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Snapshot: Paris Underground

Smithsonian Magazine

An extensive network of abandoned quarries, sewers and subway lines twists beneath modern Paris. Read about this netherworld below then click on the main picture to view a photo gallery.

Origins: About 45 million years ago, Paris was part of a vast shallow sea whose shifting waters left sediment layers that over time compressed into massive stores of limestone and gypsum. The Parisii, the area's early tribal inhabitants, made little use of the resource. When the stone-loving Romans arrived in the first century B.C., they began a legacy of quarrying. By 1813, the year digging beneath Paris was banned to prevent further destabilization of the ground, some 170 miles of labyrinthine tunnels had been carved far below the city proper. In 1786, to stanch the spread of disease from overcrowded cemeteries, a portion of these old quarries were consecrated as burial grounds, and human remains were transferred there. Burials in the newly anointed "catacombs," both direct and as cemetery transfers, continued until 1860.

Napoléon Bonaparte ordered the creation of the underground sewer system, now some 300 miles long, in the early 19th century. Baron Georges-Eugène Haussman, the urban planner who shaped modern Paris, expanded the network, and it was finally completed in 1894 under Napoleon III.

Launched in 1900, the Paris Metro was not the first underground rail in Europe—London's Tube holds that honor—but it's one of the largest and most convenient. Almost every address in Paris is within a third of a mile of a Metro station.

The appeal: We love what makes us scream or squirm. In the catacombs, visitors descend more than 60 feet to a stone entrance bearing the warning (in French), "Stop! This is the Empire of Death." Beyond that welcome, the bones of six million people line the dim tunnels. Across town, tourists can channel the hero of Les Misérables, Jean Valjean, by exploring the city's sewer system. Those able to stomach the full tour pass through exhibits illustrating sewage technology to reach gangplanks that hover alongside a gently flowing river of water and human waste, sometimes even glimpsing a fat rat or two (toy versions of which are available in the gift shop).

Image by Click image for more photos / Bettman / Corbis. Small, chapel-like niches punctuate the catacombs' narrow passageways. Dimly lit by electric lights today, the passages and niches were once pitch-black, illuminated only by visitors' torches. A thick black line runs along the ceiling of the tunnels, originally drawn to help tourists stay on the correct path and out of the many dark, winding side passages that branch off into dead ends. (original image)

Image by Stefano Bianchetti / Corbis. The construction of Paris's modern sewers symbolized innovation, wealth and the power to sculpt the urban landscape—just as the Cloaca Maxima, or Great Sewer, did for ancient Rome. Perhaps more importantly, the underground sewage system helped keep Paris relatively clean and disease-free compared with most European cities. This illustration from 1858 depicts General Espinasse's visit to the main sewer below what is now the Gare de l'Est, or Eastern Train Station. The first dignitary to tour the sewers ranked even higher: Pedro V, King of Portugal, visited not long after the sewer tours began in 1855. (original image)

Image by Fred de Noyelle / Godong / Corbis. Before being interred in the catacombs, many of the remains originally were buried in traditional cemeteries. This sign indicates that the surrounding bones came from the ancient Madeleine Cemetery, were moved to the Western Ossuary in 1844 and were transferred to the catacombs in September of 1859. The first remains transferred were from the Cemetery of the Innocents, in the neighborhood of Les Halles. (original image)

Image by iStockphoto. Almost everyone who visits Paris goes underground for transportation. The Metro, the city's storied subway, has some 380 stations and is the densest underground rail system in the world. If you know where to look while riding, you can spot abandoned stations including the Croix-Rouge and Champ de Mars on the 8 line. Both have been closed for decades, and graffiti now covers their walls. (original image)

Image by Siobhan Roth. Ancient Rome's imperial glamour was not lost on Napoleon. Rome's famous catacombs drew tourists and inspired legends; so too, then, should the Paris catacombs. In 1809, Napoleon's prefect of the Seine, Count Frochot, and the Inspector General of the Quarries, Hériart de Thury, had the bones arranged in decorative patterns to impress visitors. A new tourist destination was born. (original image)

Interesting historical facts: In 1783, a porter named Philibert Aspairt got lost in the pitch-black quarry tunnels. His body wasn't found until 1804, just a few feet from an exit passage. During World War II, both the French Resistance and the Nazi forces used the ancient quarries as operational bases. Legend has it that they observed an unofficial ceasefire while underground. Until recently, farmers cultivated mushrooms, les champignons de Paris, in portions of the old quarry tunnels.

Famous sons and daughters: Many of the players in the French Revolution found their final resting places in the catacombs. Elizabeth of France, sister of King Louis the XVI, as well as the revolutionaries Robespierre and Georges Danton, all of whom were guillotined during the war, were buried in the catacombs—as was, perhaps, Madame de Pompadour, and the actor Scaramouche were among those transferred to the catacombs from the overcrowded cemeteries.

Then & Now: At the turn of the 19th century, the city was scandalized and titillated by the news of a secret concert held in the catacombs. On the program that night: Frédéric Chopin's Funeral March, Camille Saint-Saën's Danse Macabre and Ludwig van Beethoven's Third Symphony, the Eroica. Today, urban cavers, or cataphiles, throw parties, carve sculptures out of the limestone and decorate the walls with everything from basic graffiti tagging to minor masterpieces. Just a few years ago, police discovered in one of the tunnels a fully functional movie theater, some 4,300 square feet, powered by pirated electricity.

Who goes there?: Public tours of the catacombs commenced in 1810, and tours of the sewers began in 1867. From the start, crowds thronged at each. The king of Portugal was the first of many dignitaries to tour the sewers. Today, the Paris Sewer Museum and the Catacombs of Paris, on-site museums run by the city, draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. To explore all three sets of tunnels in one day, start with the sewers on the Left Bank of the Seine, then zip over to the catacombs by Metro.

Siobhan Roth, based in Washington, D.C., last wrote about a third-generation French perfumer for

Welcome to Rawda

Smithsonian Magazine

It's 8 p.m. on a Friday night at Rawda, a coffee house in the Al Sahin district of Damascus, Syria, and the regulars are filing in. They occupy chairs and tables under languid ceiling fans and a haphazardly joined ceiling of corrugated plastic sheets. Water pipes are summoned, primed and ignited, and soon the din of conversation is dueling with the clatter of dice skittering across backgammon boards.

Once a movie theater, Rawda is an enclave for artists and intellectuals in a country where dissent is regularly smothered in its crib. Lately, it has become a bosom for the dispossessed. The war in Iraq has triggered a mass exodus of refugees to neighboring Syria, and Rawda plays hosts to a growing number of them. Most are artists, orphaned by a conflict that has outlawed art.

"We can no longer work in Iraq," says Haidar Hilou, an award-winning screenwriter. "It is a nation of people with guns drawn against each other. I can't even take my son to the movies."

Some two million Iraqis have fled the sectarian violence in Iraq. They are Sunnis driven out by Shiite militias and Shias threatened by the Sunni insurgency. They include some of the country's most accomplished professionals—doctors, engineers and educators—targets in the militants' assault on the Iraqi economy.

But there is another war in Iraq, one on artistic expression and critical thought. Among the exiles slumping their way to Damascus are writers, painters, sculptors, musicians and filmmakers, who are as important to Iraq's national fiber as its white-collar elites. Rawda, which means "garden" in Arabic and was itself founded by Russian émigrés before World War II, has become their smoke-filled sanctuary.

"People from all walks of life come here," says dissident Abu Halou, who left Baghdad in the 1970s and is now the unofficial "mayor" of Syria's Iraqi diaspora. He says the owners were once offered several million U.S. dollars in Syrian pounds by a developer who wanted to turn Rawda into a shopping mall. "They turned him down," Abu Halou says, seated as always at the main entrance, where he appraises all new comers. "The family understands how important this place is to the community."

For the Iraqis, Rawda is a refuge of secularism and modernity against pathological intolerance back home. They swap tales, like the one about the Baghdadi ice merchant who was attacked for selling something that did not exist during the time of the Prophet, or the one about the motorist who was shot by a militant for carrying a spare tire—a precaution that, for the killer, betrayed an unacceptable lack of faith. In Syria, at least, the art colonists of Rawda can hone their skills while the sectarian holocaust rages next door.

"The militants believe art is taboo," says Bassam Hammad, a 34-year-old sculptor. "At least here, we can preserve the spirit of Iraq, the smells of the place. Then maybe a new school can emerge."

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Hammad says he was cautiously optimistic about the future. But as the insurgency grew in intensity, so did proscriptions against secular expression. Liquor stores were torched, women were drenched with acid for not wearing the veil and art of any kind was declared blasphemous. In July 2005, Hammad was commissioned by a Baghdad municipal council to create a statue that would honor 35 children who were killed in a car bombing. It was destroyed by militants within two months, he says.

Image by Stephen J. Glain. Once a movie theater, Rawda is an enclave for artists and intellectuals in Syria, where dissent is regularly smothered in its crib. (original image)

Image by Stephen J. Glain. "We can no longer work in Iraq," says Haidar Hilou, an award-winning screenwriter. (original image)

Image by Stephen J. Glain. Rawda, which means "garden" in Arabic, has become a smoke-filled sanctuary for writers, painters, sculptors, musicians and filmmakers. (original image)

Though Hammad turned down two more such commissions, he began receiving death threats taped to the door of his home. He remained locked indoors for five months before he abandoned Iraq for Syria. "They made me a prisoner in my home," he says. "So I came here."

Iraq was once legendary for its pampered bourgeoisie, and its artists were no exception. Just as Saddam Hussein, a frustrated painter who fancied himself an adept playwright, subsidized Iraq's professional classes, he also gave its painters, musicians and sculptors generous stipends. They were allowed to keep whatever money they could make selling their work, tax-free, and the state would often buy what was left over from gallery exhibitions. Like athletes from the old Soviet Union, young students were tested for artistic aptitude and the brightest ones were given scholarships to study art and design, including at the Saddam Center for the Arts, Mesopotamia's own Sorbonne. Iraqi art festivals would attract artists from all over the Middle East.

In a surreal counterpoint worthy of a Dali landscape, Baghdad under Saddam was a hothouse for aestheticism and culture. "It was so easy to be an artist then," says Shakr Al Alousi, a painter who left Baghdad after his house was destroyed during an American bombing raid. "It was a golden age for us, providing you stayed away from politics."

Filmmaker Ziad Turki and some friends enter Rawda and take their positions in one of the naves that abut the main courtyard. At 43, Turki was born too late to experience modern Iraq's artistic apex. A veteran of several battles during the Iraq-Iran war, he remembers only the deprivation of the embargo that was imposed on Iraq following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Turki studied cinematography at the Art Academy of Baghdad and after graduating made a series of short films with friends, including Haider Hilou.

In July 2003, they began producing a movie about the U.S. invasion and the insurgency that followed. They used rolls of 35-millimeter Kodak film that was 22 years older than its expiration date and shot it with a borrowed camera. Whenever firefights erupted and car bombs exploded, says Turki, the crew would grab their gear and compete with news teams for footage. Everyone on the project was a volunteer, and only two of the players had any acting experience. Post-production work took place in Germany with the help of an Iraqi friend who was studying there.

Turki called his movie Underexposed. "It's about what is going on inside all Iraqis," he says, "the pain and anguish no one ever sees." The film cost $32,000 to make and it won the 2005 award for best Asian feature film at the Singapore International Film Festival. (Critics hailed the production's realistic, granular feel, says Turki, which he attributes to that outdated Kodak film.)

Syria once had a thriving movie industry, but it was claimed decades ago by cycles of war and autocracy. There is little for a filmmaker to do in Damascus, even celebrated ones like Turki and Hilou. They are currently producing short documentaries about refugees, if nothing else, to lubricate their skills. Turki draws inspiration from Francis Ford Coppola but models himself on the great Italian directors like Federico Felinni and Luigi Comencini, who could finesse powerful emotions from small, austere films. "As a third-world country, we will never make high-tech blockbusters," Turki says between tokes from a water pipe. "Our movies will be simple, spare. The point is that they be powerful and truthful."

Turki fled Iraq in November 2006 after militant set fire to his home. Like his fellow émigrés, he is grateful to Syria for allowing him in. (Neighboring Jordan, also home to about a million Iraqi exiles, is turning many away at the border.) But he's not sure where he'll end up. "Frankly, I don't know where I'll be tomorrow," he says.

Tonight at least, there is Rawda, proudly anachronistic, an old-world coffee house in one of the planet's final Starbucks-free frontiers. It may seem strange that refugee artists would find asylum in an authoritarian state like Syria, but perversity is one of the Arab world's most abundant resource these days. A war that was waged, retroactively at least, in the name of liberty and peace has made a neighboring autocracy look like an oasis.

"Art requires freedom of expression," says Hammad, the sculptor. "If we can't have it in Iraq, then at least we can create art in exile."

Stephen J. Glain is a Washington, D.C.-based contributing editor to Newsweek International.

What Richmond Has Gotten Right About Interpreting Its Confederate History

Smithsonian Magazine

In the past couple of weeks, how we remember and commemorate the Civil War has undergone seismic shifts. The city of New Orleans is in the process of removing four monuments that celebrate Confederate leaders and an 1874 attempt by white supremacists to topple Louisiana's biracial Reconstruction government. In Charlottesville, Virginia, a court injunction temporarily halted the city's plans to sell its Robert E. Lee monument while alt-right leader Richard Spencer led a torchlight protest this past weekend reminiscent of Klan rallies of the past. White supremacist support for the Lee statue will likely strengthen and broaden the call to remove this and other Confederate monuments throughout the city. Curiously, however, the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, has not seen a similar outcry. Why?

The city boasts some of the most significant sites of Confederate commemoration. Its famed Monument Avenue is studded with massive statues of Generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart along with the president of the confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Thousands of Confederate soldiers and officers, and Davis himself, are buried in the city’s Hollywood Cemetery—a sacred space for white Southerners grappling with defeat. Veterans’ reunions, battlefields, monument dedications, parades and the opening of the Confederate Museum in 1896 helped solidify the city itself as a shrine to Confederate memory by the beginning of the 20th century. If ever a city was ripe for calls to remove Confederate monuments, it is Richmond.

But beyond scattered acts of vandalism, locals have remained largely quiet. Part of the reason why is that over the years, the city has recognized changing perceptions of the Confederacy—and officials have addressed concerns that public spaces devoted to the city’s past do not sufficiently reflect Richmond’s diversity.

In the past few decades, Richmond has dedicated new monuments that have greatly expanded its commemorative landscape. A statue of homegrown tennis star Arthur Ashe joined Monument Avenue in 1996—arguably one of its most high-profile and controversial additions. While some Richmonders welcomed the statue, others argued that it would “disrupt the theme of the avenue,” and both its supporters and detractors mocked the statue itself.

In 2003, the city dedicated a monument of Abraham Lincoln and his son to mark the president’s April 1865 visit following the abandonment of Richmond by the Confederate government. The dedication helped re-interpret Lincoln's visit as a symbol of slavery’s end as opposed to the entrance of a conquering tyrant. While in Richmond just 11 days before his assassination, Lincoln famously corrected newly freed slaves who knelt at his feet: "Don’t kneel to me,” Lincoln responded. "That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will afterward enjoy." Four years after the Lincoln statue was erected, the city installed the Richmond Slavery Reconciliation Statue, a 15-foot bronze sculpture depicting two enslaved individuals embracing not far from the center of Richmond's former slave market.

The Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, located on the grounds of the capitol building and dedicated in 2008, celebrates the efforts of African-American students in rural Prince Edward County. Their decision to protest the condition of their school led to one of the lawsuits that comprised the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education.

Taken together, these monuments point to a city that in recent years has proven a willingness to acknowledge its dark past, using its public spaces to highlight history that reflects and inspires the entire community. This goodwill is also revealed in monuments that the community declined to erect. In 2008, the Sons of Confederate Veterans hoped to place a statue of Jefferson Davis holding hands with his son and Jim Limber—a mixed-race boy who lived with Davis and his family for approximately one year—on the grounds of the American Civil War Center near the Lincoln statue. The SCV hoped to highlight what they believed was Davis's liberal outlook on race, but the deal ultimately fell through after the museum, a private institution, revealed it would use the statue to demonstrate "how people choose to remember" history.

Over the course of the five-year sesquicentennial of the Civil War, no city was more active than Richmond. In addition to Virginia’s official state commission, numerous city institutions joined forces not to celebrate the war (as was the case 50 years earlier during the centennial), but to work toward understanding it in its totality, including slavery and emancipation. Museums large and small, including the Black History Museum and Cultural Center, National Park Service, American Civil War Museum, Virginia Historical Society and Museum of the Confederacy, offered a wide range of lectures and educational programs and new exhibits, while The Future of Richmond's Past hosted a series of community conversations about the history and memory of the war that attracted roughly 2,000 residents.

The collective narrative that emerged by the end of the sesquicentennial would have been unidentifiable to white Richmonders who experienced the centennial in the early 1960s. The centennial catered to an exclusively white audience that featured reenactments of major battles and focused on honoring the soldiers on both sides without acknowledging slavery as the cause of the war or emancipation as its most important result. One civil rights leader described it as a "stupendous brain-washing exercise. This time around, Civil War events attracted segments of the community who had never considered the city's Civil War and its continued relevance to their own lives and the broader community.

No program better reflected the tone of Richmond’s Civil War self-reflection than its culminating event, which took place in April 2015, a week before the 150th anniversary of the Confederacy’s surrender. At night artists projected simulated flames against buildings in the area that were burned by fleeing Confederates. Black and white Union troop reenactors and an Abraham Lincoln impersonator marched triumphantly through city streets before throngs of visitors. The event marked not just the defeat of the Confederacy, but also the liberation of a large segment of the city's black population. Among the keynote speakers was Mayor Dwight C. Jones, who is African-American. He characterized the event as "a testament of just how far we've come."

Before the end of the war, Richmond was the United States’ second-largest hub of slave dealing. Today, it continues to preserve and come to terms with its connection to slavery and the slave trade. Ongoing efforts to preserve Lumpkin’s Slave Jail and Archaeological Site, uncovered in 2005, engage and challenge the community on how best to interpret and memorialize the city's legacy.

In the wake of the murder of nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina by Dylann Roof in 2015, Richmond's historic St. Paul's Episcopal Church—known to many as the "Cathedral of the Confederacy"—removed plaques honoring Lee and Davis and images of the Confederate battle flag to an area in the building where they could be properly interpreted. The church continues to host public forums to discuss this decision and has invited historians to engage the church community about the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. There are plans to erect a memorial to honor the enslaved community of St. Paul's Episcopal.

Richmond's efforts in this area have not been without missteps, nor have they allayed suspicions of older African-Americans who have lived too long in a community that refused to see beyond its sites of Confederate memory. In a Boston Globe report about the city’s Confederate past, African-American community activist Ana Edwards remarked, ““Right now, truly, these monuments are just literally the grandest things the city shows off, and therefore it represents us. This is hard. It makes you feel like you live in two different places.”

At some point, Richmond may experience the same demands to remove Confederate monuments that have been heard elsewhere. But for now, it may be more helpful to reflect on why this hasn't yet taken place in the former Confederate capital. Perhaps Richmond offers other communities important lessons about how they can successfully navigate the many landmines at the intersection of history and memory.

Kevin M. Levin is a historian and educator based in Boston. He is the author of Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, now available in paperback and the forthcoming collection of essays, Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites. He is currently working on Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth for the University of North Carolina Press. You can find him online at his website: Civil War Memory and on Twitter.

This Tilting, Twirling Artwork, Sculpted Entirely of Sticks, Is Having a Shindig

Smithsonian Magazine

There’s a magical ascendency to Patrick Dougherty’s work. The world-renowned sculptor, who twists switches and saplings into towering whimsical structures, holds a kind of sovereignty over the simple stick.

You wouldn’t immediately recognize his supremacy upon meeting the mild-mannered craftsman from North Carolina, but he has created more than 250 site-specific sculptures on four continents over the past three decades using hundreds of truckloads of sticks.

“A stick is an imaginative object,” says Dougherty, while taking a break recently from the installation of his new work Shindig at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

A parade of playful tent-like structures lean against the gallery walls or appear to be roaming about the 2,400 square-foot room. Soaring 16-and a-half-feet-high, the tips of their switches tease at the ceiling lights of the newly renovated museum. They look, in fact, like individuals possessing a hint of a mischief, as if when the lights go down at night they might take off in a whirl of dance.

Patrick Dougherty is one of nine contemporary artists featured in the Renwick's new exhibition "Wonder." (David C. Calicchio)

But by day, they evoke that primordial need for shelter, and visitors will likely want to hide inside of them.

“I think we have a kind of shadow life of our hunting and gathering past, especially in our childhood play. Because a stick—a piece of wood—is an object that has an incredible amount of vibration for us,” says Dougherty. In a child’s hands, a stick becomes a marching baton, a flute, a sword or even just a simple tool to poke at, or flick something away.

“Sticks really give me a lot of energy,” he says. “I’m very keen to the material and I feel like I sense the potential of a sapling.”

Indeed, since his first visit to the Smithsonian Institution in 2000 when he built Whatchamacallit at the National Museum of Natural History, Dougherty has become known as the "Stickman."  And like a capstone to a full and engaging career, he returns now to welcome the Renwick Gallery back to life as it reopens on November 13 after a two-year, $30 million renovation, and as one of nine contemporary artists in the museum’s inaugural exhibition entitled “Wonder,” named for the awe and splendor that these works bring to the museum’s galleries.


Image by Zan Maddox. Ain't Misbehavin' 2010,Winthrop University, Rock Hill, South Carolina (original image)

Image by Duncan Price. Call of the Wild, 2002, Museum of Glass, Tacoma, Washington (original image)

Image by Fin Macrae. Close Ties, 2006, Scottish Basketmakers Circle, Dingwall, Scotland (original image)

Image by Chandler Curlee. Double or Nothing, 2011, Washington University, st. Louis, Missouri (original image)

Image by Sapristi-Emmanuell Tran-le. Fit for a Queen, 2014, Ville de Nantes, France (original image)

Image by Doyle Dean. Just Around the Corner, 2003, New Harmony Gallery, New Harmony, Indiana (original image)

Image by Paul Kodama. Na Hale 'Eo Waiawi, 2003, Contemporary Art Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii (original image)

Image by Charles Crie. Sortie de Cave, 2008 Jardin des Arts, Chateaubourg, france (original image)

Image by Solku Choi. Traveling Companions, 2013, Deokpyeong Ecoland, Seoul, Korea (original image)

Image by Rob Cardillo. Summer Palace, 2009, Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (original image)

To Dougherty, the stick is a tapered line of a drawing. He thinks of his works as illustration and the sticks as the lines of his drawing. But the ease with which he does his work is illusory. There's a lot more to it then it seems. Only after years of painstaking craftsmanship, can he build them as if by magic.

First there is the gathering of the material. Volunteers clamor to help. “There are a lot of closet stick gatherers out there, it turns out,” he says with a chuckle.

And then later, the volunteers join him to build the structure. Dougherty starts the process, crafting out the base of the structure, marking it with paint or rope and then weaving it all together stick after stick before finally finishing it, loosening, clipping and correcting, with his only tool—a pair of pruning clippers. Sometimes his volunteers are a little too good at weaving, he says, a little too tight sometimes. "I'll go around and loosen it up and give the surface a sense of the flyaway."

And the weaving is nothing like that of a basket. “Don’t go horizontal or vertical,” he tells his helpers. “It’s not geometric. We want it to be more loose and friendly.”

Dougherty found his artistry only after a first career as a hospital administrator, But in the early 1970s, after leaving his job to care for his two children while his first wife worked, he bought property and built a home by hand, using as guidance the how-to Foxfire books, popular with the back-to-the-land movement of the time.

Finding in that creation his passion, he went back to school and sought training as an artist. His first sculpture—a funerary piece, evocative of a cocoon—he built out of maple saplings at his backyard picnic table.

“One could imagine a kind of personage in there for its final resting place,” he recalls. The work entitled Maple Body Wrap was included in the North Carolina Biennial exhibition. And Dougherty’s career took off from there.


Dougherty says he wanted his sculpture Shindig to look as if the "forest is kind of acting up within the geometric space of the gallery." (Ron Blunt/ Renwick Gallery/ SAAM)

His influence was the artist Robert Smithson, known for his provocative large scale earthworks. “I was kind of bent on making really big things. Smithson’s work freed up my mind. I didn’t have to follow the normal rules. Smithson stepped out of line, but for me that was the beginning,” he laughs.

The busy artist has been traveling the world making one monumental sculpture after another from Scotland to Korea to Australia and across the United States, one every three weeks after which he takes a week off—as many as ten a year. He’s booked solid through 2017. Here in Washington, D.C., the sculpture he’s crafted is one he thinks of as “natural beings, windswept, or energized and activating the space.”

An energy perhaps that is channeled from their creator, who beneath his thoughtful and patient demeanor seems never to rest. (He didn’t own a sofa until his second wife, Linda Johnson Dougherty, the chief curator of contemporary art at the North Carolina Museum of Art, made him buy one—because he never sat down.)

The challenge of his schedule and the constant travel is underscored by the simple way he gathers his materials, patiently teaching, instructing and showing his volunteers as if he is mentoring hundreds of future stick sculptors. He explains the best wood—maple saplings are his preference but sweetgum will do. No, he doesn’t like poplar—cutting and bundling, and then bringing them to the next location.

At the Smithsonian, the sticks had to be custom prepped. Leaves were removed and then the wood was frozen first to kill pests and then treated with a fire retardant.

"If you had a drawing on a piece of paper, you're making tapered lines," says Dougherty. "All of these sticks are pretty tapered and so there is a sense of energetic motion." (Ron Blunt/ Renwick Gallery/ SAAM)

Each site where he is invited to work is a blank page or canvas, says the artist who rarely comes with a design in mind.

“I don’t do research. I try to remember how I feel about a place and I make word associations with each location so that I can try to get something going,” he says. It might be something someone says. Or the way the trees line up on the horizon or the way a rooftop of a nearby building fits into the landscape. And soon the creative process begins. “I start imagining that I could make something provocative in that space.”

Dougherty, dressed in jeans and greeting a reporter with a solid workman's handshake, explains his art in a refreshingly uncomplicated manner.

How long do they last? "One year and one pretty good year." Why do they lean? "For fun." Why are they so inviting? “Everyone, even adults, responds to the idea of simple shelter. There’s a call to just go in there and sit.”

And why call this work Shindig? “They are having a hell of a good time.”

Patrick Dougherty is one of nine contemporary artists featured in the exhibition “Wonder,” on view November 13, 2015 through July 10, 2016, at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

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Minnesota - History and Heritage

Smithsonian Magazine

Historic Fort Snelling (St. Paul)
The restored fort welcomes you to the 1820s. Soldiers, fur traders, servants, cooks, tradesmen, officers and laundresses are eager to share their stories with you.

Take part in the fort's everyday life. Shoulder a musket, mend clothes, scrape a hide or sing along with soldiers' songs. Take tea with Mrs. Snelling or sample the soldiers' bread ration. Shop for supplies at the sutler's store, where only the prices are modern. At historic Fort Snelling, visitors are always welcome and the modern world is checked at the gate. A multimedia exhibit in the officers' quarters shows how historians have traced life at the fort. Back in the visitor center, take in exhibits and films and browse through the gift store. The visitor center has exhibits, film and a gift shop and is open daily from May to October and on weekdays from November to April.

Charles A. Lindbergh Boyhood Home & Interpretive Center (Little Falls)
Now you can hear the whisper of pines from the porch where he slept, enjoy the home's cozy kitchen or walk the trails along the river.

In the basement of the home, young Charles Lindbergh enjoyed tinkering with all things mechanical. His adolescent dreams of flight brought him a job flying the mail. Later, in 1927, he was the first to fly alone over the Atlantic Ocean, for 33-and-a-half hours in a single-engine plane. When he landed safely in Paris, Lindbergh's place in history was assured. The house, which contains original furnishings and family possessions, was built in 1906. A visitor center features a gift shop and exhibits about Lindbergh's family, inventions and aviation accomplishments. Learn about Lindbergh's interest in conservation and the natural beauty of the state as you walk along the Mississippi River on the site's nature trail.

Split Rock Lighthouse Historic Site (Two Harbors)
Split Rock Lighthouse served for nearly six decades as a guide for maritime traffic through the busy shipping lanes of Lake Superior. Today, you can tour the light keeper's dwelling, fog-signal building and the lighthouse, all as they were in the 1920s.

As you explore the visitor center's exhibits, film, store and light station grounds, you'll learn about the building of the light station and about life as a keeper in this remote setting. Tour guides and costumed characters depict the lives of the early lightkeepers and their families, and describe the famous storms that caused many a shipwreck along the rocky North Shore.

Plan a little extra time to enjoy the spectacular views! Shipwrecks from a mighty 1905 November gale prompted this rugged landmark's construction. Completed by the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1910, Split Rock Light Station was soon one of Minnesota's best known landmarks. Restored to its 1920s appearance, the lighthouse offers a glimpse of lighthouse life in this remote and spectacular setting. Tour the lighthouse, fog-signal building and the restored keeper's dwelling. A visitor center features an award-winning film, exhibits and a museum store.

Historic Murphy's Landing (Shakopee)
Historic Murphy's Landing is a unique living history museum that preserves and interprets 19th century life in the Minnesota River Valley. The idyllic wooded setting that stretches along one and a half miles of scenic river valley brings alive the charm and challenges of life in the 1800s.

Families, history buffs and adventurers of all ages can step in this historic village, which features the rich diversity of early American life.

Visitors can stroll through the site or ride on horse drawn trolleys. Their journey will cover the early days of the fur trade era when people traveled by footpath and canoes, to the bustling village with its shops, homes, church, town hall and railroad depot. Throughout the historic site, costumed interpreters are prepared to spin a tale, demonstrate their craft and explain the daily life of men, women and children. Music and entertainment often fill the daily village routine. Guests may enjoy a beverage, lunch or a keepsake at the gift shop.

Fall Season Special Events
Old West Days: October 6 and 7
Old Fashion Halloween: October 27

Winter Season Special Events
Folkways of the Holiday: November 23 to December 23. Experience what life was like for settlers of all ages living along the Minnesota River Valley during the 1800s. Visit with costumed interpreters in our frontier-era farms and recreated village of Eagle Creek; ride a horse-drawn trolley; enjoy music and demonstrations. Check our Web site for special event dates and times.

Minnesota State Capitol Historic Site (St. Paul)
The Senate, House of Representatives and Supreme Court chambers have been restored to their original appearances. The public is welcome to dine in the newly restored Rathskeller cafe. The Legislature meets the first months of each year. During sessions, all galleries and legislative hearings are open to the public. The Supreme Court hears cases in its historic chambers the first week of the month. Free guided tours that explore the architecture, history and stories of significant Minnesota citizens begin every hour until one hour before closing. Special events, specialized tours and educational programs are available for modest fees throughout the year. A handicapped entrance is available on ground floor front. This is a Minnesota Historical Society site.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum (Walnut Grove)
In 1874, 7-year-old Laura Ingalls and her family traveled by covered wagon from Wisconsin's big woods to the prairie of Walnut Grove. The Ingalls's first home was a one-room sod dugout in the banks of Plum Creek.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum's collections are housed in a series of interesting buildings. An 1898 depot exhibit relates the history of Laura through artifacts from the Ingalls era including Laura's handmade quilt.

Additional exhibits include an 1880s style "little red school house," an ecumenical chapel with artifacts from local churches and an onion-domed 1890 home with early 1900s period furnishings. Other exhibits include memorabilia from the "Little House on the Prairie" TV series, the Kelton doll collection containing 250 dolls dating from the 1870s and artifacts from early Walnut Grove businesses and agriculture.

The Wilder Pageant is held every July on the banks of Plum Creek west of Walnut Grove. The amphitheater setting has been developed to allow for extensive lighting, sound, special effects, and imaginative sets. The Wilder Pageant is a family-oriented outdoor theater production. It is a live performance each night, with all characters from the Walnut Grove area. Laura Ingalls Wilder narrates the story, reflecting on her life in Walnut Grove in the 1870s. It is our hope that visitors will take with them a sense of history and a deeper appreciation of the joys and hardships that challenged our ancestors when settling the prairie.

Mayowood Mansion (Rochester)
The Historic Mayowood Mansion is the former home of Doctor Charles H. Mayo, co-founder of the world renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester. The site has original furnishings and a one-hour guided walking tour. Call for reservations and tour availability.

SPAM Museum (Austin)
Our 16,500 square-foot museum honors SPAM family of products, one of America's oldest and best-loved icons. The SPAM Museum pays homage to the almost 70 year history, quirky joys and unprecedented excitement SPAM has inspired for generations of people worldwide. The self-guided tour is enhanced with our friendly and knowledgeable SPAMbassadors.

American Swedish Institute (Minneapolis)
Founded in 1929 by Swedish immigrant and newspaper publisher Swan J. Turnblad, the American Swedish Institute is housed in his family's 1904 mansion, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its French Chateau architecture, detail, craftsmanship and elegance make for one of the finest historic buildings open to the public in Minneapolis. The Indiana limestone exterior includes three turrets and gargoyles of lion and griffin figures. The interior features elaborate hand-carved oak, walnut, and mahogany, which took 18 craftsmen two years to complete. The centerpiece of the grand entrance hall is a two-story carved fireplace mantel. Eleven rooms are furnished with Swedish porcelain tile stoves called kakelugnar. A stained glass picture window, colorful sculpted ceilings and a ballroom with proscenium stage are other highlights.

Museum exhibits showcase collections of immigrant artifacts, Swedish glass, fine art, woodcarvings, decorative arts, textiles and more. The ongoing exhibit "Swedish Life in the Twin Cities" tells the story of Swedish immigrants who settled in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The American Swedish Institute is also the place to find Scandinavian gifts, jewelry, books, prints and other imports at the Bokhandel (bookstore) and Museum Shop.

The American Swedish Institute offers a variety of programs designed to celebrate Swedish culture in America. It is conveniently located just south of downtown Minneapolis at 2600 Park Avenue. Museum hours are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 12 to 4 p.m., Wednesday 12 to 8 p.m. and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. (Closed Mondays and holidays.) Museum admission is $5 for adults, $4 for ages 62 and above, $3 ages six to 18 and $4 for groups of 15 or more. Group tours can be arranged with advanced notice.

