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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.
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.”
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 hundreds—maybe even hundreds of thousands—of 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.
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)
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.
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.”
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 AL.com 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.”
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!”
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.
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
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.
Wild Frontiers This operator offers a signature tour of the Caucasus that includes Tbilisi, Kazbegi, and Kakheti, along with Yerevan, Armenia, and Baku, Azerbaijan.
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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:
DIKES ARE SAFE AT PRESENT.
YOU WILL BE WARNED IF NECESSARY.
YOU WILL HAVE TIME TO LEAVE.
DON'T GET EXCITED.
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.
Every day at 5 p.m. at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, there was a cercavila, a parade with giants, big heads, a dragon, and dancers. On the last Saturday, another sunny one on the National Mall, visitors gathered in the Plaça Major as usual. What they didn't know was that they were in for a very special debut.
A horse poked its head from under the Imaginary Figures on Parade tent. Up until then, it was a work in progress, its face and body taking shape under the direction of artist Miquel Grima. Now it proudly wore its shield and trotted into the performance square alongside its “handlers” with a sprightly air and a deliberate turn of its head. With the first notes of a newly composed tune, the mulassa began her dance.
Seeing Smithy, as she became known, come alive, we realized this was a story that needed to be told. So the two of us, members of the Catalonia program curatorial team, arranged to continue our weekly meetings across the Atlantic and interview the principal artists who participated in the making of the mulassa: Grima, the imaginary figure maker; Jan Grau, the historian who helped Grima conduct research; Pau Fernández, the tailor who designed the mulassa’s dress; Marcel Casellas, the director of Cobla Catalana dels Sons Essencials and composer of the mulassa’s music; and Teresa Agustí, director of Esbart Ciutat Comtal who, next to Lluís Calduch Ramos, choreographed its dance steps. This is their story.
A mulassa, or mule, is perhaps the most playful of the Catalan imaginary beasts because mules are known for their stubbornness. Therefore the mulassa is designed to give a hard time, provoke and poke fun at those around it. In addition, “the mulassa represents the people of a town, not the rich, or the elites,” Grima explained to us. Most of those we talked to could not describe the mulassa without contrasting it with the eagle, which represents royalty or the state, and the dragon, the beast slain by St. George, patron saint of Catalonia.
Mulasses have been a documented beast of the Catalan imaginary landscape since the seventeenth century. In planning to make the beast, Grima consulted with imaginary figure expert Jan Grau. They sifted through many examples of the mulassa, past and present, and even went to visit the famous Mulassa of Reus. One difference they found in modern imaginary figures is they have become more static.
“Movement was very important, once upon a time,” Grau says. When he and Grima visited the Mulassa of Reus, they specifically looked at how the neck moved and the mechanism behind it. “The idea was to recuperate in many ways the original meaning of what was a mulassa. And movement is the meaning of the mulassa.”
But beyond this historical recuperation, Grima chose the mulassa because of what it could mean within the context of a festival in Washington, D.C. An imaginary beast is built to belong, he explained. To be meaningful, it must carry on the stories of the community that commissions it. However, this task was more complex than usual, he added, as the character needed to participate in the Catalan imaginary beast tradition as well as respond to the audience at the Folklife Festival. Grima and Grau concluded that the mulassa was the most suitable beast for the event.
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“The mulassa represents the people,” Grima says. It’s culture of, by, and for the people, just like the Festival’s mission.
“Besides, we wanted to promote dialogue,” Grau adds, explaining that the mulassa represents the people, and the power of the people is speech.
Another reason the mulassa seemed the perfect choice was the short time allotted for its construction. Grima had only ten days to complete his mission, but he had help. His open workshop in the Imaginary Figures tent meant that many members of the Catalonia delegation left their fingerprints on the mulassa, some by proximity and some because of their expertise.
One afternoon, next to Grima’s stand, tailor Pau Fernández worked in concentration, oblivious to the surrounding music and conversations. The fingertips of his left hand went white from applying pressure to the ends of a rope on a wooden piece, and in his right hand was a needle. It took him a minute or two to acknowledge a question about what he was doing. He replied with a grin from ear to ear. “I’m making the mulassa’s tail.” He had gone around the Festival grounds hunting for materials to make the tail, and in the Street Decorations tent he found “thick frayed rope with blond highlights.”
In contrast with the Folklife Festival, which is planned years in advance, Grima points out that the mulassa is “an improvised figure, created sort of randomly for carnival, with leftover materials.” However, even within the structured framework of the Festival, there was room for improvisation. “We made our decisions based on availability. Whatever we had is what we used. That was that,” Fernández says, cheerfully recalling his rope hunt.
During the last two days of the Festival, the mulassa debuted its ritual performance, complete with her own original tune.
“I composed the music in one night,” says Marcel Casellas, director and bass player of the Cobla Catalana dels Sons Essencials. “I wish I had had more time to toy with it, but I wrote it alone in the hotel bedroom in one night.”
Teresa Agustí from the Esbart Ciutat Comtal dance ensemble felt something was missing from the mulassa’s first performance.
“Does it have dance steps?” she asked Casellas. “It didn’t. So we offered.”
By virtue of improvisation, the Smithsonian acquired a whole ritual instead of a mere ritual object, with contributions from a tailor, a composer, and a choreographer. It seemed that Grau’s wish to restore the more dynamic nature of the beast was materializing.
However, improvisation doesn’t mean doing just anything thoughtlessly, rather knowing what fits. To understand the beast and its character, Grima conducted thorough research. “These types of beasts were often created on the spot for a celebration,” he discovered. “They were short-lived.” Thus, to construct a mulassa quickly didn’t make him a careless builder, but one working within his tradition. “I was building in a rush, as my goal was to have it ready so it could dance the last day.”
The rest drew from their cultural bedrock to make fitting inferences. Casellas explained that the music for the mulassa is in two parts because, before she dances, she must interact with the audience. There is symbolism behind her dress as well.
“The mulassa is a jolly creature,” Fernández says. “It is festive, without a corset because it is not bound by its place in the same way as more regal beasts.” He says the burlap dress and the bells captured the lighthearted nature of the beast.
“You have to think about the character of the beast,” Agustí claimed, describing her choreography process. “The audience wants to see a dance that makes sense given the character of the beast.”
Each member of the team gleaned from their individual experiences. All, however, share a familiar frame from which to scaffold a meaningful mulassa’s ritual performance.
Each day of the Festival, the form of the mulassa became a little clearer, but for each of the collaborators, “the birth of the beast,” as Casellas put it, happened in a particular moment. “It is like Geppetto and Pinocchio,” Fernández says. “When does an inanimate object gain life? For me it was the moment when it had eyes.” In contrast, for Grima, the moment was very much connected with the beast’s ability to move. “Movement is very important to me when I build a figure,” he says. “If it works, then it can have life when it dances.”
Casellas recalls the moment Grima told him the mulassa was ready to dance. For him, that was when the collaboration really started.
“The music gives the beast a chance to move is a specific way,” he says. “The moment when I thought it ready to move is when I felt impelled to write.”
Similarly, Agustí prized the mulassa’s ability to move. But for her, its debut in the Plaça Major was its true birth. “When I saw it go toward the plaça, that was it. That moment, it was alive. It moved its head—I know it is made of papier-mâché, but it was truly a magical moment.”
The mulassa, the paradigmatic short-lived beast born in the temporary community of the 2018 Folklife Festival, now resides in the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
“The mulassa is not mine,” Grima claims. “It isn’t mine in the sense that I can’t really sign my name on it. So many people helped me. It is by and for the community, a piece well done.”
It belongs to all the Festival participants and visitors, whether they quickly passed by one day or checked on its progress daily. “This mulassa was an experience,” Agustí concludes.
Now, “whether or not the beast will really dance beyond the Festival is difficult to say,” Casellas says. “I sort of doubt there is anyone in D.C. who knows how to move it. But I still think that it is important to go around and leave traces. Yes, I think that leaving traces matters.”
Smithy, the Mulassa of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, permeated the grounds with her charming joy, merriment, cheer, and mischievous levity. Perhaps outside of the context of Catalonia, she may not dance again. But, to her makers, the most important thing is that all of the pieces are in place for her to come to life again—that there is a living part of Catalonia forever left behind in Washington, D.C.
Meritxell Martín-Pardo is a research associate for the 2018 Folklife Festival’s Catalonia program. She studied philosophy at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and earned her PhD in religious studies at the University of Virginia.
Cristina Díaz-Carrera is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage; most recently, she co-curated the Catalonia program at the Festival. Her current projects include looking at the role of women in Afro-Pacific marimba music and curating a program for the 2019 Folklife Festival’s social power of music theme.
La creació de la mulassa de l’Smithsonian
Cada dia, a les 5 de la tarda, a l’Smithsonian Folklife Festival, hi havia una cercavila, amb gegants, capgrossos, un drac i dansaires. L’últim dissabte, un altre dissabte assolellat al National Mall, els visitants s’havien congregat, com sempre, a la Plaça Major. No sabien que assistirien a un debut d’allò més especial.
A la carpa del seguici festiu, una mula treia el cap entre les figures del bestiari. Fins aleshores, havia estat un projecte. Sota la direcció de l’artista Miquel Grima, s’havia donat forma a la cara i el cos de la bèstia. Ara lluïa amb orgull el seu escut i avançava trotant, amb els seus portadors, cap a l’àrea de l’actuació, amb un port airós i inclinant deliberadament el cap. En sentir-se les primeres notes de la melodia composta per a l’ocasió, la mulassa va començar el seu ball.
Veure com la Smithy, com se la va batejar, havia cobrat vida ens va fer pensar que aquesta història s’havia d’explicar. Així, doncs, totes dues, integrants de l’equip comissarial del programa de Catalunya, vam decidir prosseguir les nostres reunions setmanals a banda i banda de l’Atlàntic i entrevistar els principals artistes que havien participat en la creació de la mulassa: Grima, el creador d’imatgeria festiva; Jan Grau, l’historiador que va ajudar Grima a fer la recerca; Pau Fernández, el sastre que va dissenyar el vestit de la mulassa; Marcel Casellas, director de la Cobla Catalana dels Sons Essencials i compositor de la música per al ball de la mulassa, i Teresa Agustí, directora de l’Esbart Ciutat Comtal, que, juntament amb Lluís Calduch Ramos, va idear els passos de ball de la coreografia. Aquesta és la seva història.
La mulassa és, potser, la figura més divertida del bestiari festiu català. Les mules són conegudes per la seva tossuderia, i així, la mulassa és una bèstia concebuda per fer la guitza a tots els que l’envolten, per provocar-los, per riure-se’n. A més, tal com ens va explicar Grima, «la mulassa representa les classes populars d’una vila, no pas els rics ni les elits». La majoria de les persones amb qui vam parlar no podien descriure la mulassa sense contraposar-la a l’àliga, que representa els reis o la noblesa, i el drac, la bèstia a la qual va donar mort sant Jordi, patró de Catalunya.
S’han documentat mulasses en el bestiari festiu català des del segle xvii. Quan planificava la creació de la bèstia, Grima va consultar l’expert en imatgeria festiva Jan Grau. Van examinar molts exemples de mulasses, antics i actuals, i fins i tot van anar a veure la famosa mulassa de Reus. Una diferència que van trobar en les figures d’imatgeria festiva modernes és que ara són més estàtiques.
«Abans, el moviment era molt important», explica Grau. Quan va anar a veure la mulassa de Reus amb Grima, es van fixar particularment en com es movia el coll i en el mecanisme que hi havia al darrere. «La idea era recuperar en molts sentits el significat original de la mulassa. I el significat de la mulassa és el moviment.»
Però més enllà d’aquesta recuperació històrica, Grima va triar la mulassa pel que podia significar en el context d’un festival a Washington. Segons explica, una figura del bestiari festiu ha de tenir un vincle amb la comunitat, hi ha de pertànyer. Per tenir significat, ha de vehicular les històries de la comunitat que l’encarrega. Aquesta tasca, però, era més complexa en aquest cas concret, ja que el personatge havia de formar part de la tradició del bestiari festiu català i alhora ser suggeridor per al públic del Folklife Festival. Per tot això, Grima i Grau van concloure que la mulassa era la bèstia més adequada per a l’esdeveniment.
