with him. No written material was found with the remains, but a copy of the examination of the bones by the Smithsonian’s physical anthropologist Larry Angel (1962-1982) was filed inside the coffin before it was sealed and returned to the crypt.

Image by Dane A. Penland / Smithsonian Institution. The curse of the Hope Diamond originated with jeweler Pierre Cartier. He used the curse as a marketing ploy to entice Evalyn Walsh McLean to buy the gem. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Many believe the Smithsonian Castle is haunted. The Institution's founder, James Smithson, is said to be among the otherworldly visitors. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Pickersgill Retirement Community. Mary Pickersgill stitched the flag that inspired the National Anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner. The flag currently hangs in the National Museum of American History. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian will not acquire or display artifacts culled from the Titanic wreck site. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. James Smithson's remains are housed in the sarcophagus in the Smithsonian Castle. They were moved to the U.S. from Genoa. Here, U.S. Consul to Genoa, William Henry Bishop, holds Smithson's skull during exhumation. (original image)

Image by Bettmann / Corbis. The body of bank robber John Dillinger is put on display in a Chicago morgue after he is shot to death. (original image)

How Director James Gray Discovered the Insanity Behind the Search for “The Lost City of Z”

Smithsonian Magazine

“I was interested in how obsession rises in someone’s life,” the movie director and screenwriter James Gray is saying. “And I wanted to explore that. . .You know, to examine that process.”

Gray is sitting in the cafeteria of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, on Washington D.C.’s National Mall, and talking about his new film, The Lost City of Z, which opens in the United States on April 14.

The film—adapted from a book of the same title by the author David Grann—concerns the British military officer, cartographer and explorer, Percival Fawcett, who disappeared along with his son and a small team in the jungle along the Brazil-Peru border in 1925, while searching for the ruins of a lost Amazonian city he believed to exist.

In fact, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, or at least its early predecessor, was one of the funders of his seventh—and last—expedition into the still uncharted lands of Mato Grosso in Brazil. “You know,” says Melissa Bisagni, “the Museum of the American Indian (founded in 1916 by George Gustav Heye) financed some of Fawcett’s final expedition, but we don’t have anything in the collection because he never made it back!”

Still, the story of Fawcett’s multiple journeys from Britain to South America, and his descent into what became an ultimately deadly obsession is gorgeously documented in Gray’s new film.

The last anyone knows of Percival Fawcett (1867-1925) was at a place that came to be called “Dead Horse Camp,” where the explorer killed all of the group's pack animals. (Wikimedia Commons)

The richness of the South American landscapes, the confinements Fawcett felt at home in Great Britain, the increasingly troubled marriage his wife and he endured as Fawcett grew more fascinated by the searching for—and the hope of finding—a lost city in “Amazonia,” are all splendidly portrayed, in both their lushness and the mortal terror that lies just beneath.

Percival Fawcett, ably portrayed in the film by the actor Charlie Hunnam, is a classic British explorer from the turn of the last century. Born in 1867, Fawcett was educated at the British military college of Woolwich, and afterward did several tours of duty for the British Army and the British Secret Service, in locations as different as North Africa and Sri Lanka. In 1901, like his father before him, Fawcett joined the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), where he studied and learned the craft of surveying and cartography.

In 1906, at the age of 39, Fawcett was sent to South America for the first time by the RGS, to survey and map the frontier between Brazil and Bolivia, setting into motion his fascination with that largely still-uncharted part of the world. By then, he had married and was the father of two, but his extended trips in South America would become the things that defined him. Studying what few written documents there were of that part of the world at the time, Fawcett, in 1913 or so, stumbled onto an account that alleged there was a lost city, the ruins of a formerly great civilization, in the endless and malarial Mato Grosso region of Brazil.

Fawcett was hooked.

The next year, Fawcett, then a largely retired Major with the British Army artillery, would volunteer to serve in World War I, in Flanders, where he was gassed and temporarily lost his eyesight. In 1918, at the end of the war, Fawcett was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given Britain’s Distinguished Service Order.

The cast and crew were regularly besieged by nature, says director James Gray (above, left). “We escaped catastrophe on a few occasions.” (Aidan Monaghan/ Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street)

“I felt that World War I was the basis of it all,” says the writer and director Gray. “After that, he was a changed man.” Somewhere during the war, Gray says, something heavy had shifted in Fawcett’s life.

Grann’s book gives equal measure to Fawcett’s obsession with his lost city and also the author’s own aversion to the South American trek he knew was required to complete his manuscript. Gray’s film stays keenly on the explorer’s tale. The film is an edge-of-the-seat ride into the wilderness; both internal and external. It’s both beautiful and terrifying.

“I wanted to do a straight Fawcett story,” Gray says. “He was so interesting. After the war, he would sit for hours on end with his head in his hands. And I thought, what happened to him?”

Brad Pitt’s film-production company, Plan B, purchased the rights to Grann’s book and Gray, once signed-on, would soon make his own journey. The film’s South American scenes, shot on-site in Columbia, were demanding, to say the least. And under circumstances that, at minimum, could be called dynamic, Gray had to keep his cast and sizable filming crew together and out of harm’s way.

Gray says he found the experience of shooting in Colombia, “punishing. . . . just punishing.”

Charlie Hunnam plays Percival Fawcett, British explorer from the turn of the last century who became obsessed by a lost city in the jungles of South America. (Aidan Monaghan/ Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street)

During the four-month shoot, eight weeks of which was done in the mountains and river jungles of Colombia, the cast and crew were regularly besieged by nature. “We escaped catastrophe on a few occasions,” Gray says, now smiling as he thinks back on it.

As much of the film’s South American scenes concern either a river journey or a jungle slog (complete with pack animals, who Fawcett sometimes sacrificed for food), getting all of the scenes on-camera regularly proved demanding. Some days, while shooting river scenes where Fawcett and his team are on a bamboo and wood raft, the river would rise and fall eight inches in a matter of minutes, due to unseen cloudbursts upstream, creating torrents that would upset the whole production and drive the cast and crew off the water.

“The river would be your friend, or the river would be your enemy,” Gray says. “It totally depended on the day.”

Another day, during the shoot on land, Gray adds with a smile, an ankle-deep tide of rainwater from somewhere uphill rushed through as they were filming. “You just never knew,” he says.

But during the making of the film, Gray says, he came to understand something about Fawcett that glows through in the film and often creates moments of poetry.

There are shots of thick clouds of butterflies against the blue sunset sky shaded by Amazonian tree canopies, and ominous dark river water that is likely filled with piranhas and black caimans, waiting. There are long shots of mountains, with tiny surveyors—one of which is Fawcett as portrayed by the ropey, intense Hunnam—standing in the foreground, and glimpses through the underbrush of tribal people in loincloths and feathered head-dresses, who are perplexed by these British explorers that have landed in their midst. There are domestic dust-ups between Fawcett and his long-suffering wife, Nina (Sienna Miller) in the British afternoon and evenings, where she no longer knows what to make of her husband and the father of her children. Most terrifyingly, there are scenes where the jungle’s green vegetation erupts in fusillades of native arrows fired at Fawcett and his team.

Robert Pattinson is Fawcett's aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Aidan Monaghan/ Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street)

One shot, in particular, has Fawcett blocking a single arrow fired at his chest using a leather-bound notebook as his shield. It’s a show-stopper.

Also remarkable in the film is the movie star, Robert Pattinson, as Fawcett’s aide-de-camp, Henry Costin, who—with a huge bushy beard and tiny Victorian-age spectacles—is indistinguishable from the teen-heartthrob he played in the “Twilight” series of films beginning a decade ago. As a character in Gray’s film, Pattinson is stalwart and steady. As is Tom Holland, who plays Fawcett’s son, Jack, who was also ultimately lost with his father in the jungles of the upper Amazon, never to be seen again.

The last anyone knows of Fawcett, his son, his son’s best friend, and a few local guides who came to believe Fawcett was unhinged, was at a place that came to be called “Dead Horse Camp,” where Fawcett killed all of their pack animals. Clearly, his guides might not have been wrong about Fawcett’s state of mind.

From there on, the team could only carry what they had on their backs. At Dead Horse Camp, Fawcett sent out a last letter by runner—and that was it. They were never heard from again. A few of the group's goods were recovered two years later. Teams looked for Fawcett’s remains for a decade.

The story of how they ended up remains a mystery.

Even the native Kalapalo people can’t say precisely what happened to Fawcett in 1925, though the story remains alive with them. It’s said the native people warned Fawcett from going deeper into the jungle, as the tribal people there were not predictable.

Some Kalapalo natives claim Fawcett and his team were clubbed to death deeper in the rainforest. Others say they were killed by arrows. Others say they simply disappeared, lost and eventually mired-down in the forest.

But, as rendered in both Grann’s book and in Gray’s movie, Colonel Percy Fawcett, was now consumed with finding his “Lost City of Z”—no matter if he would ever find it or not. In a pivotal moment in the film, Hunnam screams at those who remain: “There is no turning back!”

It’s terrifying.

Despite the fact that the movie is finished and soon to be in theaters, and at the moment seated in the museum cafeteria on the National Mall, James Gray shakes his head over his plate of lunch as he continues to plumb the mystery that was Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett’s life.

James Gray puts down his silverware. He’s thinking about the mystery that proved the end of Colonel Percy Fawcett, and the journey Gray himself has taken in the making of his movie.

Gray tosses up his hands and smiles.

“Going to the jungle was just safer for him,” he says. “It was safer for him there, right up until it wasn’t.”

“The river would be your friend, or the river would be your enemy,” James Gray says. “It totally depended on the day.” (Aidan Monaghan/ Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street)

Shimmy Through the World's Most Spectacular Slot Canyons

Smithsonian Magazine

It begins with a simple crack in the rock on the ground. But add a few million years and that crack opens into a deep winding gorge in the earth, with a narrow path and sheer sides. The crack has become a slot canyon.

Slot canyons—the narrow, tall channels through otherwise solid rock—can be found anywhere in the world, but are particularly numerous in the southwestern U.S. and Australia, where the perfect canyon-forming combination of soft rock and extreme climate collide. It happens like this: the initial crack is covered by a flash flood from heavy rain pooling in a natural wash. The water seeps into the crack, bringing with it rocks, sediment, and other debris that carve a little bit away from the inside edges of the crack. Rain, flood, repeat. Sandstone is most susceptible to this kind of earth carving, but slot canyons can also form out of limestone, granite, basalt and other types of rock.

Once formed, careful hikers can trek through the base of these otherworldly canyons, shimmying through tapered sections, bracing themselves against both walls in the narrowest portions and beholding scenery unlike just about anything else in the world. Intrigued? Be sure to plan carefully or take a guide as flash floods and extreme conditions can make these canyons as dangerous as they are beautiful. 

Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Image by Simone_Amaduzzi_Photographer / iStock. The Heaven's Eyes (original image)

Image by jose1983 / iStock. Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona (original image)

Image by Left_Coast_Photographer / iStock. Sandfall (original image)

Image by sprokop / iStock. Upper Antelope Canyon (original image)

Image by FilippoBacci / iStock. Light Beams Inside Antelope Canyon (original image)

This slot canyon packs double the punch: it has two parts, upper and lower. Both have a separate entrance fee, but with that small price of admission, they offer different spectacular views. Upper Antelope Canyon has wider, more family-friendly pathways at the expense of more crowds; Lower Antelope Canyon is longer, narrower, deeper and more challenging—thus, less crowded. Antelope Canyon is on Navajo land, so visitors will always need a tour guide regardless of which part of the canyon they want to see. Both routes have Navajo names as well—Upper Antelope is called Tse’ bighanilini (“the place where water runs through rocks”) and Lower Antelope is Hasdestwazi (“spiral rock arches”).

Robber’s Roost Canyon, Utah

Image by Ken Lund, Flickr. Dirty Devil (original image)

Image by Wikicommons. Upper Robbers Roost Canyon, and the South Fork of the canyon (original image)

Ever dreamed of being a part of Butch Cassidy’s dream team? Head to the Dirty Devil portion of Robber’s Roost, where it's said that Cassidy used to hide out from the cops. In fact, this area was used as a hideout for outlaws of all types for about 30 years. The original Wild Bunch corral is still there. According to local lore, the area is so named because Cap Brown, an outlaw of the time, used to lead stolen horses through in the 1870s. This canyon falls under a “protected for solitude” restriction, so visitors will need to get a permit to visit—and only two per day are given.

Robber's Roost actually has three distinct sections: an upper plateau, slot canyons and larger canyons on the other end of the slots. There are three main slot canyons. Chambers Canyon is in a more remote part of the Roost and is quite intense; the quarter-mile slot can take about an hour and a half to complete. Big Bad Ben is short with a 60-foot rappel, but also often has waist-deep pools—so bring a bathing suit. Bluejohn Canyon has become part of current pop culture; it's the site of Aron Ralston's fateful hike in the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place and the accompanying movie "127 Hours."

Siq, Jordan

Image by stevenallan /iStock. The lost city of Petra (original image)

Image by vanbeets / iStock. The Siq in Petra, Jordan (original image)

Image by liseykina / iStock. Petra (original image)

Image by FedevPhoto / iStock. Petra by Night in Jordan (original image)

Image by playinhot / iStock. Three bedouins riding a horse cab through the canyon in the ancient city of Petra (original image)

Image by Mytho / iStock. Sandstone detail (original image)

Most who wish to reach the ancient city of Petra must first walk through Siq, a massive slot canyon leading to the entrance of the Treasury, and one of just two primary passages to the ancient archeological site. The path through the canyon winds along for about three quarters of a mile, at times narrowing to just a few feet across. Unlike most slot canyons that are gradually carved by water errosion, Siq was formed after two tectonic plates forced the mountain to split apart—flash floods later smoothed the canyon walls. The entire route unfolds downhill toward Petra; consider renting a horse or camel to have an easier trek back up when you’re finished exploring.

Buckskin Gulch, Utah

Image by dpenn / iStock. Buckskin Gulch Slot Canyon (original image)

Image by CampPhoto / iStock. Buckskin Gulch (original image)

Image by amygdala_imagery / iStock. Beautiful wildflowers and slot canyon (original image)

Image by ES3N / iStock. Narrow pass in Buckskin Gulch (original image)

Buckskin is the longest slot canyon in the U.S., and some consider it the longest in the world. It's also one of the most dangerous. The 12-mile path barely stretches more than 10 feet wide, and the walls are about 400 feet tall at the canyon's deepest point. A little more than halfway in, there's a single escape route—but otherwise, if a quick storm pushes through and sends floodwater careening into the canyon, you're in big trouble. Luckily, there have been no reported deaths to date.

Colored Canyon, Egypt 

Image by DKart / iStock. Red Canyon (original image)

Image by thrshr / iStock. Zigzag Corridor Of The Colored Canyon (original image)

Image by Givaga / iStock. Canyon in Sinai (original image)

Image by yykkaa / iStock. Colored Canyon (original image)

Image by DKart / iStock. Red Canyon (original image)

On Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, travelers can find a slot canyon with walls of swirling colors. The rock itself is a combination of sandstone and limestone, with magnesium and iron oxide deposits. The whole region was once undersea, and when the water eventually eroded the rock below, it left brilliant shades of red, yellow, purple and orange. Although the walls rise up about 16 stories, they are sometimes only a few feet apart from one another. For a short hike, opt for Colored Canyon; it’s only about half a mile long.

Claustral Canyon, Australia

Image by Vern. Deep within Claustral Canyon. (original image)

Image by Vern. Rappelling down a waterfall in Claustral Canyon. (original image)

Image by Vern. Abseiling through the keyhole further into Claustral Canyon. (original image)

Image by Vern. Waterfall at a dead end in Claustral Canyo. (original image)

Image by Vern. A tunnel swim in Claustral Canyon. (original image)

This slot canyon in Australia's Blue Mountains is accessed by repelling down a series of waterfalls and scrambling over boulders. But the trek to get there is rewarded with a mossy, high-walled canyon and the opportunity to try out all types of technical climbing and canyoneering skills. The trip takes all day and can be quite strenuous.

One of the gems in this canyon is the Black Hole of Calcutta, so named for the 18th-century dungeon in India. The Black Hole marks the start of the main canyon, and looks like you really are descending into a black hole—one full of rushing water and chiseled, colorful walls.

Arizona Hot Springs, Arizona

Canyoning through hot springs in Boy Scout Canyon. (Perrin Doniger)

A few miles south of the Hoover Dam, the three-mile Arizona Hot Springs hiking path heads through multiple slot canyons and four distinct landscapes. All the while, hikers will be walking alongside or through natural hot springs. The final destination is a series of pools of varying temperatures where hikers can rejuvenate their weary bones beneath towering rock walls. Below the pools, a ladder leads hikers down (and through) a 20-foot hot spring waterfall and the trail continues down to the Colorado River where camping spots are available.

Visitors looking for solitude can also arrange to be dropped off by an outfitter with a canoe below the Hoover Dam, allowing access to more remote hot springs slot canyons, including Boy Scout Canyon. Here the hike follows the hot springs up through narrow slots in reddish brown and black volcanic rock. Avoid a summer trip, though—the temperature can rise over 100 degrees, making a dip in the hot springs pretty uncomfortable.

M*A*S*H ended, but is not gone or forgotten

National Museum of American History
Blue book with photos of show cast and text: “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”The final episode of “M*A*S*H” was co-written with eight collaborators and directed by star Alan Alda.

Despite the photo ops and historic border crossings that emerged from the on-again off-again Korean summit this past spring, the Korean War has yet to come to a formal close because South Korea never signed the 1953 truce ending hostilities. For many Americans, the conflict ended on February 28, 1983, when the long-running television series set during the war, M*A*S*H, aired its final episode.

The series had an incredible 11-year run (nearly four times the length of the actual Korean conflict, 1950–1953). M*A*S*H followed the adventures—some boozy, philandering, and anti-authoritarian, and others heroic, noble, and lifesaving—of doctors and nurses of the fictional 4077 mobile army surgical hospital.

Two martini glasses and jar of olivesCaptains Hawkeye Pierce and B.J. Hunnicutt frequently served martinis from these glasses, with gin they distilled themselves.

The M*A*S*H finale, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” remains the most watched scripted television episode of all time. It is important to note, however, that the episode aired in a different television landscape—long before streaming and binge watching were possible, when programming was dominated by three networks offering limited choices. The finale smashed previous viewing records, including those held by the 1980 Season 4 premiere of Dallas, which continued the prime time soap opera’s “who shot J.R.?” mystery, and the finale for the 1977 miniseries Roots, which dramatized author Alex Haley’s family history from enslavement in West Africa to liberation after the Civil War.

TV Ratings, Source: New York Times and Nielsen

1983 proved a watershed year for television audiences, as the most watched made-for-TV movie, The Day After, also debuted that year. The movie, which graphically depicted the ravages of nuclear war, was a traumatizing collective experience during the height of the Reagan-era arms race. Despite weeks of hype and debate preceding it and the network providing counselors on toll-free numbers following the show, the movie garnered 77.4 million viewers—far fewer than the M*A*S*H finale.

The final episodes of perennial crowd-pleasing 1990s-era sitcoms, including Cheers, Seinfeld, and Friends did not surpass the M*A*S*H audience either.

Call sheetCall sheet from 20th Century Fox showing that final exterior photography took place at Malibu Creek State Park on Wednesday, December 8, 1982.

One reason for the high viewership is that the show lasted a whopping two-and-a-half hours. The producers lengthened the episode to incorporate a real-life brush fire that devastated the external M*A*S*H set in the Santa Monica Mountains in late 1982. Instead of rebuilding the set, the writers wrote the fire into the script, in which North Korean incendiary devices spark a fast-moving blaze that forces the 4077 to “bug out” to another location. In addition to using real fire footage, editors also reused scenes from an earlier episode (“Bug Out,” Season 5, Episode 1) in which an encroaching battle forces the 4077 to evacuate after Col. Sherman Potter finally quells false rumors of an impending “bug out” drill. The same shots of tents getting folded up, trucks pulling out, and the lowering of the crate serving as the basket for the basketball court appear in nearly the same sequence in both episodes.

In one of the closing scenes of the finale, shot at the mountain, the M*A*S*H crew dismantles the iconic signpost to “take their hometowns home.” Nurse Kellye Yamato grabs Honolulu and B.J. Hunnicutt swipes San Francisco, which rests between the handlebar and headlight of his motorbike as he rides away. Throughout the show’s 11-year run, the placards on the post changed towns and positions, making it likely that there were multiple signs or that the prop was reassembled occasionally. Los Angeles, Honolulu, Indianapolis, and two Tokyos appear in different shows or publicity shots, but not on the museum’s signpost as pictured here.

Photo of a wooden sign with white panels pointing to different cities, such as TokyoPointing the way to any place but here, this prop reflects the characters' humorous efforts to cope with the horrors of war.

M*A*S*H was still garnering high ratings when the creative team decided to end the series. According to actor, director, and writer Alan Alda, the team wanted to ensure that show’s quality did not deteriorate.

“I felt that we were running out of steam, and repeating ourselves. And I personally wanted to go out on a high note, artistically,” Alda said during a phone interview in 2017.