Mill City Museum (Minneapolis)
An attraction for all ages, the museum chronicles the flour milling industry that dominated world flour production for roughly a half-century and fueled the growth of Minneapolis, recognized across the nation and around the world as "Mill City." The museum is built within the ruins of the Washburn A Mill. The story of flour milling—and its impact on Minneapolis, the nation and the world—comes to life through the eight-story Flour Tower and other hands-on exhibits.

Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame (Walker)
Legends Hall contains video and memorabilia for 26 of Minnesota's fishing legends. Activity center includes games and activities for children. Free kids fishing pond with bait and tackle supplied.

Ironworld Discovery Center (Chisholm)
Ironworld Discovery Center, located on the edge of the Glen mine, is a museum that collects, preserves and interprets the history of Minnesota's Iron Ranges. The explosive growth of iron mining attracted thousands to northeastern Minnesota. Their courage and tenacity transformed a sparsely populated wilderness into a culturally diverse industrial landscape.

Experience the story of Iron Range mining and immigration: the life, the work, the place and the people. Explore history and heritage exhibits, ride a vintage trolley to a former mining location, marvel at spectacular mine views or acquaint yourself with the local history and genealogy collections of the Iron Range Research Center's renowned library and archives. The Iron Range Research Center contains one of the largest genealogical and local history collections in the upper Midwest. Researchers can access books, census and naturalization records, microfilmed newspapers, passenger arrival records, oral histories, photographs and more.

As the Minnesota iron mining industry exploded at the turn of the 20th century, people seeking economic prosperity and freedom immigrated to northern Minnesota from nations around the globe. These immigrants brought few material goods on their journey, but carried with them the rich traditions and customs of their homelands. Ironworld Discovery Center preserves this important period of American history.

Mille Lacs Indian Museum & Trading Post (Onamia)
The Mille Lacs Indian Museum, which opened May 18, 1996, offers exhibits dedicated to telling the story of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Trace their journey to Northern Minnesota, learn about their fate during a period of treaties made and broken and follow their story up to the present. The museum exhibit reveals information about the Band's life today, from how dance traditions are carried on to members' interests in music to sovereignty issues.

The museum features videos, listening stations and objects from traditional and contemporary Ojibwe culture, showcasing traditions of language, music, dance and art. A large collection of Ojibwe objects illuminates the lives of Band members, past and present. The Four Seasons Room, a stunning life-size diorama, depicts traditional Ojibwe activities in each season: hunting and spear fishing in winter, maple sugaring in spring, gardening and berry picking in summer and wild rice harvesting in fall.

The museum's crafts room serves as a demonstration area for traditional cooking, birch-bark basketry and beadwork. In a restored 1930s trading post next to the museum-a landmark along Mille Lacs Lake you can shop for books, crafts, clothing and souvenirs. All year, the museum offers demonstrations and classes on a variety of crafts.

April and May: Thursday to Saturday, 12 to 5 p.m. Memorial Day to Labor Day: Wednesday to Saturday and Mondays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 12 to 5 p.m.
September and October: Thursday to Saturday 12 - 5 p.m. October to April: By appointment for group and educational tours only. See calendar for weekend workshops and special events. Outreach programs and ITV programming also available. Educational group tours and special events are always available by appointment. Attraction Accessible to Disabled and can accommodate groups of 45 or more. Directions to Attraction from Nearest Town/Intersection Located on U.S. Hwy 169 on the southwest shore of Mille Lacs Lake, 8 miles south of Garrison, 12 miles north of Onamia.

Shimmy Through the World's Most Spectacular Slot Canyons

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

Antelope Canyon, Arizona

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

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

Image by Left_Coast_Photographer / iStock. Sandfall (original image)

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

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

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

Robber’s Roost Canyon, Utah

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

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

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

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

Siq, Jordan

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

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

Image by liseykina / iStock. Petra (original image)

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

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

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

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

Buckskin Gulch, Utah

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

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

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

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

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

Colored Canyon, Egypt 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claustral Canyon, Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arizona Hot Springs, Arizona

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

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

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

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

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Havana's Hidden Architectural Gems

Smithsonian Magazine

A high piece of wall came down in the middle of dress rehearsal. The musical was Victor/Victoria, the gender-bending comedy, and young dancers in black leotards ran and scattered in all directions, screaming, as the patch of plaster broke free, plummeted down, and landed with a harmless thud off stage right. A puff of powder marked the strike zone, amid elaborate lighting fixtures that run up each side of Teatro América. The big lights were designed to frame rising rows of seating and to illuminate the audience, not the stage. In the Havana of the 1940s and ’50s, the people themselves were the drama.

Jorge Alfaro Samá, the theater’s artistic director, didn’t move. Standing at center stage, he quickly dismissed the falling plaster as “nothing.” The dancers returned, to nervous giggles, and then listened to him finish reviewing their call schedule. Entire buildings collapse all the time in Havana, so losing a patch of wall or ceiling is routine, even in one of the city’s most cherished and popular venues. This is a dress rehearsal, Alfaro Samá reminded the actors—call it good luck and hit your marks.

Offstage, the director suggested that I follow him to a quieter location—presumably one with solid walls. We climbed up the long empty rows and crossed through the marble lobby, with its twin sweeping staircases and fat balustrades. Opened in 1941, the theater evokes an ocean liner, with its lack of straight lines and a floor mural of the Western Hemisphere wrapped in zodiac signs. It’s all curves and soft corners; extravagant art deco styling is squeezed into ticket booths and tangential lobby bars. Alfaro Samá led me through a small office, into a smaller one, and finally into a tiny area behind it, filled by his desk and the two of us. Like the innermost chamber of a snail’s shell, this is the impresario’s safe space. Photos of Latin performers who have appeared at the theater, dating back decades, crowded the little area behind him.

The problem of the plaster, Alfaro Samá said, was typical of Cuba. He was determined to restore the theater “to how it was in its golden age,” but could do little more than repair a few details. The space was heavily used (acts from rappers to musical theater were booked four nights a week, and I’d once felt imprisoned here during an hours-long rumba performance), allowing no time for proper restoration. Maintenance of a public building is the responsibility of bureaucrats outside the theater anyway. “I’ve worked here 18 years, and in that time we learned to work around problems,” Alfaro Samá said. They had patched walls and ceilings before, and they would do it again.

In more than two decades of reporting in Havana, I’ve grown accustomed to the visual signatures of the city: grimy old buildings, rattletrap cars, little that is new or bright. But that is only on the surface; in Cuba, there is always an inside, a life of interior spaces, and this is especially true amid the city’s hidden gems of architecture.

Teatro América is one such gem, concealed in plain sight behind a dull screen of gray polygon concrete on Galiano Street. When the theater opened, this part of Centro was the commercial artery of Havana, and the marble walkways held the names of now vanished department stores. Galiano is still chaotic—during my visit in March, I was nearly flattened by a man unloading smoked ham hocks from the trunk of a 1950s car, and had to push aside mattress vendors to reach the theater. But step inside and you are in the museum that is Cuban architecture.

There is no city in the world so layered with hidden beauty. Yet today, as Havana opens to the world, it is also poised at the edge of collapse. Love of the city, which I have visited regularly for a quarter century, brought me back looking for answers: Can a place long known for its decay become dedicated to preservation? What can be done to protect its architectural legacy? And how can that be accomplished while also meeting the growing demands of Cuba’s hard-pressed and ambitious people?

Lesson one: Keep your eyes peeled for chunks of falling plaster.

Performers at Teatro América, like these dancers on break, sometimes need to be wary of falling plaster. (João Pina)


Havana is a city easy to navigate, limited by the sea and divided from its suburbs by a river. Each neighborhood seems defined by historic landmarks. Old Havana, founded in 1519, still spreads out from the original Plaza de Armas, the civic space of medieval Spain. Next out from the harbor, in distance and time, is its modern equivalent, the Parque Central district, overseen by the National Capitol building, based on the Panthéon in Paris (not the U.S. Capitol, as sometimes claimed). Next are the elegant and faded apartment blocks of fin-del-siglo Centro, followed by the Vedado business district, still dominated by Welton Becket’s 1958 Hilton hotel, a 25-floor modernist statement renamed the Hotel Habana Libre. Beyond, there is the 20th-century suburb of Playa, visually defined by the spacious and arrow-straight Avenida Quinta (“fifth avenue”), lined with the luxurious mansions of Cuba’s old rich and miles of precise topiary.

Even symbols of communist power—the tower of what was once the Soviet Embassy in Miramar, or the barren asphalt plain of Revolutionary Square—have redeeming value in making orientation easy.

Then all you have to do is look up. “Havana is a library of architecture,” says Raúl Rodríguez, a Cuban architect-in-exile with a deep passion for Cuban history and architecture. “Every style is well represented there, and the reason for its magic is the tripartite culture”—African, American, European.

From the very beginning, the city was a mixture: star-shaped forts from medieval Europe, shaded Moorish colonnades, Greco-Roman columns, French landscaping, and the iconic Malecón seawall built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Exiled Bauhaus stars like Walter Gropius visited Cuba during the 1940s, and with an influx of influential Cuban architects trained at Columbia University, the city became an eclectic crossroads.

Various structures and styles competed for attention. In 1930, the Bacardi family built a tower named for themselves that mixed art deco with eccentric combinations of etched amber and steel, and terra-cotta bas reliefs by Maxfield Parrish. (Ask to see the old private bar.) I’m particularly fond of another art deco excess, the Maternity Hospital erected in 1940 by José Pérez Benitoa. The gorgeous Cine-Teatro Sierra Maestra movie theater, located in the Rancho Boyeros suburb, is art deco but features a Maya-motif interior.

The layers continue through 1958, with only a few gestures since then, notably the National Art Schools in suburban Cubanacán. It was there that a collective of Cuban architects turned a private golf course into a winding campus of vaulted rehearsal halls, terra-cotta painting studios, and elaborate classrooms. It was a utopian dream of social progress, but by 1965 the project had collapsed and was abandoned to the jungle. Now partly reclaimed, it struggles along like the revolution itself, leaking badly but still active.


Rodríguez is proud of that extensive catalog of eras past. But most critical to Havana’s architecture may be what has not happened since. “There’s a crust that has developed,” says Washington, D.C., architect Gary Martinez, “an age of time over the entire city.”

Martinez has visited Havana for 15 years, studying the city’s theaters, dance studios, and other public spaces. I asked him the question every visitor grapples with: What makes Havana—dirty, impoverished, dilapidated—so seductive? “We are overwhelmed by the visual complexity,” Martinez said. “The decay. The texture. The colors. The seemingly random organization of buildings. There’s nothing quite like it.”

He described finding an old theater with a retracting roof. Judging from its appearance, he expected it to be abandoned. Instead, he and some companions discovered men repairing cars in what used to be the lobby. Pushing farther inside, they found a dance troupe training onstage. Thanks to decades of improvised and incomplete repairs, the roof still retracted—sometimes.

The past has not passed, not in Havana. It’s very much present. And yet—this is the key—so are the Cuban people, persevering in the here and now, against the odds and after a span of many difficult decades. The result is a surreal overlap of eras, a time-travel experience on every block. That is the magic.

“They were fixing cars in the lobby,” Martinez marveled.

Image by João Pina. The National Art Schools began when Cuban architects turned a golf course into a winding campus of vaulted rehearsal halls, terra-cotta painting studios, and classrooms. (original image)

Image by João Pina. Inside the National Art Schools (original image)

Image by João Pina. The Hotel Nacional is a towering presence in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. (original image)

Image by João Pina. Opened in 1941, Teatro América evokes an ocean liner, with its lack of straight lines and a floor mural of the Western Hemisphere. It’s all curves and soft corners. (original image)

Image by João Pina. What makes Havana—dirty, impoverished, dilapidated—so seductive? “We are overwhelmed by the visual complexity,” says architect Gary Martinez. “The decay. The texture. The colors. The seemingly random organization of buildings. There’s nothing quite like it.” (original image)


I’ve had that moment—that strange, surreal feeling—often in Cuba. It occurred the next day when I walked the length of the Calzada del Cerro, a neighborhood that twisted toward Old Havana, each house fronted by a portico, loggia, or arched arcade that created one continuous shaded walkway for a mile or so. The richly ornamented 19th-century buildings had become dilapidated. One family invited me inside to drink strong coffee and watch baseball on a flat-screen TV. Rooms were separated only by towels, the stairs were jerry-built out of concrete blocks, the living room was now a garage, and tin roofing kept the rain out.

“The government said it would get the tiles we need” to maintain the historic character of the building, “but it never comes,” said Elmis Sadivar, the matron of the household. As we watched the ball game, she was anxiously checking her cell phone for updates about her adult daughter, who had recently left for America illegally. The family couldn’t afford to fix things themselves, she said: “A bag of cement costs half a month’s salary.”

Next door I found a man in his 70s trying to build a roof for his home, which in the meantime had blue-sky views. A house on the corner was similarly roofless, at least on the front side, and a careening garbage truck had recently taken out two of the four columns supporting the 19th-century arcade. People living in the back had refused to move out of the house, valuing the close-in location more than they feared the risk of collapse.


Yet the revolution has treated some of its treasures with great care. These include homes confiscated from wealthy exiles in 1959, many of them parceled out as embassies and cultural centers. The revolutionary government transferred the contents of those homes—a trove of ceramics, paintings, statues, and other objets d’art—to official buildings and Cuban embassies, as well as to small museums, including the Museum of Decorative Arts in Havana.

Located in the 1927 mansion of José Gómez Mena, whose sister María Luisa was a high-society Havana hostess and patron of the arts, the museum is an overstuffed repository of 33,000 knickknacks and other memorabilia. Sèvres porcelain and Louis XV vitrines are crammed everywhere, mounted on pedestals or encased in flimsy display cases that look vulnerable to any tourist stepping back for a selfie.

I’d come here to ask deputy technical director Gustavo López about our shared passion for art deco architecture, but he immediately clarified a point as we sat down in his office. American-style art deco is strong in Cuba, López said, but it’s not unique; it also exists in Florida and New Zealand. Colonial architecture is more often regarded as “the jewel here,” he explained. And the gems of colonial architecture are in Old Havana, the protected part of the city.

Old Havana, with its narrow streets and centuries-old fortresses, has been largely saved from ruin for one reason: “It had the good luck to be inside the jurisdiction of the city historian,” said López, speaking of Eusebio Leal, an unassuming but highly regarded official. Leal was given unprecedented authority in the early 1990s to rebuild the entire district, serving as its de facto mayor and renovation tsar.

The best example of Leal’s power and methods may be the Plaza Vieja (“old square”), which is, as the name implies, the oldest of Havana’s original five plazas. “I remember as a student climbing over mounds of rubble there,” López said, describing the 1980s. “You had to be careful.” Leal was allowed to create special tourism companies, which recycled income into new renovations that, in turn, created more tourism revenue. The process can be slow—in another neighborhood, I watched Cuban workers take more than a decade to renovate what is now the Parque Central, the district’s flagship hotel—but the improvements have been undeniable.

When I first saw the Plaza Vieja, in 1991, it was a wreck of marshy sinkholes and collapsing buildings, the houses all around it apuntadas, or “on points,” and braced against collapse. Today the Plaza Vieja is filled with restaurants and shops aimed at tourists, but it’s also populated by ordinary Cubans—elementary school students on a class trip, young lovers taking selfies, teenagers chasing soccer balls. The surrounding blocks are dense with longtime residents. “Against wind and tide, he’s done it,” architect-in-exile Raúl Rodríguez said of Leal. “He is a hero even to Cubans who left Cuba. What he has done is going to outlast him and us.”

But Leal’s brief has mainly covered Old Havana, and a few of the oldest historic sites outside it. In much of the rest of the city, budgets for architectural restoration are much less robust and don’t necessarily benefit from tourist revenue. Leal’s team has “more resources; they have their own methods,” López said with a sigh.

When the author first saw Plaza Vieja, in 1991, it was a wreck of marshy sinkholes and collapsing buildings. Today, the oldest of Havana’s plazas is filled with restaurants and shops aimed at tourists, but it’s also populated by locals. (João Pina)


Where no one has the resources or personal interest to help, however, gorgeous architecture crumbles to ruin. One elegant building at risk is the Club Náutico. This prestigious old beach club in Havana’s suburbs is an airy, overlapping series of shells designed in 1953 by Max Borges Recio, who also designed the Tropicana Club. The facility has been corroded by sea spray, a huge problem on the waterfront.

Other grand buildings have been lost in this way, including a seaside amusement park in Miramar called, improbably, El Coney Island. Rusted carousels and a tiny Ferris wheel once fronted a sea-facing pavilion here, but in 2008 Chinese investors replaced it with a concrete theme park called Coconut Island.

In 2013, Camilo Valls, a Cuban arts journalist, told me about a beautiful old Moorish theater whose landmark bronze doors had simply disappeared one day—looted. By 2016 he was losing hope: The imperiled buildings of Havana would soon be “all gone,” he said. Valls then described to me the new Cuban vernacular, which he called “kitsch style.” This is the cringe-inducing tendency to rip out historic features and replace them with new-money displays. People toss away “old” light fixtures and install made-in-China chandeliers and flat-screen TVs. I heard of one man who tore the corner off his art deco house—with a bulldozer—to build a media room for his PlayStation.

“There will be a disaster if we don’t have norms,” López told me.


One building that epitomizes those risks is the López Serrano, an elegant tower in the modern downtown. In 1932, the 14-story apartment building was the tallest structure in Havana, an emblem of modernism that evoked Rockefeller Center. It still has great bones—the ziggurats and shafts of the building, by Ricardo Mira and Miguel Rosich, make it a kind of vertical art deco—but walking up to it, I saw how badly it had aged. The gray concrete is sweat-stained, with many of the wooden window frames cracked and the odd piece of glass punched out and replaced with cardboard. Air conditioners and improvised laundry lines clutter the narrow spaces overhead; rain cracks begin near the roof and run down the facade.

“Five hundred and forty-four windows of real wood and glass,” explained Sarah Vega, a Cuban journalist who lives on the seventh floor. Vega has made a short film, Deconstruction, about the building’s history, which was designed to represent Cuban aspirations for a modern society. The twin portals at the front door are bronzed bas reliefs, still gleaming, and visitors pass through a marble lobby to twin elevators divided by “Time,” a bas relief by Enrique García Cabrera infused with aerial speed and futurism. An art deco clock used to sit over the sculpture but someone stole it. Even the light fixtures on the ceilings are wired shut to prevent anyone from swiping the fluorescent bulbs.

Vega gave me a tour of her apartment, which she shares with her mother and son. The López Serrano was aimed at Cuba’s rich, but the rooms are relatively small—the ideal customer also had a big country house. The 1932 bylaws even banned children—which was possible because this building was the country’s first co-operative apartment corporation, emblematic of Cuba’s turn toward an urbanized society. The building wasn’t progressive—the same 1932 bylaws banned black people from buying apartments—but the López Serrano was long associated with one of Cuba’s greatest heroes, the crusading reformer Eddy Chibás, who kept his offices on the top two floors. In the 1940s, Chibás railed against corruption and dictators from an office with sweeping views of the Cuban Republic. He shot himself while hosting his radio program one day, a suicide-protest commemorated with a plaque by the building’s front doors.

In ’59, the rich fled and the needy moved in. Vega is proud that empty apartments and houses across Cuba were handed out to the poor. But it was a “culture change,” she noted, with many new residents unconcerned with the López Serrano’s history or its preservation. It’s a pervasive problem: “People often don’t know where they are living, when it was built, if it was a famous architect,” said Gustavo López. “If you don’t care for what exists, it disappears.”

During the desperate economy of the 1990s, some of Vega’s neighbors began selling off elegant fixtures and even the building’s original toilets. That’s when the art deco clock over the elevator disappeared. “It’s not just money,” she said of the building’s problems. “It’s lack of knowledge.”

Image by João Pina. The López Serrano building (original image)

Image by João Pina. Visitors to López Serrano pass through a marble lobby to twin elevators divided by “Time,” a bas relief by Enrique García Cabrera. An art deco clock used to sit over the sculpture but someone stole it. (original image)


As in many endeavors, when it came to preserving the López Serrano, Cuban officials had good intentions and poor execution. Distant bureaucrats with scarce resources oversaw the building, making sporadic and only partly effective repairs—the massive front doors were refurbished, but when new elevators were installed, workers trimmed away marble detailing to make them fit. For decades the government vowed to fix the original windows but recently gave up pretending. Residents would have to pay for the job themselves. “That costs a lot of money,” Vega said. “We can’t afford it.”

Perhaps this is the greatest threat to the López Serrano: No one really owns it anymore. The revolutionary government nationalized all apartment buildings in 1959, but about a decade ago retreated from that policy, returning ownership of apartments to the residents. Yet the government retains responsibility for the shared public spaces and exteriors. That works in high-priority areas like Old Havana, but in the rest of the city, decay is the rule. Many buildings look substantially worse now than when I first arrived in 1991. An astounding portion of the city’s buildings are roofless wrecks. No one is truly in charge.

Sarah Vega’s mother suggested they would forge ahead, offering a Cuban truism: “We’ll fix what we can, with what we can get, with what we have,” she said.


The ziggurats of the López Serrano point to a difficult future. If the residents there—at least some of them more educated and historically conscious than the average Havana resident—are incapable of saving their building, what of the rest of the city, and of Cuba?

Paradoxically, there may be hope in Cuba’s economic weakness: In a land with little money but plenty of skilled craftsmen, simple forms of preservation are often the best option. Wealthy foreign developers are not allowed to overwhelm whole neighborhoods, yet Cubans, as they gradually earn more money, can renovate bit by bit. Part of one building becomes a restaurant, a house becomes a hotel, and even without a master plan, the scale of a block and the character of a district are maintained. “Kitsch style” encroachment could be staved off by strengthening Cuba’s historic preservation standards, particularly for exemplary buildings.

Architect Gary Martinez favors this approach. Huge areas of the city are fallow, with buildings either underutilized or simply abandoned, he said; let people fix them up, slowly, on their own. “There is so much building stock,” noted Tom Johnson, his business partner, “that it can almost infinitely accommodate small changes.”

There is also talk of big change—the Cuban government has asked for investment to rebuild the port of Havana, with new and much needed housing on the far side of the harbor. But Havana’s social peace will depend on keeping Habaneros invested in the city themselves. Just as Eusebio Leal has been able to preserve the residential character of Old Havana as he rebuilt it, others should be empowered to extend that model to other parts of the city. The challenge is to accommodate the next Havana, even while preserving all of the previous ones.

Read more from the Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly Cuba Issue

Hawaii’s Last Outlaw Hippies

Smithsonian Magazine

The Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose.
—J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan

The first person I meet in the Kalalau Valley is a shoeless veteran from the Iraq War with a sun-faded REI backpack slung over his tattooed shoulders like a trophy. Barca, as he calls himself, heard that a kayaker had abandoned the pack in a beach cave and made a beeline out to the bluffs to claim it.

Visitors are always just throwing stuff away in this place. Over here, a folding chair with a broken arm rest. Over there, a half-empty fuel canister. Now, the backpack—that’s a rare find. “Do you know how much these are worth?” Barca asks me.

In, like, dollars? Ten, tops.

“A lot!” he says without waiting for my answer.

Barca, who is 34, subsists as a scavenger deep inside the Nāpali Coast State Park on Kaua‘i’s west coast. The centerpiece of this 2,500-hectare park—the Kalalau Valley—forms a natural amphitheater that opens to the ocean and the ocean alone. The valley’s steep, green walls rise up on three sides like curtains, sealing it off from the island’s interior. Glassy threads of water are tucked into every crease of these walls, cascading down from a height greater than Yosemite Falls. First farmed by Polynesian settlers centuries ago, this remote paradise is nothing short of a feral garden, a breadbasket bursting with nearly everything a crafty human specimen needs to survive. “This is the closest that mankind has come to making Eden,” Barca says. “When the avos are in season, we eat avos. When the mangoes are in season, we eat mangoes.”

Barca is one of the squatters who lives in the Kalalau Valley, in the Nāpali Coast State Park on Kaua‘i’s west coast. (Brendan Borrell)

If you’re wondering whether he’s allowed to be living off the land here, the answer is no. Barca is a squatter in the eyes of the Hawaiian state government; he’s an eco-villain, a rule-breaker who needs to be eradicated. Barca, naturally, calls this slander. “If you don’t love this place with all of your heart, you couldn’t live here,” he says. Though he has only been a resident for eight months, which by valley standards makes him a relative newcomer, he’s already well on his way to becoming an expert in what he calls “Kalalau-ology.” He’s not only a trash recycler, he’s also a defender of the land, a gardener, a botanist, a cultural interpreter, and an anarchist-theorist. His tendency to grin and stroke his goatee when he’s talking gives him a puckish air, which underscores his antiestablishment streak. Spotting a group of tourists clambering across a stream in their pristine Gore-Tex boots, he is contemptuous. “Most of the people who come out here don’t know how to live in the woods,” he says. “They don’t even bury their shit!”

His rapid-fire diatribe is a lot to take in during my first five minutes in the valley, particularly since I’d woken up before dawn to hike the 18-kilometer trail to get here. At the moment, what I want more than a feast of mangoes or a discourse on backcountry sanitation is a place to drop my own pack, which I paid US $200 for and filled with a week’s worth of freeze-dried provisions (the horror). But where to sleep? Camping permits are hard to come by in Eden, and I hadn’t been able to get one before my last-minute trip, so, like it or not, I, too, would have to be an outlaw. I ask Barca if he knows any low-key spots to pitch my tent.

“Follow me,” he says, wrapping a kaffiyeh around his head to shield it from the sun. He needs to pick up an old cooking grate from another campsite and knows of the perfect hideaway for me. The next thing I know, he is off, bounding from rock to rock in his bare feet. To my right, I look down and dizzily watch the waves crashing over rounded stones more than 30 meters below. Next, we hug a boulder and Barca points toward a tunnel in the vegetation that leads to a campsite invisible to the rangers hunting squatters from helicopters.

After dropping off my things, Barca and I head down to the white sand beach and he unspools his life story. After a tour of duty in Iraq a decade ago, he struggled to make sense of the fact that he had killed people and had been nearly killed himself. “I had my issues when I got out,” he says.

Kalalau Valley (iStock / MartinM303)

He worked as an archaeologist in Northern California but realized that he was ill-suited to modern society. He felt as if his brain, rattled from his war years, needed a respite. He was repelled by the idea of walling himself off from his neighbors in a house in the suburbs or paying taxes in support of a system he no longer believed in. Even the idea of ordering a coffee each morning—from that multinational corporation with a mermaid logo—was too much. “It was hard to come back to the real world and take the minutiae of the day seriously,” he says. He’d get angry. He’d get drunk and fight. A friend told him about this dreamlike valley in Hawaii where you could live in the eternal present. Kalalau. He came. He stayed. “I don’t know if any place has felt this much like home to me,” he says, shortly before dropping his camouflage cargo shorts and diving into the surf.

Barca is not the only one who has felt such a bond with this place. Since at least the 1960s, the Kalalau Valley has been a magnet for long-haired hippies, crystal-stroking New Agers, deodorant-free backpackers, and others seeking a spiritual awakening—or at least a good place to skinny dip. During the Vietnam War, a group of draft dodgers and disillusioned veterans living in tree houses at the end of the paved road on the north coast realized that it would be the perfect place to grow marijuana in the summers.

It was the peak of counterculture activity, but as the years wore on idealism smacked into the messiness of society. This haven transformed from an idyllic retreat to a millennial party zone and an occasional pirate’s lair, and right now tolerance is wearing thin. After a local woman was killed when her car was hit by a fugitive named Cody Safadago who had spent some time in Kalalau last spring, the state launched a crackdown to clean out the squatters. They ticketed a total of 34 people last year and took at least one man out in handcuffs. Barca escaped unscathed. “I fucking live here and I know which way to run,” he says. “It’s my house and you’re not going to get somewhere in my house faster than I am.”

Sympathy for the squatters’ plight was scarce around Kaua‘i, however. Photos from the raids showed town folk just how elaborate the valley camps had become. One camp was outfitted with an earthen pizza oven and a queen-sized bed on a bamboo frame and contained what the state referred to, somewhat hyperbolically, as a “marijuana growing operation” complete with solar- and battery-powered lights. The valley also featured a secret movie theater and a library—a musty old tent filled with vintage treasures like The Joy of Partner Yoga and a book of Cat Stevens songs. All told, the state hauled out 2.5 tonnes of trash. “There’s a sense of entitlement,” Curt Cottrell, head of Hawaii’s state parks, told me. “People were crapping on archaeological sites and digging in the beach sand like cats.”

The squatters have made themselves comfortable in the valley, building beds, furniture, and a pizza oven. (Brendan Borrell)

The uproar brought to the fore deep questions about race, sovereignty, and the future of the natural world in commodified, modern Hawaii. How can society benefit the most from a place like Kalalau with its complicated history? Do we give it over to the well-heeled tourists who book hiking permits six months in advance or pay $200 a person for 60-minute helicopter tours? Or does it still belong to the native Hawaiians who rarely visit, but whose ancestors were the first to shape the landscape? And what do you do about the haole (white) outlaws like Barca who, in their ragamuffin way, carry on the countercultural project of the 1960s and maintain some kind of order in a place with only an occasional government presence.

The one thing that is undeniable is that the valley is one of the most desirable places in the world for people who have practically nothing to take a break from the rules and rituals of modern life and eke out a simpler existence. Barca calls it a “Disney forest,” a tropical refuge devoid of venomous snakes or man-eating tigers, where almost everyone speaks English and looks pretty much like everyone else. Living here is like popping a Prozac each morning but without all the bad juju. A fruit smoothie for your soul—or something like that. All I know is I want to experience it before it’s gone.

There’s no easy way into Kalalau. The ring road that wraps around Kaua‘i has a 30-kilometer gap that is the Nāpali coast. For most of the year, the ocean is too rough to bring in a kayak. Motorized boats are forbidden, and the state has cracked down on locals offering an illegal water taxi service. Your best bet is to lug in supplies on the Kalalau Trail, which crosses five steep valleys and has been called “the most incredible hike in America.”

The cliff-side path also happens to be one of the world’s most dangerous. One wrong step at Crawler’s Ledge could send you careening into the sea. The many stream crossings are prone to flash flooding. At the three-kilometer mark on Hanakāpīʻai Beach, a white cross stands in honor of Janet Ballesteros, a 53-year-old woman who drowned there in 2016—the 83rd victim of its treacherous waters, according to a somewhat dubious tally on a sign there. Along with nature, you also have to contend with the people. In 2013, for instance, an Oregon man on a bad acid trip shoved his Japanese lover off a cliff.

Before my trip in July, it was hard to find information on how effective the raids really were and how risky it would be for me to head there. Mango, a former resident who had fled for greener pastures in Oregon, told me he was still getting text messages from a satellite communicator that the valley residents had at their disposal. I was surprised to learn that some of the most die-hard Kalalau outlaws were actually supportive of the rangers. “They are the predators culling the herd,” another regular visitor told me. “They are keeping the people in there strong and vigilant.”

My best bet for sneaking in undetected is to leave before sunrise one Saturday morning. As the first light breaks through the forest canopy, I pad my way down the trail and try to envision what this place was like before the squatters or anyone else set foot here. For one, I would have found little relief from the sun’s rays. The six-meter-high guava trees that now make up most of the forest were only introduced in 1825, and they quickly outgrew the native Hawaiian flora that featured a more open canopy.

In the late 1700s, when George Dixon, a British fur trader who once served under Captain James Cook, sailed along this coast, he concluded that it was barren of civilization. “The shore down to the water’s edge is, in general, mountainous, and difficult to access,” he wrote. “I could not see any level ground, or the least sign of this part of the island being inhabited.”

Dixon was, of course, mistaken. Thatched huts blend in well with the vegetation. In Kalalau, which offers about 80 hectares of agricultural terrain, the population likely numbered in the hundreds, according to subsequent missionary censuses. The oldest known human settlement on Kaua‘i, which dates to the 10th century, was situated at Kēʻē Beach—the starting point of the Kalalau Trail.

While the Nāpali coast is often described as a “wilderness,” the truth is it’s more like an abandoned supermarket surrounded by some epic scenery. The place is crisscrossed by stone walls, remnants of the terraced gardens, or lo‘i, Hawaiians constructed hundreds of years ago to cultivate taro, the principal “canoe plant” that Polynesians moved across the Pacific. These settlers gradually replaced the native forest shrub lands with kukui nuts and ginger, along with pili for their thatch roofs.

Kalalau Valley (iStock / MartinM303)

Later residents and white ranchers brought in livestock, including goats, pigs, and cattle, and planted the guava and Java plum trees that form most of the forest. “As in many lowland areas in Hawaii, introduced plants now form entire communities, dominating major portions of the park,” reads a 1990 report from Hawaii’s Division of State Parks. The Kalalau Valley, the largest valley in the park, is one of the few places on Kaua‘i where you won’t hear roosters crowing each morning. Instead, the forests are filled with another immigrant, Erckel’s francolin—a ground bird from Africa.

As the valley’s hodgepodge ecosystem took shape, it also began to develop its outlaw reputation. In 1893, after a group of American businessmen overthrew the queen of what was then the Kingdom of Hawaii, they decided to round up native Hawaiians under the auspices of a leprosy quarantine.

Sheriff Louis Stolz and two policemen headed out to Kalalau to remove one rogue band of lepers. There, a cowboy named Kaluaikoolau, or Ko’olau, shot the sheriff twice with a rifle, killing him, and became a hero of the native resistance. A bungled manhunt ended with more casualties and Ko’olau remained in the valley, unpunished, until his natural death two years later. “Free he had lived, and free he was dying,” the author Jack London eulogized in a short story about Ko’olau’s life.

Kameaoloha Hanohano-Smith, whose great-grandfather was part of the last generation to grow up in Kalalau, says it took a while for the Hawaiian people to understand what was happening to their culture. “One day we were a kingdom, and the next thing we knew we were part of the US,” he says.

In December 1959, Ebony magazine profiled the only permanent resident in Kalalau: a black physician named Bernard Wheatley (“a crank, a holy man, a schizophrenic and a genius”) who spent a decade living in a cave there until hippies started crowding him out. “Longhairs seek a place in the sun on Kaua‘i,” reads one headline from the time. The Hawaiian state government bought the property in 1974, and tried to evict the squatters before establishing the park in 1979, but they came back. They always come back.