«La mulassa representa el poble», diu Grima. «És cultura del poble, pel poble i per al poble, i justament aquesta és la missió del Festival.»
«A més, volíem promoure el diàleg», afegeix Grau, i explica que la mulassa encarna el poble, i el poder del poble és la paraula.
Una altra raó per la qual la mulassa semblava l’opció perfecta era el poc temps previst per construir-la. Grima disposava de tan sols deu dies per concloure l’encàrrec, però tenia ajuda. El fet que treballés en un taller obert a la carpa de la imatgeria festiva va suposar que molts membres de la delegació de Catalunya poguessin deixar la seva empremta en la mulassa, alguns per proximitat i d’altres per habilitat artística.
Una tarda, al costat de l’estand de Grima, el sastre Pau Fernández treballava concentrat, sense parar esment en la música i les converses que l’envoltaven. Tenia les puntes dels dits de la mà esquerra blanques de pressionar els extrems d’una corda sobre un tros de fusta, i a la mà dreta sostenia una agulla. Va trigar un o dos minuts a respondre a la pregunta de què feia. Finalment, va dir, amb un somriure d’orella a orella: «estic fent la cua de la mulassa». Havia recorregut tot el recinte del Festival buscant materials per fer la cua, i a la carpa de les decoracions de carrer va trobar «corda gruixuda esfilagarsada amb blens rossos».
A diferència del Folklife Festival, que es planifica amb anys d’antelació, Grima assenyala que la mulassa és «una figura improvisada, que es va construint com es pot per al carnestoltes, amb materials reaprofitats». Però fins i tot dins el marc estructurat del Festival, hi havia marge per a la improvisació. «Preníem decisions d’acord amb la disponibilitat. El que teníem era el que fèiem servir i prou», explica Fernández, recordant divertit la recerca de la corda.
Els últims dos dies del Festival, la mulassa va interpretar per primera vegada el seu ball ritual, acompanyada de la melodia original.
«Vaig compondre la música en una nit», explica Marcel Casellas, director i baixista de la Cobla Catalana dels Sons Essencials. «M’hauria agradat tenir més temps per jugar-hi, però la vaig escriure sol a l’habitació de l’hotel en una nit.»
Teresa Agustí, de l’Esbart Ciutat Comtal, trobava que en la primera actuació de la mulassa hi faltava alguna cosa.
«Té passos de ball?», va preguntar a Casellas. «I com que no en tenia, ens vam oferir a crear-los», explica.
Així va ser com, de manera improvisada, gràcies a les aportacions d’un sastre, un compositor i una coreògrafa, l’Smithsonian va adquirir tot un ritual, i no tan sols un mer objecte ritual. Semblava que el desig de Grau de recuperar el caràcter més dinàmic de la bèstia es materialitzava.
Però improvisar no és pas fer qualsevol cosa irreflexivament, sinó saber què encaixa en el projecte. Per entendre la bèstia i el seu tarannà, Grima va dur a terme una recerca rigorosa. «Vaig descobrir que aquesta mena de figures se solien crear expressament quan hi havia una celebració», explica. «Tenien una vida efímera.» Així, doncs, construir una mulassa de pressa no implicava que fos un artista poc curós, sinó un artista que treballa d’acord amb la tradició. «Vaig fer-la de pressa perquè el meu objectiu era tenir-la enllestida perquè pogués ballar l’últim dia.»
La resta d’artistes, basant-se en els seus coneixements i experiència culturals, van anar deduint coses. Casellas comenta que la música de la mulassa consta de dues parts perquè abans de ballar ha d’interactuar amb el públic. També hi ha simbolisme en el vestit.
«La mulassa és una criatura simpàtica», explica Fernández. «És festiva i no hi ha gens d’encotillament perquè no té les limitacions d’altres bèsties més majestuoses.» Fernández afegeix que el vestit d’arpillera i els picarols reflecteixen l’esperit jovial del personatge.
«Cal pensar en el seu caràcter» indica Agustí quan descriu el procés de creació de la coreografia. «El públic vol un ball que sigui coherent amb el tarannà de la bèstia.»
Cada membre de l’equip va partir de les seves experiències particulars a l’hora de fer la seva aportació. Tots, però, comparteixen un marc familiar a partir del qual es podia construir una actuació ritual de la mulassa que tingués sentit.
A mesura que avançava el Festival, la mulassa anava prenent forma, però per a cadascun dels col·laboradors, «el naixement de la bèstia», com en diu Casellas, va tenir lloc en un moment concret. «És com en Geppetto i en Pinotxo», explica Fernández. «Quan cobra vida un objecte inanimat? Per a mi va ser quan va tenir ulls.» En canvi, per a Grima, aquell moment està molt relacionat amb la capacitat de moviment de la bèstia. «Quan construeixo una figura, el moviment és molt important per a mi», diu. «Si funciona, pot tenir vida quan balla.»
Casellas recorda el moment en què Grima li va dir que la mulassa estava llesta per ballar. Per a ell va ser aquell el moment en què va començar realment la seva col·laboració.
«La música dona a la bèstia la possibilitat de moure’s d’una manera determinada», diu. «El moment en què vaig pensar que estava llesta per moure’s és quan vaig sentir l’impuls d’escriure.»
Agustí també valora molt la facultat de moure’s. Per a ella, però, el naixement de la mulassa pròpiament dit va ser en el moment del seu debut a la Plaça Major. «Va ser quan vaig veure que avançava cap a la plaça. En aquell instant era viva. Va moure el cap —sé que és de paper maixé, però va ser realment màgic.»
La mulassa, la bèstia paradigmàtica i efímera nascuda al si de la comunitat temporal del Folklife Festival del 2018, és avui a l’Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
«La mulassa no és meva», explica Grima. «No és meva en el sentit que no podria posar-hi la meva signatura, perquè vaig tenir l’ajuda de moltes persones. És una peça feta per la comunitat i per a la comunitat, una peça ben feta.»
La mulassa pertany als participants i els visitants del Festival, tant si hi van treure el cap un dia com si hi anaven assíduament. «Aquesta mulassa va ser una experiència», conclou Agustí.
«És difícil dir si la bèstia realment ballarà fora del context del festival», comenta Casellas. «No crec pas que hi hagi ningú a Washington que sàpiga fer-la ballar, però penso que igualment és important moure’s i deixar una empremta. Sí, estic convençut que deixar una empremta té molt sentit.»
La Smithy, la mulassa de l’Smithsonian Folklife Festival, va impregnar-ho tot amb la seva alegria, la seva jovialitat, el seu goig, i la seva lleugeresa trapella. Potser no tornarà a ballar fora del context de Catalunya, però per als seus creadors, el més important és que tot és al seu lloc perquè un dia torni a cobrar vida: que ha quedat una part viva de Catalunya per sempre a Washington.
Meritxell Martín-Pardo és investigadora associada per al programa de Catalunya de l’Smithsonian Folklife Festival del 2018. És llicenciada en filosofia per la Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona i doctora en estudis religiosos per la Universitat de Virgínia.Cristina Díaz-Carrera és comissària a l’Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage de Washington; recentment ha cocomissariat el programa de Catalunya a l’Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Entre els seus projectes actuals hi ha estudiar el paper de les dones en la música de marimba afropacífica i comissariar un programa sobre el poder social de la música per a l’Smithsonian Folklife Festival del 2019.
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.
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 seat—in 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.
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.
There’s something about small towns that ignite our imaginations. Maybe it's the charming main streets lined with century-old structures, now filled with artisan shops and cozy family-owned breakfast eateries, or the meandering rivers that run through downtown centers and majestic mountains that rise in the not-too-far distance, offering access to a world of activity. Or perhaps it's one-of-a-kind museums, attractions and festivities that are brimming with hometown pride. This year, we’re not only highlighting towns that embrace all these qualities, but those that are also celebrating a milestone anniversary, marking a major historic event, or unveiling a new museum or festival (there’s even one town on the list that’s been completely transformed by a television show) that make visiting in 2018 particularly special.
As in the past, we’ve once again turned to geographical information company Esri to help sort through the country’s many small towns (those with a population under 20,000). From there, we compiled a list of 20 that combine historic elements with distinct cultural offerings, natural beauty and everything from the country’s oldest whitewater rafting festival to legendary pirate lore.
Our 2018 list includes the Pennsylvania town that gave us Mr. Fred Rogers, a seaside hamlet that sits at the doorstep of Northern California’s coastal redwoods—the tallest living trees on Earth—and an Idaho resort town that’s been recognized for its clear night skies. Get ready to explore!
Corning, New York (Population: 10,925)
Image by Gaffer District. Gaffer District (original image)
Image by Molly Cagwin Photography. Glassmaking demonstration (original image)
Image by Corning Museum of Glass. The Corning Museum of Glass campus (original image)
Image by Corning Museum of Glass. Modern Glass Gallery (original image)
Image by Corning Museum of Glass. The GlassBarge launched from Brooklyn this month and is on its way to Corning (original image)
Image by Rockwell Museum. The Rockwell Museum (original image)
When what's now Corning Incorporated first relocated to this former lumber town in New York's southern Finger Lakes region 150 years ago, no one quite knew the impact one of the world's biggest glassmakers would have on its surroundings. Now the hands-on Corning Museum of Glass is celebrating the “Crystal City's” legacy with a summer's worth of activities. Their mobile GlassBarge, which sets out from Brooklyn—where the company originated—at the end of the month, will retrace the outfit’s move, a century and a half ago, up the Hudson River, west along the Erie Canal and to Corning on September 22. It's the city's part in New York's larger Erie Canal Bicentennial anniversary.
Downtown's Gaffer District—“gaffer” is another name for glassblower—is Corning's main hub, a five-block walkable stretch of historic stone and brick buildings filled with antique stores, boutique and name brand shops, and dozens of diverse bars and restaurants like the step-back-in-time Hand + Foot, where craft cocktails, creative sandwiches and board games are par-for-the-course.
The city's award-winning Centerway Walking Bridge doubles as a “suspended park” between the Gaffer District and the glass museum across downtown's Chemung River, and is just one of Corning's impressive cultural offerings. There's The Rockwell Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate housed within Corning's original City Hall building, which showcases the American experience through art—including a gallery devoted to Andy Warhol. Those interested in living history (and live blacksmith demos) should beeline for the Heritage Village of the Southern Finger Lakes, with nearly a dozen buildings including an 1850s log cabin and the historic 1796 Benjamin Patterson Inn that capture what area life was like during the 19th century.
Just outside of Corning, hikers have plenty to keep them satisfied with portions of both the 950-mile Finger Lakes Trail system and the overlapping Great Eastern long-distance trail nearby. The town sits on the cusp of three rivers, making it especially popular for kayaking and canoeing. The wineries for which New York’s Finger Lakes region is known make for a sweet aprés-adventure scene. Just a half-hour drive away in Hammondsport are cellars like Dr. Konstantin Frank, with its Reisling pours and spectacular views of Keuka Lake.
Hanapepe, Hawaii (Population: 2,638)
Image by Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson. Hanapepe main street (original image)
Image by Wikipedia. Manawaiopuna Falls (original image)
Image by Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson. Hanapepe Swinging Bridge sign (original image)
Image by Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson. Dawn at Salt Pond Beach Park (original image)
Image by Wikipedia. Glass Beach (original image)
It's been 30 years since Steven Spielberg's epic blockbuster Jurassic Park first brought dinosaurs back to life on the big screen, but visitors to Kauai's Hanapepe—a town on the Hawaiian island's south shore—still can't get enough of one of the film's most recognizable features: the opening scene's towering Manawaiopuna Falls. Each action-packed sequel, like this June's Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, ignites renewed interest, though the only way to see these normally inaccessible 400-foot falls (they're located on private land) is by air. Not only does Island Helicopters offer prime views of the iconic attraction; it's also the only operator permitted to land at its base.
