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Explore the "Magic Towns" of Mexico

Smithsonian Magazine

Most tourists are drawn to Mexico's big-name destinations, like the pre-Hispanic ruins of Chichén Itzá or the crowded plazas of Mexico City. But the country is dotted with lesser-known ruins and other cultural sites, too—places that go far beyond the obvious tourist must-sees. In an effort to highlight those other locales, Mexican tourist officials have been quietly funneling their focus—and money—toward the selection of Pueblos Magicos, or “magic towns,” all over the country. Dozens of towns bearing the designation exist across the country, and more are added to the list every few years. The program highlights the extraordinary qualities of some of Mexico’s most revered locations, and each designation comes along with significant tourism investment to create even more reasons to visit.

To qualify, a city must demonstrate a mix of historical, cultural and aesthetic qualities. Each city has aspects that set it apart from others in the country, including folklore and legends or historical events and a unique everyday life. It must also be well preserved, retaining its heritage-based value both tangibly and intangibly. Twenty-eight new additions out of 180 applicants made it to the list in 2015, bringing the grand total of past and present Pueblos Magicos to 111.

“Mexico’s magic towns are the result of [a] very special dance between ancient history and culture,” Rodrigo Salas tells Salas is a guide with Urban Adventures Mexico City, which runs day trips to Teotihuacan, one of the newest designated Pueblos Magicos. “These elements, combined with the hand of nature itself, have made the perfect blend to take our breath away,” says Salas, who also cites Teotihuacan’s vibrant food scene, which has emerged from what he calls “the secret boundaries between valleys, mountains and deserts.”

From ancient ruins to beaches and festivals, consider visiting these newly-minted "Magic Towns" the next time you're in Mexico:


Image by Danny Lehman/Corbis. Baby sea turtles, released by conservationists, make their way to the ocean at Mazunte Beach. (original image)

Image by Danny Lehman/Corbis. Locals carry protected baby sea turtles to the beach for release. (original image)

Image by Anthony Asael/Art in All of Us/Corbis. Scenic view of Mazunte's beach with mountains and houses in the background. (original image)

Image by Joel Carillet/iStock. Two musicians play their instruments at an impromptu session on a balmy tropical night in Mazunte, Mexico. Passersby gather on the sidewalk to listen. (original image)

Image by Abalcazar/iStock. Mazunte beach. (original image)

Turtles and crabs scuttle along the beach in this small town in Oaxaca. Mazunte is known for two things: the Mexican Turtle Center and aquarium that pays homage to the beach-bound critters, and the way the landscape seamlessly transitions from jungle to beach to ocean.

Though turtles were once extensively hunted in Mazunte, now the 702-resident town thrives on income from tortoise conservation efforts. Catch a glimpse of tiny baby turtles as they are "liberated" and sent to the sea during the spring and early summer.


Dancers take part in the Huey Atlixcayotl festival, where people gather to celebrate around San Miguel in Atlixco, in the state of Puebla. Every year the Huey Atlixcayotl festival, which is of Nahuatl origin, congregates the representation of the delegations of the eleven cultural regions of the state of Puebla. (STRINGER/MEXICO/Reuters/Corbis)

Often referred to as the City of Flowers for its abundance of available gardening supplies, Atlixco also boasts that it has one of the best climates in the world. Three times a year—during the flower festival in March, Day of the Dead and Christmas—the zocalo is blanketed with intricate rugs made of flowers. During Easter, the floral rug is recreated with colored sawdust.

Another one of the town's traditions is September's El Huey Atlixcayotl festival, a revived indigenous celebration that features a parade of larger-than-life puppets called mojingangas.


Image by Tony Waltham/robertharding/Corbis. Palenque, UNESCO World Heritage Site in Mexico. (original image)

Image by Markviktor/iStock. Mayan ruins at Palenque. (original image)

Image by Dyana_by/iStock. Palenque ruins. (original image)

Image by MorganLeFaye/iStock. A bas-relief in the Palenque archaeological site that depicts Upakal K'inich, the son of K'inich Ahkal Mo' Naab III. (original image)

Image by AarStudio/iStock. Aqua Azul waterfall near Palenque in Mexico. (original image)

Pre-Hispanic culture comes to life in Palenque, where ancient ruins sit only five miles out of town. The UNESCO World Heritage Site was mainly in use from 500 to 700 A.D. and is incredibly well preserved.

Sculpted reliefs on the ruins' walls tell stories from Maya mythology; the site’s Temple of Inscriptions is the largest Mesoamerican step pyramid and its Maya hieroglyphs helped researchers decode the large parts of the ancient culture. In the era it was used, the site spanned 25 square miles. Only about a half mile has been excavated at this point.


View from the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan. (Tom Hanslien/Loop Images/Corbis)

Sitting on top of the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan, you can look straight down the Avenue of the Dead and see how the Pyramid of the Sun reflects the angled lines of the mountain in the background. This was, at one time, the City of the Gods, a holy place near Mexico City where men went to become spiritual beings.

A steep climb up the Pyramid of the Sun’s 243 steps is now a modern pilgrimage. It draws those who wish to pay respect to the pyramid's namesake celestial body and the ancient Mesoamerican culture that lived here. No one knows for sure who built the city, but it shows evidence of Maya, Mixtec and Zapotec influence. 


Round pyramids ruins of Guachimontones, just outside Tequila in Jalisco. (Sollina Images/Blend Images/Corbis)

This town may be known for its namesake alcohol production, but Tequila received the designation for its stunning agave fields—all 84,000 acres of them, giving it the nickname "the land of blue gold." It was put on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2006.

Tequila is about an hour away from a lush jungle perfect for wildlife watching and canopy adventures. The ruins of a few round stepped pyramids, called Guachimontones, stand on the outskirts of the jungle, adding to the mystique of the area’s ancient culture. They are thought to have been built to honor Ehecatl, the wind god.


Aerial view of Tulum from helicopter window. (Robert Landau/Corbis)

This resort town on the Caribbean coast offers much more than all-inclusive vacations—it’s home to one of the most well preserved groupings of pre-Hispanic ruins in the country. The complex, built in 1200, was mainly a shipping port in the turquoise and jade business. It’s enclosed by a wall on three sides, punctuated by a castle rising about 39 feet above a limestone cliff that watches over the ancient city.

Tulum is much better known than many other towns on the list of "Pueblos Magicos." It earned the designation in part because of its cenotes: underground caverns filled with freshwater. A treat for swimmers and divers, these hidden swimming holes are the perfect contrast to the town’s more crowded beaches.

"10 Free Hours!" Marketing and the World Wide Web in the 1990s

National Museum of American History
A floppy disk advertising AOL: It's free! It's easy! It's fun.Remember these?

Getting free stuff in the mail can be exciting, especially if the stuff that’s free is new and novel. On the other hand, it can be frustrating to have unsolicited stuff pouring into your mailbox. From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, households across the United States received promotional disks in the mail from online service providers. These mailings contained free floppy disks (and later CD-ROMs) for software that provided access to the World Wide Web (WWW), a browser-based application for connecting to the internet made available to ordinary consumers in the early 1990s. Disks in flashy packaging with eye-catching slogans hawked several free hours of web browsing to entice newcomers to the online experience.

The museum’s Computing Collection contains examples of these direct-to-consumer mailings of web browsing software. America Online (AOL) is well represented in our collection, but we also have disks from CompuServe, Prodigy, and Global Network Navigator.

Multiple rectangular cardboard boxes. They're colorful with advertising.A group of mailings from several online service providers in the museum's Computing Collection.

AOL was notorious for aggressive direct-to-consumer marketing campaigns, as the company competed with other providers to get more consumers online, browsing the web, and paying to access it. Why did AOL opt for this aggressive and undifferentiated approach to gaining more clientele? The newness of browsing the web, joining chat rooms, and sending and receiving electronic mail were mediated by desktop computers outfitted with bulky monitors. To a consumer unfamiliar with computing technology in the early 1990s, gaining access to a personal computer and experiencing the dial-up process of connecting to the web were far from trivial activities. AOL’s “bundled solutions” offered a one-stop portal on a user-friendly interface at a time when more discriminating consumers could instead purchase separate providers, search portals, news sites, and map providers in an à-la-carte fashion. So how do you get a population unfamiliar with the experience of connecting to and browsing the web to buy into it? AOL’s approach amounted to bombarding consumers with promotional material from several avenues.

In addition to shipping disks to mailboxes across the country, AOL distributed disks as part of promotional sample packages at Blockbuster Video and placed them at stadium seats at NASCAR races, at the Super Bowl, at seats on American Airlines commuter flights, and even in flash-frozen packages for Omaha Steaks!

Jan Brandt was the mastermind behind the AOL marketing strategy. In an interview conducted by Brian McCullough for the Internet History Podcast, Brandt reflected on the marketing tactics she developed throughout the 1990s at AOL. “At that time floppies had value," Brandt said. "They weren’t cheap. If you went into the store, they probably cost 10 or 20 bucks for a 10-pack. So the fact that you got a floppy disk in the mail for free, it felt like it had some value.”

The mass mailing campaigns were effective in reaching households across the United States, but not without complaints from recipients who considered the unsolicited mail unwelcome. Over the mid to late 1990s, criticism of AOL grew in part because of the carpet-bombing method of advertising—as well as connectivity issues from enrolling too many users in a short period of time and the company’s sale of customer e-mail addresses.

A closer look at the packaging of the disks provides a window into AOL’s target markets, imagined users, and promises to its customers. One AOL mailing features a man in a business suit, tearing apart his white buttoned shirt to reveal a blue T-shirt bearing the AOL logo. The slogan at the bottom reads, “Experience the POWER of America Online!” Playing on the superhero subtext, the promotional material suggests that the target consumer was a white man who might work a routine office job by day and harness the power of the World Wide Web by night.

A folder containing a floppy disk. On the cover a man in business attire pulls open his suit to reveal an AOL tee. The text reads "Experience the Power of America Online Pop this FREE software in your computer for 10 free hours online!"The still-unopened cardboard envelope encloses a 3 ½ inch floppy disk containing AOL Version 2.5 for Windows, 1994-1995.

Another example from AOL appeals to the transformative potential of the internet, promising more knowledge, prosperity, and happiness to its users. It also emphasizes the ease with which one can connect, simply by inserting a disk—a novel activity for amateur computer users. “If you want to be more capable, powerful, connected, knowledgeable, productive, prosperous, and happier,” the mailing reads, “Just insert this disk!” It’s that easy. Just point, click, and connect . . . the more hours the better!

A cardboard folder with a floppy disk in it. The text reads "If you want to be more capable powerful connected knowledgeable productive prosperous and happier just insert this disk"A mailing from America Online Version 2.5, 1994–1995.

The novelty of receiving a computer disk for free in the mail was one thing, but being able to put the free disk to use was another. In the early 1990s, when the World Wide Web was in its infancy, only about 15% of households in the United States owned a personal computer. According to a study from the U.S. Department of Labor, by 1997, that figure rose to about thirty-five percent. Despite the steep rise in computer ownership over much of that decade, many people did not own their own computers. Folks who didn’t have a computer in the home could choose to access their e-mail and browse the web at a local library or a web café. While many promotional software mailings were never opened, the carpet-bombing technique paid off, as AOL became the largest service provider by 2000.

AOL’s direct-to-consumer mailings were phased out in 2006 as organizational and internet infrastructures evolved, along with evolving architectures of personal computing devices. In the last 30 or so years, the promotional mailing landscape has also changed, as our virtual inboxes get flooded with e-mails for online deals and other offers. Whether you’re excited about or frustrated by getting free stuff in the mail unsolicited, AOL’s legendary campaign maintains a special place in the history of the World Wide Web, as well as in the history of American marketing.

Alana Staiti is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Sciences.

The Computer Oral History Collection in the Archives Center at NMAH contains interviews with several notable figures in computing history, including Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Marc Andreessen, founder of Mosaic.

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Kurt Vonnegut’s Unpublished World War II Scrapbook Reveals Origins of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’

Smithsonian Magazine

When he was an American prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, Kurt Vonnegut famously survived the 1945 aerial bombing of Dresden by hiding in the meat locker of a slaughterhouse—a harrowing experience that closely informed the plot of his masterful 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. During his lifetime, Vonnegut commented extensively on this wartime episode, cataloguing the destruction of “possibly the world’s most beautiful city” and describing the burial duties undertaken by him and his fellow POWs: most significantly, the retrieval of 130,000 corpses trapped underground, a task that the writer, in typically blunt fashion, later termed “a terribly elaborate Easter egg hunt.”

But until now, Lauren Christensen reports for the New York Times, a trove of photographs, newspaper clippings and correspondence compiled by Vonnegut and his family between 1944 and 1945 had remained unseen by the public, carefully hidden in the safekeeping of the author’s sister and his father.

The 84-page volume, which sold for $187,500 in Christie’s Fine Printed Books & Manuscripts auction earlier this month, includes 22 letters from Vonnegut to his family, photographs the young soldier took of the razed city of Dresden and a January 1945 telegram stating that “Private First Class Kurt Vonnegut Jr Has been reported Missing in Action.”

According to Christie’s, the notes reflect Vonnegut’s “trademark satire and dry humor” under even the most dire of circumstances. In a January 3, 1945, letter composed around two weeks after his capture, he offers a gross understatement: “It’s been one helluva holiday season for all of us.” And, in a message written two days after his liberation, he declares, “It is a source of great delight to be able to announce that you will shortly receive a splendid relic of World War II with which you may decorate your hearth—namely, me in an excellent state of preservation.”

Other letters underscore traumas the author couldn’t bear to mask with light-hearted jests. As he says in a May 21 note, “This letter started as a huge joke. … [But] there's nothing funny in watching friends starve to death or in carrying body after body out of inadequate air-raid shelters to mass kerosene funeral pyres—and that is what I've done these past six months."

Vonnegut was captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 (Public domain)

Justin L. Mack of the Indianapolis Star explains that Vonnegut, an Indianapolis native, enlisted in the United States Army in January 1943, when he was enrolled as a chemistry major at Cornell University. Following short stints at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and the University of Tennessee (where he was assigned to study mechanical engineering), he was deployed to Europe with the 106th Infantry Division. Soon after arrival, he was taken prisoner by the Nazis, who were mounting their last great offensive of the war at the Battle of the Bulge, and sent to Dresden alongside fellow POWs.

Writing for Mental Floss, Suzanne Raga notes that Vonnegut spent his days working long hours in a malt-syrup factory. At night, he slept in the subterranean slaughterhouse that ultimately saved his life.

Only one of the letters included in the newly publicized scrapbook had been previously published. Dated May 29, 1945, the retrospective missive—written from a repatriation camp in Le Havre, France—describes the “sadistic and fanatical guards” responsible for watching over the prisoners during their time in Dresden. As the only American with some knowledge of German, Vonnegut became the group’s de facto leader, a position he lost after telling the guards “just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came.”

Around Valentine’s Day 1945, the Americans launched an unprecedented firebombing campaign against Dresden, killing anywhere from 35,000 to 135,000 people—“but not,” the author noted, “me.” In Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, an ill-suited soldier similarly escapes death and eventually describes the aftermath of the scene as a desolate landscape “like the moon.”

Following his release in mid-1945, Vonnegut returned to Indianapolis. He debuted his first novel, Player Piano, in 1952, but it was his sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, that made him a household name. The main conceit of the novel—that protagonist Billy Pilgrim has become “unstuck in time,” leaving him to float through the entirety of his past—makes a somber point: As Jonathan Creasy of the Los Angeles Review of Books lays out, it's that “massacres such as Dresden happened; they always have happened and they always will happen.”

Vonnegut himself once darkly stated that the Dresden bombings were so meaningless that he may have been the only individual to have gotten something out of them. “One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed,” he once said. “Some business I’m in.”

Larger philosophical questions raised by Vonnegut’s work aside, the wartime scrapbook offers a glimpse into the burgeoning mind of the author. Many of the characteristics apparent in his later writings are evident in nascent form, but other qualities are wholly singular, affording the volume a unique place in Vonnegut lore.

It remains to be seen whether the scrapbook’s new owner will publish the letters and assorted ephemera in full, but if not, fans can at least draw on the excerpts provided by Christie’s.

As the author famously concluded, “And so it goes.”

Day 2: What Can Researchers Do To Save the Savannah?

Smithsonian Magazine

June 13, Mpala Research Centre, Laikipia, Kenya. Weather— clear, high clouds, cool and dry.

Our room at Mpala Ranch looks out over a slope that leads to the Ewaso Niro River. Beyond the river, the ground rises with rocky promontories protruding from the otherwise gentle tree-covered slope. On the far horizon the outline of Mount Kenya is seen with its peak rising to 15, 000 feet. The ranch accommodations are a series of low stucco and stone buildings painted white, surrounded by straw-roofed porch. The grounds are home to stands of trees and other plants of the type that grow in hot, dry climates. The green spiny cactus contrasts with the exotic deep reds and oranges of the delicate bougainvillea. In a nearby “yellow fever” tree, weaver birds have built their hanging nests and are busy flitting back and forth bringing food to the young.

Our busy schedule does not allow much time to contemplate the pleasant surroundings. Saturday morning we rise early for a plane ride to view the ranch and the surrounding tracts of land that affect Mpala and its wildlife. The Mpala reserve itself covers 48,000 acres, but many of the animals are migratory and their routes take them across both privately and publicly owned lands, including ecotourism preserves, community lands used for raising cattle and goats and land set aside for conservation. Mpala is unique in that it is an active science- and research-based preserve.

During the flight, we see the impact of humans and animals on the land. In a number of areas where the land has been preserved, there is a cover of trees and grasses. Upscale ecotourism lodges can be seen in some of the more scenic mountain areas. In contrast, the community lands have been heavily grazed, to the point that there is little ground cover left. Goats and cows are tended by families who live in thatched huts. The animals roam during the day and in the evening are herded back to the herders’ huts and corralled in “bomas” created by erecting barriers of limbs and thorny bushes. The bomas help protect the animals from attack by lions and other predators.

The grasses are not only grazed by domesticated animals but also by many of the wild species, such as gazelles, bushbucks, waterbucks and impalas. Overgrazing by large herds leads to poor nutrition for the animals and erosion of the topsoil. The topsoil is relatively thin and was formed by weathering of the underlying bedrock. Once the topsoil is eroded, the rock is exposed, and runoff from rainfall causes more erosion downstream, threatening the wellbeing of the region’s ecosystems.

The lack of water is also a serious problem. This is the end of the rainy season, but already many of the rivers and small reservoirs are dry at a time when they should be full to carry through the dry season. Water naturally is in short supply here because the region on average only receives around 20 inches of rain each year. The situation is exacerbated by a growing trend of Kenyan farmers tapping water from the rivers and groundwater for irrigation. A recent development in Kenyan agriculture is exporting cut flowers. This expanding market for Kenyan farmers is made possible because the flowers, cut early in the day, can be flown to European and even U.S. markets the next day.

Image by Smithsonian Institution. The Mpala Research Centre is a 48,000-acre preserve that allows scientists and researchers to observe the wild animals of Africa. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. The wild animals at the Mpala Research Centre are at risk due to the human population that has encroached into what was once natural habitat. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Cheetahs are best observed from the roof of the Land Rover. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Secretary Clough observes an African elephant. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Ira Rubinoff stands next to elephant dung. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Elephants always have the right of way. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Giraffes are one of the many species Secretary Clough observed during his wildlife drive. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Hippopotumuses submerge themselves to stay cool in the Kenyan heat. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. During the wildlife drive, spotting animals was sometime effortless. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Secretary Clough spotted wild dogs during his wildlife drive. They are Africa's most common large carnivore. (original image)

Image by Brad Bergstrom. The marica sunbird feeds on nectar from long-throated flowers. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Aptly named superb starlings enjoy the bird feeder at Mpala Ranch. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Migratory animals such as elephants cover long distances over both public and private lands. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Hornbills, such as this pair, mate for life. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Two giraffes pay an early morning visit. (original image)

Image by John Hames. Red ants can be seen on the thorns of this acacia tree. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. The nests of weaverbirds can be seen dangling from the branches of the tree. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Goats and cattle have contributed to overgrazing of community lands near Mpala. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. This aerial view shows the boma, or corral, that protects the familiy's animals from predators at night. (original image)

Between the shortage of water, the erosion of topsoil and the growth of the human population, the ecosystem and the animals are at risk. Traditional migration routes for animals such as elephants are disrupted in congested areas. In light of this, Mpala becomes all the more important, not only as a preserve for wildlife, but also as a center to do the research needed to find the balance point between animal and human needs.

Following the flight, the members of Mpala’s advisory and research boards meet to discuss the center’s future. Mpala has been blessed with good leadership, beginning with Sam and George Small, and then in their turn, Don Graham, founder of the Graham Group and chair of the board of trustees of the Mpala Wildlife Foundation and trustee Dennis Keller, founding chairman of DeVry Inc. Others on the combined boards include Dan Rubenstein of Princeton University; Laurel Harvey of Princeton; and Jeffrey Gonya of Venable LLP; as well as Ira Rubinoff and Scott Miller of the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian contingent also includes Ben Turner, a STRI soil specialist; Dave Wildt, a specialist in large animal reproductive physiology from the Center for Research and Conservation at the National Zoo; STRI Director Biff Bermingham; and STRI supporter Frank Levinson, founder of Finisar Corp.

The discussion is robust and many issues are debated and discussed. We have made a good start on identifying the themes and initiatives that should be Mpala’s focus in the next decade. It is agreed that the research program should be focused on the key challenges that threaten the immediate future of Mpala and the wildlife and ecosystems of East Africa. A tentative plan is laid out to accomplish these objectives that involves greater interaction with Kenyan universities to encourage greater involvement by young people who are committed to finding the delicate balance needed for a sustainable future in the region. The plans will be discussed and debated by the full governing board and scientific advisory boards later this week. These boards bring together key parties involved in Mpala’s future, including the Kenya Wildlife Service and the National Museums of Kenya.

After the meeting, we are treated to a second game drive as the day wanes. While we continue to observe wildlife, we also now take more time to consider the countryside itself. In the soft light of the late afternoon the beauty of the hills and valleys invades the mind. The seductive power of the Kenyan landscape that captivated Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and inspired her book Out of Africa is only too apparent.

We continue to build our animal count, adding baboon (seen in a troupe of around 50 or 60), leopard tortoise, spotted hyena, golden jackal, waterbuck, common zebra, and Grant’s gazelle.

There are also opportunities to see giraffes, including family groups. These are reticulated giraffes with clearly defined brown spots outlined by white. The young giraffes are curious and arch their heads over trees to see what we are up to. When the parents leave, the youngsters linger a few minutes and then lope off to catch up. The mature giraffes are very graceful for such large and ungainly creatures. They have a remarkable ability to reach and eat the small green leaves that grow between long, sharp thorns on man of the trees and shrubs of the region.

Our game drive comes to an end with the approaching dusk and we return to the ranch for dinner and conversation about what we have seen and discussed that day. The day ends with our first night of solid rest as the jet lag wears off a bit.

Your Guide to the Most Delicious Drinks for the Holidays

Smithsonian Magazine

Imperial Stout is a high-alcohol rendition of standard English stouts born about 300 years ago through a series of sea voyages between England and Russia. It stands in ably as a Christmas Eve nightcap—and can be squeezed into a stocking. Photo by Andrew Bland.

With Christmas tunes, ugly sweaters and tacky plastic reindeer out in full force, it seems it’s time again to blend up some rum-spiked eggnog—but today, I’m going to stoke up a different sort of holiday spirit: really strong beer. ‘Tis the season, after all. We often see a spike in the number of extra potent beers about now, the common notion being that a touch more alcohol will warm the bones on cold nights. “High-alcohol” beers, by some standards, might include 6 or 7 percent alcohol by volume holiday releases, like Deschutes Brewing’s Jubelale, Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome and Marin Brewing’s Hoppy Holidaze, and if you’re a regular sipper of light lagers, these seasonal beers are festive enough. But it’s the ludicrously potent, double-digit beers that I’m thinking of now—beers with attitude, charisma, strength, flavor, culture and, especially, spirit.

Imperial Stout. Few beers may so strongly evoke the image of dark winters, frozen European landscapes and long ship voyages as Imperial Stout. This pitch-black, super-strong sipper has become a favorite in modern American craft beer circles, but the style has a long and compelling history, too. The story takes us across oceans and continents, to the damp streets of London and even into the dens of emperors. While England made the first Imperial Stout, it was Russia that drank the stuff. Czar Peter the Great is known to historians for his productive time as Russia’s leader from 1682 until 1725. But many beer geeks only know the famed czar’s role in the invention of Imperial Stout. Peter visited England in 1698, when he was in his late 20s. Here he took a liking to the nation’s black and bitter stouts. Before returning to Russia, Peter requested that a shipload be delivered at a later date. England proudly answered the request—but with embarrassing results: the beer casks, deep in the ship’s hold, froze during transport through the frigid Baltic Sea. The water expanded and burst the barrels. The beer was ruined. (Actually, they might have discovered the trick now known as “freeze distillation” had they only the courage to taste the stout. See below.) As legend tells it, the Barclay Brewery of London came forward with a solution: Raise the alcohol level to stave off frost and try again. They custom brewed a new batch, and the effort seems to have worked. The next delivery made it to Peter in shipshape, and the bigger-boned rendition of the standard English stout swept the emperor off his feet. Deliveries became routine, and the beer is now often called Russian Imperial Stout. Though the first batch that Peter tasted may only have been about 7 percent ABV (like Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout, brewed in North Yorkshire—a classic representative of the original), modern brewers have upped the numbers. North Coast Brewing Company‘s rendition runs 9 percent, Lagunitas Brewing‘s is 10, Three Floyds‘ 15 and Dogfish Head‘s a smashing 18. These are the big guys that sit well in a brandy snifter—and they fit nicely in a Christmas stocking.

Other Holiday Spirit Boosters

Samichlaus Classic Malt Liquor. Billed as “The World’s Most Extraordinary Beer,” Samichlaus Classic measures 14 percent ABV and back in the 1990s was recognized as the world’s strongest lager. The beer is brewed once per year, on December 6, and after months of aging, released about a year later. Trust me: It’s not going to be a favorite of just everyone. It barely tastes like beer, in fact. It is sweet, sticky, syrupy and raisiny, with hardly a hint of hops. Colored like brandy, it drinks about like one, too. In other words, go slow. The beer, for a piece of trivia, means Santa Claus in Zurich, the Swiss-German dialect of the Alps.