“We were free-minded people looking for a better place to live without the restrictions of society,” says Billy Guy, who first visited Kalalau after serving as an army medic during the Vietnam War and has returned for long stretches over the decades. “I’m fulfilling a dream.” By the mid-1990s, there were as many as 50 or 60 haole frolicking in a paradise that the kanakanative Hawaiianshad created.

Freedom means different things to different people. While the hippies and latter-day outlaws may chafe under the norms of mainstream society, they still have to create their own rules for living together peacefully. The most that even the most hopeful can hope for is not a society without rules, but a tolerant one. And a tolerant place is bound to attract its share of misfits.

From the beginning, something seemed a little off about Cody Safadago. He had washed up in Kalalau last April with almost no possessions and had taken over a communal camp down by the beach. He was a rough-looking fellow in his early 40s with a buzz cut and two fleshy lips that hung on his face in a permanent scowl. Safadago had spent time in prison for beating his wife back in Washington State and, in 2014, was arrested in Belize after absconding from his parole officer and fleeing the country. He had been bumming around Kaua‘i since January at least, and had been arrested for disorderly conduct and assaulting an officer.

Billy Guy first visited the valley after his service in the Vietnam War. (Photo by Brendan Borrell)

The people of Kalalau were wary of Safadago. He insisted, incessantly in almost every conversation he had, that he was God and everyone should bow down before him. “I talked to him for literally two hours,” says 30-year-old Carlton Forrest from Phoenix. “He was crazy, iced out beyond belief.” In the valley, it’s not easy to get help in the event of an emergency. The ranger station is usually empty, and cellphones don’t work here. The “family,” as the squatters sometimes call themselves, knew they needed to boot Safadago before something terrible happened.

A rangy outlaw in his 30s, who asked me to call him Sticky Jesus, began dismantling Safadago’s camp one morning. Befitting at least one part of his name, Sticky has long brown hair and a prophet’s beard. “You need to leave,” he ordered Safadago, who was sprawled out in a lawn chair.

Safadago opened his mouth to protest, making wild accusations about other residents. Sticky spun around and kicked him in the chest, knocking him out of the chair, according to an account described by Sticky and confirmed by other valley residents. “Can I just get my things?” Sticky remembers Safadago begging.

Sticky tossed a few of Safadago’s possessions his way and then pulled a flaming stick from the cooking fire and hit him with it as he retreated from camp. Safadago kept a low profile for a few days until he was ordered onto the back of a jet ski making an illegal drop-off and banished from the valley.

He wasn’t their problem anymore. At least that’s what they thought.

Safadago landed in the town of Kapa‘a, on the developed east side of Kaua‘i, where he got drunk and stole a Nissan pickup. He was driving over 140 kilometers per hour—three times the speed limit—when he crossed the centerline of the highway and struck a Mazda sedan head on. The young woman in the car, Kayla Huddy-Lemn, was pronounced dead at the hospital. Safadago stumbled out of the pickup—face covered in blood—and wandered up to a shopping mall, where he was arrested.

When a person dies like that, the whole island hears about it. About 50 kilometers in diameter, Kaua‘i is about the size of London and has a population of just over 72,000. As the news came out that Safadago had spent time in Kalalau, locals discovered a Facebook group called “Kalalau!” that appeared to show squatters moving stones from an ancient Hawaiian temple, known as a heiau, to divert water for farming projects. A hillbilly hippie named Ryan North (alias: Krazy Red), who spends a few weeks there every year, posted trippy videos of himself saluting the camera while bare-chested white women danced in hula skirts.

Squatters have built furniture and created homes for themselves in the valley. (Brendan Borrell)

“Bitches, this has nothing to do with race. It just so happens all of you fucked up, selfish Kalalau hippies are white,” one angry Hawaiian vented in a social media post.

Some observers complained that the squatters were collecting food stamps, known as electronic benefit transfers, to support their hedonistic lifestyle (true). Others argued that the place had become a breeding ground for sketchballs (sorta true). “You just don’t know who could be hiding out in Kalalau,” a woman named Kristi Sasachika told a local reporter. The vitriol was so worrisome that the Garden Island newspaper published an editorial warning locals against a “vigilante mindset.”

Long-term residents say that it’s not fair to lump them in with the careless partiers who often get dropped off by boat with a case of beer and a pile of Walmart camping gear they’ll probably leave behind. As in any society, there are good actors and bad ones. Kamealoha Hanohano-Smith, one of the locals with a genuine tie to the land, also takes a more measured tack. “I have a lot of aloha for people whether they are haole or whatever,” he told me over the phone. “I understand why they want to be there. They would love to believe they are appropriate stewards of the area, but the better thing would be for them to work with Hawaiian families.”


On my second morning in Kalalau, I decide to go looking for the community garden. Starting at the beach, there’s an official trail that heads about three kilometers up the valley before hitting the steep back wall. It’s possible to walk up and down that trail a few times before you notice an unmarked spur off to one side.

Follow it for a hundred meters and the forest canopy opens up and you can hear a trickling at your feet. A dozen rectangular ponds glisten in the sun, meter-high taro plants sprouting from their waters. Paths leading around the ponds are lined with papaya, banana, jackfruit, soursop, and chestnut trees—all free for the taking. Squatters were once expected to do some work if they wanted to gather some fruit. But things are different now. “There aren’t any rules anymore,” says a resident named Mowgli, who offers to give me the tour.

Slender and muscular with his long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, Mowgli helped restore these flooded terraces, and is one of the hardest workers in Kalalau. His former camp, which sits on a plateau nearby, gives off a Lord of the Flies vibedecorated with dozens of skulls from the goats and pigs he has slaughtered. The raids broke him. “It’s hard to focus on something when they want to take it apart,” he says. “This is one of the big tourist attractions in the valley,” he says of the garden.

Women rarely stay long in the valley, and their absence leads to a society heavy on testosterone. At the time of his visit, the author met 10 long-term residents, eight of them men. (Brendan Borrell)

“People want to come and see us and have Kalalau pizza,” says Mowgli’s female companion, whose only article of clothing is a baseball cap. She calls herself Joules. “Like the energy unit,” she explains.

I had given myself five days to explore the valley and immerse myself in the hippie-sphere. With a few notable exceptions, I learn that women like Joules rarely stay more than a few weeks in the valley, and, for whatever reason, they had become particularly scarce in the aftermath of the raids. At least during the time I was there, the testosterone surplus made the place feel less like a utopian kibbutz and more like a secret tree fort in your buddy’s backyard where girls are little understood or respected. Except these guys are adults. One offensive song I heard performed one evening referred to the “drainbow bitches” who “don’t do the dishes” after stopping in for a free meal. The men, nevertheless, longed for female company. “A woman who does stay has 10 guys trying to find her every day,” a 68-year-old bachelor named Stevie told me, drawing from his 35 years’ experience in the valley.

One evening, I sit with six other guys under the enormous mango trees at a camp maintained by a guy named Quentin. A bearded, genial host with a self-effacing manner, Quentin landed in Kalalau after his dream of making marijuana chocolates fizzled. “It was overwhelming,” he says of his failed attempt at capitalism. He tried to live out here with his girlfriend, but she couldn’t deal with the mosquitoes. “I started building things to make it more comfortable for her, like the cabinet by my bed,” he says, gesturing toward a bamboo console. “But really, she just didn’t like me.” She ended up hooking up with another guy in the valley—Sticky Jesus—when they were both back in town. “I really wanted to punch him in the face, and I even flicked him off once,” he says.

A handmade cabinet is a little luxury for squatters in the valley. (Brendan Borrell)

There was one tense evening when I thought a physical fight really might break out between two of the guys. I watched the only woman present slip away and head back to her tent. When I asked her about it later, she said it wasn’t the kind of experience she was looking for in Kalalau. The boys, she said, were lost in “never-never land.”

It’s remarkable that even in a place like Kalalau, people still get wrapped up in the same petty dramas they face living within four walls and with roofs over their heads. Paradise is never lost because it can never be found. People are jealous. They’re selfish. Thoughtless. Humans create societies for a reason. They create rules for a reason. A limited kind of social contract may exist in a place like Kalalau when few people are visiting and living there, but it easily frays in times of stress.

And as much as Kalalau—or the idea of Kalalau—means to the squatters, they are far from the only people who have a stake in its future.

Sabra Kauka, an educator in Hawaiian culture and past president of the Nā Pali Coast ‘Ohana, a nonprofit that works with the state to protect the valley’s natural and cultural heritage, says people like Quentin and Barca and Mowgli should not be living in Kalalau. It’s against the law and it’s an insult to the Hawaiian people. In the late 1980s, Kauka took part in early efforts to clean up the valley. She and a group of volunteers would haul rubbish down to the beach and load it into slings that helicopters would carry away. “It stunned me that people who wanted a wilderness experience would be so insensitive,” she says. At a certain point, she simply gave up. “You do not want to do volunteer work that makes you angry.”

A state parks archaeologist, Alan Carpenter, told her about a 14th-century village site along the shoreline, Nualolo Kai, accessible only by boat and fringed by the largest reef on the Nāpali coast. For the past 25 years, Nā Pali Coast ‘Ohana has focused almost all of its work at that site. They built fences to keep out goats and established a small native garden to preserve some of the region’s biodiversity. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, they have even brought back the remains of ancestors who were housed at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu and other repositories.

Image by Brendan Borrell. A library tent features all sorts of books to borrow. (original image)

Image by Brendan Borrell. (original image)

Image by Brendan Borrell. (original image)

Image by Brendan Borrell. (original image)

Now, under the auspices of Randy Wichman, a historian and the organization’s current president, they are finally making plans to bring their work back to Kalalau. Whether they can succeed in a place where they failed in the past remains to be seen. Wichman expresses some grudging admiration for the squatters’ ingenuity in terms of the work they’ve done on the lo‘i’s, but he says that some of them have done more harm than good. “Their intentions are good, but you obliterate history by not knowing exactly what you have,” he told me. “The valley would be stunning if it were in working order.”


In 100 years, when their tarps have rotted away and their footpaths have been lost to the forest, I wonder what place the outlaws will occupy in the grand story of Kalalau. Though reviled in some quarters, their ethics questionable at times, the outlaws’ reign demonstrated to the modern world the power of place to the collective psyche. The vulnerable, confused, damaged often end up here, to heal and to grow before they rejoin the world. It’s kind of wonderful. “We’re tool-using monkeys,” Barca told me when I first met him. Being part of an interdependent community like Kalalau feeds a deep primate urge. “Biologically necessary,” is how he put it. More necessary for some than others.

The head of state parks, Curt Cottrell, told me that when he first moved to Hawaii in 1983 as a “bearded hippie guy,” hiking the Kalalau Trail was one of two goals. (The other was hiking to the summit of Mauna Loa.) When his permit expired, he evaded the rangers by swimming a few hundred meters south to Honopū, the next cove over, for a day. When I ask him if one day the park will find a way to commemorate the hippie occupation, he offers a careful response. “We have no desire to erase that history,” he says, “but at this point in time, we don’t feel like celebrating it until we get the place cleaned up.”

Few women choose to live in the valley. (Brendan Borrell)

That may not be so easy. The agency has 117 staff members spread out over Hawaii’s 50 state parks. Kalalau is a priority, but there are so many places for squatters to hide that it’s impossible to kick them all out. The agency had asked the legislature for enough money to have two full-time staff members inside the park. Their request was denied.

Kalalau is already a very different place than it was just a few years ago. It’s undoubtedly the cleanest it has ever been. And apart from the intimate gatherings I’d witnessed up valley, the place had the feel of a ghost town. I spend my days exploring overgrown footpaths from one clearing to another, looking for abandoned campfire rings and other traces of recent human habitation. Even the official campsites were largely empty, hosting no more than 20 or 30 tourists each night while the state allows 60. Though native Hawaiians do visit and hunt inside the park, I met only outlaws during my visit.

Hanohano-Smith, who can trace his family back to the valley, says that he’d like to see regular Hawaiians—not just the state—playing a larger role in the future of Kalalau. He believes that his family should have free access to visit the land without vying for scarce permits and that Hawaiians should be able to benefit from it through jobs, possibly as teachers or guides. “It’s not just an issue of sustainability,” he says. “It’s the pride associated with being connected to the resources that provided for my family 1,000 years ago.”

On one of my last mornings in Kalalau, I see Sticky Jesus and Stevie loading their things onto a kayak on the beach. Stevie, the oldest resident out here, hasn’t been staying in the valley as often as he used to. Five years ago, he qualified for low-income housing and has a small home down in Kekaha. He loves Kalalau but at some point he knows he’ll be too weak to hike in or to take care of himself.

For Sticky, the story is a little more complicated. He is going to live in a van with Quentin’s ex-girlfriend and try to make a little money. I’m not sure if he’s going to come back, and I say as much. “I’ve got a house here still,” Sticky replies. “Most of it got taken a couple weeks ago, but I’ve got a good feeling about it.” He likes being free of his possessions.

A squatter named Stevie prepares to take off, leaving the valley where the outlaw hippies are increasingly unwelcome. (Brendan Borrell)

“You didn’t take it as hard as Mowgli?” I ask.

“I don’t take anything as hard as Mowgli,” he says.

The two squatters hop into the kayak and Carlton gives them one last shove into the knee-deep water. We stand there for a few minutes, watching them disappear around the red bluffs to the south, and then I head back up the trail into the valley. I’m not ready to hike out just yet. I’m not looking forward to pulling out my wallet and paying for a piece of produce with a sticker on it when the fruit out here will drop to the forest floor and rot away without someone here to harvest it. I just need one more day living as an outlaw in the Kalalau Valley. Maybe two.

Related Stories from Hakai Magazine:

The Brilliant, Troubled Legacy of Richard Wagner

Smithsonian Magazine

She is Richard Wagner’s great-granddaughter, and her life has been dominated by the light and shade of his genius. But as a teenager growing up in Bavaria in the 1950s and ’60s, Eva Wagner-Pasquier went googly-eyed for an altogether different musical icon: Elvis Presley. She remembers the excitement he stirred up more than half a century ago merely by passing through a neighboring town on maneuvers with the U.S. Army. So last year, joined by her American-born son Antoine, Eva finally trekked off to Graceland to pay homage to the King. “I’ve always wanted to go there,” she said, flipping open her cellphone to display the idealized image of Elvis she uses as wallpaper. “It was superb! We stayed at the Heartbreak Hotel, of course.”

The trip to Memphis was a lighthearted escape from the burdens of running a family business like no other. Since 2008, when Eva and her half-sister Katharina succeeded their father Wolfgang Wagner, they have directed the famed summer opera festival founded in 1876 by Richard Wagner and managed by his heirs ever since. In this bicentennial year of the composer’s birth, Wagner devotees are now setting forth on their annual pilgrimage to the seat of his still-powerful cultural domain: the charming city of Bayreuth (pronounced BY-royt), nestled far from Germany’s urban centers, in the rolling hills of Upper Franconia. “Wagner without Bayreuth,” observes the cultural historian Frederic Spotts, “would have been like a country without a capital, a religion without a church.”

From July 25 through August 28, the faithful will ascend the city’s famed Green Hill to the orange brick–clad Bayreuth Festival Theater—known globally as the Festspielhaus. It was built by Wagner himself to present his revolutionary works—among them his four-part Ring cycle, Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal—in the innovative architecture and stagings he felt they required. The Bayreuth Festival became the first full-fledged music festival of modern times, the granddaddy of everything from Salzburg and Spoleto to Bonnaroo, Burning Man and the Newport Jazz Festival. At Bayreuth, however, only Wagner’s works are presented. After his death in 1883, the festival and the theater became a hallowed shrine for his followers, many of whom embraced his ideology of fierce German nationalism, racial superiority and anti-Semitism. He was idolized by Adolf Hitler, whose rise was abetted by the Wagner family’s support in the early 1920s.

Through all the cataclysms of modern German history, however, the festival has endured. In the same week Eva Wagner was born in a neighboring village in April 1945, Allied warplanes leveled two-thirds of Bayreuth. Wahnfried—the stately home and gravesite that is the Wagners’ equivalent to Graceland—was 45 percent destroyed in the first of four bombing raids that all somehow spared the Festspielhaus. By 1951, the festival was up and running again under the direction of Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson, who had reinvented himself as a post-Nazi opera visionary and rebranded Bayreuth as a haven for avant-garde productions that have periodically offended traditionalists. Yet Wagner loyalists have not wavered, queuing up for a decade and more to attend. This year, for some 58,000 tickets offered for the five-week festival, there were 414,000 applications from 87 countries. The payoff, his admirers feel, is a direct encounter with the sublime. Set aside the associations with the Third Reich, they say, and allow this enthralling music and elemental drama to touch your soul.

If you’ve ever hummed “Here Comes the Bride” (from Wagner’s Lohengrin) or seen Apocalypse Now (the “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter assault), you have already sipped at the well. Those who have immersed themselves in Wagner’s full operas—lengthy and demanding, yet flowing and churning like a great river of thought and feeling—often experience a sense of awe. “It's so rich and deep—it's like a drug sometimes. If you give up and let go, it really drags you into a mysterious world,” Jonas Kaufmann, the celebrated German tenor, said on NPR in February.“His music is like nobody else’s, emotionally,” says Janet Ciriello, a member of the Wagner Society of Los Angeles who has attended the Bayreuth Festival “six or seven times” since 1985. “It grabs you, and you have to stay with it. Whatever the issue is—greed, or power or Eros—he somehow manages to encompass everybody’s feelings.” Adds her husband Nick Ciriello: “I love Donizetti, Mozart and Verdi, of course, and Puccini. All of these people stir you and grab you, but Wagner picks you up and slams you against the wall. You are in his hands. He’s the grand sorcerer.”

David McVicar, the noted Scottish theater and opera director, believes that potential Wagner fans have been unnecessarily scared off by the perceived difficulty of his works. “I don’t like the idea that any opera composer is approached as a kind of intellectual Everest to be climbed,” says McVicar, who has directed Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and the Ring cycle. “If you have the capacity, if you have the openness of mind, Wagner will talk directly to you. He’ll reach you. He’ll find things inside you.”

By the same token, McVicar says, people tend to find whatever they want in the Wagner cosmos and appropriate it for their own purposes. “Wagner did not create Hitler,” he says. “Hitler found what he was looking for in Wagner. There’s always the dark side and the light side—an inner tension in the works, because it was an inner tension within Wagner himself. I’m interested in the imagination of it. I’m interested in the brilliance of the music, which is on such a high level of inspiration.”

Over time, one’s appreciation intensifies, says Philippe Jordan, the Swiss-born music director of the Paris Opera. “The fascinating thing about Wagner is that it is easily accessible at the very first point—everyone understands the energy of “The Ride of the Valkyries”—but the more you get into his universe, the deeper you can go, and it’s a process which never stops,” Jordan says. “I’m conducting my third Ring cycle [in Paris] now, and I’ve discovered things which I hadn’t been aware of before, although I thought I knew the score very well.”

William Berger, author of Wagner Without Fear and commentator on Sirius XM’s Metropolitan Opera Radio, continually finds more to admire. Most recently, he says, he has been struck by the unity of the operas. “Tristan [und Isolde] is a perfect example,” Berger says, “because the first measure is a famously unresolved chord, and the last measure is the resolution of that chord. And all the five hours in between are getting from A to B.”


Image by Getty Images. This bronze portrait bust of German composer Richard Wagner, by artist Arno Breker, resides in Bayreuth, Germany, home of the annual festival honoring his work. (original image)

Image by WikiCommons. A portrait of Richard Wagner. (original image)

Image by © Bayreuther Festspiele. Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, half-sisters and great-granddaughters of Richard, have co-directed the Bayreuth Festival since 2008. (original image)

Image by © Bayreuther Festspiele. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which opened in 1876, as seen from the Festival grounds. (original image)

Image by © Bettmann / Corbis. Adolf Hitler walks through the gardens of Wahnfried House during the annual Bayreuth Festival in 1938, accompanied by Richard Wagner's daughter-in-law Winifred and her sons Wieland (right) and Wolfgang (at rear.) (original image)

Image by © Bayreuther Festspiele / Photo: Enrico Nawrath. The Wagner opera Parsifal is regularly performed at Bayreuth. Pictured here from top: Burkhard Fritz (Parsifal), Detlef Roth (Amfortas); in foreground: Kwangchul Youn (Gurnemanz), Susan Maclean (Kundry) (original image)

Image by © Bayreuther Festspiele / Photo: Enrico Nawrath. Lohengrin, performed here with Annette Dasch as Elsa von Brabant, and Susan Maclean as Ortrud, is the source of the tune commonly known as “Here Comes the Bride.” (original image)

Image by © Daniel Karmann / dpa / Corbis. The “Silenced Voices” is seen against the backdrop of the bust of Richard Wagner on the Festival Hill in Bayreuth, Germany. (original image)

Image by © Bayreuther Festspiele. Wagner’s opera house at the Bayreuth Festpielhaus had a number of innovative features for its time, including the sinking of the orchestra pit beneath a curved hood, to eliminate visual distraction for the audience, and the stripping out of the ornate tiers of side boxes where the haut monde normally swanned about and peered through gold–handled lorgnettes. (original image)

Born in Leipzig in 1813 and politically exiled to Zurich and Paris for more than a decade following the revolutionary uprisings of 1848–49, Wagner struggled for much of his early career to gain the recognition and rewards he felt were his due. He was quarrelsome, grandiose, manipulative—by many accounts an awful character. “He used women, deceived friends and was constantly groveling for money to pay for his luxurious lifestyle,” Dirk Kurbjuweit writes in Spiegel Online International. Even worse, from Wagner’s perspective, his operas were widely misunderstood and outright scorned by many of his contemporaries. “The Prelude to Tristan und Islode reminds me of the old Italian painting of a martyr whose intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a reel,” the noted critic Eduard Hanslick wrote in 1868. “Wagner is clearly insane,” suggested the composer Hector Berlioz. Taking a gentler approach, the 19th-century American humorist Bill Nye ventured, “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds”—a line frequently misattributed to Mark Twain, a Wagner enthusiast, who enjoyed quoting it.

By the time of his death in Venice in 1883, however, Wagner had become a cultural superstar. Wagner societies cropped up across the globe. He was hailed as the avatar of a new artistic order, the hero of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, “the idol of the impressionists, realists, decadents, postimpressionists, and modernists down to Proust and Thomas Mann,” the historian Jacques Barzun says in the 1958 edition of  Darwin, Marx, Wagner.

However powerful to non-Germans, Wagner’s works struck an even deeper chord with his countrymen, especially in the heady days that followed Germany’s unification in 1871. He had become a national symbol, like Shakespeare, Cervantes and Dante. There was an ugly side to Wagner’s conception of nationhood, however: He favored a Germany uncorrupted by Jewish influence, spelling out his views in a notorious pamphlet, Das Judentum in der Musik (Jewry in Music), which helped put wind in the sails of a nascent ultra-nationalist movement that fed on widespread hostility to Jews. “Yet even amid the chorus of nineteenth-century anti-Semitism, Wagner’s rantings stood out for their malicious intensity,” writes the music historian and New Yorker critic Alex Ross, who is writing a book on Wagner.

After his death, the composer’s widow Cosima Wagner (the daughter of Franz Liszt) solidified Bayreuth’s identity as the spiritual center of the movement. Wagner’s son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain became its intellectual leader, much admired by the young Hitler. As the future dictator rose in the 1920s, the Wagner family embraced him publicly. When Hitler was imprisoned following the failed beer-hall putsch of 1923, Winifred Wagner, Richard’s daughter-in-law, brought him the paper on which he wrote Mein Kampf. (She died in 1980, still believing in his greatness.) As chancellor, Hitler became a regular guest at Wahnfried and the Festspielhaus: Bayreuth had become “Hitler’s court theater,” in Thomas Mann’s well-known phrase—a reputation which dogs the festival to this day, as do any vestiges of cultism.

Philippe Jordan admits that he hesitated to go to Bayreuth before he was engaged to conduct Parsifal at the festival last year. “I always was fascinated by Wagner and I always loved him, but I wanted to avoid the ‘German’ Wagner and this kind of pilgrimage which you associate with Wagner and Bayreuth, a kind of fanaticism,” says Jordan, who will conduct the Vienna Symphony Orchestra next season. “Wagner is not just a German composer for me—he’s universal. He was the very first pan-European composer.”

In the end, Bayreuth’s genial atmosphere and idyllic setting were a pleasant surprise, Jordan found, and very conducive to performing. “The people there are not fanatics—they just adore his music.” He adds, “Music, by itself, is not political. Music itself cannot be anti-Semitic. Notes are notes, and music is music.”


Needless to say, Germany has changed dramatically since 1945, and today is arguably the best governed and best behaved major power in the world. On the lovely grounds of the Bayreuth Festival Park, just below the opera house, an outdoor exhibition, Verstummte Stimmen (Silenced Voices), individually commemorates the Jewish artists who had been banned from Bayreuth in its darkest period; a number of them were eventually murdered in death camps. The heroic bust of Wagner fashioned by Hitler’s favorite sculptor, Arno Breker, glares at the tall memorial placards. “Germany is the only country that has constructed monuments lamenting its most shameful episode,” Avo Primor, the former Israeli ambassador to Germany, commented in Bayreuth at the opening of the exhibition in July 2012.       

The association of Wagner and Nazi Germany remains so firm that his music is not yet performed publicly in Israel. “There is still the feeling, which I respect, that as long as there are Holocaust survivors, we don’t have to force it on them, not in public places,” explains Gabriela Shalev, an Israeli college president and former U.N. ambassador, who attended the Bayreuth Festival a year ago and was greatly moved. “We can listen to it at home, with friends. Most of us go abroad—people who want to hear Wagner can hear him in London, in New York, in Munich.” Shalev’s maternal grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz, but she grew up in a German-speaking home surrounded by German books and culture. Her parents listened to Beethoven and Wagner. “So this is part of the ambivalence that I as a Jew and Israeli bought to Bayreuth,” she says.

The Jewish conductors James Levine and Daniel Barenboim are among the leading interpreters of Wagner in our time, at Bayreuth and elsewhere. Leonard Bernstein was another whose love of the music kept him performing Wagner in spite of profound misgivings. The late New York Philharmonic conductor explored his conflicts in an unreleased 1985 documentary segment filmed, appropriately enough, in Sigmund Freud’s examination room at 19 Berggasse in Vienna. He asked:

“How can so great an artist—so prophetic, so profoundly understanding of the human condition, of human strengths and flaws, so Shakespearean in the simultaneous vastness and specific detail of his perceptions, to say nothing of his mind-boggling musical mastery—how can this first-class genius have been such a third-rate man?”

His answer did not resolve matters.

“I come out with two, and only two clear, unarguable truths,” Bernstein said. “One, that he was a sublime genius of incomparable creative power, and two, that he was a disagreeable, even intolerable megalomaniac. Everything else about Wagner is debatable, or at least, interpretable.”

Endlessly so. In 1924, biographer Ernest Newman apologized for producing four volumes on the composer. “I can only plead in extenuation that the subject of Wagner is inexhaustible,” he wrote. Today thousands of books are listed in the Library of Congress catalog under Wagner’s name. Still more have been published in this bicentennial year, as 22 new and revived Ring productions are being mounted across the world. Yet each generation comes to Wagner anew, starting from scratch, as it were.

One such newcomer is Antoine Wagner-Pasquier, who, like his mother Eva, tends to shorten his name to Wagner for simplicity’s sake.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, raised mainly in Paris and London, Antoine studied theater at Northwestern University and filmmaking at New York University, traveled widely, learned to speak six languages and became a rock video producer and photographer. He has also learned a thing or two from his father, French filmmaker Yves Pasquier. Antoine was slow to come around to the Wagner family’s history, but now, at 30, has made a film with Andy Sommer, Wagner: A Genius in Exile, shown this spring on European TV and released as a DVD on July 1. It retraces Wagner’s journeys through the mountainous Swiss landscapes that influenced the creation of the Ring cycle. A high point, in every sense, was finding the very spot, above the clouds, where Wagner said he was inspired to write “The Ride of the Valkyrie.” “I felt like I'd been walking through his sets,” Antoine says.

With his background, could he see himself taking on a role at Bayreuth someday?

“I’m slowly going towards that,” he says. “In the near future, I have other plans, other desires. But it’s true that if it presents itself one day, it’s not something that I’ll just kick out of the process, but something that of course I’ll consider.”

That may or may not be music to the ears of his mother, Eva,

She grew up in Bayreuth back when her uncle Wieland and father Wolfgang directed the festival. She lived on the grounds of Wahnfried for many years. She remembers climbing around in the rafters of the Festpielhaus as a young girl, scaring the wits out of the watchman on duty. But her family life had all the Sturm und Drang of the Ring cycle. There was a long estrangement from her father after his second marriage, and always a good deal of controversy, family feuding and gossip—artistic, financial, political. It comes with the territory. The Wagners are the royal family of German culture, with all the public scrutiny that entails.

The result has been to focus all of Eva’s energy on the thing she cares about most, which is the survival of the Bayreuth Festival as a living and ever-evolving cultural enterprise refreshed by new productions of her great-grandfather’s works. It is an enormous, year-long effort involving hundreds of artists and craftspeople in a remote location, all for a short, five-week series of world-class opera performances.

“It starts when you have a little model,” of the proposed stage set, she said several months before the opening of this summer’s much-anticipated new Ring production by Frank Castorf. “And then the designer comes in, and the director, and now, suddenly, last week, this little model was already on stage for Das Rheingold. It’s like a miracle, like a birth—something absolutely outstanding.”

And then, on opening night, the first extended note of the Ring will emerge from the silence of the Festspielhaus orchestra pit, and the drama will begin anew.

Leonard Bernstein quotes are courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

The National Parks Face a Looming Existential Crisis

Smithsonian Magazine

When I drove with forest ecologist Nathan Stephenson on the twisted Generals Highway through Sequoia National Park in central California last September, it was like a tour through the aftermath of a disaster. As we zigzagged up the road in his car, Stephenson narrated our journey blithely, like a medical examiner used to talking about death. “There’s a dead skeleton there,” he remarked, pointing to a bony oak corpse jutting toward the sky. A haze of nude branches clung to the distant slope.

“So all that gray up there is dead live oaks,” he said.

Above us, a band of brown streaked across the slopes—dead pines, their remains still standing upright in the forest—and when we reached nearly 6,000 feet, Stephenson parked on a gated road and led me into a desolate scene of parched earth and dying trees.

Tall and lanky as a sapling, with angular shoulders and a neatly trimmed white beard, Stephenson—who, at 60 years old, has worked here since he began as a National Park Service volunteer nearly four decades ago—looked like he could have sprung from the forest himself. Today, as a full-time research scientist with the United States Geological Survey, stationed in the Sierra Nevada, one of Stephenson’s main jobs is to keep watch over these trees. He tromped through a carpet of brown needles and paper-dry oak leaves to show me a deceased Ponderosa pine about six feet wide at the base and as tall as a 15-story building. Someone from his research crew had peeled the bark back to reveal the cause of death: the curled signature of a pine beetle etched into the wood.

“And there’s another Ponderosa pine,” he said, pointing a few feet away. “They all died.”

Drought suppresses a tree’s ability to make sap, which functions as part of both its circulatory system and its immune system against bugs. About a decade ago, even before the historic California drought, Stephenson and his colleagues saw a slight but noticeable uptick in the number of insect-inflicted casualties in the forest—twice as many as when he started his research—and he suspected that the rising temperatures were stressing the trees.

The mass death of trees, pines especially, accelerated after the winter of 2014-2015 when the weather went haywire and Stephenson walked the foothills in a short-sleeved T-shirt in January, and again during the record-low snowfalls the following year. Then came the swarms of beetles, which appear to be thriving amid the warmer temperatures. That spring, “it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, everything’s dropping dead,’” Stephenson recalled.

Since then, about half to two-thirds of the thick-trunked pines at this elevation have been lost, along with an increased number of fatalities among other species like incense cedars (trees that seemed so hardy before the drought that Stephenson and his colleagues used to call them “the immortals”). His crew keeps a running count of the casualties, but the park doesn’t intervene to save the trees.

Image by Visual by Thom Halls for Undark. Nate Stephenson has spent most of his life as a government scientist working in these forests, and he has witnessed the changes brought on by rising temperatures. (original image)

Image by Visual by Thom Halls for Undark. Tourists arrive in Sequoia National Park and quickly see the results of the drought and the infestation of the western pine beetle. (original image)

Image by Visual by Thom Halls for Undark. Stephenson traces the tracks of the fir engraver beetle for an autopsy patch on the side of a dead white fir. (original image)

Even though the National Park Service is charged with keeping places like Sequoia “unimpaired” for future generations, it doesn’t usually step in when trees meet their end because of thirst and pestilence. Droughts and insects are supposed to be normal, natural occurrences. But it’s hard to say whether the changes witnessed here—or at neighboring Kings Canyon National Park, or at national parks across the nation—still count as normal, or even “natural,” at least as park stewards like Stephenson have long understood the term. And those changes raise a lot of prickly questions that cut to the very heart of what keepers of public lands do, and how they perceive their mission.

After all, even as tens of millions of tourists throng through their gates every year to get a glimpse of the “wild,” official policy has, for decades, directed scientists and managers to keep the parks they oversee as untainted as possible, looking as nature would if humans had never intervened. But how do you preserve the wilderness when nature itself is no longer behaving like it’s supposed to? How do you erase human influence when that influence is now everywhere, driving up temperatures, acidifying oceans, melting glaciers, and rapidly remaking the landscapes we’ve come to know as our national parks?

In Alaska, boreal forest trees are rooting into the previously treeless tundra. The javelina, a hoofed, pig-like mammal, has wandered north from part of its traditional range in southern Arizona into Grand Canyon National Park. The glaciers of Glacier National Park are withering in the heat and will probably be gone in less than 15 years.

Under the Obama administration, the park service took on climate change as a kind of combat mission. A quote from then-National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis is still emblazoned across a number of agency websites: “I believe climate change is fundamentally the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced.” Three years ago, a memo sent to directors and managers of every region of the park service confessed that “some goals described in our current planning documents reflect concepts of ‘naturalness’ that are increasingly difficult to define in a world shaped by an altered climate.”