Of course, “Kauai's Biggest Little Town,” as the locals call it, is an attraction in itself, one with a history that includes immigrant entrepreneurism and its early 20th-century years as a G.I. hub. Today the bulk of Hanapepe’s original colorful and rustic nearly century-old wooden structures still stand, lending the bohemian village an authentic Old West vibe. Hanapepe (the name means “crushed bay” in Hawaiian) even served as inspiration for the Disney film, Lilo and Stitch.
Restaurants run the gamut from traditional Hawaiian fare like huli huli chicken (grilled chicken marinated in a sweet pineapple, ginger and garlic sauce) to locally sourced Japanese-style cuisine, and there are plenty of shopping opportunities. Hanapepe is home to the western-most bookstore in the United States, a Hawaiian spice company, and Banana Patch Studio, a treasure trove of hand-painted pottery, art cards and ceramic tiles all created by more than 20 artists in a former bakery and pool hall. In fact, Hanapepe is known as Kauai's art capital, something that it highlights each week during Friday Night Art Walk, when more than a dozen art galleries open their doors and offer visitors the chance to talk with local artists.
While area beaches are plentiful, Salt Pond Beach Park (named for traditional Hawaiian salt collecting ponds—manmade salt flats created for sea salt harvesting) is a must for its shallow snorkeling pools and reef protected waters. Just outside of town near Ele'ele's Port Allen Harbor is Glass Beach, covered in millions of bits of colorful sea glass in shades of blue, amber and aqua.
Dublin, Georgia (Population: 16,100)
Image by Visit Dublin. Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument Park (original image)
It’s been 50 years since shots rang out in Memphis, but the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., continues to reverberate worldwide. This is especially true in Dublin, a central Georgia city midway between Savannah and Atlanta where the future Civil Rights leader gave his first public speech at 15 years of age. King delivered “The Negro and the Constitution,” his submission to an oratorical contest sponsored by the Colored Elks Clubs of Georgia, at Dublin’s First African Baptist Church, which is now part of its larger MLK Monument Park, with a colorful, interactive mural by Georgia artist Corey Barksdale and audio stops, including a young man reading King’s submission, opened last year. The church is also part of the newly launched, self-guided Footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Trail, chronicling Georgia’s role in the Civil Rights Movement in 28 distinct stops statewide.
Historic and architectural landmarks permeate Dublin’s downtown, and many of them are part of the city’s downloadable audio walking tour, including Railway Park—which commemorates the role of railways in Dublin’s development—and the city’s own Carnegie Library. It’s also home to some top-notch eateries, including Deano's Italian Grill, with its signature pan-seared shrimp and garlic cheese grits, and the only imported Italian wood oven in Georgia. Southern-style rotisserie bistro Company Supply occupies a completely restored 120-year-old dry good store (and sports a full bar stocked with local micro brews), while Holy Smokes, dishes out award-winning barbecue from a stationary food truck. Pair a meal with a show at the renovated Theatre Dublin, a former Art Deco-style movie house that now hosts music and theatre performances as well.
Soak in a bit of natural reprieve at the River Bend Wildlife Management Area, home to primitive campsites, pristine fishing waters, wildlife such as alligators and the elusive Swainson’s warbler, and approximately 1,700 hiking and biking trails that wind through remote cypress swampland. Or bed down at the Dublin Farm Bed and Breakfast, a four-guest room country retreat on 35 acres, complete with donkeys, horses and its own restaurant, serving up ever-changing Northern Italian fare.
A local citizen named Dublin after his own hometown in Ireland in 1812, so it makes perfect sense that the city’s banner event is its annual St. Patrick's Festival, a six-week-long celebratory extravaganza featuring more than 40 events, including its backyard-style Pig in the Park BBQ Championship, an arts and crafts fair, and a family-themed St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Pendleton, Oregon (Population: 16,791)
Image by Trini Hank. Downtown Pendleton (original image)
Image by Dan Parnell. Pendleton underground (original image)
Image by Aaron Wispus Worden. Pendleton Round-Up (original image)
Image by Travis Lundquist. Westward Ho! Parade (original image)
In the 150 years since what’s now Eastern Oregon’s cultural center received the name Pendleton, after former Democratic Vice-President nominee George Hunt Pendleton, this once trading post has flourished into one of America’s best small towns. The Oregon Trail—which is marking its 175th anniversary this year—ran right through Pendleton’s center, and that same pioneering Wild West spirit still permeates its streets today.
Situated at the foot of the Pacific Northwest’s sprawling Blue Mountains, Pendleton’s historic Old Town is brimming with unique stores selling antique heirlooms and western wear, from artisan cowboy boots to custom-made fur felt hats. Shop for locally handcrafted beaded belts and “fringe monsters” (fringe-layered handbags) at 23+, and don’t miss Pendleton Woolen Mills, the factory-turned-retail store where the world-famous wool blanket, shirt and coat manufacturer first took off.
September’s annual Pendleton Round-Up is one of the town’s most exhilarating events, a more than century-old, week-long rodeo that includes a dress-up parade, Native American tipi village and the Happy Canyon Night Show, a reoccurring pageant showcasing the American West’s formation, from its original Native American inhabitants to the arrival of Europeans, and through the days of the Oregon Trail pioneers to its formation as a rip-roaring frontier town. The Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame pays homage to both the rodeo’s and show’s legendary and long-associated figures, such as local African American cowboy George Fletcher, a fan-favorite who was denied the 1911 saddle-bronc title because of his skin color.
Discover the history, culture and impact of pioneer settlers on the area’s native peoples at the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, or embark on a subterranean tour beneath Pendleton’s streets, where Chinese immigrants who’d come looking for work after the country’s railroads were mostly complete faced bullying and discrimination from local cowboys, so took their businesses—which included legal shops as well as illegal brothels and opium dens—literally underground more than a century ago. It wasn’t until that 1980s that the tunnels were rediscovered, when inexplicable potholes began appearing in the streets. The free Pendleton Center of the Arts is just one of the many stops along Pendleton's Charm Trail, a self-guided way to create your own charm bracelet while visiting antique stores, museums and restaurants throughout downtown.
Pendleton River Parkway follows the Umatilla River in the heart of town, offering nearly three miles of flat walking trail, while the town’s outskirts are bursting with options for cycling, hiking and camping.
North Conway, New Hampshire (Population: 2,241)
Image by Wiseguy Creative Photography. Conway Scenic Railroad (original image)
Image by Wiseguy Creative Photography. North Conway (original image)
Image by Wiseguy Creative Photography. Ice skating in downtown North Conway (original image)
Image by Wiseguy Creative Photography. Frontside Grind (original image)
Image by Wiseguy Creative Photography. Zeb's General Store (original image)
Image by Wiseguy Creative Photography. Tree lighting at Conway Scenic Railroad (original image)
Image by Wiseguy Creative Photography. Downtown shopping (original image)
Image by New England Ski Museum. The New England Ski Museum's Eastern Slope Branch (original image)
Image by New England Ski Museum. The New England Ski Museum's Eastern Slope Branch (original image)
President Woodrow Wilson first established New England’s White Mountain National Forest in 1918, and this year the more-than 700,000 acres of protected forest and alpine peaks—including most of 6,266-foot-tall Mt. Washington—is celebrating its 100th birthday with a year’s worth of centennial events. In the heart of the Mt. Washington Valley, North Conway makes the perfect hub for these festivities, especially since the picturesque village has a bevy of attractions all its own.
Earlier this year, North Conway became home to the Eastern Slope Branch of the New England Ski Museum, a new permanent gallery dedicated to the region's role in introducing skiing to the States. The resort town is often called the “Birthplace of Skiing,” due to its early adoption from Europe in the 1930s and a combined interest from three main groups: local Scandinavian immigrants, the Dartmouth Outing Club, and members of the Boston-based Appalachian Mountain Club. Last year, a USA Today poll named North Conway the country’s number one ski town, with more than a dozen ski resorts within a 30-minute drive. Skiing at the village’s own 56-trail Cranmore Mountain Resort, dates back to 1939, though these days the resort is known just as much for its snowboarding terrain and tubing and mountain adventure park, where daredevils can zipline or ride a coaster up to 25 miles per hour down the mountain.
Camping, kayaking and canoeing, and hiking opportunities permeate the area, which is also known for its autumn leaf peeping and September's annual Mud Football Championship, bringing together approximately ten all-male, New England teams to compete knee-deep for the championship title at North Conway’s Hog Coliseum—a natural amphitheater filled with White Mountain loam that’s then doused with thousands of gallons of water.
Low-stung structures line North Conway’s Main Street at the edge of the White Mountains, filled with outdoor retail and specialty shops like Zeb’s General Store, stocked with more than 5,000 New England-made specialty foods and featuring its own penny arcade. Local eateries include Delaney's Hole in the Wall, a popular hangout that’s known for its varied selection of sandwiches and—more surprisingly—some of the state’s best sushi; and The White Mountain Hotel & Resort’s Ledges Restaurant, sporting incredible views and a superb Sunday brunch.
Hop aboard the Conway Scenic Railroad for a journey aboard vintage railway cars departing from the village’s iconic yellow train station, or experience the Mount Washington Observatory Weather Discovery Center, the country’s only museum dedicated entirely to climate and weather.
Gering, Nebraska (Population: 8,439)
Image by Nebraska Tourism. Scotts Bluff National Monument (original image)
Image by Nebraska Tourism. Robidoux Pass wagon ruts (original image)
Image by Nebraska Tourism. Robidoux Trading Post (original image)
Image by Nebraska Tourism. Scotts Bluff National Monument (original image)
Image by LOC. Gering Bakery (original image)
Image by Nebraska Tourism. Chimney Rock (original image)
Image by Nebraska Tourism. Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area (original image)
For pioneers making their way along the rugged Oregon Trail 175 years ago, the steep hills of Western Nebraska’s Scotts Bluff National Monument served as a landmark of hope along their journey. The same rang true for Native Americans and immigrants along the California and Mormon trails. Gering lies just east of the monument, and offers its own reasons for making the trip to this hub of the Old West.
Although Gering wasn’t founded until the late 19th century, it still honors the region’s historic past with Oregon Trail Days, an annual July weekend celebration with a chili cook-off, street dance, parade, mud volleyball tournament and a 1.6-mile bicycle hill climb to the top of Scotts Bluff National Monument. Since 1950, downtown’s Gering Bakery has been blazing a trail of its own with delicious cream-filled Long John donuts, frosted peanut butter soft pretzels and cabbage burgers (sometimes known as a runza), and serves as a modern-day beacon thanks to its fabulous neon sign.
Discover the history of the Nebraska prairie at Gering’s Legacy of the Plains Museum, which highlights the lives of pioneer settlers through agricultural artifacts and even a working farmstead that harvests a featured crop each year (last year it was potatoes). Nearby Fort Mitchell Pass offers a glimpse into America’s Western Expansion. This army outpost, one of hundreds the U.S. Army built to protect settlers, and later used to monitor traffic along the Oregon Trail, was abandoned after the war.
Natural monuments abound in the Gering area. The iconic pillar of Chimney Rock, 20 miles southeast of Gering, appeared in the diary entrees of thousands of pioneers, representing a new phase of their journeys. There’s also the narrow Robidoux Pass, a gap that travelers used to traverse the Wildcat Hills and get their first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains. Wagon ruts and pioneer graves serve as reminders of the arduous journey, as does the reconstructed Robidoux Trading Post, in the spot where a Frenchman with the surname Robidoux built the original post that sold goods and blacksmithing services to travelers.
Explore the 1,100 piney acres of Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area and Nature Center, spread across a rocky escarpment within a region of rising canyons and forested buttes. The area is home to big horn sheep, wild turkeys and one of Nebraska’s only permanent cougar populations. You’ll find more hiking and mountain biking trails in the remote Buffalo Creek Wildlife Management Area, a place of tree-topped ridges and rolling prairies.
For manmade outdoor beauty, play a round at Gering’s 18-hole Monument Shadows Golf Course, with stunning background views of Scotts Bluff National Monument.