Page of typed textInterview transcript used by “M*A*S*H” writers as inspiration and research for story lines and characters.

Alda, who wrote several episodes, explained that many story ideas came from more than 50 interviews conducted by head writer Larry Gelbart with medical personnel and soldiers who had served in Korea and Vietnam. Several of these interviews are in the Smithsonian archives today.

“All of us who wrote for the show would pick through these reams of interviews, and look for one line from an interview that could be the basis of a story. You’d see all these sentences underlined, that other writers had mined,” he said.

Call sheetCall sheet for the final day of “M*A*S*H” filming, indicating the set was closed and preparations had been made for a press conference to follow.

Because of shooting schedules and some effort to keep details about the finale under wraps, the episode was shot and edited earlier in the season. The last filming session for M*A*S*H was for the penultimate episode, “As Time Goes By,” in which Major Margaret Houlihan spearheads an effort to bury a time capsule to commemorate the unit’s time together, while Hawkeye and B.J. collect less serious items for an alternative memorial.

Although the set was “closed,” hundreds of journalists and camerapeople were in the wings to record the show’s final wrap. When the last shot was taken, the actors were whisked away from Sound Stage 9 to the 20th Century Fox commissary for a press conference. Emotional sound bites from the stars appeared in local and national news outlets and helped build the hype and expectation for the M*A*S*H finale.

The 256 episodes live on lucratively in syndication and can frequently be seen on television. So fans who share B.J.’s aversion to parting don’t have to say goodbye. Some scholars and social historians debate the impact of the groundbreaking show. The story lines reflect myriad influences during its original run, including protest over the Vietnam War, distrust in the government sparked by the Watergate scandal, the blossoming of the women’s movement, the continued struggle for civil rights, and the increased focus on individual fulfillment. While a few critics accuse the show of displaying a preachy brand of moral superiority, many believe it represented the peak of network television. All agree, however, that M*A*S*H was and remains a cultural institution that left an indelible mark on its viewers.

Lucy Harvey is a program assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History who also volunteers with the Division of Culture and the Arts. She has also blogged about M*A*S*H’s costumes, actor Alan Alda’s reflections on the show, the museum’s popular M*A*S*H exhibition that once existed at this museum.

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These Stunning, Less-Visited Castles in Europe Are Straight Out of a Fairy Tale

Smithsonian Magazine

The castles dotting the European landscape are each worthy of their very own fairytale. These magnificent structures have survived wars, fires, dozens of generations and stood the test of time.

From the Greek Islands to the rocky cliffs of Scotland, each castle brings with it hundreds of years of human history, and perhaps a ghost story or two. And while most are built with brick and stone, their individual stories are all unique and intriguing for visitors from the world over to enjoy.

Step back in time by visiting any one of these romantic homes to feel like a royal, even just for a day. Here are 10 lesser-known castles scattered throughout Europe that belong on every traveler’s itinerary.

The Palace of Pena, Sintra, Portugal

Image by Romain Moisescot via Flickr. Palace of Pena (original image)

Image by Mark Fischer via Flickr. The Palace of Pena near Sintra, Portugal (original image)

Image by Weekend Wayfarers. The architecture is mixture of eclectic styles that includes Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic and Neo-Renaissance. (original image)

Image by Romain Moisescot via Flickr. Palace of Pena (original image)

Image by Romain Moisescot via Flickr. Palace of Pena (original image)

Image by Guillén Pérez via Flickr. View of the inside courtyard of Pena Palace, in Sintra, with the clock tower standing out with its intense red. (original image)

The colorful castle sits high in the hills above the town of Sintra, Portugal. Built in 1854, the castle is still often used by the President of the Portuguese Republic and other government officials. The castle is also surrounded by a vast forest with plants from around the world, just the way King Ferdinand II wanted it.

The Alcazar, Segovia, Spain

Image by vichie81 / iStock. Alcazar Castle (original image)

Image by sedmak / iStock. Alcazar Castle (original image)

Image by Andres Garcia Martin / iStock. One of the outer fountains in the Alcazar of Seville, a royal palace developed by Moorish Muslim Kings (original image)

Image by Photitos2016 / iStock. Alcazar Castle (original image)

Image by Alphotographic / iStock. Crest on the exterior wall of Alcazar Castle (original image)

The Alcázar of Segovia, located 53 miles northwest of Madrid, was originally built as a fortress on a hillside between two rivers, but also served as a royal palace, a state prison, and a military academy. Though the true age of the castle is unknown, the earliest documentation of the Alcázar dates back to the early 12th century. Visitors are encouraged to take advantage of the “Tower of Juan,” where they can take in breathtaking views of the community below.

Castle of Astypalaia, ChoraGreece

Image by Henrik Berger Jørgensen via Flickr. Astypalea (original image)

Image by Poike / iStock. Astypalaia (original image)

Image by Freeartist / iStock. Astypalea (original image)

The Venetian Castle of Querini in Chora, Greece sits atop the entire community, with its black stone exterior starkly contrasting to the traditionally whitewashed Greek town. The castle, originally constructed by John Querini in 1204 as a shelter against pirates, now invites travellers the world over to come and spend a little time. All you need to do is hike to the top of the mini-mountain it calls home first.

Hohenwerfen Castle, Werfen, Austria

Image by Rolphus / iStock. Castle Hohenwerfen (original image)

Image by fotofritz16 / iStock. Hohenwerfen Castle (original image)

Image by DaveLongMedia / iStock. Castle Hohenwerfen (original image)

Image by DaveLongMedia / iStock. Hohenwerfen Castle standing high above the Austrian town of Werfen in the Salzach valley, and surrounded by the Berchtesgaden Alps and the adjacent Tennengebirge mountain range. The castle dates back to the year 1075 and each year attracts thousands of visitors from all around the world. (original image)

Image by anderm / iStock. Hohenwerfen Castle (original image)

Hohenwerfen Castle in Austria is a stunning structure dating back more than 900 years. The castle will leave many visitors breathless, literally, as it sits more than 2,000 feet above sea level. The fortress is now a museum and offers daily guided tours of its extensive weapons collection, as well as the historical Salzburg Falconry, which has daily flight demonstrations using various birds of prey.

Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven, Scotland

Image by Dougall_Photography / iStock. Dunnottar Castle, a ruined medival fortification located near Stonehaven, Scotland (original image)

Image by Salvatore Conte / iStock. Dunnottar Castle In Aberdeen, Scotland (original image)

Image by GoranQ / iStock. Dunnottar Castle (original image)

Image by Jule_Berlin / iStock. Dunnottar Castle (original image)

Image by Salvatore Conte / iStock. Dunnottar Castle (original image)

The clifftop fortress known as Dunnottar Castle is believed to have been first built in Scotland in the Early Middle Ages. Steeped in history, the castle’s remains still include its 14th-century tower house as well as its 16th-century palace and was once home to the Earls Marischal, one of the most powerful families in Scottish history. The castle offers daily tours, though it does operate on a seasonal schedule and closes for inclement weather.

Kasteel de Haar, Utrecht, Netherlands

Image by Lingbeek / iStock. Kasteel de Haar (original image)

Image by Lya_Cattel / iStock. Kasteel de Haar (original image)

Image by VLIET / iStock. Main entrance of Kasteel de Haar (original image)

Image by TasfotoNL / iStock. Kasteel de Haar (original image)

Image by VLIET / iStock. Kasteel de Haar (original image)

Though Kasteel de Haar’s foundation dates back to 1391, the site was fully rebuilt in 1892 and now displays all the grandeur of the early 20th century. The interior of the castle is filled with ornate wood carvings, plush furniture, and old porcelain from Japan and China. The castle’s owners, the Van Zuylen van Nijevelt family, continue to reside in the home for one month each year, as they have done for over a century.

Castel del Monte, L'Aquila, Italy

Image by bluejayphoto / iStock. Castel del Monte (original image)

Image by bluejayphoto / iStock. Castel del Monte (original image)

Image by bluejayphoto / iStock. Castel del Monte (original image)

Image by venemama / iStock. Castel Del Monte (original image)

Image by milla1974 / iStock. Castel del Monte of Andria (original image)

Image by bluejayphoto / iStock. Castel del Monte (original image)

Castel del Monte in Puglia, Italy may look familiar and with good reason: The castle is featured on the backside of the Italian 1 Euro Cent piece. The castle’s construction was completed in 1240 by Fredrick II of Hohenstaufen, whose love of science is clearly evident in the building’s unique octagonal shape. Visitors can explore the castle and its grounds year-round except for Christmas and New Year's day.

Chillon Castle, Veytaux, Switzerland

Image by anouchka / iStock. Chateau de Chillon, Veytaux-Montreux, Switzerland (original image)

Image by InnaFelker / iStock. Chateau de Chillon (original image)

Image by anouchka / iStock. Chateau de Chillon (original image)

Image by lim_jessica / iStock. Footpath to Chillon Castle (original image)

Image by OGphoto / iStock. Chateau de Chillon (original image)

Chillon Castle is located on the rocky shores of Lake Geneva, near the border of Switzerland and France. The building as it currently stands is the result of hundreds of years of renovations, though the site has been occupied since the Bronze Age. Tourists are welcome to roam the castle and its grounds, but from June to October visitors can also experience something extra special by renting out the small stretch of discreetly hidden beach along Chillon’s shores.

Gripsholm Castle, Mariefred, Sweden

Image by Fotonen / iStock. Gripsholm Castle (original image)

Image by Rolf_52 / iStock. Gripsholm Castle in Mariefred (original image)

Image by AYImages / iStock. Gripsholm Castle (original image)

Image by Rolf_52 / iStock. Gripsholm Castle (original image)

Image by Rolf_52 / iStock. Gripsholm Castle (original image)

Gripsholm Castle, which sits on the banks of Lake Mälaren, was built in 1537 and maintains all of its old world charm and royal luxury. Visitors of the castle are invited to take a leisurely stroll through the castle grounds, visit the castle’s theater within one of the round towers built in 1780 by King Gustav III, or meet the royal deer at the Hjorthagen nature reserve.

Peles Castle, Sinaia, Romania

Image by tytyeu / iStock. Peles Castle (original image)

Image by coldsnowstorm / iStock. Courtyard of Peles Castle (original image)

Image by Kisa_Markiza / iStock. Peles Castle (original image)

Image by MariusGatea / iStock. Peles Castle (original image)

Image by berpin / iStock. Peles Castle (original image)

Peles Castle is tucked at the base of the Bucegi Mountains in the small town of Sinaia, Romania. Commissioned by King Carol I in 1873 and completed in 1883, the castle’s vibrant and colorful exterior make it the perfect storybook travel destination. Each of its 160 rooms are decorated with European art, German stained-glass windows, and leather walls. Though not as famous as Bran Castle, aka the home of Dracula located 30 miles away, Peles Castle should still be on everyone’s Romanian itinerary.

See more hidden castles on Travel + Leisure.

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Threatened Species? Science to the (Genetic) Rescue!

Smithsonian Magazine

Like the doomed passenger pigeon in 1914, the pink pigeon of Mauritius is standing on the edge of a precipice. After watching all of its other pigeon cousins on this remote island go extinct—including the dodo, its infamous island-mate last seen in 1662—this rosy-hued bird is now looking down the dark gullet of extinction itself.

After yo-yo’ing down to a population of just around nine individuals in the 1990s, the studly birds are back up to a population of about 400 today. But that number is still small enough to leave them dangerously vulnerable. The pink pigeon’s lack of genetic diversity has left it increasingly susceptible to a parasite-causing disease called trichomonosis, which kills more than half of its chicks and limits population growth.

Fortunately, it isn't 1662 anymore. Today, an evolving conservation tool could help pull these birds back from the brink of extinction: genetic rescue. It works by adding genetic diversity to these kinds of precariously numbered populationsby introducing specific individuals or, potentially, by someday directly editing their genes. If it works, this pigeon’s future may once again be as rosy as its plumage.

“We want to try to give them the tools to fight this disease,” says Camilla Ryan, a graduate student who studies the Mauritius pigeon with genomics researcher Matt Clark at England’s Earlham University. “The birds don’t have the numbers or potentially the genetic diversity to deal with the disease themselves.”

Clark and Ryan are hoping to pull this population back on its feet by pinpointing the genes that make these birds so vulnerable to in the first place. Then, they’ll sample captive pink pigeons in zoos and parks around the world in search of genes better suited to fight the disease, with the ultimate goal of potentially mating these with the wild population. The team has already generated genetic data from 180 different pink pigeons.

Still, the pair remain cautious in implementing a technique that has brewed controversy ever since it started becoming more readily implemented in the 1990s, in hallmark cases of rescuing Florida panthers and Illinois prairie chickens. They aren’t alone: Many conservationists argue that the approach could create unforeseen problems for species at risk, and that it doesn't resolve the underlying problems that push so many species to the brink of extinction, including habitat loss due to human development.

But as humans continue to encroach on wild habitats and alter global climate patterns, the situation for many species has become more dire. Now, many researchers are turning to genetic rescue this as a viable tool to pull these most vulnerable species from the brink of extinction. In the more distant future, some scientists think we might be able to go further, genetically modifying animals to become better suited to their rapidly changing environments.

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. For now, scientists are focused on sharpening their genomics tools. 

Crossing captive bird with wild bird populations can have mixed effects on their genomes. These domestic rock pigeons soar above Hurlstone Park, a suburb of Sydney. (Toby Hudson)

When populations like the pink pigeon’s shrink down to the double or even single digits, they experience something called inbreeding depression. Essentially, that means they have less diversity in their gene pool, which makes it harder for them to beat challenges in their environment. Signs of this have been found in numerous species, including an isolated population of wolves in Michigan where individuals started to develop an unusual arched posture and stubby tails—possible indicators of poor health.

Now, Ryan and Clark are scouring historic tissue samples from five museums across Europe to look for genes that older pink pigeons may have once had to fight off disease before inbreeding depression took hold. The team will then look for captive birds that may have maintained these historic helpful genes to mate them with the wild population.

Sounds fairly straightforward, right? Unfortunately, playing a genetic deity isn’t that simple.

Each genotype you introduce into the existing population comes with its own pros and cons. So the team must be careful not to introduce new problems into the wild birds’ immune systems, says Clark. “You could end up breeding a population that is very successful at fighting off Trichomonas, but what you have done is accidentally decreased the amount of diversity in the immune system,” says Clark.

If that’s the case, he adds, a new disease that they weren’t prepared for could theoretically hit and wipe out the entire population.

Mating captive birds with wild birds also runs the risk of introducing genes that the captive birds had evolved to survive in captivity, weakening the wild bird’s ability to survive in the wild. “By trying to help them out, you’ve made it worse,” Clark says. This threat, called outbreeding depression, raises hackles amongst conservation biologists and is a primary argument against using genetic rescue more widely.

The Florida panther is a hallmark of how genetic rescue can help pull species from the brink of extinction. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Yet despite these risks, several success stories have shown that genetic rescue can work. One of the major success stories conservationists point to is the Florida panther.

This large, iconic cat once lurked through the southeastern U.S in large numbers, enjoying its status as top predator and vital member of the ecosystem. But by the 1970s, habitat loss and hunting had shrunk the population to between 12 and 20 adults. Not only were their numbers dismal, but almost all of the male panthers showed signs of inbreeding depression, including undescended testicles, kinked tails and low sperm counts.

 Conservationists didn’t want to see this cat—which helped keep populations of white-tailed deer, wild hog, and other prey animals in check—go extinct. So in 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked with a team of researchers to transfer eight female mountain lions from Texas to mate with the Florida panthers. They hoped the mountain lions, which are a subspecies of the panther, would revitalize the gene pool and boost the population size.

Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University, says he had his doubts at first. If you were trying to rescue a species that had become so rare that it showed genetic damage, he believed, then it was already too late to save them. Many of his colleagues agreed. “You were treating the symptom rather than the cause,” Pimm says, citing habitat loss as the major cause in this case.

But the researchers went ahead, and mated the panthers and the mountain lions. Amazingly, their efforts seemed to work. The panther population grew and the next generation appeared free of kinked tails, undescended tentacles, and other signs of inbreeding. “All of those things disappeared,” says PimmTen years later, Pimm ran a follow-up study showing they had sustained a growing population free of these signs of inbreeding depression.

“It was fast, it was a very effective process,” he says now.

Other success stories popped up in the 1990s. Great prairie chicken populations grew for the first time in decades (though more recent studies question the role of genetic rescue in this success), along with the Swedish adder, a venomous snake that had suffered from inbreeding. Today, Pimm has changed his tune: He now believes genetic rescue can be an excellent tool in a conservationist’s toolbox, and is considering using it to protect other top predators, including lions in Africa.

Florida panthers have become an icon of genetic rescue success. (Michaelstone428 )

As researchers around the world consider implementing genetic rescue, they must better understand how the risk of outbreeding depression could differ from species to species. Unfortunately, because genetic rescue has been so controversial, few cases exist that could offer this information.

Even the success stories of the panthers, chickens and adders hold limited information regarding how the mechanism might transfer from one species to another, says Andrew Whiteley, a conservation genomics researcher at the University of Montana. That’s partly because these cases weren’t done systematically—they were more of a last-ditch effort to save a critically endangered species.

“Those were done in response to a pressing management concern, they weren’t really done to test the concept of genetic rescue in an experimentally rigorous way,” says Whiteley. “So those uncertainties are going to remain.”

Working to fill those knowledge gaps, Whitely has been conducting experiments with brook trout—a species easier to experimentally study than large predators—in which his team has moved fish into four different isolated populations and introduced fish from elsewhere to mate with them. Preliminary results suggest that the first round of matings were successful, but the real measure of success will come with the second generation’s ability to survive and reproduce—this is where symptoms of outbreeding depression tend to arise.

He plans to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the second generation’s ability to survive and reproduce, building a so-called pedigree to see how genes flow through the system. “And ultimately dig in with genomics to understand at the genome level what happened when this pulse of gene flow entered this small population,” says Whiteley. “Those are the types of data we need to be able to make solid recommendations.”

Crossing captive bird with wild bird populations can have mixed effects on their genomes. Here, a wild rock dove in flight. (Alan D. Wilson)

If the traditional form of genetic rescue is considered controversial, a newly developing iteration will like start a far louder hullabaloo. Today, biologists are considering literal tinkering with animal genomes, by genetically engineering them to have certain traits.

Robert Fleischer, head of the Center for Conservation Genomics at Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, is considering this option to make birds in Hawaii resistant to or tolerant of avian malaria, a human-introduced pathogen devastating many Hawaiian bird populations today. But researchers in his group and elsewhere say they are just in the preliminary stages of investigating this technique.

“We are not at the stage of doing any rescuing yet, we are just setting the stage for doing that in the future if it will work out,” says Fleischer.

Oliver Ryder, director of Conservation Genetics at San Diego Zoo Global, says these techniques could someday prove invaluable, but that broader discussions about the ethics and logistics would need to come first. Within those discussions, researchers would need to weigh the risks associated with each case—including the risk that the efforts simply wouldn’t work.

“In spite of the efforts, the pathogen would find a way around the solution or the engineering,” says Ryder, “so all of the effort would not be sufficient to keep the species from going extinct.”

Ryder is involved in a broader effort to develop yet another genetic rescue approach, and is interested in using it to save the Northern White Rhino. The technique, which is still years away, would use stem cell technology to produce eggs and sperm from frozen Northern White Rhinos cells stored at the San Diego Zoo Global. His team is also looking into using frozen sperm to create embryos from eggs obtained either from the last living females or through stem cell techniques. They would then theoretically transfer embryos into closely related rhinos, who would serve as surrogates. 

This rhino is the perfect candidate for such an approach, in part because there are only three of these individuals left that are all unable to breed naturally, Ryder says. “The Northern White Rhino is functionally extinct,” says Ryder. “The only way to keep it from going extinct would be to genetically rescue it using advanced genetic and reproductive technologies.”

For now, researchers generally agree that traditional genetic rescue without genetic modification offers the most immediate conservation solution. However, it will never be the end-all solution to saving degrading populations. Instead, it offers a stop-gap opportunity to deal other overlying issues like reducing isolation and improving habitat, says Chris Funk, a researcher at Colorado State University who has conducted studies on Trinidadian guppies to track when and how outbreeding depression may arise.

Funk, like Pimm, at first called himself a skeptic—not because he didn’t believe genetic rescue could work, but because he considered himself a purist when it came to conservation. But as more and more populations become isolated and threatened by increasing human pressures and development, he says he has come to realize that some compromises may be necessary. “There is accumulating evidence that it can work in a lot of circumstances,” says Funk.

“We are not going to have the luxury to have this purist attitude,” he continues. “If we want these populations on the landscape, we are going to have to use genetic rescue to keep them from going extinct.”

The Old-World Charm of Venice's Windy Sister City

Smithsonian Magazine

For me, it is the most beautiful view in the world. I am sitting on my rooftop balcony, looking through a tunnel of sea, mountains and sky that connects this former Venetian town to her ancient metropolis, the Serenissima. It is late afternoon. The northwest wind known as the maestral is whipping down the channel that separates us from the Croatian mainland. Windsurfers, kite surfers and sailboats dart back and forth across the milewide expanse of water. Below me are the ocher rooftops of Korčula (pronounced KOR-chu-la), perched on a rocky promontory surrounded by the translucent sea.