Those realizations were already upending the park service and its affiliated agencies when the nation elected its new president, Donald Trump, who has famously called climate change a “hoax.” Since arriving in Washington, the administration has been busy erasing references to climate science on federal websites, and in June, Trump officially withdrew from the Paris climate accord, a landmark global pact reached just two years ago. Several of Trump’s cabinet members and nominees have hedged on their views regarding climate science—including former congressman Ryan Zinke, whom Trump has put in charge of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the park service.

Meanwhile, the agency’s 22,000 olive-and-gray-clad rangers, scientists, and other staff have recently acquired a near-mythical reputation as a cadre of outlaws fighting to avenge assaults on climate science. The internet and social media buzzed with enthusiasm when Badlands National Park’s Twitter account “went rogue” and posted a series of facts about global carbon dioxide concentrations, and spoof national park Twitter accounts proliferated under names like @BadHombreNPS and @AltNatParkSer.

But it’s really nature itself that is going rogue, and while the current administration may dismiss climate change, managers and scientists in places like Sequoia National Park can already see its impacts first-hand. Figuring out what to do about it—or even whether they should do something about it—has been as much an existential journey as a scientific one for the overseers of the nation’s parks. With the evidence all around them, they have spent the last several years painstakingly tracking fire and drought, gathering data from trees and soils, and developing models of possible futures—including ones that might usher in leaders who are unsympathetic to their cause.

“It’s our responsibility under the law to understand and respond to threats to the people’s resources,” said Gregor Schuurman, an ecologist with the National Park Service’s Climate Change Response Program. “Those of us engaged in that try as much as possible to not be too influenced by the day-to-day politics, which are often pretty volatile.” Nonetheless, Schuurman admitted, the threats to parks from climate change are “ongoing” and “concerning.”

For all of this, Stephenson remains optimistic. “Most trees are alive,” he told me. “I’m so used to this idea that we’re going to be seeing big changes that it’s sort of like, ‘Okay, here’s step one. This is our learning opportunity.’”

The National Parks stand at a precipice. (Visual by Anar Badalov/Undark)

When the National Park Service was formed in 1916 to take care of the “scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life” in the parks, it didn’t initially treat nature with that much reverence. It was more focused on providing attractions to visitors. Park managers cut a tunnel in a giant sequoia tree in Yosemite so you could drive your car through it, encouraged visitors at Western parks to watch the bears feeding nightly from the garbage dumps, and in the agency’s first decade, frequently gunned down wolves, cougars and other predators they considered a nuisance.

All of this changed in 1962, when A. Starker Leopold, the son of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, was put in charge of a committee to examine how to manage wildlife in the parks and whether to allow hunting. He and his committee gave the park service more than it asked for: a sweeping statement of principles that set the parks on what might now look like a quixotic mission. “A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America,” their report declared—something resembling the landscape before European settlers started tampering with it.

The report largely omitted the myriad ways that indigenous people had, of course, managed ecosystems for many thousands of years. But in many ways, it transformed the park service from a tourism bureau into one of the country’s leading agencies for ecosystem science. It advised parks to abide by the best principles of ecology and to keep intact the many interdependent relationships among different species (like the ways that wolves keep deer populations in check so they don’t destroy too much vegetation). After the Leopold Report, parks put an end to most practices, such as bear-feeding, that treated wild animals like entertainment.

Early in Stephenson’s career, he internalized the Leopold tradition and saw it as his mission to help make the forests look something like they did when conservationist John Muir tromped through them in the 1860s and 1870s—sun-speckled groves of thick-trunked sequoias, pines, cedars and firs. In 1979, he spent his first season as a volunteer, hiking through the backcountry to catalog the park’s remote campsites. Then he worked for a few years as a low-paid seasonal employee—until he helped launch a climate change research project in the park in the 1990s. “I wanted to be here so badly,” he recalled.

Image by Visual by NPS. In the earliest days, managers of the national parks were focused on taming the wilds so the public could come and enjoy them. Left, rangers pose with a U.S. Cavalry member (center) at Kings Canyon National Park. (original image)

Image by Visual by NPS. Under the influence of the forester and conservationist A. Starker Leopold, the parks took on a new mission in the 1960s: restoring and preserving the land in a state approximating a natural, pre-colonial America. (original image)

Over the years, part of his work with his forestry colleagues has involved providing information to help correct Sequoia National Park’s fire problem.

Many Western landscapes, including Muir’s beloved sequoia groves, are adapted to wildfires. But before the Leopold Report, firefighters had feverishly extinguished even small fires in the Sierras, and the results were sometimes disastrous. The sequoias, which need light and fire to germinate, languished in thick shade and stopped producing seedlings. In the absence of little fires, forests became dense and stockpiled with flammable bits of tree and leaf debris, and the risk of bigger, hotter, unstoppable infernos grew. In the late 1960s, Sequoia National Park began to fix the problem by lighting low, tame ground fires in the park—“prescribed burning,” as it’s known—a practice that has persisted in part because it works, but also because it is supposed to imitate a natural process, as Leopold instructed.

By the mid-1990s, though, it became clear to Stephenson that recreating the forests of centuries past this way was an unreachable goal. Two of his colleagues used scars on old trees to calculate how many fires burned through the forests of Sequoia before Europeans got there; it was far more than the number of blazes the park’s burn crew had deliberately set on their own. Stephenson realized that, given the vastness of the park and the small number of scientists and firefighters on staff, it would be nearly impossible to recreate the forests that once were. Meanwhile, Stephenson read early predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international body that distills the best climate science from around the world. Already the IPCC was painting a dire picture: “many important aspects of climate change are effectively irreversible,” the group’s 1995 report said.

“I started to do some real hard visualization of possible futures,” Stephenson recalled. “In all of them—since I’m a forest guy—the forest looked pretty beat up.”

Stephenson first fell into despair. “I imagine if you’re a cancer patient, you go through something similar,” he says, “which is, it’s a complete upheaval of what you were thinking, where you thought you were going. And you probably go through all these emotional struggles and then you finally reach a point where you just say, ‘Okay, what am I going to do about it?’” In 2002, he found one outlet for his feelings: He began giving a series of talks to urge park service managers to consider the ways climate change might upset some of their long-held assumptions. Nature—if such a thing could even be defined—was never going to look like it had in the past, he told colleagues in the region, and they would ultimately have to rethink their goals.

It took a while for official park service policy heads to catch up with Stephenson, but there were others in the agency who had begun to think along these lines. Don Weeks, a park service hydrologist, had a climate change epiphany in 2002, while he and colleague Danny Rosenkrans, a geologist, were flying in a propeller plane over Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in southwest Alaska. The plane received a radio transmission about a flash flood roaring down the Tana River at the center of the park, and Rosenkrans “tells me to get ready to see something that’s going to blow my mind,” Weeks recounted.

“It’s a complete upheaval of what you were thinking, where you thought you were going,” Stephenson says as he watched the forest change. (Visual by Thom Halls for Undark)

As they approached the headwaters of the Tana, Weeks gaped at the sight of a 3-mile-wide glacial lake that had split open in one night and dumped its contents downstream. The lake had been stable for about 1,500 years until 1999, when it ruptured for the first time. When Weeks saw the lake collapse, its second occurrence at that point, it was “the most phenomenal thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.

The whole tableau—the empty lakebed scattered with icebergs the size of houses and the engorged river below full of floating tree trunks ripped from the ground by flash flooding—stunned him. “I mean it was the apex of my field work as far as just seeing that level of change and the danger associated with that, the rawness of it,” he recalled recently. “To top that, I got to be standing at the edge of a volcano while it’s going off, I guess.” It was the most memorable event of his entire career. Suddenly, climate change was real to Weeks in a visceral way, and he was fascinated.

In 2010, he took a temporary post with the park service’s newly created Climate Change Response Program that eventually morphed into a full-time job. Here he encountered a group of scientists who were grappling with problems the park service had never before contemplated. For inspiration, they had turned to a strategy first hatched by the 20th-century futurist Herman Kahn, the man who inspired Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian comic film “Dr. Strangelove,” and who helped the U.S. Armed Services plan for the possible outcomes of global nuclear war. One of Kahn’s tools, “scenario planning,” has since become a popular means for business leaders to anticipate futures that are wildly different from the ones they always assumed lay down the road.

Scenario planning is like a role-playing game. You start with a scenario informed by both science and intelligent conjecture. Then you write speculative narratives about what could happen—akin to science fiction. In a national park, thinking the unthinkable sometimes means envisioning the demise of the very things you are devoted to protecting. It also means reckoning with national and local politics: What happens when the political tide turns away from both the science of climate change and the values of the National Park Service?

In a 2011 scenario planning workshop in Anchorage, Alaska, one group of scientists and park managers wrote a scenario that seemed part-warning, part-gallows-humor, in which a family of Alaska Natives tossed a faded park sign into a campfire and watched “the last letters of ‘Bering Land Bridge National Preserve’ turn black and disappear.”

The story implies a situation so dire that the park either is barely functioning or ceases to exist (though when I contacted Jeff Mow, one of the workshop’s participants and now the superintendent of Glacier National Park, he said that story was a reflection on how locals might regard the park and wasn’t intended to sound its death knell). Such bleakness may speak to the level of anxiety felt across parts of the park service. But the ultimate purpose of writing such scenarios is to avoid the worst case by considering options ahead of time.

In 2012, a group of staff from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, including Stephenson, gathered at a conference center in the Sierra Nevada foothills with scientists and experts from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, state agencies, and academia. Armed with maps, large sheets of tracing paper, and a set of colorful markers, they sat down to play the game.

They considered different ecological and social-political scenarios—in which, say, there was more or less rain and snow, the public was on board with their work or illegally stealing water from the park, and federal policymakers either offered little or a great deal of support. The players fleshed out the details of their scenarios—tree die-offs, insect infestations, cuts and boosts to the park budget—then made their moves. Over the course of the game, an imaginary fire rose up from the dry forest below the park and raged through the sequoia groves. The players envisioned what would happen next. What had they won and lost because of climate change, fire, and drought?

It was still early in the life of the drought, and “we didn’t know it was going to be the most severe drought in at least 120 years,” said Koren Nydick, science coordinator for the two parks. “We did not expect some of the things in our scenarios to actually happen so fast.”

As the drought wore on, Stephenson became especially concerned about what would happen to the young sequoias. He periodically patrolled Giant Forest, 1,000 feet above his research plot, looking for signs of damage. He had long thought climate change would hit the sequoia seedlings first, and in the fall of 2014, he crept through the forest on his knees, his hands covered with dust, eye-level with the dainty, baby sequoias sprouting like small Christmas trees at the feet of their behemoth parents. He paused at the base of a massive sinewy trunk, took a breath, and turned his gaze skyward. There in the crown of a full-grown sequoia he saw tufts of brown, dying leaves. “I looked up and went, ‘What the hell is going on?’” he says.

That same season, Stephenson and a field crew from the USGS surveyed the sequoias in several groves, looking for more signs of dead leaves. Park managers braced for bad news. While a number of media outlets ran stories speculating whether the old trees might ultimately keel over, in the end, only about 1 percent of old sequoias lost more than half their leaves. Most of those dropped their brown leaves that season and then greened up the next as if nothing had ever happened.

The next year, after an exceptionally snow-deprived winter, a blaze named the Rough Fire ignited in the desiccated slopes of Sierra National Forest, just west of Kings Canyon National Park. It devoured Kings Canyon Lodge, a rustic wood-frame building that hosted a burger-and-ice-cream restaurant, and ascended into Grant Grove, the dwelling place of another famous assemblage of sequoia trees.

In parts of the grove, the flames burned hot and high, seared the crowns of trees and killed off most of them, including some old sequoias. But when the Rough Fire reached the part of the forest where the park service had carried out prescribed burning over the decades, it quieted, and many of the big trees there were spared. Just as they predicted, drought and wildfire had taken a toll, but their work in the forest had saved some of the trees—and that offered some hope.

What happens when the political tide turns away from both the science of climate change and the values of the National Park Service? Here, drought and insect infestation take their toll on California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. (Visual by Thom Halls for Undark)


In the past three years, the Climate Change Response Program has surveyed scientists and managers in the parks about climate change. All over the country, hundreds of units in the National Park Service are facing unusual situations stirred up by climate change—and in some cases, the need to act on these directly contradicts park policy on what is “natural.”

Some parks are even discussing radical interventions in the wild that the agency would never have tried in the past. Glacier National Park, for instance, has experimented with loading bull trout into water containers and carrying them by backpack to lakes at high-elevations, where they might survive if the heat becomes unbearable for them elsewhere in the park—a strategy called “assisted migration.” In-house, the agency jokingly came up with the name “gnarly issues,” from surfer jargon, to describe these situations.

One of the gnarliest issues came up a year later in the Pacific Northwest. In May 2015, during one of the driest springs on record in Olympic National Park, a lightning strike lit a fire in the remote old-growth Queets rainforest. It kept burning through a record-breaking hot summer until September, scorching 2,800 acres. In August, lightning set another 7,000 acres ablaze on the west side of North Cascades National Park. The fire leaped across the Skagit River, jumped a highway, and charged up the mountainsides. It rushed toward the park visitor center, forcing tourists to flee.

Though large fires are common in dry regions like the Sierra Nevada, they rarely occur in wet forests like these. Some trees don’t deal well with fire, and in places like rainforests and alpine forests, pervasive dampness keeps blazes from traveling far. Only when the air is uncommonly dry and hot and the wind steady can a fire grow in size here. It then often kills nearly everything in its path. Fires like this tend to come only every few centuries to patches of forest on the wet, west side of the Cascade Range or Olympic Mountains. But these two fires, the largest west-side burns in either park’s history, had blazed up in the same season. Were they a warning sign of hotter, more fire-prone seasons to come?

On a hot day in August of last year, I donned a heavy black hard hat and followed Karen Kopper, her lead field technician, aptly named Cedar Drake, and a crew of four field researchers into a dusty, blackened section of forest in North Cascades National Park. Kopper, a petite, sandy-haired woman with a serious demeanor, works for North Cascades as a fire ecologist. She’s also writing a history of forest fires of the Pacific Northwest. But until 2015, she’d never seen a blaze burn so large on this side of the park.

We walked into what used to be a lush, dense, old-growth forest: home to centuries-old stringy-barked cedars with sinuous roots, towering Douglas firs, and hemlocks. Before the fire, the ground was a carpet of moss, huckleberry bushes, and sword and bracken ferns, and was usually sodden with rain for about nine months of the year or more.

Image by Visual by Paul Conrad for Undark. Karen Kopper, a fire ecologist in the North Cascades, is writing a history of forest fires of the Pacific Northwest. Until 2015, she’d never seen a fire burn so large on this side of the park. (original image)

Image by Visual by NPS. In May 2015, during one of the driest springs on record in Olympic National Park, a lightning strike lit a fire in the remote old-growth Queets rainforest. It kept burning through a record-breaking hot summer until September, scorching 2,800 acres. (original image)

Image by Visual by Paul Conrad for Undark. New lupine and other forest floor plants are beginning to grow among the remnants of the 2015 fires. But a forest like this can’t grow back if fire returns too often, and Kopper wonders if it will ever be the same. (original image)

That day, the dirt beneath our feet was as loose as beach sand. The fire had eaten up most of the organic matter and left the soil full of ash. The forest floor was nearly bare, except for clumps of charcoal and a few short stems of bracken fern and fireweed, a hot pink flower whose seeds often blow in and germinate just after a conflagration. I spotted a few green branches at the top of a thick-trunked hemlock, but Kopper told me the tree probably wouldn’t make it. Hemlocks don’t like fire. Many of the trees above us were already dead. When we heard a pop from the upper canopy, Kopper and Drake were both startled and exclaimed, nearly in unison, “What was that?” They looked up warily. No one wanted to be in the path of a collapsing dead tree.

Drake and his crew fanned out. They tied strips of pink plastic tape to the trees to flag the edges of a circular research plot with a nearly 100-foot diameter. Then each person stood in a different section of the plot and shouted out an estimate of how much forest was dead and how much was still alive. Drake recorded their figures in a chart. He noted that the soil was almost completely burned through, and the small trees and shrubs were nearly all gone. Over the entire area of the fire, Kopper estimated that more than half of the big and mid-sized trees had died. In some parts of the burn, more than 70 percent of the trees were toast.

Though the park service regularly sets fires in its forests to mimic the natural fires of the past, it hardly ever meddles in the aftermath of a fire like this: to do so would be “unnatural.” Historically, the forest would have grown back slowly on its own, over about 75 to 100 years. But climate change may make these fires more commonplace. A forest like this can’t grow back if fire returns too often. Kopper wonders if this place will ever be the same.

Three years ago, even before these large conflagrations, she suspected west-side fires could become a conundrum for this park and told the agency so in her response to their survey. In 2015, the park service asked her to research this particular gnarly issue (now a semi-official phrase among park service scientists) further.

She and three other scientists have since written up an analysis describing the many quandaries and questions they were wrestling with. Should foresters try to keep the landscape as it would have been before the temperatures warmed—irrigate the forest, set up firebreaks, and aggressively replant moisture-loving trees and plants every time they burn down? Or should they try to revamp the place by transplanting species from, say, the rain-shadow side of the mountains where fires are common? Are any of these things in line with the park service’s long-held ideals about nature, and if not, what would the agency need to do now?

What is truly natural or unnatural anymore?

Should foresters try to keep the landscape as it would have been before the temperatures warmed, or should they try to revamp the place by transplanting fire-tested species from elsewhere? (Visual by Paul Conrad for Undark)


After we left his research plots, Stephenson took me to Giant Forest, and we parked the car in the visitor lot. I caught my breath at the sight of the giant sequoias—muscular, poised, and shocking in their scale and beauty. As we walked, he periodically pulled out a monocular, like a mini-telescope, and stared at their upper leaves. The longer we stayed, the giddier he became, like a kid playing in the woods. He delighted at the sight of a woodpecker. “What a cute little bird,” he said and stared for several minutes. Nearby, he spotted a cluster of sugar pines with full, green crowns. “I’m feeling kinda happy,” he said, “It looks like this group hasn’t been hit by beetles yet.” When we descended from a rock outcrop near the visitors’ center, he slid down a stair railing, grinning.

He said he thought the effects of climate change “will come in bursts” like this drought. Things would look fine, then all at once, trees would die, infernos would rage, insects would throng. So far, the sequoias were mostly doing fine. In 2015, Stephenson spotted 11 that had turned brown and died altogether, still standing. Previously, he had only witnessed the death of two standing sequoias in his entire career. Still, “it doesn’t concern me,” he said. Not yet.

But in the long term, “we don’t know that the sequoias will be okay,” he admitted. He had suggested that the managers of Sequoia and Kings Canyon consider planting a few sequoias at a higher elevation above Giant Forest, where they might stay cooler as the climate warms. He knew a decision like that could be contentious. But young sequoias don’t produce seeds for several years, so Stephenson figured the park would have a while to figure out whether it was a big mistake.

“I can see [the park service] being sued for not doing enough in the face of climate change, and then I could see being sued for doing things in the face of climate change,” Stephenson told me. “In the end, I guess, the courts sort it out, but boy, in the meantime what do you do? Do you get paralyzed and not do anything?”

It’s still not entirely clear how President Trump’s rejection of the science of climate change might affect the national parks. Stephenson told me longstanding rules prevented him from talking politics, even when they directly affected his work. Some employees within the park service also turned down my requests for comment. At the moment, there’s no clear, agency-wide decree that would force their silence on such touchy subjects, but from some, I sensed discomfort and even fear that sharing their opinions might be risky.

Under Trump, there’s no clear, agency-wide decree that would force scientists to remain silent on touchy subjects like climate policy, but from some, I sensed discomfort and even fear that sharing their opinions might be risky. (Visual by Thom Halls for Undark)

Weeks, the park service hydrologist, suggested that scenario planning might have prepared some parks for the new political regime by prompting them to imagine life with both more and less supportive federal leadership. “So if a park has played through this and kind of rehearsed for this, they’re in a better position, because it looks like we’re changing to a different kind of mindset,” he told me in December.

Eight months later, he felt it was still too early to tell how the administration might deal with climate change in the park service. “I do have some concern,” he said, “but I haven’t seen it play out, and I’m always trying to be optimistic.” Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said no new political winds had yet blown into his park and affected its immediate management, but he felt that the administration couldn’t forever disregard the impacts of climate change. “There’s things going on around us, like extreme weather events, that can’t be ignored” he said.

For decades, the national parks have been the country’s environmental conscience, the places that reminded us what nature is supposed to look like and who we are by extension. “Certainly, if ever the American psyche survived losing the parks,” the historian Alfred Runte wrote in his book National Parks: The American Experience, “the United States would be a very different country indeed.”

For at least the next three and half years, the problems faced by the park service could get gnarly indeed. Even if the federal government tries to suppress research, education, or public outreach on climate change, there’s no getting around what’s already happening in the parks. Even if they don’t “go rogue,” national park staff will continue to find themselves on the frontlines of a series of ethical dilemmas—about science and the future of nature, which species to save or to relocate, and when and whether to speak out about the changes they are witnessing every day in the American landscape.

In May, Stephenson told me he saw fresh signs of death among the trees while walking through his research plots, even after a wet winter. The White House had just unveiled a budget proposal that would slash the Department of Interior’s funding by 11 percent and lay off more than 1,200 park service employees. Given this, I asked Stephenson if he and his colleagues in this national park and others across the country will be able to keep up with the demands posed by climate change—and the colossal, unprecedented experiment unfolding in front of them as the heat turned up?

He said he couldn’t comment.

Madeline Ostrander is freelance science journalist based in Seattle. Her work also appeared in The New Yorker, Audubon, and The Nation, among other publications.

The Upside of Rotting Carcasses

Smithsonian Magazine

After the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution swiftly spread west into the Great Plains, bringing with it the sky-choking smoke of railroads, factories, and industrial pollution. But even before that, the region’s rivers weren’t exactly pristine. An 1869 dispatch from Theodore R. Davis, a staff illustrator for Harper’s Magazine, dubbed one stream the “Stinking Water.” Davis writes:  

“The name was conferred by the Indians who have more than once been forced to abandon a camp-ground on this river on account of the offensiveness of the water, caused by the decaying carcasses of buffalo that have been mired in the mud and there died. ... Hundreds of buffalo perish each year in places such as this stinking water, for an accessible crossing-place is difficult to find.” 

Those pesky American bison—colloquially known as buffalo—were dying naturally. But by the late 1880s, just 20 years after Davis’s account, the distinctly unnatural forces of rifle-wielding white settlers, industrialists and cattle ranchers had nearly driven the bison to extinction. The collapse was catastrophic for the Native Americans who relied on the massive beasts for food and clothing, not to mention the buffalo themselves.

Few if any observers, however, fretted about the disappearance of large rotting carcasses from the waterways. 

Now, modern studies on another drowning-prone large herbivore suggest that the bison carcasses may have been doing far more than just stinking up creek beds. African wildebeests that die en masse on the Mara River in Kenya and Tanzania not only feed scavengers, but also release key nutrients directly into the river, according to a recent study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As the carcasses decompose, maggots hatch, and mats of brown and green algae and bacteria grow over the bones, providing year-round sustenance for the local fish. 

Altogether, it takes seven years for the wildebeest bones to fully disintegrate, releasing nutrients like phosphorous and carbon into the river. This slow decomposition, while unpleasant to smell, is crucial for the Mara River ecosystem, sustaining microbes, insects, and fish, as well as large scavengers. In the past, river ecologists had assumed that high levels of dissolved carbon from rotting corpses are unhealthy and unnatural for rivers. But the researchers found  that protected parks actually have more dissolved carbon their rivers compared to unprotected ones, suggesting that less human influence can sometimes mean more putrid rivers. 

“It sounds cheesy, but death and decomposition are the other half of the circle of life, and that’s very obvious in the Mara Serengeti ecosystem,” says ecologist Amanda Subalusky of the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies, a co-author on the recent study. “Where some might see a stinking river full of maggots, I see the other half of the whole circle happening.”

Subalusky recalls witnessing the aftermath of a 2011 mass drowning in which 5,000 creatures died in a single crossing. The resulting orgy of life may not have been pretty, but it was critical for the ecosystem.

“We were walking the river bank counting carcasses,” she says. “As we walked around each bend, there would be these mounds of carcasses, piled up, anywhere from just a few, like five or ten, up to a couple hundred. There were crocodiles basking on banks. Just huge, fat, sated crocodiles. We saw crocodiles mating. It just seemed like a big crocodile party. There was storks and vultures kind of roosting along the trees and defecating, so certain trees were covered in guano ... The whole river smelled of decomposing carcasses, but it was fascinating to see all the life.”

A scene depicting American buffalo sketched by artist George Catlin in 1832. From his Letters and Notes: “Near the mouth of White River, we met the most immense herd crossing the Missouri River—and from an imprudence got our boat into imminent danger amongst them, from which we were highly delighted to make our escape. It was in the midst of the ‘running season,’ and we had heard the ‘roaring’ (as it is called) of the herd, when we were several miles from them. When we came in sight, we were actually terrified at the immense numbers that were streaming down the green hills on one side of the river, and galloping up and over the bluff s on the other. The river was filled, and in parts blackened, with their heads and horns, as they were swimming about . . . furiously hooking and climbing on to each other. I rose in my canoe, and by my gestures and hallooing, kept them from coming in contact with us, until we were out of their reach.” (George Catlin / Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The Mara River isn’t the only modern ecosystem that relies on rotting carcasses for sustenance. When large whales die, their bodies sink to the seafloor, where their bodies form an entirely unique ecosystem. First, scavenger species such as hagfish tear away large pieces of soft tissue, but later the carcass is colonized by even stranger creatures, such as the “bone-eating” worms—which have no mouths, no anuses, and only globules full of symbiotic bacteria to help them digest the whale carcass.

These “whale-fall” communities can last decades, in the cold, dark depths of the ocean, and marine biologists have discovered over 60 species that seem to live exclusively in “whale-fall” communities. 

That means that it isn’t just whales and their prey that suffer at the hands of commercial whaling, which by some estimates, killed off as many as 90 percent of living whales during the 18th and 19th centuries. “Some of the first extinctions in the ocean may have been whale-fall communities, because we removed that habitat before we even knew the communities existed,” says conservation biologist Joe Roman of the University of Vermont, who was not involved in the wildebeest study. 

Roman’s research focuses on how whales help distribute nutrients during their lifetimes, most notably by swimming large distances and then pooping. “We’re learning what we lost by restoring these species,” he says. “When marine ecology started, there basically weren’t any whales in the ocean ... People didn’t consider whales very important. As we’re seeing those numbers increase along coastlines, we’re starting to get an idea of the role they might play.” 

Unfortunately, there are few ecosystems that can directly compare to the Mara. That’s because humans have disrupted nearly every large herbivore migration on the planet, and continue to kill off these key animals faster than they can kill themselves. It’s practically impossible for human biologists to get an accurate sense of what ecosystems looked like before the loss of large animals, because, according to many paleoecologists, humans have been wiping out large animals since the prehistoric migrations out of Africa. 

The human migration across the Bering Strait into the Americas 15,000 years ago was followed by the extinctions of American mammoths and mastodons, giant ground sloths, sabre-tooth cats and giant armadillos. Other continents also suffered losses. When humans first landed in Australia 60,000 years ago, they would have encountered 500-pound kangaroos, 10-foot-tall flightless birds, wombat relatives the size of rhinoceroses, and monitor lizards that grew to over 20 feet long. By 45,000 years ago, all of those species were gone.  

“There’s no record of [large-bodied animals being] more prone to extinction until humans arrive on the scene,” says S. Kathleen Lyons, a paleoecologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Something that humans do targets large-bodied species and causes them to go extinct.”

It isn’t hard to see why large animals with ample stores of meat and fat would be attractive to hunters. But Lyons says that the ancient human-driven extinctions weren’t solely due to hunting. The expansion of farming could have resulted in habitat fragmentation even then. Humans also could have carried diseases or changed wildfire patterns, leading to more deaths. Whatever the reason, extensive losses of large animals almost certainly disrupted nutrient cycling, says Lyons.

“Let’s say that most of these species weren’t migratory and so they don’t have the mass drownings,” says Lyons. “Even without that, they’re still pooping and moving nutrients around the landscape that way.” 

Whales are yet another large-bodied animal whose carcasses can support a bevy of other animals. Usually, dead whale carcasses sink to the bottom of the ocean, where "whale fall" ecosystems crop up around them. (Ray Bulson / Alamy )

During the Industrial Revolution, technology sped up both expansion into the habitats of large animals habitats and efficiency in killing them. That’s when a funny thing happened: white settlers recognized that bison carcasses could be used as fertilizer. Settlers would gather bison bones and sell them to chemical manufacturers in places such as Dodge City, which would extract carbon and other nutrients from the bones to make fertilizer and other products. In essence, humans were using dead bison for the same purpose that the ecosystem was. 

“What this is, is the American economy kind of acting the way the environment would have already figured out how to act; it’s just that the American economy did it in a much less efficient way,” says environmental historian Andrew Isenberg of Temple University, who wrote a book on the bison’s demise. 

Kendra Chritz, a geochemist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History who studies large animals’ impact on savannah ecology, concurs. “We don’t actually have very many large herbivores in North America, so what do we have to do to make sure that our lawn stays trimmed and they get more nutrients? We have to mow them all the time,” says Chritz, who wasn’t involved with the new study. 

But these human actions have limits. “Somebody has to do the job of cycling nutrients,” she says. “Now the job has largely been taken over by human beings, and we can’t really do that everywhere on Earth.” 

As to whether the bison regularly drowned en masse, the historical record isn’t clear. But accounts of carcasses strewn along riverbanks abound.

In his March 29, 1805 journal entry, Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis & Clark expedition noted: “We found a number of the carcasses of the buffalo lying along shore, which had been drowned by falling through the ice in the winter.” In 1795, a trapper named John MacDonnell found another bison mass grave, writing “observing a good many Carcasses of Buffaloes in the River & along its banks I was taken up the whole day with Counting of them & to my surprise found I had numbered when we put up at night 7360 Drown'd and mired along the River and in it.”

Mass deaths on that scale would undoubtedly have released huge amounts of nutrients into the surrounding environment. If MacDonnell’s count of over 7000 carcasses is accurate, that single drowning would have released over a million pounds of drowned bison meat into the Assiniboine River—or the equivalent of 34 blue whales. It’s hard to say what the impact of mass drownings would be in other rivers because temperatures, water flow and ecosystems vary so widely, Subalusky says. But it would have been vast.

Although bison populations are growing thanks to restoration efforts, it’s impossible to know what river ecosystems of the Great Plains lost. “One of the problems with talking about the historic Great Plains is that it’s all educated guesses,” says Isenberg.  “[If] you look at remnant grasslands in the Great Plains now, they’re not necessarily what like what a historic grassland would have looked like 100 or 200 years ago.” The same can be said of whale fall ecosystems that are no more, and other areas where large herbivores are winking out as a result of human actions. 

In a Horrifying New Twist, Myanmar Elephants Are Being Poached For Their Skin

Smithsonian Magazine

John McEvoy was worried.

For three years, the postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute had been working with a team of researchers to track Asian elephants in Myanmar using GPS collars. By learning how the massive animals moved in areas they shared with humans, they hoped to find ways to help pachyderms and humans coexist. But the researchers soon began noticing something strange.

After affixing GPS collars to 19 elephants, many of those elephants began dropping off the map. What the team found when they investigated signals from elephants that had stopped moving was horrifying: Dead, rotting carcasses strewn throughout the jungle.

And something about these corpses stood out to them immediately. They’d been skinned.

“When they are finding these carcasses they've been professionally butchered, the skin is removed and the trunks, sometimes the feet and the ears,” McEvoy says. “It's quite a harrowing thing to see that in the field, particularly for the Burmese people who have quite a connection with these elephants.”

Within a year of being fitted for a collar, seven elephants the team had tagged were dead. When the team’s Burmese contacts started asking local people questions, they realized that they'd unintentionally uncovered a disturbing new problem: These elephants were poached for their skin.

One of the elephants wearing a GPS collar as part of the SCBI's human-elephant conflict research in Myanmar. (Smithsonian / SCBI)

Different Threats

It's no secret that human lust for ivory has decimated African elephants. Savanna-dwelling populations have declined by 30 percent in just the last seven years, and forest elephant numbers plunged a staggering 62 percent from 2002 to 2013. Moreover, a recent study found that 90 percent of the market’s ivory is from elephants dead less than three years, proof that ongoing poaching is intimately linked with the African elephant crisis.

But what researchers found in Myanmar wasn’t about ivory. Most of the elephants found dead didn’t even have tusks. So what was driving this?

In Asia, where around 50,000 wild elephants live scattered across 13 nations, the biggest challenge to elephant survival has historically been habitat loss. The region’s already dense human populations continue to grow, expanding into elephant territory and forcing the pachyderms into smaller and smaller spaces. "Of course they will raid the crops," says McEvoy. "They can eat quite a lot, but even just walking through a rice paddy can destroy the livelihoods of a lot of people. They occasionally raid houses if there is food stored inside a small house.”

Altercations spurred by elephants eating or trampling crops result in the deaths of people and elephants alike. According to the Myanmar Elephant Conservation Action Plan, more than a dozen people are killed by elephants each year. Still, there’s no doubt to McEvoy which species is impacted most. “By and large it's the elephants who lose out,” he says. “They lose their habitat, and they often get killed.”

Part of the reason poaching isn't as big in Asia is that tusks aren’t as common among Asian elephants. Only 25 to 30 percent of male Asian elephants have tusks (percentages vary by region) and no females have them. That means even ivory poachers generally spare breeding females and calves, which take years to come to maturity. And because elephants are polygamous, surviving males can help pick up the reproductive slack for those that have been killed, which prevents numbers from plunging.

Unlike poaching for ivory, however, the skin trade makes all elephants valuable to poachers. Females and even calves are targeted. That's bad news for long-lived animals who reproduce slowly, putting years of resources into the survival of each calf. As McEvoy puts it: “hunting females and calves is a really quick way to drive a species towards extinction.”

That's why the new findings are so disturbing, says Peter Leimgruber, head of SCBI’s Conservation Ecology Center and last author of a new study on the phenomenon published in the open-access journal PLOS One. “It was very surprising,” says Leimgruber, who leads the elephant tracking team along with SCBI conservation biologist and co-author Melissa Songer. “I've worked on elephants in Myanmar for some 20 years and I never thought that poaching really played any major role.”