Laurel, Mississippi (Population: 18,355)
Image by Bethany Byrd/Laurel Main Street. Downtown Laurel (original image)
Image by Bethany Byrd/Laurel Main Street. Downtown Laurel (original image)
Image by Brooke Davis/Blackhorne Productions. The Knight Butcher (original image)
Image by BlackBird Creative. Jerky at The Knight Butcher (original image)
Image by Brooke Davis/Blackhorne Productions. Knight Sugar Fudge (original image)
Image by Laurel Mercantile. Laurel Mercantile (original image)
Image by Bethany Byrd/Laurel Main Street. Erin and Ben Napier from HGTV's "Home Town" (original image)
Image by Bethany Byrd/Laurel Main Street. Downtown Laurel (original image)
It’s been just over a year since Erin and Ben Napier, stars of HGTV’s “Home Town,” introduced their beloved Laurel, Mississippi, to the TV masses, and since then this Southern small town with big charm has taken off. Situated in southeast Mississippi’s Pine Belt, the former mill city and oil town is today known for its Oak-lined sidewalks, brick roadways and a splendid mix of innovative restaurants and specialty shops.
Laurel is home to A Street Car Named Desire’s fictional Blanche DuBois, as well as the Lindsey Eight-Wheeled Wagon, which native Mississippian John Lindsey manufactured at the town’s Lindsey Log Wagon Company during the turn-of-the-20th century (one is on display inside the Laurel Welcome Center). It’s also where you’ll find the Napiers’ own Laurel Mercantile, a shop that’s home to Scotsman Co., Ben’s own brand of hand-worked, reclaimed furniture and gentleman’s work apparel, as well as American-manufactured heirloom wares that often feature in the historic Laurel homes the couple restores.
At downtown’s Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, housed in a stunning, early 20th century Georgian Revival structure, works run the gamut from Hudson River School paintings to Japanese woodblock prints. The Laurel Little Theatre puts on community-led plays and musicals within a 1927 silent movie house.
Sip sour beers and “spontaneously fermented wild ales” at Slowboat Brewing Company, or dine on New Orleans-inspired gumbo at downtown’s signature Cafe la Fleur. For brown bag lunches of custom-cut meats paired with Knight Sugar Fudge, stop by Laurel’s Knight Butcher.
Each week through the end of June, experience Downtown Thursday, which combines an evening farmers market with a family-friendly outdoor movie night. Other community events range from October’s Loblolly heritage festival to the February Chili Cook-Off, where one type of ticket for the all-you-can-eat stew comes with a keepsake bowl made by a local potter.
Easton, Maryland (Population: 16,573)
Image by Christian Hinkle/Alamy. Downtown Easton (original image)
Image by Maryland Office of Tourism. Frederick Douglass statue at Talbot County Courthouse (original image)
Image by Maryland Office of Tourism. Biking through Easton (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the museum. Academy Art Museum (original image)
It’s been 200 years since the birth of renowned abolitionist leader, author and orator Frederick Douglass in Maryland’s Talbot County, and Maryland’s governor has declared 2018 “The Year of Frederick Douglass.” The state is commemorating his many lifetime achievements with everything from a self-guided driving tour to a Juneteenth celebration, marking the abolition of slavery in Texas, in Easton, just 12 miles south from where Douglass was born. There’s signage marking the spot along Maryland Route 328.
Easton sits on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, North America’s largest estuary, and is a significant stop along the Frederick Douglass route—including the grounds of the Talbot Country Courthouse, where Douglass gave his famous “Self-Made Men” speech in 1878. It’s also home to “The Hill,” believed to be the country’s oldest continuously-inhabited free African American settlement.
As Talbot’s largest town, Easton offers a blend of history, arts and culture. Each month, the town hosts First Weekend, in which its many art galleries open their doors to the public with extended hours and new exhibits. Locals also get their cultural fix at Easton’s Academy Art Museum, known for its varied artworks spanning more than two centuries and a top concert and lectures series; as well as the Avalon Theatre, a historic vaudeville and movie house that now showcases live music and drama.
Easton’s large historic district features approximately 900 Colonial- and Victorian-era structures, many of them now housing antique and collectible shops, coffee houses and restaurants offering a diverse mix of eats, such as the modern European offerings of Bas Rouge and Hunter Tavern’s beloved crab cakes. This charming waterfront town and its tree-lined streets are also home to a wealth of B&Bs, including the Victorian-style Bishop's House, blending modern amenities with period furnishings.
Of course, Easton’s prime Chesapeake Bay location assures it has no shortage of outdoor offerings. Rent a bicycle and enjoy miles of cycling trails through scenic villages and marshland, explore local tributaries via kayak, canoe or paddleboard or go crabbing in the bay.
Kodiak, Alaska (Population: 6,281)
Image by Discover Kodiak. St. Paul Boat Harbor, Kodiak (original image)
Image by Pancho Valladolid/Discover Kodiak. Kodiak (original image)
Image by Discover Kodiak. The summer months offer views of migrating whales. (original image)
Image by Discover Kodiak. Bears on Kodiak Island (original image)
Image by AP. Readying red king crab for boiling at the Kodiak Crab Festival (original image)
Image by AP. Survival suit race at Kodiak's crab festival (original image)
Image by Discover Kodiak. Carnival rides at Kodiak Crab Festival (original image)
Image by Pancho Valladolid/Discover Kodiak. St. Paul Boat Harbor at night (original image)
Image by Discover Kodiak. Kodiak Island (original image)
Image by Chris McLennan. Katmai National Park (original image)
Image by Chris McLennan. Katmai National Park (original image)
One hundred years ago, President Woodrow Wilson created the Katmai National Monument in what was then the territory of Alaska, to protect an area rocked and rattled by the 1912 eruption of Novarupta Volcano. Today, what’s now known as the Katmai National Park and Preserve is a still-active remote landscape teeming with forests, lakes and more than 2,000 brown bear. Located on Alaska’s mainland, it’s one of the state’s prime spots for viewing them as they frolic and feed on salmon in their native habitat.
Katmai is also just across the Shelikof Strait from Alaska’s Kodiak Island, the second largest island in the U.S. and home to a vibrant seaport and arts community of the same name. Surrounded by towering mountains and narrow fjords, Kodiak is itself a sight to behold. Many visitors make their way via the Alaska State Ferry—which runs from Bellingham, Washington, to Homer, with Chenega Bay being the closest stop east of Kodiak (14 hours distance)—to explore this once Russian-stronghold that morphed into a U.S. military outpost during World War II. Abandoned post-war, the purposely built Fort Abercrombie is today a state historical park filled with historic ruins, spruce forests and waterfront cliffs overlooking pounding surf and tide-pools—along with a tiny, volunteer-run military history museum housed in a former ammunition bunker.
But Kodiak’s history dates back much earlier, something visitors can explore with a stop at the Baranov Museum. Occupying the oldest-standing building in the state, the museum’s fascinating exhibits include stories on the island’s Native Alutiiq people, Kodiak’s once-lucrative fur trade, and the devastating Good Friday Earthquake of 1964, which nearly wiped out the town.
Enjoy some time wandering along downtown’s St. Paul Boat Harbor and exploring its Kodiak Maritime Museum, a walkable “museum without walls” with exhibits that span the sidewalks. Talk with local fishers, get to know the area’s best fly fishing spots and secluded campgrounds, or book a guided kayaking tour along protected inlets with a chance to see up-close migrating whales, with June through August being the best months. Outside the city, the Kodiak Wildlife Refuge is an incredible natural resource that is known for its fishing, kayaking, bear-viewing and camping. It occupies two-thirds of Alaska’s “Emerald Isle,” and is only accessible by flight (including air taxis or boat) but makes for an easy day trip or lengthy backcountry excursion.
Dine on beet borscht soup or housemade pastries at Monk's Rock Coffeehouse & Bookstore, then peruse their selection of Russian-themed souvenirs. Kodiak Island Brewing Brewing Co. is the place for imbibing pints of Snowshoe, a hoppy IPA with a smooth finish. Bring a picnic of your own (or food from one of Kodiak’s local restaurants) and get tasting.
Keep on your calendar for next year the annual Kodiak Crab Festival, a Memorial Day weekend extravaganza that features everything from a fish toss to a survival suit race (an immersion suit to protect against hypothermia) through frigid waters.
Mystic, Connecticut (Population: 4,168)
Image by Connecticut Office of Tourism. Mystic Pizza (original image)
Image by Connecticut Office of Tourism. Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream (original image)
Image by Anna Sawin. Pastry chef Adam Young at his Sift Bake Shop (original image)
Image by Mystic Aquarium. Mystic Aquarium (original image)
Image by Mystic Aquarium. Beluga (original image)
Image by Mystic Aquarium. Shark touch tank (original image)
Image by Mystic Seaport. A Mystic Seaport demonstration of traditional maritime skills (original image)
Image by Mystic Seaport. Mystic Seaport's ship chandlery (original image)
Image by Mystic Seaport. The watercraft collection at Mystic Seaport is the largest of its kind in the United States and includes four National Historic Landmark vessels: the whaleship Charles W. Morgan (center), the L.A. Dunton, steamboat Sabino (left) and the Emma C. Berry. (original image)
Image by Connecticut Office of Tourism. Mystic Knotwork (original image)
Image by Connecticut Office of Tourism. B.F. Clyde's Cider Mill (original image)
Ever since securing a spot in the annals of Hollywood movie history with a starring role in the film of the same name (and a young Julia Roberts), Mystic Pizza has been luring hungry fans in droves. Thirty years later, the beloved pizzeria and its surrounding seaside hamlet are still buzzing with the delights of stardom. Mystic is even welcoming its own inaugural film festival this October.
The Connecticut coastal town, which sits at the mouth of the Mystic River, offers a wonderful combination of rich maritime past and charming New England allure, the same that it has for decades. Hollywood royalty Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall chose the Inn at Mystic for their 1945 honeymoon. The village is ripe with seafaring history: old sea-captain's home still stand riverside along Mystic's outskirts, and centuries-old ships dock beside kayaks and standup paddleboards in its waters. Downtown, mystic's iconic Bascule Bridge stretches across the Mystic River, and is open to pedestrians too.
Learn about the village's role in shipbuilding and as a safe haven for tall ships at Mystic Seaport, the largest maritime museum in the U.S. It's home to the world's only surviving wooden whaling ship, as well as the coal-fired steamboat Sabino, which offers downriver cruises. Later, stop by Mystic Aquarium to see some of North America's only beluga whales. Some of Connecticut's best state beaches are nearby too.
There’s delightful events in every season. Weekends throughout summer and fall the village springs to life with everything from a celebration of local eats to a kid-friendly “pirate invasion.” An autumn highlight is joining the crowds lined up for fresh apple cider and donuts at B. F. Clyde’s Cider Mill, the country's last-remaining steam-powered cider mill. In winter, Mystic’s Holiday Lighted Boat Parade illuminates the night with a procession of decorated ships, and Santa arriving by tugboat.
Mystic's food and drink scene ranges from riverside seafood shacks to ingenious wine bars like M/Bar, housed in a restored gas station. Travel + Leisure voted Mystic's boat-to-table Oyster Club as one of America's Best Oyster Bars, while locals and visitors alike flock to the French-inspired Sift Bake Shop, where co-owner and pastry chef Adam Young recently competed for 'Best Baker in America' on the Food Network's “Spring Baking Championship.”
Perham, Minnesota (Population: 3,335)
Image by Explore Minnesota. An aerial view of Perham (original image)
Image by Explore Minnesota. Sunrise on Big Pine Lake near Perham (original image)
Image by Perham Focus. A Perham turtle race (original image)
Image by Kim J Photography. Perham's turtle races (original image)
Image by Explore Minnesota. The Perham History Museum (original image)
Image by Explore Minnesota. The Perham History Museum (original image)
On your mark, get set, and go straight to central Minnesota for Perham’s 40th annual International Turtle Races, a weekly occurrence in this “heart of Otter Tail County” on Wednesday mornings, June through August. Perham’s shelled reptiles and their out-of-state competitors are local icons, vying against each other for turtle bragging rights all summer long. Turtles start out in the center of a paved ring at Turtle Park, located next door to Perham’s area chamber, and must be first to maneuver their way to the outside ring to win. Heat winners then compete against one another for the top three slots. Each annual season kicks off with a June Turtle Fest, complete with a (human) half-marathon and grand parade. It’s all just a bit of the small-town allure that makes Perham special.