In a couple of hours, the sun will go down over the mountains, creating a seascape of musty pinks, blues and greens. In my mind’s eye, I follow the age-old trade route along the Dalmatian coast to Venice at the head of the Adriatic, nearly 400 miles away. It is easy to imagine Venetian galleys and sailing ships on patrol beneath the ramparts of Korčula, ready to do battle against rival city-states like Ragusa and Genoa, the Ottoman Empire and the Barbary pirates of North Africa.

I have been coming to Korčula—or Curzola, as it was known in Venetian times—for more than four decades, ever since I was a child. It is a place that still has the power to take my breath away, particularly in the quiet of the early morning and evening, when the polished white stones of the Old Town seem to float above the water. With its cathedral and miniature piazzetta, dreamy courtyards and romantic balconies, and elaborately carved Gothic windows and family crests, Korčula is “a perfect specimen of a Venetian town,” in the phrase of a 19th-century English historian, Edward Augustus Freeman.

More than three centuries have passed since the “Most Serene” Republic ruled this stretch of Dalmatian coastline, but her influence is evident everywhere, from the winged lion that greets visitors at the ceremonial entrance to the town to the hearty fish soup known as brodet to the “gondola” references in Korčulan folk songs.

The extraordinarily rich Korčulan dialect is sprinkled not only with Italian words like pomodoro (tomato) and aiuto (help) but also specifically Venetian words like gratar (to fish) and tecia (cooking pan) that have nothing in common with either Croatian or Italian.

Image by Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. Shadows cast on stone stairs in the medieval Old Town area. The streets are steep and narrow. Often there is barely room for two people to pass each other without touching. (original image)

Image by Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. A sidewalk café near St. Mark’s Cathedral in the heart of the island buzzes with activity. (original image)

Image by Josef Polleross, Anzenberger/Redux. In a dance called the Moreška, rival Christian and Moor armies fight over the honor of a fair Korčulan lady. (original image)

Image by Doug Pearson, JAI/Corbis. A young man sports a traditional sword fighting costume. (original image)

The legacy of more than 400 years of Venetian rule can also be felt in the habits and mind-set of the Korčulans. “Every Korčulan imagines himself to be descended from a noble Venetian family,” says my friend Ivo Tedeschi. “We feel that we are at the center of our own little universe.” Families with Italian names like Arneri and Boschi and Depolo have been prominent in Korčula since Venetian times. As befits a place that was sometimes called the “arsenal of Venice,” Korčula still boasts its own shipyard, albeit one that has fallen on hard times with the economic crisis in Croatia.

Contributing to the sense of crumbling grandeur is the location of Korčula at the crossroads of geography and history. This was where West met East—the intersection of Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Islamic civilizations. For the most part, these worlds have lived in harmony with one another, but occasionally they have clashed, with disastrous consequences, as happened in the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. My house overlooks the narrowest point of the Pelješac canal, which straddled the dividing line between the western and eastern parts of the Roman Empire—Rome and Byzantium—and marked the seaborne approaches to the Serenissima.

Korčula changed hands several times during the Napoleonic Wars, from the French to the British and finally to the Austrians. Since the early 19th century, it has belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Communist Yugoslavia and the Republic of Croatia. Each shift in power was accompanied by the destruction of the symbols of the previous regime and the wholesale renaming of streets, leaving people confused about their own address.

My friend Gaella Gottwald points out a frieze of a defaced winged lion, sitting forlornly next to the town hall. “The lion was the symbol of Venetian power,” she explains. “When the Communists took over after World War II, they destroyed anything that reminded the people of Italian rule.” A few winged lions survived high up on the city walls, but most were removed and replaced by the red Partisan star and portraits of Marshal Tito. Similarly, after the fall of communism in 1991, most of the Partisan stars were replaced with the checkerboard emblem of independent Croatia. The Josip Broz Tito Harbor was renamed the Franjo Tudjman Harbor, after Croatia’s new nationalist leader.

Medieval Air-Conditioning

Most of what I know about the winds of Korčula I have learned from Rosario Vilović, a retired sea captain who lives up our street. Each wind has its own name and distinct personality. “The maestral blows in the afternoon in summer,” he says, pointing to the northwest, toward Venice. “It is a warm, dry, very refreshing wind.” His brow thickens as he gestures to the northeast, over the forbidding limestone mountains of the Pelješac Peninsula. “The bora is our strongest and most destructive wind. When a bora threatens, we run inside and close all our shutters and windows.” He turns toward the south. “The jugo is humid and wet and brings a lot of rain.” And so he continues, around all the points of the compass.

Winds are to Korčula as canals are to Venice, shaping her geography, character and destiny. When the city fathers laid out the town at least 800 years ago, they created a medieval air-conditioning system based on wind circulation. On the western side of the town the streets are all straight, open to the maestral. On our side of town, facing the Pelješac, the streets are crooked, to keep the bora out.

In Korčula, horses and carriages “are as impossible as at Venice itself, though not for the same reason,” wrote Freeman in his 1881 book, Sketches From the Subject and Neighbour Lands of Venice, which remains one of the best guidebooks to the Dalmatian coast. “Curzola does not float upon the waters, it soars above them.” Viewed from above, the island resembles the crumpled skeleton of a fish, straight on one side but crooked on the other. A narrow spine down the middle serves as the main street, centered on the cathedral and its miniature square, climbing over the top of the humpbacked peninsula. The streets are steep and narrow: There is barely room for two pedestrians to pass each other without touching.

One result of Korčula’s unique wind circulation system is the orientation of the town toward the maestral and therefore toward Venice. The western side of the town is open and inviting, with a seafront promenade, harbor and hotel. The eastern side is fortified, against both the bora and the Moor. It is a layout that reflects the geopolitical orientation of Korčula toward the West, away from the Slavic world, Islam and the Orient.

The battle between East and West is echoed in a traditional sword dance known as the Moreška, which used to be performed throughout the Mediterranean but seems to have survived only in Korčula. The dance is a morality tale pitting the army of the Red King (Christians) against the army of the Black King (Moors), over the honor of a fair Korčulan lady. Sparks fly (literally) from the clashing swords, but needless to say, the fix is in, and the favored team emerges triumphant every time.

Given Korčula’s strategic location, it is hardly surprising that the island has been the prey of numerous foreign navies. The Genoese won a great sea battle over the Venetians within sight of my house in 1298, leading to the capture of the Venetian explorer Marco Polo. An Ottoman fleet led by the feared corsair Uluz Ali passed by here in 1571. According to Korčula legend, the Venetians fled, leaving the island to be defended by the locals, mainly women who lined the city walls clad in military attire. The show was sufficiently impressive to dissuade the Turks from attacking Korčula; they sailed away to pillage the neighboring island of Hvar instead. (An alternative story is that the Turkish fleet was dispersed by a storm.) In recognition of its devotion to Christendom, Korčula earned the title “Fidelissima” (Most Faithful One) from the pope.

The winds and the sea have also endowed Korčula with a long line of distinguished seafarers. The most prominent of them, according to the Korčulans, is Marco Polo himself, whose celebrated travel book gave Europeans their first insight into the customs and history of China. In truth, Korčula’s claim to be Marco Polo’s birthplace is tenuous, but no more so than the claims of others, such as Šibenik (farther up the Dalmatian coast) and Venice itself. It rests mainly on oral tradition and the fact that a “De Polo” family has been living in Korčula for centuries. The Marco Polo connection has proved a boon to the local tourist industry, spawning a “Marco Polo house,” half a dozen “Marco Polo shops” and “museums,” “Marco Polo ice cream,” and several competing Marco Polo impersonators.

Collecting absurd Marco Polo claims has become a pastime of Korčula’s foreign residents. My personal favorites: “Marco Polo brought these noodles back from China” (on the menu of a local restaurant) and “Marco Polo found great food and love in this house” (sign outside another restaurant). A few years ago a friend of ours packaged a bulbous piece of plaster in a cardboard box and labeled it “Marco Polo’s Nose—an Original Souvenir from Korčula.” It was an instant hit with locals and tourists.

A different state of being

One of the qualities that Korčula shares with Venice is a sense of living on the edge of disaster. Venetians face floods, storms and the demands of modern tourism as threats to their noble city. In the case of Korčula, it is the onslaught of vacationers in the summer months that fuels concern over the town’s fragile infrastructure. Megayachts with names like Will Power and Eclipse and Sovereign maneuver for docking space in the harbor. A 15th-century tower that was once part of Korčula’s defenses against the Turks becomes a cocktail bar selling overpriced mojitos to raucous Italians and Australians.

The most obvious evidence of the imbalance between tourism and infrastructure is the unpleasant odor of raw sewage that wafts over parts of the town on hot summer days, particularly when the breeze is blowing in the wrong direction. The Venetian-built sewage canals, known as kaniželas (from the Venetian canisela), have become clogged with the detritus of unauthorized construction and the waste of the Marco Polo-themed restaurants. Short of ripping out the medieval guts of the town and tunneling deep under the cobbled alleyways, there is no obvious solution.

Yet Korčulans are the first to admit that they lack the moneymaking dynamism of their neighbors in Hvar, who have turned their island into the showcase of the Croatian tourist industry. In Korčula, tourists tend to be viewed as a necessary evil. The Hvar city fathers considered silencing the church bells after foreign visitors complained about the noise; in Korčula, the bells are as much a part of the landscape as the sea and the air, and continue to peal at all times of the day and night.

For those of us who consider ourselves adopted Korčulans, the summer crowds and occasional unpleasant smells are a small price to pay for the privilege of living in a magical, almost timeless place. The Croatian tourist slogan “the Mediterranean as it once was” seems an exaggeration on other parts of the Dalmatian coast but encapsulates the laid-back pace of life in Korčula. It is a world of lazy afternoon siestas, invigorating swims in the crystal clear Adriatic, scents of wild mint and rosemary and lavender, sounds of crickets singing in the pine trees, tastes of succulent tomatoes and fresh grilled fish, all washed down with glasses of Pošip (pronounced POSH-ip], the dry white wine that is native to the island.

There is a Dalmatian expression—fjaka, deriving from the Italian word fiacca—that sums up this blissful existence. The closest translation would be “indolence” or “relaxation,” but it has much subtler connotations. “Fjaka is a philosophy, a way of life,” explains my neighbor Jasna Peručić, a Croatian American who works as a hard-charging New York real estate agent when she is not relaxing in Korčula. “It means more than simply doing nothing. It is a state of well-being in which you are perfectly content.”

To fully achieve this state, however, requires a reorientation of the mind: The locals also use fjaka as a one-word explanation for the impossibility of finding an electrician or a plumber—or getting very much done at all—particularly when the humid south wind is blowing in the dog days of summer.

Like other foreigners who fall in love with Korčula, I have come to understand that true relaxation—fjaka—comes from adapting yourself to the rhythms and habits of your adopted town. Every summer I arrive in Korčula with ambitious plans to explore more of the Dalmatian coast, go for long hikes or bike rides, improve the house, or work on an unfinished book. Almost invariably, these plans fall through. Instead I am perfectly content with the daily routine of shopping for fish and pomodori, cooking, eating, talking and sleeping.

The flip side of fjaka is occasional bursts of almost manic energy. A decade or so ago, my neighbors invented a new festival known as “Half New Year,” which is celebrated on June 30. For one hilarious evening, villagers from all over the island compete with one another to devise the most outrageous form of costume, parading around the town in rival teams of prancing minstrels, dancing Hitlers and little green men from Mars. Marching bands lead the revelers, young and old, on a tour of the ancient battlements. And then, as suddenly as it has awakened, the town falls back asleep.

When I sail away from Korčula at the end of the summer, watching the white stones of the old town recede into the watery distance, I feel a stab of melancholy. As in Venice, the feeling of loss is enhanced by the sense that all this beauty could simply disappear. It is as if I am seeing an old friend for the last time. But then I remember that Korčula—like Venice—has survived wars and earthquakes, fires and plagues, Fascism and Communism, Ottoman navies and armies of modern-day tourists.

My guess is that the Fidelissima, like the Serenissima, will still be casting her spell for many centuries to come.

Smithsonian’s 2010 Notable Books for Children

Smithsonian Magazine

In the pages of this year’s titles, one may travel backward—or forward—in time; find the rewards of courage, hope and creativity; observe what it means to beat the odds or make a difference. Conjuring up settings from a Maine cottage, shuttered snug against winter, to the forests of Kenya or the hidden mountain canyons of Tibet, each book evokes a world where we may discover our shared humanity.

The age categories listed below are, of necessity, arbitrary. Adjust any choices to the age and reading level of the individual child.

For the Youngest Readers
(Ages 1-6)

Madeline at the White House by John Bemelmans Marciano
The “twelve little girls in two straight lines” troop straight into the Oval Office.

Beaver Is Lost by Elisha Cooper
Adrift on a log, stranded in the maze of city streets: Will he ever make his way back to the den on a lake deep in the forest?

Who’s in the Garden? By Phillis Gershator, illustrated by Jill McDonald
An inventive lift-the-flap book reveals the creatures hidden in the green world of furrows, blossoms and flourishing vegetables.

Boo Cow by Patricia Baehr, illustrated by Margot Apple
Down on Chicken Noodle Farm, everyone is at a loss when a benevolent bovine ghost suddenly melts into thin air.

How Rocket Learned to Read by Tad Hills
An affectionate paean to reading readiness.

Sleepover at Gramma’s House by Barbara Joosse, illustrated by Jan Jutte
It’s every toddler’s dream destination—and in these pages, we understand why.

The Chicken Thief by Beatrice Rodriguez
A dreamily compelling—and wordless—picture book contemplates the essence of friendship.

Tuck Me In by Dean Hacohen and Sherry Scharschmidt
A turn-the-flap tome recreates a reassuring nighttime ritual.

Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein
Fractured fairy tales pepper an uproarious take on the bedtime book.

Creak! Said the Bed by Phyllis Root, illustrated by Regan Dunnick
On a cold and windy night, you might think that there couldn’t possibly be room for one more—but there you would be wrong!

Mr. Putter & Tabby Clear the Decks by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Arthur Howard
Four irrepressible friends head out to sea in the latest installment in a first-reader series that has no equal.

What’s the Big Idea, Molly? By Valeri Gorbachev
Creativity and persistence go hand in hand, as a young poet and her artist friends discover.

Slow Down for Manatees by Jim Arnosky
A dramatic rescue saves a mother and calf from disaster.

A Balloon for Isabel by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Laura Rankin
What’s a spiky hedgehog girl to do when she sets her sights on an all-too-fragile toy? A case study in thinking outside the box.

Grandma Drove the Snowplow by Katie Clark, illustrated by Amy Huntington
When Christmas celebrations are jeopardized, not even the heaviest snowfall of the year stands in the way of Grandma once she resolves to bring yuletide cheer to the Maine town she calls home.

The Lonely Phone Booth by Peter Ackerman, illustrated by Max Dalton
That plexiglass enclosure on the corner might seem a forlorn anachronism—until an unexpected crisis strikes an urban neighborhood.

Side by Side/Lado a Lado by Monica Brown, illustrated by Joe Cepeda
How Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez joined forces to improve conditions for farmworkers.

Little Wolf’s Song by Britta Teckentrup
It’s up to a cub to find his own special howl.

For Middle Readers
(Ages 6-9)

The Inside Tree by Linda Smith, illustrated by David Parkins
Large-hearted Mr. Potter never wants any living thing to be left out in the cold.

A Boy Named FDR: How Franklin D. Roosevelt Grew Up to Change America by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
From his childhood on, compassion and determination were watchwords for the boy who would one day see the nation through the Great Depression.

The Humblebee Hunter by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Jen Corace
At his lively country house, Charles Darwin enlisted his children as helpers in his hands-on natural history experiments: an ingenious introduction to the scientific method.

Wolf Pie by Brenda Seabrook, illustrated by Liz Callen
Can three little pigs and a sworn enemy ever be friends? Only time will tell in this clever chapter book.

Big Night for Salamanders by Sarah Marwil Lamstein, illustrated by Carol Benioff
On early spring nights across North America, a network of volunteers fans out to help the spotted amphibians cross roads during spring migration. The authors celebrate that annual community effort to save a species.

Yasmin’s Hammer by Ann Malaspina, illustrated by Doug Ghayka
On the streets of Bangladesh, a girl devises a secret plan to seek her heart’s desire: a chance to attend school.

Henry Aaron’s Dream by Matt Tavares
One of baseball’s all-time greats started out on sandlots where he had little more than his dreams—and a burning love for the sport.

The Good Garden: How One Family Went from Hunger to Having Enough by Katie Smith Milway, illustrated by Sylvie Daigneault
In the hills of Honduras, a visionary teacher forever alters the lives of villagers.

The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco
The author—a national treasure if ever there were one—turns to another chapter in her autobiography, recalling the talented misfit kids she met in an extraordinary teacher’s classroom.

Henry Knox: Bookseller, Soldier, Patriot by Anita Silvey, paintings by Wendell Minor
Critical to the success of the Revolution, but lesser known today, the fearless and fiercely intelligent Knox was an unlikely hero beloved by General Washington.

Everything But the Horse by Holly Hobbie
The artist recalls her family’s move to the country in an homage to her happy childhood.

Seeds of Change by Jen Cullerton Johnson, illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler
How Wangari Maathai overcame every obstacle to save the landscape of Kenya—one tree at a time.

The Can Man by Laura E. Williams, illustrated by Craig Orback
Simple acts of reciprocal kindness transform two lives.

Game Set Match: Champion Arthur Ashe by Crystal Hubbard, illustrated by Kevin Belford
The traits of perseverance and empathy defined an athlete who defied barriers to become the top-ranked tennis player in the world.

Lilly and the Pirates by Phyllis Root, illustrated by Rob Shepperson
A delightful read-aloud and imaginative recital of high adventure on the seven seas.

The Taxing Case of the Cows: A True Story About Suffrage by Iris Van Rynbach and Pegi Deitz Shea, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully
In 1869, when a pair of sisters refused to pay a property tax levied by a town council they couldn’t elect, the two of them set America’s women on the path to winning the vote.

Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
In the early 1950s, an African-American family traversing the Jim Crow South makes its way to Alabama with the help of an indispensable travel guide, and the kindness of strangers.

The Chiru of High Tibet: A True Story by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Linda Wingerter
A thrilling recent interlude in the history of field science recounts the expedition of wildlife biologist George Schaller and his companions, who faced down hardship and danger to locate the remote calving grounds of the endangered goat-antelopes prized for their wool.

Image by Candlewick Press. "Creak!" Said the Bed by Phyllis Root, illustrated by Regan Dunnick. (original image)

Image by Boxer Books. Little Wolf's Song by Britta Teckentrup. (original image)

Image by Harper. The Inside Tree by Linda Smith, illustrated by David Parkins. (original image)

Image by Boyds Mills Press. Big Night for Salamanders by Sarah Marwil Lamstein, illustrated by Carol Benioff. (original image)

Image by Kids Can Press. The Good Garden: How One Family Went from Hunger to Having Enough by Katie Smith Milway, illustrated by Sylvie Daigneault. (original image)

Image by Philomel Books. The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco. (original image)

Image by Carolholda Books. Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey, illustrated by Floyd Cooper. (original image)

Image by G.P. Putnam's Sons. Hope for Haiti by Jesse Joshua Watson. (original image)

Image by Barefoot Books. The Arabian Nights by Wafa' Tarnowska, illustrated by Carole Hénaff. (original image)

Goal! By Mina Javaherbin, illustrated by A. G. Ford
In a dusty South African township, an ordinary soccer match represents far more than a simple game.

Rain School by James Rumford
The author drew on his experience of teaching in Chad to portray a village’s commitment to educating its children—against all odds.

Lucky Beans by Becky Birtha, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell
In the depths of the Depression, times are hard and getting harder for a struggling family—until young Marshall applies his talent in math to save the day.

Lincoln Tells a Joke by Kathleen Krull & Paul Brewer, illustrated by Stacy Innerst
A humanizing glimpse of the 16th president reveals his capacity to laugh—even at himself.

That Cat Can’t Stay by Thad Krasnesky, illustrated by David Parkins
There’s really no point in putting your foot down, when the entire household is bent on taking in just one more stray. This droll tribute to dads who are softies at heart is sure to become a family favorite.

Eight Days: A Story of Haiti by Edwidge Danticat, illustrated by Alix Delinois, and Hope for Haiti by Jesse Joshua Watson. Two picture books convey the indomitable spirit of islanders rebuilding a future in the wake of the devastating earthquake.

The Arabian Nights by Wafa’ Tarnowska, illustrated by Carole Henaff
The Lebanese-born author offers a magnificent new translation of eight tales from the legendary story cycle, based on a 14th-century manuscript.

Lafayette and the American Revolution by Russell Freedman
Invincible and deeply admired by General Washington, the young marquis made a new nation’s cause his own.