If elephant skin becomes a highly desired product like ivory, however, that could change.

‘Heartbreaking’ Discoveries

To tackle the elephant-human conflict issue, the Smithsonian team captured and tagged elephants in areas where such conflicts are more common, like rice paddies and sugarcane or palm oil plantations. They then tracked the movements of each elephant by the hour, creating maps to better understand how male and female elephants of different ages use the landscape throughout the day and night.

“But in the past few years (since the study began in 2014) we started to see a lot of the elephants dropping off the map in a pretty alarming way,” McEvoy says. "And we started to realize that there is a bit of a crisis going on.” Over a period of less than two years, at least 19 individuals were killed just in one 13.5-square-mile area studied.

Myanmar government conservationists and a community outreach program called Human-elephant Peace then collected information from patrols and informants across south-central Myanmar, and discovered the same disturbing story—the rotting carcasses of dead, skinned elephants.

“When I was last over there a few months ago I showed up in the field to start collaring and before we could even begin in the morning we heard about an elephant that had been poached nearby,” McEvoy says. “It's pretty heartbreaking.”

What was most shocking, Leimgruber adds, was not the phenomenon but the scope. “I've seen elephant skins in markets, that's not new," he says. “But this scale at which it's happening now? That's never been there.”

SCBI is not the only organization to uncover evidence of a burgeoning elephant skin trade. In 2016 the UK conservation organization Elephant Family found disturbing signs during an investigation into the live elephant trade between Myanmar and Thailand. “One of our investigators was offered product, shown a photograph of a skinned elephant, and it was the first we knew of skin being traded as a product,” notes Belinda Stewart-Cox, the organization's Acting Director of Conservation.

The NGO recently reported that they've found elephant skin for sale at close to $29 per pound in the Myanmar/China border town of Mong La, and that over 900 pounds of elephant skin were seized at Southwest China's Lianghe border crossing. Yet while she was well aware that Myanmar's elephants were being killed for their skin, Stewart-Cox says she was also stunned by the scope of the problem laid out in the new report.

“These are horrifying statistics, and all of us here are shocked by them,” she says.

Skin For Sale

Why would someone want elephant skin badly enough to kill for it?

Pachyderm skin, it turns out, is among the many animal products that are used in traditional Chinese medicine. It's ground into a powder and mixed into a paste that is believed to treat skin fungi and infection, as well as intestinal diseases. “Skin is also being turned into beads, and made into bracelets or necklaces said to have certain properties that would be beneficial to the skin of the wearer,” says Stewart-Cox. Despite the elephant’s enormous size, numerous local sources reported to McEvoy and colleagues that the meat trade is dominated by the trunk and genitalia.

Butchering an elephant and getting its skin and meat to market quickly is no small task. The efficiency with which these poaching activities appear to be carried out suggests to McEvoy that it isn't the work of amateurs or opportunists. Burmese working with the team report that the poachers are organized and well-funded, and that elephant meat and skins quickly make their way across the border to China, where a growing trade in ivory and elephant parts has been documented.

“There's obviously a lot of money involved,” McEvoy says. “We've been working with our local partner organizations for 30 years, everything we do is based on their work, and we've been hearing from them that poachers may pay thousands of U.S. dollars just for information on the location of an elephant.”

Here, human-elephant conflict may again be part of the problem. “Most of the dead elephants that we've found were in places where there is a lot of conflict,” Leimgruber says. “Now, these are areas where there are a lot of elephants and they are easy to find. At the same time, some of the villagers there may not be so unhappy if poachers shoot one of these elephants because they can be a big problem for them. So at this point it's difficult to sort out whether there is a retaliatory component to this or not."

At this stage it’s unclear just how big the problem is, says Alex Diment, an ecologist and senior technical advisor for Wildlife Conservation Society's Myanmar Program. The number of elephants poached for skin appears to be increasing, but some of that may be due to increased communication in Myanmar. Mobile phones have become common in recent years, he adds. According to government statistics, 59 elephants were found dead in 2017; the majority of them had been poached.

There is also the chance that the grim practice of skin poaching has already spread beyond the borders of Myanmar, to places like Thailand or Cambodia. “We don't know the full extent of this,” Leimgruber says. “That's the fear. If this has been going on for a while, undetected, and we come across it now almost accidentally, what is the true scale? … From that perspective I think we have to treat it as a very serious threat that could have a major impact on the long-term conservation of these animals across the range.”

For the Smithsonian team, there may be a silver lining to their work. At least in Myanmar, It may be that finding ways for humans and elephants to live more harmoniously will make things harder for poachers, by starving them of any local assistance. “When we’ve done community surveys the vast majority of people say they want to have elephants around,” says McEvoy. “They just want to find a way to live with them peacefully.”

Forget Bees: This Bird Has the Sweetest Deal With Honey-Seeking Humans

Smithsonian Magazine


Cutting through the crushing morning heat of the African bush, that sound is the trill of the Yao honey hunters of Mozambique. The call, passed down over generations of Yao, draws an unusual ally: the palm-sized Indicator indicator bird, also known as the greater honeyguide.

These feathery creatures do just what their name suggests: lead their human compatriots to the sweet stuff. Mobilized by the human voice, they tree-hop through the African bush, sporting brown, tan and white plumage that blends into the dry landscape.

This remarkable bird-human relationship has been around for hundredsmaybe even hundreds of thousandsof years. And yet until now, no one has investigated exactly how effective the call is. A new study, published today in the journal Science, demonstrates just how powerful this local call is in guaranteeing a successful expedition.

The honeyguide collaboration is a striking example of mutualism, or an evolutionary relationship that benefits both parties involved. In this case, birds rely on humans to subdue the bees and chop down the hive, while humans rely on birds to lead them to the nests, which are often tucked away in trees high up and out of sight.

“There's an exchange of information for skills,” says Claire Spottiswoode, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study. Neither species could accomplish the task alone. Cooperation begets a worthwhile reward for both: The humans gain access to the honey, while the honeyguides get to chow down on the nutritious beeswax.

The partnership can be traced back to at least 1588, when the Portuguese missionary João dos Santos took note of a small bird soaring into his room to nibble on a candle, and described how this wax-loving avian led men to honey. “When the birds find a beehive they go to the roads in search of men and lead them to the hives, by flying on before them, flapping their wings actively as they go from branch to branch, and giving their harsh cries,” wrote dos Santos (translated from Italian).

But it wasn’t until the 1980s that scientists got in on the game. Ornithologist Hussein Isack first studied the behavior among the Boran people of Kenya, armed with only a watch and compass. Isack elegantly demonstrated that honeyguides provide honey-seeking humans with reliable directional information. But it still remained unclear whether the flow of information was one-sided. Could humans also signal their desire for sweets to their feathered friends?

To answer this question, Spottiswoode and her colleagues recorded the the trill-grunt call of Yao honey-hunters living in the Niassa National Reserve in northern Mozambique. For comparison, they captured the call of local animals and the honey-hunters shouting Yao words. With GPS and speakers in hand, Spottiswoode and her colleagues set out with the Yao honey-hunters into the African bush. On each expedition, they played back a different recording, noting the honeyguides’ response.

The researchers repeated the trips over and over, walking more than 60 miles in total. But it was worth it: they found that the Brrrr-Hm call effectively attracts and holds a honeyguide’s attention, more than tripling the chance that a honeyguide will lead humans to a bees’ nest compared to the other recorded sounds, says Spottiswoode.

“They're not just eavesdropping on human sounds,” says Spottiswoode. Rather, the Yao honey-hunting call serves as a message to the honeyguides that the human hunters are ready to search for honey, just as picking up a leash signals to your dog that it’s time for a walk. What’s remarkable in this case is that honeyguides, unlike dogs, are not trained and domesticated pets but wild animals.

“This is an important paper which experimentally verifies what Yao honey hunters say is true: that honeyguides are attracted by the specialized calls honey-hunters use,” Brian Wood, anthropologist at Yale University, said in an e-mail. Wood works with the Hadza people of Tanzania, who have formed similar relationships with the honeyguides. He notes that across Africa, local people have developed a range of different honeyguide calls, including spoken or shouted words and whistles.

Image by Claire N. Spottiswoode. A male greater honeyguide shows off his plumage in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique. (original image)

Image by Claire N. Spottiswoode. A Yao honey-hunter eating part of the honey harvest from a wild bees’ nest in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique. (original image)

Image by Claire N. Spottiswoode. Yao honey-hunter Orlando Yassene hoists a bundle of burning dry sticks and green leaves up to a wild bees’ nest in the Niassa National Reserve to subdue the bees before harvesting their honey. (original image)

Image by Claire N. Spottiswoode. Yao honey-hunter Orlando Yassene holds a wild greater honeyguide female in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique. (original image)

Image by Claire N. Spottiswoode. Yao honey-hunter Orlando Yassene harvests honeycombs from a wild bees’ nest in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique. (original image)

Image by Romina Gaona. Researcher Claire Spottiswoode holds a wild greater honeyguide male that was temporarily captured for research. (original image)

Image by Claire N. Spottiswoode. Yao honey-hunter Orlando Yassene harvests honeycombs from a wild bees’ nest in the Niassa National Reserve. This bee colony was particularly aggressive and, even with the help of fire, could only be harvested at night when the bees are calmer. (original image)

Image by Claire N. Spottiswoode. Yao honey-hunter Musaji Muamedi gathers wax on a bed of green leaves, to reward the honeyguide that showed him a bees’ nest. (original image)

Image by Claire N. Spottiswoode. Honeyguides are brood parasites as well as mutualists. The pink chick—a greater honeyguide—stands over the corpses of three adopted bee-eater siblings that it killed using its sharp bill hooks. (original image)

Image by Claire N. Spottiswoode. The female honeyguide has slightly duller colors, a darker bill and lacks the black throat of the males, as shown here. (original image)

In the past, cooperation between humans and wild animals may have been common as our ancestors domesticated various creatures, such as the wolf. But these creatures were “specifically taught to cooperate,” Spottiswoode notes. In today’s age of modern technology and globalization of trade, such interactions are increasingly rare. One modern example that researchers cite in the paper is collaborative fishing between humans and dolphins in Laguna, Brazil. But most current human-wildlife interactions are one-sided, such as the human scavenging of carnivore kills, says Terrie Williams, a marine biologist at University of California, Santa Cruz who has studied the Laguna dolphins.

Indeed, as African cities grow and attain greater access to other forms of sugar, the honeyguide tradition is slowly dying out, Spottiswoode says. This makes it even more important to document the intricacies of such relationships while they still persist. [The decline] really underlines the importance of areas like the Niassa Reserve where humans and wildlife co-exist, and these wonderful human-wildlife relationships can still thrive,” she says.

Before you start seeking out your own honeyguide, you should know that these birds aren’t always so sweet-natured. Honeyguides are brood parasites, meaning that parents lay their eggs in the nest of another bird species. Once the chick hatches, the newborn pecks its adopted siblings to death in a violent effort to steal its new parents’ attentions and resources. “They're real Jekyll-and-Hyde characters,” says Spottiswoode, adding: “It's all instinctive, of course. [I’m] placing no moral judgement.”

The birds' parastic nature makes it all the more mysterious how they learn these calls, since they clearly can’t learn them from mom and dad. So now, Wood and Spottiswoode are teaming up to explore another option: that honeyguides might learn the calls socially, both within and between species. The researchers hope to study other honeyguide-hunter relationships to gain a better understanding of a collaboration that has endured throughout the ages. 

Here's hoping it sticks around.

The Literary Salon That Made Ayn Rand Famous

Smithsonian Magazine

For 19-year-old Nathan Blumenthal, reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead for the first time was nothing short of an epiphany. Published several years earlier, in 1943, Blumenthal wrote of finding the book in his memoir, My Years with Ayn Rand. “There are extraordinary experiences in life that remain permanently engraved in memory. Moments, hours, or days after which nothing is ever the same again. Reading this book was such an experience.”

Little could the Canadian teen have imagined that within the next 10 years he would, with Rand’s approval, change his name to Nathaniel Branden; become one of Rand’s most important confidantes—as well as her lover; and lead a group of thinkers on a mission to spread the philosophy of Objectivism far and wide.

At 19, Branden was only a teenager obsessed by the words of this Russian-born writer—until March 1950, when Rand responded to the letter he’d sent and invited him to visit her. That meeting was the start of a partnership that would last for nearly two decades, and the catalyst for the creation a group she dubbed “The Class of ’43,” for the year The Fountainhead was published. Later, they knowingly gave themselves the ironic name “The Collective.” And although 75 years have passed since The Fountainhead was first published, the impact of that book—and the people who gathered around Rand because of it—still play an important role in American political thinking.

Leading Republicans today, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, have spoken publicly of her influence. In 2005, he told members of the Rand-loving Atlas Group that the author’s books were “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large.” Mick Mulvaney, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus and current director of the Office of Management and Budget, spoke in 2011 of his fondness for Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: “It's almost frightening how accurate a prediction of the future the book was,” he told NPR. Other self-described Rand acolytes who have served in the Trump Administration include former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (“Favorite Book: Atlas Shrugged”) and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (Atlas Shrugged “really had an impact on me”).

Initially, Branden was responsible for bringing new members into the “Class of ‘43” and mostly recruited family and friends who were equally riveted by The Fountainhead so that they could listen to Rand’s philosophy. Without him, the group may never have formed; as Rand herself said, “I’ve always seen [the Collective] as a kind of comet, with Nathan as the star and the rest as his tail.” Branden brought his soon-to-be-wife, Barbara, as well as siblings and cousins. Soon the core group included psychiatrist Allan Blumenthal, philosopher Leonard Peikoff, art historian Mary Ann Sures and economist Alan Greenspan. Every Saturday evening, during the years in which Rand was engaged writing Atlas Shrugged, the Collective gathered in Rand’s apartment and listened to her expound on the Objectivist philosophy or read the newest pages of her manuscript.

“Even more than her fiction or the chance to befriend a famous author, Rand’s philosophy bound the Collective to her. She struck them all as a genius without compare,” writes historian Jennifer Burns in Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. As for Rand, she “saw nothing unusual in the desire of her students to spend each Saturday night with her, despite being more than twenty years her junior. The collective put Rand in the position of authority she had always craved.”

Rand’s fiction and her philosophy butted up against conservatism of the era (which saw inherent value in the federal government even as it opposed social programs like the New Deal) and then split from it entirely. She was less interested in reshaping her adoptive country’s democratic government than in upending it completely. While politicians of the 1950s were rocked by McCarthyism and a new concern for traditional values and the nuclear family, Rand took it upon herself to forge a new path into libertarianism—a system being developed by various economists of the period that argued against any government influence at all.

According to Rand’s philosophy, as espoused by the characters in her novels, the most ethical purpose for any human is the pursuit of happiness for one’s self. The only social system in which this morality can survive is completely unfettered capitalism, where to be selfish is to be good. Rand believed this so fervently that she extended the philosophy to all aspects of life, instructing her followers on job decisions (including advising Greenspan to become an economic consultant), the proper taste in art (abstract art is “an enormous fraud”), and how they should behave.

Branden built upon Rand’s ideas with his own pop psychology, which he termed “social metaphysics.” The basic principle was that concern over the thoughts and opinions of others was pathological. Or, as Rand more bluntly phrased it while extolling the benefits of competence and selfishness, “I don’t give a damn about kindness, charity, or any of the other so-called virtues.”

These concepts were debated from sunset to sunrise every Saturday at Rand’s apartment, where she lived with her husband, Frank O’Connor. While Rand kept herself going through the use of amphetamines, her followers seemed invigorated merely by her presence. “The Rand circle’s beginnings are reminiscent of Rajneesh’s—informal, exciting, enthusiastic, and a bit chaotic,” writes journalist Jeff Walker in The Ayn Rand Cult.

But if the Saturday salons were exciting, they could also be alienating for outsiders. Economist Murray Rothbard, also responsible for contributing to the ideals of libertarianism, brought several of his students to meet Rand in 1954 and watched in horror as they submitted to vitriol from Rand whenever they said anything that displeased her. The members of the Collective seemed “almost lifeless, devoid of enthusiasm or spark, and almost completely dependent on Ayn for intellectual sustenance,” Rothbard later said. “Their whole manner bears out my thesis that the adoption of her total system is a soul-shattering calamity.”

Branden only fanned the flames by requiring members to subject themselves to psychotherapy sessions with him, despite his lack of training, and took it upon himself to punish anyone who espoused opinions that varied with Rand’s by humiliating them in front of the group. “To disparage feelings was a favorite activity of virtually everyone in our circle, as if that were a means of establishing one’s rationality,” Branden said.

According to journalist Gary Weiss, the author of Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul, all of these elements made the Collective a cult. “It had an unquestioned leader, it demanded absolute loyalty, it intruded into the personal lives of its members, it had its own rote expressions and catchphrases, it expelled transgressors for deviation from accepted norms, and expellees were ‘fair game’ for vicious personal attacks,” Weiss writes.

But Branden wasn’t satisfied with simply parroting Rand’s beliefs to those who were already converted; he wanted to share the message even more clearly than Rand did with her fiction. In 1958, a year after Atlas Shrugged was published (it was a best-seller, but failed to earn Rand the critical acclaim she craved), Branden started the Nathaniel Branden Lectures. In them, he discussed principles of Objectivism and the morality of selfishness. Within three years, he incorporated the lecture series as the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI), and by 1964 the taped lectures played regularly in 54 cities across Canada and the United States.

“Rand became a genuine public phenomenon, particularly on college campuses, where in the 1960s she was as much a part of the cultural landscape as Tolkien, Salinger, or Vonnegut,” writes Brian Doherty in Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. “NBI’s lectures and advice on all aspects of life, as befits the totalistic nature of Objectivism, added to the cult-like atmosphere.”

Meanwhile, as her books sold hundreds of thousands of copies, Rand continued amassing disciples. Fan mail continued to pour in as new readers discovered The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and these letters were sometimes a useful recruiting tool. Writers who seemed particularly well-informed were given assignments to prove themselves before being invited to the group, writes Anne C. Heller in Ayn Rand and the World She Made. “In this way, a Junior Collective grew up.”

The Collective continued as an ever-expanding but tight-knit group until 1968. It was then that Branden, who had already divorced his wife, chose to reveal he was having an affair with a younger woman. Rand responded by excoriating him, his ex-wife Barbara, and the work that Branden had done to expand the reach of Objectivism. While members of the group like Greenspan and Peikoff remained loyal, the Collective was essentially disbanded; the Randians were left to follow their own paths.

Despite the dissolution of the group, Rand had left an indelible mark on her followers and the culture at-large. Greenspan would go on to serve as Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, while Branden continued working at his institute, though with a slightly tempered message about Objectivism and without any relationship with Rand. In 1998, Modern Library compiled a readers' list of the 20th century’s greatest 100 books that placed Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead in the first and second spots, respectively; both continue to sell hundreds of thousands of copies.

The irony of her free-thinking followers naming themselves “The Collective” seems similar to the techniques she used in her writing, often reminiscent of Soviet propaganda, says literary critic Gene H. Bell-Villada. “In a perverse way, Rand’s orthodoxies and the Randian personality cult present a mirror image of Soviet dogmas and practices,” Bell-Villada writes. “Her hard-line opposition to all state intervention in the economy is a stance as absolute and unforgiving as was the Stalinist program of government planning and control.”

A Daring Journey Into the Big Unknown of America's Largest National Park

Smithsonian Magazine

With a trekking pole in one hand and an ice ax in the other, I am naked except for the rigid mountaineering boots on my feet. With all my clothes in my backpack, I cross three braids of the glacier-fed Chitina River in Alaska, stopping to partially recover from the cold on the gravel bars in between. But I know the last ford is going to be the trickiest.

Heavy brown water is pouring through the valley in dozens of plaited streams. The torrents are so forceful there is a roar in the air—water gouging its way through old moraines and rolling boulders along the bottom of the riverbeds. In some places a strand of the flood may be only ten feet wide and one foot deep; in others it is too deep to ford. I consider hiking upstream a few miles and scouting a different crossing. But that will take too long. The bush pilot is arriving in an hour. Besides, I know this route; I crossed here at 5 this morning. It has been a hot day in southeast Alaska, though, and meltwater has been gushing off the glaciers all afternoon.

I step into the water, facing upstream, the toes of my boots pointing into the current like salmon. I shuffle sideways with small steps. I’m hoping the streambed won’t drop and the water won’t rise. Then it does. When the river reaches my waist, I realize I’m in trouble. My trekking pole can’t penetrate the surging current. I’m only 15 feet from the far bank when the freezing water rises to my chest and sweeps me away. I flounder desperately, weighed down by my pack, trying to swim. The pole is ripped out of my hand and I’m frantically clawing and being rushed downstream. In a weird moment of clarity I realize I could drown, and what an absurd death it would be. I don’t know how I keep hold of the ice ax, but I manage to swing it wildly as my head is going under. The pick sinks into the sandy bank and I drag myself out of the river on my hands and knees, coughing up gritty brown water.

I’d come here to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve to experience its spectacular environment, a vast mountainous terrain dominated by glaciers and riven with furious meltwater. I’d heard that the whole landscape was being profoundly altered by warming temperatures and accelerated melting, but I thought the signs would be more subtle. I didn’t expect to be knocked off my feet and nearly drowned by climate change.

Ecological anxieties aside, there is no other place like Wrangell-St. Elias. The largest national park in the United States, it encompasses 13.2 million acres, an area larger than Yosemite and Yellowstone and all of Switzerland combined. It is remote and not much visited. While Yellowstone gets four million visitors a year, Wrangell-St. Elias last year saw just 70,000, not enough to fill the University of Nebraska football stadium. The wildness is unparalleled. There are some 3,000 glaciers in the park covering more than 7,000 square miles. The Bering Glacier is the nation’s largest. The Malaspina Glacier, the largest piedmont glacier in North America, is larger than Rhode Island. The Bagley Icefield is the largest sheet of ice in the Northern Hemisphere outside the pole.

A huge wilderness park of mountains and glaciers in Alaska (Map by LaTigre)

It’s an astonishing world of ice many thousands of years old, and nobody knows it better than the residents of McCarthy, the fabled bush town deep inside the park. McCarthy is at the end of a road, but you can’t get there by car. After a seven-hour drive from Anchorage, the last 64 miles on shock-destroying washboard, you arrive at a parking lot on the west side of the Kennicott River. The river is deep, fast and about 100 feet wide. Twenty years ago you crossed the river by sitting in a basket and pulling yourself along a mining cable suspended over the raging water. When the cable became too old and sketchy, McCarthy’s 250 or so summer residents, revealing their independent spirit and Alaskan pride, voted against building an automobile bridge. Instead, they erected a footbridge (which is just wide enough for an all-terrain vehicle).

McCarthy has one short main street, all mud, bounded on both ends by bars-cum-restaurants, the Potato and the Golden Saloon. At 61 degrees north latitude, just 5 degrees south of the Arctic Circle, the summer sun in McCarthy hardly sets—it just swirls continuously around the 360-degree horizon, dropping behind the pines between 2 and 4 a.m. Nobody sleeps in the summer. I saw children playing the fiddle at 1 a.m. in the Golden Saloon. People were wandering the one muddy street in broad daylight at 4 in the morning. There was a sign for ATVs nailed to a tree on the main street that read, Slow Please, Free Range Kids and Dogs.

Not long after I arrived, in early July, Kelly Glascott, a lanky, easygoing 24-year-old who works for St. Elias Alpine Guides, invited me to go ice climbing on the Root Glacier with his clients. After a shuttle ride and an hour walk over the rounded white hills of the glacier, we reached a steep wave of ice. The clients all learned the basic crampon and ice-ax techniques and eventually scratched their way up the face. Afterward, Glascott said he had something special to show me. We hiked for 20 minutes before coming upon a giant hole in the glacier, a moulin (pronounced moo-lan, French for “mill”).

“We call it the LeBron Moulin,” Glascott, said, making it rhyme.

A moulin is a nearly vertical shaft formed by meltwater running in a small clear river atop the glacier, disappearing into a crevasse and burrowing a hole straight down to the bottom. The warmer the summer, the more water in the supraglacial rivers, and the bigger the moulins.

“There are moulins all over the glacier every year,” Glascott said.

The mouth of the LeBron Moulin is circular, 20 feet in diameter, with a waterfall on one side. As I peered down into the shaft, Glascott asked me if I’d like to drop into it.

Rigging up several ice screws, he lowered me 200 feet into the hole, so deep I was getting soaked by the ice water pouring down from above. I was in the throat of the beast and felt as if I was about to be swallowed. If we’d had enough rope, I could have been lowered hundreds of feet more, to the glacier’s bedrock bottom. Swinging tools, kicking my crampons, I climbed up and out of the ribbed gullet of blue ice.

Ice climbing inside moulins is a rare and beautiful experience anywhere in the world—in decades of climbing, I’d only done it once before, in Iceland—but it’s a common activity for St. Elias guides, which is what attracts many of them, like Glascott, who is from New York’s Adirondacks.

“I’ve never been anywhere where people have such a deliberate lifestyle,” Glascott said as we ambled back off the glacier. “Everybody in McCarthy chose to be here. The guides, the bush pilots, the park personnel, the other locals—we all love this place.”

People who live here are not your ordinary Americans. They have no fear of bears or moose or moulins, but are terrified of 9-to-5 in a cubicle. They’re free-range humans, eccentric, anarchic, do-it-yourselfers. They gaily refer to themselves as end-of-the-roaders.

Mark Vail—60, bushy white beard, sunburn-red face, wool beret—came here in 1977, caught 35 pounds of king salmon dip-netting, and decided this was the place for him. In 1983, he bought five acres of mosquito-thick spruce sight unseen. “But then I needed to make a grubstake, so I worked as a cook up on the North Slope, base camps and remote lodges.” Vail built his dry cabin—no running water—in 1987 and began living off the land. “Was a challenge to grow anything with only 26 frost-free days a year. Luckily, one fall I canned six cases of moose meat. I lived on less than $2,500 a year for 20 years,” he boasts.

Today Vail barters garden produce such as kale, lettuce, mustard, broccoli, cauliflower and zucchini with the Potato for food. He also works as a naturalist, and told me he’d seen the park change dramatically in the past quarter-century.

“Bottom line, the glacial rivers are growing and the glaciers are retreating and diminishing,” Vail said. “The Kennicott Glacier has retreated over half a mile since I first came here. Ablation has shrunk the height of the glacier by hundreds of feet in the last century.”

That change was made manifest to me when I climbed up inside the historic 14-story copper mill in the nearby town of Kennecott. In century-old photographs, the Kennicott Glacier looms over the great wooden mill structure like an enormous whale. Today, from the mill you look down onto a shriveled glacier blanketed by stony debris.

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Mark Vail, who has stayed in his cabin in Mc­Car­thy since 1987. “I lived on less than $2,500 a year for 20 years,” he says. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Glaciologist Michael Loso at the Kennicott Glacier (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Townspeople parading for the Fourth of July (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Guide Sarah Ebright, who winters in Montana (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Backpackers head out for a four-day trek in the preserve section of the park. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. A moose-hunting cabin awaits occupants in the park’s preserve, where sport-hunting is allowed. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Geophysicists and bush pilots Jack Holt and Chris Larsen stand on Larsen’s land in McCarthy. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Wrangell Mt. Air bush pilot Bill McKinney chats with the author, Mark Jenkins, on a glacial silt strip he uses for landing close to Iceberg Lake. (original image)


The Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 drew prospectors deep into the Wrangell-St.Elias region. But it would be copper, not gold, that panned out. In 1899, Chief Nicolai, of the Chitina Indians, agreed to show these white intruders an outcropping of copper-rich ore in exchange for food. A year later, a prospector by the name of “Tarantula” Jack Smith staked a claim to a steep valley above the Kennicott Glacier, saying, “I’ve got a mountain of copper up there. There’s so much of the stuff sticking out of the ground that it looks like a green sheep pasture in Ireland.” The size of the deposit was so immense, Smith declared it a “bonanza,” a name that stuck.

Construction of a railroad that would connect the Bonanza Mine (and the nearby Jumbo Mine) with the southern coast of Alaska began in 1906. It was a colossal undertaking, exemplary of the industrial vigor and expansionist vision of the early 20th century. “Give me enough dynamite and snoose and I’ll build a road to hell,” bragged Big Mike Heney, the head of the project. Employing over 6,000 men, after five years and $23.5 million (roughly $580 million in today’s money), Heney had carved a 196-mile railway through the mountains from the Alaskan port town of Cordova north to what was now called the Kennecott Mines (a sincere but misspelled tribute to the Smithsonian Institution naturalist Robert Kennicott, who died on an expedition to Alaska in 1866). Everything to build the Bonanza Mine, which is nearly 4,000 feet above Kennecott, was shipped from Seattle to Valdez and later Cordova, then hauled in by horse sleds and by railroad. A thick steel cable almost three miles long supported the trams filled with ore.

The mines, owned by titans of American industry Daniel Guggenheim and J.P. Morgan, paid off handsomely. A single train in 1915 carried out $345,050 worth of copper ore ($8.5 million today). Over the next two decades the Kennecott Mines, one of the richest deposits ever discovered at the time, produced 4.5 million tons of copper ore, worth $200 million (about $3.5 billion today). Among other things, the extracted copper produced wiring that helped electrify all of the lower 48. But the bonanza didn’t last. The price of copper dropped precipitously in the 1930s, and operations at the mine ceased in 1938. Kennecott suddenly became a ghost town.

Kennecott, which sits in the middle of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986. The National Park Service began stabilizing and restoring the significant buildings in 1998. The general store, the post office and the recreation hall have all been refurbished. The mine opening itself has been dynamited shut, but the immense wooden structures still stick out from the mountainside. The towering 14-story barn-red mill building is one of the tallest wooden structures in North America, and guiding companies provide tours of it. You can still almost feel the sweat and blood of man and beast that was required to build this mine.

At its zenith, 600 miners lived in this company town, eventually digging 70 miles of tunnels in the mountain above the mill. Paid $4.50 a day in 1910, with $1.25 taken out for room and board, most of the miners were from Scandinavia. Kennecott was “dry,” and the miners were not allowed to bring their families to the mining camp. Not surprisingly, another clapboard frontier town sprang up at the turnaround station five miles down the tracks—McCarthy. It had saloons, pool halls and an active red-light district.

Kennecott miners “lived without seeing the outside air from the first of November to the end of March,” recalled William Douglass, who grew up there. They were “captives of the company.” (Frederick C. Mears Papers / UAF - 1984-75-426 / Archives / University of Alaska Fairbanks)

McCarthy is still the place to go for a meal and a drink and some music, or to run into a world-class glaciologist who will tell harrowing stories of the fate of an overheated planet.


I met Michael Loso on the planked outdoor patio of the Potato. He was playing clawhammer banjo in a ragtag band and folks were dancing wildly, swinging each other in circles. A 49-year-old glaciologist, Loso is the park’s official physical scientist. A slight, scruffy-bearded former mountaineer, he told me the ominous story of Iceberg Lake, a feature 50 air miles southwest of McCarthy that is no longer there.

Iceberg Lake was on the edge of a western tributary of the Tana Glacier, but in 1999 the lake suddenly vanished. Dammed on its southern end by ice, the water, with persistently warming temperatures, had bored a hole under the ice and escaped through tunnels to emerge ten miles away and empty into the Tana River.

The sudden drainage of a glacier-dammed lake is not uncommon. “Some lakes in Wrangell-St. Elias regularly drain,” Loso said. Hidden Creek Lake, for instance, near McCarthy, drains every summer, pouring millions of gallons through channels in the Kennicott Glacier. The water gushes out the terminus of the Kennicott, causing the Kennicott River to flood, an event called a jokulhlaup—an Icelandic word for a glacial-lake outburst flood. “The Hidden Creek jokulhlaup is so reliable,” said Loso, “it has become one of the biggest parties in McCarthy.”

In summer, warming ice melt bores under the glacier that dams Hidden Creek Lake, draining the lake and stranding icebergs on the rocks. (Nathaniel Wilder)

But the disappearance of Iceberg Lake was different, and unexpected. It left an immense trench in the ground, the ghost of a lake, and it never filled up again. The roughly six-square-mile mudhole turned out to be a glaciological gold mine. The mud, in scientific terms, was laminated lacustrine sediment. Each layer represented one year of accumulation: coarse sands and silts, caused by high runoff during the summer months, sandwiched over fine-grained clay that settled during the long winter months when the lake was covered in ice. The mud laminations, called varves, look like tree rings. Using radiocarbon dating, Loso and his colleagues determined that Iceberg Lake existed continuously for over 1,500 years, from at least A.D. 442 to 1998.

“In the fifth century the planet was colder than it is today,” Loso said, “hence the summer melt was minimal and the varves were correspondingly thin.”

The varves were thicker during warmer periods, for instance from A.D. 1000 to 1250, which is called the Medieval Warming Period by climatologists. Between 1500 and 1850, during the little ice age, the varves were again thinner—less heat means less runoff and thus less lacustrine deposition.

“The varves at Iceberg Lake tell us a very important story,” Loso said. “They’re an archival record that proves there was no catastrophic lake drainage, no jokulhlaup, even during the Medieval Warming Period.” In a scientific paper about the disappearance of Iceberg Lake, Loso was even more emphatic: “Twentieth-century warming is more intense, and accompanied by more extensive glacier retreat, than the Medieval Warming Period or any other time in the last 1,500 years.”

Loso scratched his grizzled face. “When Iceberg Lake vanished, it was a big shock. It was a threshold event, not incremental, but sudden. That’s nature at a tipping point.”


I ran into Spencer Williamson—small, wiry, horn-rimmed glasses—in the Golden Saloon late one Thursday night. The place was packed. Williamson and a buddy were hosting an open-mike jam session. Williamson was pounding the cajón, a box drum from Peru, Loso was working the banjo in a blur of fingers, a couple of youths were ripping fiddles. Patt Garrett, 72, another end-of-the-roader—she sold everything she had in Anchorage to get a lopsided cabin on main street McCarthy—was being twirled around by a tall, bearded Irishman in pink tights and a tutu.