Otter Tail County is an all-season destination that’s home to more lakes that any other county in the country—over 1,100 of them—with Perham nestled among them. The county is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, hosting numerous events that include walking tours and September plays honoring the area’s history and heritage and held in numerous towns, including Perham.
Downtown Perham is filled with unique specialty shops and eateries: places like Nest, part-kitchenware retailer, part-cafe, with its own drive-through coffee window; and the two-story Gathering Grounds Coffee Shoppe, hailed for its soup and sandwich lunches, as well as the selection of jewelry, books and antiques at its gift shop—all housed in a two-story century-old downtown structure. For Minnesota craft beers and burgers, be sure and stop by locally owned Brew Ales & Eats.
Perham is home to the country’s only museum based entirely on the oral history of American veterans, and the Perham Center for the Arts, an art, music and theater venue, occupies the city’s century-old, former Saint Stanislaus Catholic Church. A downtown must-see is Perham’s Waves of Discovery Mural, comprised of various bits of mosaics, agates, fossils and fused glass, and featuring more than 50 hidden symbols, from one of the many artists’ initials to a series of dragon flies. Small-town pride is evident in everything from June’s annual Rib Cook-Off to a December Parade of Lights, complete with floats and a lighting of town’s Christmas tree.
The greater Otter Tail area offers a ton of outdoor activities as well—from fly fishing holes to more than two dozen campgrounds and resorts. Snowmobiling is especially popular, with over 250 miles of trails winding around lakes and through forests of maple and birch, as is cross country skiing. The county’s Otter Trail Scenic Byway meanders past Native American hunting grounds, over oak-tree-covered hills and alongside vast wetlands.
Skowhegan, Maine (Population: 6,207)
Image by National Geographic Creative / Alamy Stock Photo. Aerial view of downtown Skowhegan, Maine (original image)
Image by Visit Maine. Skowhegan's Flat Iron District (original image)
Image by Jonathan Wheaton. Miller's Table (original image)
Image by Visit Maine. "Girl with a Tail" on the Langlais Art Trail (original image)
Image by Jonathan Wheaton. Skowhegan River Fest (original image)
Image by Knightvision Photography. Skowhegan State Fair (original image)
Image by Visit Maine. Old Mill Pub (original image)
Image by Kristina Cannon. Kennebec River (original image)
Image by Visit Maine. Maine Grains Somerset Grist Mill (original image)
Image by Visit Maine. Flat Iron District (original image)
It's pretty impressive that 200 years after Skowhegan held its inaugural state fair what's now known as the country's “oldest continuously running agricultural fair” is still going strong. The seat of Somerset County will be marking that milestone in August, but not before novice and professional moose-callers perform their best cow calls and bull grunts at the city's first-ever Skowhegan Moose Festival this June.
Things haven't always been easy for this former mill town, nestled in Central Maine's scenic Kennebec River Valley, at the gateway to the state's North Maine Woods. Keen-eyed visitors may recognize the city's 19th-century brick and granite structures from the 2003 HBO mini-series “Empire Falls,” aptly depicting a struggling New England community. But this hasn't stopped Skowhegan from persisting. It's no wonder Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman ever to serve in both houses of Congress, was a Skowhegan native.
Repurposed buildings in the city's historic Flat Iron District now house furniture shops, antique stores, and artisan eateries like the Bankery, where along with delicious pastries and lunch specials, the staff whips up custom cakes from scratch, and the former bank's old vaults are now walk-in refrigerators. Their baked goods—along with a selection of local craft brews—are also on the menu at Showhegan's riverside Old Mill Pub, a former-mill-turned-restaurant. Local wholesale manufacturer Maine Grains is reviving New England's grain economy with its traditional stone milling process. See it for yourself during tours of their gristmill (in what used to be the Somerset County jail), then taste some samplings at the farm-to-table Miller's Table cafe next-door.
Wander outdoors among 21 folk-style sculptures—including the iconic 62-foot Skowhegan Indian—that are Skowhegan's part of the Langlais Art Trail, a state-wide showcase of artworks by incredibly imaginative Maine artist Bernard “Blackie” Langlais.
August's annual Skowhegan River Fest showcases another possible transformation: that of the city's Kennebec River Gorge into a focal point for whitewater recreation. Main Street Skowhegan’s proposed Run of River project would transform the area into a tourist destination, complete with a three-feature whitewater park that could be used by everyone from kayakers to boogie boarders, a slalom course, river promenade and 300 acres of surrounding trails.
Latrobe, Pennsylvania (Population: 8,086)
Image by Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau. Landmark sign at Fred Rogers Memorial Park (original image)
Image by Saint Vincent College. Fred Rogers statue in Fred Rogers Memorial Park in downtown Latrobe (original image)
Image by Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau. Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College (original image)
Image by Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau. Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College (original image)
He may have been everyone’s favorite neighbor, but the small western Pennsylvania town of Latrobe was lucky enough to have Fred Rogers as its own, at least during his younger years (he eventually moved to nearby Pittsburgh). With the 50th anniversary of the debut of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and the documentary coming out this summer, fans may want to visit the big-hearted TV personality’s real-life hometown to pay homage. At the Fred Rogers Archive, a public interactive exhibit located within the Fred M. Rogers Center on the campus of Saint Vincent College—where the Pittsburgh Steelers hold their training camp—visitors can relive their childhood by seeing the children show’s original Neighborhood Trolley, scripts from actual episodes and approximately 16,000 other items detailing his life and career. Mr. Rogers is buried nearby at Latrobe’s Unity Cemetery.
Pro-golfer Arnold Palmer was also born in this former railway town (he and Fred Rogers were actually classmates), as were two others greats: Rolling Rock beer, and the banana split, which Latrobe celebrates annually at its Great American Banana Split Celebration in August. The drug store where pharmacy apprentice David Strickler invented his now-iconic ice cream dessert no longer exists, though both a plaque and a giant banana split statue stand in its place.
Although the groomed fairways on which Palmer learned to play the game are private, golfers can channel “The King” at Latrobe’s Glengarry Golf Links public course. For outdoor enthusiasts of a different kind, the 50-acre Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve (Winnie was Palmer’s wife of 45 years), features walking trails through meadows and forests.
Learn about the country’s first coast-to-coast highway, which runs just south of Latrobe, at the town’s Lincoln Highway Experience Museum, or sample site-brewed beers while listening to live music Friday and Saturday evenings at Latrobe’s Four Seasons Brewing Company & Pub. There’s also Di Salvo's Station, an old train station that’s been transformed into an Italian restaurant and cigar bar.
Salida, Colorado (Population: 5,610)
Image by Scott Peterson. Downtown Salida (original image)
Image by Scott Peterson. The banks of the Arkansas River (original image)
Image by Chris Miller. FibArk (original image)
Image by Chris Miller. Women's freestyle at FibArk (original image)
Image by Scott Peterson. Downtown Salida (original image)
Image by Miles Partnership. Wood's High Mountain Distillery (original image)
Image by Miles Partnership. Wood's High Mountain Distillery (original image)
Image by Scott Peterson. Captain Zipline (original image)
Image by Scott Peterson. Salida in winter (original image)
Image by Scott Peterson. Monarch Mountain (original image)
Tucked into the heart of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains amid the state’s “Banana Belt,” laid-back Salida enjoys surprisingly mild temperatures as well as an incredible array of outdoor sports. In fact, this historic mountain town features some of the best whitewater rafting in the country—a quality it showcases with June’s annual FibArk (First in boating on the Arkansas) Festival, America’s “oldest and boldest” whitewater festival—now in its 70th year. Many of FibArk's events—things like freestyle kayaking and a raft rodeo—take place on the Arkansas River, which runs through the center of town and is home to Salida Whitewater Park, with manmade wave features and holes.
Greater Salida has an upper hand when it comes to natural assets, with everything from recreational hot springs to mountains ripe for bicycling, along with the highest concentration of 14,000-foot-or-taller peaks (“14ers” as Coloradans call them) in the state. It’s home to Colorado’s largest aerial course, family- and ski-bum-friendly and Monarch Mountain Ski Resort and the state’s newest national monument, boasting 21,586 acres of rivers, canyons and backcountry forest.
Downtown Salida is equally as enticing. The once-thriving railway town’s historic district (Colorado’s largest) now houses boutique shops selling handcrafted guitars, high-end bicycles and art aplenty, including the colorful reverse glass paintings of Art & Salvage. Salida was named Colorado’s first certified “Creative District,” a distinction it showcases during its annual Art Walk each June.
Wine and charcuterie, small-batch spirits (at Wood's Hig Mountain Distillery, owned by Salida’s own mayor, no less), and artisan coffee sold alongside locally made bespoke goods are all part of the Salida experience, as are unique lodgings ranging from a historic Poor-Farm-turned-renovated-guesthouse to downtown’s historic Palace Hotel, dishing out home-baked muffins daily.
Luray, Virginia (Population: 4,794)
Image by Sarah Hauser. Downtown Luray (original image)
Image by NPS. The Appalachian Trail on Loft Mountain in Shenandoah National Park (original image)
Image by Luray Caverns. A candle-lit section of Luray Caverns on its annual Discovery Day (original image)
Image by Luray Caverns. The Great Stalacpipe Organ (original image)
Image by Luray Caverns. Giants Hall (original image)
Image by NPS/Neal Lewis. Skyline Drive in the fall (original image)
Image by Bill Crabtree Jr.. Downtown Luray (original image)
Image by NPS. Hikers on Shenandoah's Old Rag Mountain (original image)
Fifty years ago, U.S. Congress passed both the National Trails System Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, promoting the preservation and enjoyment of the country’s outdoor areas, as well as some of its greatest rivers. The former also led to the creation of two national scenic trails: one being the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, which forever changed the course of Luray—a small Virginia town that’s one of the trails access points, as well as the headquarters of nearby Shenandoah National Park, known for its waterfalls, secluded wooded hollows and stunning natural beauty.
For Appalachian Trail through-hikers, Luray is a godsend, beginning with its informative Luray-Page County Visitors Center. Downtown’s Appalachian Outfitters stocks a wealth of hiking gear, and—along with plenty of paintings, pottery and blown glass to peruse—its Warehouse Art Gallery offers free outdoor camping space specifically for A.T. hikers. Spots such as Main Street Bakery even sell backpacked-sized meals to go.
With its perch right near the Thornton Gap entry to Shenandoah’s spectacularly scenic 105-mile-long Skyline Drive, Luray is a hub for all kinds of outdoor activities, including bicycling, canoeing and kayaking, and autumn leaf peeping. Explore the largest cave system in the eastern U.S. with a visit to Luray Caverns, marking 140 years since its discovery. Their annual Discovery Day commemorates this event each August with a Grand Illuminated Tour, in which period-dressed guides lead visitors through sections of the caverns that are lit up with thousands of candles, all the while sharing stories about its unearthing. This vast subterranean system features 140-foot-tall natural columns, wondrous stalactites and an actual organ that turns the entire space into a musical instrument. The caverns have some unrelated attractions as well, such as a vintage car museum and a maze constructed from eight-feet-tall hedges.
Brick structures dating back to the 19th century line the sloping streets of downtown Luray, which is both a VA Main Street Community and designated Arts & Culture District, along with being a National Historic District. Fuel up with a frozen Kona mocha or Virginia’s own Old Hill Hard Cider at Gathering Grounds, also serving breakfast, lunch and weekend dinner. For good ol’ Virginia barbecue, Triple Crown BBQ is a winner.
Black bears, coyotes, and bobcats reside in the forests of Shenandoah National Park, while more than 250 exotic animals that were neglected, abandoned or unwanted have found new life at Luray Zoo, an educational zoo that’s home to everything from kangaroos to monkeys, tigers and porcupines.