Come See the Earth Turn by Lori Mortensen, illustrated by Raul Allen
On February 3, 1851, Leon Foucault, a genius laboring in obscurity, unveiled an experiment that proved what no other scientist had succeeded in demonstrating: that the earth spins on its axis.

The Birthday Ball by Lois Lowry, illustrated by Jules Feiffer
Wit and whimsy abound in a tale of a princess who throws off the shackles of a stultifying existence.

Blue Jay Girl by Sylvia Ross
The vivid novel evokes the lost world of California’s Yaudanchi tribe and honors its legacy of traditional healing.

Cloud Tea Monkeys by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, illustrated by Juan Wijngaard
In a Himalayan kingdom long ago, a young girl seeks her fortune with the help of kindly monkeys—and magic.

Our Earth: How Kids Are Saving the Planet by Janet Wilson
From a self-taught Malian boy who built a windmill to generate electricity for his village, to a Costa Rican girl who founded a rainforest-preservation NGO, it’s kids to the rescue.

Dinosaur Mountain: Digging Into the Jurassic Age by Deborah Kogan Ray
In 1908, adventurer and field scientist Earl Douglass set off for a remote corner of northeastern Utah—and became a renowned paleontologist.

Movie Maker: Everything You Need to Know to Create Films on Your Cell Phone or Digital Camera! By Tim Grabham et al. For the aspiring director on your list, whether the goal is creating dramas, documentaries or animation, an amazing hands-on kit. For all ages, 8 or so and beyond.

Theodore Roosevelt for Kids by Kerrie Logan Hollihan
The life and times of the ebullient 26th president, with activities to bring history alive.

For Older Readers
(Ages 10 and up)

Scumble by Ingrid Law
The Wild West—and the lexicon of the tall tale—form the backdrop for the heroics of 13-year-old Ledger Kale, who hasn’t quite grown into his magical powers.

A Gift From Childhood: Memories of an African Boyhood by Baba Wagué Diakité
The author recalls the Malian village that nurtured him and sustains him today.

As Easy as Falling Off the Earth by Lynne Rae Perkins
The novelist brings her prodigious talents to the tale of Ry, a teenager who meets up with a good Samaritan in the nick of time, after he is stranded in what seems the middle of nowhere.

Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Abigail Halpin
For 10-year-old Penelope Grey, cosseted her entire life, the real saga commences only when everything has been lost.

The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan and Peter Sis
A phantasmagorical rumination on the childhood of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is rooted in a belief that words possess the power to mend the spirit and change the world.

Smells Like Dog by Suzanne Selfors
The whimsical tale turns on droopy-eared Dog—and two resourceful siblings who leave their farm in search of a secret society of explorers. A winner, first page to last.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
The author based this novel on the childhood experiences of Salva Dut, born in Sudan but now living in the United States. It is a testament to undaunted courage. (Contains mature content)

Around the World in 100 Days by Gary Blackwood
The springboard for this rip-roaring historical novel was an actual globe-spanning automobile race of 1908.

Northward to the Moon by Polly Horvath
Horvath’s inimitable voice, sense of fun and quiet belief in the power of tolerance—here applied to the odyssey of a plucky young heroine and her family—showcase the writer at the height of her powers.

Crunch by Leslie Connor
The Marriss family’s bike-repair business is not exactly a going concern—until the day that the gas pumps run dry across the nation. Connor’s high-spirited romp pays tribute to the rewards of a can-do spirit.

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm
Rollicking good fun, Holm’s touching novel transports readers to the Depression-era Florida Keys, where 11-year-old Turtle finds a whole new world after her aunt Minerva Curry takes her in.

Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers
There is nothing more difficult than turning your back on the past and the choices one made, as Reese discovers when he is sent to a juvenile facility. Myers has few peers in summoning the world of at-risk kids who are trying to make their way toward a better future. (Contains mature content)

Ashes by Kathryn Lasky
In a novel set in 1932 Berlin, 13-year-old Gabriella Schramm perceives the burgeoning threat shadowing their neighbor, a physicist named Albert Einstein, and her own scientist father.

Earth Heroes: Champions of the Wilderness by Bruce and Carol L. Malnor, illustrated by Anisa Claire Hovemann; Earth Heroes: Champions of the Ocean by Fran Hodgkins, illustrated by Cris Arbo; Earth Heroes: Champions of Wild Animals by Carol L. and Bruce Malnor, illustrated by Anisa Claire Hovemann.
The series on conservationist scientists continues with profiles of figures from pioneering environmentalist Aldo Leopold to ichthyologist Eugenie Clark and ethologist Jane Goodall.

The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt
When his older brother returns from a tour of duty as a Marine in the Middle East, high-school age Levi leaves everyday life behind to help his brother begin to heal from post-traumatic stress disorder. (Contains mature content)

Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl by Daniel Pinkwater
Wacky, big-hearted and wildly original, the novel unspools the escapades of big Audrey, whose feline lineage takes her far after a UFO touches down behind the big stone barn.

Efrain’s Secret by Sofia Quintero
For a gifted high-school student in the South Bronx, the yearning to escape the streets and attain an Ivy League education can become a dangerous aspiration. Quintero’s sensitive and fast-paced novel depicts the daunting challenges facing a boy who is attempting to transcend his circumstances. (Contains mature content)

And Both Were Young by Madeleine L’Engle
In the mountains of Switzerland in 1949, a boarding-school student meets a mysterious boy—and soon finds herself enmeshed in the aftermath of the war. L’Engle’s novel, re-issued in a new edition, contains an introduction by her granddaughter.

Flash by Michael Cadnum
A meditation on unintended consequences and the cost of violence explores dual narrative threads, the first involving brothers who set themselves on a self-destructive trajectory, and the second introducing a pair of siblings who thwart the mayhem before it can be fully unleashed. (Contains mature content)

The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman
At the fantastical New York Circulating Material Repository—which lends out objects rather than books—magical artifacts from the Brothers Grimm fairy tales begin to disappear. That’s when our heroine begins hurtling into an alternative reality, in a tour-de-force fantasy novel also grounded fully in the here and now.

The 20 Best Small Towns To Visit in 2018

Smithsonian Magazine

There’s something about small towns that ignite our imaginations. Maybe it's the charming main streets lined with century-old structures, now filled with artisan shops and cozy family-owned breakfast eateries, or the meandering rivers that run through downtown centers and majestic mountains that rise in the not-too-far distance, offering access to a world of activity. Or perhaps it's one-of-a-kind museums, attractions and festivities that are brimming with hometown pride. This year, we’re not only highlighting towns that embrace all these qualities, but those that are also celebrating a milestone anniversary, marking a major historic event, or unveiling a new museum or festival (there’s even one town on the list that’s been completely transformed by a television show) that make visiting in 2018 particularly special.

As in the past, we’ve once again turned to geographical information company Esri to help sort through the country’s many small towns (those with a population under 20,000). From there, we compiled a list of 20 that combine historic elements with distinct cultural offerings, natural beauty and everything from the country’s oldest whitewater rafting festival to legendary pirate lore.

Our 2018 list includes the Pennsylvania town that gave us Mr. Fred Rogers, a seaside hamlet that sits at the doorstep of Northern California’s coastal redwoods—the tallest living trees on Earth—and an Idaho resort town that’s been recognized for its clear night skies. Get ready to explore!

Corning, New York (Population: 10,925)

Image by Gaffer District. Gaffer District (original image)

Image by Molly Cagwin Photography. Glassmaking demonstration (original image)

Image by Corning Museum of Glass. The Corning Museum of Glass campus (original image)

Image by Corning Museum of Glass. Modern Glass Gallery (original image)

Image by Corning Museum of Glass. The GlassBarge launched from Brooklyn this month and is on its way to Corning (original image)

Image by Rockwell Museum. The Rockwell Museum (original image)

When what's now Corning Incorporated first relocated to this former lumber town in New York's southern Finger Lakes region 150 years ago, no one quite knew the impact one of the world's biggest glassmakers would have on its surroundings. Now the hands-on Corning Museum of Glass is celebrating the “Crystal City's” legacy with a summer's worth of activities. Their mobile GlassBarge, which sets out from Brooklyn—where the company originated—at the end of the month, will retrace the outfit’s move, a century and a half ago, up the Hudson River, west along the Erie Canal and to Corning on September 22. It's the city's part in New York's larger Erie Canal Bicentennial anniversary.

Downtown's Gaffer District—“gaffer” is another name for glassblower—is Corning's main hub, a five-block walkable stretch of historic stone and brick buildings filled with antique stores, boutique and name brand shops, and dozens of diverse bars and restaurants like the step-back-in-time Hand + Foot, where craft cocktails, creative sandwiches and board games are par-for-the-course.

The city's award-winning Centerway Walking Bridge doubles as a “suspended park” between the Gaffer District and the glass museum across downtown's Chemung River, and is just one of Corning's impressive cultural offerings. There's The Rockwell Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate housed within Corning's original City Hall building, which showcases the American experience through art—including a gallery devoted to Andy Warhol. Those interested in living history (and live blacksmith demos) should beeline for the Heritage Village of the Southern Finger Lakes, with nearly a dozen buildings including an 1850s log cabin and the historic 1796 Benjamin Patterson Inn that capture what area life was like during the 19th century.

Just outside of Corning, hikers have plenty to keep them satisfied with portions of both the 950-mile Finger Lakes Trail system and the overlapping Great Eastern long-distance trail nearby. The town sits on the cusp of three rivers, making it especially popular for kayaking and canoeing. The wineries for which New York’s Finger Lakes region is known make for a sweet aprés-adventure scene. Just a half-hour drive away in Hammondsport are cellars like Dr. Konstantin Frank, with its Reisling pours and spectacular views of Keuka Lake.

Hanapepe, Hawaii (Population: 2,638)

Image by Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson. Hanapepe main street (original image)

Image by Wikipedia. Manawaiopuna Falls (original image)

Image by Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson. Hanapepe Swinging Bridge sign (original image)

Image by Flickr user calamity_sal. Hanapepe Swinging Bridge (original image)

Image by Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson. Dawn at Salt Pond Beach Park (original image)

Image by Wikipedia. Glass Beach (original image)

It's been 30 years since Steven Spielberg's epic blockbuster Jurassic Park first brought dinosaurs back to life on the big screen, but visitors to Kauai's Hanapepe—a town on the Hawaiian island's south shore—still can't get enough of one of the film's most recognizable features: the opening scene's towering Manawaiopuna Falls. Each action-packed sequel, like this June's Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, ignites renewed interest, though the only way to see these normally inaccessible 400-foot falls (they're located on private land) is by air. Not only does Island Helicopters offer prime views of the iconic attraction; it's also the only operator permitted to land at its base.

Of course, “Kauai's Biggest Little Town,” as the locals call it, is an attraction in itself, one with a history that includes immigrant entrepreneurism and its early 20th-century years as a G.I. hub. Today the bulk of Hanapepe’s original colorful and rustic nearly century-old wooden structures still stand, lending the bohemian village an authentic Old West vibe. Hanapepe (the name means “crushed bay” in Hawaiian) even served as inspiration for the Disney film, Lilo and Stitch.

Restaurants run the gamut from traditional Hawaiian fare like huli huli chicken (grilled chicken marinated in a sweet pineapple, ginger and garlic sauce) to locally sourced Japanese-style cuisine, and there are plenty of shopping opportunities. Hanapepe is home to the western-most bookstore in the United States, a Hawaiian spice company, and Banana Patch Studio, a treasure trove of hand-painted pottery, art cards and ceramic tiles all created by more than 20 artists in a former bakery and pool hall. In fact, Hanapepe is known as Kauai's art capital, something that it highlights each week during Friday Night Art Walk, when more than a dozen art galleries open their doors and offer visitors the chance to talk with local artists.

For a fun thrill, take a walk across Hanapepe's precarious Swinging Bridge, then chow down on some of the best taro chips around from the town’s Taro Ko Chips Factory to ease your adrenaline rush.

While area beaches are plentiful, Salt Pond Beach Park (named for traditional Hawaiian salt collecting ponds—manmade salt flats created for sea salt harvesting) is a must for its shallow snorkeling pools and reef protected waters. Just outside of town near Ele'ele's Port Allen Harbor is Glass Beach, covered in millions of bits of colorful sea glass in shades of blue, amber and aqua.

Dublin, Georgia (Population: 16,100)

Image by Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument Park (original image)

Image by First African Baptist Church (original image)

Image by A plaque at the First African Baptist Church (original image)

Image by Theatre Dublin (original image)

Image by Visit Dublin. Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument Park (original image)

It’s been 50 years since shots rang out in Memphis, but the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., continues to reverberate worldwide. This is especially true in Dublin, a central Georgia city midway between Savannah and Atlanta where the future Civil Rights leader gave his first public speech at 15 years of age. King delivered “The Negro and the Constitution,” his submission to an oratorical contest sponsored by the Colored Elks Clubs of Georgia, at Dublin’s First African Baptist Church, which is now part of its larger MLK Monument Park, with a colorful, interactive mural by Georgia artist Corey Barksdale and audio stops, including a young man reading King’s submission, opened last year. The church is also part of the newly launched, self-guided Footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Trail, chronicling Georgia’s role in the Civil Rights Movement in 28 distinct stops statewide.

Historic and architectural landmarks permeate Dublin’s downtown, and many of them are part of the city’s downloadable audio walking tour, including Railway Park—which commemorates the role of railways in Dublin’s development—and the city’s own Carnegie Library. It’s also home to some top-notch eateries, including Deano's Italian Grill, with its signature pan-seared shrimp and garlic cheese grits, and the only imported Italian wood oven in Georgia. Southern-style rotisserie bistro Company Supply occupies a completely restored 120-year-old dry good store (and sports a full bar stocked with local micro brews), while Holy Smokes, dishes out award-winning barbecue from a stationary food truck. Pair a meal with a show at the renovated Theatre Dublin, a former Art Deco-style movie house that now hosts music and theatre performances as well.

Soak in a bit of natural reprieve at the River Bend Wildlife Management Area, home to primitive campsites, pristine fishing waters, wildlife such as alligators and the elusive Swainson’s warbler, and approximately 1,700 hiking and biking trails that wind through remote cypress swampland. Or bed down at the Dublin Farm Bed and Breakfast, a four-guest room country retreat on 35 acres, complete with donkeys, horses and its own restaurant, serving up ever-changing Northern Italian fare.

A local citizen named Dublin after his own hometown in Ireland in 1812, so it makes perfect sense that the city’s banner event is its annual St. Patrick's Festival, a six-week-long celebratory extravaganza featuring more than 40 events, including its backyard-style Pig in the Park BBQ Championship, an arts and crafts fair, and a family-themed St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Pendleton, Oregon (Population: 16,791)

Image by Trini Hank. Downtown Pendleton (original image)

Image by Dan Parnell. Pendleton underground (original image)

Image by Aaron Wispus Worden. Pendleton Round-Up (original image)

Image by Travis Lundquist. Westward Ho! Parade (original image)

In the 150 years since what’s now Eastern Oregon’s cultural center received the name Pendleton, after former Democratic Vice-President nominee George Hunt Pendleton, this once trading post has flourished into one of America’s best small towns. The Oregon Trail—which is marking its 175th anniversary this year—ran right through Pendleton’s center, and that same pioneering Wild West spirit still permeates its streets today.

Situated at the foot of the Pacific Northwest’s sprawling Blue Mountains, Pendleton’s historic Old Town is brimming with unique stores selling antique heirlooms and western wear, from artisan cowboy boots to custom-made fur felt hats. Shop for locally handcrafted beaded belts and “fringe monsters” (fringe-layered handbags) at 23+, and don’t miss Pendleton Woolen Mills, the factory-turned-retail store where the world-famous wool blanket, shirt and coat manufacturer first took off.

September’s annual Pendleton Round-Up is one of the town’s most exhilarating events, a more than century-old, week-long rodeo that includes a dress-up parade, Native American tipi village and the Happy Canyon Night Show, a reoccurring pageant showcasing the American West’s formation, from its original Native American inhabitants to the arrival of Europeans, and through the days of the Oregon Trail pioneers to its formation as a rip-roaring frontier town. The Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame pays homage to both the rodeo’s and show’s legendary and long-associated figures, such as local African American cowboy George Fletcher, a fan-favorite who was denied the 1911 saddle-bronc title because of his skin color.

Discover the history, culture and impact of pioneer settlers on the area’s native peoples at the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, or embark on a subterranean tour beneath Pendleton’s streets, where Chinese immigrants who’d come looking for work after the country’s railroads were mostly complete faced bullying and discrimination from local cowboys, so took their businesses—which included legal shops as well as illegal brothels and opium dens—literally underground more than a century ago. It wasn’t until that 1980s that the tunnels were rediscovered, when inexplicable potholes began appearing in the streets. The free Pendleton Center of the Arts is just one of the many stops along Pendleton's Charm Trail, a self-guided way to create your own charm bracelet while visiting antique stores, museums and restaurants throughout downtown.

Pendleton River Parkway follows the Umatilla River in the heart of town, offering nearly three miles of flat walking trail, while the town’s outskirts are bursting with options for cycling, hiking and camping.

North Conway, New Hampshire (Population: 2,241)

Image by Wiseguy Creative Photography. Conway Scenic Railroad (original image)

Image by Wiseguy Creative Photography. North Conway (original image)

Image by Wiseguy Creative Photography. Ice skating in downtown North Conway (original image)

Image by Wiseguy Creative Photography. Frontside Grind (original image)

Image by Wiseguy Creative Photography. Zeb's General Store (original image)

Image by Wiseguy Creative Photography. Tree lighting at Conway Scenic Railroad (original image)

Image by Wiseguy Creative Photography. Downtown shopping (original image)

Image by New England Ski Museum. The New England Ski Museum's Eastern Slope Branch (original image)

Image by New England Ski Museum. The New England Ski Museum's Eastern Slope Branch (original image)

President Woodrow Wilson first established New England’s White Mountain National Forest in 1918, and this year the more-than 700,000 acres of protected forest and alpine peaks—including most of 6,266-foot-tall Mt. Washington—is celebrating its 100th birthday with a year’s worth of centennial events. In the heart of the Mt. Washington Valley, North Conway makes the perfect hub for these festivities, especially since the picturesque village has a bevy of attractions all its own.

Earlier this year, North Conway became home to the Eastern Slope Branch of the New England Ski Museum, a new permanent gallery dedicated to the region's role in introducing skiing to the States. The resort town is often called the “Birthplace of Skiing,” due to its early adoption from Europe in the 1930s and a combined interest from three main groups: local Scandinavian immigrants, the Dartmouth Outing Club, and members of the Boston-based Appalachian Mountain Club. Last year, a USA Today poll named North Conway the country’s number one ski town, with more than a dozen ski resorts within a 30-minute drive. Skiing at the village’s own 56-trail Cranmore Mountain Resort, dates back to 1939, though these days the resort is known just as much for its snowboarding terrain and tubing and mountain adventure park, where daredevils can zipline or ride a coaster up to 25 miles per hour down the mountain.

Camping, kayaking and canoeing, and hiking opportunities permeate the area, which is also known for its autumn leaf peeping and September's annual Mud Football Championship, bringing together approximately ten all-male, New England teams to compete knee-deep for the championship title at North Conway’s Hog Coliseum—a natural amphitheater filled with White Mountain loam that’s then doused with thousands of gallons of water.

Low-stung structures line North Conway’s Main Street at the edge of the White Mountains, filled with outdoor retail and specialty shops like Zeb’s General Store, stocked with more than 5,000 New England-made specialty foods and featuring its own penny arcade. Local eateries include Delaney's Hole in the Wall, a popular hangout that’s known for its varied selection of sandwiches and—more surprisingly—some of the state’s best sushi; and The White Mountain Hotel & Resort’s Ledges Restaurant, sporting incredible views and a superb Sunday brunch.

Hop aboard the Conway Scenic Railroad for a journey aboard vintage railway cars departing from the village’s iconic yellow train station, or experience the Mount Washington Observatory Weather Discovery Center, the country’s only museum dedicated entirely to climate and weather.

Gering, Nebraska (Population: 8,439)

Image by Nebraska Tourism. Scotts Bluff National Monument (original image)

Image by Nebraska Tourism. Robidoux Pass wagon ruts (original image)

Image by Nebraska Tourism. Robidoux Trading Post (original image)

Image by Nebraska Tourism. Scotts Bluff National Monument (original image)

Image by LOC. Gering Bakery (original image)

Image by Nebraska Tourism. Chimney Rock (original image)

Image by Nebraska Tourism. Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area (original image)

For pioneers making their way along the rugged Oregon Trail 175 years ago, the steep hills of Western Nebraska’s Scotts Bluff National Monument served as a landmark of hope along their journey. The same rang true for Native Americans and immigrants along the California and Mormon trails. Gering lies just east of the monument, and offers its own reasons for making the trip to this hub of the Old West.

Although Gering wasn’t founded until the late 19th century, it still honors the region’s historic past with Oregon Trail Days, an annual July weekend celebration with a chili cook-off, street dance, parade, mud volleyball tournament and a 1.6-mile bicycle hill climb to the top of Scotts Bluff National Monument. Since 1950, downtown’s Gering Bakery has been blazing a trail of its own with delicious cream-filled Long John donuts, frosted peanut butter soft pretzels and cabbage burgers (sometimes known as a runza), and serves as a modern-day beacon thanks to its fabulous neon sign.