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. The Bagley Icefield is 127 miles long, six miles wide and 3,000 feet thick—so vast that early explorers didn’t realize it joined the even larger Bering Glacier. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. At 127 miles long and six miles wide, Bagley Ice Field is the largest nonpolar ice field in the world and covers most of the St. Elias Mountains. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Mount St. Elias at center juts from the Bagley Icefield. The 18,000-foot peak is the second-highest in North America after 20,310-foot Denali. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Peaks of the Chugash Mountains in the southern portion of the park protrude from the Bagley Ice Field; a melt pond on Root Glacier. (original image)

“If you really want to see what’s happening to glaciers,” Loso had told me, “go pack-rafting with Spencer.”

During a break in the music, Williamson, an ebullient, hard-core kayaker, volunteered to take me boating first thing in the morning. Since it was already morning, we were soon walking through the woods with our inflated pack rafts bouncing on our heads.

“I’d guess there are more pack rafts per person in Mc-Carthy than any place in America,” Williamson said.

Weighing only about eight pounds, these ultralight, one-person rafts have completely changed the way adventurers explore all across Alaska, but particularly in Wrangell-St. Elias. Because there are few roads and hundreds of rivers, climbers and backpackers were once confined to small, discrete areas, hemmed in by enormous, unfordable waterways.

Today you can be dropped off with a pack raft, paddle across a river, deflate your boat, load it into your pack, cross a mountain range, climb a peak, then raft another river all the way out.

We dipped our Alpacka rafts into the cold blue Kennicott Glacier Lake. Wearing dry suits, we stretched our spray skirts over the coamings, dug in our kayak paddles and glided away from the forest.

“See that black wall of ice?” Williamson said, pointing his dripping paddle to the far side of the lake, “That’s where we’re going.”

We slid over the water, stroking in unison, moving surprisingly quickly. When I noted how easy this was compared with trying to traverse along the shore, Williamson laughed.

“You got it! Bushwhacking in Alaska is a special kind of misery. With a pack raft, you can just float across a lake or down a river rather than fighting the bushes and the bears.”

Williamson, 26, a guide for Kennicott Wilderness Guides, works May through September. He migrates south in the winter. This snowbird lifestyle is the standard in McCarthy. Mark Vail is one of only a few dozen hearty souls who actually winter over. The other 250 residents—some 50 of whom are guides—abscond from fall to spring, escaping to Anchorage or Arizona or Mexico or Thailand. But they return to tiny McCarthy every summer, like the rufous hummingbird that flies back from Latin America to the same Alaskan flower.

We glided right up beneath the black wall of ice. This was the toe of a 27-mile-long glacier. The big toe, as it turned out. We paddled around the peninsula up into a narrow channel. It was like a slot canyon in ice. Rocks melting off the surface of the glacier plunged 50 feet, splashing like little bombs all around us. Past this channel we paddled through a series of icebergs, moving deeper into the glacier until we entered the final cul-de-sac.

“We couldn’t go this deep just three days ago,” said Williamson excitedly. “The icebergs that blocked our way before have already melted! That’s how fast the ice is vanishing.”

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias has four mountain ranges, 12 volcanoes, 3,000 glaciers and one town, which requires a seven-hour drive over some hard roads to reach. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Detail of one of the lobes (or fingers of ice) of the Tana Glacier near Iceberg Lake in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Many of the park’s 70,000 annual visitors go there for the opportunity to ice-climb on glaciers like the accessible Root Glacier. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. Iceberg Lake had been a glacially dammed lake. When the dam broke in 1998, the lake vanished, leaving behind a six-square-mile mudhole. (original image)

Image by Nathaniel Wilder. The Erie Mine tram clings to a slope above Root Glacier with the Stairway Icefall in the distance. The tram brought miners up and ore down. (original image)

He spotted a hole in the headwall and we paddled over to it, passed through a thin curtain of ceaseless dripping, and entered a low-ceilinged, blue ice cave. I reached up and touched the scalloped ceiling with my bare hands. It felt like cold, wet glass. This ice is thousands of years old. It fell as snow high on 16,390-foot Mount Blackburn, was compressed into ice by the weight of the snow that fell on top of it, and then began slowly bulldozing its way downhill.

We sat quietly in our boats inside the dark ice cave and stared out at the bright world through the line of dripping glacier water. The glacier was melting right before our eyes.

Williamson said, “We are seeing geological time sped up so fast it can be witnessed in human time.”


Wrangell-St. Elias is not like any park in the lower 48 because it is not static. El Capitan in Yosemite will be El Cap for a thousand years. The big ditch of the Grand Canyon won’t look a bit different in A.D. 3000. Barring some tectonic catastrophe, Yellowstone will be burbling along for centuries. But Wrangell-St. Elias, because it is a landscape of moving, melting glaciers, is morphing every minute. It will be a different park ten years from now.

According to a recent scientific report, between 1962 and 2006, glaciers melting in Alaska lost more than 440 cubic miles of water—nearly four times the volume of Lake Erie. “Ice shelves breaking off in Antarctica get a lot of press,” says Robert Anderson, a geologist at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, “but these melting Alaskan glaciers matter.” Anderson has been studying glaciers in Wrangell-St. Elias for two decades. “What is rarely recognized is that surface glaciers, like those in Alaska, are probably contributing almost 50 percent of the water to sea-level rise.” NASA reports that the current sea-level rise is 3.4 millimeters a year, and increasing.

“One of the most startling, and devastating, consequences of this rapid melting of the ice was the Icy Bay landslide,” says Anderson.

The Tyndall Glacier, on the southern coast of Alaska, has been retreating so quickly that it is leaving behind steep, unsupported walls of rock and dirt. On October 17, 2015, the largest landslide in North America in 38 years crashed down in the Taan Fjord. The landslide was so enormous it was detected by seismologists at Columbia University in New York. Over 200 million tons of rock slid into the Taan Fjord in about 60 seconds. This, in turn, created a tsunami that was initially 630 feet high and roared down the fjord, obliterating virtually everything in its path even as it diminished to some 50 feet after ten miles.

“Alder trees 500 feet up the hillsides were ripped away,” Anderson says. “Glacial ice is buttressing the mountainsides in Alaska, and when this ice retreats, there is a good chance for catastrophic landslides.” In other ranges, such as the Alps and the Himalaya, he says, the melting of “ground ice,” which sort of glues rock masses to mountainsides, can release enormous landslides into populated valleys, with devastating consequences.

“For most humans, climate change is an abstraction,” Loso says when I meet him in his office, which is down a long, dark, heavily beamed mine building in Kennecott. “It’s moving so slowly as to be basically imperceptible. But not here! Here glaciers tell the story. They’re like the world’s giant, centuries-old thermometers.”


Before leaving Wrangell-St. Elias, on my last night in McCarthy, I am in the Potato, typing up notes, when someone runs in shouting, “The river’s rising!”

This can portend only one event: the Hidden Creek Lake jokulhlaup. Dammed by a wall of ice ten miles up the Kennicott Glacier, Hidden Creek Lake has once again bored beneath the glacier and is draining.

The whole town goes out to the walking bridge. Sure enough, the river is raging, a full five feet higher than just a few hours earlier. It’s a party, a celebration, like Christmas or Halloween. The bridge is packed with revelers hooting and toasting this most dynamic of glacial events. A guide named Paige Bedwell gives me a hug and hands me a beer. “Happy Jokulhlaup!”

The 'Clotilda,' the Last Known Slave Ship to Arrive in the U.S., Is Found

Smithsonian Magazine

One hundred and fifty-nine years ago, slave traders stole Lorna Gail Woods’ great-great grandfather from what is now Benin in West Africa. Her ancestor, Charlie Lewis, was brutally ripped from his homeland, along with 109 other Africans, and brought to Alabama on the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to arrive in the United States. Today, researchers confirmed that the remains of that vessel, long rumored to exist but elusive for decades, have been found along the Mobile River, near 12 Mile Island and just north of the Mobile Bay delta.

“The excitement and joy is overwhelming,” says Woods, in a voice trembling with emotion. She is 70 years old now. But she’s been hearing stories about her family history and the ship that tore them from their homeland since she was a child in Africatown, a small community just north of Mobile founded by the Clotilda’s survivors after the Civil War.

The authentication and confirmation of the Clotilda was led by the Alabama Historical Commission and SEARCH Inc., a group of maritime archaeologists and divers who specialize in historic shipwrecks. Last year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) joined the effort to help involve the community of Africatown in the preservation of the history, explains Smithsonian curator and SWP co-director Paul Gardullo.

Two years ago, Gardullo says talks began about mounting a search for the Clotilda based on conversations with the descendants of the founders of Africatown. Then last year, it seemed that Ben Raines, a reporter with had found the Clotilda, but that wreck turned out to be too large to be the missing ship. Gardullo says everyone involved got moving on several fronts to deal with a complicated archaeological search process to find the real Clotilda.

“This was a search not only for a ship. This was a search to find our history and this was a search for identity, and this was a search for justice,” Gardullo explains. “This is a way of restoring truth to a story that is too often papered over. Africatown is a community that is economically blighted and there are reasons for that. Justice can involve recognition. Justice can involve things like hard, truthful talk about repair and reconciliation.”

A small community just north of Mobile, Alabama, is the home of the descendants of the enslaved that arrived in the United States aboard the illegal slave ship Clotilda ( Wikimedia Commons )

Even though the U.S. banned the importation of the enslaved from Africa in 1808, the high demand for slave labor from the booming cotton trade encouraged Alabama plantation owners like Timothy Meaher to risk illegal slave runs to Africa. Meaher took that risk on a bet that he could bring a shipload of Africans back across the ocean. His schooner sailed from Mobile to what was then the Kingdom of Dahomey under Captain William Foster. He bought Africans captured by warring tribes back to Alabama, skulking into Mobile Bay under the cover of night, then up the Mobile River. Some of the transported enslaved were divided between Foster and the Meahers, and others were sold. Foster then ordered the Clotilda taken upstream, burned and sunk to conceal the evidence of their illegal activity.

After being freed by Union soldiers in 1865, the Clotilda’s survivors sought to return to Africa, but they didn’t have enough money. They pooled wages they earned from selling vegetables and working in fields and mills to purchase land from the Meaher family. Calling their new settlement Africatown, they formed a society rooted in their beloved homeland, complete with a chief, a system of laws, churches and a school. Woods is among the descendants who still live there. Finally, she says, the stories of their ancestors were proved true and now have been vindicated.

“So many people along the way didn’t think that happened because we didn’t have proof. By this ship being found we have the proof that we need to say this is the ship that they were on and their spirits are in this ship,” Woods says proudly. “No matter what you take away from us now, this is proof for the people who lived and died and didn’t know it would ever be found.”

The museum’s founding director, Lonnie Bunch, says the discovery of The Clotilda tells a unique story about how pervasive the slave trade was even into the dawn of the Civil War.

“One of the things that’s so powerful about this is by showing that the slave trade went later than most people think, it talks about how central slavery was to America’s economic growth and also to America’s identity,” Bunch says. “For me, this is a positive because it puts a human face on one of the most important aspects of African American and American history. The fact that you have those descendants in that town who can tell stories and share memories – suddenly it is real.”

Curators and researchers have been in conversation with the descendants of the Clotilda survivors to make sure that the scientific authentication of the ship also involved community engagement.

Smithsonian curator Mary Elliott spent time in Africatown visiting with churches and young members of the community and says the legacy of slavery and racism has made a tangible footprint here in this place across a bridge from downtown Mobile. In a neighborhood called Lewis Quarters, Elliott says what used to be a spacious residential neighborhood near a creek is now comprised of a few isolated homes encroached upon by a highway and various industries.

There are no photographs yet of the location of the ship. Conditions where it lies in eight to ten feet of water, says SWP diver Kamau Sadiki (above) are "treacherous with visibility almost zero." (The Slave Wrecks Project)

“What’s powerful about Africatown is the history. What’s powerful about it is the culture. What’s powerful about it is the heritage stewardship, that so many people have held onto this history, and tried to maintain it within the landscape as best they could,” Elliott says. “But it also shows the legacies of slavery. You see environmental racism. You see where there’s blight and not necessarily because the residents didn’t care; but due to a lack of resources, which is often the case for historic black communities across the country. When people drive through that landscape, they should have a better sense of the power of place, how to read the land and connect to the history.”

But Elliott sees a beauty here as well, through the lens of the original Clotilda survivors.

“You can close your eyes and think of when these enslaved African men, women and children came into this site,” Elliott says of the men and women, who bought their land, but still had to survive in a segregated, racist environment. “It comes down to having a vision not just for that moment, but for generations to come. For them to create that community is very significant because there is empowerment, not just in having land but having that kinship network of community members connected by way of being on that ship.”

The significance of the find was also on the minds of SWP members involved in the search for the schooner, like diver Kamau Sadiki, an archaeology advocate and instructor with Diving with a Purpose.

There are no photographs of the site where the Clotilda was found or of the wreck itself. “[The ship] wasn’t very deep. Eight to ten feet at most,” Sadiki recalls. “But the conditions are sort of treacherous. Visibility was almost zero and there’s some current, but the most important thing is that you’re among wreckage that you cannot see. There’s a whole host of possibilities to being injured, from being impaled, to getting snagged and so forth.”

A cast iron bust of Cudjo Lewis, one of the last survivors of the slave ship Clotilde, can be found in front of the historic Union Missionary Baptist Church in Africatown. (Graveyardwalker (Amy Walker) Wikimedia Commons )

Sadiki was also part of the dive team that worked the South African site of the slave ship São José Paquete de Africa, one of the first historically documented ships carrying enslaved Africans when it sank. Artifacts from the ship, including iron ballast, a wooden pulley and slave shackles, are on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Sadiki says touching that vessel made him “hear the screams and the horrors and the suffering” of those aboard. But working with the Africatown community and the Clotilda search was intimate for him on a different level.

“I knew what that ship represents, the story and the pain of the descendant community. I’ve heard the voices; I can look them in the eye and see the pain of the whole Africatown experience over the past hundred plus years,” Sadiki explains. “They have been very resilient. The Clotilda should be known by everyone who calls themselves an American because it is so pivotal to the American story.”

Bunch says this feels powerful and emotional to him in a similar way to when he was able to lay his hands upon the iron ballast from the São José​, which brought him to tears.

“What’s different about this is that when we did the São José, a part of it is because there were human remains there, and that was really a way to honor those folks. With the Clotilda, we honor not the remains, but the survival of the people who created Africatown,” he says.

Gardullo adds that the story of the Clotilda has layers that are deeply rooted in the present as well as the past. The state of Alabama has been worried about the safety of the wreck of the ship, particularly amid the issues of race that have roiled the state and the nation in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, and Senator Doug Jones’s election in 2017.

“There’s real concern about whether somebody is going to take action here in a negative way to go and do damage to this invaluable cultural resource,” Gardullo says, adding that history is never in the past. “This history of slavery is always with us. Even things that seem ancient and seem like they’re remnants of the past are continuing to shape our present and we have to deal with that in very practical ways and sometimes that involves real protection.”

Last year, a wreck (above) found by a reporter was thought to be the Clotilda but it turned out to be too large to be the missing slave ship. (The Slave Wrecks Project)

Elliott says there are ongoing discussions about the kinds of programs and exhibitions that might occur, to commemorate and remember this American story. The question is what do those look like and how do they draw the larger community to a history that is local, national and global in scope. She explained that one possibility is a "big read" program, where community residents collectively read and reflect upon Zora Neale Hurston’s book Barracoon. The book is based on Hurston’s 1927 interviews with Cudjo Lewis, brother of Charlie Lewis and one of the last survivors of the Clotilda. In his own dialect, Cudjo Lewis tells the story of his capture, his journey to the U.S., and the beginning of Africatown.

We call our village Affican Town. We say dat ‘cause we want to go back in de Affica soil and we see we cain go. Derefo’ we makee de Affica where dey fetch us.

Plans are also in the works for a National Park Service Blueway here, rather like a water-based heritage trail. The Smithsonian’s Gardullo adds that the team is also considering just how to preserve the Clotilda, and where it could best be saved for the long term so that it can reach the most people. It also inspires bigger, more philosophical questions.

“What can this actually teach us? What can this teach us about ourselves? How can the history of this ship drenched in oppression liberate us,” Gardullo wonders. “People from Africatown itself have to help us begin to think about what’s important here.”

Africatown native Anderson Flen hopes it brings his birthplace the attention it needs in terms of equity for a community he feels has been deliberately decimated. He says he doesn’t know if he is related directly to the Clotilda survivors, partly because of the way African-Americans who came from the motherland were split apart.

“There’s been a lack of thoroughness as it relates to African-American history because of what happened to them, and so our history is really one that is a mystery to many of us, and therefore there’s a void and pain,” Flen says, adding that he hopes this discovery brings enough attention to Africatown to change things for residents.

But Lorna Gail Woods says she is more than glad that the Clotilda has finally been found because it is a tribute to the strength of her ancestors.

“We should be proud of the land they almost starved to death trying to buy, probably so they could leave a legacy for us,” Wood says. “And now we’re able to tell their part of the story, and that’s the joy I get from knowing the Clotilda was not just a myth. It was a living thing that happened.”

Wandering Through Georgia, the Eden of the Caucasus

Smithsonian Magazine

This story originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.

The Georgian people have a trove of stories that explain their good fortune to be living in this fertile corner of the Caucasus. My favorite is this one: when God made the world, he asked all the peoples of the earth where they wanted to live, and distributed their homelands accordingly. From the Georgians he heard nothing; they were too busy feasting. He paused to rebuke them on his way home, but the tamada—the toastmaster at a traditional Georgian feast—told God to calm down, that the Georgians had spent the whole time praising his handiwork, and that they really didn’t mind if they wound up homeless anyway. God found this answer so pleasing, not to mention adroit, that he gave the Georgians the little plot of land he had been saving for himself.

I’ve been visiting Georgia off and on for years, and much about this story feels right. There’s no denying that this beautiful country enjoys the kind of Old Testament abundance that bespeaks God’s favor. Plant a seed here and it grows, rich and healthy: tea, tobacco, walnuts, grapes, everything. Crunch a Georgian cucumber (Georgian meals regularly start with bowls of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers on the table) and that most anemic of vegetables whacks you with flavor.

The creation myth carries other grains of truth as well. Yes, Georgians do like to sit around feasting more than most people. And no, they’re not shy about admitting it, even if there’s something they might be better off doing—like, say, petitioning God for a land of their own. Problematic as this quality might be when it comes to nation-building (something Georgia has been striving unevenly to do since it declared independence from the Soviet Union, in 1991), it also places Georgians among the world’s most congenial and hospitable dinner companions. Georgia must surely rank as the toughest place on earth to pick up a check.

I was ruminating on all this from the broad wooden deck of Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, at the foot of snow-tipped Mount Kazbek, at 16,558 feet tall, the third-highest peak in Georgia. It’s not hard to see why you’d want to put a hotel here, or why so many of the guests were lounging in wicker chairs, wrapped in throws against the mountain chill, just staring up and smoking.

Across the valley stood ranks of jagged volcanic peaks, and perched on a treeless hill directly in front of the hotel, the lonely 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church. Georgia has been a deeply religious nation since it adopted orthodox Christianity in the fourth century, and you can see its distinctive churches, with their conical domes and layered roofs, everywhere.

Rooms Hotel Kazbegi used to be a Soviet tourist dormitory, so the building is squat and blocky—perfect for accommodating large groups of workers from a far-off tractor factory. Viewed from our century, the big glass-and-steel rectangle now looks quite chic, and some very good Georgian designers have given the inside a cozy feel with the help of plenty of rough wood, worn leather, and red-brown kilims.

The Russians who come to Rooms today (the border is a 10-minute drive away) arrive in flashy 4 x 4s via the great Georgian Military Highway, which connects Vladikavkaz, in Russia, to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital (where there’s a second outpost of Rooms), through the Darial Pass. Russia built the highway after absorbing Georgia in 1801, opening up a savage Eden that has gripped the Russian imagination ever since. Georgia was Russia’s Wild West, inspiring a mixture of wonder, fear, awe, and desire. Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Lermontov all fell under the country’s spell. “I have survived the Georgian Military Highway,” wrote Chekhov in a letter. “It isn’t a highway, but poetry.”

Image by iStock / k_samurkas. Georgian Military Highway through the Caucasus Mountains. (original image)

Image by iStock / k_samurkas. Georgian Military Highway through the Caucasus Mountains. (original image)

The food at Rooms is good, and features a dish named “Soviet cake”—part of a widespread nostalgic revival of GOST cuisine (a Russian acronym for the state standards that regulated every aspect of daily life in the Soviet Union, including cake). It brought on a hankering for real country cooking, so my wife, our young son, and I headed down the road to the nearby village of Arsha, the taxi radio blasting out Russian pop songs.

Tsarneti, the restaurant where we ended up, is a vast and shabby establishment, divided, like so many Georgian restaurants, into separate little rooms for private dining. We were ushered into a cell-like box, and there were treated to some of the wonders of one of the world’s least-known great cuisines.

Image by iStock / Lisovskaya. Georgian dumplings. (original image)

Image by iStock / Lisovskaya. Khachapuri. (original image)

Georgian cooking has benefited from the country’s location on the Silk Road and from its history of having been overrun by hostile neighbors again and again (between the sixth and the early 19th centuries, when it came under Russia’s wing, Tbilisi was sacked many times). All the invaders—Arabs, Turks, Persians, Mongols—left something of themselves in Georgia’s stones, and in its kitchens.

“Georgian cooking is the original fusion cuisine,” the inventive young chef Tekuna Gachechiladze told me. She was spending the weekend at Rooms Hotel Kazbegi on a break from Café Littera, her restaurant in Tbilisi. “We took what we wanted from Persia, from India, from Turkey. The soup dumplings we call khinkali came from the Mongols in the thirteenth century.”

You find these addictive dumplings everywhere in Georgia; we ordered a platter of them to start the meal. They are plumper than your average dumpling, with a twisty hat of dough at the top and a filling of meat, herbs, and fragrant broth. The trick is to nip a hole in the dough and suck out the broth without spritzing yourself, then eat the rest (except for the hat—never eat the hat!).

Tsarneti’s khinkali were superb, pungent with caraway, and we dispatched an even dozen without taking into proper account what was to follow: chicken chmerkuli, fried and topped with a sauce of sour cream, garlic, and walnuts (walnuts show up often in Georgian cooking). With the chicken came bread stuffed with melted cheese called khachapuri, which is ubiquitous here. The variety we ordered was packed around a stick and baked over an open fire. We washed it all down with bottles of Tarkhuna, a bright green soda made with tarragon. After all that, it felt like a minor miracle when we were able to get up and walk away.

If the mountains to Georgia’s north are its Alps, those along its eastern border are its Berkshires: greener, gentler, and equally magical in their own way. Tucked in the foothills is the cluster of lovely lodges that make up the Lopota Lake Resort & Spa. Over lunch there, we marveled at the dramatic changes in landscape visible in a country only slightly bigger than West Virginia. Tbilisi was 60 miles to the west, and Kazbegi about 100 miles up from there, and yet we had traversed alpine passes, humid lowlands, and lush rolling hills as we traveled between them. “Georgia has fifty-three microclimates—I have that somewhere in the back of my head,” said our lunch companion in a crisp English accent. She turned out to be the British ambassador to Georgia, Alexandra Hall Hall, who tries to grab a weekend in Lopota with her family whenever she can. Hall Hall was just coming to the end of her two-year tour, but she was pushing to stay on another year. “It’s just so beautiful here,” she sighed.

Vineyards in Kakheti. (iStock /Sohadiszno)

The microclimate that surrounded us there in the Kakheti region is one of Georgia’s kindliest, which explains why the wide plain stretching out from the hills is lined with row upon row of grapevines. Georgians have been making wine all over the country for some 7,000 years, but Kakheti is deemed the best place for it. Many households still make their own wine the old-fashioned way, fermenting the juice with its seeds and skins, then filtering it and burying it to age in large clay amphorae called kvevri. Traditional Georgian wine often has a fresh, raisiny flavor, and the natives knock it back by the pitcher.

The man who transformed Georgia from a nation of casual tipplers into a formidable wine exporter, Alexander Chavchavadze, introduced modern European wine-making methods to the country in the early 19th century. But that wasn’t the half of it: he translated Voltaire and Victor Hugo into Georgian; he brought Georgia its first grand piano and its first billiard table; he fought Napoleon as a Russian officer, and later championed Georgian nationalism against Russia. In short, Chavchavadze spun the whole country around so that it faced west instead of east.

This patriotic polymath is regarded today as a kind of Georgian Thomas Jefferson, and Tsinandali, his estate built in 1818, is his Monticello. The two-story structure mixes Italianate stonework with a wooden, Ottoman-style loggia in an elegant multicultural mash-up. The garden, much celebrated in its day, reminded contemporaries of Richmond or Kew in England, but with a wilder soul. Dumas père called it, simply, the Garden of Eden. The spirit of Georgia lives here.

Paintings along the walls inside chronicle the great man’s life and melodramatic death. We see Chavchavadze in his horse-drawn carriage just as his scarf is caught in the spokes—ironically, he had brought the horse-drawn carriage to Georgia, too. Moments later, he was pitched headfirst onto the pavement, dying a few days afterward.

What happened to Chavchavadze’s home in the aftermath of his death echoes strikingly today. In 1854, the Muslim insurgent Imam Shamil swept across the mountains from neighboring Dagestan and raided Tsinandali, a reprisal for Russian expansion in the Caucasus. Shamil’s men burned parts of Tsinandali and took Chavchavadze’s daughter-in-law Anna hostage, along with 23 others. Shamil held his prisoners for nine months while Alexander’s son David scraped and borrowed the money to ransom his wife (it bankrupted him). A painting at Tsinandali records the eventual hostage exchange, which took place on a river raft.

View over the city of Tbilisi, Georgia. (iStock / Ozbalci)

Georgia’s past is never far away—its people refuse to let it go. In Tbilisi, which lies under the ancient gaze of the ruined Narikala fortress, this past is particularly present. I love the city for its smoky evocation of bygone centuries and cultures. Tbilisi is poor and run-down in many places, but its magnetic pull is somehow stronger for all that. Indeed, Georgia’s ongoing culture wars have left Tbilisi with a handful of sleek Modernist monuments that, while forward-looking, can appear jarring in a city so comfortable in its old skin (the locals wickedly dubbed a recent wavy-roofed footbridge the “Always Ultra” for its resemblance to a maxi pad).

The Rooms Hotel Tbilisi has managed to strike a nice balance. Like its Kazbegi cousin, it has taken a hulking Soviet shell—it used to be a printing plant for the newspaper Pravda—and made it funky inside. In the lobby hangs a large self-portrait by the flamboyant Georgian painter Eteri Chkadua—in this one she’s riding backward on a zebra. The hotel’s courtyard attracts Tbilisi’s smart set, who come to drink mojitos and nibble very good fish tacos.

You’ll find the same kind of cosmopolitan crowd in the spacious garden behind Tbilisi’s Writers’ House, a handsome Art Nouveau mansion built in 1903 by the man who brought brandy to Georgia (after his death, Georgia’s Writers’ Union took it over). Chef Gachechiladze now leases it for her restaurant. It’s one of the loveliest spots in town, surrounded by high walls hung with black-and-white photographs and lined with clusters of pretty people on wooden benches set around low tables. We dined there on a balmy August night under a full moon that shone through the branches of a towering pine tree.

As soon as she opened, in May 2015, Gachechiladze started taking heavy flak from the guardians of classic Georgian cooking. She puts mussels instead of meat in her chakapuli, a stew made with sour plums, tarragon, and white wine. She just happens to like mussels. In Minghrelia, Georgian cooking’s heartland, they eat a heavy porridge called elarji made of cornmeal and cheese. Gachechiladze lightens it and fries it up in croquettes. It all tasted mighty good to me, but tweaking traditional recipes is not something Georgians applaud.

“When it comes to religion and food, Georgians are very conservative,” Gachechiladze told me when she stopped by our table. “We put walnuts in everything, so I said, ‘Why not almonds? They are lighter and healthier.’ That’s why the Georgians don’t like me. Three-quarters of the people in this restaurant are foreigners.”

The tussle between the traditionalists and the modernizers goes far beyond Gachechiladze’s restaurant, and lately it has grown fiercer. Like Chavchavadze, Mikheil Saakashvili staked Georgia’s future on a race toward the west when he became president, during Georgia’s so-called Rose Revolution in 2004. Saakashvili and his forward-thinking crew got kicked out in 2013, and the party that took over slammed on the brakes, edging closer to Putin again. I could feel the loss of momentum on this past trip.

Gergeti Trinity Church. (iStock / EvgenyBuzov)

Recent developments have dismayed my worldly Georgian friends. Gachechiladze learned to cook professionally in New York, but she returned to Georgia in 2005, when many people felt that Georgia was finally emerging from the shadows of primitivism and corruption. She’s since lost much of her optimism. “I could leave again,” she said, “but somebody’s got to stay and build the country.” Ambassador Hall Hall had been more, well, diplomatic, when we discussed politics earlier, back in Kakheti. The Russian bear loomed close to us, just over the mountains that we could see from where we sat. “Georgia doesn’t have an easy hand to play,” Hall Hall said. “It would be easier if the whole country were a thousand miles away.”

To get a vivid sense of Georgia’s cultural ambivalence, you have only to drive 45 minutes west from Tbilisi to Gori. Gori is the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, Georgia’s most notorious native son, and not much else. He was born in a miserable two-room hovel that once stood among scores of similar hovels. All those other shacks have been razed, and Stalin’s now stands alone in a small park, somewhat absurdly covered by a massive marble portico that’s now part of the Stalin museum.

The museum’s large main building is across the street. We joined a tour as it raced through the rooms, where paintings and posters show Stalin gazing up resolutely, or gazing down benevolently. Hidden under the stairs is one last little room, which we came to at the end of the tour. This is the so-called Room of Repression: little more than a few tattered garments that apparently belonged to people deported to the gulag, and a replica cell looking considerably more pleasant than the original probably did.

The renovated house where Stalin was born in Gori, Georgia. (iStock / helovi)

History tells us that Stalin treated his fellow Georgians particularly cruelly, but he remains the only Georgian the rest of the world has heard of, and that still counts for a lot around here. “Gori has always been very proud of Stalin, but the young people detest him,” explained our pretty young tour guide. Her personal opinion? “That’s my secret.”

I wanted to look back as far as I could into Georgia’s past, so I arranged to drive out to the archaeological site at Dmanisi, about 60 miles southwest of Tbilisi. It was pelting rain that day, however, so I met David Lordkipanidze at the nearby Georgian National Museum, where he is general director. Lordkipanidze showed me resin replicas of the five hominid skulls, dating back 1.8 million years, that he and his teams have unearthed since starting work at Dmanisi in 1991. These five people—they’re officially designated Homo erectus georgicus, which makes them people—are history’s first tourists, in the sense that they represent the first-known hominid group excursion outside Africa. It’s been an enormously important scientific discovery, and the researchers have only scratched the surface. Before Dmanisi, the consensus had been that humans left Africa “only” a million years ago.

“These discoveries have been an incredible chance for Georgia. People all over the world want to come see Dmanisi—we even have private-jet tours,” Lordkipanidze crowed. What we don’t know, he added, is why Homo erectus left home—home being Africa—and how they ended up here. Lordkipanidze told me he doubts the humans had a fixed itinerary when they departed, but I have a different theory. I think they were sitting around in Africa one day when one said to another, “I hear God has created this terrific country called Georgia. Wanna go?”


The Details: What to Do in Georgia

Getting There

There are no flights to Tbilisi International Airport from the United States, but a connection can be made via Istanbul. If you’re already in Europe, Georgian Airways has nonstop flights to the capital from Amsterdam and Vienna.


Lopota Lake Resort & Spa A lakeside resort in the Kakheti region, known as the Napa Valley of Georgia. Telavi; doubles from $100.

Rooms This old Soviet printing plant in the capital has been turned into a high-design hotel where le tout Tbilisi goes to hang out. The property’s second location in Kazbegi offers breathtaking views of one of the highest peaks in the Caucasus Mountains. Doubles from $115.


Café Littera The beautiful garden setting is as enticing as chef Tekuna Gachechiladze’s light-handed takes on Georgia’s classic comfort food. You can also learn to whip up your own khachapuri at Gachechiladze’s cooking school and café, Culinarium. Tbilisi; entrées $10–$14.

O, Moda, Moda This mash-up of café, art gallery, and vintage clothing store feels like a little bit of Brooklyn in Tbilisi. Entrées $4–$12.

Shops & Activities

Dmanisi Museum-Reserve Located about 53 miles southwest of Tbilisi is this early archaeological site, where paleontologists discovered human fossils dating back 1.8 million years. Visitors can walk the grounds Tuesdays through Sundays from late spring to early autumn. Dmanisi.

Prospero’s Books & Caliban’s Coffee House This bookstore and café is a great place for a rest stop. Pick a book, grab a coffee, and sit back at one of the tables lining the courtyard outside. Tbilisi.

Rezo Gabriadze Theater You won’t want to miss the extraordinary puppet version of the battle of Stalingrad at this quirky home of a true Georgian master. The theater’s restaurant is also excellent. Tbilisi.

Tour Operator

Wild Frontiers This operator offers a signature tour of the Caucasus that includes Tbilisi, Kazbegi, and Kakheti, along with Yerevan, Armenia, and Baku, Azerbaijan.

Other articles from Travel + Leisure: 

How Oregon's Second Largest City Vanished in a Day

Smithsonian Magazine

The mere utterance of Vanport was known to send shivers down the spines of "well-bred" Portlanders. Not because of any ghost story, or any calamitous disaster—that would come later—but because of raw, unabashed racism. Built in 110 days in 1942, Vanport was always meant to be a temporary housing project, a superficial solution to Portland’s wartime housing shortage. At its height, Vanport housed 40,000 residents, making it the second largest city in Oregon, a home to the workers in Portland's shipyards and their families.

But as America returned to peacetime and the shipyards shuttered, tens of thousands remained in the slipshod houses and apartments in Vanport, and by design, through discriminatory housing policy, many who stayed were African-American. In a city that before the war claimed fewer than 2,000 black residents, white Portland eyed Vanport suspiciously. In a few short years, Vanport went from being thought of as a wartime example of American innovation to a crime-laden slum. 