Samichlaus Classic is a Christmastime lager from the Castle Brewery Eggenberg in Austria. At 14 percent alcohol, the beer drinks like brandy. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Bernt Rostad.

Ice Beers: No—don’t go plunking any ice cubes in your stout. Ice beers, in fact, are made through quite the opposite process: Beer is placed in a freezer, where water in the beer turns to ice, while the alcohol remains in liquid form. As clear ice floats to the surface of the beer, a stronger, condensed version of the original brew is left behind. It’s basic chemistry—and a trick brewers call freeze distillation. It’s illegal, in fact, in the United States—mostly. That is, the law’s fine print says it’s OK to use freeze distillation to add trace amounts of alcohol—a loophole that allows big breweries to make such products as Molson Ice and Bud Ice, which are only barely affected by the process. However, we have secret info from industry insiders that the technique occurs in full force at some brewpubs, where the often smooth, velvety beer may be served on tap. Customers thus unwittingly consume great beer, contraband and evidence of the crime all in one glass. The first ice beer is believed to have been made by accident in Kulmbach, Germany, in 1890, when a cask of beer was forgotten and left out on a freezing night. In the morning, the brewers tasted the beer and found the boozy liquid under the cap of ice to be strong and delicious. Sound tasty? You’re in luck, because while making ice beers is illegal in America, importing them from Europe—where freeze distillation is completely lawful—is not. Kulmbacher Eisbock and Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock are two available examples of the style.

He’Brew Jewbelation Sweet 16 from Shmaltz Brewing. What? You don’t believe a fat man in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer delivers billions of presents around the world every December 24? Yeah—it does seem sometimes like a grand parental hoax. But far from being left out in the cold this winter, you just might be enjoying the best specialty drink of all: an extreme Hanukkah ale called Jewbelation, brewed by the Shmaltz Brewing Company in upstate New York. The beer, released this month, commemorates the 16th anniversary of the brewery’s birth. The anniversary series began with Shmaltz’s eighth, when the beer was made with eight kinds of hops, eight malts and to 8 percent ABV. In following years, the numbers pattern was maintained—and now, Jewbelation has morphed into a 16 percent ABV giant. It’s dark brown and easy to love for anyone with a small glass and a taste for brownies, chocolate and coffee. One bottle contains 480 calories, so divvy this one between friends—and if you believe in him, don’t leave it for Santa: There’s a lot of skinny chimneys out there.

Not a beer fan? Then drink glögg. The Swedish rendition of mulled wine, glögg, or gløgg, is a keyboard nightmare—so we’re going to call it glogg. Red wine, orange peel, cloves and cardamom are the essential ingredients of this Christmastime drink, though some versions contain additions like sugar, cinnamon sticks, brandy and Port wine. My own preference is for something heavily spiced but on the drier side. Glogg can be purchased ready-made in bottles, but the drink is so easy—and, at the risk sounding cheesy, fun and festive—to make that not stewing up your own would just be silly. Try this recipe. The wine (it needn’t be expensive) is heated slowly in a cauldron with orange slices, whole cloves and cardamom powder bathing in the drink. These and other ingredients’ flavors leech into the wine, and the warm aromas fill the house. Now, before your company arrives, get the pronunciation down: That funny “o” is, in fact, pronounced like the double “o” in hook, making glogg actually more like “glug.” Which allows you, as host, to look from guest to guest to guest as you take drink orders and suggest, “Glug? Glug? Glug?” Mulled wine just isn’t the same.

A crock of glogg simmers on the stove. Often brewed during the holidays and served warm, glogg is a Scandinavian rendition of mulled wine. It is made with red wine, orange peel, cloves and cardamom. Photo courtesy of Flickr user thebone.

Drinking Down Under? As a northerner, I’ve always been intrigued if not confused by the notion of celebrating Christmas at the peak of summer. But for many in the world, it just might be 95 in the shade this Christmas Day. For you folks, I feel I need to suggest something, but I’ll be honest: I’m clueless. Cold lemonade? Watermelon juice? Fruit smoothies? Ice water? Really: We northerners are fascinated: How do you drink in the holidays?

Read more articles about the holidays in our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here

96 Hours in Qatar

Smithsonian Magazine

From centuries-old maritime forts to state-of-the-art museums and from majestic desert sands to lush mangrove forests, Qatar is a land of rich contrasts. Combining old-world sensibility with cosmopolitan sophistication, it offers something for every traveler. What's more, travelers on Qatar Airways can book a stopover for up to four nights in the vibrant capital city of Doha. While you could spend weeks exploring Qatar, this itinerary will introduce you to Qatar's best natural and cultural treasures.

Day 1

Morning: Visit Katara Village

Located on Qatar's eastern coast between Doha's West Bay and The Pearl neighborhoods, Katara Cultural Village is one of the country's preeminent cultural hubs. Opened in 2010, it is home to an impressive network of theaters, galleries and performance venues featuring artists from around the country. Spend the morning wandering through the village's narrow alleyways past waterways and structures inspired by ancient Arabian architecture. Whether or not you reserve tickets for a concert, show or exhibition, there is no shortage of things to do and see. Stop into one of its many top-tier restaurants offering up a wide range of cuisines, soak up rays at the well-maintained Katara Beach or stroll along its promenade, enjoying expansive views of Doha’s skyline and browsing the seaside food stalls and markets. If you're visiting Qatar in late November, don't miss the Doha Film Institute’s annual Ajyal Youth Film Festival, one of the village's signature calendar events.

Afternoon: Discover The Museum of Islamic Art

This afternoon, head south to the Museum of Islamic Art, where in the space of just a few hours, you can travel through 14 centuries of Islamic history. Housed in a Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning modern building, the museum's collection of textiles, manuscripts, ceramics, glass, metalwork and more is regarded as one of the world's leading collections of Islamic art. Highlights include a 19th-century jewel-encrusted coffee cup holder and a ceramic bowl featuring one of the earliest modes of Arabic calligraphy. Between exhibitions, stop into one of the museum's cafes for a pick-me-up or enjoy a meal at IDAM, a world-class restaurant run by Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse.

Evening: Stroll Through Souq Waqif

This evening, head to Souq Waqif, a bustling street market located a short distance from the Museum of Islamic Art. The market is a veritable maze: around each corner, more and more shops greet you. As you walk through, inhale the aroma of spices, sample fresh dates and nuts, catch an impromptu musical performance and marvel at the dazzling array of merchandise for sale, from perfumes to jewelry, art clothing and handicrafts. Be sure to stop into one of the souq's many restaurants and cafes, which serve up everything from traditional Qatari food to regional dishes and cuisine from Asia and North Africa. And don't leave without stopping by souq's traditional falconry market, where the prized birds are bought and sold.

Day 2

Morning: Venture to Khor Al Adaid, or the Inland Sea

Some 40 miles from Doha in the southeastern corner of the country lies one of Qatar’s most impressive natural wonders: Khor Al Adaid, or the Inland Sea. A UNESCO-recognized natural reserve with its own ecosystem, it is one of the few places in the world where the sea encroaches deep into the heart of the desert. Inaccessible by road, this tranquil expanse of water can only be reached by driving across the rolling dunes. Tour operators offer dune bashing excercusions to this remarkable landscape.

After a morning packed with adventure, stop for lunch at the Regency Sealine Camp on the shores of the Inland Sea. Enjoy mouth-watering dishes, both regional and international, in a traditional Arabian lounge. If you're feeling adventurous after your meal, explore the surrounding desert on a quad bike or camel.

Afternoon: Promenade on Doha’s Corniche

Travel back to Doha this afternoon. Upon return, stretch your legs with a walk along the Corniche, a palm-tree lined promenade that spans four miles along Doha Bay. Enjoy spectacular vistas of the city, from the dramatic high-rise towers of the central business district to the bold shapes of the Museum of Islamic Art, and encounter traditional wooden dhow boats up close.

Evening: Cruise on a Dhow Boat

From pearl diving to fishing to trading with neighboring countries, Qatar enjoys a unique relationship with the open seas. This evening, experience country’s rich seafaring heritage with a cruise a traditional wooden Qatari dhow, or sailing, boat. Dhow sightseeing excursions, which include meals, can be arranged via a hotel or through any of the leading local tour operators.

Day 3

Morning: Visit the New National Museum of Qatar

Designed by world-famous French architect Jean Nouvel, the much-anticipated National Museum of Qatar opened to the public in March 2019 in Doha. A celebration of Qatari culture, it connects the country's rich heritage with its diverse cosmopolitan present through eleven immersive and experiential galleries. Representing this marriage of old and new, the museums surrounds the iconic and newly restored Old Palace of Sheikh Adbullah bin Jassim Al-Thani, a symbol of Qatari national identity. Between galleries, stop into the 220-seat auditorium to catch a film, wander through the landscaped garden featuring indigenous plants or head to the rooftop restaurant for a bite. Don't leave without catching a glimpse of the Pearl Carpet of Baroda, a collection highlight made from 1.5 million Gulf pearls.

Afternoon: Tour Al Shaqab

This afternoon, head to the Al Shaqab equestrian center located on the outskirts of Doha at the landmark Al Shaqab battle site, where over a century ago the people of Qatar fought a pivotal battle that led to Qatar's independence. On your tour, learn how the center's award-winning Arabian horses are cared for and trained. Stops include the air-conditioned stables as well as treadmills, swimming pools and jacuzzis—yes for the horses, not people.

Afternoon (Seasonal): Attend a Camel Race

From November through February, you will want to add camel racing to your afternoon itinerary. A centuries-old tradition, camel racing in Qatar has evolved into an official and professional sport. Al-Shahaniya racing track, an hour's drive into the gleaming desert north of Doha, holds domestic and international tournaments on Fridays during the winter.

Evening: See Art in the Middle of the Desert

This evening, travel west to the village of Zeekreet. Along the way, pass "East-West/West-East" by famed sculptor Richard Serra. Comprised of four, 50-foot steel plates rising vertically out of the desert, the installation emphasizes the vastness of the Qatari landscape and offers space for reflection on isolation and the passing of time.

Day 4

Morning: Kayak Through Mangroves

This morning, travel to Al Khor, a seaside city on Qatar's northeastern coast and home to one of Qatar's natural treasures: the Al Thakira white mangroves. Rent a kayak from one of several tour operators in the city to explore waterways that crisscross through the forest and keep an eye out for flamingos and herons.

Afternoon: Visit Al Zubarah Fort

For your final adventure, travel to Qatar’s northwestern coast. Your destination? The immaculately restored Al Zubarah Fort. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the walled coastal town once ranked as one of the Gulf’s most important pearl diving and trading centers with links extending to the Indian Ocean. Today, it is one of the most extensive and best-preserved examples of an 18th–19th century settlement in the region. Stop first at the visitor's center to get your bearings.

Evening: Reflect & Depart

Return to Doha in the evening and reflect on exceptional four days in Qatar filled with art, culture, history and jaw-dropping scenery.

The Rise and Fall of the Great American Motel

Smithsonian Magazine

In 1939, when John Steinbeck imagined Highway 66 as “the road of flight,” he evoked the crushing realities of Depression-era migrants who’d been pushed off their land by failing crops, relentless dust and heartless banks.

Struggling to find some sense of home on the road, these environmental and economic refugees searched for hope against a backdrop of unfathomable loss. On the road to California, they’d rest and recuperate in army surplus tents, hastily constructed Department of Transportation camps and Sears Roebuck chicken-coop cabins.

They could hardly imagine the surreal indulgences of the tourist road that would begin to emerge after World War II: renting a room built to resemble a country cottage and adorned with plastic flowers; snapping photos of a neon cactus glowing through half-drawn window shades; sleeping in a concrete tepee appropriated from Native American culture.

They could, in short, never foresee the rise of the roadside motel.

But after its heyday in the mid-20th century, the traditional mom and pop motel – once ubiquitous along American highways and byways – has largely slipped from the public imagination.

Today’s road-tripper generally prefers lodging that boasts a professional website, guarantees a fast internet connection and promises easy-on-easy-off interstate access, leaving the older motels built along two-lane roads and numbered highways to go to seed.

As Mark Okrant writes in “No Vacancy: The Rise, Demise and Reprise of America’s Motels,”approximately 16,000 motels were operating in 2012, a sharp drop from a peak of 61,000 in 1964. In subsequent years, that number has surely declined further.

Even so, efforts to preserve mom and pop motor lodges – particularly along Route 66, “the highway that’s the best” – indicate a desire among many historians and motorists to reclaim something of the motel spirit not yet entirely lost.

Before the motel…the farmer’s field?

To understand America is to travel its highways.

In the first three decades of the 20th century, America cemented its love affair with the automobile. For the first time, most people – no matter their struggle or station in life – could hop in their cars, hit the road and escape from the places and circumstances that bound them.

Of course, there were few of the amenities available to today’s interstate traveler. West of the Mississippi, camping was the most common alternative to expensive hotels. For motorists who didn’t wish to traipse across stuffy lobbies in road-worn clothing, the convenience and anonymity of a field or lake shore was an attractive option.

Back east, tourist homes provided another alternative to hotels. If you look around in dusty attics or antique shops, you can still find cardboard signs that advertise “Rooms for Tourists.” For example, the Tarry-A-While tourist home in Ocean City, Maryland, advertised, “Rooms, Running Water, Bathing From Rooms. Apartments, Modern Conveniences. Special rates April, May, June and after Labor Day.”

The Tarry-A-While tourist home in Ocean City, Maryland (Author provided)

Because tourist homes were frequently located in town, they differed from most contemporary motels, which are often found near highways, away from the city center. However, each tourist home was as unique as their owners. In this, they contributed to a central tradition of the American motel: mom and pop ownership.

Fill up your tank and grab a bite to eat

As the Depression wore on, it became profitable to offer more amenities than those available at campsites. Farmers or businessmen would contract with an oil company, put up a gas pump and throw up a few shacks. Some were prefabricated; others were handmade – rickety, but original. In the book “The Motel in America,” the authors illustrate the typical visit to a “cabin camp”:

“At the U-Smile Cabin Camp…arriving guests signed the registry and then paid their money. A cabin without a mattress rented for one dollar; a mattress for two people cost an extra twenty-five cents, and blankets, sheets, and pillows another fifty cents. The manager rode the running boards to show guests to their cabins. Each guest was given a bucket of water from an outside hydrant, along with a scuttle of firewood in the winter.”

By the 1930s and ‘40’s, cottage courts (also known as tourist courts) emerged as a classier alternative to dingy cabin camps. Each cottage was standardized along a theme, like “rustic or "ranch,” and most were built around a public lawn. As the English Village East in New Hampshire’s White Mountains advertised: “Modern and homelike, these bungalows accommodate thousands of tourists who visit this beauty spot in Franconia Notch.”

A postcard depicts The English Village East in New Hampshire (Card Cow)

Unlike downtown hotels, courts were designed to be automobile-friendly. You could park next to your individual room or under a carport. Along with filling stations, restaurants and cafes began to appear at these roadside havens.

The Sanders Court & Cafe in Corbin, Kentucky, advertised “complete accommodations with tile baths, (abundance of hot water), carpeted floors, 'Perfect Sleeper’ beds, air conditioned, steam heated, radio in every room, open all year, serving excellent food.” And yes, that food included the fried chicken developed by Harland Sanders, the Kentucky colonel of KFC fame.

The rise of the motel

During the 1930s and ‘40’s, individual cabin camp and cottage court owners, known as “courtiers,” dominated the roadside haven trade (with the exception of Lee Torrance and his fledgling Alamo Courts chain).

For a time, courtiers lived one version of the American Dream: home and business combined under the same roof. Then, during World War II, almost everything road trip-related was rationed, with tires, gasoline and leisure time at a premium. But many troops traveling across the country to be deployed overseas saw parts of America that they would later want to revisit upon their return.

After the war, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, frustrated by the difficulty of moving tanks across the country, promoted a plan that mimicked the German autobahn: the Federal Interstate Highway System. But the first of these four-lane highways would take over a decade to build. Until then, families took to whatever highways were available – cruising over rolling roads that followed the curves and undulations of the countryside. Whenever it suited them, they could easily pull off to visit small towns and landmarks.

At night, they found motor courts – no longer isolated cottages, but fully integrated buildings under a single roof – lit by neon and designed with flair. They would soon be referred to as “motels,” a name coined by the owner of the Milestone Mo-Tel (an abbreviation of “motor hotel”) in San Luis Obispo, California.

While motel rooms were plain and functional, the facades took advantage of regional styles (and, occasionally, stereotypes). Owners employed stucco, adobe, stone, brick – whatever was handy – to attract guests.

With families swarming to and from the rest stops that multiplied along the highways of postwar America, many of the owners settled in for a life’s work.

Roy’s Motel and Cafe in Amboy, California, along Route 66 (Photographersnature/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA)

The good times wouldn’t last. Limited-access interstates, built to bypass congested downtowns, began to snake across the nation in the 1950s and 1960s. Before long, small-time motor courts were rendered obsolete by chains like Holiday Inn that blurred the distinction between motels and hotels. Single-story structures gave way to double- and triple-deckers. The thrill of discovering the unique look and feel of a roadside motel was replaced by assurances of sameness by hosts from coast to coast.

Today, with most travelers using the Interstate Highway System, few people go out of their way to find roadside motels. Fewer still remember the traditions of autocamps and tourist courts. However, a growing number of preservation societies and intrepid cultural explorers have begun to hit the exits and travel the original highways again – exploring remnants of Route 66, Highway 40, and U.S. 1 – searching for that one singular experience just around the bend.

No place to escape

You could argue that the decline of mom and pop motels signifies something else lost in contemporary American life: the loss of friction, of distance, of idiosyncrasy. In my book “City Ubiquitous: Place, Communication, and the Rise of Omnitopia,” I write of a nation defined less by travel than by the illusion that one may gather up all the world – all the same and dependable parts of it, at least – and navigate its safe interiors without fear of surprise.

The comfort of sameness: Thousands of Holiday Inns now dot the American landscape (meshal alawadhi/flickr)

There is pleasure – and some degree of satisfaction – in this fantasy. But there is something missing too. I don’t necessarily want to call it “authenticity.” But we might imagine motor lodges – those of the past and those that remain today – as representative of a pleasant and peculiar fantasy of freedom: a way to escape the global continuum of constant flow and effortless connection. They’re a departure from the script of everyday life, a place where travelers can still invent a new persona, a new past, a new destination.

New Zealand: What’s Hot and What’s Not

Smithsonian Magazine

This scene from Lake Wanaka captures much that is great about New Zealand, like the Southern Alps and the country's many gleaming lakes. Photo by Alastair Bland

With seven weeks in New Zealand’s South Island now under my belt, it’s time to take a look back at what was great about this country, and was not. I’ll start with the disappointments:

1. The lack of through roads. On the map, we see the spine of the mountains running the length of the South Island, and from north to south there are clusters of lakes and river headwaters that we would love to visit – like Lake Coleridge, Lake Sumner, Clearwater Lake, Lake Heron and others. Problem is, the roads in usually have no exit – one-way deals, whereas in other places there would usually be a dirt road that climbs over a pass and down the other side. Not here. For cyclists, there is little else more frustrating than having to ride over 20 miles of gravel and shingle all the while knowing that they’ll be seeing every foot of the way a second time. I became so frustrated by having to backtrack out of mountains that I gave up on the high country altogether several weeks ago.

2. The stock trucks. These huge vehicles, usually two-trailer arrangements, careen endlessly down the highways delivering sheep and cows to the slaughterhouses – day after day after day. Why, I wonder, can’t the meat companies utilize trains – a more fuel efficient transport method that also reduces the risk that a trucker will squash a cyclist, like me? These trucks were no more terrifying than other trucks; it’s the bloody business they were up to that makes them seem more fearsome. I would see them pass on their way north, filled with moaning animals and reeking of manure. Meanwhile, a stream of stock trucks came the other way – all empty. (I don’t eat red meat, so I can complain all I want.)

This line of eateries on a street near Ashburton showcases some of the bland cuisine of New Zealand. Granted: The author didn't try all these restaurants. Would you?

3. The food. As virtually anywhere, what sprouts from the ground in this fertile nation and swims in the sea is excellent colorful stuff. But it’s what comes out of New Zealand kitchens that lacks in luster. Consider the placards placed outside many restaurants that read “FOOD.” Food, eh? If I’d been a starving man I’d have jumped through the door, but I like some passion and artistry in what I eat. Even in the larger towns and cities, the main drags were lined with dodgy diners offering fish and chips, BBQ and game pies, a local specialty often made with farmed venison, some even with possum – and one thing that disappointed me: In seven weeks of traveling every day, I encountered not one farmers market. They occur here, but there seems to be a shortage. Meanwhile, there is, at least, growing interest in good wine and beer throughout New Zealand.

4. Too much hype about adventure-adrenaline tourism. Give me a farmers market. Give me a quiet dirt road that crosses the Southern Alps at 2,000 meters. Give me a bottle of barleywine ale that I can afford. But enough with your adventure travel packages. Skydiving, jet boats on rivers, water-skiing, bungee jumping, heli-biking and heli-skiing and, I dunno – is there heli-fly fishing? The thing is, these all have nothing to do with your beautiful country and make a lot of noise and commotion.

5. Sheep. In particular, there are way too many. They overgraze and, along with a multitude of cows, trample river banks into mud and manure. They are mammals – and nonnative – and they number, what, 40 million? Sort of like possums. Sort of like pests.

6. Finally, an underlying but potent element of racism. I encountered this several times without digging for it – Caucasian Kiwis confiding in me that increasing cultural diversity (call it immigration, if you want) is becoming a problem. “It’s really dark on the North Island,” is something I heard said at least twice. And some people told me about “the Asian problem,” though I never understood what the problem quite was. My latest incident occurred just outside Christchurch, where I stopped in at an honesty box and met the two owners. “How is Auckland?” I asked as we chatted about the North Island. The man and woman – folks in their 60s – rolled their eyes. “It’s all Asians and Islanders.” Sounds interesting to me – but they carried on. “And in Christchurch it’s becoming a problem now, too. You like Asians? Plenty there.” I do, in fact – and I asked if there was, by any chance, a neighborhood or community of Asians – with Asian grocery stores, too. They both sighed and nodded, distraught at what was becoming of their island. “Yep. Blenheim Road,” the man said, and I made a note of it. The next afternoon, I rode up Blenheim Road, visited Kosko Asian Supermarket, and there found the joy I’d been without for seven weeks: durian, the crowned king of the fruit world. I ate a full pound of the flesh that night, thinking that this must be one of the greatest pleasures of a multicultural world.

Now, the positives:

1. The Molesworth Station wilderness. A banner highlight, this was a rare back country experience that required no backtracking to get out. For there are two roads leading all the way across this almost half-million-acre farm at the north end of the South Island. I took the Rainbow-Hanmer Springs route. The region is drained by several rivers, including the Wairau and the Clarence, and off the road, out of sight, are many hidden ponds teeming with big trout. Molesworth Station also demonstrates what a fine arrangement can be made between private landowners and the government’s Department of Conservation, which encourages public access into remote areas. There is a cash entry fee required – $25 for automobiles, $15 for motorcycles, and just $2 for bicycles (thanks).

2. Honesty boxes and other roadside produce sales. I wrote about exorbitant prices early in my trip – but that was before I discovered honesty boxes, where buyers pull over to the side of the road, drop a few coins in a piggy bank-style box and grab a carton of eggs or a bag of vegetables.

3. The Southeast Coast and Catlins. While the West Coast draws millions of tourists with its glaciers, Milford and Doubtful sounds and its steaming rainforests and fern groves, the opposite side of the island has its simpler wonders – and lesser crowds. Here, quiet rolling hills of grass meet clear kelpy waters and tide pools, and small roads almost void of traffic welcome cyclists to explore.

4. No fishing license needed for ocean angling or foraging. This is a nice gesture from the government. While most travelers aren’t going to spend their days here renting wetsuits of watching the tide charts with dinner plans for lobster or mussels, by allowing passersby to spontaneously visit the beach and take home a portion of edible critters (there are legal bag limits, so do your homework before hunting), the New Zealand federal government is encouraging engagement with the country’s marvelous marine environment.

Just the sight of the Kaikoura Range, which skyrockets from sea level to almost 9,000 feet, is a thrill. These mountains are, however, almost inaccessible.

5. Outstanding scenery. They filmed the Lord of the Rings films here for a reason – simply, the landscape is often jaw-dropping, whether on screen or in real life. The Southern Alps, whose peaks are buried in snow even in high summer, may be the crowning jewel, but almost everywhere else, dramatic geography and a general absence of people make a recipe for beauty and wonders. There is greenery almost everywhere, beautiful wild rivers in the mountains, the Seaward Kaikoura Range that tops out at almost 9,000 feet just miles from the ocean, the endless fjords and waterways of Marlborough Sounds, the deep bays, hills and remote shores of the Banks Peninsula, the underwater sights to be enjoyed by snorkelers and divers and much more. From Stewart Island in the far south to the Surville Cliffs in the far north, New Zealand is a country almost as geographically diverse as the United States, crammed into a thriving, gorgeous landscape only a slivering fraction of the size.

6. Finally, Luggage Solutions. This is a lifesaver shop at the Christchurch International Airport which carries a variety of bags and packing materials, including cardboard bicycle boxes. For cyclists, this is a tremendous convenience, allowing us to truly finish a journey by riding all the way to the airport. Note: Luggage Solutions charges $25 for a used, folded, crumpled box. They’ll help you assemble and secure it adequately, but the price is a bit steep.

One of These Five Innovative Memorials Will Soon Honor Native American Veterans

Smithsonian Magazine

On Veterans Day 2017, the National Museum of the American Indian made an unexpected but widely acclaimed announcement: it would be soliciting submissions from the public detailing potential designs for a brand-new memorial on the National Mall.

Situated on museum grounds, the memorial would be dedicated to the spirit, bravery and sacrifice of Native American soldiers across United States history, and would serve as a place of solace and communion for Native American veterans and their loved ones.