Discover the history of the Nebraska prairie at Gering’s Legacy of the Plains Museum, which highlights the lives of pioneer settlers through agricultural artifacts and even a working farmstead that harvests a featured crop each year (last year it was potatoes). Nearby Fort Mitchell Pass offers a glimpse into America’s Western Expansion. This army outpost, one of hundreds the U.S. Army built to protect settlers, and later used to monitor traffic along the Oregon Trail, was abandoned after the war.

Natural monuments abound in the Gering area. The iconic pillar of Chimney Rock, 20 miles southeast of Gering, appeared in the diary entrees of thousands of pioneers, representing a new phase of their journeys. There’s also the narrow Robidoux Pass, a gap that travelers used to traverse the Wildcat Hills and get their first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains. Wagon ruts and pioneer graves serve as reminders of the arduous journey, as does the reconstructed Robidoux Trading Post, in the spot where a Frenchman with the surname Robidoux built the original post that sold goods and blacksmithing services to travelers.

Explore the 1,100 piney acres of Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area and Nature Center, spread across a rocky escarpment within a region of rising canyons and forested buttes. The area is home to big horn sheep, wild turkeys and one of Nebraska’s only permanent cougar populations. You’ll find more hiking and mountain biking trails in the remote Buffalo Creek Wildlife Management Area, a place of tree-topped ridges and rolling prairies.

For manmade outdoor beauty, play a round at Gering’s 18-hole Monument Shadows Golf Course, with stunning background views of Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Laurel, Mississippi (Population: 18,355)

Image by Bethany Byrd/Laurel Main Street. Downtown Laurel (original image)

Image by Bethany Byrd/Laurel Main Street. Downtown Laurel (original image)

Image by Brooke Davis/Blackhorne Productions. The Knight Butcher (original image)

Image by BlackBird Creative. Jerky at The Knight Butcher (original image)

Image by Brooke Davis/Blackhorne Productions. Knight Sugar Fudge (original image)

Image by Laurel Mercantile. Laurel Mercantile (original image)

Image by Bethany Byrd/Laurel Main Street. Erin and Ben Napier from HGTV's "Home Town" (original image)

Image by Bethany Byrd/Laurel Main Street. Downtown Laurel (original image)

It’s been just over a year since Erin and Ben Napier, stars of HGTV’s “Home Town,” introduced their beloved Laurel, Mississippi, to the TV masses, and since then this Southern small town with big charm has taken off. Situated in southeast Mississippi’s Pine Belt, the former mill city and oil town is today known for its Oak-lined sidewalks, brick roadways and a splendid mix of innovative restaurants and specialty shops.

Laurel is home to A Street Car Named Desire’s fictional Blanche DuBois, as well as the Lindsey Eight-Wheeled Wagon, which native Mississippian John Lindsey manufactured at the town’s Lindsey Log Wagon Company during the turn-of-the-20th century (one is on display inside the Laurel Welcome Center). It’s also where you’ll find the Napiers’ own Laurel Mercantile, a shop that’s home to Scotsman Co., Ben’s own brand of hand-worked, reclaimed furniture and gentleman’s work apparel, as well as American-manufactured heirloom wares that often feature in the historic Laurel homes the couple restores.

At downtown’s Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, housed in a stunning, early 20th century Georgian Revival structure, works run the gamut from Hudson River School paintings to Japanese woodblock prints. The Laurel Little Theatre puts on community-led plays and musicals within a 1927 silent movie house.

Sip sour beers and “spontaneously fermented wild ales” at Slowboat Brewing Company, or dine on New Orleans-inspired gumbo at downtown’s signature Cafe la Fleur. For brown bag lunches of custom-cut meats paired with Knight Sugar Fudge, stop by Laurel’s Knight Butcher.

Each week through the end of June, experience Downtown Thursday, which combines an evening farmers market with a family-friendly outdoor movie night. Other community events range from October’s Loblolly heritage festival to the February Chili Cook-Off, where one type of ticket for the all-you-can-eat stew comes with a keepsake bowl made by a local potter.

Easton, Maryland (Population: 16,573)

Image by Christian Hinkle/Alamy. Downtown Easton (original image)

Image by Maryland Office of Tourism. Frederick Douglass statue at Talbot County Courthouse (original image)

Image by Maryland Office of Tourism. Biking through Easton (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the museum. Academy Art Museum (original image)

It’s been 200 years since the birth of renowned abolitionist leader, author and orator Frederick Douglass in Maryland’s Talbot County, and Maryland’s governor has declared 2018 “The Year of Frederick Douglass.” The state is commemorating his many lifetime achievements with everything from a self-guided driving tour to a Juneteenth celebration, marking the abolition of slavery in Texas, in Easton, just 12 miles south from where Douglass was born. There’s signage marking the spot along Maryland Route 328.

Easton sits on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, North America’s largest estuary, and is a significant stop along the Frederick Douglass route—including the grounds of the Talbot Country Courthouse, where Douglass gave his famous “Self-Made Men” speech in 1878. It’s also home to “The Hill,” believed to be the country’s oldest continuously-inhabited free African American settlement.

As Talbot’s largest town, Easton offers a blend of history, arts and culture. Each month, the town hosts First Weekend, in which its many art galleries open their doors to the public with extended hours and new exhibits. Locals also get their cultural fix at Easton’s Academy Art Museum, known for its varied artworks spanning more than two centuries and a top concert and lectures series; as well as the Avalon Theatre, a historic vaudeville and movie house that now showcases live music and drama.

Easton’s large historic district features approximately 900 Colonial- and Victorian-era structures, many of them now housing antique and collectible shops, coffee houses and restaurants offering a diverse mix of eats, such as the modern European offerings of Bas Rouge and Hunter Tavern’s beloved crab cakes. This charming waterfront town and its tree-lined streets are also home to a wealth of B&Bs, including the Victorian-style Bishop's House, blending modern amenities with period furnishings.

Of course, Easton’s prime Chesapeake Bay location assures it has no shortage of outdoor offerings. Rent a bicycle and enjoy miles of cycling trails through scenic villages and marshland, explore local tributaries via kayak, canoe or paddleboard or go crabbing in the bay.

Kodiak, Alaska (Population: 6,281)

Image by Discover Kodiak. St. Paul Boat Harbor, Kodiak (original image)

Image by Pancho Valladolid/Discover Kodiak. Kodiak (original image)

Image by Discover Kodiak. The summer months offer views of migrating whales. (original image)

Image by Discover Kodiak. Bears on Kodiak Island (original image)

Image by AP. Readying red king crab for boiling at the Kodiak Crab Festival (original image)

Image by AP. Survival suit race at Kodiak's crab festival (original image)

Image by Discover Kodiak. Carnival rides at Kodiak Crab Festival (original image)

Image by Pancho Valladolid/Discover Kodiak. St. Paul Boat Harbor at night (original image)

Image by Discover Kodiak. Kodiak Island (original image)

Image by Chris McLennan. Katmai National Park (original image)

Image by Chris McLennan. Katmai National Park (original image)

One hundred years ago, President Woodrow Wilson created the Katmai National Monument in what was then the territory of Alaska, to protect an area rocked and rattled by the 1912 eruption of Novarupta Volcano. Today, what’s now known as the Katmai National Park and Preserve is a still-active remote landscape teeming with forests, lakes and more than 2,000 brown bear. Located on Alaska’s mainland, it’s one of the state’s prime spots for viewing them as they frolic and feed on salmon in their native habitat.

Katmai is also just across the Shelikof Strait from Alaska’s Kodiak Island, the second largest island in the U.S. and home to a vibrant seaport and arts community of the same name. Surrounded by towering mountains and narrow fjords, Kodiak is itself a sight to behold. Many visitors make their way via the Alaska State Ferry—which runs from Bellingham, Washington, to Homer, with Chenega Bay being the closest stop east of Kodiak (14 hours distance)—to explore this once Russian-stronghold that morphed into a U.S. military outpost during World War II. Abandoned post-war, the purposely built Fort Abercrombie is today a state historical park filled with historic ruins, spruce forests and waterfront cliffs overlooking pounding surf and tide-pools—along with a tiny, volunteer-run military history museum housed in a former ammunition bunker.

But Kodiak’s history dates back much earlier, something visitors can explore with a stop at the Baranov Museum. Occupying the oldest-standing building in the state, the museum’s fascinating exhibits include stories on the island’s Native Alutiiq people, Kodiak’s once-lucrative fur trade, and the devastating Good Friday Earthquake of 1964, which nearly wiped out the town.

Enjoy some time wandering along downtown’s St. Paul Boat Harbor and exploring its Kodiak Maritime Museum, a walkable “museum without walls” with exhibits that span the sidewalks. Talk with local fishers, get to know the area’s best fly fishing spots and secluded campgrounds, or book a guided kayaking tour along protected inlets with a chance to see up-close migrating whales, with June through August being the best months. Outside the city, the Kodiak Wildlife Refuge is an incredible natural resource that is known for its fishing, kayaking, bear-viewing and camping. It occupies two-thirds of Alaska’s “Emerald Isle,” and is only accessible by flight (including air taxis or boat) but makes for an easy day trip or lengthy backcountry excursion.

Dine on beet borscht soup or housemade pastries at Monk's Rock Coffeehouse & Bookstore, then peruse their selection of Russian-themed souvenirs. Kodiak Island Brewing Brewing Co. is the place for imbibing pints of Snowshoe, a hoppy IPA with a smooth finish. Bring a picnic of your own (or food from one of Kodiak’s local restaurants) and get tasting.

Keep on your calendar for next year the annual Kodiak Crab Festival, a Memorial Day weekend extravaganza that features everything from a fish toss to a survival suit race (an immersion suit to protect against hypothermia) through frigid waters.

Mystic, Connecticut (Population: 4,168)

Image by Connecticut Office of Tourism. Mystic Pizza (original image)

Image by Connecticut Office of Tourism. Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream (original image)

Image by Anna Sawin. Pastry chef Adam Young at his Sift Bake Shop (original image)

Image by Mystic Aquarium. Mystic Aquarium (original image)

Image by Mystic Aquarium. Beluga (original image)

Image by Mystic Aquarium. Shark touch tank (original image)

Image by Mystic Seaport. A Mystic Seaport demonstration of traditional maritime skills (original image)

Image by Mystic Seaport. Mystic Seaport's ship chandlery (original image)

Image by Mystic Seaport. The watercraft collection at Mystic Seaport is the largest of its kind in the United States and includes four National Historic Landmark vessels: the whaleship Charles W. Morgan (center), the L.A. Dunton, steamboat Sabino (left) and the Emma C. Berry. (original image)

Image by Connecticut Office of Tourism. Mystic Knotwork (original image)

Image by Connecticut Office of Tourism. B.F. Clyde's Cider Mill (original image)

Ever since securing a spot in the annals of Hollywood movie history with a starring role in the film of the same name (and a young Julia Roberts), Mystic Pizza has been luring hungry fans in droves. Thirty years later, the beloved pizzeria and its surrounding seaside hamlet are still buzzing with the delights of stardom. Mystic is even welcoming its own inaugural film festival this October.

The Connecticut coastal town, which sits at the mouth of the Mystic River, offers a wonderful combination of rich maritime past and charming New England allure, the same that it has for decades. Hollywood royalty Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall chose the Inn at Mystic for their 1945 honeymoon. The village is ripe with seafaring history: old sea-captain's home still stand riverside along Mystic's outskirts, and centuries-old ships dock beside kayaks and standup paddleboards in its waters. Downtown, mystic's iconic Bascule Bridge stretches across the Mystic River, and is open to pedestrians too.

Learn about the village's role in shipbuilding and as a safe haven for tall ships at Mystic Seaport, the largest maritime museum in the U.S. It's home to the world's only surviving wooden whaling ship, as well as the coal-fired steamboat Sabino, which offers downriver cruises. Later, stop by Mystic Aquarium to see some of North America's only beluga whales. Some of Connecticut's best state beaches are nearby too.

There’s delightful events in every season. Weekends throughout summer and fall the village springs to life with everything from a celebration of local eats to a kid-friendly “pirate invasion.” An autumn highlight is joining the crowds lined up for fresh apple cider and donuts at B. F. Clyde’s Cider Mill, the country's last-remaining steam-powered cider mill. In winter, Mystic’s Holiday Lighted Boat Parade illuminates the night with a procession of decorated ships, and Santa arriving by tugboat.

Mystic's food and drink scene ranges from riverside seafood shacks to ingenious wine bars like M/Bar, housed in a restored gas station. Travel + Leisure voted Mystic's boat-to-table Oyster Club as one of America's Best Oyster Bars, while locals and visitors alike flock to the French-inspired Sift Bake Shop, where co-owner and pastry chef Adam Young recently competed for 'Best Baker in America' on the Food Network's “Spring Baking Championship.”

Perham, Minnesota (Population: 3,335)

Image by Explore Minnesota. An aerial view of Perham (original image)

Image by Explore Minnesota. Sunrise on Big Pine Lake near Perham (original image)

Image by Perham Focus. A Perham turtle race (original image)

Image by Kim J Photography. Perham's turtle races (original image)

Image by Explore Minnesota. The Perham History Museum (original image)

Image by Explore Minnesota. The Perham History Museum (original image)

On your mark, get set, and go straight to central Minnesota for Perham’s 40th annual International Turtle Races, a weekly occurrence in this “heart of Otter Tail County” on Wednesday mornings, June through August. Perham’s shelled reptiles and their out-of-state competitors are local icons, vying against each other for turtle bragging rights all summer long. Turtles start out in the center of a paved ring at Turtle Park, located next door to Perham’s area chamber, and must be first to maneuver their way to the outside ring to win. Heat winners then compete against one another for the top three slots. Each annual season kicks off with a June Turtle Fest, complete with a (human) half-marathon and grand parade. It’s all just a bit of the small-town allure that makes Perham special.

Otter Tail County is an all-season destination that’s home to more lakes that any other county in the country—over 1,100 of them—with Perham nestled among them. The county is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, hosting numerous events that include walking tours and September plays honoring the area’s history and heritage and held in numerous towns, including Perham.

Downtown Perham is filled with unique specialty shops and eateries: places like Nest, part-kitchenware retailer, part-cafe, with its own drive-through coffee window; and the two-story Gathering Grounds Coffee Shoppe, hailed for its soup and sandwich lunches, as well as the selection of jewelry, books and antiques at its gift shop—all housed in a two-story century-old downtown structure. For Minnesota craft beers and burgers, be sure and stop by locally owned Brew Ales & Eats.

Perham is home to the country’s only museum based entirely on the oral history of American veterans, and the Perham Center for the Arts, an art, music and theater venue, occupies the city’s century-old, former Saint Stanislaus Catholic Church. A downtown must-see is Perham’s Waves of Discovery Mural, comprised of various bits of mosaics, agates, fossils and fused glass, and featuring more than 50 hidden symbols, from one of the many artists’ initials to a series of dragon flies. Small-town pride is evident in everything from June’s annual Rib Cook-Off to a December Parade of Lights, complete with floats and a lighting of town’s Christmas tree.

The greater Otter Tail area offers a ton of outdoor activities as well—from fly fishing holes to more than two dozen campgrounds and resorts. Snowmobiling is especially popular, with over 250 miles of trails winding around lakes and through forests of maple and birch, as is cross country skiing. The county’s Otter Trail Scenic Byway meanders past Native American hunting grounds, over oak-tree-covered hills and alongside vast wetlands.

Skowhegan, Maine (Population: 6,207)

Image by National Geographic Creative / Alamy Stock Photo. Aerial view of downtown Skowhegan, Maine (original image)

Image by Visit Maine. Skowhegan's Flat Iron District (original image)

Image by Jonathan Wheaton. Miller's Table (original image)

Image by Visit Maine. "Girl with a Tail" on the Langlais Art Trail (original image)

Image by Jonathan Wheaton. Skowhegan River Fest (original image)

Image by Knightvision Photography. Skowhegan State Fair (original image)

Image by Visit Maine. Old Mill Pub (original image)

Image by Kristina Cannon. Kennebec River (original image)

Image by Visit Maine. Maine Grains Somerset Grist Mill (original image)

Image by Visit Maine. Flat Iron District (original image)

It's pretty impressive that 200 years after Skowhegan held its inaugural state fair what's now known as the country's “oldest continuously running agricultural fair” is still going strong. The seat of Somerset County will be marking that milestone in August, but not before novice and professional moose-callers perform their best cow calls and bull grunts at the city's first-ever Skowhegan Moose Festival this June.

Things haven't always been easy for this former mill town, nestled in Central Maine's scenic Kennebec River Valley, at the gateway to the state's North Maine Woods. Keen-eyed visitors may recognize the city's 19th-century brick and granite structures from the 2003 HBO mini-series “Empire Falls,” aptly depicting a struggling New England community. But this hasn't stopped Skowhegan from persisting. It's no wonder Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman ever to serve in both houses of Congress, was a Skowhegan native.

Repurposed buildings in the city's historic Flat Iron District now house furniture shops, antique stores, and artisan eateries like the Bankery, where along with delicious pastries and lunch specials, the staff whips up custom cakes from scratch, and the former bank's old vaults are now walk-in refrigerators. Their baked goods—along with a selection of local craft brews—are also on the menu at Showhegan's riverside Old Mill Pub, a former-mill-turned-restaurant. Local wholesale manufacturer Maine Grains is reviving New England's grain economy with its traditional stone milling process. See it for yourself during tours of their gristmill (in what used to be the Somerset County jail), then taste some samplings at the farm-to-table Miller's Table cafe next-door.

Wander outdoors among 21 folk-style sculptures—including the iconic 62-foot Skowhegan Indian—that are Skowhegan's part of the Langlais Art Trail, a state-wide showcase of artworks by incredibly imaginative Maine artist Bernard “Blackie” Langlais.

August's annual Skowhegan River Fest showcases another possible transformation: that of the city's Kennebec River Gorge into a focal point for whitewater recreation. Main Street Skowhegan’s proposed Run of River project would transform the area into a tourist destination, complete with a three-feature whitewater park that could be used by everyone from kayakers to boogie boarders, a slalom course, river promenade and 300 acres of surrounding trails.

Latrobe, Pennsylvania (Population: 8,086)

Image by Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau. Landmark sign at Fred Rogers Memorial Park (original image)

Image by Saint Vincent College. Fred Rogers statue in Fred Rogers Memorial Park in downtown Latrobe (original image)

Image by Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau. Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College (original image)

Image by Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau. Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College (original image)

He may have been everyone’s favorite neighbor, but the small western Pennsylvania town of Latrobe was lucky enough to have Fred Rogers as its own, at least during his younger years (he eventually moved to nearby Pittsburgh). With the 50th anniversary of the debut of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and the documentary coming out this summer, fans may want to visit the big-hearted TV personality’s real-life hometown to pay homage. At the Fred Rogers Archive, a public interactive exhibit located within the Fred M. Rogers Center on the campus of Saint Vincent College—where the Pittsburgh Steelers hold their training camp—visitors can relive their childhood by seeing the children show’s original Neighborhood Trolley, scripts from actual episodes and approximately 16,000 other items detailing his life and career. Mr. Rogers is buried nearby at Latrobe’s Unity Cemetery.

Pro-golfer Arnold Palmer was also born in this former railway town (he and Fred Rogers were actually classmates), as were two others greats: Rolling Rock beer, and the banana split, which Latrobe celebrates annually at its Great American Banana Split Celebration in August. The drug store where pharmacy apprentice David Strickler invented his now-iconic ice cream dessert no longer exists, though both a plaque and a giant banana split statue stand in its place.

Although the groomed fairways on which Palmer learned to play the game are private, golfers can channel “The King” at Latrobe’s Glengarry Golf Links public course. For outdoor enthusiasts of a different kind, the 50-acre Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve (Winnie was Palmer’s wife of 45 years), features walking trails through meadows and forests.

Learn about the country’s first coast-to-coast highway, which runs just south of Latrobe, at the town’s Lincoln Highway Experience Museum, or sample site-brewed beers while listening to live music Friday and Saturday evenings at Latrobe’s Four Seasons Brewing Company & Pub. There’s also Di Salvo's Station, an old train station that’s been transformed into an Italian restaurant and cigar bar.

Salida, Colorado (Population: 5,610)

Image by Scott Peterson. Downtown Salida (original image)

Image by Scott Peterson. The banks of the Arkansas River (original image)

Image by Chris Miller. FibArk (original image)

Image by Chris Miller. Women's freestyle at FibArk (original image)

Image by Scott Peterson. Downtown Salida (original image)

Image by Miles Partnership. Wood's High Mountain Distillery (original image)

Image by Miles Partnership. Wood's High Mountain Distillery (original image)

Image by Scott Peterson. Captain Zipline (original image)

Image by Scott Peterson. Salida in winter (original image)

Image by Scott Peterson. Monarch Mountain (original image)

Tucked into the heart of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains amid the state’s “Banana Belt,” laid-back Salida enjoys surprisingly mild temperatures as well as an incredible array of outdoor sports. In fact, this historic mountain town features some of the best whitewater rafting in the country—a quality it showcases with June’s annual FibArk (First in boating on the Arkansas) Festival, America’s “oldest and boldest” whitewater festival—now in its 70th year. Many of FibArk's events—things like freestyle kayaking and a raft rodeo—take place on the Arkansas River, which runs through the center of town and is home to Salida Whitewater Park, with manmade wave features and holes.