A 1947 Oregon Journal investigation discussed the purported eyesore that Vanport had become, noting that except for the 20,000-some residents who still lived there, "To many Oregonians, Vanport has been undesirable because it is supposed to have a large colored population," the article read. "Of the some 23,000 inhabitants, only slightly over 4,000 are colored residents. True, this is a high percentage per capita compared to other Northwestern cities. But, as one resident put it, the colored people have to live somewhere, and whether the Northwesterners like it or not, they are here to stay."

Faced with an increasingly dilapidated town, the Housing Authority of Portland wanted to dismantle Vanport altogether. "The consensus of opinion seems to be, however, that as long as over 20,000 people can find no other place to go, Vanport will continue to operate whether Portland likes it or not," the 1947 Sunday Journal article explained. "It is almost a physical impossibility to throw 20,000 people out on the street."

Almost—but not, the city would soon learn, completely impossible.


Delta Park, tucked along the Columbia River in Portland’s northern edge, is today a sprawling mix of public parks, nature preserves and sports complexes. Spread across 85 acres, it houses nine soccer fields, seven softball fields, a football field, an arboretum, a golf course and Portland's International Raceway. It's spaces like this—open, green and vibrant—that make Portland an attractive place to call home; recently, it was named one of the world's most livable cities by the British magazine Monocle—the only U.S. city to make the list. In the park's northwest corner sits Force Lake—once a haven for over 100 species of birds and a vibrant community swimming hole, now a polluted mess. Around the lake stand various signposts—the only physical reminder of Vanport City. But the intangible remnants of Vanport live on, a reminder of Portland's lack of diversity both past and present.

Map of Vanport. Oregon Historical Society, Neg. OrHi 94480. (Oregon Historical Society)

Portland's whiteness is often treated more as joke than a blemish on its reputation, but its lack of diversity (in a city of some 600,000 residents, just 6 percent are black*) stems from its racist history, of which Vanport is an integral chapter. When Oregon was admitted to the United States in 1859, it was the only state whose state constitution explicitly forbade black people from living, working or owning property within its borders. Until 1926, it was illegal for black people to even move into the state. Its lack of diversity fed a vicious cycle: whites looking to escape the South after the end of the Civil War flocked to Oregon, which billed itself as a sort of pristine utopia, where land was plentiful and diversity was scarce. In the early 1900s, Oregon was a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity, boasting over 14,000 members (9,000 of whom lived in Portland). The Klan's influence could be felt everywhere, from business to politics—the Klan was even successful in ousting a sitting governor in favor of a governor more of its choosing. It was commonplace for high-ranking members of local and statewide politics to meet with Klan members, who would advise them in matters of public policy.

In this whitewashed world, Portland—Oregon's largest city then and now—was known as one of the most segregated cities north of the Mason-Dixon line: the law barring blacks from voting in the state wasn't revoked until 1927. Most of Portland's black residents before World War II had come to the city to work as railroad porters—one of the few jobs they were legally allowed to hold in the state—and took up residence in the area of Albina, within walking distance to Portland's Union Station. As the Albina district became a center for black residents, it also became one of the only places in the city where they were allowed to live. Extreme housing discrimination, known as redlining, prohibited minorities from purchasing property in certain areas: in 1919, the Realty Board of Portland approved a Code of Ethics that forbade realtors and bankers from selling or giving loans for property located in white neighborhoods to minorities. By 1940, 1,100 of Portland's 1,900 black residents lived in the Albina district centered around North Williams Avenue in an area just two miles long and one mile wide.

Like it did to so much of the country, World War II changed the landscape of Portland completely. In 1940, just before the United States entered into the war, industrialist Henry Kaiser struck a deal with the British Navy to build ships to bolster Britain's war effort. Searching for a place to build his shipyard, Kaiser set his sights on Portland, where the newly opened Bonneville Dam offered factories an abundance of cheap electricity. Kaiser opened the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation in 1941, and it quickly became known as one of the most efficient shipbuilding operations in the country, capable of producing ships 75 percent faster than other shipyards, while using generally unskilled, but still unionized, laborers. When America entered the war in December of 1941, white male workers were drafted, plucked from the shipyard and sent overseas—and the burden of fulfilling the increased demand for ships with America's entrance into the war fell to the shoulders of those who had otherwise been seen as unqualified for the job: women and minorities.

Black men and women began arriving to Portland by the thousands, increasing Portland's black population tenfold in a matter of years. Between 1940 and 1950, the city's black population increased more than any West Coast city other than Oakland and San Francisco. It was part of a demographic change seen in cities across America, as blacks left the South for the North and West in what became known as the Great Migration, or what Isabel Wilkerson, in her acclaimed history of the period, The Warmth of Other Suns, calls "the biggest underreported story of the 20th century." From 1915 to 1960, nearly six million blacks left their Southern homes, seeking work and better opportunities in Northern cities, with nearly 1.5 million leaving in the 1940s, seduced by the call of WWII industries and jobs. Many seeking employment headed West, lured by the massive shipyards of the Pacific coast.

With Portland's black population undergoing a rapid expansion, city officials could no longer ignore the question of housing: There simply wasn't enough space in the redlined neighborhoods for the incoming black workers, and moreover, providing housing for defense workers was seen as a patriotic duty. But even with the overwhelming influx of workers, Portland's discriminatory housing policies reigned supreme. Fearing that a permanent housing development would encourage black workers to remain in Oregon after the war, the Housing Authority of Portland (HAP) was slow to act. A 1942 article from the Oregonian, with the headline "New Negro Migrants Worry City" said new black workers were "taxing the housing facilities of the Albina District... and confronting authorities with a new housing problem." Later that same year, Portland Mayor Earl Riley asserted that "Portland can absorb only a minimum number of Negros without upsetting the city's regular life." Eventually, the HAP built some 4,900 temporary housing units—for some 120,000 new workers. The new housing still wasn't enough for Kaiser, however, who needed more space for the stream of workers flowing into his shipyards.

Kaiser couldn't wait for the city to provide his workers with housing, so he went around officials to build his own temporary city with the help of the federal government. Completed in just 110 days, the town—comprised of 10,414 apartments and homes—was mostly a slipshod combination of wooden blocks and fiberboard walls. Built on marshland between the Columbia Slough and the Columbia River, Vanport was physically segregated from Portland—and kept dry only by a system of dikes that held back the flow of the Columbia River. "The psychological effect of living on the bottom of a relatively small area, diked on all sides to a height of 15 to 25 feet, was vaguely disturbing," wrote Manly Maben in his 1987 book Vanport. "It was almost impossible to get a view of the horizon from anywhere in Vanport, at least on the ground or in the lower level apartments, and it was even difficult from upper levels."

Image by Oregon Historical Society. Vanport housing under construction, designed by George Wolff. Oregon Historical Society, Neg. 71106. (original image)

Image by Oregon Historical Society. Aerial view of Vanport. Oregon Historical Society, Neg. 68777. (original image)

Image by Oregon Historical Society. Building at Vanport designed by architect George Wolff. “Oregon Historical Society [Neg. 71103]” (original image)

Image by Oregon Historical Society. Housing units at Vanport. Oregon Historical Society, Neg. OrHi 78694. (original image)

Image by Oregon Historical Society. Interior of a Vanport apartment, from The Bos’n’s Whistle, Nov. 26, 1942. Oregon Historical Society, Neg. OrHi 87157. (original image)

Seemingly overnight, Vanport (named because it was midway between Portland and Vancouver, Washington) became Oregon's second biggest city and the largest housing project in the country, home to 40,000 workers at its peak (6,000 of whom were black). At its opening in August of 1943, the Oregonian heralded it as a symbol of America's wartime ingenuity. "Vanport City goes beyond providing homes for defense workers," the article proclaimed. "It is encouraging all possible conditions of normal living to parallel the hard terms of life in a war community."


The year 1948 had been a particularly wet year, even by Oregon standards—a snowy winter had left the mountain snow pack bloated, and a warm, rainy May combined with the spring melt to raise the level of the Columbia River to dangerous heights. By May 25, 1948, both the Columbia and Willamette Rivers reached 23 feet, eight feet above flood stage. Officials in Vanport began patrolling the dikes that day, but didn't issue any warnings to Vanport's residents; the United States Army Corps of Engineers had assured the HAP that the dikes would hold, and that Vanport would remain dry in the face of increasingly rising waters. Still, the HAP safeguarded its files and equipment—removing them from their offices in Vanport, along with some 600 horses from the adjacent racetrack.

On May 30—Memorial Day, 1948—Vanport woke up to a flyer from the HAP that read:






The dikes did not hold. At 4:17 p.m., a break came in a railroad dike that separated Vanport from Smith Lake, along the city's northwest edge. What began as a small hole—just six feet, initially—rapidly expanded, until water was steadily streaming through a 500-foot gap in the dike. As water seeped into the city, homes were swept away in the flood, their foundationless-walls unable to withstand the force of the water. According to Rachel Dresbeck in her book Oregon Disasters: True Stories of Tragedy and Survival, it wasn't the HAP or city police that first alerted residents to the incoming flood, but students and faculty from Vanport College, who had come to Vanport on a Sunday in order to collect and secure their research projects. Though the Columbia Slough succeeded in absorbing some of the incoming water, within ten minutes, Vanport was inundated. In less than a day, the nation's largest housing project—and Oregon's second largest city—was destroyed. 18,500 residents were displaced, and roughly 6,300 were black.

Image by Oregon Historical Society. Aerial view of flooded area. (original image)

Image by Oregon Historical Society. Aerial view of flooded area. Oregon Historical Society, Neg. 67585. (original image)

Image by Oregon Historical Society. Submerged buildings. (original image)

Image by Oregon Historical Society. First aid station after the flood, May 30, 1948. Photo by Walter M. Hippler. Oregon Historical Society, Neg. 60378. (original image)

In the days following the Vanport flood, rumors swirled in the local press. "Official" estimates of casualties—doled out liberally to reporters by those not directly involved with the investigation—were in the hundreds, and eyewitness accounts told stories of dozens of bodies being carried down the Columbia River. Days into June, no bodies had been recovered from the flooded town, stoking rumors that the HAP had quietly disposed of bodies in order to lessen the blame for its mishandling of the situation. One news story suggested that the HAP had arranged for at least 600 bodies to be stored in the Terminal Ice & Cold Storage facility downtown; another story claimed that the governement had quietly and by the cover of night loaded 157 bodies (or 457, depending on the telling) onto a ship bound for Japan.

Most derided the rumors as "ugly" and "irresponsible," and they were right, but they reflected the general distrust of the public—especially the now-displaced residents of Vanport—toward housing and city officials.

"If it had been a totally white population living there, would it have been different?" Ed Washington, once a resident of Vanport, speculates. "Probably. If they had been poor white people, would it have been different? Probably not."


Both black and white workers lived in Vanport, but unlike defense housing in Seattle, which was built in an integrated fashion, Vanport had been a segregated community, and the black workers were kept separate from the white workers. According to Vanport resident Beatrice Gilmore, who was 13 years old when her family moved from Louisiana (by way of Las Vegas) to Oregon, the segregation wasn't mandated by law, but came as a result of practices from the HAP. "It wasn't openly segregated," Gilmore says. "The housing authority said it wasn't segregated, but it was. There were certain streets that the African Americans were assigned to."

For Gilmore, living in Vanport as a black teenager was more complicated than it had been in Louisiana: in the South, she explains, racism was so blatant that clear lines kept races apart. In Portland, racism was more hidden—black residents wouldn't necessarily know if they were going to encounter discrimination in a business until they entered. "[Discrimination] was open in some areas and undercover in some areas, but it was all over," she remembers.

Ed Washington was 7 years old when he moved from Birmingham, Alabama with his mother and siblings to join their father in Vanport. Washington says that he moved to Portland without the expectation of being treated any differently in the Pacific Northwest than he was in the South, though he recalls his father telling him that he would, for the first time, be attending school alongside white children, and that his family wouldn't have to ride at the back of the bus.

"There were some of those vestiges [in Portland] also, and you learn that once you get here and once you start moving through the environment," Washington recalls. In Vanport, Washington remembers encountering more racist remarks than as a child in Birmingham, simply because in Birmingham, blacks and whites rarely interacted at all. "In Birmingham, you lived in a black neighborhood, period. The incidents were much more heightened in Vanport, but I think those incidents were only initial, when people first started moving in. In Portland, there were far more incidents than I experienced in Birmingham."

Despite offering residents an integrated education and community centers, life in Vanport wasn't easy: Separated from Portland, miles to the nearest bus line, it was sometimes difficult to obtain daily necessities. By the winter of 1943-44, residents were moving out by as many as 100 a day—but not black residents, who, doomed by Portland's discriminatory housing policies, had nowhere else to go. When the war ended in 1945, the population of Vanport drastically contracted—from a peak of 40,000 to some 18,500—as white workers left the city. Approximately one-third of the residents of Vanport at the time of the flood were black, forced to remain in the deteriorating city due to high levels of post-WWII unemployment and continued redlining of Portland neighborhoods.

"A lot of people think of Vanport as a black city, but it wasn't. It was just a place where blacks could live, so it had a large population," Washington explains. But in a place as white as Portland, a city that was one-third black was a terrifying prospect for the white majority. "It scared the crud out of Portland," Washington says. 


In total, 15 people perished in the Vanport flood, a number kept low by the fact that the flood occurred on a particularly nice Sunday afternoon, when many families had already left their homes to enjoy the weather. Temporarily, the line of racial discrimination in Portland was bridged when white families offered to take in black families displaced by the storm—but before long, the racial lines that existed before the flood hardened yet again. The total number of displaced black residents was roughly equal to the entire population of Albina, making it impossible for displaced black families to crowd into the only areas they were allowed to buy homes. Many—like Washington's family—ended up back in temporary defense housing.

It would take some families years to find permanent housing in Portland—and for those who remained, the only option was the already overcrowded Albina district. According to Karen Gibson, associate professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, "The flood that washed away Vanport did not solve the housing problem—it swept in the final phase of 'ghetto building' in the central city."

Image by Oregon Historical Society. Refugees, 1948. Oregon Historical Society, Neg. OrHi 90163. (original image)

Image by The Oregonian. Evacuees at Trinity Episcopal Church. Al Monner photo, Oregon Journal. (original image)

Image by Oregon Historical Society. Red Cross refugee center. Oregon Historical Society, [Digital file no. ba018658]. (original image)

By the 1960s, four out of five black Portlanders lived in Albina—an area that would suffer years of disinvestment and backhanded home lending practices by city officials. By the 1980s, the median value for a home in Albina was 58 percent below the city's average, and the neighborhood became best known as a hotbed of gang violence and drug dealing. 

"The realty board controlled where people could live, and they were very strong and powerful in Portland," Gibson says. "Those that [Portland officials] couldn't discourage from staying [after the flood] were not going to be able to live anywhere other than where they had been designated to live, and that was the Albina district." From the Albina district—which now encompasses seven neighborhoods in northeast Portland—have sprung famous black Portlanders, from jazz drummer Mel Brown to former NBA player Damon Stoudamire. Today, bolstered by economic interest in the area, Albina is undergoing the same kind of gentrification seen throughout economically depressed neighborhoods across America. With gentrification comes changes in a neighborhood's fiber: once the cultural heart of black Portland, 54 percent of the neighborhood along North Williams Avenue, the main drag, is now white. 

Sixty-seven years after Vanport, Portland is still one of the nation's least diverse cities—the 2010 census shows diversity in the city's center is actually on the decline. But Vanport's legacy also remains in the brief integration that it forced, in its schools and community centers, for a generation of Americans that hadn't experienced life in close proximity to another race.

Vanport schools were the first in the state of Oregon to hire black teachers, and they remained integrated against the wishes of the HAP. "I think the key to Vanport, for the kids, was the schools. The schools were absolutely outstanding," Washington says. "A lot of African-American kids who went on to do some good things in their life, for a lot of them, myself included, it started with the schools in Vanport."

Vanport City Vacation School, August 1943. Oregon Historical Society, Neg. OrHi 78867. (The Oregonian)

Gilmore also found support in Vanport's classrooms. "The teachers seemed to be interested in the students," she says. "There were teachers that really understood the African American student's plight, and they helped us. It was so open that you could study whatever you wanted, and I just loved it."

Washington and Gilmore are both still Portland residents. Washington, now semi-retired, works as a community liaison for diversity initiatives at Portland State University four hours a day, four days a week, to "keep [his] mind fresh." In 1955, Gilmore became the first African-American in the state to graduate from the Oregon Health and Science University nursing school; in addition to nursing, she's dedicated her life to political and community concerns, promoting unity between races. She found the inspiration to do both, she says, in Vanport.


Through June 28, 2015, the Oregon Historical Society will be hosting the exhibit "A Community on the Move," which explores the history of Vanport, as well as Portland's black community throughout the 1940s and 50s. Curated by the Oregon Black Pioneers, the exhibition will feature a series of special community conversations, led by leaders and elders in Oregon's black community. For more information on the exhibit, or to find a schedule of the offered talks, visit the exhibition website​​

*This sentence previously misstated that Portland is 2 percent black; the state of Oregon is 2 percent black, while the city is 6.3 percent.

Freedom's tally: An African American business in the Jim Crow South

National Museum of American History

Photograph of Harold Cotton in his Greensboro, North Carolina shop. Cotton cleans a fedora with a brush. A group of hat blocks sit in the foreground, and Cotton's diploma hangs on the wall behind him.

At 15 years old, Harold Cotton tucked his shoe shine box under his arm and walked to Jefferson Square in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. The year was 1937 and the Depression had thrown most of the black men in town out of work. Those lucky enough to find employment would toil all day and might earn a dollar.  If business was good that day, Cotton might shine 40 pairs of shoes at a nickel a pair and clear two dollars or more including tips.
At 6 p.m. that day, after the downtown crowds had gone home, Cotton stopped in at the recently opened Bob’s Hat Shop at 108 McGee Street, hoping to meet his cousin.  However, Cotton met Robert Taylor instead. In jest, Cotton asked Taylor for a job. The older man asked, “Well, can you shine shoes?” As Taylor sat in a chair at the back of the store, Cotton proved his skill with rag and brush. Taylor offered him a job that same night.

Photograph of three metal tokens using in Cotton's shop, 1950s–1990s. The token have diveted edges and are stamped with the text, "Kelly's Lynn Boot Polish Opener."

Bob’s Hat Shop offered shoe shines along with hat cleaning and repair and was the only black-owned business allowed to operate downtown. To survive on this side of the city’s color line in the 1930s meant that Taylor had to keep his own store segregated. While black customers could get their shoes shined at Bob’s, they had to sit on a chair in the back of the shop. Only white patrons could sit on the chairs in the front of the store.
For the next decade, Cotton worked part time shining shoes at Bob’s Hat Shop while also holding down jobs at the El Moro Cigar factory and the Cone Mills, as well as driving a delivery truck. Even after returning from World War II and attending North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College, Cotton continued to work at the store until Taylor’s death in 1948.
Photograph of Cotton's framed diploma from the Chicago School of Shoe Rebuilding, 1950.

With Taylor gone, Cotton joined the Great Migration of millions of African Americans leaving the South after World War II for better opportunities in the North. With an eye toward opening his own store in Chicago, he enrolled in the Chicago School of Shoe Rebuilding in 1950, earning his degree in hat cleaning and repair. Soon afterwards, Cotton received a long-distance phone call from North Carolina. The man who had bought Bob’s Hat Shop was gravely ill and his sister needed someone familiar with the business who could also clean and repair hats. Eventually, the sister let Cotton take over the payments, and by 1953, Cotton had taken possession of the business free and clear.

ollage of photographs of three wooden implements used in Cotton's shop: a hat block, flange and stand, 1950s. The hat block has distinctive grooves indicating it was used to block fedoras.

The 1950s were a good decade for Cotton’s business. Throughout the decade, Cotton had a steady stream of customers who brought in hats that had to be kept in good condition and shoes that needed shining. As Cotton related in a 1996 interview, his hat shop enjoyed a “lot of traffic,” as well as a reliable clientele of businessmen visiting from out of town, whose “proper dress wear” required a “hat, shirt, and tie.”
However, the 1960s signaled a dramatic shift in men’s fashion. Though apocryphal, the widespread story that President John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address bareheaded nonetheless signaled the beginning of the end for the dress hat. Then, as Cotton remembered, “the hippies came along,” and “stop[ped] wearing hats and started wearing long hair ... and then everyone started going bareheaded.” Though business was never again as good as it had been in the 1950s, Bob’s Hat Shop would remain a fixture in downtown Greensboro for the rest of the century.
Photograph of off-white, straw fedora worn in the summer months by Harold Cotton.
The 1960s also saw profound challenges to the system of Jim Crow that had placed hard limits on the freedoms and ambitions of African Americans across the South. On February 1, 1960, four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University staged a sit-in protest at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter less than half a mile away from Bob’s Hat Shop on South Elm Street. The protesters' refusal to obey an unjust law created a disruption so massive that it compelled Woolworth’s to desegregate its southern stores. By the end of 1960 more than 70,000 brave young men and women sat in, faced arrest, and endured violence in their campaign to desegregate hotels, libraries, parks, and lunch counters across the South.
Photograph of the the "Greensboro four" on the second day of their sit-in protest at the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina.

While the protests targeting the Woolworth’s down the street were escalating, an African American Marine walked into Bob’s Hat Shop and asked for a shine. In that moment, with history being made up the street, Cotton made the decision to desegregate his store. He told the soldier to have a seatin one of the chairs reserved for white customers only. After his customer paid the bill and left, Cotton turned to an understandably stunned friend and announced that “from now on anybody that comes in here can get on the stand. I don’t care whether they close us up or not.” To desegregate his store in 1960, when the successes of the civil rights movement were still uncertain, took considerable courage. The landscape of the past is studded with the graves of men and women who had similarly challenged Jim Crow.

Photograph of the section of the Greensboro Woolworth's lunch counter that is part of the museum's collection and is currently on display on the museum floo

Not all of Cotton’s contributions to the cause of African American civil rights were as dramatic as his decision to desegregate his shop. In the era of Jim Crow, segregation often meant that African Americans were taxed to build parks they could not play in, pools they could not swim in, and schools their children could not attend. Though there were segregated schools black students could attend across the South, these were underfunded, overcrowded, and would be closed as needed in the event of a shortfall in the annual budget. If African Americans wanted any of these things for their own communities, they had to pay for it themselves. That is, after paying taxes for all the amenities that white people enjoyed but they themselves were barred from using, black communities taxed themselves again. They used these “second taxes” to build their own schools, their own parks, their own playgrounds.  
Over the course of the next half century, Cotton also paid his “second taxes.” The profits from Bob’s Hat Shop helped sustain many of the the institutions of the local black community: St. Stephen's United Church of Christ, the local black Boy Scout troop, the Dudley High School Alumni Association, and the Greensboro branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Contributions like these from thousands of black business owners paid for textbooks, teachers’ salaries, even the coal used to heat schoolrooms in winter. Their contribution meant the difference between literacy and illiteracy for millions of African Americans.
Scanned image of the James B. Dudley High School's 60th Anniversary Jubilee program, with a historical photo of the school on the program's front and a photograph of Harold Cotton, as well as his message of congratulations, on the program's interior.

The bedrock of the local economy of African American communities in towns like Greensboro comprised of small business owners and entrepreneurs like Robert Taylor and Harold Cotton. The overlooked and unseen labor of the black proprietors of hat shops, beauty salons, funeral parlors, photography studios, barbershops, and other businesses performed the yeoman’s work of sustaining the African American community through the decades of Jim Crow.

Harold Cotton's story is one of two biographies featured in Black Main Street: Funding Civil Rights in Jim Crow America, a temporary display within the American Enterprise exhibition's "New Perspectives" case, on view from September 16, 2016 through March 8, 2017.

Jay Driskell is a historian of the urbanizing, segregating South. He is the author of Schooling Jim Crow: the Fight for Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politics. 

Jay Driskell
Posted Date: 
Tuesday, October 18, 2016 - 02:30
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The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2017

Smithsonian Magazine

Your favorite small town probably doesn’t look quite like how Norman Rockwell drew it. Small towns may be united by their modest population sizes, but they’re remarkable for their diversity of character. And so for the sixth-annual round of's America’s Best Small Towns, we set out on a quest to find 20 great slice-of-life (and if you’re Rockland, Maine, also award-winning slice-of-pie) small towns full of unique flavor.

To help us on our task, we once again consulted geographical information company Esri (which sorts towns with a population under 20,000) to identify tiny towns chock full of local culture, history and natural beauty. We then narrowed down our list to pinpoint the destinations that are especially worth making the trip to this year—whether they’re celebrating a special birthday, commemorating a famous resident or happen to be smack on the path of the “Great American Eclipse.” ​

Our top 20 picks range from the well-traveled to the offbeat, but each town shares a special something that makes it ripe for discovery in 2017. Happy travels! 

Talkeetna, Alaska, Population 876

Image by fallbrook / iStock. Glass Railcar to Denali (original image)

Image by Paxson Woelber. Northern Lights over Talkeetna. (original image)

Image by Sandy Brown Jensen. Talkeetna's historic downtown. (original image)

Image by choja / iStock. (original image)

Image by frontpoint / iStock. Talkeetna Welcome Sign (original image)

Image by SteveChristensen / iStock. Mt. McKinley (original image)

Image by mlharing / iStock. Silver Salmon (original image)

Image by AP Photo. The Historic Fairview Inn, Talkeetna, Alaska (original image)

Odds are, President Warren G. Harding probably wasn’t poisoned at Talkeetna’s Fairview Inn. But that hasn’t stopped the inn and the town from taking a certain pride in claiming responsibility for his death. There’s actually not even a definitive record of Harding stopping in Talkeetna during the first-ever presidential visit to Alaska in the summer of 1923. Nevertheless, days later, Harding died in San Francisco. “We’re still using the same poison today,” a former manager at the Fairview will assert whenever she’s asked about the tale.

The Fairview remains a go-to local gathering place in Talkeetna, and the memorabilia on its walls tell the history of the tight-knit town, which has managed to hold onto its slice-of-life charm despite ballooning in size during the summer months as tourists flock to the community, known for art and music, situated in the shadows and splendor of Mount Denali.

This year, as the Denali National Park and Preserve celebrates its 100th anniversary, it’s an especially good time to pay a visit to Talkeetna. The quirky town, 59 miles from the base of Mt. Denali, is the only place where you can take a flight to land in a glacier on Denali. You can also learn the history of Denali by making a trip to the Talkeetna Historical Society museum or get a panoramic view of the mountain by taking a Talkeetna zipline tour. For those looking for a quieter hiking trail or place to set up camp, Talkeetna is also only an hour’s drive to the lesser-trafficked Denali State Park, a gem in its own right.

To experience Talkeetna as locals do grab a meal or catch a show at home-grown institutions like Latitude 62 or the Talkeetna Roadhouse. But don’t believe any t-shirts that claim the town’s mayor is a cat. Stubbs, a 20-something ginger, isn’t actually an elected official. (Talkeetna, an unincorporated area, has no mayor.)

For railroad enthusiasts, be sure to catch a ride on the Hurricane Turn Train during your stay. It starts in Talkeetna and eventually drops passengers off at the scenic bridge above Hurricane Creek, with the option to return via train or a guided rafting trip down the Susitna River. Another great way to travel in the area? Take a pedal bus tour. Operated by locals, the trip not only shows off the Talkeetna historic district, but also lesser-frequented Talkeetna landmarks like its historic airstrip and cabins, as well as the mountain climbers’ memorial poll.

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, Population 293

Image by iStock/zrfphoto. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (original image)

Image by Goldengate98 / iStock. Shenandoah River (original image)

Image by Coast-to-Coast / iStock. Harpers Ferry Building (original image)

Image by amedved / iStock. Harpers Ferry historic town (original image)

Image by zrfphoto / iStock. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (original image)

Image by zrfphoto / iStock. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (original image)

When Thomas Jefferson visited Harpers Ferry in 1783, he peered out at the Potomac and declared it to be "perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature."

It’s easy to see what the founding father saw in Harpers Ferry. The storied West Virginia town, surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Potomac and Shenandoah river valleys, is such a natural treasure that most of the town is now part of the National Park Service and is maintained as the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Harper Ferrys’ culture is as rich as its beauty. While you may be familiar with the town’s best-known historical event—when abolitionist John Brown attempted to start an armed slave revolt in 1859—you may be less knowledgeable about the legacy of the Storer Normal School.

The school, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary, opened its doors on October 2, 1867. The pioneering educational institute in the United States holds the honor of being the first school in West Virginia and one of the first in the country to welcome all students regardless of race, color or creed. The historically black college later became the sight of the Niagara Movement, the precursor to the NAACP. Today, the school is run by the National Park Service, which will honor its milestone anniversary through special events throughout the year.

Come for the sesquicentennial in October which promises to be a “weekend of special tours, programs, drama, and music.” Also be sure to check out other living history events going on throughout the year—reenactors do everything from tell the story of the Civil War through the point of view of medics to give a taste of what 19th-century cider-making life was like.

During your stay, take advantage of the great outdoors. You can go rafting, kayaking and tubing the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, and there’s also stellar hiking to be found on the C&O Canal as well as the Appalachian Trail (whose national headquarters can be found on Washington Street). One trail not to miss? The steep but rewarding Maryland Heights Trail; it boasts great overlook views of the town and Potomac River, not to mention a close up look at artifacts from the Civil War.

After you’ve worked up an appetite, establishments like the Country Cafe (not to mention sweet treats at Scoop’s) will provide a needed recharge, getting you ready for an evening stroll along Harpers Ferrys welcoming cobblestone-lined streets.

Rockland, Maine, Population 7,219

Image by Main Lobster Fesival. The Maine Lobster Festival welcomes many food vendors to sell their delicious products on the grounds each year, and visitors may also enjoy the carnival atmosphere when they need a break from eating lobster. (original image)

Image by KateSfeir / iStock. Boardwalk at sunset in Rockland, Maine (original image)

Image by shakzu / iStock. Rockland Harbor Breakwater Lighthouse (original image)

Image by JR P. The Lobster Shack (original image)

Rockland was first called Catawamtek by the Abenaki people. The word means a “great landing place” and it’s a sentiment that still rings true today for the many who seek out the charming fishing community. During your stay, check out the local businesses on the town’s beloved Maine Street. There you can learn about Maine’s “sea parrots” at the Audubon’s “Project Puffin” and catch a show at the historic Strand Theatre. Afterward, tour the lighthouse and soak in the natural beauty of midcoast Maine.

Rockland’s lighting has long made the picturesque seaside town a place for artists. This year, one artist in particular is getting the Rockland shine: Andrew Wyeth. In honor of the painters 100th birthday, Rockland’s Farnswoth Art Museum is hosting an exhibition that will include rare and privately held works, showing off the range and scope of the artist who never stopped being influenced by Maine.

Be sure to browse the rest of Farnsworth’s massive collection when you’re there—contained within its walls you’ll find an authoritative look at the development of art in the state. The museum pairs well with the forward-looking Center for Maine Contemporary Art and the First Friday Art Walk on Main Street, where the next Alex Katz just might be showing.

If you’re in Rockland for the summer, come for the famed Maine Lobster Festival. The five-day bash, which turns 70 this summer, started out as a local festival and has evolved into a huge tradition of great eats and giving back to great local causes.

If you can’t make it out for the crustacean celebration, never fear. The festival recommends getting your fix year round at The Lobster Shack or the The Landings. Lynn Archer’s Brass Compass Cafe, a Rockland staple, which is home to the mighty “King of Clubs" lobster club, is also worth saving room for. If you’re not squeamish, you can check out how your dinner makes it onto your plate by setting sail on a Rockland lobster boat tour.

Don’t leave Rockland without trying a bite of pie. The town didn’t earn the nickname “Pie Town USA” by the Food Network for nothing. The honor is thanks in large part to the “Pie Moms,” the mothers of the owners at the beautiful Berry Manor Inn who serve up a mean slice of mixed berry. You can try their pie along with plenty of others, savory and sweet, at Rockland’s annual pie-a-thon in January. For true believers, the Berry Manor, as well as the LimeRock and Granite historic inns offer packaged pie lodging specials to complete a pie-fect experience.

Kent, Connecticut, Population 2,962

Image by JULIEN MCROBERTS / Alamy Stock Photo. (original image)

Image by (CC BY-SA 2.0). Bull's Bridge (original image)

Image by Doug Kerr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Kent Falls State Park (original image)

This year, Gilmore Girls from all walks of life will be making the pilgrimage to Kent when the leaves turn. That’s because in October the small New England town will be hosting the Gilmore Girls Fan Fest on the heels of the massively popular Netflix revival of the mother-daughter drama.

The dreamy northwest hamlet has all the charms of a quintessential Connecticut town with award-winning hospitality at the Inn at Kent Falls, a fine homemade meal at establishments like Fife ‘n Drum or Kingsley Tavern and a place to read at the independently owned House of Books.

The town is rife with artists and writers (the late tastemaker Oscar de la Renta even kept a country home in Kent for 30-some years). Get to know town by exploring the local arts scene, and don’t miss a trip to the contemporary Morrison Gallery, now located on Main Street.

You can see the local spirit of Kent come alive in events like a winter Gingerbread Festival, a summer sidewalk festival and the local Connecticut Antique Machinery Association’s fall festival. (The Antique Machinery Association also runs its own museum in town, which shares an entrance with the Connecticut Museum of Mining and Mineral Science and the Eric Sloane Museum and Kent Iron Furnace.)

Kent is surrounded by the storybook beauty of three state parks to get lost in—Macedonia, Lake Waramaug and Kent Falls, famous for its 250-foot waterfall that feeds into the Housatonic River. You can also pick up a section of the Appalachian Trail in Kent by Bull's Bridge.

After a long hike, seek out a draft with the local Kent Falls Brewing label on it—Connecticut's first farm brewery, it was established in 2014. Or, do as the Gilmore Girls would, and pick up a warm cup of coffee at Kent Coffee & Chocolate Company.

Makanda, Illinois, Population 547

(Tyler Nue)

Do you have eclipse fever? Makanda does. Tens of thousands of visitors (including members of NASA) will be flocking to the small southern Illinois village in August because it boasts a, well, stellar view of the Great American eclipse, which will rock the sky at exactly 1:21 p.m. on August 21.