Now, the submission period has closed, and the museum has winnowed the pool of designs down to five possibilities. Detailed concept art of the finalist submissions went on view at the museum’s New York City location this week. Each prospective memorial approaches the narrative of Native American military personnel in a distinct way, and any would make for a beautiful, thought-provoking addition to the National Mall.

The museum is inviting outside comment from the community through the end of May as it makes its decision—the winning design will be announced in the months to come.

For your consideration, here are the five finalist designs:

Wellspring of Valor

James Dinh's Wellspring of Valor (NMAI)

In developing his concept for the new memorial, James Dinh took care to balance American military iconography with Native American iconography, setting symbols and the traditions they represent in intimate conversation with one another.

At the center of Dinh’s design is situated a tranquil “healing fountain,” surrounded by a quintet of tall glass spires. Labeled respectively with the values of Valor, Honor, Pride, Devotion and Wisdom, their glistening angular forms unite when seen from above to form a five-pointed star.

That this star has a void at its heart—where the healing fountain is situated—speaks to the cost of battle. “Those who died in the line of duty are marked by the empty space at the center of the star,” Dinh says in his artist’s statement, “which is illuminated at night to memorialize the courageous lives of these men and women.”

Concentric circles—“ripples,” in Dinh’s imagination—radiate outward from the star and fountain, and are bounded on one side by a mound of earth evocative of the ancient lifestyle of America’s Mound Builder peoples. Inlaid in this mound is a firm stone wall bearing testimonial quotes from Native American servicemen and women. “Like a slice through the earth,” Dinh says, “the stone wall inscribes the individual voices of veterans that are often collectively buried within history.”

One stretch of this wall, which Dinh terms the “Wall of Stories,” is particularly striking—that featuring a seated bronze sculpture of a Native American mother and child. Visitors would be invited to sit alongside the sculpture to contemplate in a moment of peace the hardships weathered by countless Native American families as a result of war.

Warriors’ Circle of Honor

Harvey Pratt's Warrior's Circle of Honor (NMAI)

Another memorial proposal featuring a prominent centerpiece is that of Harvey Pratt, which eschews the military emphasis of the star symbol at the core of Wellspring of Valor in favor of a simpler geometric form: the circle. A fixture in much Native American storytelling, the symbol of the circle—rendered in Pratt’s design in gleaming stainless steel—suggests the cycle of life and death, and the continuity of all things.

“On ceremonial occasions,” Pratt says, “a flame will be ignited at the base of the circle. Veterans, families and others are invited to ‘come to the campfire’ and tell their stories.” By situating the memorial to look out over the stillness of the nearby Chesapeake Bay wetland landscape, Pratt hopes to foster an environment of peaceful contemplation in which visitors can come together over the stories of those who have served—and share their own.

This storytelling space, which offers four arcing benches to visitors, is the inner of two concentric circles—beyond it lies a redbrick walkway, on which museumgoers can wander at their own pace and immerse themselves in the circular symbolism. Along this walk, symmetrically spaced, are four lances jutting skyward. While clearly emblematic of military courage, the lances serve another purpose: guests who wish to leave their mark on the memorial are invited to tie prayer cloths to them.

Beneath the steel circle, which Pratt calls the "Sacred Circle," is an “intricately carved stone drum,” which will convey the constant pulse of Native American spirit and sacrifice across the breadth of America’s history. It is not strictly somber in its symbolism, however—Pratt hopes visitors will seize on the silent rhythms of the memorial as an invitation to harmonize their experiences. “The drumbeat,” he says, “is a call to gather.”

We Fought for Our Country

Daniel SaSuWeh Jones and Enoch Kelly Haney's We Fought For Our Country (NMAI)

Daniel SaSuWeh Jones and Enoch Kelly Haney’s contest submission is also geared toward community experience, and the notion of making the stories of Native American heroes accessible to all. While humble in size, Jones and Haney’s memorial is situated near the museum to catch the eyes of as many guests coming and going as possible, inviting spontaneous conversation and opportunities for photographs.

We Fought for Our Country takes the form of a squat cylindrical plinth—whose rough-hewn marble echoes the coloration of the museum overlooking it—surmounted by a sculpture of two Native American figures captured mid-footstep. The taller figure, an adult woman shepherding a child along her path, represents nature, in all its constancy and grace. Her traveling companion, a little girl, is a personification of the future.

Stones from Oklahoma’s Chilocco Indian Boarding School, the alma mater of a great many 20th-century Native American soldiers, line Nature and Child’s path, suggesting the ceaseless yet often unacknowledged sacrifices of members of America’s indigenous communities.

Below this elevated pair, a group of faceless additional figures keeps watch in a circular formation—“six bronze Guardians,” the designers say, “representing spirit protectors of Nature and Child.” The uniforms on these bronzes correspond to the different branches of the U.S. military, while the headdresses they wear pay homage to the various major indigenous groups of America.

Farther down the column are plaques depicting the “US Military/Indian relationship with scenes of valor, endurance and sacrifice,” and a circle of eight-inch bronze figures holding hands in solidarity, camaraderie and communal oneness. A final, poignant element of the memorial is the Healing Hand, a bronze hand that invites visitors to reach out physically and put themselves in communion with Nature, Child and their Guardians.

The Enduring Dance

Stefanie Rocknak's The Enduring Dance (detail) (NMAI)

This concept, proposed by Stefanie Rocknak, shares with We Fought for Our Country a sense of dynamism and a deliberate blend of military and Native American dress. Where Haney’s piece elevates two symbolic figures, however, Rocknak’s sets an assortment of nine essentially side-by-side, so as to suggest a coming-together and a celebration of shared legacy. This joyous quality of the memorial is strengthened by Rocknak’s decision to present nearly all of the sculptures (“cast in bronze and finished with a granite-like patina”) as dancers in the midst of ritual performance.

Eight of the nine figures, whose diverse attire signals both wide-ranging heritage and commonality in the warrior tradition, are situated atop a small wall, inscribed on its face with textual narrative detailing the deep history of Native American service and selflessness. Rocknak says that this text will “encompass the obstacles, the achievements, and the continuation of the warrior tradition from generation to generation.”

Standing between the wall and the viewer is the interpretive figure of the Storyteller, a sculpture whose simple windblown robes suggest a kind of timelessness. She mediates between the dancing warriors behind her and the visitors eager to learn those warriors’ stories and perhaps to share their own. “Her visage will be wise, calming and eternal,” says Rocknak. “The visitor can almost hear her even-toned voice as it resonates throughout the ages.”

Driving home the storytelling focus of Rocknak’s memorial is the nighttime lighting of the figures, which dances on their stony faces so as to evoke a deeply personal fireside discussion. “The front of the sculptures will be illuminated with an amber light, which will flicker,” Rocknak says, “and so be suggestive of the glow of a ceremonial fire.”

Ribbon of Time

Leroy Transfield's Ribbon of Time (NMAI)

The final concept under consideration is Leroy Transfield’s Ribbon of Time, a sinuous stone wall that charts pictorially and via direct quotes the history of Native American service across the most tumultuous periods in global history. Transfield has proposed that the memorial be situated along the northern face of the museum, such that its own arcing form will mirror that of both the museum’s long river-like fountain and its undulating limestone exterior.

Transfield’s design might call to mind Maya Lin’s famed Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but the two walls are miles apart in their messaging. Where Lin’s cold black tribute, pointed like a chevron and reflective so as to implicate and confront viewers, suggests the weight of loss and the tragedy of dehumanization in war, Transfield’s tribute to Native American veterans envelops visitors in its welcoming recesses and tells them inspirational stories, celebrating the human bravery of individuals rather than mourning them en masse.

At the end of the wall, and the end of the meandering story, a towering sculpture of a proud Native American warrior keeps watch, looking out over the memorial and fountain and to the Washington Monument rising far beyond. His presence visually links the Native American experience etched in the stone of the wall with the broader American experience represented by the open National Mall.

The memorial will “blend and harmonize with the surrounding [landscape] as if it has always been a part of it,” Transfield says, “as if it has risen from the earth—a sort of ancient ruin that tells a great cultural story honoring the indigenous veterans of this land.”

Plans for the five designs are on view at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in the the exhibition "National Native American Veterans Memorial Design Competition" in New York City at the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, One Bowling Green, through May 30, 2018. Comments are being accepted via email through June 12.

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.

These Five "Witness Trees" Were Present At Key Moments In America's History

Smithsonian Magazine

A witness tree begins its life like any other tree. It sprouts. It grows. And then it’s thrust into the spotlight, playing an involuntary part in a significant historic event. Often, that event is a devastating, landscape-scarring battle or other tragic moment. Once Civil War soldiers march on to their next battle, say, or a country turns its attention to healing after a terrorist attack, a witness tree remains as a biologically tenacious symbol of the past.

Witness trees have been known to hide bullets they’ve absorbed beneath new layers of wood and bark, and they heal other visible scars over time. While they may look like ordinary trees, they have incredible stories to tell.

Travelers, history lovers, some park rangers and others have embraced these exceptional trees as important, living connections to our past. In 2006, Paul Dolinsky, chief of the National Park Service’s Historic American Landscapes Survey, led the development of the Witness Tree Protection Program, a pilot project that identified an initial 24 historically and biologically significant trees in the Washington, D.C. area. Written histories and photographs of the trees are archived at the Library of Congress. “Although trees have longevity, they’re ephemeral,” says Dolinsky. “This will be a lasting record of the story a tree has to tell.”

While the pilot program has gained some traction, the number of witness trees in the U.S. remains unknown. One reason why: Some areas where witness trees may reside, like battlefields, are vast. Another reason: It can be difficult to determine a tree’s age to confirm it was alive during a significant historic event. Boring into a tree can answer that question, but it can also damage a tree so it’s not often done. In some cases, witness trees aren’t identified until they die of natural causes. In 2011, for instance, a felled oak tree with two bullets embedded in the trunk was found on Culp’s Hill in Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. Photographs or other historic records, however, can confirm some witness trees—and rule out others—with relative ease.

Confirmed witness trees are precious. They survived trauma, and then dodged disease and storms and whatever else humans and nature have hurled at them for dozens or even hundreds of years. Though some trees can live for 500 years, it’s unknown how much longer some of these may survive.

Communing with a witness tree offers a true, one-of-a-kind thrill. “It’s a live thing,” says Joe Calzarette, Natural Resources Program Manager at Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland. “There’s something about a live thing that you can connect with in a way you can’t with an inanimate object.”

To experience it yourself, visit these five trees that have witnessed some of the most traumatic and tragic events that have shaped U.S. history. When you go, respect any barriers—natural or manmade—between you and the witness tree, and take care never to get too close to trees that seem approachable. Even walking on nearby soil can have an impact on a tree’s root system and overall health.

The War of 1812 Willow Oak, Oxon Cove Park & Oxon Hill Farm, Maryland

War of 1812 Willow Oak, near parking lot, Oxon Hill, Prince George's County, MD (Library of Congress)

The blood and fire of the War of 1812 Willow Oak’s namesake hostilities reached the tree during the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814. The lonely oak with its thick, gnarled trunk now stands in a grassy field in Maryland, near the parking lot of the Oxon Cove Park & Oxon Hill Farm in Oxon Hill, known two centuries ago as Mount Welby, home of British sympathizers Dr. Samuel DeButts and his family. The tree and estate overlooked Washington, D.C.

On that August night, British troops defeated American troops about six miles away from Mount Welby, then attacked the capital, setting the White House and other parts of the city on fire. DeButts’ wife, Mary Welby, wrote of that evening: “Our house shook repeatedly by the firing upon forts [and] Bridges, [and was] illuminated by the fires in our Capital.” The DeButts family later found three rockets from the fighting on their property.

White Oak Tree, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia

A White Oak Witness Tree near Stone Bridge at Manassas National Battlefield Park in Manassas, VA (Bryan Gorsira, NPS)

At the eastern edge of Manassas National Battlefield Park, walk across Bull Run Creek via Stone Bridge, take a right on the trail, then curve around the water. Ahead on the left rises a White Oak that survived not one but two Civil War battles.

The tree grows in a spot that both Union and Confederate armies thought was critical to victory. On the morning of July 21, 1861, the opening shots of the First Battle of Manassas pierced the sultry summer air over the nearby Stone Bridge, as the Union made its initial diversionary attack. When the battle ended, Union troops retreated across the bridge and through the water. Confederate troops also retreated through here on March 9, 1862, destroying the original Stone Bridge behind them as they evacuated their winter camps.

Troops from both sides returned to the tree’s orbit during the Second Battle of Manassas in late August 1862, with the defeated Union rear guard destroying a makeshift replacement wooden bridge. A photo from March 1862 by George N. Barnard shows a decimated landscape, the trees thin and bare. Today, the scene is more serene, with the tree—and a rebuilt Stone Bridge—sturdy and resolute.

The National Park Service estimates Manassas contains hundreds of other witness trees, many having been found with the help of a Girl Scout working on her Gold Award project.

The Burnside Sycamore, Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland

Burnside Bridge Sycamore, southwest of Burnside Bridge, Historic Burnside Bridge Road, Sharpsburg, Washington County, MD (Library of Congress)

During the afternoon of September 17, 1862, General Ambrose Burnside and his Union troops battled three hours against dug-in Confederate positions to cross a bridge over Antietam Creek. An additional two hours of fighting ensued against Confederate reinforcements. There were more than 600 casualties at Burnside Bridge, contributing to the Civil War’s bloodiest day.

Amid the fighting, a young sycamore growing beside the bridge withstood the crossfire. We know this because, several days later, Alexander Gardner photographed what became known as the Burnside Bridge, with the tree near the lower left corner of the image. The iconic photo can be seen at Antietam on the wayside in front of the tree, located in the southern reaches of Antietam National Battlefield.

The Burnside Sycamore has since faced other threats, like flooding and even the bridge itself. The bridge's foundation is probably limiting the tree’s root system. But now the tree stands tall and healthy, its branches spreading high above the bridge and the gentle creek, creating a serene, shady nook. “People see the tree and they see the little wayside and they think, ‘Boy, if this tree could talk,'”says Calzarette.

Antietam contains several other known witness trees, including in the West and North Woods.

The Sickles Oak, Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania

Reed's sketch of Major General Daniel E. Sickles and his men gathered under the Sickles Oak (Library of Congress)

The Swamp White Oak on the grounds of Trostle Farm witnessed some of Gettysburg’s heaviest fighting—its shade beckoned a notorious Civil War figure looking for a command post. Charles Reed sketched Major General Daniel E. Sickles and his men gathered under the Sickles Oak during the afternoon of July 2, 1863, not long before Sickles disobeyed direct orders and marched his men into disaster. During an onslaught by Confederate troops, Sickles’ men took heavy losses; Sickles lost his right leg to a cannonball.

The Sickles Oak was at least 75 years old at the time of the battle, and it’s grown into a “big, beautiful, healthy-looking tree,” says Katie Lawhon, Gettysburg National Military Park spokesperson. Several witness trees are believed to survive in Gettysburg, but the Sickles Oak is among the most accessible today. It’s close to stop 11 on the Gettysburg auto tour, near the still-standing buildings of Trostle Farm.

Oklahoma City Survivor Tree, Oklahoma City National Memorial, Oklahoma

The Oklahoma City Survivor Tree (Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum)

When Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people, an American elm in downtown Oklahoma City absorbed the blast. Glass and metal from the explosion embedded in its bark. The hood of an exploded car landed in its crown.

Instead of removing the tree to extract evidence, survivors, family members of those killed in the blast, and others urged officials to save the almost 100-year-old elm. Planners of the Oklahoma City National Memorial created conditions to allow the tree to recover and thrive; they also made it a focal point of the memorial. A custom promontory surrounds the 40-foot-tall tree, ensuring the elm gets proper care above and below ground. The Survivor Tree, as it’s now known, like many other witness trees, serves as a touchstone of resilience.

Deep in the Swedish Wilderness, Discovering One of the World’s Greatest Restaurants

Smithsonian Magazine


Chef Magnus Nilsson slaps together his bear-paw-sized hands, announcing his presence in the cabin-like space that serves as his dining room. Bunches of herbs hung to dry and edible flowers adorn the sparse walls, and meat and fish hang lazily from the ceiling as they cure. Tonight—a Tuesday in early July—the restaurant is at full capacity, seating 16 guests around a handful of sparse wooden tables.

“Here we have scallop ‘i skalet ur elden’ cooked over burning juniper branches,” Nilsson announces. Staff members deliver two pink-shelled scallops nestled on a bed of smoking moss and juniper to our table. The dish smells like Christmas at the beach. “Eat it in one bite, and drink the juice, ok?” Nilsson says.  

The scallops—taken from the fire in the kitchen downstairs no more than 90 seconds earlier—open to reveal a pearly dollop of meat marinating in its own murky juices. I place the entire succulent morsel into my mouth with my fingers, and then slurp down the broth, as instructed. I’m rewarded with flavors of the Norwegian Sea: briny, salty and sweet.

This is Fäviken Magasinet, a restaurant located in the heart of northwest Sweden’s forested wilderness, Järpen. The region is roughly the same size as Denmark, but with only 130,000 residents. The restaurant’s location requires hopeful patrons to embark upon a pilgrimage of sorts. You can either take a car or train from Stockholm—a 470-mile journey—or jump on a quick flight to Östersund, a town about an hour and a half east.

Described by Bon Appétit as “the world’s most daring restaurant,” Fäviken’s extreme remoteness, unique dishes and strict regime of locally hunted, foraged, fished, farmed and preserved ingredients quickly began earning the restaurant and its young chef notoriety when he took over as head chef in 2008. Just four years later, Fäviken landed 34th place on the British magazine Restaurant’s coveted World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, on which the judges pose: “Is this the most isolated great restaurant on the planet?”

A journey north

I enjoy food, but would hesitate to call myself a true foodie. I haven’t been to Per Se (#11 on the Restaurant’s list) or Eleven Madison Park (#5), both in New York City, and I wouldn’t plan a trip to Denmark just to eat at Noma (#2). Fäviken, however, was different.

I first learned about Nilsson in a short blurb in TimeOut New York, in a review of his recently published cookbook cum autobiography, Fäviken. The “uncompromising young chef (just 28),” TimeOut wrote, “has been pushing the boundaries or hunter-gatherer cooking” in a “groundbreaking restaurant in the middle of nowhere.” Something about sipping a broth of autumn leaves in the Swedish woods deeply appealed, and I began looking into this strange place. Seeing the restaurant’s website—a panorama of the property’s 19th century converted barns, that changes with the seasons—solidified my next vacation plans.

Nilsson grew up near Fäviken’s property, in a tiny town called Mörsil. Though he fondly recalls spending time in the kitchen with his grandmother, the young Swede originally aspired to become a marine biologist. But gastronomy trumped ichthyology, and Nilsson eventually landed spots cooking under three-star Michelin chefs in Paris. But he returned to Sweden after his Paris sojourn and tried pursuing his own kitchen aspirations, his efforts fell flat. His dishes were only poor imitations of his mentors’ creations. Discouraged, he stopped cooking and decided to become a wine writer instead.

This circuitous path led him to Fäviken. In 2003, the restaurant’s new owners recruited Nilsson to organize their wine collection under a three-month contract. At the time, the restaurant relied mostly upon products imported from around Europe, and mainly served a surplus of guests arriving for an annual game fair held on the property each July. “Nope, I never though I’d come back here,” Nilsson later tells me of his rural home region. Gradually, however, he began finding himself spending more and more time in the restaurant’s small kitchen. He also took to roving the forests and fields of Fäviken’s 24,000-acre property, collecting interesting edibles he came across and experimenting with recipes in his spare time. Months melted into years, and in 2008 Nilsson began officially running the restaurant. “That’s how it happened,” he says. “I went back into the kitchen again.”

Reaching that fabled kitchen, however, is no easy task. My boyfriend Paul and I opted to fly through Östersund as we took off early in the morning from sunny Stockholm, leaving behind perfect summer-dress weather. As we slid through the layer of thick clouds obscuring Järpen, a new landscape materialized. Dense swaths of evergreen forest—broken only by the occasional cabin or farm—blanketed hills and encroached upon expansive black lakes. When we touched down at the tiny Östersund airport, a large hare sprinted out onto the runway, racing the plane for a few brief moments. It occurred to me that we were dealing with something entirely different than Stockholm’s outdoor cafes and glimmering waterside promenades. This was the North.

A traditional palate 

Up here, Nilsson explains, incorporating the land into daily eating and living is second nature. October’s chill traditionally marks the end of fresh ingredients until spring’s thaw renewed life in April. Studious planning and preserving were essential for a subarctic household’s survival. Even now, some of those traditions have lingered on. If residents don’t hunt or fish, they know someone close to them who does. Picking berries for jam, gathering mushrooms for preserving, pickling homegrown vegetables and curing meat are normal household activities. While high-end restaurants in the world’s metropolises may boast about the novelty of their handful of foraged ingredients, here it is natural and unforced. “It’s just part of what people do, even if they don’t realize it,” Nilsson says. 

Nilsson, too, abides by these traditions. Only a few ingredients—including salt, sugar and rapeseed oil from southwest Sweden, Denmark and France, respectively, and fish from Norway—do not originate from the immediate vicinity. The repertoire of wild plants he regularly harvests from around the property number around 50, ranging from hedgehog mushrooms to Iceland moss, from wormwood to fiddlehead ferns. He also hunts, as attested by the paper-thin slices of wild goose served during my visit. The bird is coated in an insulating layer of sea salt, then hung in the dining room to dry for several months before appearing on our plates. Likewise, he slaughters his own livestock and uses nearly every part of their bodies. Fried pigs head balls sprinkled with pickled marigold petals, for example, appear on the menu this summer. “Sometimes, when I look at the way people treat meat inefficiently . . . I think there should be some kind of an equivalent to a driver’s license for meat-eaters,” Nilsson writes in his book.

Image by Rachel Nuwer. The décor at Fäviken reflects the restaurant’s isolation: sparse, yet cozy. (original image)

Image by Rachel Nuwer. Sheep laze on Faviken’s extensive property. (original image)

Image by Rachel Nuwer. Langoustine skewered on a twig and served with a dollop of cream. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Fäviken. Fäviken is both a restaurant and an inn – guests can eat and sleep at the 24,000-acre property, located 470 miles from Stockholm. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Fäviken. Head chef Magnus Nilsson (forefront) and sous chef work to prepare the evening’s dishes. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Fäviken. Chef Magnus Nilsson, only 28 years old, revels in pushing culinary boundaries at his Swedish gastronomical outpost Fäviken. (original image)

Image by Rachel Nuwer. A dessert of fermented lingonberries, thick cream, sugar, blueberry ice. (original image)

Image by Rachel Nuwer. Mackerel steamed with flowering leek, sauce made from the leek tops. (original image)

In the winter, Fäviken hunkers down and relies upon a store of pickled, cured, dried and fermented produce and meat to feed its guests. “It’s so lovely in the winter, so dark,” says Sara Haij, who works at the restaurant as a server-cum-hostess-cum-travel agent. “But the snow lights it up. And in February and March, the northern lights peak.”

During these nearly sunless months, some vegetables, including cabbage and kale, can remain in the earth or buried under snow. As long as temperatures stay below freezing (not a lot to ask in Järpen, where winter temperatures regularly dip to -22˚ F) the vegetables will keep.

For fermenting, Nilsson largely relies upon Lactobacillus bacteria, whose use in preservation spans centuries and cultures, from kimchi in Korea to beer brewing in ancient Egypt. Pickling, on the other hand, depends upon lowering the osmotic pressure in the cells of the ingredient—beets, berries, roots—with salt, then adding a solution of vinegar and sugar, which easily penetrate those emaciated cells. The flavor of pickling—specifically with white alcohol vinegar—Nilsson writes in his book, is “one of the original tastes of Scandinavia.” Nilsson, not surprisingly, also makes his own vinegars, including a “vinegar matured in the burnt-out trunk of a spruce tree.” 

Many of Nilsson’s preserved products are stored in his cellar, a cubby hold dug out of the side of a hill, across from the restaurant. Here, curious diners can also take a peep at his ongoing experiments, where jars of pickling wildflowers, submerged sprigs and even bottled curios of seafoody flesh line shelves on either wall. The space seems deceptively small, but, starting in the autumn, crates of dormant roots are buried beneath its sandy floor. In spring, even in the light-deprived environment, what’s left of these roots often begin producing pale shoots that “taste like the very essence of the vegetables from which they sprout,” Nilsson writes.

A day at Fäviken

This, however, is summer, when the sky never fully darkens and the produce is at its peak. We bump down a gravel road several hours after leaving the airport (obligatory stops were made at a moose petting farm and a hippie-like restaurant commune in Nilsson’s hometown that he recommended), unsure of whether we should have turned left at that last lake, or gone straight over an old bridge. Here, cell phone GPS guidance is out of the question. A break from the trees, however, finally reveals our destination: across a glacial lake, Fäviken’s red barn stands out against the green.

Wildflowers and herds of free-range sheep blaze by on our final approach, and not even a cold, persistent sprinkling of rain can put a damper on this triumph. Through a window on the converted barn, we can see the chefs are already bustling about the kitchen, though it’s just 2:00 and dinner doesn’t begin until 7:00. Karin Hillström, another Fäviken employee, bursts out to meet us with a welcoming smile, ushering us into a pine log room (an original from 1745) filled with lambskin sofas and a wildflower-bejeweled bar. Hillström assigns each party for that evening’s dinner an arrival hour—we were 3:00—staggered to allot time for an individual welcome and a private session in the sauna. A fire warms the room, and Nilsson’s big, wolf-fur coat hangs on one wall like a trophy. Robert Andersson, the sommelier, wastes no time uncorking the first bottled aperitifs.

Nilsson soon emerges from the kitchen wearing his chef’s whites, politely greeting us before Hillström shows us to our room, which is marked not with a number but a hand-painted portrait of a black bear. Because of its remoteness, many guests chose to stay the night at the restaurant’s small guesthouse. The sauna, just across the hall, is fully stocked with champagne, regional beer and local berry juice, along with “some snacks” of homemade sausage and hairy pickled turnips, hand-delivered by one of the chefs. From the delicate bouquets of wildflowers to the slate-slab tabletops, Fäviken seems to epitomize attention to detail. 