Eureka Springs, Arkansas (Population: 2,114)
Image by Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Eureka Springs (original image)
Image by Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. "Great Passion Play" (original image)
Image by Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Thorncrown Chapel (original image)
Image by Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Motorcycle on Beaver Bridge (original image)
Image by Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Mardi Gras Extravaganza (original image)
Image by Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge (original image)
Image by Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Christ of the Ozarks (original image)
In 1968, a controversial former politician named Gerald L. K. Smith opened his “Great Passion Play” at an outdoor amphitheater (one that he’d carved out of a mountainside) in Eureka Springs, near a seven-story Christ of the Ozarks he also erected. Fifty years later, this annual summertime reenactment of Jesus Christ’s last days is considered one of the country’s largest attended outdoor dramas.
However, it’s far from the only draw this picturesque mountain town has going for it. Tucked into the middle of northwest Arkansas' Ozark Mountains, Eureka Springs boasts everything from luxurious spas to the jaw-dropping Thorncrown Chapel to a nearby river ripe for canoeing, as well as one-of-a-kind boutiques, art galleries and restaurants. Its entire downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the family-friendly city has received many accolades, including those from the American Planning Association and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Although Eureka Springs has been drawing those interested in its natural spring waters for centuries, its popularity as a resort town boomed in the late 19th century when locals claimed that they had healing properties. Today the city’s undulating center is brimming with historic Victorian structures in a wash of intriguing architecture styles, including cliff-hugging Queen Annes, towering bricks with iron balconies, and cozy residential bungalows. Walk (or hop a trolley) around its historic 3.5 mile “Loop,” which winds, climbs and descends its way around downtown’s most scenic features. In this town, quirky street art like the 500-pound Humpty Dumpty that sits on a wall in the middle of the historic district, century-old hotels and resident ghosts at places like the Basin Park Hotel are standard fare.
Artistic souls flock to this creative hub, a place known for its performance art, with everything from live music variety shows to an interactive sound-creating sculpture park. Whether it’s a Mardi Gras Extravaganza, one of the town's many LGTBQ festivities, or a UFO conference, Eureka Springs has it covered.
Sipping and swirling are the norm at the nearby Railway Winery @ Trestle 71-7, a stop along the Arkansas Wine Trail. For gourmet eats, try hidden downtown breakfast gem Oscar’s Cafe or the French-inspired fine-dining at Le Stick Nouveau.
Embark on a scenic journey back in time aboard the Eureka Springs and North Arkansas Railway. Just outside of town, the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge provides a safe haven for rescued exotic animals, including lions, tigers and bears, as well as guided walking and trolley tours, keeper talks and its own overnight safari lodging.
Trinidad, California (Population: 359)
Image by PhotoCPL/iStock. Trinidad (original image)
Image by jmoor17/iStock. Pier in Trinidad (original image)
Image by Wikipedia. Trinidad (original image)
Image by NPS/S. Olson. Prairie Creek Bridge (original image)
Image by NPS/Shaina Niehans. Redwoods at Tall Trees Grove (original image)
Each year, hundreds of thousands of visitors make their way along Northern California’s rugged coastline to marvel at the largest trees on Earth, thanks in large part to the conservation efforts of Save the Redwoods League, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary with “free second Saturdays” at more than 40 Redwood State Parks throughout 2018. This year also marks 50 years since the U.S. government established Redwood National Park, which is actually comprised of several parks that together with its state parks protect 45 percent of all remaining coast redwood old-growth forests on the planet. The tiny seaside hamlet of Trinidad sits right in their backyard.
Located in California’s laid-back Humboldt County, Trinidad is a working fishing village perched on a bluff 174 feet above the waters of Trinidad Bay. It is known as the place where the “Redwoods meet the Sea,” as well as for its spectacularly wild coastline and more than a dozen nearby public beaches. Trinidad is a popular spot for crabbing and fishing for rockfish and salmon, as well as lagoon and ocean kayaking. The greater Trinidad coast is also a notable California Coastal National Monument Gateway for its remarkable ocean sea stacks, home to one of the state’s most diverse seabird colonies—approximately 11 species such as tufted puffin, fork-tailed storm-petral and common murre.
Pick up the catch-of-the-day or snackable tins of smoked salmon at Katy’s Smokehouse, a community stalwart since the 1940s. Katy’s also stocks Humboldt County's famed Larrupin Mustard Dill Sauce, created by the folks at Trinidad’s Larrupin’ Cafe. The cozy eatery serves up a menu of mesquite barbecued dishes and local craft brews, including those from the nearby family-owned Redwood Curtain Brewing Co.
Keep an eye out for grey whales and other marine mammals along the clifftop 1.4-mile-long Trinidad Head Loop Trail, or head to Trinidad State Beach Park during low tide for tide pools filled with sea anemone and starfish. Get a handle on these and other local sea creatures with a visit to the touch tank at Humboldt State University’s Marine Lab.
Just outside Trinidad, Sumeg Village is a reconstructed village that provides insight into the lives of the region’s native Yurok people. Explore its family-style homes, built with traditional materials; sweat lodge; and a dance house where local Yuroks perform occasional cultural ceremonies.
Ketchum, Idaho (Population: 2,573)
Image by Jon Arnold Images Ltd/Alamy. Main Street, Ketchum (original image)
Image by Aurora Photos/Alamy. A woman catches a rainbow trout on Big Wood River in Ketchum (original image)
Stargazers have much to be happy about in Idaho, where Ketchum recently became the state’s first city to earn the moniker of International Dark Sky Community—a designation that the International Dark-Sky Association gives to communities dedicated to curbing their own light pollution. The former frontier outpost is also part of the even newer 1,400-square-mile Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, a first-of-its-kind in the U.S. The end of July is the best time to catch Mars at its brightest in years, while August 12 brings the annual Perseid meteor shower, which can produce up to 60 shooting stars an hour.
Ketchum got its start in silver mining, then switched to sheep shipping before it became a year-round recreational resort town along with adjacent Sun Valley, both of which sit at the foot of south central Idaho’s Bald Mountain—a 9,150-foot-tall peak covered with world-class ski runs—in the forested Wood River Valley. It’s nirvana for outdoor enthusiasts, who along with the four-season Sun Valley Resort come to indulge in the hiking trails, fly fishing spots, whitewater rafting opportunities, and natural hot springs of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, just north of town.
These days, Ketchum is also known for its fashionable boutique stores sporting designer threads and sheepskin coats, and art galleries that showcase everything from western bolo ties to modern works by Picasso and Matisse. Creativity pumps through the veins of this scenic place, perhaps a gift left behind by Ketchum’s most famous former resident, Ernest Hemingway. The legendary novelist lived, worked and died here—fans can even pay their respects at Ketchum Cemetery’s Hemingway Memorial, or book Suite 206 at the nearby Sun Valley Resort, where the famed imbiber completed his nearly-Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Each year (usually around early September) Ketchum’s Community Library hosts a weekend filled with Hemingway-centric events, while other annual town festivities include an outdoor curated public sculpture exhibit that runs through summer and Labor Day weekends and Wagon Days, the Pacific Northwest’s largest procession of non-motorized vehicles.
Delve into the local history of miners and ranchers, area artists and local athletes with a visit to Sun Valley Museum of History, or discover high-altitude flora at Sawtooth Botanical Garden. For Rocky Mountain home-style breakfasts, Ketchum’s western-kitsch Kneadery is a must.
Ocracoke, North Carolina (Population: 948)
Image by Peter Ptschelinzew/Alamy. Ocracoke (original image)
Image by Natasha Jackson. Blackbeard's Pirate Jamboree (original image)
Image by Ocracoke Foundation. Ocracoke's wild ponies (original image)
Image by Visit NC. An aerial view of Ocracoke (original image)
Image by Visit NC. Ocracoke Light Station (original image)
Avast, ye mateys! This October marks the 300th anniversary of Blackbeard's historic last battle on Ocracoke Island, a narrow afterthought on the southern tip of North Carolina's Outer Banks. The legendary pirate met his fateful end at the hands of Britain’s Royal Navy, after boarding the ship of Lieutenant Robert Maynard, who—along with his crew—took down Blackbeard with shots and sword.
This October, at the annual Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree, Ocracoke Village and its well-protected Silver Lake will be singing with bursting cannons and swashbuckling buccaneers, though tales of the sinister sea robber and his crew abound across the island: from stories of still-buried treasures at Springer's Point to Pamlico Sound, a windsurfing and kiteboarding haven where the epic end-of-life battle took place.
The name Ocracoke is believed to have originated as a mispronunciation of Woccocock, the island's first residents, and a few long-time locals still retain their distinct High Tider (think “hoi toider”) brogue. Ocracoke Village centers around Ocracoke Harbor—known for its stunning waterfront sunsets—where boat charters offer fishing tours and sailing cruises. Along the waterfront, art galleries and specialty shops lure in onlookers with their colorful window displays, while a range of dining and drink establishments are spread both in and on the outskirts of town. For locally sourced Southern seafood dishes and wood-fired pizzas to go, swing by lively Daijo. On the edge of the village is the new 1718 Brewing, serving up hand-crafted sodas and flights of their home brews, while Pony Island Restaurant has been Ocracoke's beloved breakfast hub since 1959.
For more local history, pay a visit to the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum, or bicycle over to Ocracoke Light Station. Keep an eye out for sea turtles and their nests (common in the summer) along local beaches, most of which are run by the National Park Service as part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Ocracoke is also home to wild ponies—the descendants of horses that shipwrecked explorers cast overboard—that reside in a protected pasture up Highway 12.
Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan (Population: 13,628)
Image by Norris Seward. Kayakers and freighter (original image)
Image by Mikael B. Classen. Soo Locks at night (original image)
Image by Sault Ste. Marie CVB. Downtown Sault Ste. Marie (original image)
Image by Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society. Whitefish Point Lighthouse and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum (original image)
Image by Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society. Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum (original image)
Image by Kenneth Kiefer/iStock. Tahquamenon Falls (original image)
Image by Sault Ste. Marie CVB. Soo Locks boat tour (original image)
Image by Sault Ste. Marie CVB. Soo Locks boat tour (original image)
Image by Sault Ste. Marie CVB. Soo Locks freighter (original image)
Image by Sault Ste. Marie CVB. Rotary Park (original image)
Michigan's oldest city has quite a history, from its role as a “crossroads of fishing and trading” among Native Americans to its more than 140 years spent under French rule (it wasn’t until after the War of 1812 that the U.S. gained control). This year it's celebrating its “Semiseptcentennial”—that’s 350 years—with a bevy of events, culminating with the week-long 350th Anniversary Festival in July.
Sault Ste. Marie sits on the northeastern tip of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, directly across the St. Marys River and the U.S.-Canada Border from its twin city, Ontario's Sault Ste. Marie. The Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge connects the two, serving as the only vehicular crossing between Michigan and Ontario for hundreds of miles. Nearby Lake Superior's rocky and forested coastline offers loads to explore, though the city has plenty of its own attractions.
Most notable is its legendary Soo Locks, two parallel locks opened in 1897 to help ships navigate the 21-foot drop between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. Today it's one of the planet's largest and busiest waterway traffic systems. See this magnificent feat of engineering—along with the massive freighters and tiny tugboats traversing its waters—in action, both from an observation platform overlooking the locks or aboard an exciting boat tour.
A few of the city's treasured eateries also offer up-close views of the locks, including the Lockview Restaurant, a long-time seafood stalwart with an old-school nautical feel, and the newer Karl's Cuisine, serving up locally sourced New American eats, wines and brews.
Sunbathers will want to head to Sherman Park along St. Marys River, home to the city's only public beach. For winter sports, the city's Sault Seal Recreation Area is a convenient practice spot for downhill skiing, and a hub for snow tubers. Sault Ste. Marie is especially popular with snowmobilers, with the area's 50th annual I-500 Snowmobile Race taking place earlier this year. Both cross country skiers and snowshoers head to the nearby Algonquin Trail for roaming among pristine, snow-covered forest.
Nearby Tahquamenon Falls State Park is a year-round favorite, with the foamy, cedar-colored waters of its 200-foot-wide Upper Falls. While here, swing by Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub for fresh Lake Superior whitefish paired with a pint of its own Black Bear Stout or Porcupine Pale Ale, then pick up a bottle of Upper Peninsula-made pure maple syrup at its Camp 33 Gift Shop.