This is the first time in almost 100 years that a total solar eclipse (when the Sun, Moon, and Earth align during a new moon) will stretch from coast to coast in the U.S., and it’s a big deal. While Hopkinsville, Kentucky, whose population skirts above 20,000, won the lottery as the “point of greatest eclipse,” Makanda is one of the towns that falls on the centerline. (In a strange astronomical coincidence, Makanda will also be in the path of another total solar eclipse that will pass through the North America in 2024.)

When you can pull your eyes away from the sky, you’ll find Makanda is dazzling in its own right. A village full of artists and entrepreneurs (who have been the subject of ballads), Makanda was once a thriving railroad hub, which has since which leaned into its own character and creativity to evolve into a funky artisan hamlet.

While in Makanda, you have to stroll down its historic boulevard, where you can browse local art at Visions Art Gallery and treat yourself to a hand-dipped ice cream at the Country Store. When you get tired of walking, you can opt to take in the sights in a less traditional way—on a guided horseback tour or hurtling through a zipline. Makanda is nearby the Shawnee National Forest and the Giant City State Park, and by hoof or by rope, you’re sure get some lush views.

If sitting back is more your style, take in the natural beauty of Makanda while relaxing with a glass at the Blue Sky Vineyard. The winery, which opened in 2000, anchors the northeast end of the southern Illinois Shawnee Hills Wine Trail. It’s also one of the many businesses in Makanda that will be doing something special to celebrate the eclipse this summer. Not only will it be hosting a four-day party, it will also be releasing a special-label, one that hopefully won’t be inspiring any literal blackouts.

Grand Marais, Minnesota, Population 1,341

Image by NickJKelly / iStock. (original image)

Image by Randen Pederson via Flickr. (original image)

Image by John_Brueske / iStock. Grand Marais Lighthouse (original image)

Image by Stone Harbor via Flickr. Paddle boarding tour on Lake Superior with The Schooner Hjørdis (original image)

Image by Alamy. (original image)

Long live the artists. The historic Grand Marais Art Colony was established in the outpost town in 1947 by Minneapolis School of Art instructor Birney Quick. What began as a space for artists looking to get lost in the wild beauty of the north shore (at the time, there was reportedly only one working public telephone in town), has now become the oldest art colony in Minnesota.  

The colony’s creative influence on Grand Marais can be found throughout the hip harbor town. Brush shoulders with local artists by stopping into one of the local art galleries like Siverton on Wisconsin Street, attend a First Friday or take a workshop yourself. There’s also the annual Grand Marais Arts Festival, which brings together more than 70 regional artists every summer.

The arts showcase is one of the many events going on throughout the year in Grand Marais. But the homegrown highlight taking the spotlight in 2017 is the “Radio Waves Music Festival.” What started as a one-time only bash has now hit the decade marker, and become a new September tradition among locals. You’ll hear a showcase of area talent from folk, rock, blues and jazz during the three-day festival, imagined up by WTIP North Shore Community Radio.

Don’t worry about getting hungry when you’re in Grand Marais. The waterfront Angry Trout Cafe serves up the best of Lake Superior’s bounty and the cozy Crooked Spoon Cafe has a mission to make hungry customers “anxious for their next visit.” Also leave room for one of Grand Marais’ sweetest treats at World's Best Donuts while you’re in town.

With Superior National Forest in its backyard and miles of Lake Superior shoreline in its front yard, Grand Marais’ natural beauty can easily be considered art in its own right. During your stay, take it in through scenic hiking and mountain biking or just cruise the “All American Road,” which can take you all the way to the Canadian border.

City of Ojai, California, Population 7,627

Image by Visions of America, LLC / Alamy Stock Photo. (original image)

Image by Witold Skrypczak / Alamy Stock Photo. (original image)

Image by Vincent Chien. Wildflower bloom by Lake Casitas. (original image)

Image by . Bart's Books. (original image)

Image by Tania Rae. Ojai Valley Museum. (original image)

Image by WendyWeatherup / iStock. Main street in Ojai (original image)

Image by KellyJHall / iStock. Frisbee golfer (original image)

Located in beautiful Ventura County, and within spitting distance of Santa Barbara, is the city of Ojai. Long the hideaway of celebrities, creatives and yogis, the quiet enclave within the greater Valley of Ojai has maintained a low-key vibe befitting its surroundings of rolling hills and cotton candy sunsets for a century now.

While the city of Ojai is celebrating its centennial this year, the Chumash people have been calling the area home for at least 12,000 years. (Ojai gets its name from the Chumash word for moon, "A'hwai.") During the 19th century, an early iteration of Ojai was actually called Nordhoff, after the author and local resident. Then artist and industrialist Edward Drummond Libbey came to town. He “found it a village of sticks and left it a village of stucco,” as the Ojai put it, transforming the area into a Spanish-style village in 1917.

On April 7 of that year, Libbey delivered a speech in which he spoke of how he viewed art and its role in the newly formed city: "Art is but visualized idealism, and is expressed in all surroundings and conditions of society," he told a crowd of 2,000. 

Libbey’s point of view has since manifested itself throughout the tiny and beloved bohemia. See how by climbing aboard the Ojai Trolley, and exploring town. There are plenty of galleries and boutiques to discover. Be sure to pay Bart’s Books of Ojai a visit as well; it’s the largest independently owned outdoor bookstore in the country. You can get also get a real insider’s feel for the city at the Ojai Valley Museum. Not only is it the place for centennial celebrations, it’s also celebrating its own 50th birthday this year.

It’s hard to be bored while in Ojai—there’s horseback riding to be done, trails that end at the Pacific Ocean to explore and olives that need pressing. Also, California’s massive downpour this winter not only filled up the nearby treasure Lake Casitas, but caused a gorgeous explosion of wildflowers in town, making any outdoor adventure impossibly more vivid.

If you’re planning to stay overnight, you can do so in the lap of luxury at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa. Or you can check into a cottage at the Thatcher House (there you can also pick up some new skills like how to make jams and soaps or even how to milk one of the wandering goats or sheep you’ll find around the property).

Don’t leave town without grabbing a freshly baked muffin and cup of coffee at the Ojai Cafe Emporium. Situated in the old People’s Lumber Company building, it’s Ojai’s first coffee house and remains a community staple. If you’re looking for a more upscale option, you can also experience just how fresh farm-to-table can be by making a reservation at the Ojai Ranch House.

Throughout the year Ojai hosts various events, everything from its music festival to an entire month dedicated to lavender. But what could be more fitting than to plan a trip during this year’s Ojai Day in October, which pays tribute to the arts and culture of Ojai and Libbey’s lasting legacy.

Snowmass Village, Colorado, Population 2,898

Base Ski Lodge, Snowmass Village (gladassfanny / iStock)

When Snowmass Ski area first opened its doors on December 15, 1967, a lift ticket cost just $6.50. Back then, there were five ski lifts and 50 miles of trails. Today, the rocky mountain destination boasts more than 20 lifts as well as three times the original trail mileage (including the longest lift-access vertical in the entire country). But there’s still a way to purchase a lift ticket in Snowmass for $6.50. For one day only on December 15, 2017, tickets revert back to their original sticker price to kick off a season-long celebration marking five decades of powder.

For folks who normally don’t venture outside of nearby Aspen, the Snowmass ski slope’s golden anniversary offers up a great excuse to check out Aspen’s more laid back sister city, which embraces its family friendly label. (It offers free skiing for children under the age of 6, activities like campfire sing-alongs with s’mores, not to mention a pretty unique childcare-meets-ski school option.)

Be sure to poke your head in Gwyn’s High Alpine while you’re hitting the slopes. It’s beloved by locals and visitors alike for its homemade fare (and old-school Pac-man arcade game, which reportedly has survived the restaurant’s recent $5.9 million facelift). Also on the mountain keep an eye out for Up 4 Pizza, known for its gooey cookies. If you’re still hungry, there’s a host of other dining options from barbeque to a Snowcat-towed food truck, as well as free hot cider, coffee and cliff bars provided by Aspen Skiing Co.

Off the mountain, The Krabloonik is one of Snowmass Village’s most unique experiences. The establishment, now under new ownership, is the largest dog sledding operation in the continental U.S., and visitors can not only meet the pups and go for a sled ride, but also enjoy a meal afterward in a picturesque log cabin.

When the snow melts, there’s 75 miles of hiking and biking trails to enjoy, as well as Class V whitewater rafting, kayaking and fly-fishing on the Roaring Fork River. One summertime highlight? The Snowmass Rodeo, a popular tribute to Colorado’s Old West roots. This June, Snowmass will also host the inaugural Bluebird Art + Sound festival, taking place in the still-evolving base village. Art is an important aspect in Snowmass, which is also the home of the influential Anderson Ranch Arts Center, a creative hub for visual artists that has been around longer than Snowmass’ official existence. (The village incorporated in 1977.)

While Snowmass Village is young, a 2010 construction project that unearthed Columbian mammoth fossils shows that it certainly has old bones. The massive find, now on view at Snowmass’ free Ice Age Discovery Center, highlights the high-altitude location some 45,000 years ago. Unlike in the Paleolithic era, you won’t see any giant bison or ground sloths hanging around the village today, but it’s a sure bet that you will spot plenty of outdoor enthusiasts taking advantage of the 300 days of sunshine and more than 300 inches of powder that the area averages annually.

Abilene, Kansas, Population 6,590

Image by Franklin B Thompson via Flickr. General, later President Dwight D. Eisenhower was born in Texas, but raised in this pleasant home in Abilene, Kansas, before entering West Point Military Academy. He and his beloved Mamie often returned to Abilene to visit family. This National Historic Site is open for tours. (original image)

Image by Jim Maurer via Flickr. (original image)

Image by Jim Maurer via Flickr. Abilene, Kansas (original image)

Image by Jim Maurer. (original image)

Image by Russell Feldhausen via Flickr. Combine Demo Derby and Compact Figure 8 Race in Abilene Kansas, part of the Central Kansas Free Fair held every August at the Eisenhower Park Fairgrounds. (original image)

The Old West doesn’t feel quite so old in Abilene, Kansas. People come from all over the world to Abilene to get a sense of the cow town where a handful of rough-and-tumble characters used to drive thousands of cattle coming up from Texas. The work was dangerous but profitable: If you successfully herded the animals through the oft-tumultuous terrain, avoiding natural disasters and unsavory characters, you’d collect a rich reward.

“You hear the stories of the gladiators and great heroes, this was our version of it,” says Dickinson County Heritage Center director Michael Hook. “It was these lawless guys who had no fear and they knew what they were getting into.”

Abilene’s rich pioneer traditions will be front and center this year in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Chisholm Trail with various events and activities that has earned the town another call out on this list. If you can, be there on September 1-3, when the town will host “Trails, Rails & Tales.” The festivities will feature cowboy poet Red Steagall, along with a host of other storytellers, musicians and re-enactors. During the three-day event, cowboys will once again drive longhorns through the streets, loading them up on the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad.

When the cattle aren’t occupying a seat on the train, consider taking a ride on it yourself. Run by volunteers, the steam engine treks to the nearby town of Enterprise through the timeless Smoky Hill River Valley. Another way to get a feel for Abilene? Visit the Heritage Center, or if you don’t mind a little kitsch, step into the living history of Old Abilene Town, which still serves up sarsaparillas in the saloon, sells artisan crafts in the general store and recreates gunfights on Main Street. If you're in Abilene in August, the Central Kansas Free Fair is a summer tradition full of things to check out from the Demolition Derby to the Wild Bill Hickok PRCA Rodeo.

Abilene has history around every corner. It’s the town where President Dwight D. Eisenhower was raised, and so in the “five-star” museum district, a tour of the Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum is a must. You can also get a feel for what life was like at the turn-of-the-century in Abilene by taking a tour of the Seelye Mansion, which is still lit with original Edison light bulbs. A less expected spot to visit on your trip? The Greyhound Hall of Fame, which explores the fascinating history of the canine and evolution of the racing industry.

When you get hungry, stop into the Three One One (located where else but 311 N. Spruce Street), a local favorite that serves up fresh fish tacos. Or eat like Ike did at Mr. K’s Farmhouse (formerly Lena’s). Definitely don’t miss the chance to sample some of the fried chicken during your stay; the historic Brookville Hotel has been serving up its iconic family-style dinner since 1915.

Spencer, Iowa, Population 11,206

Image by Alamy. The Little Sioux River near Spencer Iowa in the morning (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the Clay County Fair. (original image)

To understand Spencer, Iowa, look to a piece of public art erected there to celebrate the new millennium. Called “The Gathering, Of Time, Of Land, Of Many Hands,” the mosaic was made after consulting more than 1,000 residents. The result celebrates the generations of collaborative spirit that has given the Clay County community, located between the Little Sioux and Ocheyedan Rivers, its small-town Americana feel since it was first settled in 1866.

While in Spencer, check out its buzzing Main Street, full of rich history and beautiful art deco commercial buildings. Be sure to browse Arts on Grand and, if you’re feeling brave, order the special at Weasy's Lounge & Grille (not for the faint of heart, it’s a beef patty stacked with sausage, pepper jack cheese, bacon and peanut butter on a hearty slice of Texas toast).

When you’re in town, you can also brush up on your history at the Clay County Heritage Center, or get some live-and-in-color tales if you’re lucky enough to bump elbows with town icon (and sharp dresser) Bob Rose, who has poured his heart and soul into the town, so much so that he’s earned the nickname “Mr. Spencer.”

This September is a great time to visit Spencer. The Clay County Fair, which bills itself as the “World’s Greatest County Fair,” is celebrating its 100th birthday. That’s a pretty tall order, but the fair, which attracts upward of 300,000 people, is pretty spectacular. The centennial party promises to be an unforgettable occasion, serving up traditional staples like blue-ribbon agriculture, livestock and baking contests, as well as more modern touches like, say, Baconade (for the uninitiated that’s Bacon Lemonade).

A trip to Spencer wouldn’t be complete without a bike ride through Clay County’s fantastic trail system. It’s a win-win: Enjoy Iowa’s natural beauty while taking the opportunity to work off some of those delicacies that you sampled at the fair.

Mineral Point, Wisconsin, Population 2,487

Image by Biscut / iStock. This third-oldest town in the state, a historic mining area, is now known for art galleries and lovely country shops (original image)

Image by Biscut / iStock. This historic building dates from 1892 in this scenic rural mining town, the third oldest in the state, full of art galleries, cafes and taverns (original image)

Image by Biscut / iStock. This third oldest town in the state, once a mining area, is now known for art galleries and its tiny free libraries (original image)

Make a point to visit Mineral Point, a small town with a big personality anchored among southern Wisconsin’s rolling hills.

A gem of a town, Mineral Point was initially known for its lead. That’s what attracted skilled tin miners from Cornwall, England, to come there in the early 1800s. But it quickly emptied out when the Gold Rush hit, pulling speculators further west to California. Then, in the 1930s, a preservation movement breathed new life in Mineral Point. By the 1970s, the town’s spirit to conserve its past had made it the first city in Wisconsin to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mineral Point’s historic buildings are also what drew artists to set up shop in town. Today, you can see their craft close up in the roughly two dozen studios that decorate downtown Mineral Point. They’re located among locally owned shops that call the town home like Phoebe’s Nest, which offers eclectic vintage finds and Foundry Books, known for its haikus (proprietor Gayle Bull and her late husband were actually the editors and publishers of the first U.S.-based haiku magazine and the shop hosts a variety of workshops, retreats and readings throughout the year).

The family owned Red Rooster Cafe, where you can try a traditional figgyhobbin (pastry crust filled with raisins, brown sugar cinnamon and walnuts), is just one of the local fixtures that still speaks to the town’s Cornish traditions. But if you’re looking for the full experience, come for the annual Cornish Fest held in late September. The heritage celebration hits a quarter century this year, and promises to be full of history and fun. If you see anyone wearing their coat inside out during the bash, don’t worry—they’re probably just warding off those pesky Celtic piskies.

Hana, Hawaii, Population 1,235

Image by 7Michael / iStock. Hamoa Beach, Hana, Hawaii (original image)

Image by 7Michael / iStock. Hamoa Beach, Hana, Hawaii (original image)

Image by Alamy. Sign welcoming visitors to Hana, "the Heart of old Hawai'i" (original image)

Image by cosmonaut / iStock. Koki Beach, Hana, Hawaii (original image)

The Road to Hana is famous. The winding path, all 52 miles from Kahului, traverses towering waterfalls, lush rainforests and untouched eastern coastline. Then, at the end of the road, there’s a jewel waiting: “heavenly” Hana.

Those who try to make Hana a day trip are missing out on getting to know a destination rich in culture and natural beauty. First settled by Polynesian people as far back as 400 A.D., Hana is steeped in Hawaiian history. (The influential queen Ka’ahumanu for instance is said to have been born in a cave in Hana Bay in 1768.)

For years, the only way to access Hana was by the sea. Then the Hana Highway was built. Now a paved road, it was first done using volcanic cinders in 1926, which is how Georgia O’Keeffe once experienced the bumpy trip on her way to immortalize Hana’s rugged coastline.

The current road makes Hana more accessible, but only just. It’s thanks to Hana’s continued remoteness though that the small, welcoming community has managed to avoid being overtaken by tourist kitsch. You can get a feel for the complete history and culture of Hana at the Hana Cultural Center and Museum. Or just chat up a local. You’ll find them having lunch not at a hotel, but rather at one of the many off-the-road eateries. Two popular haunts that one local recommends: the food truck Braddah Hutts for barbeque (serving up a truly freshly caught ahi filet) and Thai Food By Pranee, which delivers traditional dishes made with local ingredients that has made it the subject of some rave reviews.

In Hana, the beach is where you want to be. You can dive, fish, swim, surf, kayak, canoe and paddle board through some of nature’s prettiest backdrops. Some iconic places to set up shop? There’s Hana Beach Park, a classic surf spot, Hamoa Beach, which James Michener, author of the historical novel Hawaii, called the “most perfect crescent beach in the Pacific,” and Waiʻanapanapa State Park, famous for its black sand beaches. (If sand’s your thing, there’s also the deep red sand of Koki Beach, which according to legend, came to look that way following an epic battle between the volcano goddess and her older sister, the goddess of the ocean.)

Hana just celebrated 25 years of the East Maui Taro Festival in April. Taro or kalo, a native plant that’s still farmed in Hana today, is central to the Hawaiian creation story, and also to chefs. The annual festival highlights the plant’s versatility, as it can be served up as traditional paiai and poi (where the root is pounded into a paste) to less-expected iterations like taro cheesecake

Bell Buckle, Tennessee, Population 512

(Brent Moore (CC BY-NC 2.0))

As legend has it, in 1917, a Kentucky coal miner asked for a treat “as big as the moon.” Soon after the MoonPie, a marshmallow, graham and chocolate concoction was born. The iconic southern snack is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, and one great way to savor its delicious legacy is by taking a trip to the town of Bell Buckle this summer to catch the RC and MoonPie Festival, which will, among other things, will be serving up the world’s largest MoonPie, weighing in at more than 50 pounds.

The RC and MoonPie Festival was imagined up in Bell Buckle as a way to mark the snack’s 75th anniversary, and the now-annual tradition has become just one of the town’s many excuses to throw a party. Throughout the year, Bell Buckle also hosts Daffodil Day, in honor of the flower that takes over in springtime, The Webb School Art and Craft Festival in October, not to mention its Old Fashioned Christmas tradition complete with reindeer and sleigh rides in December.

Bell Buckle got its start in 1852 as a railroad town. Today, the train doesn’t run through it anymore, but in the past few decades, the Bedford county town, located between Nashville and Chattanooga, has found new life, forging a reputation as destination for road trippers.

In 1976, thanks to its notable architecture, Bell Buckle’s historic district was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The town’s preserved Victorian homes give Bell Buckle its timeless feel, as do stores like Bluebird Antiques & Ice Cream Parlor, a popular spot for hand-dipped ice cream, operated out of an 1800s soda shop.

Antiquing is a popular activity in town, as is catching live music in places like the Bell Buckle Cafe on Railroad Square (which has its own record label). The town’s most famous resident—poet laureate of Tennessee Maggi Vaughn—has also done much to stimulate the town’s creative scene, and she sells her work (and is known to share advice with young writers) over at the “Bell Buckle Press.”

Oakland, Maryland, Population 1,905

Image by Courtesy of Garrett County Chamber of Commerce. Autumn Glory Fall Festival Parade. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Garrett County Chamber of Commerce. Fall colors outside Oakland, MD. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Garrett County Chamber of Commerce. Muddy Creek Falls at Swallow Falls State Park. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Garrett County Chamber of Commerce. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Garrett County Chamber of Commerce. Deep Creek Lake in fall. (original image)

You want to be in Oakland when the leaves change. That time of year, the historic western Maryland county seat comes alive, blanketed with deep reds, smudgy purples and crisp yellow leaves.

This year it’s an especially good time to visit Oakland during harvest time. The Garrett County town’s Autumn Glory Festival turns 50 in October. The five-day celebration promises to pay tribute to the season with parades, concerts and exhibits on tap. There’s also plenty of other ways to spend the fall in Oakland, such as taking a very haunted hayride at Broadford Park or hoping on a foliage tour

If you’ve only ever popped your head into town for supplies on your way to the great outdoors (Deep Creek Lake is a 15-minute drive away, and Herrington Manor State Park and Swallow Falls State Park are also in Oakland’s backyard), the sleepy mountain town deserves a closer look.

You can get a feel for the quiet, friendly atmosphere of Oakland on a stroll along the restored brick path of its historic district. There you can pick up a good read at the Book Mark’et, get a history lesson at the Garrett County Historical Society Museum, and stop in for a strawberry soda at Englander’s Antiques and Collectibles (inside the store is Dottie’s Fountain & Grill, a town staple).

Since the 1800s, the town has attracted everyone from presidents to literary figures (and its local paper, the Republican, running since 1877, has charted it all). Today, you’ll see traces of the past in everyday life, like on remnants of the New Deal on the post office, where there’s a government-commissioned circa 1942 buckwheat harvest mural by Robert Gates. Then, there’s the “Church of Presidents.” Officially known as St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, it earned its nickname because Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison have all sat in its storied pews. (St. Matthew’s happens to be made of the same sandstone that was used for B&O railroad bridges. While a B&O passenger train hasn’t left Oakland since 1971, the town has turned the station into a museum that shares the story of the rail in Oakland with the public.)

Don’t be surprised if you see horse-drawn buggies pulling through Oakland during your trip. Maryland’s oldest Amish settlement calls the greater Oakland area home, as do a community of old order Mennonites. There are a number of local businesses run by community members. If you have the time, stop in for authentic Amish Hummingbird Cake at Heidi’s Bakery and Cafe or try a homemade donut at Sugar & Spice Bakery and Cheese.

Zoar Village, Ohio, Population 178

(ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo)

In 1817, some 200 separatists looking to escape religious persecution in Germany settled down on 5,500 acres hugging the Tuscarawas River. They called their new home Zoar Village, after the town in the Bible where Lot and his daughters sought refuge.

Within a few years, the Zoarites banded together to form what would be one of the longest-running communal settlements in American history. After its dissolution in 1898, many tenants chose to stay behind. Today around 75 families live in the historic Zoar Village.

Zoar still looks like a German Village from the 1800s. It has over 50 of its original historic structures and buildings, not to mention its iconic garden, which takes up two acres in the center of the town and whose windy paths and different flora functions as a living separatist bible. While in Zoar, take a tour of town, sample German-style meatloaf at the Canal Tavern or go antiquing at the Cobbler Shop Bed & Breakfast.

For its bicentennial, the town is celebrating all year. In addition to putting twists on all annual Zoar events, the village will be opening an art gallery that will start by highlighting artists who came to Zoar like August F. Biehle, Jr, as well as debuting two new festivals: Maifest, a German celebration of spring and Heimatfest in October, which marks the date when it is believed the separatists first came to Zoar (you can also see the play The Case of Goesele v. Bimeler, during the festival, which follows the lawsuit filed by an evicted Zoar resident in against the town’s leader).

Zoar was just designated as a National Historic Landmark this year, but if you talk to people in the village, they’ll say they’re just happy that Zoar is still standing. Twice in its history, the village was almost dissolved. First in the 1930s, when the question was whether to create a levee to protect the town from flooding or relocate it, and then history repeated itself in 2011 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers questioned whether it should repair that levee or move the town. Now, with the confirmation that the levee will be fixed, the village’s rallying cry of “Save Historic Zoar” has rightfully shifted once again to “Preserve Historic Zoar.”

Rincón, Puerto Rico, Population 15,192

Image by Photo courtesy of Flickr user cogito ergo imago's buddy icon cogito ergo ima. Aptly named, Rincón (meaning corner) beach is located on the North Western part of Puerto Rico. (original image)

Image by Paul Greaves / Alamy Stock Photo. (original image)

Image by Myke Lyons. Surfers at Rincon Beach. (original image)

Image by Galaga Gal. Sunset in Rincon. (original image)

Image by Angel Xavler Vlera-Vargas. Almendros Beach near Rincon. (original image)

This is a significant year in Puerto Rico’s history. One hundred years ago, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act into law, making Puerto Rico part of the United States. To mark the milestone, make this the year to get to know some of Puerto Rico’s most iconic spots like Rincón. Set against lush green mountains and cow pastures, the relaxed town’s natural beauty has long made it a favorite among locals and tourists, alike.

If you can’t figure out why Rincón’s name sounds familiar, then you might want to look to the Beach Boys. In the California rockers’ 1962 hit “Surfin’ Safari,” they sing:

“At Huntington and Malibu
They're shooting the pier
At Rincon they're walking the nose
We're going on safari to the islands this year
So if you're coming get ready to go”

While there’s actually some contention over what beach spot the band was actually namechecking (Southern California’s Rincon Point also lays claim), the Puerto Rico coastal town has run with the lyrics in stride. And “Surfin’ Safari” or no, you’re sure to want to hang ten in this premiere surf destination, which hosted the World Surfing Championships in 1968.

When in Rincón, you’ll probably be spending most of your time at the beach. The area is famous for its coastline, and there’s something for everyone whether you’re in search of the calmer waves of Tres Palmas or Steps Beach (great for snorkeling to see the beautiful elk horn reef) or the long, open Maria’s Beach, which is one of the most popular spots among surfers.

When you surface, head to the Plaza Pública, and get to know the locals who put on an art walk every Thursday evening and a lively farmer’s market full of fresh, local food on Sunday mornings. While you’re browsing the stands, keep an eye out for cocina criolla dishes, traditional Puerto Rican cuisine that’s a delicious blend of Spanish, Taino and African recipes.

Rincón is a town for all seasons. Every January to March, you’ll likely see Humpback whales migrating past the beach town. In the spring, you can catch the International Film Festival (which celebrated ten years this March) and throughout the year, there’s a host of other events to bookmark including the Coconut Festival in May and the festive Feast of the Patron Saint, Santa Rosa de Lima, in August.

At the end of your stay, consider taking home a canine. The eclectic Mango Beach Shop famously doubles as a streamlined place to rescue Rincon strays, called Sato.

De Smet, South Dakota, Population 1,090

Image by South Dakota Department of Tourism. (original image)

Image by South Dakota Department of Tourism. Inside the Ingalls' homestead. (original image)

Image by South Dakota Department of Tourism. (original image)

Image by South Dakota Department of Tourism. Ingalls homestead. (original image)

Life wasn’t easy for the original homesteaders who came to De Smet. When the South Dakota frontier town was first established in 1880, there was little there except cornfields and grassy prairieland. Yet for more than a century, De Smet has endured.

The quiet town’s legacy has been shaped in no small part by its most famous residents: the Ingalls. As this year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder, it’s a great time to pay this quirky town a visit.

Wilder first came to De Smet as an adolescent and set the final five books in the Little House series there. Today, the family’s 157-acre homestead, “By the Shores of Silver Lake” where they put down roots in 1879 is still intact, and you can go on a guided tour of it and all things Ingalls with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society year round. If you can, though, come to De Smet in the summertime to catch the beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, which this year will reenact “The Little Town on the Prairie,” picking up Wilder’s story following the winter of 1880-81. Coinciding with the festival, the town will also throw big, birthday bash for Wilder on July 14-16, which will feature a who’s who of “Little House on the Prairie” aficionados.

De Smet might be Laura-crazy, but there’s more to the town than its famous family. Stay at the welcoming Prairie House Manor, and bring your fishing net. The nearby Lake Thompson is the largest glacial lake in the state and a great spot for fishing, not to mention pheasant hunting. See Main Street come alive during South Dakota’s longest-running celebration, Old Settler’s Day in June. Or come in August for the annual Plein Air Event, where artists of all ages gather to paint the rugged beauty of South Dakota.

While De Smet has its feet firmly in the past, the town isn’t just looking backward. Just last year, De Smet won a Bush Foundation Grant for its development vision for the future. But while the pioneer town might have a new shine, never fear, in De Smet, bonnets never go out of style.

Cheraw, South Carolina, Population 5,793

(Franck Fotos / Alamy Stock Photo)

Cheraw, a welcoming hamlet located on the banks of the Pee Dee River, bills itself as “the Prettiest Town in Dixie.” While the title might be self-designated, there’s plenty of charm to be found in this small town full of history, surrounded by the beauty of Cheraw State Park and Sand Hills State Forest.

Get to know Cheraw through a self-guided walking tour that begins in the center of downtown at Town Green and goes all the way to the banks of the Pee Dee river. One spot not to miss on the tour is Old St. David’s Church, which has witnessed the American Revolution and the Civil War. “Amid the changes of time and civil rule, only the Old Parish Church remained to tell its tale in the associations and traditions connected with its earlier days,” an 1867 history text writes about the historical church. Other highlights include the Lyceum Museum, housed in an 1820s courtroom, and the Southern African-American Heritage Center, a labor of love for local historian Felicia McCall, which opened its doors in 2010.

While in Cheraw, play a round of golf at beloved Cheraw State Park Golf Course or catch a ranger-guided moonlight canoe float on Lake Juniper. You can also sample some homemade Southern-style fare in places like Mary’s Restaurant or the historic College Inn Restaurant.

This is the year to discover Cheraw as its most famous son is turning 100. Dizzy Gillespie, born John Birkes, didn’t have an easy childhood in Cheraw, but it was there where the jazz great started listening to big-band jazz and vocalists on the radio at his neighbor's house and began making a name for himself with his taped-up cornet. "In Cheraw, mischief, money-making, and music captured all of my attention," he wrote in his autobiography.

While the annual South Carolina Jazz Festival in the fall promises to trumpet the legendary ambassador of jazz’s centennial, his presence resonates year round— from the Dizzy Gillespie Home Site Park, where Dizzy was born, to Ed Dwight’s seven-foot statue of Dizzy, which towers over Town Green.

Page, Arizona, Population 7,440

Image by Alex Proimos via Flickr. Lower Antelope Canyon, Near Page Arizona (original image)

Image by Petr Meissner via Flickr. Horseshoe Bend (original image)

Image by dconvertini via Flickr. Lake Powell, Page, Arizona (original image)

Image by Jenny Mackness via Flickr. Lee's Ferry, Page, Arizona (original image)

Image by dschreiber29 / iStock. Hot Air Balloon Race (original image)

The remote town of Page in Arizona’s Coconino County has snuck on the radar in recent years as more and more outdoor enthusiasts come to the mesa in extreme north-central Arizona to discover the beauty of Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Valley Slot Canyons.

Surrounded by the deep reds of the vermilion cliffs and icy blues of Lake Powell, the close-knit community of Page is young—the town was only erected in the mid-20th century as a housing area for a nearby construction site. But from its modest origins, Page has quickly forged its own identity, shaped in no small part by the nearby Navajo and Hopi reservations.

You can also get a feel for Page at the Powell Museum, which is currently exhibiting visual artist Claudine Morrow’s “The Faces of Page (and other exotic places…)” featuring her portraits of local area personalities. Or schedule a tour at the Navajo Village, which shares Navajo culture past and present.

When you get hungry, Big John’s Texas BBQ is the locals’ watering hole. Or, if you have a full evening to spare, check out the unique Sanderson’s Into the Grand. Located in a warehouse that’s painted with murals, the venue offers a night of dinner, music and dancing that showcases Navajo food and culture.

There are some fantastic festivals held throughout the year in Page. Come for the Horseshoe Bend Star Party in August to watch the Lyrid meteor shower, or visit in the fall to see the red desert landscape light up with a festoon of colorful balloons when the 15th-annual Page-Lake Powell Balloon Regatta takes flight in November.

Hill City, South Dakota, Population 990

Image by South Dakota Department of Tourism. (original image)

Image by South Dakota Department of Tourism. (original image)

Image by South Dakota Department of Tourism. South Dakota State Railroad Museum. (original image)

Image by South Dakota Department of Tourism. Black Hills Miner Brewing Co. (original image)

Image by South Dakota Department of Tourism. The historic Alpine Inn. (original image)

Hill City considers itself the “heart of the Black Hills,” and for good reason. The small mountain town in the shadows of the massive stone carvings of Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial presents a rich slice of South Dakota life.

While Hill City got its start as a mining boomtown, today it’s known for its regional art. In the 1990s, noted watercolorist Jon Crane, whose great-great-grandfather happens to be Alfred Waud (his 19th-century sketch “Railroad Building on the Great Plains” was the way many Americans first saw the Western landscape), set up shop in town, and today, there’s a strong gallery scene on Hill City’s main drag, including one run by renowned Oglala Lakota artist Sandy Swallow, which features her work along with pieces by other native artists.

Stop by the Museum at the Black Hills Institute in Hill City to see "Stan" one of the largest, most complete T. rexes ever discovered. Get a feel for the impact the railroad had on the state by visiting the South Dakota State Railroad Museum, then experience the rail firsthand by taking a recreational ride on the steam-powered, 1880s train that departs from town on a 20-mile narrated joyride  through pine tree-lined scenery. Or get lost in plush at Teddy Bear Town, which holds the Guinness World Record for the "Largest Teddy Bear Collection" with over 9,000 bears.

When in Hill City, try some unique South Dakota wine and craft beer at the Prairie Berry Winery and the neighboring Black Hills Miner Brewing Co. Also tuck into a meal at the historic Alpine Inn.

If you’re an avid cyclist, take note that the annual Mickelson Trail Trek is celebrating its 20th year in September. Hundreds of cyclists will trace the storied 109-mile route that runs through almost the entire length of the Black Hills, passing right through town on a trail that was once an old railroad bed.