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Debating on Television: Then and Now

Smithsonian Magazine

A little more than half a century ago, American politics stumbled into a new era. In WBBM-TV studios in Chicago on September 26, 1960, presidential candidates Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy stood before cameras and hot lights for the first-ever televised presidential debate. An extraordinary 60 percent of adults nationwide tuned in. This encounter—the first of four—boosted support for Kennedy, a little-known Massachusetts senator and political scion who would go on to win the White House. Elections in the United States would never be the same again. No single aspect of presidential campaigns attracts as much interest as televised debates, and they have provided some of the most memorable moments in modern political history.

In 1960, Nixon, then vice president, was expected to perform brilliantly against Kennedy, but few politicians have ever bombed so badly. The striking contrast of their images on the television screen made all the difference. Nixon, who had recently been in the hospital with a knee injury, was pale, underweight, and running a fever, while Kennedy, fresh from campaigning in California, was tanned and buoyantly energetic. Before they went on the air, both candidates refused the services of a cosmetician. Kennedy’s staff, however, gave him a quick touch up. Nixon, cursed by a five o’clock shadow, slapped on Lazy Shave, an over-the counter powder cover-up. It would only heighten his ghastly pallor on the TV screen. Voters who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon performed just as expertly as Kennedy, but TV viewers could not see beyond his haggard appearance.

Sander Vanocur, who was a member of the press panel with NBC for that premier debate, says today that he was too caught up in the moment to notice Nixon’s illness, but he recalls that the vice president “seemed to me to be developing some sweat around his lips.” One thing, however, was unmistakable, Vanocur says: “Kennedy had a sure sense of who he was, and it seemed to radiate that night.” Countless viewers agreed. Later, Kennedy said that he never would have won the White House without the televised debates, which so effectively brought him into the living rooms of more than 65 million people.

There were three further debates, but they hardly mattered, says Alan Schroeder, professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a historian of presidential debates. “Kennedy left such a positive impression in the first debate, it was quite difficult for Nixon to overcome it.” No election rules require candidates to debate. After his dismal performance in 1960, Nixon refused to participate in 1968 and 1972. More recently, John McCain tried to cancel one of his matchups with Barack Obama in 2008, saying that he had urgent business back in Washington. But over the years, the public has come to expect that candidates will be courageous enough to face each other on television, live and unscripted.

Tens of millions of viewers tune in to watch debates, and advocates call them indispensable for helping undecideds make up their minds. “If the campaign is a job interview with the public,” says Charlie Gibson, moderator for the 2004 Bush-Kerry contest, then debates are a priceless chance “to compare styles, to get a sense of their ease with issues.” In several elections, debates have dramatically shifted voter perceptions and even, some experts argue, changed the outcome of the race.

Image by Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images. An extraordinary 60 percent of adults nationwide tuned in for the presidential debate between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy. (original image)

Image by Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images. On September 26, 1960, presidential candidates Nixon and Kennedy stood before cameras for the first-ever televised presidential debate. (original image)

Image by Corbis. Jimmy Carter rode a post-debate spike in the polls to narrowly beat Gerald Ford in 1976. (original image)

Image by Associated Press. By appearing bored and impatient during the presidential debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, George H.W. Bush inadvertently reinforced his own image as an aloof patrician. (original image)

Image by Associated Press. Al Gore's erratic performance in 2000 contributed to his loss to George W. Bush in one of the closest elections ever. (original image)

Jimmy Carter rode a post-debate spike in the polls to narrowly beat Gerald Ford in 1976, for example, and Al Gore's erratic performance in 2000 contributed to his loss to George W. Bush that November in one of the closest elections ever. “Debates have a very powerful effect on how candidates are perceived,” says Schroeder, “and in giving voters confidence they are making the right decision.”

Partly because they exert such great influence, televised debates have always received heated criticism. Some complain that the answers tend to be superficial, that charisma trumps substance, that pundits needlessly obsess about minor goofs. Certainly the stakes are sky-high. “It’s a long walk from the dressing room to the debate platform,” says Walter Mondale, a veteran of several debates. “You know if you screw up that you’ll live with it the rest of your life.” No wonder candidates fight to keep formats short and free from messy interpersonal exchanges—although these sometimes happen anyway, as when Lloyd Bentsen contemptuously told Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate, “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” to which a stunned-looking Quayle replied, “That was really uncalled for!”

Little spats like this one are catnip to the media, who habitually cover debates as if they were sporting events, with clear winners and losers. “They’re trying to make it a political prizefight,” says John Anderson, who debated Ronald Reagan as an Independent in 1980. “They want to see a candidate throw a sucker punch.” It’s this mentality that causes commentators to magnify every blunder: in 1992, for example, George H.W. Bush repeatedly glanced at his watch during a town hall debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, and pundits had a field day. “That criticism was unfair,” says former Gov. Michael Dukakis, who debated Bush in 1988 and was watching again that night. “In a long debate, you’ve got to have a sense of where you are—so there’s nothing strange about a guy looking at his watch. But it hurt him.”

By appearing bored and impatient, Bush inadvertently reinforced his own image as an aloof patrician. Many debaters have similarly damaged themselves by confirming what voters already feared—Carter seemed touchy-feely in 1980 when he implied that his young daughter, Amy, advised him on nuclear arms; Gore, supercilious when he loudly sighed in 2000; McCain, angry when he dismissively called Obama “That One” in 2008. Such episodes are so common, we tend to remember debates not for what went right, but what went wrong.