Greater Salida has an upper hand when it comes to natural assets, with everything from recreational hot springs to mountains ripe for bicycling, along with the highest concentration of 14,000-foot-or-taller peaks (“14ers” as Coloradans call them) in the state. It’s home to Colorado’s largest aerial course, family- and ski-bum-friendly and Monarch Mountain Ski Resort and the state’s newest national monument, boasting 21,586 acres of rivers, canyons and backcountry forest.

Downtown Salida is equally as enticing. The once-thriving railway town’s historic district (Colorado’s largest) now houses boutique shops selling handcrafted guitars, high-end bicycles and art aplenty, including the colorful reverse glass paintings of Art & Salvage. Salida was named Colorado’s first certified “Creative District,” a distinction it showcases during its annual Art Walk each June.

Wine and charcuterie, small-batch spirits (at Wood's Hig Mountain Distillery, owned by Salida’s own mayor, no less), and artisan coffee sold alongside locally made bespoke goods are all part of the Salida experience, as are unique lodgings ranging from a historic Poor-Farm-turned-renovated-guesthouse to downtown’s historic Palace Hotel, dishing out home-baked muffins daily.

Nearby Buena Vista’s inaugural Seven Peaks country music festival takes place over Labor Day weekend, complete with outdoor camping and activities like a stand-up paddle board tour.

Luray, Virginia (Population: 4,794)

Image by Sarah Hauser. Downtown Luray (original image)

Image by NPS. The Appalachian Trail on Loft Mountain in Shenandoah National Park (original image)

Image by Luray Caverns. A candle-lit section of Luray Caverns on its annual Discovery Day (original image)

Image by Luray Caverns. The Great Stalacpipe Organ (original image)

Image by Luray Caverns. Giants Hall (original image)

Image by NPS/Neal Lewis. Skyline Drive in the fall (original image)

Image by Bill Crabtree Jr.. Downtown Luray (original image)

Image by NPS. Hikers on Shenandoah's Old Rag Mountain (original image)

Fifty years ago, U.S. Congress passed both the National Trails System Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, promoting the preservation and enjoyment of the country’s outdoor areas, as well as some of its greatest rivers. The former also led to the creation of two national scenic trails: one being the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, which forever changed the course of Luray—a small Virginia town that’s one of the trails access points, as well as the headquarters of nearby Shenandoah National Park, known for its waterfalls, secluded wooded hollows and stunning natural beauty.

For Appalachian Trail through-hikers, Luray is a godsend, beginning with its informative Luray-Page County Visitors Center. Downtown’s Appalachian Outfitters stocks a wealth of hiking gear, and—along with plenty of paintings, pottery and blown glass to peruse—its Warehouse Art Gallery offers free outdoor camping space specifically for A.T. hikers. Spots such as Main Street Bakery even sell backpacked-sized meals to go.

With its perch right near the Thornton Gap entry to Shenandoah’s spectacularly scenic 105-mile-long Skyline Drive, Luray is a hub for all kinds of outdoor activities, including bicycling, canoeing and kayaking, and autumn leaf peeping. Explore the largest cave system in the eastern U.S. with a visit to Luray Caverns, marking 140 years since its discovery. Their annual Discovery Day commemorates this event each August with a Grand Illuminated Tour, in which period-dressed guides lead visitors through sections of the caverns that are lit up with thousands of candles, all the while sharing stories about its unearthing. This vast subterranean system features 140-foot-tall natural columns, wondrous stalactites and an actual organ that turns the entire space into a musical instrument. The caverns have some unrelated attractions as well, such as a vintage car museum and a maze constructed from eight-feet-tall hedges.

Brick structures dating back to the 19th century line the sloping streets of downtown Luray, which is both a VA Main Street Community and designated Arts & Culture District, along with being a National Historic District. Fuel up with a frozen Kona mocha or Virginia’s own Old Hill Hard Cider at Gathering Grounds, also serving breakfast, lunch and weekend dinner. For good ol’ Virginia barbecue, Triple Crown BBQ is a winner.

Black bears, coyotes, and bobcats reside in the forests of Shenandoah National Park, while more than 250 exotic animals that were neglected, abandoned or unwanted have found new life at Luray Zoo, an educational zoo that’s home to everything from kangaroos to monkeys, tigers and porcupines.

Eureka Springs, Arkansas (Population: 2,114)

Image by Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Eureka Springs (original image)

Image by Flickr user Ron Doke. Humpty Dumpty (original image)

Image by Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. "Great Passion Play" (original image)

Image by Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Thorncrown Chapel (original image)

Image by Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Motorcycle on Beaver Bridge (original image)

Image by Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Mardi Gras Extravaganza (original image)

Image by Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge (original image)

Image by Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Christ of the Ozarks (original image)

In 1968, a controversial former politician named Gerald L. K. Smith opened his “Great Passion Play” at an outdoor amphitheater (one that he’d carved out of a mountainside) in Eureka Springs, near a seven-story Christ of the Ozarks he also erected. Fifty years later, this annual summertime reenactment of Jesus Christ’s last days is considered one of the country’s largest attended outdoor dramas.

However, it’s far from the only draw this picturesque mountain town has going for it. Tucked into the middle of northwest Arkansas' Ozark Mountains, Eureka Springs boasts everything from luxurious spas to the jaw-dropping Thorncrown Chapel to a nearby river ripe for canoeing, as well as one-of-a-kind boutiques, art galleries and restaurants. Its entire downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the family-friendly city has received many accolades, including those from the American Planning Association and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Although Eureka Springs has been drawing those interested in its natural spring waters for centuries, its popularity as a resort town boomed in the late 19th century when locals claimed that they had healing properties. Today the city’s undulating center is brimming with historic Victorian structures in a wash of intriguing architecture styles, including cliff-hugging Queen Annes, towering bricks with iron balconies, and cozy residential bungalows. Walk (or hop a trolley) around its historic 3.5 mile “Loop,” which winds, climbs and descends its way around downtown’s most scenic features. In this town, quirky street art like the 500-pound Humpty Dumpty that sits on a wall in the middle of the historic district, century-old hotels and resident ghosts at places like the Basin Park Hotel are standard fare.

Artistic souls flock to this creative hub, a place known for its performance art, with everything from live music variety shows to an interactive sound-creating sculpture park. Whether it’s a Mardi Gras Extravaganza, one of the town's many LGTBQ festivities, or a UFO conference, Eureka Springs has it covered.

Sipping and swirling are the norm at the nearby Railway Winery @ Trestle 71-7, a stop along the Arkansas Wine Trail. For gourmet eats, try hidden downtown breakfast gem Oscar’s Cafe or the French-inspired fine-dining at Le Stick Nouveau.

Embark on a scenic journey back in time aboard the Eureka Springs and North Arkansas Railway. Just outside of town, the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge provides a safe haven for rescued exotic animals, including lions, tigers and bears, as well as guided walking and trolley tours, keeper talks and its own overnight safari lodging.

Trinidad, California (Population: 359)

Image by PhotoCPL/iStock. Trinidad (original image)

Image by jmoor17/iStock. Pier in Trinidad (original image)

Image by Wikipedia. Trinidad (original image)

Image by Arlene Olson/ Trinidad State Beach (original image)

Image by NPS/S. Olson. Prairie Creek Bridge (original image)

Image by NPS/Shaina Niehans. Redwoods at Tall Trees Grove (original image)

Each year, hundreds of thousands of visitors make their way along Northern California’s rugged coastline to marvel at the largest trees on Earth, thanks in large part to the conservation efforts of Save the Redwoods League, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary with “free second Saturdays” at more than 40 Redwood State Parks throughout 2018. This year also marks 50 years since the U.S. government established Redwood National Park, which is actually comprised of several parks that together with its state parks protect 45 percent of all remaining coast redwood old-growth forests on the planet. The tiny seaside hamlet of Trinidad sits right in their backyard.

Located in California’s laid-back Humboldt County, Trinidad is a working fishing village perched on a bluff 174 feet above the waters of Trinidad Bay. It is known as the place where the “Redwoods meet the Sea,” as well as for its spectacularly wild coastline and more than a dozen nearby public beaches. Trinidad is a popular spot for crabbing and fishing for rockfish and salmon, as well as lagoon and ocean kayaking. The greater Trinidad coast is also a notable California Coastal National Monument Gateway for its remarkable ocean sea stacks, home to one of the state’s most diverse seabird colonies—approximately 11 species such as tufted puffin, fork-tailed storm-petral and common murre.

Pick up the catch-of-the-day or snackable tins of smoked salmon at Katy’s Smokehouse, a community stalwart since the 1940s. Katy’s also stocks Humboldt County's famed Larrupin Mustard Dill Sauce, created by the folks at Trinidad’s Larrupin’ Cafe. The cozy eatery serves up a menu of mesquite barbecued dishes and local craft brews, including those from the nearby family-owned Redwood Curtain Brewing Co.

Keep an eye out for grey whales and other marine mammals along the clifftop 1.4-mile-long Trinidad Head Loop Trail, or head to Trinidad State Beach Park during low tide for tide pools filled with sea anemone and starfish. Get a handle on these and other local sea creatures with a visit to the touch tank at Humboldt State University’s Marine Lab.

Just outside Trinidad, Sumeg Village is a reconstructed village that provides insight into the lives of the region’s native Yurok people. Explore its family-style homes, built with traditional materials; sweat lodge; and a dance house where local Yuroks perform occasional cultural ceremonies.

Ketchum, Idaho (Population: 2,573)

Image by Jon Arnold Images Ltd/Alamy. Main Street, Ketchum (original image)

Image by Aurora Photos/Alamy. A woman catches a rainbow trout on Big Wood River in Ketchum (original image)

Image by Flickr user Thomas Hawk. Hemingway Memorial (original image)

Image by Flickr user Thomas Hawk. Hemingway Memorial (original image)

Stargazers have much to be happy about in Idaho, where Ketchum recently became the state’s first city to earn the moniker of International Dark Sky Community—a designation that the International Dark-Sky Association gives to communities dedicated to curbing their own light pollution. The former frontier outpost is also part of the even newer 1,400-square-mile Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, a first-of-its-kind in the U.S. The end of July is the best time to catch Mars at its brightest in years, while August 12 brings the annual Perseid meteor shower, which can produce up to 60 shooting stars an hour.

Ketchum got its start in silver mining, then switched to sheep shipping before it became a year-round recreational resort town along with adjacent Sun Valley, both of which sit at the foot of south central Idaho’s Bald Mountain—a 9,150-foot-tall peak covered with world-class ski runs—in the forested Wood River Valley. It’s nirvana for outdoor enthusiasts, who along with the four-season Sun Valley Resort come to indulge in the hiking trails, fly fishing spots, whitewater rafting opportunities, and natural hot springs of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, just north of town.

These days, Ketchum is also known for its fashionable boutique stores sporting designer threads and sheepskin coats, and art galleries that showcase everything from western bolo ties to modern works by Picasso and Matisse. Creativity pumps through the veins of this scenic place, perhaps a gift left behind by Ketchum’s most famous former resident, Ernest Hemingway. The legendary novelist lived, worked and died here—fans can even pay their respects at Ketchum Cemetery’s Hemingway Memorial, or book Suite 206 at the nearby Sun Valley Resort, where the famed imbiber completed his nearly-Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Each year (usually around early September) Ketchum’s Community Library hosts a weekend filled with Hemingway-centric events, while other annual town festivities include an outdoor curated public sculpture exhibit that runs through summer and Labor Day weekends and Wagon Days, the Pacific Northwest’s largest procession of non-motorized vehicles.

Delve into the local history of miners and ranchers, area artists and local athletes with a visit to Sun Valley Museum of History, or discover high-altitude flora at Sawtooth Botanical Garden. For Rocky Mountain home-style breakfasts, Ketchum’s western-kitsch Kneadery is a must.

Ocracoke, North Carolina (Population: 948)

Image by Peter Ptschelinzew/Alamy. Ocracoke (original image)

Image by Natasha Jackson. Blackbeard's Pirate Jamboree (original image)

Image by Ocracoke Foundation. Ocracoke's wild ponies (original image)

Image by Visit NC. An aerial view of Ocracoke (original image)

Image by Visit NC. Ocracoke Light Station (original image)

Avast, ye mateys! This October marks the 300th anniversary of Blackbeard's historic last battle on Ocracoke Island, a narrow afterthought on the southern tip of North Carolina's Outer Banks. The legendary pirate met his fateful end at the hands of Britain’s Royal Navy, after boarding the ship of Lieutenant Robert Maynard, who—along with his crew—took down Blackbeard with shots and sword.

This October, at the annual Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree, Ocracoke Village and its well-protected Silver Lake will be singing with bursting cannons and swashbuckling buccaneers, though tales of the sinister sea robber and his crew abound across the island: from stories of still-buried treasures at Springer's Point to Pamlico Sound, a windsurfing and kiteboarding haven where the epic end-of-life battle took place.

The name Ocracoke is believed to have originated as a mispronunciation of Woccocock, the island's first residents, and a few long-time locals still retain their distinct High Tider (think “hoi toider”) brogue. Ocracoke Village centers around Ocracoke Harbor—known for its stunning waterfront sunsets—where boat charters offer fishing tours and sailing cruises. Along the waterfront, art galleries and specialty shops lure in onlookers with their colorful window displays, while a range of dining and drink establishments are spread both in and on the outskirts of town. For locally sourced Southern seafood dishes and wood-fired pizzas to go, swing by lively Daijo. On the edge of the village is the new 1718 Brewing, serving up hand-crafted sodas and flights of their home brews, while Pony Island Restaurant has been Ocracoke's beloved breakfast hub since 1959.

For more local history, pay a visit to the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum, or bicycle over to Ocracoke Light Station. Keep an eye out for sea turtles and their nests (common in the summer) along local beaches, most of which are run by the National Park Service as part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Ocracoke is also home to wild ponies—the descendants of horses that shipwrecked explorers cast overboard—that reside in a protected pasture up Highway 12.

Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan (Population: 13,628)

Image by Norris Seward. Kayakers and freighter (original image)

Image by Mikael B. Classen. Soo Locks at night (original image)

Image by Sault Ste. Marie CVB. Downtown Sault Ste. Marie (original image)

Image by Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society. Whitefish Point Lighthouse and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum (original image)

Image by Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society. Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum (original image)

Image by Kenneth Kiefer/iStock. Tahquamenon Falls (original image)

Image by Sault Ste. Marie CVB. Soo Locks boat tour (original image)

Image by Sault Ste. Marie CVB. Soo Locks boat tour (original image)

Image by Sault Ste. Marie CVB. Soo Locks freighter (original image)

Image by Sault Ste. Marie CVB. Rotary Park (original image)

Michigan's oldest city has quite a history, from its role as a “crossroads of fishing and trading” among Native Americans to its more than 140 years spent under French rule (it wasn’t until after the War of 1812 that the U.S. gained control). This year it's celebrating its “Semiseptcentennial”—that’s 350 years—with a bevy of events, culminating with the week-long 350th Anniversary Festival in July.

Sault Ste. Marie sits on the northeastern tip of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, directly across the St. Marys River and the U.S.-Canada Border from its twin city, Ontario's Sault Ste. Marie. The Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge connects the two, serving as the only vehicular crossing between Michigan and Ontario for hundreds of miles. Nearby Lake Superior's rocky and forested coastline offers loads to explore, though the city has plenty of its own attractions.

Most notable is its legendary Soo Locks, two parallel locks opened in 1897 to help ships navigate the 21-foot drop between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. Today it's one of the planet's largest and busiest waterway traffic systems. See this magnificent feat of engineering—along with the massive freighters and tiny tugboats traversing its waters—in action, both from an observation platform overlooking the locks or aboard an exciting boat tour.

A few of the city's treasured eateries also offer up-close views of the locks, including the Lockview Restaurant, a long-time seafood stalwart with an old-school nautical feel, and the newer Karl's Cuisine, serving up locally sourced New American eats, wines and brews.

Sunbathers will want to head to Sherman Park along St. Marys River, home to the city's only public beach. For winter sports, the city's Sault Seal Recreation Area is a convenient practice spot for downhill skiing, and a hub for snow tubers. Sault Ste. Marie is especially popular with snowmobilers, with the area's 50th annual I-500 Snowmobile Race taking place earlier this year. Both cross country skiers and snowshoers head to the nearby Algonquin Trail for roaming among pristine, snow-covered forest.

Nearby Tahquamenon Falls State Park is a year-round favorite, with the foamy, cedar-colored waters of its 200-foot-wide Upper Falls. While here, swing by Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub for fresh Lake Superior whitefish paired with a pint of its own Black Bear Stout or Porcupine Pale Ale, then pick up a bottle of Upper Peninsula-made pure maple syrup at its Camp 33 Gift Shop.

The waters around Sault Ste. Marie have long been a prominent place for shipwrecks, and therefore lighthouses, like the 72-step Point Iroquois Light Station, and a bit further afield, Whitefish Point Lighthouse. The latter is home to the only museum devoted to shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, as well as the bell from the legendary Edmund Fitzgerald, which sunk in a storm off the coast. The point itself is a premier bird migration hot-spot, most notably for rough-legged hawks, and the incredibly preserved ships lost below its frigid waters are a boon for divers.

The National Parks Face a Looming Existential Crisis

Smithsonian Magazine

When I drove with forest ecologist Nathan Stephenson on the twisted Generals Highway through Sequoia National Park in central California last September, it was like a tour through the aftermath of a disaster. As we zigzagged up the road in his car, Stephenson narrated our journey blithely, like a medical examiner used to talking about death. “There’s a dead skeleton there,” he remarked, pointing to a bony oak corpse jutting toward the sky. A haze of nude branches clung to the distant slope.

“So all that gray up there is dead live oaks,” he said.

Above us, a band of brown streaked across the slopes—dead pines, their remains still standing upright in the forest—and when we reached nearly 6,000 feet, Stephenson parked on a gated road and led me into a desolate scene of parched earth and dying trees.

Tall and lanky as a sapling, with angular shoulders and a neatly trimmed white beard, Stephenson—who, at 60 years old, has worked here since he began as a National Park Service volunteer nearly four decades ago—looked like he could have sprung from the forest himself. Today, as a full-time research scientist with the United States Geological Survey, stationed in the Sierra Nevada, one of Stephenson’s main jobs is to keep watch over these trees. He tromped through a carpet of brown needles and paper-dry oak leaves to show me a deceased Ponderosa pine about six feet wide at the base and as tall as a 15-story building. Someone from his research crew had peeled the bark back to reveal the cause of death: the curled signature of a pine beetle etched into the wood.

“And there’s another Ponderosa pine,” he said, pointing a few feet away. “They all died.”

Drought suppresses a tree’s ability to make sap, which functions as part of both its circulatory system and its immune system against bugs. About a decade ago, even before the historic California drought, Stephenson and his colleagues saw a slight but noticeable uptick in the number of insect-inflicted casualties in the forest—twice as many as when he started his research—and he suspected that the rising temperatures were stressing the trees.

The mass death of trees, pines especially, accelerated after the winter of 2014-2015 when the weather went haywire and Stephenson walked the foothills in a short-sleeved T-shirt in January, and again during the record-low snowfalls the following year. Then came the swarms of beetles, which appear to be thriving amid the warmer temperatures. That spring, “it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, everything’s dropping dead,’” Stephenson recalled.

Since then, about half to two-thirds of the thick-trunked pines at this elevation have been lost, along with an increased number of fatalities among other species like incense cedars (trees that seemed so hardy before the drought that Stephenson and his colleagues used to call them “the immortals”). His crew keeps a running count of the casualties, but the park doesn’t intervene to save the trees.

Image by Visual by Thom Halls for Undark. Nate Stephenson has spent most of his life as a government scientist working in these forests, and he has witnessed the changes brought on by rising temperatures. (original image)

Image by Visual by Thom Halls for Undark. Tourists arrive in Sequoia National Park and quickly see the results of the drought and the infestation of the western pine beetle. (original image)

Image by Visual by Thom Halls for Undark. Stephenson traces the tracks of the fir engraver beetle for an autopsy patch on the side of a dead white fir. (original image)

Even though the National Park Service is charged with keeping places like Sequoia “unimpaired” for future generations, it doesn’t usually step in when trees meet their end because of thirst and pestilence. Droughts and insects are supposed to be normal, natural occurrences. But it’s hard to say whether the changes witnessed here—or at neighboring Kings Canyon National Park, or at national parks across the nation—still count as normal, or even “natural,” at least as park stewards like Stephenson have long understood the term. And those changes raise a lot of prickly questions that cut to the very heart of what keepers of public lands do, and how they perceive their mission.