Feast at the farm

Tonight, we’re sharing hors d’oeuvres with a British couple, Rachel and Matt Weedon. Outside of Norway and Sweden, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the U.S. supply the most visitors. They met in the restaurant industry “many moons ago,” spent their honey moon eating their way through San Francisco and Napa Valley, and now travel twice a year on food holidays. “In the chef world, this guy [Nilsson] is talked about so much,” says Matt, who runs the kitchen and manages the farm at Fallowfields, a restaurant in Oxfordshire. “I heard about him, bought the book, and said OK, we’re going.”

We nibble on crispy lichens dipped in lightly soured garlic cream (the delicate growths nearly dissolve in the mouth), and pop tarts of wild trout’s roe served in a crust of dried pigs blood (oddly sweet, with juicy bursts of fish-eggy saltiness), then proceed upstairs to the spartan dining room. Tables are scattered throughout the room, seating a maximum of 16 guests and spread far enough apart so that each couple or group feels almost as if they are enjoying a private meal. Andersson pours the first wine—mead, actually—made locally and “just like the Vikings used to drink.” Rather than match wines for all 14 of the main courses, Andersson chooses five eclectic pairings that can complement a number of dishes. “I like to drink wine, not taste it,” he explains.

Menu highlights of the evening include a fleshy langoustine impaled on a twig and served with a dollop of almost-burnt cream that Nilsson instructs us to apply to each bite of the creature. A festive porridge of grains, seeds, fermented carrots and wild leaves comes with a glass teapot that is brimming with living grasses and moss rooted atop a bed of moist detritus. Andersson pours a meat broth filtered through this bushy assembly into our porridge; when he removes the teapot, a tiny, squirming earthworm is inadvertently left behind on the table. For a dish of marrow served atop diced raw cow’s heart with neon flower petals, the chefs carry a tremendous bone into the dining room, then proceed to saw it open like a couple of lumberjacks to get at the fresh, bubbling essence within. The butter served throughout the meal—simply the best I have ever tasted—comes from a little cottage nearby, where it takes three days to collect enough milk from the owner’s six cows to churn out a single batch.

The most standout dessert of the evening is an egg yolk, preserved in sugar syrup, plopped next to a pile of crumbs made from pine tree bark. We diners are instructed to mash these ingredients into a sticky, rich dough, while the chefs turn the clacking crank of an old-fashioned ice cream maker, then spoon out portions of the icy, meadowsweet-seasoned goodness alongside our fresh dough.

We round out the evening by sipping on sour cream and duck egg liquor, and sampling simple sweets—dried berries, sunflower seed nougat, pine resin cake—laid out in a jewelry-box assortment, like a child’s prized collection of marbles and shells. Only the tar pastilles, which taste like a mix between chainsaw exhaust and chimney soot, fail to deliver. The final, optional offering is a strip of chewing tobacco, fermented for 70 hours and issued with a warning that the nicotine could prove too much for guests who aren’t used to it. “This smells like my dad,” I overhear one patron say.

A master of the craft

The process of creating these exceptional dishes, Nilsson explained earlier that afternoon, is like any other profession involving craftsmanship. “You must first perfect your techniques so they don’t get in the way of your ability to create things,” he says. At this point, he says, creation comes to him intuitively—“It just happens, I just cook”—though he is always looking to innovate and improve. In his book, he elaborates: “Throughout my career so far, and I hope for the rest of my life, I have always tried to become a little bit better at what I do every time I do it.”

As such, after the meal Nilsson stops by each table, asking his patrons to comment on dishes they did or did not like. The dishes, he says, may evolve significantly on a day-to-day basis or may remain static for months or years on end. It all depends on the season, the produce and “the mood of us all, and what we do here.” For now, Fäviken is a dynamic work in progress, though this unique project in the Swedish woods is by no means indefinite.

“I’m sure it will be very definite when we run out of interesting things to do,” Nilsson says. “But there’s no end date, it’s just something you feel when it’s done.”


Fäviken accepts dinner reservations for up to six people, which can be booked online three months in advance. Dinner is served Tuesday to Saturday, and hotel reservations can be made at the time of booking. Price per person for food is SEK 1,750 (approximately $268 USD); for drinks, including aperitifs and digestifs, SEK 1,750 ($268); and SEK 2,000 ($307) for accommodation for two, including breakfast. 

Details on travel to Fäviken by car, train, plane or cab can also be found on the website. SAS flies daily between Stockholm and Östersund, and between Trondheim and Oslo.

Discover Five Unique Train Trips Across Japan

Smithsonian Magazine

Japan’s railways connect locals and tourists alike to the country’s most popular destination—whether you’re looking to explore urban centers, ski resorts or seaside fishing towns, there’s a train to take you there. And for many fans of train travel, the country’s high-speed bullet trains are an attraction all their own. From fine dining to modern art, Japan’s trains are incorporating elements of culture into the rides.

If you’re going to the central or northern regions of Japan, we’ve rounded up five trains that make the journey just as exciting as the destination.

Train Suite Shiki-shima

While Japan may be best known for its bullet trains, Train Suite Shiki-shima is all about world-class luxury and striking design. This overnight train features deluxe, spacious living quarters outfitted with lofted ceilings, and some, with private cypress bathtubs and glowing electric fireplaces. Two observation cars lined with specially contoured windows and skylights offer passengers unparalleled views of the passing scenery, and hand-made, luxury carpets line the floor resembling moss. The lounge car, designed with striking wall patterns evoking a tranquil forest, features a piano and unique artwork from each region of eastern Japan.

The three-day/two-night winter trip (the details of the course for 2020 are now in planning) takes passengers on a journey through breathtaking snowy landscapes. This winter's trip makes stops at hot springs, artisan workshops and the Sekinoichi Sake Brewery, among other sightseeing destinations. Along the way, guests savor meals prepared by chefs steeped in the traditions and flavors of each region. Due to the limited number of suites, this very popular and exclusive trip can only be booked through an application process where each year travelers are selected in a draw.


This classic train runs between Nagano, home of the Zenkoji Templa, and Karuizawa, a resort town known for beautiful forests, hot springs and outdoor recreation. The lounge features wood finishes and large picture windows, and the dining car serves local cuisine made from ingredients sourced in the Shinshu mountains. Chefs from acclaimed local restaurants craft each meal, and a variety of drinks, including wine, cider and sake, are suggested to match each dish.

Reservations can be made online.

Tohoku Emotion

You’re guaranteed to eat tons of amazing food on a trip to Japan, but on the Tohoku Emotion, which runs between Hachinohe (in Aomori prefecture) and Kuji (in Iwate Prefecture), the fine dining happens as the train is moving. Seven rooms aboard the train are decorated with sashiko ori wall fabric, made in the Fukushima tradition, while tables set with real linens and dishware elevate the typical train dining experience. The kitchen has its own separate car, and it’s open, meaning travelers can watch chefs prepare their gourmet meals.

Hachinohe sits on the northern tip of Japan facing the Pacific Ocean, where visitors can tour the medieval ruins of Ne Castle and shop for Yawata-uma figurines, which depict horses used by residents of Hachinohe in festivals and local mythology. Kuji, about an hour south of Hachinohe on the coast, is the gateway to the many historical sites of Iwate Prefecture. Hiraizumi, a UNESCO World Heritage site, includes a gold-leaf covered Buddhist temple and a number of sites that depict life in Japan during the 11th century. Iwate is also a must-visit for food and drink lovers—the region is home to some of Japan’s most celebrated Wagyu beff and sake.

SL Ginga

The SL Ginga travels between Hanamaki and Kamaishi stations, both in Iwate Prefecture, but it also travels through time. A restored locomotive from the 1920s, the train honors the life and work of Kenji Miyazawa, a beloved poet and children’s book author of the 1910s and 1920s. Inspired by Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad, the steam engine train cars have been restored to their ‘20s glory, and are accented with stained glass windows depicting scenes from Miyazawa’s work. The showpiece of the ride is its digital planetarium—the only train planetarium in the world, and one where travelers can take in scenes of the moon and the stars as they move throughout Iwate.

In Kamaishi, visitors can take in the region’s coastal beauty while learning about traditional iron and lacquerware handicrafts. It’s also home to a number of historic sites, including Hiraizumi, which during the medieval period was its own unique kingdom. Hanamaki is world-famous for its hot springs, including Osawa Onsen, which sits on the banks of Toyosawa River and allows bathers to take in the sights and sounds of the outdoors while soaking in restorative waters. Hanamaki is also the birthplace of Miyazawa, and for decades visitors to the area have made pilgrimages to the local museum dedicated to his art.

Genbi Shinkansen

This train isn’t just the best way to get from Echigo-Yuzawa to Niigata, both in Niigata Prefecture. It’s also the best way to see some of Japan’s most exciting contemporary art, and to experience the fun of being aboard a moving art museum.

Each car is filled with art designed specially for the train by some of the country’s most prominent artists. One car is lined with mirrors, so as the train speeds across Niigata travelers see the country reflected back at them. Another is lined with photographs of K2, one of the world’s steepest mountains. A special kid’s car uses train tracks to make an interactive space for imaginative play, while in the dining car, thirsty visitors can sample Tsubame Coffee, a popular local treat.

Echigo-Yuzawa, just an hour away from Tokyo by train, combines hot springs and ski slopes to become the ultimate winter destination. Nearly six million skiers visit each year, taking advantage of nearly 20 ski fields and outdoor hot tubs. Inside the station itself is a must-visit stop for sake drinkers: Ponshukan, a museum devoted to the beloved beverage where more than 100 varieties of sake are on offer.

Niigata, which sits on the edge of the Sea of Japan, is a destination for anyone interested in the sea itself. It offers surfing and incredible panoramic views of the water, plus the Marinepia Nihonkai Aquarium, home to more than 20,000 different kinds of marine life. At the Northern Culture Museum, visitors can learn about the history of this part of Japan, and ferries depart regularly for nearby Sado Island.


Explore More Unique Train Trips Across Japan


Explore Louisiana's Most Stunning State Parks

Smithsonian Magazine

Louisiana is the ultimate playground for the outdoorsman. All manner of waterways crisscross the state amid verdant hills and rich marshlands, making the state a habitat for many rare and endangered species, as well as thousands of migratory birds and sport fish. Miles of hiking, biking and water trails offer visitors inlets into these vast wild lands through a network of 22 State Parks. From seemingly endless expanses of coastal wetlands to narrow trails through dense palmettos, these parks offer visitors diverse landscapes and activities. Spot song birds among moss-draped cypress trees or cast a line into a stocked lake and see why Louisiana earned the nickname the "Sportsman's Paradise.”

Poverty Point Reservoir State Park

Fish and birds and bears - oh my! This northern Louisiana State Park has it all. On any given weekend, boaters can be found casting their lines on Poverty Point Reservoir in hopes of hooking largemouth bass, sac-à-lait (crappie), catfish and bluegill. Stocked with fish, the 2,700-acre, man-made lake is an angler's haven. Birders also flock to Poverty Point thanks to its location along the Mississippi Flyway, a major bird migration route. A half-mile-long trail bordering Bayou Macon offers one of the best vantage points for watching local and exotic birds. Wandering the trails, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the shy Louisiana black bear, which was recently removed from federal endangered species list. 

Nearby, the Poverty Point UNESCO World Heritage Site draws even more visitors. Built by American Indians more than 3,000 years ago, the 72-foot-tall mound is one of only three archaeological sites in the United States to earn a World Heritage distinction. Eight deluxe cabins and four lodges on the lake, as well as more than 50 RV campsites at the park's south end, allow visitors to appreciate the park's history and wildlife at all hours.

Chicot State Park

Situated between the Atchafalaya Basin swamps and the hills of central Louisiana, Chicot State Park lays claim to some of the Bayou State’s most breathtaking vistas. At 6,400 acres, it is Louisiana's largest State Park and home to the magnificent Louisiana State Arboretum.

Take a calming stroll through the arboretum’s groves of sycamores, maples, beeches, magnolias and hickories. Ferns cover the forest in a carpet of green, and cranefly orchids sway in the warm breeze. Six miles of trails and boardwalks complete with plant-identifying signs wind through this living museum of trees, stretching up hills and out over Chicot Lake. Every so often, a deer or fox will emerge from the cover. Bird sightings are almost guaranteed, as the preserve is another stop along the Mississippi Flyway.

With its varied terrain, Chicot State Park is a biker's and paddler's paradise. For a true Louisiana outdoor experience, take a canoe for a turn around the thick cypress trunks that dot Lake Chicot, then stop at one of the campsites along its perimeter. 

North Toledo Bend State Park

Catching a “lunker” (a bass weighing over 10 pounds) in North Toledo Bend State Park is a right of passage. Spanning a third of Louisiana's western boundary, the Toledo Bend Reservoir is the South’s largest man-made lake and one of the nation’s top fishing destinations. In 2015 and again in 2016, Bassmaster magazine named Toldeo Bend the No. 1 bass fishery in the country.

Though known for its fishing, Toledo Bend offers a wealth of other activities. Hiking and biking trails wind through the park, and canoes allow visitors to enjoy the lake's calmer waters. A swimming pool and playground keep younger family members happy. Spend a night in one of the park's deluxe cabins, group camps or RV spots—if only to watch the sun set over the lake.  

Fontainebleau State Park

Less than an hour from the color and revelry of downtown New Orleans lies the pristine Fontainebleau State Park. With powdered sugar still clinging to your face from the beignets you scarfed down at Café Du Monde, kayak past cypress trees on glassy Lake Pontchartrain or sink your feet into the soft sand of its man-made beach. In the afternoon, walk, bike or ride horseback along a converted rail line at the north end of the park, part of the scenic 31-mile Tammany Trace path. Along the way, you'll pass all manner of birds as well as the brick remains of an 1829 sugar mill built under the direction of Creole planter and senator Bernard de Marigny. Not ready for another night out on Bourbon Street? The park’s waterfront cabins and piers present a relaxing alternative.

Lake Claiborne State Park 

In the early morning, quietly slip out the door of a two-bedroom cabin nestled among the pines and cast a line out over the famously productive waters of Lake Claiborne, home to some of the finest freshwater fishing in Louisiana. The 6,400-acre waterway, located halfway between Shreveport and Monroe, is generously stocked with largemouth and striped bass, bluegill, channel catfish, sac-à-lait, pickerel and bream. Fishermen can cast from the pier or rent flat-bottom boats or canoes and set out for solitude.

Families and friends can enjoy the sandy beach located near the lake’s inlet, or try their hands at one of the park’s two disc golf courses, ranked the top two in the state. Both courses offer different sets of tee pads geared toward different skill levels to accommodate skilled players as well as first-timers. 

Palmetto Island State Park

Kayak through narrow channels and hidden lagoons under the shade of shaggy, dwarf palmettos and towering, untamed cypress trees. This is southern Louisiana at its most wonderfully wild. Palmetto Island, located about six miles south of Abbeville, is one of the Louisiana State Park system's newest additions, opening to the public for the first time in 2010. Boats can be rented by the hour or day to explore the Vermilion River, the tidal river that runs through the 1,299 acre preserve.

Near the Visitors’ Center, kids can splash about in the water playground, and hikers can get a close-up look at the island’s jungle-like ecology along the 0.7-mile-long Cypress Trail. Keep an eye out for the reddish-purple Abbeville Swamp Iris.

Explore More Louisiana State Parks.

A story in clay: Sara Galner and the Saturday Evening Girls

National Museum of American History

I didn't drool on the objects, but exploring the ceramics storage room as an intern at the National Museum of American History was pretty exciting for this potter and history lover. As I looked at the works of famous 20th-century potters I admire such as Bernard Leach, Lucie Rie, and Paul Soldner, something jumped out at me—a shelf labeled "Saturday Evening Girls" (SEG). I thought to myself, "What does that mean? Who are they? Does that belong there?" Though the SEG sounded a bit like a Las Vegas band or a cheesy late-night TV show, I ended up learning the story of a hard-working potter's timeless contribution to the world of fine art.

A sepia colored photograph of women working on the pottery.Some of the Saturday Evening Girls work on glazing the surfaces of their ceramic pieces at Paul Revere Pottery in the early 1900s. Courtesy of the University Archives and Special Collections Department, Joseph P. Healey Library, University of Massachusetts Boston: Barbara Maysles Kramer: Saturday Evening Girls papers.

I did some research on the SEG and found myself falling in love with the story. The SEG was a group of young women and girls who met every Saturday night at the North Bennet Street Industrial School library, in my hometown of Boston, beginning in the 1890s. According to, the group was originally started and led by librarian Edith Guerrier as an extracurricular literary, dance, and drama club in order to provide social and educational opportunities for local girls. Many of the group's members were Italian and Jewish immigrants living in Boston's North End, a district that Brighton Allston Historical Society notes had the highest child mortality rate and some of the poorest living conditions in the city. Helen Osborne Storrow and Isabella Stewart Gardner, some of Boston's wealthiest philanthropists, financially supported the SEG and attended its frequent fundraising plays and dances. Storrow created a summer camp for the girls, fully funded some of their college educations, and financed their future artistic projects. According to the New England Historical Society, several members of the SEG sometimes felt resentful toward their sponsors because of their patronizing attitudes, creating an incongruous dynamic between the groups.

The focus of the SEG changed to the production and sales of pottery in 1908 under the direction of Storrow, Guerrier, and their artist friend Edith Brown. The two Ediths learned about the medium of clay and the business of pottery when they took an educational trip to Europe together, funded fully by Storrow. Upon their return, all three women worked to open a pottery studio for the SEG girls to make their own money and pay back debts for their summer camp experiences. They transformed an apartment into a pottery studio and renamed the establishment Paul Revere Pottery, as its location was in the shadow of the church where Revere hung his famous lanterns.

Small globular bowl with wide open mouth. Glaze is turquoise with black striations and speckles. Made 1906–1942 by Paul Revere Pottery. 2 ¼ inches x 5 ½ inches.Small globular bowl with wide open mouth. Glaze is turquoise with black striations and speckles. Made 1906–1942 by Paul Revere Pottery. 2 ¼ inches x 5 ½ inches.

Paul Revere Pottery opened in the midst of the international Arts and Crafts movement in the early 20th century as well as Boston's social reform movement, which aimed to improve low-income job conditions. The business provided young women an opportunity to work in a well-ventilated, clean, and safe environment, something that contrasted greatly with the low-paying and dangerous conditions of many working children and immigrants in the early 1900s. The girls trained one another in utilitarian pottery decoration, and often read aloud the works of Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare while doing so. Aside from a handful of men that assisted with firing and throwing the pottery, the business was women-owned and operated. The business eventually moved to another neighborhood, where it remained in operation until it closed in 1942.

One member of the group, a Jewish Austro-Hungarian immigrant by the name of Sara Galner, stood out from her peers with her academic achievements and artistic skills. Galner quickly became one of Paul Revere Pottery's most celebrated artists. She often signed her work with her own initials (a rare occurrence for young artisans of the time) and masterfully decorated the surfaces with stylized animals, landscapes, and references to classic short stories. She worked hard for the enterprise for over 10 years, moving her way up as decorator, salesperson, and eventually manager. Today the works of Galner and the SEG girls are some of the most cherished collectibles in the antique market, selling for up to thousands of dollars per piece and exhibiting in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

Tall vase with lotus flower design around the rim. The body of the vase is blue.Tall vase with lotus flower design around the rim. This vase exemplifies classic Paul Revere Pottery stylized border of colorful figures and designs outlined with black glaze. Made around 1908–1915 by Paul Revere Pottery. 9 inches x 8 inches.
What amazes me most about Galner's story is that when she eventually had kids, she didn't tell them much about her incredible pottery career. Galner passed away in 1982 and left behind a legacy in her ceramics. Like me, Galner's son David stumbled upon her work in a museum, only to realize that the rare signature of the familiar artist was, in fact, that of his own talented mother. According to the New England Historical Society, he soon became a major collector of Paul Revere Pottery and donated 130 pieces to the Museum of Fine Arts.
After reading about Galner and her fellow potters, I find myself throwing pottery in my studio listening to audio recordings of classic poetry, imagining what life might have been like for a young woman and immigrant in Boston in the early 1900s. As I sign my pieces with my initials in the timeless medium of clay, I wonder what story my pottery will tell, and how it may compare and contrast to the lives of young women in the years to come.
Ella Audrey Scheuerell completed a fall 2017 internship in the museum's Division of Home and Community Life. She is a recent graduate of Skidmore College and ceramic artist in the Washington, D.C., area.
Ella Audrey Scheuerell
Posted Date: 
Tuesday, March 13, 2018 - 09:00
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The New Art Scene Transforming Santa Fe

Smithsonian Magazine

This story originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.

The House of Eternal Return, Santa Fe's unlikely new cultural destination, is a two-story Victorian built by the art collective Meow Wolf inside a converted old bowling alley owned by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin. The décor recalls the 1970s, with faux-wood paneling and afghan-covered beds and a hamster cage in a child’s bedroom. You follow various passageways—through the fireplace, the refrigerator, a closet—and find yourself in fantastical worlds that cling to the periphery of the house like moss. There’s a forest of neon trees. A Star Trek–ian spaceship. A mobile home plunked down in the middle of a desert.

The 22,000-square-foot installation is a haunted house without the monsters, an amusement park without the rides, an acid trip without the drugs. It is embedded with clues about the mysterious fate of a family who lived there. You can choose to simply steep yourself in the abstract visual stimuli, or you can attempt to piece the narrative together. In an upstairs office, I found the Perry Mason crowd: visitors of various ages pulling books from shelves, riffling through spiral notebooks, unpinning papers from a bulletin board, and clicking through files on a computer.

“It’s, like, a lot of Illuminati stuff,” Anna, a blond 16-year-old, said with teenage earnestness. She could have been discussing Dungeons & Dragons.

“It’s about the occult or time travel,” said her friend Sabrina, an 18-year-old with a pixie cut who was flipping through a legal pad like an extra in a crime show. The House of Eternal Return looks exactly like what it is: a surreal fantasia concocted by a group of 150 artists with a $2.7 million budget. Though it’s nothing like the soothing pastels and bright landscape paintings on display at Santa Fe’s many galleries and museums, visitors have flocked to it. In the six months after it opened in March, the exhibit brought in 350,000 visitors and revenue of $4 million.


Santa Fe’s boosters like to say that more art is sold in Santa Fe than in any American city other than New York or Los Angeles—a surprising claim when you consider that the town’s population barely grazes 70,000. Collectors from all over the world travel to buy at its internationally renowned summer fairs: the Traditional Spanish Market, the Santa Fe Indian Market, and the International Folk Art Market. Santa Fe also has more than 200 galleries and a dozen museums. Much of the work is characterized by an overwhelming Southwesternness. One friend, an editor at the Santa Fe–based Outside magazine, summed it up as “burros with sunsets.”

More than a million tourists come each year in search of this Southwestern aesthetic. Santa Fe, a guidebook by longtime resident Buddy Mays that I picked up in the gift shop of the New Mexico History Museum, explains that the town’s quaint image was deliberately crafted as a means of driving tourism. Beginning around 1912, the year New Mexico was granted statehood, civic leaders sought to define Santa Fe’s architectural style, set restrictions on signage, and draw attention to Hispanic and Native American arts. The idea was to give the city a historic regional identity and the patina of an exotic travel destination.

The plan worked. Too well, some would argue. For years, Santa Fe has been trapped inside its own successful branding. Besides the art, there’s the ubiquitous turquoise jewelry and the inescapable red and green chiles. There’s the low-slung, mud-brown adobe architecture, the result of a strict zoning ordinance passed in 1957 that remains in effect today. There’s the pervasive undercurrent of New Age spiritualism.

Image by iStock / csfotoimages. The New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe (original image)

Image by iStock / arak7. International Folk Art Market held annually in July in Santa Fe, New Mexico (original image)

Image by iStock / annHuizenga. Spanish Market artist with her artwork, exiting the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis at the 64th (2015) Spanish Market en route to the Santa Fe Plaza (original image)

Image by iStock / JannHuizenga. The traditional beaded costumes and regalia of artist Vanessa P. Jennings at the 2015 (94th) Annual Santa Fe Indian Market (original image)

Since the early 1980s, when an Esquire cover story called it “the right place to live” and a real estate boom brought a wave of second-homers and celebrities (Sam Shepard, Ali MacGraw, Jane Fonda, Val Kilmer), Santa Fe—or the idea of it, anyway—has been entrenched in the popular consciousness. Countless articles have praised its clean high- altitude air, tasteful old-world aesthetic, and quiet rhythms. Magazine spreads pay homage to “Santa Fe style,” a term (codified by a popular 1986 coffee-table book of the same name) that describes the town’s characteristic mix of Pueblo and Territorial Revival architecture and an interior-décor approach that favors folk crafts, Native American artifacts, and Western accents, like bleached steer skulls.

Many locals told me that they try to avoid their town’s most popular destinations, like the Plaza, the historic downtown square, and Canyon Road, the row of galleries that was once an artists’ enclave. Once in a while, they might go to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum to see the paintings that are so foundational to Santa Fe’s identity. But, my editor friend told me, “We’re due for a reset. It’s just been Georgia O’Keeffe straight through.”


One could argue that Santa Fe has already gotten its reset in the form of Javier Gonzales, 50, the city’s first openly gay mayor. He was elected in 2014 after running on the slogan “Dare to grow young,” a reference to the town’s aging population (the median age is 44, seven years higher than the national average) and youth exodus (the under-45 population has sharply declined in the past decade).

On a bright, breezy day in early May, I met Gonzales at his office in city hall. Long-limbed and handsome in cowboy boots and jeans, he told me that Santa Fe “can’t be afraid to move forward” on issues that matter to people in their 20s and 30s: affordable housing, job growth in industries other than tourism and government, green energy, and nightlife. Gonzales plans to bring more film and digital media to town, not only to increase employment opportunities but also to diversify the cultural landscape, which leans disproportionately toward crafts and visual arts. He has challenged the city’s institutions to support creative work that is more inclusive, and “not just for the patrons,” as he put it.