The waters around Sault Ste. Marie have long been a prominent place for shipwrecks, and therefore lighthouses, like the 72-step Point Iroquois Light Station, and a bit further afield, Whitefish Point Lighthouse. The latter is home to the only museum devoted to shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, as well as the bell from the legendary Edmund Fitzgerald, which sunk in a storm off the coast. The point itself is a premier bird migration hot-spot, most notably for rough-legged hawks, and the incredibly preserved ships lost below its frigid waters are a boon for divers.
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 Smithsonian.com'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 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)
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)
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 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 2,898Base 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 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)
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.
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.
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.
Down the full distance of my memory, a dauntingly stout box stood on its end in the barn of our Victorian house in Dublin, New Hampshire. In my morbid youthful imagination, maybe it was a child’s casket, maybe there was a skeleton inside. My father airily dismissed the contents: just the printing plates for the illustrations in a 1909 book, Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, the brainchild of Abbott Handerson.
Thayer, a major turn-of-the-century painter who died in 1921. He was a mentor to my artist father (whose name I bear) and a family icon. He was the reason my father stayed in Dublin: to be near the man he revered.
I was recently visited in Dublin by Susan Hobbs, an art historian researching Thayer. This was the moment to open the box—which now felt to me like an Egyptian sarcophagus, filled with unimagined treasures. And indeed it was! The plates for the book were there—and with them, cutouts of blossoms and butterflies, birds and bushes—lovely vignettes to show how coloration can conceal objects by merging them with their backgrounds. Everything was wrapped in a 1937 Sunday Boston Globe and New York Herald Tribune.
Also, I held in my hands a startling artifact of military history. Green and brown underbrush was painted on a series of horizontal wooden panels. A string of paper-doll soldiers dappled green and brown could be superimposed on the landscapes to demonstrate how camouflage-design uniforms would blend into the backgrounds. Cutouts and stencils in the shape of soldiers, some hanging from strings, could be placed on the panels as well, to demonstrate degrees of concealment. Here was Abbott Thayer, the father of camouflage.
Nowadays camouflage togs are worn as fashion statements by trendy clotheshorses, and as announcements of machismo by both men and women. The “camo” pattern is the warrior wardrobe for rebels and rogues of all stripes, and hunters of the birds and animals Thayer studied to the point of near worship. Catalogues and stylish boutiques are devoted to camouflage chic. There are camo duffels, camo vests, even camo bikinis.
This evolution is heavily ironic. A strange and astonishing man, Thayer had consecrated his life to painting “pictures of the highest human soul beauty.” He was one of a small group who returned from Paris art schools in the late 1800s with a new vision of American art. They were painters of atmosphere, apostles of timeless beauty, often embodied by depictions of idealized young women. Distinct from the storytelling pre-Raphaelites, the American Impressionists and such muscular Realists as Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, the group included Thomas Dewing, Dwight Tryon, George de Forest Brush, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and James McNeill Whistler, who remained abroad. Deemed a “rare genius” by the railroad car magnate Charles Lang Freer, his patron and mentor, Thayer in that era was considered one of the finest figure painters in America.
Thayer’s second obsession was nature. An Emersonian transcendentalist, he found in nature an unsullied form of the purity, the spiritual truth and the beauty he sought in his painting. This combination of art and naturalism led him to his then-radical theory of concealing coloration—how animals hide from their predators, and prey. The foundation of military camouflage, it would have been formulated without Thayer and his particular contributions. Types of camouflage had long existed. Brush was used to conceal the marching soldiers in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and the headdresses and war paint worn by African warriors, to cite Thayer’s own example, served to disrupt their silhouettes. But it was Thayer who, in the early 1890s, began creating a wholly formed doctrine of concealing coloration, worked out through observation and experiment.
The theory emerged from the total mingling of his art and his nature studies. Thayer once explained to William James, Jr.—son of the famed philosopher and a devoted disciple of Thayer’s—that concealing coloration was his “second child.” This child, said Thayer, “has hold of one of my hands and my painting has hold of the other. When little C.C. hangs back, I can not go forward....He is my color-study. In birds’ costumes I am doing all my perceiving about the color I now get into my canvases.”
Thayer believed that only an artist could have originated this theory. “The whole basis of picture making,” he said, “consists in contrasting against its background every object in the picture.” He also was a preeminent technician in paint, the acknowledged American master of the color theories developed in Munich and Paris—theories of hue and chroma, of color values and intensities, of how colors enhance or cancel one another when juxtaposed.
Thayer based his concept on his perceptions of the ways in which nature “obliterates” contrast. One is by blending. The colorations of birds, mammals, insects and reptiles, he said, mimic the creatures’ environments. The second is by disruption. Strong arbitrary patterns of color flatten contours and break up outlines, so denizens either disappear or look to be something other than what they are.
Contours are further confused, Thayer maintained, by the flattening effect of what he termed “countershading”: the upper areas of animals tend to be darker than their shadowed undersides. Thus the overall tone is equalized. “Animals are painted by Nature darkest on those parts which tend to be most lighted by the sky’s light, and vice versa,” wrote Thayer. “The result is that their gradation of light-and-shade, by which opaque solid objects manifest themselves to the eye, is effaced at every point, and the spectator seems to see right through the space really occupied by an opaque animal.”
To demonstrate the effects of countershading, he made small painted birds. One rainy day in 1896 he led Frank Chapman, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, to a construction site. At a distance of 20 feet, he asked how many model birds Chapman saw in the mud. “Two,” Chapman said. They advanced closer. Still two. Standing practically on top of the models, Chapman discovered four. The first two were entirely earth brown. The “invisible” two were countershaded, with their upper halves painted brown and their lower halves painted pure white.
Thayer held demonstrations of his theory throughout the East. But while many prominent zoologists were receptive to his ideas, numerous other scientists acrimoniously attacked him. They argued correctly that conspicuous coloring was also designed to warn off a predator or attract a perspective mate. In particular, they resented Thayer’s insistence that his theory be accepted all or nothing—like Holy Scripture.
His most famous detractor was big-game-hunting Teddy Roosevelt, who publicly scoffed at Thayer’s thesis that the blue jay is colored so as to disappear against the blue shadows of winter snows. What about summer? Roosevelt asked. From his own experience, he knew that zebras and giraffes were clearly visible in the veld from miles away. “If you...sincerely desire to get at the truth,” wrote Roosevelt in a letter, “you would realize that your position is literally nonsensical.” Thayer’s law of obliterative countershading did not recieve official acceptance until 1940, when a prominent British naturalist, Hugh B. Cott, published Adaptive Coloration in Animals.
Although concealing coloration, countershading and camouflage are now axiomatically understood, at the end of the 19th century it probably took an eccentric fanatic like Thayer—a freethinker antagonistic to all conventions, a man eminent in a separate field—to break with the rigid mind-set of the naturalist establishment.
Born in 1849, Thayer grew up in Keene, New Hampshire. At age 6, the future artist was already “bird crazy,” as he put it—already collecting skins. Attending a prep school in Boston, he studied with an animal painter and had begun selling paintings of birds and animals when at 19 he arrived at the National Academy of Design in New York.
There Thayer met his feminine ideal, an innocent soul—poetic, graceful, fond of philosophic reading and discussion. Her name was Kate Bloede. They were married in 1875, and at age 26, Thayer put aside his naturalist self and sailed for Paris to begin four years of study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under Jean-Léon Gérôme, a great master of composition and the human figure.
When they returned to America, Thayer supported his family by doing commissioned portraits. By 1886 he and Kate had three children, Mary, Gladys and Gerald. Brilliant, isolated, ascetic, hyperintense, an almost pure example of late-19th-century romantic idealism, Thayer epitomized the popular image of a genius. His mind would race at full throttle in a rush of philosophies and certainties. His joy was exploring the imponderables of life, and he scrawled passionate, barely readable letters, his second thoughts routinely continued in a series of postscripts.
Impractical, erratic, improvident, Thayer described himself as “a jumper from extreme to extreme.” He confessed to his father that his brain only “takes care of itself for my main function, painting.” Later he would compose letters to Freer in his head and then be surprised that his patron had not actually received them. Though Thayer earned a fortune, selling paintings for as much as $10,000, an enormous sum in those days, money was often a problem. With wheedling charm he would pester Freer for loans and advance payments.
Thayer cut a singular figure. A smallish man, 5 feet 7 inches tall, lean and muscular, he moved with a quick vitality. His narrow, bony face, with its mustache and aquiline nose, was topped by a broad forehead permanently furrowed by frown lines from concentration. He began the winter in long woolen underwear, and as the weather warmed, he gradually cut off the legs till by summer he had shorts. Winter and summer he wore knickers, knee-high leather boots and a paint-splotched Norfolk jacket.
After moving the family from place to place, in 1901 Thayer settled permanently, 13 miles from Keene, in Dublin, New Hampshire, just below the great granite bowl of Mount Monadnock. His Thoreauesque communion with nature permeated the entire household. Wild animals—owls, rabbits, woodchucks, weasels—roamed the house at will. There were pet prairie dogs named Napoleon and Josephine, a red, blue and yellow macaw, and spider monkeys that regularly escaped from their cages. In the living room stood a stuffed peacock, probably used as a model for a painting (opposite) in the protective coloration book. A stuffed downy woodpecker, which in certain lights disappeared into its artfully arranged background of black winter twigs and branches, held court in the little library.
Promoting to ornithologists his theory of protective coloration, Thayer met a young man who immediately was adopted as an honorary son. His name was Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and though he would become a famous painter of birds, he began as an affectionate disciple.
Both men were fascinated with birds. They regularly exchanged skins and Fuertes joined Thayer on birding expeditions. He spent a summer and two winters with the family, joining in their high intellectual and spiritual arguments—the exact interpretation of the Icelandic Sagas—and their rushes to the dictionary or relief globe to settle questions of etymology and geography. On regular walks in the woods, Fuertes summoned birds by whistling their calls—like Thayer, who stood on the summit of Mount Monadnock in the twilight and attracted great horned owls by making a sucking sound on the back of his hand. One owl, it is said, perched on top of his bald head.
Fuertes also served as a tutor to Gerald. Thayer’s children were not sent to school. He needed their daily companionship, he said, and feared the germs they might pick up. He thought the purity of their youth would be corrupted by a confining, formal education. The children were well taught at home, not the least by Thayer’s lofty environment of music and books. Mary grew up to be an expert linguist. Gladys became a gifted painter and a fine writer. Gerald, also an artist, was to be the author of record of Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom.
The Dublin house had been given to the Thayer family by Mary Amory Greene. A direct descendent of the painter John Singleton Copley, Greene had been one of Thayer’s students. She made herself Thayer’s helper, handling correspondence, collecting fees—and writing substantial checks. She was one of several genteel, affluent, single females delighted to dedicate themselves to the artist. He once explained, “A creative genius uses all his companions...passing to each some rope or something to handle at his fire, i.e. his painting or his poem.”
Another savior was Miss Emmeline “Emma” Beach. A tiny sprite of a woman with reddish-gold hair, she was gentle, understanding, selfless, but also efficient, effectual, and moneyed. Her father owned the New York Sun. Kate was as disorganized as her husband, so both embraced Emma’s friendship. She cheerfully became the Thayer family factotum, struggling to bring order to the chaos.
In 1888 Kate’s mind folded into melancholia and she entered a sanatorium. Alone with the three children, blaming himself for causing Kate’s “dark state,” Thayer turned more and more to Emma. He wrote her wooing, confiding letters, calling her his “Dear fairy godmother” and imploring her to come for extended visits. When Kate died of a lung infection in 1891 in the sanatorium, Thayer proposed to Emma by mail, including the plea that Kate had wished her to care for the children. They were married four months after Kate’s death, and it was with Emma that Thayer settled year-round in Dublin. Now it fell to her to keep the fragile artist glued together.