After all, even as tens of millions of tourists throng through their gates every year to get a glimpse of the “wild,” official policy has, for decades, directed scientists and managers to keep the parks they oversee as untainted as possible, looking as nature would if humans had never intervened. But how do you preserve the wilderness when nature itself is no longer behaving like it’s supposed to? How do you erase human influence when that influence is now everywhere, driving up temperatures, acidifying oceans, melting glaciers, and rapidly remaking the landscapes we’ve come to know as our national parks?

In Alaska, boreal forest trees are rooting into the previously treeless tundra. The javelina, a hoofed, pig-like mammal, has wandered north from part of its traditional range in southern Arizona into Grand Canyon National Park. The glaciers of Glacier National Park are withering in the heat and will probably be gone in less than 15 years.

Under the Obama administration, the park service took on climate change as a kind of combat mission. A quote from then-National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis is still emblazoned across a number of agency websites: “I believe climate change is fundamentally the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced.” Three years ago, a memo sent to directors and managers of every region of the park service confessed that “some goals described in our current planning documents reflect concepts of ‘naturalness’ that are increasingly difficult to define in a world shaped by an altered climate.”

Those realizations were already upending the park service and its affiliated agencies when the nation elected its new president, Donald Trump, who has famously called climate change a “hoax.” Since arriving in Washington, the administration has been busy erasing references to climate science on federal websites, and in June, Trump officially withdrew from the Paris climate accord, a landmark global pact reached just two years ago. Several of Trump’s cabinet members and nominees have hedged on their views regarding climate science—including former congressman Ryan Zinke, whom Trump has put in charge of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the park service.

Meanwhile, the agency’s 22,000 olive-and-gray-clad rangers, scientists, and other staff have recently acquired a near-mythical reputation as a cadre of outlaws fighting to avenge assaults on climate science. The internet and social media buzzed with enthusiasm when Badlands National Park’s Twitter account “went rogue” and posted a series of facts about global carbon dioxide concentrations, and spoof national park Twitter accounts proliferated under names like @BadHombreNPS and @AltNatParkSer.

But it’s really nature itself that is going rogue, and while the current administration may dismiss climate change, managers and scientists in places like Sequoia National Park can already see its impacts first-hand. Figuring out what to do about it—or even whether they should do something about it—has been as much an existential journey as a scientific one for the overseers of the nation’s parks. With the evidence all around them, they have spent the last several years painstakingly tracking fire and drought, gathering data from trees and soils, and developing models of possible futures—including ones that might usher in leaders who are unsympathetic to their cause.

“It’s our responsibility under the law to understand and respond to threats to the people’s resources,” said Gregor Schuurman, an ecologist with the National Park Service’s Climate Change Response Program. “Those of us engaged in that try as much as possible to not be too influenced by the day-to-day politics, which are often pretty volatile.” Nonetheless, Schuurman admitted, the threats to parks from climate change are “ongoing” and “concerning.”

For all of this, Stephenson remains optimistic. “Most trees are alive,” he told me. “I’m so used to this idea that we’re going to be seeing big changes that it’s sort of like, ‘Okay, here’s step one. This is our learning opportunity.’”

The National Parks stand at a precipice. (Visual by Anar Badalov/Undark)

When the National Park Service was formed in 1916 to take care of the “scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life” in the parks, it didn’t initially treat nature with that much reverence. It was more focused on providing attractions to visitors. Park managers cut a tunnel in a giant sequoia tree in Yosemite so you could drive your car through it, encouraged visitors at Western parks to watch the bears feeding nightly from the garbage dumps, and in the agency’s first decade, frequently gunned down wolves, cougars and other predators they considered a nuisance.

All of this changed in 1962, when A. Starker Leopold, the son of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, was put in charge of a committee to examine how to manage wildlife in the parks and whether to allow hunting. He and his committee gave the park service more than it asked for: a sweeping statement of principles that set the parks on what might now look like a quixotic mission. “A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America,” their report declared—something resembling the landscape before European settlers started tampering with it.

The report largely omitted the myriad ways that indigenous people had, of course, managed ecosystems for many thousands of years. But in many ways, it transformed the park service from a tourism bureau into one of the country’s leading agencies for ecosystem science. It advised parks to abide by the best principles of ecology and to keep intact the many interdependent relationships among different species (like the ways that wolves keep deer populations in check so they don’t destroy too much vegetation). After the Leopold Report, parks put an end to most practices, such as bear-feeding, that treated wild animals like entertainment.

Early in Stephenson’s career, he internalized the Leopold tradition and saw it as his mission to help make the forests look something like they did when conservationist John Muir tromped through them in the 1860s and 1870s—sun-speckled groves of thick-trunked sequoias, pines, cedars and firs. In 1979, he spent his first season as a volunteer, hiking through the backcountry to catalog the park’s remote campsites. Then he worked for a few years as a low-paid seasonal employee—until he helped launch a climate change research project in the park in the 1990s. “I wanted to be here so badly,” he recalled.

Image by Visual by NPS. In the earliest days, managers of the national parks were focused on taming the wilds so the public could come and enjoy them. Left, rangers pose with a U.S. Cavalry member (center) at Kings Canyon National Park. (original image)

Image by Visual by NPS. Under the influence of the forester and conservationist A. Starker Leopold, the parks took on a new mission in the 1960s: restoring and preserving the land in a state approximating a natural, pre-colonial America. (original image)

Over the years, part of his work with his forestry colleagues has involved providing information to help correct Sequoia National Park’s fire problem.

Many Western landscapes, including Muir’s beloved sequoia groves, are adapted to wildfires. But before the Leopold Report, firefighters had feverishly extinguished even small fires in the Sierras, and the results were sometimes disastrous. The sequoias, which need light and fire to germinate, languished in thick shade and stopped producing seedlings. In the absence of little fires, forests became dense and stockpiled with flammable bits of tree and leaf debris, and the risk of bigger, hotter, unstoppable infernos grew. In the late 1960s, Sequoia National Park began to fix the problem by lighting low, tame ground fires in the park—“prescribed burning,” as it’s known—a practice that has persisted in part because it works, but also because it is supposed to imitate a natural process, as Leopold instructed.

By the mid-1990s, though, it became clear to Stephenson that recreating the forests of centuries past this way was an unreachable goal. Two of his colleagues used scars on old trees to calculate how many fires burned through the forests of Sequoia before Europeans got there; it was far more than the number of blazes the park’s burn crew had deliberately set on their own. Stephenson realized that, given the vastness of the park and the small number of scientists and firefighters on staff, it would be nearly impossible to recreate the forests that once were. Meanwhile, Stephenson read early predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international body that distills the best climate science from around the world. Already the IPCC was painting a dire picture: “many important aspects of climate change are effectively irreversible,” the group’s 1995 report said.

“I started to do some real hard visualization of possible futures,” Stephenson recalled. “In all of them—since I’m a forest guy—the forest looked pretty beat up.”

Stephenson first fell into despair. “I imagine if you’re a cancer patient, you go through something similar,” he says, “which is, it’s a complete upheaval of what you were thinking, where you thought you were going. And you probably go through all these emotional struggles and then you finally reach a point where you just say, ‘Okay, what am I going to do about it?’” In 2002, he found one outlet for his feelings: He began giving a series of talks to urge park service managers to consider the ways climate change might upset some of their long-held assumptions. Nature—if such a thing could even be defined—was never going to look like it had in the past, he told colleagues in the region, and they would ultimately have to rethink their goals.

It took a while for official park service policy heads to catch up with Stephenson, but there were others in the agency who had begun to think along these lines. Don Weeks, a park service hydrologist, had a climate change epiphany in 2002, while he and colleague Danny Rosenkrans, a geologist, were flying in a propeller plane over Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in southwest Alaska. The plane received a radio transmission about a flash flood roaring down the Tana River at the center of the park, and Rosenkrans “tells me to get ready to see something that’s going to blow my mind,” Weeks recounted.

“It’s a complete upheaval of what you were thinking, where you thought you were going,” Stephenson says as he watched the forest change. (Visual by Thom Halls for Undark)

As they approached the headwaters of the Tana, Weeks gaped at the sight of a 3-mile-wide glacial lake that had split open in one night and dumped its contents downstream. The lake had been stable for about 1,500 years until 1999, when it ruptured for the first time. When Weeks saw the lake collapse, its second occurrence at that point, it was “the most phenomenal thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.

The whole tableau—the empty lakebed scattered with icebergs the size of houses and the engorged river below full of floating tree trunks ripped from the ground by flash flooding—stunned him. “I mean it was the apex of my field work as far as just seeing that level of change and the danger associated with that, the rawness of it,” he recalled recently. “To top that, I got to be standing at the edge of a volcano while it’s going off, I guess.” It was the most memorable event of his entire career. Suddenly, climate change was real to Weeks in a visceral way, and he was fascinated.

In 2010, he took a temporary post with the park service’s newly created Climate Change Response Program that eventually morphed into a full-time job. Here he encountered a group of scientists who were grappling with problems the park service had never before contemplated. For inspiration, they had turned to a strategy first hatched by the 20th-century futurist Herman Kahn, the man who inspired Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian comic film “Dr. Strangelove,” and who helped the U.S. Armed Services plan for the possible outcomes of global nuclear war. One of Kahn’s tools, “scenario planning,” has since become a popular means for business leaders to anticipate futures that are wildly different from the ones they always assumed lay down the road.

Scenario planning is like a role-playing game. You start with a scenario informed by both science and intelligent conjecture. Then you write speculative narratives about what could happen—akin to science fiction. In a national park, thinking the unthinkable sometimes means envisioning the demise of the very things you are devoted to protecting. It also means reckoning with national and local politics: What happens when the political tide turns away from both the science of climate change and the values of the National Park Service?

In a 2011 scenario planning workshop in Anchorage, Alaska, one group of scientists and park managers wrote a scenario that seemed part-warning, part-gallows-humor, in which a family of Alaska Natives tossed a faded park sign into a campfire and watched “the last letters of ‘Bering Land Bridge National Preserve’ turn black and disappear.”

The story implies a situation so dire that the park either is barely functioning or ceases to exist (though when I contacted Jeff Mow, one of the workshop’s participants and now the superintendent of Glacier National Park, he said that story was a reflection on how locals might regard the park and wasn’t intended to sound its death knell). Such bleakness may speak to the level of anxiety felt across parts of the park service. But the ultimate purpose of writing such scenarios is to avoid the worst case by considering options ahead of time.

In 2012, a group of staff from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, including Stephenson, gathered at a conference center in the Sierra Nevada foothills with scientists and experts from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, state agencies, and academia. Armed with maps, large sheets of tracing paper, and a set of colorful markers, they sat down to play the game.

They considered different ecological and social-political scenarios—in which, say, there was more or less rain and snow, the public was on board with their work or illegally stealing water from the park, and federal policymakers either offered little or a great deal of support. The players fleshed out the details of their scenarios—tree die-offs, insect infestations, cuts and boosts to the park budget—then made their moves. Over the course of the game, an imaginary fire rose up from the dry forest below the park and raged through the sequoia groves. The players envisioned what would happen next. What had they won and lost because of climate change, fire, and drought?

It was still early in the life of the drought, and “we didn’t know it was going to be the most severe drought in at least 120 years,” said Koren Nydick, science coordinator for the two parks. “We did not expect some of the things in our scenarios to actually happen so fast.”

As the drought wore on, Stephenson became especially concerned about what would happen to the young sequoias. He periodically patrolled Giant Forest, 1,000 feet above his research plot, looking for signs of damage. He had long thought climate change would hit the sequoia seedlings first, and in the fall of 2014, he crept through the forest on his knees, his hands covered with dust, eye-level with the dainty, baby sequoias sprouting like small Christmas trees at the feet of their behemoth parents. He paused at the base of a massive sinewy trunk, took a breath, and turned his gaze skyward. There in the crown of a full-grown sequoia he saw tufts of brown, dying leaves. “I looked up and went, ‘What the hell is going on?’” he says.

That same season, Stephenson and a field crew from the USGS surveyed the sequoias in several groves, looking for more signs of dead leaves. Park managers braced for bad news. While a number of media outlets ran stories speculating whether the old trees might ultimately keel over, in the end, only about 1 percent of old sequoias lost more than half their leaves. Most of those dropped their brown leaves that season and then greened up the next as if nothing had ever happened.

The next year, after an exceptionally snow-deprived winter, a blaze named the Rough Fire ignited in the desiccated slopes of Sierra National Forest, just west of Kings Canyon National Park. It devoured Kings Canyon Lodge, a rustic wood-frame building that hosted a burger-and-ice-cream restaurant, and ascended into Grant Grove, the dwelling place of another famous assemblage of sequoia trees.

In parts of the grove, the flames burned hot and high, seared the crowns of trees and killed off most of them, including some old sequoias. But when the Rough Fire reached the part of the forest where the park service had carried out prescribed burning over the decades, it quieted, and many of the big trees there were spared. Just as they predicted, drought and wildfire had taken a toll, but their work in the forest had saved some of the trees—and that offered some hope.

What happens when the political tide turns away from both the science of climate change and the values of the National Park Service? Here, drought and insect infestation take their toll on California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. (Visual by Thom Halls for Undark)


In the past three years, the Climate Change Response Program has surveyed scientists and managers in the parks about climate change. All over the country, hundreds of units in the National Park Service are facing unusual situations stirred up by climate change—and in some cases, the need to act on these directly contradicts park policy on what is “natural.”

Some parks are even discussing radical interventions in the wild that the agency would never have tried in the past. Glacier National Park, for instance, has experimented with loading bull trout into water containers and carrying them by backpack to lakes at high-elevations, where they might survive if the heat becomes unbearable for them elsewhere in the park—a strategy called “assisted migration.” In-house, the agency jokingly came up with the name “gnarly issues,” from surfer jargon, to describe these situations.

One of the gnarliest issues came up a year later in the Pacific Northwest. In May 2015, during one of the driest springs on record in Olympic National Park, a lightning strike lit a fire in the remote old-growth Queets rainforest. It kept burning through a record-breaking hot summer until September, scorching 2,800 acres. In August, lightning set another 7,000 acres ablaze on the west side of North Cascades National Park. The fire leaped across the Skagit River, jumped a highway, and charged up the mountainsides. It rushed toward the park visitor center, forcing tourists to flee.

Though large fires are common in dry regions like the Sierra Nevada, they rarely occur in wet forests like these. Some trees don’t deal well with fire, and in places like rainforests and alpine forests, pervasive dampness keeps blazes from traveling far. Only when the air is uncommonly dry and hot and the wind steady can a fire grow in size here. It then often kills nearly everything in its path. Fires like this tend to come only every few centuries to patches of forest on the wet, west side of the Cascade Range or Olympic Mountains. But these two fires, the largest west-side burns in either park’s history, had blazed up in the same season. Were they a warning sign of hotter, more fire-prone seasons to come?

On a hot day in August of last year, I donned a heavy black hard hat and followed Karen Kopper, her lead field technician, aptly named Cedar Drake, and a crew of four field researchers into a dusty, blackened section of forest in North Cascades National Park. Kopper, a petite, sandy-haired woman with a serious demeanor, works for North Cascades as a fire ecologist. She’s also writing a history of forest fires of the Pacific Northwest. But until 2015, she’d never seen a blaze burn so large on this side of the park.

We walked into what used to be a lush, dense, old-growth forest: home to centuries-old stringy-barked cedars with sinuous roots, towering Douglas firs, and hemlocks. Before the fire, the ground was a carpet of moss, huckleberry bushes, and sword and bracken ferns, and was usually sodden with rain for about nine months of the year or more.

Image by Visual by Paul Conrad for Undark. Karen Kopper, a fire ecologist in the North Cascades, is writing a history of forest fires of the Pacific Northwest. Until 2015, she’d never seen a fire burn so large on this side of the park. (original image)

Image by Visual by NPS. In May 2015, during one of the driest springs on record in Olympic National Park, a lightning strike lit a fire in the remote old-growth Queets rainforest. It kept burning through a record-breaking hot summer until September, scorching 2,800 acres. (original image)

Image by Visual by Paul Conrad for Undark. New lupine and other forest floor plants are beginning to grow among the remnants of the 2015 fires. But a forest like this can’t grow back if fire returns too often, and Kopper wonders if it will ever be the same. (original image)

That day, the dirt beneath our feet was as loose as beach sand. The fire had eaten up most of the organic matter and left the soil full of ash. The forest floor was nearly bare, except for clumps of charcoal and a few short stems of bracken fern and fireweed, a hot pink flower whose seeds often blow in and germinate just after a conflagration. I spotted a few green branches at the top of a thick-trunked hemlock, but Kopper told me the tree probably wouldn’t make it. Hemlocks don’t like fire. Many of the trees above us were already dead. When we heard a pop from the upper canopy, Kopper and Drake were both startled and exclaimed, nearly in unison, “What was that?” They looked up warily. No one wanted to be in the path of a collapsing dead tree.

Drake and his crew fanned out. They tied strips of pink plastic tape to the trees to flag the edges of a circular research plot with a nearly 100-foot diameter. Then each person stood in a different section of the plot and shouted out an estimate of how much forest was dead and how much was still alive. Drake recorded their figures in a chart. He noted that the soil was almost completely burned through, and the small trees and shrubs were nearly all gone. Over the entire area of the fire, Kopper estimated that more than half of the big and mid-sized trees had died. In some parts of the burn, more than 70 percent of the trees were toast.

Though the park service regularly sets fires in its forests to mimic the natural fires of the past, it hardly ever meddles in the aftermath of a fire like this: to do so would be “unnatural.” Historically, the forest would have grown back slowly on its own, over about 75 to 100 years. But climate change may make these fires more commonplace. A forest like this can’t grow back if fire returns too often. Kopper wonders if this place will ever be the same.

Three years ago, even before these large conflagrations, she suspected west-side fires could become a conundrum for this park and told the agency so in her response to their survey. In 2015, the park service asked her to research this particular gnarly issue (now a semi-official phrase among park service scientists) further.

She and three other scientists have since written up an analysis describing the many quandaries and questions they were wrestling with. Should foresters try to keep the landscape as it would have been before the temperatures warmed—irrigate the forest, set up firebreaks, and aggressively replant moisture-loving trees and plants every time they burn down? Or should they try to revamp the place by transplanting species from, say, the rain-shadow side of the mountains where fires are common? Are any of these things in line with the park service’s long-held ideals about nature, and if not, what would the agency need to do now?

What is truly natural or unnatural anymore?

Should foresters try to keep the landscape as it would have been before the temperatures warmed, or should they try to revamp the place by transplanting fire-tested species from elsewhere? (Visual by Paul Conrad for Undark)


After we left his research plots, Stephenson took me to Giant Forest, and we parked the car in the visitor lot. I caught my breath at the sight of the giant sequoias—muscular, poised, and shocking in their scale and beauty. As we walked, he periodically pulled out a monocular, like a mini-telescope, and stared at their upper leaves. The longer we stayed, the giddier he became, like a kid playing in the woods. He delighted at the sight of a woodpecker. “What a cute little bird,” he said and stared for several minutes. Nearby, he spotted a cluster of sugar pines with full, green crowns. “I’m feeling kinda happy,” he said, “It looks like this group hasn’t been hit by beetles yet.” When we descended from a rock outcrop near the visitors’ center, he slid down a stair railing, grinning.

He said he thought the effects of climate change “will come in bursts” like this drought. Things would look fine, then all at once, trees would die, infernos would rage, insects would throng. So far, the sequoias were mostly doing fine. In 2015, Stephenson spotted 11 that had turned brown and died altogether, still standing. Previously, he had only witnessed the death of two standing sequoias in his entire career. Still, “it doesn’t concern me,” he said. Not yet.

But in the long term, “we don’t know that the sequoias will be okay,” he admitted. He had suggested that the managers of Sequoia and Kings Canyon consider planting a few sequoias at a higher elevation above Giant Forest, where they might stay cooler as the climate warms. He knew a decision like that could be contentious. But young sequoias don’t produce seeds for several years, so Stephenson figured the park would have a while to figure out whether it was a big mistake.

“I can see [the park service] being sued for not doing enough in the face of climate change, and then I could see being sued for doing things in the face of climate change,” Stephenson told me. “In the end, I guess, the courts sort it out, but boy, in the meantime what do you do? Do you get paralyzed and not do anything?”

It’s still not entirely clear how President Trump’s rejection of the science of climate change might affect the national parks. Stephenson told me longstanding rules prevented him from talking politics, even when they directly affected his work. Some employees within the park service also turned down my requests for comment. At the moment, there’s no clear, agency-wide decree that would force their silence on such touchy subjects, but from some, I sensed discomfort and even fear that sharing their opinions might be risky.

Under Trump, there’s no clear, agency-wide decree that would force scientists to remain silent on touchy subjects like climate policy, but from some, I sensed discomfort and even fear that sharing their opinions might be risky. (Visual by Thom Halls for Undark)

Weeks, the park service hydrologist, suggested that scenario planning might have prepared some parks for the new political regime by prompting them to imagine life with both more and less supportive federal leadership. “So if a park has played through this and kind of rehearsed for this, they’re in a better position, because it looks like we’re changing to a different kind of mindset,” he told me in December.