I thought about this mandate at the opening of “Lowriders, Hoppers, and Hot Rods: Car Culture of Northern New Mexico,” on view until March at the New Mexico History Museum. Rather than the white, middle-aged crowd you might expect to see at an exhibition in the city’s most touristy district, the attendees were young, tattooed, and diverse. One was Julia Armijo, a seventh-generation Santa Fean who had come with her daughter, Justice Lovato, the founder and president of a local car club called Enchanted Expressions. Lowriders, Armijo told me, are works of art that are “built, not bought.”

Perhaps the best example of Santa Fe’s broadening definition of art is the ascent of Meow Wolf. The collective’s bowling-alley complex, which, in addition to the House of Eternal Return, contains studios, offices, and a youth-education center, is four miles across town from the Plaza, in the Siler Road District. The area, which was once dominated by auto-repair garages, metal shops, and old manufacturing buildings, has swiftly become a creative hub. Several small theater companies have sprung up: Teatro Paraguas, which performs in a black-box space; Wise Fool New Mexico, a nonprofit circus troupe; and Adobe Rose Theatre, which opened in January in a former door factory. The Arts and Creativity Center, a city-backed development providing live-work spaces for artists, could be completed there by next summer—a major step toward making Santa Fe, a town that depends on art, more hospitable to the people who create it.

Image by iStock / RiverNorthPhotography. One of the galleries of Canyon Road, a section of town filled with galleries, cafes, and arts and crafts stores and a major tourist attraction. (original image)

Image by iStock / egumeny. Christian Ristow's 'Becoming Human” robot statue in the Meow Wolf parking lot (original image)

Image by iStock / JannHuizenga. The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum (original image)

Vince Kadlubek, Meow Wolf’s 34-year-old CEO, radiates the entrepreneurial savvy of Tim Ferriss and the monomaniacal intensity of Captain Ahab. As the collective’s chief fund raiser and spokesperson, he is superhumanly busy. At 9 a.m. on a Tuesday, he had not yet slept. Seated in a back room of Meow Wolf headquarters, Kadlubek, who grew up in Santa Fe—his parents are retired public-school teachers—expressed both pride and frustration in his hometown. “The cultural identity of Santa Fe was sooooo valuable, and powerful, and controlled, that it had very little ability to change, to be agile,” he told me. A decade ago, like so many young Santa Feans, he moved away—in his case, to Portland, Oregon—but he returned after a year. “I played this out in my head,” he recalled. “If Santa Fe keeps the same old identity, it becomes less and less attractive to a new generation. The demographic that is attracted to it grows older and older, and we just start to see the vibrancy—the actual health and sustainability—of the city that I grew up in and love start to come into question.” He pounded a fist on the table. “When I got back, I was like, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ ”

In 2008, he founded Meow Wolf with 11 other artists. In a former hair salon, the group hosted shows and punk-rock concerts while developing its signature creative style: immersive, colorful, multimedia, hyper-collaborative. Initially, Meow Wolf “had zero entry point into the art world of Santa Fe,” Kadlubek told me. But eventually the establishment took notice. In 2011, the Center for Contemporary Art commissioned the group to create the Due Return, an interactive 5,000-square-foot ship with a backstory about traveling through time and space to an alien planet. The project was a hit, and brought commissions for installations in Chicago, Miami, New York, and elsewhere.

Around the same time, Santa Fe resident George R.R. Martin, though a sexagenarian himself, had grown concerned about his town’s lack of youthful vigor. So in 2013, he purchased a dormant 128-seat, single-screen theater, the Jean Cocteau. On a spooky, windy night, I attended a showing of Blue Velvet. It was instantly clear to me that the theater also serves as a youth hangout. There are board games and a wall of books signed by authors, like Neil Gaiman and Junot Díaz, who have given readings. In addition to popcorn with real butter, the concession counter sells corn dogs, turkey Reubens, and deep-fried Twinkies. “Is George ever here?” I asked a girl with a half-shaved head. Yes, on Wednesdays for game night, she told me. “He really loves this place.”

The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture Laboratory of Anthropology Library is a research library dedicated to the study of Native cultures, anthropology and archaeology of the Southwestern United States, Mexico and Central America. (iStock / ivanastar)

When he opened the Jean Cocteau, Martin hired Kadlubek to oversee marketing. By then, Kadlubek had begun mapping out the permanent interactive-art experience that would become the House of Eternal Return. He found the abandoned bowling alley in 2014 and immediately e-mailed Martin. “Do you want to buy this building?” he asked. “We could do something cool with it.” As a fellow architect of fantastical worlds, Martin was intrigued. He purchased it for $800,000, spent $3 million more on renovations, and now rents it to Meow Wolf at a below-market rate.

“All these pieces came together,” Kadlubek said, leaning back in his chair. “This is the new identity. It’s still art. But it’s new art. And now we are the tourism darling of Santa Fe.”

As I drove back to the Plaza to meet the contemporary Native American artist Cannupa Hanska Luger at the gallery Blue Rain, it struck me that artists in Santa Fe are unusually aware of their city’s image. They seem to feel the need to decide whether to engage with or rebel against the local brand.

For Hanska Luger, 37, this dilemma is more personal because what many tourists want from Native American artists is art that looks Native American. “I try not to draw from my cultural background,” explained Hanska Luger, who was born on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. He has long dark hair and a blank “To Do” list tattooed on his arm. Instead of his heritage, he told me, he draws from his experiences of popular culture: anime, cartoons, science fiction. But the inspiration for his eerily beautiful work—sculptures created out of yarn, felt, wood, and clay— also seems to come directly from his unconscious.

We climbed into his red pickup and drove to the Railyard District. A former warehouse precinct, it is home to galleries, restaurants, shops, a farmers’ market, and the independent Violet Crown Cinema. On our way, we passed SITE Santa Fe, the nonprofit contemporary-art center whose arrival in the Railyard District 21 years ago was the catalyst for the neighborhood’s transformation. Last summer, SITE Santa Fe broke ground for an ambitious yearlong expansion by New York City–based SHoP Architects that will add 15,000 square feet of space and a pleated metallic façade.

We met Hanska Luger’s friend and fellow artist Frank Buffalo Hyde, 42, at his studio. Buffalo Hyde told me that his cheeky acrylic paintings “deal with the commodification of popular culture and Native culture.” In one, a buffalo is sandwiched inside a burger bun—“a statement,” he said, “on how they’ve gone from the brink of extinction to being farmed as a healthy alternative meat.” Other paintings depict a Hopi woman dressed as a cheerleader and Gwen Stefani in an Indian headdress. Like Hanska Luger, Buffalo Hyde has felt the weight of the town’s aesthetic expectations. “For a long time,” Buffalo Hyde said, “the market dictated what Native art was, and if it wasn’t salable and marketable, it was just pushed aside.”

I asked what was salable and marketable. “Sunsets, coyotes, warriors on horses,” he said. “Anything non-threatening and decorative.”


If Santa Fe has a culinary equivalent to the warrior on a horse or the burro with a sunset, it is the chile. Red, green, or Christmas-style—that means both mixed together—chiles are in or on almost everything. I’d been in Santa Fe 24 hours when I realized that every meal I’d eaten, including breakfast, had contained them. At Café Pasqual’s, the huevos rancheros arrived, soup-like, in a bowl atop black beans, covered in tomatillo and green-chile sauces. At Sazón, I’d had zuppa d’amour, a corn-poblano soup with amaretto cream, and a mezcal dusted with red-chile powder instead of salt. At Shake Foundation, I’d ordered the green-chile cheeseburger. I’d even taken an impromptu cooking class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. The topic? Green-chile sauce. “I’ve always loved it,” said my lunch companion at Pasqual’s, an amiable woman who rides horses and works in PR. “But not everybody does.” She was quiet for a moment, then added, “You can get other things.

Image by iStock / JannHuizenga. Raul Malo, lead singer of the Mavericks, pausing for a water break during a free outdoor community concert on the Santa Fe Plaza. To his right is saxophonist Max Abrams. (original image)

Image by iStock / RiverNorthPhotography. The Santa Fe Railyard (original image)

Image by iStock / ablokhin. El Molero Fajitas food stand in downtown Santa Few (original image)

Edgar Beas, the new chef of the Anasazi Restaurant at my charming downtown hotel, the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, uses Southwestern ingredients whenever possible. But when it comes to the chile, his touch is light. One dinner began with focaccia made with onion ash, which renders the bread black, and butter sprinkled with the same oddly appealing ingredient. Next was a beet salad topped with scallops, oysters with (you knew it was coming) red-chile sauce, and tiny gnocchi accompanied by kumquats and crème fraîche. The main course was buttery seared halibut with potato polenta and squid ink, plus another dish of tamarind duck breast with local morels and green strawberries on a bed of barley. For dessert: a hazelnut gâteau accented with whiskey cream, prickly pear, a bay leaf, and ginger “snow.” The food was itself a form of contemporary Southwestern art.

Paper Dosa, one of Santa Fe’s most popular new restaurants, doesn’t perform any twist on Southwestern cuisine. Instead, it does South Indian food with an emphasis on fresh, seasonal, often surprising ingredients, like persimmons and sunchokes. Its specialty is the eponymous thin rice and- lentil crêpe that’s nearly as big as a boat sail. Married co-owners Nellie Tischler, a native Santa Fean, and Paulraj Karuppasamy, who was born and raised in India, met while working at Dosa, a restaurant in San Francisco, where they lived for a decade. Like Meow Wolf, Paper Dosa earned a following before finding a permanent home. The couple began with a series of well-attended pop-ups, then moved into an airy space south of the Railyard District in early 2015. Tischler showed me an iPhone photo of a line of customers snaking around the front of the restaurant. “That was yesterday,” she said.

When you taste the food, you understand why people wait. Many dishes are Karuppasamy’s family recipes, passed down by his grandmother. Tischler, a former drummer for Wise Fool who has bangs and a nose ring, sat with me as I enjoyed a plate of bright-red beet croquettes, a rich, nutty potato masala, and a complex asparagus soup with coconut milk and Thai chiles. “This food is what you would find in someone’s home in India,” she explained. We watched Karup pasamy, dressed in chef’s whites, cooking in Paper Dosa’s big open kitchen. “There are a lot of people in this town with a fresh energy, who left and came back.” Tischler said. “We got schooled in bigger cities and we’re doing what we learned, but in more interesting and inspiring ways.”


After dinner one evening, I drove back across town to the Meow Wolf compound for one of their semi-regular parties. I was thrilled to have something to do. Santa Fe shuts down early, and I do not. When I’d ask residents about nightlife, they would seem slightly confused. You mean like a club? And then they’d recommend Skylight, the only one in town.

That there is so little to do at night has been an ongoing concern in Santa Fe. In 2010, a coalition of artists, promoters, and venues formed the After Hours Alliance to “identify creative ways to stimulate local nightlife,” as their mission statement puts it. In addition to bringing Uber to town, Mayor Gonzales has set up his own Nighttime Economy Task Force. These groups might seem silly, but the issue they’re attempting to confront is real: How do you keep young people from leaving town if nothing’s open late?

In the parking lot, I passed a “Kebab Caravan” food truck and a group of twentysomethings in thrift-store clothing. Inside, I wandered through the House of Eternal Return’s maze of psychedelic rooms until I reached an inner sanctum, where a DJ was performing on a dais. Electronic music pounded. Partygoers danced and twirled through a fog of dry ice. Someone whizzed past on roller skates. The room reeked of marijuana. It felt like anything was possible here, with Santa Fe’s graying elders asleep at home, and the next generation daring to be young.


The Details: What to Do in Santa Fe, New Mexico


Bishop’s Lodge A 1920s ranch turned resort and spa set on 317 acres in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The iconic establishment is currently undergoing a renovation and expansion and will reopen in spring 2018.

Drury Plaza Located in downtown Santa Fe, this spacious 182-room hotel opened in 2014 and has a pedestrian promenade that allows visitors to walk from Cathedral Park to the galleries on Canyon Road. Doubles from $170.

Four Seasons Rancho Encantado A secluded resort with 65 casita-style guest rooms, each with its own fireplace and terrace. The restaurant, Terra, serves excellent contemporary American cuisine. Doubles from $330.

Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi Just steps from Santa Fe’s historic Plaza, this 58-room hotel incorporates local handcrafted textiles and paintings into its design. Take in the traditional wood-beamed ceilings and three wood-burning fireplaces while sipping a margarita made with tequila from the property’s extensive collection. Doubles from $315.

Sunrise Springs Spa Resort Guests visiting this wellness resort can connect with nature via the property’s natural springs and 70 acres of gardens, walking trails, and undeveloped desert. Doubles from $280.

Restaurants & Cafés

Café Pasqual’s Locals and tourists line up out the door for the legendary Mexican and New Mexican cuisine. Entrées $26–$39.

Kakawa Chocolate House This charming chocolate shop, tucked in a small adobe house on the edge of downtown, serves all kinds of confections, but is best known for its chocolate elixirs.

Paper Dosa After earning a following with a series of pop-ups, chef Paulraj Karuppasamy and his wife, Nellie Tischler, opened this brick-and-mortar spot, where they serve South Indian cuisine and their eponymous specialty, a thin crêpe made from a fermented rice-and-lentil batter. Entrées $10–$18.

Sazón Chef Fernando Olea focuses his small menu on daily specials made with locally sourced produce and meat accompanied by a medley of moles. Entrées $27–$45.

Shake Foundation This tiny, walk-up burger joint is dedicated to the preservation of the green-chile cheeseburger, and that’s precisely what people come for. But the fried-oyster and spicy fried-chicken sandwiches are also worth a try. Burgers $4–$8.


Blue Rain This 23-year-old gallery shows fine contem-porary Native American and regional art in a variety of media: painting, ceramics, bronze, glass, wood, and jewelry.

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum With more than 3,000 pieces dating from 1901 to 1984, it’s the largest permanent collection of O’Keeffe’s work in the world. It was the first museum in the United States dedicated to a female artist.

The House of Eternal Return This colorful, 22,000-square-foot, immersive multimedia art installation, created by the collective Meow Wolf, is the stuff of childhood imaginations. It is housed in an erstwhile bowling alley owned by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin.

Jean Cocteau Cinema Before acquiring the bowling alley, Martin bought and restored this 128-seat, single-screen theater. It shows old, independent, and cult-classic movies, and hosts a weekly game night, which Martin is rumored to attend.

New Mexico History Museum This enormous exhibition space, next to the 400-year-old Palace of the Governors, has collections covering various aspects of New Mexican history.

SITE Santa Fe Founded in 1995, this contemporary art space has become known for its international biennial exhibition. The current iteration, “Much Wider Than a Line,” on display until January 2017, is the second installment in SITE’s series that focuses on art from the Americas.

Violet Crown Cinema The year-old, 11-screen theater in the Railyard District shows new releases, classics, independent, foreign, and art-house films. It also has a full bar and a café that serves farm-to-table food that can be enjoyed while watching your favorite flick.

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Day 3: A Day at the South Pole

Smithsonian Magazine

Rising early at around 5 a.m., I get moving and go outside to walk off the sleep. Before me lies a different and beautiful world. It is crisp, the air tingles on the skin and the sun, which is not rising because it did not set, is low on the horizon, emanating a rose-tinted light that falls gently on a white landscape. Across McMurdo Sound the mountains rise mute and serene. Mount Erebus looms behind me with its white cloak of snow and ice disguising the seething magmatic heat that lies within. In this seemingly quiet and motionless setting, it is hard to believe that the earth and its covering of ice are on the move.

Slowly and almost imperceptibly, the sea ice moves in different directions depending on how close to shore it lies and which current is dominant. At this time of year, sea ice can be thin and often breaks into thousands of pieces that move along together like cattle on a drive. The great ice sheets lying on the continent are thicker and move at their own pace on a course dictated by topography and gravity. While this movement is imperceptible to us, it can be detected in the form of impressive pressure ridges that snake across the ice of the Sound where the plates have come together in a contest of wills. The forces between the ice sheets are enormous and result in buckling at the edges that form pressure ridges with ice piled tens of feet high. These ridges create openings in the ice that Stellars seals use to surface in order to sun themselves and rest from a day’s fishing. Dozens of these creatures can be seen in groups on the ice as I survey the scene. Humans are newcomers to this part of the world, and of the species who live here we are the least adapted and the least attuned to the ways of it.

After a hearty breakfast, I check e-mail to make sure yesterday’s journal, finished late last night, made it to the Castle. The answer—mostly. Seems I tried to send too many pictures at once and they did not get through. Panic! I have 15 minutes to rectify this before we leave to board the plane. I go to work on a computer that seems agonizingly slow. “Come on, come on, read the dadgum file!” (I actually said something a little more earthy.) Finally, the system absorbs the last picture and I rush to put on the final layer of the cold gear for the trip to the South Pole.

We are driven back to the Pegasus Airport and board a Hercules C130 that is even more spartan than the C17 we flew in on. The Hercules, the workhorse for the Air Force around the world, is a marvelous airplane that can land and take off on short runways in difficult conditions. Ours is outfitted with skis so it can slalom along on the ice to take off. I visit with the pilots in the cockpit after we are off the ground and they are reassuring by virtue of their confidence and professionalism. These are the men and women of the New York National Guard who have been at this job for many years. They understand how to navigate in a part of the world where latitude and longitude are almost meaningless because they all converge at the Pole. So they invent their own grid to help guide them, assisted by GPS technology.

Flying at 25,000 feet we can see the massive ice sheets and glaciers below us as well as the upper reaches of mountains that are high enough to rise out of the thousands of feet of ice that are found here. We are following largely a north-by-northwest route from McMurdo to the Pole, roughly paralleling the route that Robert Scott used on his ill-fated run to the Pole. Scott, the hardnosed British soldier, had his team pull their own sleds without the help of dogs, foot by agonizing foot over crevasses and pressure ridges on the glaciers. I am amazed as I look down on the Beardmore Glacier—the largest in the world—and its infinite crevasse field. When one considers that Scott was also determined to take along scientific collections, including rocks, it is impressive that he got as far as he did. Unfortunately for Scott, however, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the Pole before him using skills he had learned from native people in the Arctic.

One is struck by the fact that the world’s largest glaciers exist in a land where there is so little precipitation. The glaciers have been created over eons, growing little by little each year because that “little by little” never melts. Finally, they grow so massive that gravity eases the weight of the ice downhill through valleys that the glaciers carve wider by bulldozing rock and scraping and gouging it from the mountains. The detritus of the rock grinding is seen at the edges of the glaciers as dark bands.

Image by Smithsonian Institution. An aerial shot of a glacier en route to the South Pole. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Kristina Johnson and Wayne Clough hoist the Smithsonian flag atop Observation Point—a site memorializing explorers who have died at the South Pole. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian, at the geographic location of the South Pole. (original image)

Our Hercules lands us at the South Pole Station around 11:30 a.m. At the Pole the horizon is flat and the sun simply orbits in a circle around a line drawn straight up from the Pole. Fortunately for us, the weather is good. Although it is 25 below, it is not unpleasant because of the lack of wind. We walk to the headquarters facility and in doing so have to walk up three flights of stairs. Remember the warning we were given about the altitude? Although I took the altitude sickness pills we were issued in Christchurch, climbing the stairs I can feel the muscles pull deeply and the air seems too thin.

The facilities at the station are relatively new and built to serve the science and the people who conduct it. About 250 people are here in the summer, which ends three weeks from now in Antarctica. Only a skeleton crew will remain through the long, dark winter to maintain the scientific equipment and facilities infrastructure. In the main conference room of the large headquarters building we are given an overview of the science at the station and its support systems. A few questions elicit some interesting answers. For example, the buildings at the Pole rest on a huge ice sheet that is moving at an estimated speed of 30 feet per year. Each year the buildings travel along for the ride and shift to new locations. The water we are drinking tastes wonderful and we learn that it is melted water from ice far below the ground that was formed perhaps 2,500 years ago.

Our plan is to take a tour of most of the many impressive facilities at the Pole. But as we step outside it is all too apparent the weather has turned with a hard wind blowing and ice crystals falling from low clouds. Finally it seems cold enough to make you feel like you are really at the South Pole. I am told that with the wind chill, it feels like 35 degrees below zero—now that’s more like it! It also is exciting to see what is termed a “sun dog”—a beam of light that partially or fully rings the faint sun obscured by the clouds. Our sun dog is a complete halo around the sun and adds an element of beauty to an otherwise gray sky. The turning weather speeds up our tour since it seems the winds and blowing ice dictate that the last plane, which was to have flown up from McMurdo, is unlikely to make it and we will return on one that has recently arrived.

Our first stop is a telescope that records evidence of the Big Bang and may provide clues as to the cause of it. The team working on this new device is from the University of Chicago under the direction of Dr. John Carlson, who explains why the telescope is located at the Pole—conditions are the driest on Earth and the telescope can look straight up at the sky with no curvature of the Earth involved. Smithsonian scientists are involved with a number of other astronomical devices in the area and I ran into one of our colleagues from the Harvard/Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Harvard Professor John Kovac. We turn to a project called “Ice Cube,” whose principal investigator is Dr. Francis Halzen of the University of Wisconsin. Holes are being drilled a mile and a half into the ice sheet to house instruments that will detect the signature of neutrinos that stray from space into our atmosphere and onto the Earth’s surface, particularly in the Antarctic where they strike ice and give off a ghostly glow. These tiny messengers from millions of miles away carry information about the formation of the universe. There are to be 80 vertical strings of some 4,800 detection modules, with most of these already complete. We watch as the last instruments of the season are lowered into the deep hole in the ice and are given the opportunity to autograph a detector’s protective shield. Dr. Halzen informs us these detectors may be in the ice for hundreds of years!

It is impressive not only to see the science of the South Pole but also to meet the people who work here and are rightfully proud of their contributions. Nothing is easy at the Pole, and everything has to be flown in. Equipment and buildings must be assembled and operated in incredibly cold conditions. It is about as difficult as it gets.

Our last stop of the day is at the South Pole itself, which is located near the headquarters building. Flags fly and there are plaques dedicated to Amundsen and Scott and their teams. We take some pictures but it has gotten even colder so no time is lost before we board the return flight to McMurdo and are on our way to base camp. Receding behind us is one of the most unique places in the world and I am glad to have lived to visit it.

Upon our return at about 6:30 p.m. we have some free time. The temperature is milder at McMurdo and the bright sun energizes me to climb to the top of Observation Point looking out over McMurdo Sound and the station. Members of Scott’s expedition team who remained at base camp would look for his return from the Pole from this point and it is capped by a wooden cross to commemorate Scott and the others who never returned. Kristina Johnson and I climb to the top for the panoramic view that is stunning at this time of day. To commemorate our climb, I have brought along a Smithsonian flag which we fly briefly at the summit. A fitting end for a wonderful day.

11 Fun Facts About Rio

Smithsonian Magazine

This summer, all eyes will be on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in anticipation of the 2016 Summer Olympics. “Rio” may recall images Christ the Redeemer overlooking the city, soccer games on beaches and colorful Carnival floats. While the city doesn’t have a spotless reputation—pollution and crime still haunt it—Rio offers plenty of delights for the intrepid traveler. Below are eleven fun facts about the place nicknamed Cidade Maravilhosa, or Marvelous City.

1. Rio is named for a river that doesn’t exist

According to tradition, the spot now called Rio de Janeiro was first visited in January 1502 by Portuguese explorers, who believed the bay they encountered (now called Guanabara Bay) was the mouth of a river. They named the area named Rio de Janeiro, “River of January.”  This etymology is widely accepted, although some scholars argue that in 16th-century Portuguese, a rio might have been a looser term for any deep indentation along a coast—meaning those explorers weren’t quite as confused as they might seem.

2. It was once part of a colony called Antarctic France

The Portuguese were the first European explorers on the scene, but the French were the first settlers. In 1555, a French aristocrat named Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon, sponsored by Henry IV, founded a fort on an island in Guanabara Bay (the island still bears his name). It was the beginning of a colony named France Antarctique, meant to provide both a strategic base for France in the Americas and a refuge for persecuted French Protestants. 

The colony was short-lived, however: After a fight with a second group of settlers over whether the wine consecrated in the Eucharist should contain water, Villegagnon was expelled to the mainland and eventually went back to France. The colony briefly continued without him, but sectarian strife spelled trouble from within, while the Portuguese became a threat from without. In 1567, the Portuguese destroyed the colony, cementing their hold on the country.

3. The French once held it for ransom

Prospectors discovered gold in Brazil in the 1690s, and diamonds a few decades later. As the closest port to the mines, Rio boomed—and the French noticed. Already embroiled in a war with the Portuguese, they sent privateers to attack in 1710. That group failed, but others came back better-armed the following year. This time they were successful, bombarding Rio until the Portuguese governor fled, taking most of the population with him. The governor, Francisco de Castro Morais, eventually negotiated Rio back for 612,000 gold cruzados and 100 chests of sugar, but the Portuguese sentenced him to exile in Portuguese India for being such a coward.

4.  It served as the capital of the Portuguese Empire for almost seven years

Rio was capital of Brazil from 1763 until 1960, when that role was transferred to Brasilia. But from 1808 to 1822, Rio also served as the center for the exiled royal court of Portugal, then fleeing Napoleon’s invasion. Prince Regent Dom João VI arrived with the rest of the royal family in 1808—the first time a European monarch set foot in the Americas—and began transforming the city, establishing a medical school, national museum, national library and botanical gardens. In December 1815, Dom João made Rio the official capital of the Portuguese empire, a role it served until Brazil declared independence from Portugal in September 1822.

The city's history as the capital of Brazil is preserved in the nation’s flag, which is decorated with an image of the night sky as it appeared over Rio on November 15, 1889, the day Brazil declared itself a federal republic. 

5. Its residents might be named for a house, or maybe a fish

Rio’s locals are called carioca (a name also sometimes applied as an adjective to the city itself). The term's etymology is disputed: some say it comes from kari ola, or "white man's house" in the indigenous Tupi language, perhaps a reference to a stone house built by an early Portuguese trader that looked different from native dwellings. But kari may also come from a fish known as the acari, whose reflective scales, some say, might suggest European armor.