This was a considerable challenge. His life was blighted by what he called “the Abbott pendulum.” There were highs of blissful “all-wellity” when he reveled in “such tranquility, such purity of nature and such dreams of painting.” At these times he was his essential self—a man of ingratiating charm and grace and generosity. But then depressions set in. “My sight turns inward,” he wrote, “and I have such a state of sick disgust at myself....”
He suffered from “oceans of hypochondria,” which he blamed on his mother, and from an “irritability” he claimed to inherit from his father. Harassed by sleeplessness, exhaustion and anxiety, by petty illnesses, bad eyes and headaches, he kept his state of health, excellent or terrible, constantly in the foreground.
He was convinced that fresh mountain air was the best medicine for everyone, and the entire family slept under bearskin rugs in outdoor lean-tos—even in 30-below weather. In the main house, windows were kept open winter and summer. The place had never been winterized, and what heat there was came from fireplaces and small wood-burning stoves. Illumination was provided by kerosene lamps and candles. Until a water tower fed by a windmill was built, the only plumbing was a hand pump in the kitchen. A privy stood behind the house. But there was always the luxury of a cook and house maids, one of whom, Bessie Price, Thayer used as a model.
In 1887 Thayer found the leitmotif for his most important painting. Defining art as “a no-man’s land of immortal beauty where every step leads to God,” the forefather of today’s raucous camouflage painted his 11-year-old daughter Mary as the personification of virginal, spiritual beauty, giving her a pair of wings and calling the canvas Angel. This was the first in a gallery of chaste, lovely young women, usually winged, but human nevertheless. Although Thayer sometimes added halos, these were not paintings of angels. The wings, he said, were only there to create “an exalted atmosphere”—to make the maidens timeless.
For Thayer, formal religion smacked of “hypocrisy and narrowness.” His God was pantheistic. Mount Monadnock, his field station for nature studies, was “a natural cloister.” He painted more than a dozen versions of it, all with a sense of looming mystery and “wild grandeur.”
Believing that his paintings were the “dictation of a higher power,” he tended to paint in bursts of “God given” creative energy. His personal standards were impossibly high. Driven by his admitted vice of “doing them better and better,” he was doomed always to fall short. Finishing a picture became horrendously hard. He was even known to go to the railroad station at night, uncrate a painting destined for a client and work on it by lantern light.
Such fussing sometimes ruined months or even years of work. In the early 1900s he began preserving “any achieved beauty” by retaining young art students—including my father—to make copies of his effects. Two, three and four versions of a work might be under way. Thayer compulsively experimented on all of them, finally assembling the virtues of each onto one canvas.
Though well aware of his quirks and weaknesses, young painters like my father and Fuertes revered Thayer almost as a flawed god. William James, Jr., described standing in Thayer’s studio before the winged Stevenson Memorial. “I felt myself to be, somehow, ‘in the presence.’ Here was an activity, an accomplishment, which my own world...had never touched. This could be done—was being done that very morning by this friendly little man with the distant gaze. This was his world where he lived and moved, and it seemed to me perhaps the best world I had ever met.”
The inspirational spell cast by Thayer also was experienced by a noted artist named William L. Lathrop. In 1906 Lathrop visited a show at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He wrote: “A big portrait by Sargent. Two portrait heads by Abbott Thayer. The Sargent is a wonderfully brilliant performance. But one finds a greater earnestness in the Thayers. That his heart ached with love for the thing as he painted, and your own heart straight away aches with love for the lover. You know that he strove and felt himself to have failed and you love him the more for the failure.”
While “the boys” copied the morning’s work, Thayer spent afternoons finding in nature a relief from his fervid preoccupations. He climbed Mount Monadnock, canoed and fly-fished on nearby Dublin Pond. To him each bird and animal was exquisite. He and his son, Gerald, collected bird skins in the Eastern United States, and as far afield as Norway, Trinidad and South America. By 1905 they had amassed a trove of 1,500 skins. Using a needle, Thayer would lift each feather into its proper position with infinite delicacy. “I gloat and gloat,” he once wrote. “What design!”
World War I devastated the 19th-century spirit of optimism that helped sustain Thayer’s idealism. The possibility of a German victory drew Thayer out of seclusion and spurred him to promote the application of his theories of protective coloration to military camouflage. The French made use of his book in their efforts, adapting his theories to the painting of trains, railroad stations, and even horses, with “disruptive” patterns. The word “camouflage” probably comes from the French camouflet, the term for a small exploding mine that throws up gas and smoke to conceal troop movement. The Germans, too, studied Thayer’s book to help them develop techniques for concealing their warships.
When the British were less enthusiastic, Thayer’s obsessiveness went into overdrive. He virtually stopped painting and began an extended campaign to persuade Britain to adopt his ideas, both on land and sea. In 1915 he enlisted the help of the great expatriate American painter John Singer Sargent, whose fame enabled him to arrange a meeting at the British War Office for Thayer. Traveling alone to England, Thayer failed to go to the War Office. Instead he toured Britain in a state of nervous overexcitement, giving camouflage demonstrations to friendly naturalists in Liverpool and Edinburgh in the hopes of mobilizing their support. This detour, it turns out, was largely a ploy to postpone what was always for him a paralyzing fear: facing an unsympathetic audience.
Finally Thayer arrived in London for the appointment. He was exhausted, confused and erratic. At one point, he found himself walking a London street with tears streaming down his face. Immediately he boarded the next ship for America, leaving behind at his hotel a package that Sargent took to the War Office.
I always loved hearing my father tell what happened then. In the presence of the busy, skeptical generals, Sargent opened the package. Out fell Thayer’s paint-daubed Norfolk jacket. Pinned across it were scraps of fabric and several of Emma’s stockings. To Thayer, it told the entire story of disruptive patterning. To the elegant Sargent, it was an obscenity—“a bundle of rags!” he fumed to William James, Jr. “I wouldn’t have touched it with my stick!”
Later Thayer received word that his trip had born some sort of fruit: “Our British soldiers are protected by coats of motley hue and stripes of paint as you suggested,” wrote the wife of the British ambassador to the United States. Thayer continued battling to make the British Navy camouflage its ships. In 1916, overstressed and unstrung, he broke down, and in Emma’s words was “sent away from home for a rest.”
The United States entered the war in April 1917, and when a number of artists proposed their own ways to camouflage U.S. warships, Thayer refocused his frenzy. He sent a copy of the concealing coloration book to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and bombarded him with passionate letters decrying the wrongheaded perversion of his ideas by others. “It will be disastrous if, after all, they dabble in my discoveries,” he wrote. “I beg you, be wise enough as to try accurately, mine, first.”
White, he contended, was the best concealing color for blending with the horizon sky. Dark superstructures, like smokestacks, could be hidden by white canvas screens or a bright wire net. White would be the invisible color at night. One proof, he insisted, was the white iceburg struck by the Titanic. Although some credence would later be given to this theory in a 1963 Navy manual on ship camouflage, Thayer’s ideas in this regard were primarily inspirational rather than practical.
His theories had a more direct effect on Allied uniforms and matériel. A Camouflage Corps was assembled—an unmilitary lot led by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ son, Homer. It was for his edification that Thayer had prepared the camouflage demonstration panels that I discovered in Dublin. By 1918 this motley corps contained 285 soldiers—carpenters, iron workers, sign painters. Its 16 officers included sculptors, scenery designers, architects and artists. One was my father, a second lieutenant.
In France a factory applied disruptive, variegated designs to American trucks, sniper suits and observation posts, thereby, as an Army report explained, “destroying identity by breaking up the form of the object.” “Dazzle” camouflage used pieces of material knotted to wire netting, casting shadows that broke up the shapes beneath.
During 1918, Thayer’s frustration over ship camouflage and terror over the war reached a continual, low-grade hysteria. It was too much even for Emma. That winter she fled to her sister in Peekskill, New York. Thayer took refuge in a hotel in Boston, then took himself to a sanatorium. From there he wrote Emma, “I lacked you to jeer me out of suicide and I got into a panic.”
In early 1919 they were together again. But by March, Emma needed another rest in Peekskill, and again during the winter of 1920-21. Despite her absences, Thayer settled down, cared for by his daughter Gladys and his devoted assistants. Late that winter he began a picture that combined his two most cherished themes: an “angel” posed open-armed in front of Mount Monadnock (left). In May he had a series of strokes. The last one, on May 29, 1921, killed him. On hearing of Thayer’s death, John Singer Sargent said, “Too bad he’s gone. He was the best of them.”
The Thayer cosmos disintegrated, drifting away into indifference and neglect. There was a memorial exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art within a year, but for decades many of his finest works remained unseen, stored in the vaults of the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art, which is prohibited from lending paintings for outside exhibitions. In the post-Armory Show era the changing fashions of the art world regarded Thayer’s angels as sentimental relics of a defunct taste.
Emma died in 1924. For a time the little Dublin complex stood empty, decaying year after year. When I was 9, my brother and I climbed up on the roof of Gerald’s house, near Thayer’s studio, and entered the attic through an open hatch. In one corner, heaped up like a hay mow, was a pile of Gerald’s bird skins. I touched it. Whrrrr! A raging cloud of moths. The horror was indelible. Thayer’s own prized collection of skins was packed in trunks and stored in an old mill house on the adjacent property. Ultimately, the birds deteriorated and were thrown out. In 1936 Thayer’s house and studio were torn down. Gerald’s house lasted only a year or so longer. The box in our barn was apparently given to my father for safekeeping.
Today, at the end of the 20th century, angels are very much in vogue. Thayer’s Angel appeared on the cover of the December 27, 1993, issue of Time magazine, linked to an article titled “Angels Among Us.” These days angels are appearing in films, on TV, in books and on the Web. Today, too, art historians are looking receptively at the end of the 19th century. A major Thayer exhibition opens on April 23 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art. Curated by Richard Murray, the show—which marks the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth—will run through September 6. In addition, the Freer Gallery will mount a small exhibit of Thayer’s winged figures starting June 5.
In 1991, during the Gulf War, I watched Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf hold televised press conferences in full camouflage regalia. Yes, Thayer did finally make his point with the military. But he sacrificed his health—and perhaps even his life—promoting what, in some respects, has now become a pop fad that announces rather than hides. Virtually no one knows that all that raiment is the enduring legacy of a worshiper of virginal purity and spiritual nobility. This probably delights Abbott Thayer.
Freelance writer Richard Meryman’s most recent book is Andrew Wyeth, A Secret Life, published by HarperCollins.
Image by Nelson and Henry C. White Research Material. Archives of American Art, SI. Attired in loose breeches, high boots and paint-splattered Norfolk jacket, Thayer projects the image of the rugged outdoorsman. (original image)
Image by National Museum of American Art, SI. Thayer contended that even brilliantly plumaged birds like the peacock can blend into, and thus be camouflaged by, their habitats. To illustrate his theory, he and his young assistant Richard Meryman painted Peacock in the Woods for Thayer's coloration book. (original image)
Image by National Museum of American Art, SI. The model for Girl Arranging Her Hair, c/1918-1919, was Alma Wollerman, Gerald's wife. (original image)
Image by National Museum of American Art, SI. Thayer artfully rendered the ethereal winged figure of his Stevenson Memorial (1903) in a very human pose. The work was painted as a tribute to author Robert Louis Stevenson. (original image)
Image by Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Massachusetts. One of Theyer's final works Monadnock Angel )1920) united two of his favorite themes-idealized, protective winged women and the natural beauty of Mount Monadnock-in one lyrical canvas. (original image)
Image by Free Gellery of Art, SI. Many of Theyer's works celebrate beauty and purity. A Virgin, painted for his patron Charles Freer in 1893, sets the artist's children (Mary leading Gerald and Gladys), draped in classical robes, against winglike clouds. (original image)
Image by National Museum of American Art, SI. The artist Rockwell Kent, a student of Thayer's, worked with the painter, his wife Emma and son Gerald to create the compelling watercolor illustration Copperhead Snake on Dead Leaves. (original image)
Image by National Museum of American Art, SI. Thayer painted Blue Jays in Winter to demonstrate his claim that the colors of the blue jay's feathers blend with shades of sunlit snow, shadows and branches to help conceal and protect the bird. (original image)