Eight months later, he felt it was still too early to tell how the administration might deal with climate change in the park service. “I do have some concern,” he said, “but I haven’t seen it play out, and I’m always trying to be optimistic.” Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said no new political winds had yet blown into his park and affected its immediate management, but he felt that the administration couldn’t forever disregard the impacts of climate change. “There’s things going on around us, like extreme weather events, that can’t be ignored” he said.

For decades, the national parks have been the country’s environmental conscience, the places that reminded us what nature is supposed to look like and who we are by extension. “Certainly, if ever the American psyche survived losing the parks,” the historian Alfred Runte wrote in his book National Parks: The American Experience, “the United States would be a very different country indeed.”

For at least the next three and half years, the problems faced by the park service could get gnarly indeed. Even if the federal government tries to suppress research, education, or public outreach on climate change, there’s no getting around what’s already happening in the parks. Even if they don’t “go rogue,” national park staff will continue to find themselves on the frontlines of a series of ethical dilemmas—about science and the future of nature, which species to save or to relocate, and when and whether to speak out about the changes they are witnessing every day in the American landscape.

In May, Stephenson told me he saw fresh signs of death among the trees while walking through his research plots, even after a wet winter. The White House had just unveiled a budget proposal that would slash the Department of Interior’s funding by 11 percent and lay off more than 1,200 park service employees. Given this, I asked Stephenson if he and his colleagues in this national park and others across the country will be able to keep up with the demands posed by climate change—and the colossal, unprecedented experiment unfolding in front of them as the heat turned up?

He said he couldn’t comment.

Madeline Ostrander is freelance science journalist based in Seattle. Her work also appeared in The New Yorker, Audubon, and The Nation, among other publications.

Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings Nominated for Unesco World Heritage Status

Smithsonian Magazine

Recognizing the international appeal and historic value of Frank Lloyd Wright's work, the United States has nominated ten of the architect's buildings for inclusion on the Unesco World Heritage List. This is the first time the United States has nominated examples of modern architecture and the first time it has nominated a new site since 2013. The ten sites span Wright's prodigious career, from his early Prairie period to his final buildings, and are located in seven states. According to Unesco, the World Heritage List seeks to recognize sites whose importance stretches beyond their home country, and whose "outstanding universal value” represents the best the built and natural world has to offer.

From the instantly recognizable Fallingwater home in Pennsylvania to Wright's only skyscraper, the ten sites create a snapshot of the architect's work. "They are the most iconic, fully realized and innovative of more than 400 existing works by Frank Lloyd Wright," the architect's foundation said in a press release. "Each is a masterwork and together they show varied illustrations of 'organic architecture' in their abstraction of form, use of new technologies and masterful integration of space, materials and site."

Individually, each of the sites have already been designated a U.S. Historic Landmark. Though inclusion on the Unesco list does not guarantee any special protection, it does encourage tourism, which can boost local economies and be potentially funneled back into preservation.

A few examples of modern architecture already on the Unesco list include Jørn Utzon's Sydney Opera House, the White City of Tel Aviv, the Bauhaus School in Germany and seven buildings from Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. There are currently 1,007 World Heritage Sites, though only 22 in the United States. To gain inclusion on the list, the Frank Lloyd Wright sites will have to go through a vetting process that includes a series of site visits by two separate advisory boards, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), all meant to determine the universal value of the buildings.

In addition to proving "outstanding universal value," any heritage site must also meet at least one of ten seperate criteria dictated by the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention. These criteria include representing "a masterpiece of creative genius," exhibiting "an important interchange of human values," bearing "unique testimony" to a culture or civilization and being an outstanding example of a "significant stage in human history," among others.

"Wright was the father of modern architecture, fundamentally redefining the nature of form and space during the early 20th century in ways that would have enduring impact on modern architecture worldwide," Richard Longstreth, president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, said in a press release.

Once the vetting process is complete, the sites could be added to the list as early as the summer of 2016.

Unity Temple (1905, Oak Park, Illinois)

Image by © Robert Holmes/CORBIS. Unity Temple in Oak Park. (original image)

Image by © Sandy Felsenthal/CORBIS. A detail on the Unity Temple. (original image)

Image by © G.E. Kidder Smith/CORBIS. Corner of Unity Temple. (original image)

Image by © Sandy Felsenthal/CORBIS. The simple interior of the Unity Temple. (original image)

Image by © STAFF/Reuters/Corbis. An interior view of Unity Temple. (original image)

Unity Temple is the only remaining public example of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie style, characterized by low, horizontal lines meant to blend in with flat landscapes, which spanned 1900 to 1919. The Universalist church was built in 1905 in Oak Park, Illinois; Wright was chosen to design it because he was a Unitarian Universalist himself, and his uncle had been a famous preacher within the congregation.

Wright wanted to create a space inspired by the Unitarian Transcendentalists, who encouraged looking inward, to the congregation, for spiritual guidance, rather than outward. His design was limited by a modest budget and urban location. To stay within his budget, Wright used an unconventional material: exposed, poured-in-place reinforced concrete—historically reserved for industrial buildings, not places of worship. The building's cubic exterior contrasts with the almost airy interior, which includes two sky-lit spaces, one for worship and one for social gatherings. The building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

Frederick C. Robie House (1908, Chicago, Illinois)

Image by © Bob Krist/Corbis. Frederick C. Robie House. (original image)

Image by © Peter Cook/VIEW/Corbis. Robie House. (original image)

Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS. Frank Lloyd Wright, 87, points out features of the Robie House. (original image)

Image by © Thomas A. Heinz/CORBIS. Interior view of Frederick C. Robie House. (original image)

Image by © Farrell Grehan/CORBIS. Dining room in the Robie House. (original image)

The most famous private home Wright designed during his Prairie period is arguably the Frederick C. Robie House, built in Chicago in 1909. Considered a masterpiece of Prairie style, the Robie House is conceived as a single unit—from the exterior to the furniture, all the elements are connected. Wright relied heavily on horizontal lines, meant to evoke the horizon of the Midwestern prairie. The dining room and living room were designed to be a single, open, flowing space, a radical design notion for the early 1900s.

Though considered for demolition in the 1940s and 1950s, today the building is owned by the University of Chicago and operates as a museum run by the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust. In 1991, the American Institute of Architects recognized the Robie House as one of the ten most significant buildings of the 20th century.

Taliesin (1911, Spring Green, Wisconsin)

Image by © Farrell Grehan/CORBIS. Taliesin in spring. (original image)

Image by © Alan Weintraub/Arcaid/Corbis. Taliesin. (original image)

Image by © Layne Kennedy/Corbis. The Taliesin estate was Frank Lloyd Wright's home for 48 years. (original image)

Image by © Layne Kennedy/Corbis. The Taliesin estate covers 600 acres. (original image)

Image by © Layne Kennedy/Corbis. Garden Entrance to the main house of the Taliesin Estate. (original image)

Image by © Farrell Grehan/CORBIS. View from living room at Taliesin. (original image)

Image by © Alan Weintraub/Arcaid/Corbis. Interior of Taliesin. (original image)

Taleisin, first built beginning in 1911 in Spring Green, Wisconsin, was Frank Lloyd Wright's personal home and studio for almost half a century, covering 600 acres in the green hills of Wisconsin. The site was destroyed twice by fire—including one blaze in 1914 that killed his mistress along with two of her children and four others. Wright saw each destruction as a chance to rebuild the estate. Most of the rooms are entered at a corner, drawing the visitor's eye to the wide interior space and windows, which display the Wisconsin countryside beyond.

Today, the house is both a museum and an architecture school. Managed by the non-profit Taliesin Preservation, the home was named a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

Hollyhock House (1918, Los Angeles, California)

Image by © Tim Street-Porter/Beateworks/Corbis. Frank Lloyd Wright's Barnsdall Hollyhock House in Los Angeles. (original image)

Image by © Michael Freeman/Corbis. Staircase and covered walk at Hollyhock House. (original image)

Image by © Ann Johansson/Corbis. Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House. (original image)

Image by © Natalie Tepper/Arcaid/Corbis. Yard and colonnade of Hollyhock House. (original image)

Image by © Tim Street-Porter/Beateworks/Corbis. Hollyhock House, interior view. (original image)

Image by © Thomas A. Heinz/CORBIS. Living room, Hollyhock House. (original image)

Commissioned by oil heiress and experimental producer (and noted bohemian free spirit) Aline Barnsdall in 1918, the Hollyhock House was Wright's first commission in Southern California. While designing the house, Wright drew inspiration from the traditional forms of Spanish California and Pre-Columbian Mexico—in the years prior, he had become fascinated with the temples of Uxmal and Chichén Itzá, which he had first seen in photographs at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915. Wright's fascination with these forms is reflected in the home's monolithic, temple-like structure and its construction material, which is meant to look like solid stone (it's actually plaster over lath). The building opens toward a central courtyard encircled by rooftop terraces. Barnsdall wanted a space whose many rooms would serve as not only a personal residence but as a theater, studio and home for actors. Though she only lived in the building until 1927, the house has served many purposes throughout its life, from an art gallery to a U.S.O. facility.

Since the mid-1970s, the home has functioned as a public museum. Recently, it underwent a massive restoration, spanning six years and costing $4 million. The house was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2007.

Fallingwater (1935, Mill Run, Pennsylvania)

Image by © Richard A. Cooke/CORBIS. Exterior of Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright. (original image)

Image by © Catherine Karnow/Corbis. Exterior view of Fallingwater. (original image)

Image by © Chris Melzer/dpa/Corbis. Fallingwater is considered one of the United States' most beautiful houses. (original image)

Image by © Kent Kobersteen/National Geographic Creative/Corbis. Fallingwater is built over a waterfall. (original image)

Image by © Farrell Grehan/CORBIS. Fallingwater exterior. (original image)

Image by © Farrell Grehan/CORBIS. Interior view of Fallingwater. (original image)

Considered one of the country's most beautiful houses—and one of Wright's most iconic works—Fallingwater was built between 1936 and 1939 in the mountains of western Pennsylvania. Commissioned by the Kaufmanns, a wealthy Pittsburgh family, it was meant to provide them with a peaceful, secluded escape from the dirt and grime of the city.

Built along Bear Run, a mountain stream, the house is perched on top of a waterfall. Wright wanted the family to have more than just a view of the falls—he wanted them to live in it, and experience its sound on a daily basis. The house, which cost $155,000 to build, was featured on the cover of TIME magazine in 1938. It provided the family with a private residence until the 1960s; in 1964, it opened to the public as a museum.

Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House (1936, Madison, Wisconsin)

Image by Wikipedia. Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House, front. (original image)

Image by Wikipedia. Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House, back. (original image)

Built as a modest home for a typical family, the house Wright designed for Herbert and Katharine Jacobs was constructed in 1937 on the outskirts of Madison. The building is small—just 1,550 square feet—and composed of board walls, bricks and glass doors. Though small, the interior was designed to feel spacious, and it opens toward a terrace and garden, creating a continuous sense of flow between the inside and outside. Today, the house is a private residence, though tours are available by appointment. The American Institute of Architects ranked it as one of the 20 most influential residential designs of the 20th century.

Taliesin West (begun 1938, Scottsdale, Arizona)

Image by © Robert Harding/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis. Taliesin West, personal home of Frank Lloyd Wright, near Phoenix, Arizona. (original image)

Image by © Martyn Goddard/Corbis. Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. (original image)

Image by © Rick D'Elia/Corbis. Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. (original image)

Image by © Rick D'Elia/Corbis. Taliesin West. (original image)

Image by © Rick D'Elia/Corbis. One of the small desert dwellings spread about the property. (original image)

Image by © Rick D'Elia/Corbis. Wright wanted to use local materials as much as possible in constructing Taliesin West. (original image)

Image by © Karen Huntt/CORBIS. The lush grounds of Taliesin West. (original image)

Image by © Kerrick James/Corbis. Taliesin West. (original image)

Image by © Robert Harding/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis. Interior of Taliesin West. (original image)

Image by © Michael DeFreitas/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis. Sitting area at Taliesin West. (original image)

Tiring of the cold Wisconsin winters, Wright chose to build his winter home and studio, dubbed Taliesin West, outside Phoenix in Scottsdale, Arizona—a project that took the last 20 years of his life to complete. He used the property as a sort of testing ground for new materials and designs—all inspired by the desert—which he would then incorporate into designs for clients. (Desert stones and boulders, for example, were employed to create a type of "desert masonry.") Today, the building houses the offices of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, as well as the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. Named a National Historic Landmark in 1982, it is open year-round to visitors.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1943, New York, New York)

Image by © Rudy Sulgan/Corbis. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, New York. (original image)

Image by © Andria Patino/Corbis. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. (original image)

Image by © Richard Bryant/Arcaid/Corbis. The Guggenheim Museum, New York. (original image)

Image by © Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. Interior of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. (original image)

Image by © Christian Kober/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis. Interior of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. (original image)

Image by © Murat Taner/Corbis. Guggenheim Museum in New York. (original image)

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City was meant to match the modernity of the art it would house: The building itself is a sculpture, with spiral ramps leading upward toward a sky-lit dome. Though the building has undergone a few modifications—and an addition—since it was completed in 1959, it remains true to Wright's initial vision. "A monument to modernism ... " reads the Guggenheim's website, which also calls it "arguably the most important building of Wright's late career." Today, the museum is one of New York City's most popular attractions, with more than one million visitors annually.

Price Tower (1952, Bartlesville, Oklahoma)

Image by © Walter Bibikow/JAI/Corbis. Price Tower, the only skyscraper designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. (original image)

Image by © von Sternberg: Morley/Arcaid/Corbis. Price Tower, Bartlesville, Oklahoma. (original image)

Image by © Alan Weintraub/Arcaid/Corbis. Price Tower. (original image)

Image by © Alan Weintraub/Arcaid/Corbis. Apex of Price Tower. (original image)

Image by © von Sternberg: Morley/Arcaid/Corbis. Interior of Price Tower. (original image)

Despite the fact that he designed hundreds of buildings throughout his career, only one of Wright's free-standing skyscrapers was ever completed: the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. As with all his designs, Wright's skyscraper reimagined the form—using the shape of a tree as his inspiration, Wright conceived of a central "trunk" and floors that project out almost like branches. The 19-story building was originally supposed to be only two stories, but Wright convinced Oklahoma oil baron Hal Price to agree to a taller structure. Designed for mixed-use, with room for commercial and residential spaces, the building has changed little from its original plan.

Marin County Civic Center (1957, San Rafael, California)

Image by © Proehl Studios/Corbis. Aerial view of the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael, California. (original image)

Image by © Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS. The Marin County Civic Center and Marin County Courthouse in San Rafael, California, were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. (original image)

Image by © Alan Weintraub/Arcaid/Corbis. Marin County Civic Center. (original image)

Image by © BRANT WARD/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis. A man and a child made a u-turn in the wide corridors of the Marin County Civic Center. (original image)

Image by © Michael Freeman/Corbis. Atrium of the Marin County Civic Center. (original image)

Image by © Peter Aprahamian/CORBIS. Atrium of the Marin County Civic Center. (original image)

Wright's last major work was the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, California, which was completed in 1957, just two years before his death. Wright designed the center to, in his own words, "melt into the sunburnt hills" that surround it. "We know that the good building is not the one that hurts the landscape, but is one that makes the landscape more beautiful than it was before that building was built," he said of the project.

The only one of Wright's buildings to have been built for government use, the center is comprised of two buildings—one for the county's administration, and one for its courts. The buildings are set at a slight angle to one another and connected by a circular rotunda; circular forms are utilized throughout the center, from gold spheres that line the roofline to circular courtrooms. The Civic Center was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1991.

This Week Has Offered a Slew of Insights on the Western Hemisphere’s First Humans

Smithsonian Magazine

Scientists have come a long way since 2010, when researchers extracted DNA from a 4,000-year-old clump of hair to map out the first complete genome of an ancient human living in the Western Hemisphere. Today, that initial discovery has been supplemented by 229 genomes recovered from teeth and bone found across the Americas, providing geneticists with a comprehensive portrait of the region’s first inhabitants and their early migration patterns. Three new genomic studies published this week in Science, Cell and Science Advances fill in the details of ancient human migration in North and South America—and add some new twists and turns to their path.

As Science News’ Tina Hesman Saey writes, the studies build on past findings to chart the path of the Americas’ first humans—who spread out from Siberia and East Asia to populate the northern and southern lands of North America before heading downward to South America—and hone in on a specific community based in the Andean Highlands between roughly 1,400 to 7,000 years ago. Summarizing the researchers’ extensive findings, George Dvorsky reports for Gizmodo that the new papers reveal rapid yet uneven movement south in at least three migratory waves beginning some 15,000 years ago, suggesting the individuals who settled the Americas were more genetically diverse than previously believed.

The Science study, led by Natural History Museum of Denmark researcher J. Víctor Moreno-Mayar, Southern Methodist University anthropologist David Meltzer, and University of Copenhagen and University of Cambridge evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev, draws on 15 ancient genomes—including that of a 9,000-year-old western Alaskan who is only the second Ancient Beringian to undergo DNA testing, according to The New York Times’ Carl Zimmer—to track early humans’ migration from Alaska to Patagonia, a region at the farmost tip of South America.

Science magazine’s Lizzie Wade writes that previous studies suggested the first Americans arrived from Siberia and East Asia about 25,000 years ago. While some stayed in the now defunct Beringia region, others moved south, splitting into two groups: Southern Native Americans and Northern Native Americans—who largely settled in what is now Canada and Alaska. The former spread across North and South America some 14,000 years ago, moving at what Meltzer describes as “astonishing speed” given their unfamiliarity with the landscape.

One of the most significant insights offered by the Science report is confirmation that a 10,700-year-old skeleton dubbed the “Spirit Cave mummy” is an ancestor of modern-day Native Americans, not a member of the “Paleoamericans” hypothesized to have populated North America before these native groups arose. As Hannah Devlin explains for The Guardian, the mummy, which was discovered in a Nevada cave in 1940, has been the subject of intense controversy since 1996, when the local Fallon Paiute-Shoshone community learned of its existence and began campaigning for its repatriation. The body was returned to the group and reburied in a private ceremony held this summer.

The findings point toward three distinct waves of southward migration (Cell)

Another finding of note revolves around an individual who lived roughly 10,400 years ago in what is now Brazil. The skeleton revealed traces of a distinctly Australasian genetic marker unseen in any of the other samples included in the study, raising questions of how it ended up in South America. It’s possible, Meltzer tells Science’s Wade, that traces of Australasian ancestry were isolated to a small group of Siberian migrants who moved across continents without mingling amongst other populations, but additional research must be conducted before arriving at a definitive conclusion.

As Michael Greshko explains for National Geographic, the Cell study, led by Max Planck Institute geneticist Cosimo Posth, encompasses the genomes of 49 sets of ancient remains and offers evidence of two previously unidentified South American populations likely related to the main group of Southern Native Americans. One group consists of 4,200-year-old Andean residents closely linked to the Native Americans living in California’s Channel Islands, while the other connects communities that settled in Brazil and Chile around 9,000 years ago to Anzick-1, a 12,700-year-old Clovis child found in Montana.

Posth tells Gizmodo that this latter group speaks to the Clovis culture’s expansion south. He adds, however, that the Clovis-related group was soon completely replaced by an ancestral group with ties to today’s South American populations.

The final paper, published in Science Advances, sheds light on Andean peoples’ adaptation to the harsh conditions of high elevation living. Researchers led by Emory University anthropologist John Lindo drew on the genomes of seven individuals living in the region between 1,400 to 6,800 years ago, as well as dozens of DNA samples sequenced from contemporary populations. As Gizmodo reports, the team found that ancient residents of the Andean Highlands rapidly gained resistance to cold temperatures, low oxygen and UV radiation. They also learned to digest potatoes and, Greshko says, experienced stronger heart health.

Interestingly, analysis of Highland versus Lowland populations revealed vast differences in responses to European contact. Whereas the Lowlanders’ numbers dropped by 95 percent, the Highlanders only shrank by about 27 percent, likely due to adaptations in an immune gene linked with smallpox.

Overall, the studies show multiple distinct waves of migration, complicating the story of the Americas’ first inhabitants. About 16,000 years ago, descendants of the original Siberian and East Asian migrants split into the Northern and Southern Native American branches—both the Spirit Cave mummy and Anzick-1 belong to this latter group. Around 14,000 years ago, the southern branch further splintered into populations that rapidly dispersed across South America. Then, beginning 9,000 years ago, yet another wave of humans from North or Central America arrived in South America, overtaking its older populations. Finally, by at least 4,200 years ago, a group of Andean Highlanders linked to ancient Californians had spread across the Peruvian mountain range.

Jennifer Raff, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who was not involved in the work, tells Nature’s Ewen Callaway that the findings don’t negate centuries of previous research.

“It’s not that everything we know is getting overturned,” she says. “We’re just filling in details. We’re now moving to a much more detailed, much more accurate and richer history. That’s where the field was always going, and it’s nice to be there now.”