"Christ the Redeemer" overlooking Rio de Janeiro (© Danny Lehman/Corbis)

6. Its giant statue of Jesus is struck by lightning several times a year

Brazil's location near the equator makes it active area for lightning, which means Rio’s beloved 98-foot statue of Jesus perched atop Corcovado mountain might not be the best idea, safety-wise. The Brazilian Institute of Space Research says the statue, which was completed in 1931, gets two to four direct hits from lightning every year. A system of lightning rods within the statue is meant to ground the electricity, but it isn’t always effective. Last January, lightning broke off a piece of the statue's right thumb and damaged the head. The city seems willing to pay for multiple restorations, even though the pale gray-green soapstone that covers the statue is becoming hard to find.

7. For five days a year, the city is run by a mythical jester named King Momo

Rio explodes with energy and color during the five days before Ash Wednesday, when millions take to the streets for the world’s biggest Carnival. The party starts on the Friday, when the mayor hands over the keys to the city to a man crowned as King Momo, a mythical jester who acts as the head of the festivities. Rio's Carnival features hundreds of booze-soaked bandas (riotous street parties, often with specific themes) and elaborate balls. The party reaches its height at the Sambódromo, when the best samba schools in the country compete for top prize. (Think a samba-only, Brazilian version of Eurovision, with even more feathers.) The results are announced on Ash Wednesday, when Carnival is officially over, and King Momo goes home.

The Sambadrome at Carnival, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013 (© Antonino Bartuccio/Grand Tour/Grand Tour/Corbis)

8. It hosted the world's biggest soccer game

On July 16, 1950, 173,850 paid spectators packed into the Maracanã stadium, then the world's biggest, for the final game of the 1950 World Cup. An estimated ten percent of Rio’s population watched as Uruguay snatched victory from the Brazilians, an event the local media dubbed the Maracanazo (a term still used when a visiting team triumphs). The game holds the world record for the highest attendance at any soccer match, ever. The stadium has since become a national symbol, what The New York Times calls a “cathedral of soccer,” and is set to host the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympics. The Maracanã also hosts events beyond soccer: Frank Sinatra, The Rolling Stones and Madonna have all played concerts there. 

9. The city put QR codes in its mosaic sidewalks

Portuguese pavement is a type of decorative stone mosaic, usually black-and-white, found on sidewalks and other pedestrian areas throughout Portugal and former colonies. One of the most famous examples is the bold, abstract waves that run the length of the Copacabana beach sidewalk, designed by landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. In 2013, the city began installing dozens of QR codes into the mosaics at Copacabana and elsewhere to provide tourist information for visitors. Perhaps not surprisingly, they got the idea from Portugal.

Portuguese Pavement, Rio de Janeiro (© Lisa Wiltse/Corbis)

10. Street art is legal there 

In 2014, Rio de Janeiro legalized street art on many types of city property, turning the already colorful city into an outdoor art gallery. Street artists are allowed to decorate columns, walls and construction siding, so long as they’re not historically designated. The city has even created a quasi-government agency, Eixo Rio, to regulate the city’s urban artists, and celebrates an official Graffiti Day on March 27—the date Brazilian graffiti pioneer Vallauri Alex died in 1987.

Carmen Miranda at a Photographers Ball, early 20th century (© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)

11.  It has a Carmen Miranda Museum 

Sometimes known to American audiences as "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat," Carmen Miranda conquered the silver screen as a singer, dancer and actress in both Brazil and America in the mid-20th century. The Carmen Miranda museum, near Rio’s Flamengo Beach, pays tribute with hundreds of items on display, including her trademark platform heels and towering turbans of plastic or sequined fruit. (Contrary to popular opinion, Miranda never danced with actual fruit, which would probably have fallen off her head.) 

Journalist Virginia Irwin Broke Barriers When She Reported From Berlin at the End of WWII

Smithsonian Magazine

On April 27, 1945, days before Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker, an enterprising writer convinced a young Army sergeant to commandeer a jeep and drive into the heart of the embattled city, without an adequate map or any real plan for what might come next.

Virginia Irwin, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, would be one of the first Americans to witness Russian fighters clashing with the remnants of Nazi forces. Irwin’s nerve-wracking journey netted her the scoop of her bold wartime career, but she has since been largely overlooked among pioneering female combat correspondents. No American correspondent had been inside the city in years – foreign reporters had been kicked out in 1941. Irwin provided an unparalleled firsthand account to readers across the nation.

As they wound their way through lines of haggard Russian troops headed for Berlin, a surreal scene awaited Irwin and her traveling companions, journalist Andrew Tully of the Boston Traveler and the driver, Sergeant Johnny Wilson. They saw exhausted soldiers singing and celebrating as they advanced into the final battle. Despite the chaos – bodies littered the sidewalks amid ongoing fighting – the mood encompassed both merciless vengeance and jubilant relief. “The Russians were happy – with an almost indescribably wild joy,” she recalled. “They were in Berlin. In this German capital lies their true revenge for Leningrad and Stalingrad, for Sevastopol and Moscow.”

The arrival of Russian forces in Berlin signaled the proverbial nail in the coffin for Hitler’s regime as Allied forces progressed irreversibly toward the German capital. The specter of the Russians’ arrival inspired fear in residents who had hunkered down to ride out the final, futile months. When Irwin arrived, the city was still under a barrage of artillery and the site of street-by-street combat. She and her companions had no protection whatsoever for their opportunistic push into Berlin, risking safety in their quest for the first reporting out of the Hitler’s Berlin.

That night, navigating into the city without proper maps and no fixed destination, they stumbled across a Russian command post where they were welcomed by a surprised but raucously hospitable group of Russian officers. Irwin’s descriptions were of a dreamlike blend of death and dancing – they were fêted by their hosts as fighting raged blocks away, shaking the ground and filling the air with the smell of “cordite and the dead.” She danced until she was “puffing from the exertion.” Toasts were raised to Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt and Truman.

She felt a degree of disdain for the German civilians she encountered, but was so taken by her Soviet hosts – who “fight like mad and play with a sort of barbaric abandon” – that in the emotion and gravity of the moment she declared a desire to “join the Russian Army and try to help take Berlin.”

Post-Dispatch reporter Virginia Irwin and Army Sgt. Johnny Wilson in Berlin April 27-28, 1945, while the Russians were advancing upon the last German defenders in the bomb-wrecked city. She got there four days before Adolf Hitler killed himself. (St Louis Post-Dispatch / Polaris)

Irwin typed this account by candlelight as it happened, but it wasn’t until more than a week later, after V-E Day was declared, that readers across the country would be captivated by this glimpse into the last chapter in the long and bloody fight for Europe. There had been a steady stream of stories about hometown soldiers fighting in Europe, but Irwin’s series showed readers war from another perspective. For the Russians she encountered, this was not a distant war – it was one in which they had lost loved ones at home. The sense of vengeance deeply felt, and the corresponding fear among Germans remaining in Berlin, was palpable. “You get a real sense of a city on the brink with everything falling apart from the way she writes about it - you get a sense of what she felt,” says Jenny Cousins, who spearheaded an archival project at the American Air Museum in Britain that included Irwin. “It’s a very visceral account, and obviously that’s the first. People haven’t been in Berlin in years other than POWs. There’s no one else who’s got this experience. She was there before Hitler’s death.”

The Associated Press wire service realized the magnitude of her scoop, and soon picked up her story, with newspapers from around the country running the series in full. An editor from The Seattle Times sent the Post-Dispatch a congratulatory note, calling her “journalistic glory undimmed by the shabby treatment accorded by the Army censors.” Even in its belated form, it impressed everyday readers and journalism professionals alike.

Irwin was born in 1908 in Quincy, Illinois, where her father worked as a salesman. The oldest of three children, she was close to her family but as a young adult would experience two tragedies in close succession. Her father, Clare Irwin, succumbed to lung issues resulting from fighting in World War I and her teenage younger brother Grant drowned in the Mississippi River in 1928. Irwin was a standout student, earning acceptance into nearby Lindenwood College before entering the workforce. A brief marriage ended in divorce. When she embarked on her overseas reporting career in her mid-30s, she was older than many women who worked in Europe.

Opportunities for women in journalism were largely limited to select formulae of lifestyle-oriented stories. After joining the Post-Dispatch as a file clerk in 1932 at the age of 24, Irwin was promoted to food editor, for no known reason other than her gender (she never liked to cook and found the promotion insulting). Days after Pearl Harbor thrust America into a global war, a feature on holiday shopping dubbed “Battle of the Bundles” ran under her byline.

But she was itching to get to the action– even though the Post-Dispatch had no interest in sending her. Overall, fewer than 130 American women held credentials, but most were removed from combat zones and none filed for the Post-Dispatch. “It was really frowned upon that they go to the front lines,” says Marilyn Greenwald, professor of journalism at Ohio University. “There were a lot of hurdles just getting there,” to say nothing of the challenges thereafter. Irwin’s wanderlust did not convince her employer – so she found another avenue to get to Europe.

“She had to join the Red Cross to get there,” says her niece Mosey Hoffmeister. “They wouldn’t send a woman over, [but] she was determined.” Irwin had taken a formal leave of absence from the Post-Dispatch for her new job, but soon began filing with her editors anyway. She called watching the wounded arriving from the beaches of Normandy “my first taste of the horrors of war.”

Irwin finally became a credentialed correspondent for the Post-Dispatch and soon linked up with units from the Third Army. She sent back vivid, first -person narratives of her experiences, emphasized the human element – from the mundane challenges of cold feet in winter and the no-frills food options to the danger constantly threatening to take the lives of relatable Joes from the St. Louis area.

Virginia Irwin with American airmen in England. Soldiers called her "mom," and one of the conversation-starters she employed was to encourage the boys to "go home for five minutes" and talk about what their families and friends were doing back in the states. (St Louis Post-Dispatch / Polaris)

Irwin shared in that danger – during one tour of an observation post, she had to take cover behind a chimney while “under Jerry fire.” (Germans were often referred to derogatorily as “Jerrys” and “krauts” in newspaper coverage.) Despite the terror she felt at the time, Irwin was quick to point out that she could now claim, “with the best of the men correspondents, that I’ve been to the front lines.” The repeated exposure to such dangers seemed only to embolden her in the months before Berlin.

But her intrepid journey into the German capital did not endear her to her U.S. Army minders. At the time, the War Department oversaw correspondents in the theater. Like other correspondents, Irwin was required to wear a uniform. There was also a more practical matter – lacking the technology to send their writing back across the Atlantic, they relied on Army resources to send back their dispatches. For days, Irwin’s Army censors refused to transmit her writing back to the States. They also pulled her credentials, rendering her unable to continue reporting. After outspoken but fruitless protests she departed for home, furious and exasperated. In a sidebar story that ran May 10, next to her third installment, Irwin called the whole episode “the greatest exhibition of bungling I ever saw in my life.”

Irwin returned home an instant local celebrity, receiving a slew of honors and recounting her experience in Berlin in luncheons and interviews. Letters from readers expressed pride in her accomplishment (and in the case of one admiring local man, more than once). Her editor, Joseph Pulitzer II, was so happy with her work that he gave her a year’s salary – the bonus announcement tacked up on the newsroom’s bulletin board for all to see.

Despite the accolades, the Post-Dispatch newsroom was still staffed entirely by men. Members of the small club of female combat correspondents could not necessarily expect to parlay these proud moments into sustained gains in journalism. “It was a long time before women really were respected the way men were, and in their numbers the way men were covering news,” says Greenwald. Women like Irwin had advanced the ball, but the playing field would be slow to change.

Within a year Irwin made a decision that was perhaps pragmatic considering the prevailing post-war landscape: she moved to New York to write feature stories from the Post-Dispatch’s bureau, a position of relative autonomy which she enjoyed for the next 14 years. There she had the freedom to write features on the arts, politics, and personal profiles. “I think when she came back, if she had stayed in St. Louis, she would probably have not stayed in [journalism], because she would have felt too stifled,”says Hoffmeister. “She was lucky that she got the experience.”

When she moved back to St. Louis from New York in 1960, Irwin would be assigned to write “Martha Carr,” an advice column spanning topics from neighborhood spats to marital problems, which she loathed. She soon retired, but her sense of independence was undimmed in her later years. She settled on a rural Missouri farm near family, a quieter life punctuated by adventurous trips down the Amazon River and in far-flung locales. She didn’t write or publish about her travels after retirement. She considered writing a memoir, From D-Day to Bidet, but other than some notes left in her sister’s possession did not do so.

The excitement and camaraderie she experienced in Europe would leave a lasting mark. Writing from France in December of 1944, Irwin had predicted that in retirement her prevailing “memories will be of war…huddled over an old pot-bellied stove and fanning the breeze with the lads who are doing the fighting.”

Going the Distance on the Pacific Crest Trail

Smithsonian Magazine

Hikers attempting to walk the entire Pacific Crest Trail face some serious mileage—whichever way they’re going. This trail sign is near Mount Hood, in Oregon. Photo courtesy of Flickr user docoverachiever.

The concept is alluringly simple: Leave your home, your television, your laptop, your job, put on a backpack and walk from Mexico to Canada.

That, in a sentence, describes the experience of walking the Pacific Crest Trail. Usually called the PCT, this epic foot trail meanders 2,650 miles through three states, from Campo, California, to E.C. Manning Provincial Park, in British Columbia. Many thousands of people walk some portion of the trail each year, whether in California, Oregon or Washington, while several hundred attempt to go the full distance. Hikers intending to do so must be fit, brave, ambitious and—at least for a while—unemployed. They must also undertake some serious planning as they begin what will likely be the greatest outdoors adventure of their lives. The PCT is one of America’s three great long-distance north-south hiking trails, along with the Continental Divide and the Appalachian trails. The PCT passes among the world’s largest trees, some of the most fantastic rock formations and one of the driest deserts. It crosses one of North America’s largest rivers, and traverses a wide range of climates and landscapes, from low-lying to deserts to craggy high country to well-watered, mossy forests.

Most people who hike the PCT walk south to north, and for them, the adventure is about to start. Most will depart before May. This allows them to begin when the desert temperatures are still mild and progress northward rather in sync with the warming weather. The April-May start time also works out especially nicely by putting northbounders at the south end of the Sierra Nevada just as the high country snowpack really begins to melt, and if they stay on schedule they should pass through the Pacific Northwest before the first autumn snows.

Jack Haskel, a staff member with the Pacific Crest Trail Association, told Off the Road that several thru-hikers are already a few hundred miles into their walk.

“It’s been a low-snow year, which makes it a decent year to get an early start,” he said.

Hikers must handle some paperwork before they begin—but, happily, bureaucratic obstacles are quite minimal. The PCT Association will grant a PCT Long Distance Permit to anyone planning to walk at least 500 miles of the trail. This document is free, takes two to three weeks to process and paves the way for a hiker to walk every inch of the PCT.

Logistically speaking, now comes the fun stuff—bears, food supplies, dangerous terrain and running out of water. Haskel says there are, in particular, two waterless distances of about 30 miles in the Southern California desert where hikers must tote gallons at a time.

Food canisters like these save backpackers the trouble of hanging their food from a tree, while guaranteeing its protection from bears. In places along the Pacific Crest Trail, such canisters are required. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Brett L.

Once hikers reach the Sierra Nevada, a simple water filtering pump can be used at any of hundreds of lakes and streams along the way—but rations now become the biggest priority. North of Kennedy Meadows, hikers cross not a single road for about 200 miles and, unless they trek off-trail to a town, may need to carry with them some 60,000 calories of food a person. Such deliciously laden hikers are gold mines of goodies for black bears, which don’t pose much of a physical threat to people but may easily rob hikers of their supplies if they leave them unguarded—even for just a few moments, whether day or night. Bears, Haskel warns, can be especially problematic near the Rae Lakes in Kings Canyon National Park and in Yosemite National Park’s Lyell Canyon. In places, a plastic bear canister is required—and hikers would be wise to carry one of these bear-proof food containers throughout their journey.

The Rae Lakes, in Kings Canyon National Park, lie among some of the highest peaks and passes along the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Palojono.

About 1,000 people apply for thru-permits each year. Between 500 and 800 individuals attempt the journey. Fewer than half of them finish each year. The average thru-hiker will take about five months to walk the entire trail, averaging 20-plus miles a day after factoring in rest days. Haskel says many hikers begin at a pace of 16 or 17 miles per day but, by the time they reach Oregon, “are basically doing a marathon every day.” He says the PCT is “an amazing workout” and that thru-hikers can expect to arrive at the finish line “skinny” and, perhaps, fitter than they’ve ever been. Thru-hikers, by virtue of their lifestyle, become voracious eaters, burning 5,000 calories or more per day and, when they’re able, regaining this energy through glorious, face-stuffing feasts. Fortunately, hikers will encounter towns with quality stores and restaurants every few days for most of the PCT’s length. The PCT Association’s website offers guidelines and strategy suggestions for resupplying along the trail.

One need not be starving—just bored of couscous and curry—to stop and eat one of the most famous meals along the entire PCT, the Pancake Challenge at Seiad Valley Store and Cafe, on the Klamath River in Northern California. The Challenge consists of putting down five one-pound pancakes—a feat that perhaps only a thru-hiker (or a black bear) could ever manage. Walking Man Brewing Company, in Stevenson, Washington, is a popular watering hole for PCT hikers. Haskel also recommends Paradise Valley Cafe, near the San Jacinto Mountains in Southern California, popular among hikers for its burgers.

A spectacular view along the Pacific Crest Trail in Lewis County, Washington. Photo courtesy of Flickr user thrig.

A small fraction of PCT hikers—perhaps just several dozen people—hike the trail north to south, starting at the Canadian border and walking to Mexico. Such southbounders often opt for this route plan due to their calendar schedule; if they cannot break away from school or work until June, they simply can’t begin the journey in the desert, where June temperatures can be crushing. They will also have a poor chance of reaching the Canadian border before winter if they depart from Campo in late June. But hiking in this direction introduces some unique challenges. Most southbounders start after June 15—but even then, much of the trail will still be covered with snow. Southbound hikers can expect not to see the trail itself for snowy sections as long as one mile or more. Thus, getting lost is likely, and many southbounders carry GPS devices for this reason. By July and August, the high country snows will have mostly melted—but October will be just around the corner, and the highest passes of the entire journey lie very much toward the end of the trail, in the Sierra Nevada. Forester Pass—at 13,153 feet—is the giant of them all. It stands 780 miles from the finish line, and southbounders generally aim to cross this beautiful but potentially perilous obstacle before October.

From here, much of the remaining country is desert, which by autumn is mild, dry and beautiful. Many southbounders slow to an easy pace here, Haskel says, as the race against winter is over. Fifteen to 20 miles a day—child’s play for hikers who have come all the way from Canada—brings them in a month or two to the Mexican border at Campo, where a taco—plus a dozen more and a few beers—may never taste so good.

Pacific Crest Trail Trivia

The trail runs 2,650 miles.

The trail leads through 26 national forests, seven national parks, five state parks and three national monuments.

The trail’s midpoint is at Chester, California, near Mount Lassen.

The highest point along the way is Forester Pass in the Sierra Nevada, at 13,153 feet.

Fewer than 200 hikers finish the PCT each year.

About 5 percent of thru hikers walk north to south, considered the more challenging direction.

The first person to thru-hike the entire trail was Richard Watson, in 1972.

The fastest time was set in 2011 by Scott Williamson, who hiked north to south in 64 days 11 hours, averaging 41 miles per day.

A few speed hikers have finished so-called “yo yo” hikes, reaching the end, then turning around and walking the entire PCT again in the opposite direction.

Cyclists may attempt a bike-friendly, 2,500-mile parallel route called the Pacific Crest Bicycle Trail.

The Pacific Crest Trail cuts along a green mountainside as it nears Rock Pass, in Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness. Photo courtesy of Flickr user 18seattle.

Anacostia Community Museum to Close for Renovations, but Will Tour Its Current Show With Pop Ups Across the City

Smithsonian Magazine

Rosemary Ndubuizu sat on stage at a symposium last fall so crowded with scholars, activists and non-profit leaders that some at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C. had to sit in overflow rooms so they could view the program via video. Then, she did something peculiar.

“I want us to all close our eyes for a second, and all, go ahead and take that deep breath,” said Ndubuizu, an African-American studies professor at Georgetown University, who also works with the activist group Organizing Neighborhood Equity DC (ONE DC).

“We are imagining that we have won the right to the city. We have won the right to D.C. This city is a commons for all of us, particularly the working class, to be able to control and govern what happens to the land in D.C.,” she told the room, as people nodded their heads in unison.

“Once we’ve won this and we’ve re-instituted actual Democracy, participatory Democracy, one of the things that we would immediately vote on, and I’m certain we would pass, would be making sure we rebuild all public housing and make sure housing is not for profit, but for human need,” Ndubuizu continued.

At a time when more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, at-risk populations like returning war veterans, single mothers, low-income residents, immigrants and persons of color increasingly face losing what many Americans believe to be an inalienable right—access to land, affordable housing, and sustainable, locally governed communities.

The museum’s October symposium called “A Right to the City: The Past and Future of Urban Equity,” amplified the questions raised in its ongoing and highly popular exhibition A Right to the City.” The museum, which is closing March 15 for renovations to its building and outdoor facilities, is partnering with the D.C. Public Library to create pop-up versions of the deep look at gentrification and its effect on various city neighborhoods at branches in Shaw, Mt. Pleasant, Southwest, Anacostia and Woodbridge. There will be complementary programming specific to each community along with additional public programs in collaboration with other Smithsonian museums as well as Martha's Table and the Textile Museum at George Washington University. “With this renovation, the Smithsonian is investing not only in the infrastructure of the Anacostia Community Museum, but also in its external accessibility and overall appeal,” says the museum's interim director Lisa Sasaki, in a report.

During the renovation, the satellite versions of the museum's popular exhibition “A Right to the City” exploring gentrification in the Washington, D.C. neighborhoods of Adams Morgan, Anacostia, Brookland, Chinatown, Shaw and Southwest neighborhoods, will tour the city. (A 1978 protest in Adams Morgan, photo by Nancy Shia)

At the symposium, presenters Ndubuizu, community organizer Diane Wong, from New York University, Amanda Huron from the University of the District of Columbia, and the symposium’s keynote speaker, Scott Kurashige, from the University of Washington Bothell, examined how urban populations across the nation are currently pivoting to use historic methods of resistance to mobilize in order to bolster local activism.

“We . . . assembled thought leaders, at this symposium, not only to get a better understanding of how the American city has been shaped by more than a half century of uneven development,” says senior museum curator Samir Meghelli, “but also how communities are mobilizing to work toward a more equitable future.”

Ndubuizu recalled the 1970s in Washington D.C., and how low-income black women engaged in early waves of tenant activism and organizing with rent strikes and a citywide tenant’s union, based in Barry Farm, to push back and gain political power. “They were successful because they were thinking in political terms about building a power block,” Ndubuizu says, adding that black women understood that tenants can play a powerful role as a voting bloc. But once the cash-strapped city of Washington, D.C. went into receivership in 1995, she says the government recruited many private developers to build at will. Today’s activists are fighting to maintain the limited gains they acquired over the past 40 years, she says.

Diane Wong focuses her research on anti-displacement work in Chinatown neighborhoods in New York, San Francisco and Boston. Wong says her research shows that the rate of working class people, immigrants and people of color being displaced is on a level not seen since the 1960s, and that the percentage of Asian immigrants living in Chinatown has dropped rapidly over the past decade. Since then, she notes, all of the issues people were fighting against persist. “In Chinatown, a lot of predatory landlords have intentionally bought out tenement buildings with a large percentage of Chinese tenants, and . . . taken advantage of the fact that a lot of them are undocumented, limited English-speaking or poor, to really push them out of their homes,” Wong says. “They’ve used a lot of different tactics . . . from refusing to provide hot water, gas and basic repairs to using dangerous and hazardous construction practices.”

There’s strong pushback against the narrative that people are being pushed out without a fight, Wong points out, because residents in Washington D.C. and in other cities are mobilizing heavily at the grassroots level to confront dispossession. In New York’s Chinatown, Wong works closely with the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV), which has a tenants’ organizing arm. It helps develop the leadership among low-income tenants so they can fight displacement.

The elders who have been through this work before, she said, have laid the groundwork and can use that knowledge and the same tactics that activists hope to see in the future. The W.O.W. project, located inside the oldest continually-run family business in New York’s Chinatown, has organized a series of inter-generational panel discussions around displacement as well as open mic nights and an artist-in-residency program to engage the community in conversations about changes in the neighborhood.

At the same time, there is work to be done at the national level. “The same communities are fighting for the same issues, whether it is to help access to affordable housing, to fight against police brutality and for accountability, and migrant rights,” Wong explains, recognizing that it is a continuation.

Many of the panelists brought up the legendary work of Grace Lee Boggs, a long-time activist who taught people around the nation about what she called visionary organizing: the idea that another world is not only possible, but that ordinary people are already building that vision. Boggs, along with her husband James, were integral parts of the labor and Black Power movements both nationally and in Detroit. Boggs co-authored the book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, with the symposium’s keynote speaker, Scott Kurashige.

“Detroit to me is an incredible place and it changed my life to live there for 14 years because of my work with Grace Lee Boggs,” Kurashige explains. “It epitomized the Black Power movement of the 60s. The crises facing urban areas . . . begins in Detroit because the Detroit rebellion was really in many ways the biggest symbols of these contradictions that were crashing together in the mid to late 1960s. Today, Detroit in many ways still embodies the best and worst possibilities of where this country is moving.”

Kurashige says that Boggs talked often about how Detroit and other cities have faced crises because of white flight, de-industrialization, extreme disparities in wealth and power coupled with the school dropout, drugs and prison issues. “But they always at the same time recognize that people have the power within themselves and within their communities to create solutions,” Kurashige says. “The only real solutions would have to come from the bottom up.”

He points to creative ways Detroit’s working class, African-American communities worked together, including urban gardens that helped neighbors to take care of each other, and that created models for activism. Kurashige points out that urban farms eliminate blight, but often pave the way for developers to come in and promote massive urban renewal projects that drown out the voices of the people most affected by them.

The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network runs the D-Town Farm, and traces its legacy back to the Black Power movement. Kurashige says food is central not only to understanding our relationship to the planet, but it is also a big question of sovereignty and whether people have the power to provide for themselves. Since the 1960s, he argues, there’s been increased stratification, because some have increased access and others are suffering dispossession and exclusion.

“It’s reached the point that in many neighborhoods . . . and in places like Detroit, where even people’s basic human needs . . . a right to public education, to water, a right to decent housing, a right to the basic services that a city provides, these people are struggling,” Kurashige says, pointing to glaring examples like the water crises in Flint, Michigan. “We are seeing people, even or especially in wealthy cities like Seattle, being completely priced out of not just the wealthy neighborhoods, but pretty much the whole city.”

Amanda Huron reminded the crowd that the level of gentrification going on right now in the nation’s capital is similar to the 1970s. “We have lots of good organizing today and victories, but we don’t see the political will at the same level as we did in the 1970s.”

Many activists made the point that one of the lessons of the symposium, and of the exhibition, is that people need to stop thinking of power as a top down process, where the voices of the communities are drowned out by money and political influence. What works, they argue, is smaller scale plans rooted in local interests, that sometimes involves teaming with broader community groups or national organizations to get things done on a human scale. “Change comes,” says Wong, “from grass roots building across generations and developing the leadership capabilities of those across the hall, or down the block.”

The Anacostia Community Museum will close March 15 through mid-October 2019 for renovations to its building and its surrounding landscape. Improvements will be made to its parking lot and entrance and upgrades will be conducted on its lighting and HVAC system. A new outdoor plaza for group assembly and a community garden are to be built. The museum's programs and activities can be found here.


Smithsonian Magazine

"Anything, everything, is possible." —Thomas Edison, 1908

The year 1908 began at midnight when a 700-pound "electric ball" fell from the flagpole atop the New York Times building—the first-ever ball-drop in Times Square. It ended 366 days later (1908 was a leap year) with a nearly two-and-a-half-hour flight by Wilbur Wright, the longest ever made in an airplane. In the days between, the U.S. Navy's Great White Fleet sailed around the world, Adm. Robert Peary began his conquest of the North Pole, Dr. Frederick Cook reached the North Pole (or claimed to), six automobiles set out on a 20,000-mile race from New York City to Paris, and the Model T went into production at Henry Ford's plant in Detroit, Michigan.

The events and innovations that occurred within that 12-month frame a century ago marked, in many ways, America's entry into the modern world. In some cases, they quite literally put modern America in motion. Whether practically significant or, like the automobile race around the world, essentially frivolous—a "splendid folly," one contestant called it—all reflected, and expanded, Americans' sense of what was possible. Buoyed by achievements, the country was more confident in its genius and resourcefulness—not to mention its military might—and more comfortable playing a dominant role in global affairs.

Nineteen hundred eight was an election year, and the parallels between it and 2008 are interesting. Americans of 1908 were coming off two terms of a Republican president who had abruptly set their country on a new course. He was a wealthy Ivy League-educated Easterner who had gone west as a young man and made himself into a cowboy. Like George Walker Bush, Theodore Roosevelt had entered the White House without winning the popular vote (an assassination put TR into office), then conducted himself with unapologetic force. And it was clear then, as it is now, that the country was heading into a new world defined by as yet unwritten rules, and that the man about to exit office bore not a little responsibility for this.

Americans of 1908 knew they lived in unusual times. And lest they forget, the newspapers reminded them almost daily. According to the press, everything that happened that year was bigger, better, faster and stranger than anything that had happened before. In part, this was typical newspaper hyperbole; in part, it was simply true.

An essay in the New York World on New Year's Day of 1908 articulated the wonderment shared by many. The article, titled "1808-1908-2008," noted how far the country had progressed over the previous century. In 1808, five years after the Louisiana Purchase and two years after Lewis and Clark returned from their transcontinental journey, the population had been a mere seven million souls. The federal government had been underfunded and ineffectual. Technology—transportation, communication, medicine, agriculture, manufacturing—had been barely more advanced than during the Middle Ages of Europe. Now, in 1908, with the U.S. population at almost 90 million, the federal revenue was 40 times greater than it had been a century earlier, and America was on a par with Britain and Germany as a global power. U.S. citizens enjoyed the highest per capita income in the world and were blessed with railroads and automobiles, telegraph and telephone, electricity and gas. Men shaved their whiskers with disposable razor blades and women tidied their homes with remarkable new devices called vacuum cleaners. Couples danced to the Victrola in their living rooms and snuggled in dark theaters to watch the flickering images of the Vitagraph. Invisible words volleyed across the oceans between the giant antennas of Marconi's wireless telegraph, while American engineers cut a 50-mile canal through the Isthmus of Panama.

From the glories of the present the World turned to the question of the future: "What will the year 2008 bring us? What marvels of development await the youth of tomorrow?" The U.S. population of 2008, the newspaper predicted, would be 472 million (it's 300 million). "We may have gyroscopic trains as broad as houses swinging at 200 miles an hour up steep grades and around dizzying curves. We may have aeroplanes winging the once inconquerable air. The tides that ebb and flow to waste may take the place of our spent coal and flash their strength by wire to every point of need. Who can say?"

Not a day passed without new discoveries achieved or promised. That same New Year's Day, Dr. Simon Flexner of the Rockefeller Institute declared in a medical paper that human organ transplants would soon be common. Meanwhile, the very air seemed charged with the possibilities of the infant wireless technology. "When the expectations of wireless experts are realized everyone will have his own pocket telephone and may be called wherever he happens to be," Hampton's Magazine daringly predicted in 1908. "The citizen of the wireless age will walk abroad with a receiving apparatus compactly arranged in his hat and tuned to that one of myriad vibrations by which he has chosen to be called....When that invention is perfected, we shall have a new series of daily miracles."

A few weeks before the year began, on the bright windless morning of December 16, 1907, thousands of spectators went to Hampton Roads, Virginia, to hail the departure of the Great White Fleet on its 43,000-mile voyage around the world. Roosevelt steamed in from the Chesapeake Bay aboard the presidential yacht, the Mayflower, to give a few last-minute instructions to fleet commanders and to add his considerable heft to the pomp and circumstance. As sailors in dress uniform stood at the rails and brass bands played on the vessels, the president watched. "Did you ever see such a fleet and such a day?" he shouted to his guests aboard the Mayflower. "Isn't it magnificent? Oughtn't we all to feel proud?" It was, he concluded, "perfectly bully."

For sheer majesty, the armada was impressive. "The greatest fleet of war vessels ever assembled under one flag," the New York Times reported. The 16 battleships were worth $100 million and comprised nearly 250,000 tons of armament. The Mayflower led the ships to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, and as the ships' bands played "The Girl I Left Behind Me," Roosevelt gave a last wave of his top hat.

Loaded to the gunwales and painted bright white, the ships steamed away, stretching out into a three-mile column. Not everyone understood exactly why Roosevelt sent those battleships around the world. Even now, it's difficult to give a simple answer. At the time, some Americans worried that the voyage was extravagant, rash and likely to provoke a war, most likely with Japan. Indeed, Roosevelt harbored real concerns that Japan, newly emboldened by a recent naval victory over Russia and angered by the mistreatment of Japanese immigrants in America, might pose a threat to the Philippines and other U.S. interests. "I had been doing my best to be polite to the Japanese and had finally become uncomfortably conscious of a very, very slight undertone of veiled truculence," he would write a few years later of his decision to send out the fleet. "[I]t was time for a showdown."

But Roosevelt also filled those 16 ships with friendly greetings and U.S. dollars. Among his instructions to commanders were firm words on preserving decorum among the ships' 13,000 sailors. Throughout 1908, as the battleships steamed port to port, from Rio de Janeiro to Sydney, they were greeted with adulation and American flags. When the fleet finally reached Japan in October of 1908, tens of thousands of schoolchildren greeted it by singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Tensions between the two countries evaporated, and the voyage, once belittled by many as a dangerous stunt, was now applauded as a stunning success. Seldom has a president combined so deftly a message of power with offerings of peace.

To Americans, who were treated to endless stories about the 14-month voyage in newspapers and magazines, the Great White Fleet was a show of strength. The U.S. Navy was now on a par with Germany's navy and second only to Great Britain's. And America, with its capacity to produce more steel than Britain and Germany combined, could build ships faster than any country on earth.

The sky was full of miracles. In New York City, stupendous new buildings pointed upward to where the future seemed to beckon. The Singer Building, headquarters of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, was completed in the spring of 1908. At 612 feet, the "Singerhorn" (as wits soon began to call it, after the Matterhorn) was the highest inhabited building in the world. A few months later, the steel frame of the Metropolitan Life Building leapt over the Singer to 700 feet.

Illustrators imagined a future city of golden towers connected by slender suspension bridges and great masonry arches. Moses King, in a 1908 illustration, imagined dirigibles and other flying craft floating over vaulting towers and bridges in New York City, bound for destinations such as the Panama Canal and the North Pole. A caption referred to "possibilities of aerial and interterrestrial construction, when the wonders of 1908...will be far outdone."

No aerial wonder topped the Wright brothers' feats that year. Absent from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, since their first brief flights there in 1903—and not having flown a lick since 1905—they returned to nearby Kill Devil Hills in April to dig out their old shed and dust off their piloting skills. The Wrights' ability to fly had advanced beyond their first thrilling seconds in the air—but their competitors had also advanced, and the Wrights felt the pressure. A coterie of bright and ambitious young men had joined Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, to form the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA). On March 12, 1908, in Hammondsport, New York, Casey Baldwin, an AEA member, had flown above an icy lake for a distance of almost 320 feet. Four months later, on the Fourth of July, Glenn Hammond Curtiss flew an AEA craft nearly a mile over Hammondsport.

For the previous three years, as the Wrights had dallied with possible buyers of their aircraft, critics and competitors increasingly construed their reticence to fly as evidence of failure or, worse, of fraud. Now, in the spring of 1908, they had two offers of purchase—from the U.S. Army and a private French syndicate. Both offers depended on public demonstrations of the aircraft. After a few weeks of practice in Kitty Hawk, Wilbur sailed to France to demonstrate the Wright Flyer. Orville undertook his own flight trial at Fort Myer, near Washington, D.C. The time had come to put up or shut up.

It was 6:30 on the evening of August 8 when Wilbur climbed into the seat of his Wright Flyer at a horse track near Le Mans. He wore his usual gray suit, starched white collar and green cap, turned backward so it would not blow off in flight. The evening was calm, and so, outwardly, was he. This would be the first public demonstration of a Wright plane. Much, possibly everything, was riding on it. The last time he had flown—a private practice flight at Kitty Hawk in May—he had crashed and destroyed the plane. If he did so now, the French trials would be over before they had begun, and the name Veelbur Reet, as they pronounced it in Le Mans, would be the punch-line of a French joke.

Spectators watched from the grandstand as the twin propellers behind Wilbur started to spin. All at once, the plane shot forward on its track. Four seconds later, it was airborne, rising quickly to 30 feet, higher than most of the French aviators had flown but low enough to give the audience a view of Wilbur as he made a slight adjustment to the control levers. The plane instantly responded, one wing dipping, the other lifting, and banked to the left in a tight, smooth half circle. Coming out of the turn, the plane made a straight run down the length of the track, about 875 yards, then banked and turned into another half circle. Wilbur Wright looped the field once more, then brought the plane down almost exactly where he had taken off less than two minutes earlier.

The flight had been brief, but those 100 or so seconds were arguably the most important Wilbur had spent in the air since 1903. Spectators ran across the field to shake his hand, including the same French aviators who had only recently dismissed him as a charlatan. LŽon Delagrange was beside himself. "Magnificent! Magnificent!" he cried out. "We're beaten! We don't exist!" Overnight, Wilbur was transformed from le bluffeur, as the French press had tagged him, to the "Bird Man," the most celebrated American in France since Benjamin Franklin. "You never saw anything like the complete reversal of position that took place," he wrote to Orville. "The French have simply become wild."

Yet a few weeks later, Delagrange momentarily overshadowed Wilbur's achievement by flying for 31 minutes and thereby setting a new record in the air. Now, it was Orville's turn. On September 9, he took off from Fort Myer, Virginia. He'd already made a few brief desultory hops, but now he flew for family honor and national pride. The plane shot up and began soaring around the parade ground. After 11 minutes, it was clear Orville intended to beat Delagrange's record. The spectators watched him circle the field, taking about a minute per circuit, the engine of the plane crescendoing, fading, then crescendoing again. He had flown about 30 circuits when somebody called out, "By Jings, he's broken Delagrange's record!" According to the New York Herald reporter C. H. Claudy, everybody grabbed one another's hands, each man aware, according to Claudy, that he "had actually been present while aerial history was being reeled hot from the spinning wheel which made that awkward, delicate, sturdy and perfect wonder above their heads go round and round the field."

Orville had no idea he'd broken Delagrange's record. He was lost in flying. He canted into sharp corners and dipped low, skimming over the parade ground, then suddenly rose to 150 feet, higher than anything visible but the needle of the Washington Monument and the dome of the U.S. Capitol rising to the east, backlit by morning sun. "I wanted several times today to fly right across the fields and over the river to Washington," Orville later confessed, "but my better judgment held me back." After 58 circuits of the parade ground, he landed. He had flown 57 minutes and 31 seconds, nearly double Delagrange's record.

The Wrights held the attention of the world, and over the next week or so, as Wilbur flew above adoring crowds in France, Orville set ever longer endurance records at Fort Myer. On September 10, he flew more than 65 minutes; on the 11th, more than 70; on the 12th, almost 75. That same day he set a new endurance record with a passenger— 9 minutes—and an altitude record, 250 feet.

Then, tragedy: on September 17, while flying over Fort Myer with an Army lieutenant named Thomas Selfridge, Orville crashed. He was badly injured. Selfridge was killed.

It appeared as if the crash might end the Wrights' career and set American aeronautics back years. Wilbur ceased flying in France, as Orville lay recuperating in the hospital, attended by his sister. But on September 21, Wilbur lifted off from Le Mans and began circling the artillery ground at Camp d'Auvours above his largest crowd ever, 10,000 spectators.When Wilbur surpassed Orville's flight of nearly 75 minutes, "a yell went up which defies description," according to the Herald. Still, he flew. The drone of the motor came and went, and the sky grew darker and the air cooler. At last, the plane descended and settled on the ground. Wilbur had flown for 91 minutes and 31 seconds, covering 61 miles—a new record. He had banished any conjecture that the Wrights were finished. "I thought of Orville all the time," he told reporters.

Wilbur saved his greatest triumph for the last day of the year. On December 31, 1908, he flew 2 hours and 20 minutes over Le Mans, winning the Coupe de Michelin and affirming the Wrights' place in history. "In tracing the development of aeronautics, the historian of the future will point to the year 1908 as that in which the problem of mechanical flight was first mastered," Scientific American stated, "and it must always be a matter of patriotic pride to know that it was two typical American inventors who gave to the world its first practical flying machine."

In October, during the climax of one of the most thrilling seasons in baseball history (the Chicago Cubs would snatch the National League pennant from the New York Giants, then defeat the Detroit Tigers in the World Series—which they haven't won since.), Henry Ford introduced his oddly shaped new automobile, the Model T. At 45, Henry Ford had been in the automobile business a dozen years, since building his first horseless carriage in a brick shed behind his Detroit home in 1896. Still, everything he had done was a warm-up to what he hoped to accomplish—"a motor car for the great multitude," he said.

Since most automobiles of the day cost between $2,000 and $4,000, only the well-off could afford them, and the machines were still largely for sport. An advertisement of the time, printed in Harper's Weekly, shows an automobile soaring over a hill as a gleeful mŽnage frolics inside. One passenger reaches into a basket. "There is no more exhilarating sport or recreation than automobiling," the ad says. "The pleasure of a spin over country roads or through city parks is greatly enhanced if the basket is well stocked with Dewar's Scotch 'White Label.' "

The fact that automobiles brought out the worst excesses of the rich, confirming what many Americans already believed about them—they were callous, selfish and ridiculous—added to the resentment of those who could not afford the machines. "Nothing has spread socialistic feeling in this country more than the use of the automobile, a picture of the arrogance of wealth," Princeton University president Woodrow Wilson had said in 1906. Yet by the time he became president of the United States six years later, even socialists would be driving Model T's.

The automobile that rolled out of Ford's Piquette Avenue plant that fall did not look like a machine of destiny. It was boxy and top-heavy. The automobile writer Floyd Clymer would later call it "unquestionably ugly, funereally drab." The hard-sprung, church-pew seats made no concession to elegance or comfort. Rather, every aspect of the car was considered with an eye to lightness, economy, strength and simplicity. The simpler a piece of machinery, Ford understood, the lower the cost, and the easier it would be to maintain. Equipped with a manual and a few basic tools, a Model T owner could carry out most repairs himself. The new car's transmission would be smoother and longer lasting than any that had ever been designed. The small magnetized generator that provided a steady flash of voltage to ignite the automobile's fuel would be more dependable. The Model T was designed to ride high off the ground to give it plenty of clearance over America's infamously bumpy roadways, while the car's suspension system allowed it to handle the roads without tossing out occupants. Ford had also foreseen a day when the ditch at the side of the road would be less of a concern to motorists than oncoming traffic: he had moved the steering wheel to the left side, to improve the driver's perspective of approaching vehicles.

Ford Motor Company launched a national advertising campaign, with ads appearing in the Saturday Evening Post, Harper's Weekly and other magazines. For an "unheard of" price of $850, the ads promised "a 4-cylinder, 20 h.p., five passenger family car—powerful, speedy and enduring." An extra $100 would buy such amenities as a windshield, speedometer and headlights.

Ford manufactured just 309 Model T's in 1908. But his new automobile was destined to be one of the most successful ever made. In 1913, Ford would institute the assembly line at his Highland Park, Michigan, plant. In its first year, the company more than doubled its output of Model T's, to 189,000, or about half the automobiles manufactured in America that year. By 1916, Ford would be making almost 600,000 cars a year and could lower the price of the Model T to $360, which produced more demand, to which Ford responded with more supply.

Henry Ford was superb at anticipating the future, but not even he could have predicted the popularity of the Model T and the effects it would have for years to come on how Americans lived and worked, on the landscape surrounding them and the air they breathed—on nearly every aspect of American life. The United States would become, in large part thanks to the Model T, an automobile nation.

It would be wrong to leave the impression that life was a frolic for most Americans. Vast numbers lived in poverty or near poverty. The working class, including some two million children who joined adults in steel mills and coal mines, labored long hours at occupations that were grueling and often dangerous. Tens of thousands of Americans died on the job in 1908.

In the fall of that year, the term "melting pot" entered the American lexicon, coined by playwright Israel Zangwill to denote the nation's capacity to absorb and assimilate different ethnicities and cultures. To our ears, the words may sound warm and delicious, like a pot of stew, but to Zangwill the melting pot was a caldron, "roaring and bubbling," as he wrote, "stirring and seething." And so it was. Violence erupted frequently. Anarchists ignited bombs. Gangs of loosely organized extortionists known as the Black Hand dynamited tenements in New York's Little Italy. Armies of disgruntled tobacco farmers, called Night Riders, galloped through Kentucky and Tennessee, spreading terror. Violence against African-Americans persisted, with dozens of lynchings in 1908. That August, whites in Springfield, Illinois—ironically, the hometown and resting place of Abraham Lincoln—tried to drive black citizens from the city, burning black businesses and homes and lynching two black men. (Like many events of 1908, even Springfield had a far-ranging impact: the riot led to the founding of the NAACP the next year.)

On the other side of the world, there was a breakthrough of sorts: on December 26, 1908, in Sydney, Australia, a 30-year-old African-American boxer from Galveston, Texas, named Jack Johnson stepped into the ring to fight Tommy Burns, the heavyweight champion of the world. Like every titleholder before him, Burns had refused to compete against a black man. But Johnson pursued Burns, badgering him until even whites began to suspect the Canadian was hiding beneath his white skin. Burns finally agreed to a match, but only with a deal that guaranteed him $30,000 of a $35,000 purse.

Johnson destroyed Burns before 25,000 spectators. Blood was pouring from Burns when police stopped the fight in the 14th round. The referee declared Johnson the victor. "Though he beat me, and beat me badly, I still believe I am his master," said Burns after the fight, already calling for a rematch.

Johnson laughed. "Now that the shoe is on the other foot, I just want to hear that white man come around whining for another chance." Eventually, Burns decided he did not want another chance after all.

Johnson would remain the heavyweight champion for seven years, fending off a series of "Great White Hopes." He would be sent to jail in 1920 after federal prosecutors, misapplying a statute meant to discourage prostitution, charged him with illegally transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes after he'd sent a train ticket to one of his white girlfriends. That was later, though. Now was Christmas, and Jack Johnson's victory was a gift for African-Americans to savor in the closing moments of 1908.

For all the problems, perhaps the most impressive trait Americans shared in 1908 was hope. They fiercely believed, not always with good reason, that the future would be better than the present. This faith was represented in the aspirations of the hardworking immigrants, in the dreams of architects and inventors and in the assurances of the rich. "Any man who is a bear on the future of this country," J. P. Morgan famously declared in December of 1908, "will go broke."

It's striking, in fact, how much more hopeful Americans were then than we are today. We live in a nation that is safer, healthier, richer, easier and more egalitarian than it was in 1908, but a recent Pew Research Center poll found that barely one-third of us feel optimistic about the future.

Of course, we are wiser now to the downsides of the technologies that were only just emerging in 1908. We cannot look at an airplane without knowing the death and destruction, from World War I to 9/11, that airplanes have wrought. Automobiles may have once promised exhilarating freedoms, but they also deliver thousands of deaths every year and horrendous traffic jams, and they addict us to foreign oil (1908 was the year, coincidentally, that oil was discovered in Iran) and pollute the atmosphere with, among other things, carbon dioxide, which will alter the earth in ways few of us dare imagine. The American military pride that sailed with the Great White Fleet on its voyage around the world in 1908 and was met with adoration at every port, is now tempered by the knowledge that much of the world despises us. We are left with the disquieting thought that the next 100 years may bear a price for the conveniences and conquests of the last 100.

Why We Need To Start Listening To Insects

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s a warm summer afternoon in the Tanzanian village of Lupiro, and Mikkel Brydegaard is crouching in a brick hut, trying to fix a broken laser. Next to him, on a tall tripod, three telescopes point through a window at a tree in the distance. A laptop rests on an upturned box, waiting to receive a signal.

With a working laser, this system is known as lidar – like radar, Brydegaard tells me, but using a laser instead of radio waves. The setup is supposed to gather precise data about the movement of malaria mosquitoes. But as the sun starts to set outside, Brydegaard is getting nervous. He and his colleagues have spent a week in Tanzania, and their device still hasn’t started collecting data. They’re almost out of time.

Tomorrow, a solar eclipse will blot out the sun over Tanzania – an event that occurs only once every few decades here, and that Brydegaard and his team from Lund University in Sweden have travelled thousands of miles to see. Their immediate aim is to see if the eclipse affects the behaviour of disease-carrying insects. Their larger mission, however, is to demonstrate that lasers can revolutionise how insects are studied.

Lidar involves shooting a laser beam between two points – in this case, between the hut and the tree. When insects fly through the beam, they’ll scatter and reflect light back to the telescopes, generating data from which the scientists hope to identify different species. At a time when pests destroy enough food to sustain entire countries – and when insect-borne diseases kill hundreds of thousands of people every year – this arrangement of beams and lenses could, just maybe, improve millions of lives.

But without a working laser, the trip to Tanzania will count for nothing.

Already, the team have come close to giving up. A few days ago, their two high-powered lasers failed to work. “My first thought was, OK – pack everything, we head back,” Brydegaard tells me. “There’s nowhere in Tanzania we can find a spare part.” He thought bitterly about the tens of thousands of dollars they had spent on equipment and travel. But then he walked into town with Samuel Jansson, his graduate student, and over bottles of beer they scrolled through the contacts on their phones. Perhaps, they started to think, it was possible to salvage the trip after all.


Lasers may be a cutting-edge tool for identifying insects, but at the heart of the lidar method is an elegant and centuries-old principle of entomology. Almost every species of flying insect, from moth to midge to mosquito, has a unique wingbeat frequency. A female Culex stigmatosoma mosquito, for instance, might beat its wings at a frequency of 350 hertz, while a male Culex tarsalis might at 550 hertz. Because of these differences, an insect’s wingbeat is like a fingerprint. And in recent years, the study of wingbeat has undergone a renaissance, especially in the field of human health.

Long before lasers or computers, wingbeat was thought of in auditory – even musical – terms. A careful listener could match the buzz of a fly to a key on the piano. That is exactly what Robert Hooke, a natural philosopher, did in the 17th century: “He is able to tell how many strokes a fly makes with her wings (those flies that hum in their flying) by the note that it answers to in musique during their flying,” wrote Samuel Pepys, a British civil servant and friend of Hooke’s.

But the fact that Hooke relied on his ears must have made his findings difficult to communicate. Knowledge was traditionally shared through scientific papers, letters and specimen drawings, and so entomologists tended to rely on vision rather than hearing. “The field has had a very, very narrow focus for a long time,” says Laura Harrington, an entomologist and epidemiologist based at Cornell University, New York State.

In the 20th century, however, researchers began to break the mould. The main wingbeat detection method was visual: the chronophotographic method, which involved taking photographs in rapid succession. This had its limitations, and a few keen-eared researchers felt there was an advantage to Robert Hooke’s auditory approach – especially Olavi Sotavalta, an entomologist from Finland who had the rare gift of absolute pitch. Just as a composer with absolute pitch might transcribe a musical passage by ear, Sotavalta could identify the precise tone of a mosquito’s wings without the aid of a piano.

(© Matthew the Horse)

“The acoustic method makes it possible to observe insects in free flight,” Sotavalta wrote in a 1952 paper in Nature. In other words, because he had absolute pitch, Sotavalta was able to make wingbeat observations not only with cameras in the laboratory, but also in nature, with his ears. Scientists are informed and constrained by the senses they choose to use.

Sotavalta’s peculiar approach to research suggests that certain scientific insights emerge when separate disciplines collide: he used his canny ear not only to identify species during his research, but also for music. “He had a beautiful singing voice,” says Petter Portin, an emeritus professor of genetics who was once a student of Sotavalta’s. Portin remembers him as a tall, slender man who always wore a blue laboratory coat.

Sotavalta’s papers in the National Library of Finland are a curious combination of letters, monographs on insect behaviour, and stacks of sheet music. Some of his compositions are named after birds and insects.

One of the strangest of Sotavalta’s papers, published in the Annals of the Finnish Zoological Society, documents in astonishing detail the songs of two particular nightingales. Sotavalta heard them during successive summers while staying at his summer house in Lempäälä. The paper itself seems dry, until it becomes clear that he’s trying to apply music theory to birdsong.

“The song of the two Sprosser nightingales (Luscinia luscinia L.) occurring in two successive years was recorded acoustically and presented with conventional stave notation,” he wrote.

Following on from this are nearly 30 pages of notes, graphs and analysis of the rhythm and tonality of the birds. After highlighting the similarity between the two songs, he declares: “Because of the short distance between the places where they were singing, it was concluded that they were perhaps father and son.” It is as though his work is a search for some kind of pattern, some musical idea, shared by members of the same species.

However, his paper in Nature was rather more consequential. There, Sotavalta describes the uses of his “acoustic method” of identifying insects using his absolute pitch, and theorises about the subtleties of insect wingbeat: how much energy it consumes, and how it varies according to air pressure and body size. Even so, only decades later did scientists such as Brydegaard reaffirm the relevance of wingbeat in the study of insects – for example, malaria-carrying mosquitoes.


In Tanzania, Brydegaard, Jansson and engineer Flemming Rasmussen do not have absolute pitch – and, even if they did, it wouldn’t help much. There are millions of insects in and around the village, and they drone on in a symphony that never ends.

What these scientists have, in place of a keen ear, is a high-tech gadget and two broken lasers. And their phones.

When the lasers failed, it took a few false starts to find a solution. A researcher in Côte d’Ivoire had a working laser, but he was away in the USA. Brydegaard considered sending for a replacement by mail, but knew that – thanks to customs and the day-long drive from the airport in Dar es Salaam – it probably wouldn’t arrive in time for the eclipse.

Finally, they sent a text message to Frederik Taarnhøj, CEO of FaunaPhotonics, their commercial partner, and asked if he would consider sending a scientist from Sweden with some spare lasers. Taarnhøj said yes.

So the trio made a few frantic calls and ultimately convinced another graduate student, Elin Malmqvist, to board a plane the very next day. When she did, she was carrying three small metal boxes in her suitcase.

The saga was not over yet, however. Even after the huge expense of the last-minute flight, the first replacement failed: Brydegaard, in his hurry, confused the anode with the cathode, which short-circuited the laser diode. The second laser yielded a beam, but, inexplicably, it was so faint as to be unusable.

It’s the last laser that Brydegaard now unpacks, hoping that at least this one will work as expected. By the time he screws it onto the tripod, it is almost sunset, and his agitation is palpable. Within the hour, it will be too dark to calibrate even a working laser. Everything rides on this piece of equipment.


Laura Harrington’s laboratory at Cornell looks a little like a restaurant kitchen. What resembles the door to a walk-in freezer actually leads to an incubation room. It’s humid and lit by fluorescent lights. The shelves are covered in carefully labelled boxes. Harrington shows me mosquito eggs inside the kinds of disposable containers you’d carry soup in. Over the top of the containers, to prevent mosquitoes from escaping, there’s some kind of net – bridal veil, she tells me. The method is not quite foolproof. A few mosquitoes have escaped, and they buzz around our ears and ankles while we chat.

When we talk about Sotavalta’s approach, Harrington says that he was “definitely ahead of his time”. Even in recent years, researchers who thought to listen to mosquitoes didn’t realise how many insects are capable of listening, too. “For a long time, scientists thought that female mosquitoes were deaf – that they didn’t pay attention to sound at all,” Harrington says.

But in 2009, Harrington put that long-standing assumption to the test. In an unusual and intricate experiment, she and her colleagues tethered a female Aedes aegypti mosquito to a hair, installed a microphone nearby, and placed both inside an upside-down fish tank. Then they released male mosquitoes inside the tank and recorded the results.

The team’s findings astonished Harrington, and led to a breakthrough in the study of sound and entomology. Aedes aegypti conducted a sort of mid-air mating dance that had everything to do with sound. Not only did female mosquitoes respond to the sounds of males, they also seemed to communicate with sounds of their own. “We discovered that males and females actually sing to each other,” Harrington says. “They harmonise just prior to mating.”

This ‘mating song’ isn’t produced by vocal cords. It is produced by flapping wings. During normal flight, male and female mosquitoes have slightly different wingbeats. But Harrington found that during the mating process, males aligned their wingbeat frequency with that of females.

“We think the female is testing the male,” Harrington explains. “How quickly he can converge harmonically.” If so, mosquito songs may function like auditory peacock features. They seem to help females identify the fittest mates.

(© Matthew the Horse)

With these results in mind, and with a recent grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Harrington’s lab has begun development of a novel mosquito trap for field research. Similar projects have been undertaken by teams at James Cook University in Australia and Columbia University in New York City, among others.

For a researcher, there are drawbacks to the mosquito traps that currently exist. Chemical traps have to be refilled, while electric traps tend to kill mosquitoes; Harrington wants her new trap to harness the power of sound to capture living specimens for monitoring and study. It would combine established methods for attracting mosquitoes, like chemicals and blood, with recorded mosquito sounds to mimic the mating song. Importantly, it could be used to capture mosquitoes of either sex.

Historically, scientists have focused on catching female mosquitoes, which twice each day go hunting for mammals to bite – and which may carry the malaria parasite (males do not). But scientists have recently started to consider male mosquitoes an important part of malaria control too. For instance, one current proposal for curbing the disease involves releasing genetically modified males that produce infertile offspring, to reduce the population of disease-carrying mosquitoes in a given area.

Harrington’s hope is that an acoustic trap – using the mating song that attracts males – would help make new strategies such as this possible. “What we’re trying to do is really think outside the box, and identify new and novel ways to control these mosquitoes,” she says.


With the last laser finally in place, Brydegaard flips a switch. Suddenly, on the laptop screen next to the tripod, a small white dot appears. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief: the laser works.

The team – made up of Brydegaard, Jansson, Malmqvist and Rasmussen – spend the last 15 minutes of daylight bringing the beam into focus. Other than a few local children, who shout “mzungu” – Swahili for light-skinned foreigner – no one seems especially bothered by the Europeans tinkering with telescopes.

Sunset throws a beautiful, soft light across the marshy landscape around Lupiro, but it also marks the start of malaria transmission. As darkness starts to fall on the hut where the lidar system is set up, villagers walk in from the fields; pillars of smoke rise from cooking fires. Locals here rely on rice for their livelihood: the staple is served with two meals a day, and along the dusty main road, rice chaff piles up like leaves in autumn. But rice fields require standing water, and standing water fosters malaria mosquitoes. Insects have already begun to buzz around our legs.

Now that evening has settled around us, the lidar system has finally begun to record a torrent of data. The team sit around the hut in the dark; a gasoline generator hums outside, powering the laser and computer. On the laptop screen, a jagged red line shows peaks and valleys. Each one, Brydegaard tells me, represents an echo from the beam. Around dusk, dozens or hundreds of insects may cross the beam each minute. We are watching the period that entomologists refer to as “rush hour” – the wave of activity that begins when female mosquitoes swarm into the village and start their search for food.

Nicodemus Govella, a medical entomologist at Tanzania’s prestigious Ifakara Health Institute – a local partner of FaunaPhotonics – has seen the evening mosquito rush hundreds, even thousands of times. He knows how it feels to shiver and vomit as the malaria parasite takes hold; he has experienced the symptoms time and again. “During my childhood, I can’t count how many times,” he tells me.

If Tanzanian epidemiologists are waging a war on malaria, the Ifakara Health Institute works like a ministry of intelligence – it tracks the density, distribution and timing of bites by malaria mosquitoes. Traditionally, Govella says, the “gold standard” of mosquito surveillance was a method called human-landing catch. It’s low-tech but reliable: a volunteer is given medication to prevent malaria transmission and then sits outside with legs bare, letting mosquitoes land and bite.

The problem is that protection against malaria is no longer enough. Too many other diseases, from dengue fever to Zika, are also spread by mosquitoes. As a result, human-landing catch is now widely considered unethical. “It gives you information, but it is very risky,” Govella says. “Other countries have already banned it.” As health officials retire old strategies for malaria surveillance and control, the work on experimental techniques takes on new urgency – which is where the lasers will come in.

In parts of Tanzania, thanks in part to bednets and pesticides, malaria has “gone down tremendously,” Govella tells me. But eradication of the disease has proved elusive. Some mosquitoes have developed resistance to pesticides. Likewise, bednets helped bring night-time transmission under control – but mosquitoes have adapted their behaviour, starting to bite at dusk and dawn, when people aren’t protected.

In 2008, Govella’s daughter contracted malaria. Thinking back, Govella’s manner changes; his precise medical language gives way to a quiet passion. “I don’t even want to remember,” he says. “When I get to that memory, it really brings a lot of pain to me.”

In its early stages, malaria may look like a common cold – which is why it’s so important that scientists have the tools to track the spread of the parasite and the mosquitoes that carry it: to avoid misdiagnosis. In his daughter’s case, the lack of information proved tragic. “Because it was not detected soon, it proceeded up to the level of convulsions,” Govella says. His daughter ultimately died from complications of malaria. Almost every day since then, he has thought about eradication.

“I hate this disease,” Govella says.


The persistence of malaria has frustrated generations of scientists. More than a century after the discovery of the parasite, it still afflicts hundreds of millions of people each year, of whom half a million die. Harrington has her own memories of the havoc wreaked by the disease: in 1998, she travelled to Thailand for a series of experiments and contracted malaria herself. “I was the only foreigner for miles and miles around,” she says. As the fever set in, Harrington started to understand the real burden of the disease she studied.

“I could imagine myself as a Thai villager with those illnesses,” she tells me. She was far from the nearest hospital and felt alone. “I felt like, if I died, maybe people wouldn’t find out.” Eventually, someone found her and put her in the back of a pickup truck. She remembers sinking into delirium, staring up at a fan that spun endlessly on the ceiling. “I saw a nurse with a syringe full of purple liquid,” she recalls. It reminded her of when she worked, years before, in a veterinary clinic that used purple injections to euthanise sick animals. “I thought that was the end.”

Finally, the fever broke, and Harrington knew that she was going to survive. “I felt incredibly grateful for my life,” she says. The experience made her even more committed to her research. “I felt that I had the ability to try and dedicate my career to something that could eventually help other people.”

Malaria provides a vivid example of how insects threaten human health – but there are many other ways that they can cause harm. Insects also spread other microbial diseases. Then there’s the effect they have on agriculture. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, insect pests destroy one-fifth of global crop yields. In other words, if the world’s farmers had better ways to control species like locusts and beetles, they could feed millions more people.

Pesticides reduce the damage that insects cause, but when used indiscriminately, they can also harm people or kill the insects that we rely on. We remain deeply dependent on pollinators like bees, moths and butterflies, but a 2016 report showed that 40 per cent of invertebrate pollinator species are under threat of extinction. It’s because of this love–hate relationship with insects that we urgently need better ways of tracking different species – better ways to differentiate between the bugs that help us and the bugs that hurt us.

(© Matthew the Horse)


On the day of the eclipse, at just before noon, in the blue skies above Lupiro the black disc of the moon passes in front of the sun. A group of children have gathered round; they hold in their hands small plates of welding glass that the Scandinavian scientists brought with them. By peering through the green-tinted glass, the children can see the narrowing crescent of the sun.

The village around us has gone dim; our shadows have grown less distinct. Judging by the light, it feels as if a sudden storm has set in, or someone has turned a dimmer that has made the sun go faint. The scientists from Sweden, along with their partners at the Ifakara Health Institute and FaunaPhotonics, want to know if in the dim light of an eclipse insects become more active, just as they do at dusk.

On the screen, we watch the red peaks, which have picked up again – not as many as we saw at sunset and sunrise, but more than usual. There’s a simple reason this data matters: if the mosquitoes are more active during an eclipse, that suggests that they use light as a cue, knowing when to swarm each morning and evening by the dimness of the rising and setting sun.

As the data pours in, the scientists talk me through what we’re looking at. Lidar was originally developed to study much larger-scale phenomena, like changes in atmospheric chemistry. This system has been simplified to a bare minimum.

Each of the three telescopes on the tripod has a separate function. The first directs the outgoing laser at a tree about half a kilometre away. Nailed to the tree trunk is a black board, where the beam terminates. (To clear a path for the laser, Jansson, the PhD student, had to cut a path through the underbrush with a machete.)

When insects fly through the laser beam, reflections bounce back at the device from their beating wings, and they’re picked up by the second telescope. The third telescope allows the team to aim and calibrate the system; the whole apparatus is connected to a laptop computer that aggregates the data. The red peaks dancing across the screen represent insects crossing the laser beam.

To record the reflections, which Brydegaard calls the “atmospheric echo”, the lidar system captures 4,000 snapshots per second. Later, the team will use an algorithm to comb through the snapshots for wingbeat frequency – the fingerprint of each species.

This device, in other words, achieves with optics what Olavi Sotavalta achieved with his ears, and what Harrington has achieved with the help of a microphone.

But there are some details in the lidar data that the human ear could never discern. For example, an insect’s wingbeat frequency is accompanied by higher-pitched harmonics. (Harmonics are what lend richness to the sound of a violin; they’re responsible for the resonant ring produced by a muted guitar string.) The lidar system can capture harmonic frequencies that are too high for the human ear to hear. In addition, laser beams are polarised, and when they reflect off different surfaces, their polarisation changes. The amount of change can tell Brydegaard and his colleagues whether an insect’s wing is glossy or matte, which is also useful when trying to distinguish different species.

As the dark disc of the sun starts to brighten again, the scientists snap pictures and try, without much success, to explain how the lasers work to local children. Now that the data is flowing, the tension that accompanied the set-up of the lidar system has simply melted away.

It finally seems clear that the high price tag of the experiment won’t be in vain. The team spent about $12,000 on the lidar system, not including the equally hefty costs of transport and labour. “That sounds like a lot, standing in an African village,” Brydegaard admits. On the other hand, older forms of lidar, used to study the atmosphere, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The burden of malaria, meanwhile, would be calculated in the billions of dollars – if it could be calculated at all.

Within a couple of hours, the bright round circle of the sun is again burning brightly. A couple of hours after that, it has started to set.

We re-apply bug spray to ward off the mosquitoes that, once again, will come flying in from the marshy fields around Lupiro. Then we walk into town for dinner, which, as usual, includes rice.


Three months after the experiment, I called FaunaPhotonics to learn how their analysis was progressing. After so many lasers had failed, I wanted to know whether the final one had given them the results they needed.

The data was messy, they said. “Around cooking time, there’s lots of smoke and dust in the air,” said Jord Prangsma, an engineer responsible for analysing the data that the team brought back. He added that the data did seem to show distinct wingbeats. But it’s one thing to spot those beats on a graph. “To tell a computer, ‘Please find me the correct frequency,’ is another thing,” he said. Unlike Sotavalta, who had studied individuals, the team in Tanzania had gathered data from many thousands of insects. They were trying to analyse all of those beating wings at once.

But the obstacles were not insurmountable. “We see a higher activity just around noon,” said Samuel Jansson, speaking about the data from the eclipse. This suggests that mosquitoes were, indeed, using light as a cue to begin searching for food during rush hour. Prangsma added that an algorithm he had developed was starting to separate out the crucial data. “From a scientific point of view, this is a very rich dataset,” he said.

Over the months that followed, FaunaPhotonics continued to make progress. “Despite initial laser problems,” Brydegaard wrote in a recent email, “the systems performed to the satisfaction of all our expectations.”

Each day that the system was in operation, he said, they had recorded a staggering 100,000 insect observations. “Indications are that we can discriminate several species and gender classes of insects,” Brydegaard went on.

Along with his Lund University colleagues, Brydegaard will publish the results; FaunaPhotonics, as his commercial partner, will offer their lidar device, along with their analytic expertise, to companies and research organisations looking to track insects in the field. “If we have a customer that’s interested in a certain species, then we’ll tailor the algorithm a bit to target the species,” Prangsma explained. “Each dataset is unique, and has to be tackled in its own way.” Recently, FaunaPhotonics began a three-year collaboration with Bayer to continue developing its technology.

The study of wingbeat has come an incredibly long way since Olavi Sotavalta used his absolute pitch to identify insects – and yet in some ways, the Scandinavian scientists’ work differs very little from the Finnish entomologist’s. Just like Sotavalta, they are bringing separate disciplines together – in this case physics and biology, lidar and entomology – to uncover patterns in nature. But they have plenty of work left to do. FaunaPhotonics and its partners will start, in a forthcoming paper, by trying to connect the dots between light, lasers and mosquitoes. Then they’ll try to demonstrate that the study of wingbeat frequency could help humans control diseases other than malaria, as well as insects that destroy crops.

“This is a journey that is not a few months,” said Rasmussen, the engineer. “This is a journey that will go for years ahead.”

This article was first published by Wellcome on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Texas - Nature and Scientific Wonders

Smithsonian Magazine

The Seven Natural Wonders of Texas
Texas is famous for vast cattle ranches and oil booms, but our natural wonders are what awe and inspire travelers.

Natural Bridge Caverns
Located 13 miles north of San Antonio, Natural Bridge Caverns is one of the world’s premiere show caves and Texas’s largest natural attractions. Visitors can view more than 10,000 different formations in its underground chambers. More than 250,000 tourists a year visit this Texas treasure that was recently named to the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior for sites that have an important role in preserving cultural history.

Enchanted Rock
Located just outside the Texas Hill Country town of Fredericksburg, visitors are invited to backpack, camp, hike, rock climb, picnic, bird watch and star gaze in this Texas state park, which is the second-largest granite dome in the United States. The formation rises 425 feet above ground (1,825 feet above sea level) and covers 640 acres.

Big Bend National Park
Hailed as one of America’s largest national parks, Big Bend National Park encompasses more than 800,000 acres along the Rio Grande River in West Texas. The park ranges in elevation from less than 2,000 feet along the Rio Grande River to nearly 8,000 feet in the Chisos Mountains and encompasses massive canyons, rock formations and vast desert expanses.

Padre Island National Seashore
Visitors are sure to soak up plenty of sun on the Padre Island National Seashore, which is the longest remaining undeveloped stretch of barrier island in the world.

The Meteor Crater
Visitors can travel back in time in Odessa, where they can see the 550-foot meteor crater, the second largest in the nation, which was the result of a barrage of meteors crashing to the earth 20,000 to 30,000 years ago.

Big Thicket National Preserve
Nature enthusiasts will want to visit this national preserve where the southwestern desert meets the eastern hardwood swamps and coastal prairies meet the northern piney woods. The preserve is home to diverse plant communities including orchids, cactus, cypress and pine, as well as many species of birds, insect-eating plants and a wide variety of wildlife.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Famed as the second-largest canyon in the United States, the colorful slopes of the Palo Duro Canyon span approximately 120 miles long, 20 miles wide and 800 feet deep.

Outdoor Adventure: Not Just For Cowboys
Whether you are looking to camp, hike, bike, golf, swim, fish, hunt, horseback ride, bird watch or experience just about any other outdoor activity you can think of, Texas is the place to be.

With more than 267,000 square miles to explore, cyclists find many diverse and thrilling rides in Texas, whether it is through the mountains of West Texas or on the trails of the Piney Woods.

Texas also has a number of excellent spots to pitch a tent and spend the night under the stars. State parks, national parks, sandy beaches and nature preserves offer campers a vast variety of areas from which to choose.

One of the most majestic sites for camping and hiking is Palo Duro Canyon State Park in North Texas. If adventure is on the agenda, visitors have their choice at Big Bend National Park in far West Texas that encompasses more than 800,000 acres of mountains and desert along the Rio Grande River, where visitors enjoy hiking, camping, wildlife and more.

The fish are sure to be biting in the more than 90 freshwater lakes and saltwater bays of Texas. From tournament fishing for black bass to fly fishing for rainbow trout, Texas offers fishermen more than any other single state. Deep sea fishing excursions from South Padre Island, Corpus Christi and Galveston offer fishermen a chance to bring home a prize sailfish or shark as a souvenir from their day in the Gulf of Mexico.

For visitors who want to get their feet wet, Texas offers numerous swimming, rafting and scuba diving adventures. Located just 110 miles off the coast of Freeport, the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is a scuba diver’s paradise and a world premier diving destination.

With more than 600 species of birds to see and catalogue, Texas is arguably the birding capital of America. Famed birding areas in Texas include the Gulf Coast, Texas Hill Country and the Piney Woods of East Texas. Texas is also home to the World Birding Center, a network of nine birding sites dotted along 120 miles of river road from South Padre Island west to Roma along the Rio Grande River of South Texas.

Happy Trails: Discovering Texas Wildlife
Wild treasures in Texas go far beyond cattle, cactus and coyotes. In addition to a world-class bird-watching experience, adventurers who hike, bike, kayak or even camel trek their way through Texas will find opportunities to chase rare butterflies, spot an endangered ocelot, boat with dolphins or watch sea turtles make their nests.

The Rio Grande Valley is a canvas of color and a haven for nature and bird enthusiasts. The World Birding Center in Mission serves as a global model for conservation and ecotourism and is home to rare Altamira orioles and plain chachalacas. Just down the road, the International Butterfly Park serves as an 85-acre refuge attracting native flora and fauna as well as more than 290 species of butterflies. Weslaco’s Valley Nature Center is not only home to hundreds of bird and butterfly species but also 23 varieties of dragonflies and damselflies. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, the "jewel" of the U.S. National Wildlife refuge system, in Alamo, rounds off some of the Valley’s wildlife attractions. This refuge boasts 12 miles of walking trails and a seven-mile tour road that is open to both drivers and bicyclists.

Texas’s Gulf Coast draws whooping cranes and waterfowl galore, particularly in Rockport at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, which hosts the world’s last natural wild population of whoopers along with nearly 400 other bird species. Sea Turtle, Inc. on South Padre Island allows visitors to see endangered sea turtles and learn how its staff rescues and rehabilitates the turtles before releasing them back into the wild. Just across the island, the Dolphin Research and Sea Life Nature Center offers guests the opportunity to feed creatures including starfish, octopus and sea horses. The center also offers dolphin-watching boat tours.

In the Texas Hill Country, the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo are on display each spring along with other rare songbirds; and fall brings sandhill cranes to the Panhandle Plains region.

Outdoor enthusiasts are sure to fall in love with the rugged beauty of the Big Bend Region. Anchored by Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, visitors can take in dramatic vistas while enjoying hiking, camping, river running, horse riding, camel trekking, mountain biking and jeep touring. The park also has more than 450 bird species—more than any other national park. Float or raft down the Rio Grande River or for an out-of-the-ordinary touring excursion, contact the Texas Camel Corps for a Camel trek through the desert.

Tee Off in Texas
With a mild climate, a storied past and more than 900 golf courses strewn across rugged desert mountains, rolling green hills, piney woods and seaside links, Texas is blazing a trail in the world of golf. As lush public, private and resort courses spread across the Lone Star State, Texas is fast becoming a destination hotspot and golf-lover’s getaway.

Some of the top names in golf course design have left their mark on the Texas golf landscape, including Tom Fazio, Arnold Palmer and Robert Trent Jones. Golf Schools in Irving and Austin boast such famous namesakes as Byron Nelson and Harvey Penick.

If visitors do pack their clubs while visiting Texas, they won't be alone. We count more than 70 of the top PGA players as Texas residents. And many of the courses are stops on the tour itself, including the Shell Houston Open in Houston, the EDS Byron Nelson Championship in Irving, the Crown Plaza Invitational at Colonial in Fort Worth, the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio, the FexEx Kinkos Classic in Austin and the Tour Championship in Houston.

In addition to first-rate golfing, Texas’s golf resorts and destination cities boast an assortment of leisure activities, including world-class spa facilities, shopping and fine dining.

From the Gulf Coast to the Big Bend, visitors can play an unforgettable round of golf in Texas.

Just for Kids
Texas’s wide open spaces are matched in size only by the imaginations of its young travelers. Children of all ages can explore their biggest dreams here—or just get lost in the thrill of a theme park or the warm sun shining down on the Gulf of Mexico.

"Lil’ pardners" looking for a taste of the Old West can hop into the saddle at any of the more than 100 Texas dude ranches with cattle, cowpokes and authentic chuck wagon dinners. Bandera, "The Cowboy Capital of the World," is just northwest of San Antonio and offers such experiences. Families vacationing in urban areas can add a dose of cowboy flavor to their trips with an evening at the rodeo or a two-step lesson at an authentic dance hall.

Young travelers have much to experience at Texas’s world-class museums, zoos and aquariums. The Lone Star State houses everything from natural history and children’s museums to a tribute to Dr. Pepper. Kids can discover the past at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, blast off to new worlds entirely at NASA/Johnson Space Center in Houston or spy the night skies at the McDonald Observatory in West Texas. While in West Texas, another can’t-miss night wonder is the famous Marfa lights.

More new worlds are waiting underwater in the Lone Star State. The 600 miles of Texas beaches on the Gulf of Mexico are among the most calming and beautiful in the nation. Ideal family activities include parasailing, boating, dolphin watching, bird watching, building sandcastles, deep sea fishing and just relaxing on the pristine beaches.

Texas also has hundreds of old-fashioned freshwater swimming holes scattered throughout the state, from Barton Springs Pool in Austin to San Solomon Springs in Balmorhea State Park. The state is also home to numerous lakes perfect for swimming, boating, jet skiing and fishing.

Another outdoor activity for the whole family has a simple recipe—a tent, a cooler and the beautiful Texas scenery. Texas has plenty of parks, RV sites and cabins to set the stage for an evening under the stars. Beginning and experienced campers alike can enjoy hiking, backpacking and rock climbing from Palo Duro Canyon, in the Texas Panhandle, to the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Those wanting to get their adrenaline pumping need look no further than Texas’s theme parks, each with monster roller coasters, stunt shows, musical productions and fun rides for all ages. In addition, Texas is home to some of the nation’s best water parks. Families can also spend lazy days floating along Texas’s many lazy rivers, including the Comal, San Marcos, Frio and Guadalupe.

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