Fifty years after Nixon’s fatal debate debut, a similar upset played out recently in Great Britain, where televised debates were introduced this spring for the first time ever in a general election. Nick Clegg, 43, a little-known candidate from the small third-place Liberal Democrats Party, performed spectacularly in debate against two better-known rivals. After the first encounter, his personal approval ratings skyrocketed to 78 percent, the highest ever seen in Britain since Churchill’s in World War II. As with Kennedy in 1960 (also just 43), the public could suddenly envision the energetic Clegg as a national leader.

Today the Liberal Democrats share power with the Conservatives, and Clegg is deputy prime minister—an outcome few could have imagined before the debates. In Britain as in America, televised debates promise to exert a potent influence over political life, permanently changing the campaign landscape. For all their riskiness and high drama, they play a crucial role now and are doubtless here to stay.

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

Smithsonian Magazine

Clap-clap

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

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

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

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

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

A journey north

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

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

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

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

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

A traditional palate 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A day at Fäviken

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

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

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

Feast at the farm

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

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

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

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

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

A master of the craft

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

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

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

 

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

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

Deer

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Deer Hunting by Torchlight in Bark Canoes

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Despite Road-Closing Landslides, You Can Still Take a Big Sur Road Trip This Year — Here’s How

Smithsonian Magazine

Stretching 90 miles along the jagged western edge of the continental United States, Big Sur has long exercised a magnetic pull on people drawn to its dazzling landscape.

Here, earth and ocean meet, not with gently sloping sands but with muscular mountains bristling with redwoods, and rugged cliffs that drop into the turquoise surf below. Just 150 miles south of San Francisco and 300 miles north of Los Angeles, this oblong slice of California is endearingly, enduringly wild.

When construction on a highway tracing the coastline was completed after 18 years in 1937, Big Sur officially opened to the public. Today, roughly 3 million people pass through it each year, slaloming down Highway 1 on one of the county’s most iconic lengths of road.

However, that road is currently closed in four places, cut off by a crumbling bridge and a handful of landslides that have blanketed the asphalt in dirt and rock.

“There are a lot of people with a vested interest in seeing the road open up again,” said Rob O’Keefe, chief marketing officer for the Monterey County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “This is literally the quintessential California road trip experience that’s broken.”

The closures are expected to cost the area $500 million in lost revenue, but even if you can’t cruise Highway 1 from Carmel to San Simeon this summer, much of Big Sur is still open for business. If reaching sections of this mythic coastline require more of an adventure than usual, that’s just part of the appeal.

What happened?

Last summer, the Soberanes Fire tore through 130,000 acres of Big Sur, burning for almost three months before finally being brought under control. That brutal season was followed by an incredibly wet winter, with ongoing rains saturating ground already susceptible to slides.

In February, a slip at Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge caused irreparable damage to the supports and span, closing the bridge and highway and effectively cutting off Big Sur village to the north from the businesses to the south. A handful of other slides have been active since January with periodic closures, and in May the region was rocked again: At Mud Creek, an entire hillside collapsed, burying a quarter mile of roadway under millions of tons of rock and dirt. The region’s worst landslide in 30 years, Mud Creek has actually changed the topography of the coastline, creating a new 16-acre crescent of earth that juts into the Pacific.

(Stan Russell / Big Sur Chamber of Commerce)

Meanwhile, 15 miles north of Mud Creek, Paul’s Slide also fell, isolating the stretch of highway between it and the bridge that’s home to Post Ranch Inn, Ventana Inn and Nepenthe Restaurant, among other businesses. Finally, Cabrillo Highway is also closed to the south at Ragged Point, where another slide has interrupted traffic at Ragged Point.

Paul’s Slide is expected to be cleared by the end of July, but the damage at Mud Creek will likely take a year to be repaired.

Can I still get there?

Yes, but you may have to work a bit more for it.

North of Pfeiffer Canyon, Big Sur is open as usual. The bridge itself has been fully demolished, and a replacement won’t be installed until September, however, starting July 1 you can get around the closure on foot. A trail for locals bypassing the gap has been carved into the hillside and will open to the public next month with shuttles operating on either side.

“It’s not an easy walk,” cautions O’Keefe, who’s done the 40-minute hike himself. But it is a unique entry to Big Sur.

On the opposite end of the sweat equity spectrum, elegant clifftop resort Post Ranch Inn reopened in April with a novel approach to its transportation woes: helicopter shuttles from Monterey. “The goal for this spectacular helicopter experience is to encourage the comeback of Big Sur and welcome guests in true Post Ranch-style, while showcasing the world-famous Pacific coast views from above,” said Inn spokesperson Kelsey Gummow. It’s an experience with an expiration date: Helicopter transfers aren’t usually available, and once the bridge reopens, flights will end.

Finally, there’s Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, a remote, twisting mountain pass that originates inland near the 101, then winds over the Santa Lucia Range to the coast. “It’s a focused drive,” said Megan Handy, front desk manager of Treebones, whose family owns the famed glamping resort. “It should be driven with care during daylight hours.”

The narrow road has no gas stations, no cell phone reception and no services of any kind, but it does offer access to the 14-mile slice of Big Sur between Paul’s Slide to the north and Mud Creek to the South that’s home to Limekiln State Park, Kirk Creek and Plaskett Creek campgrounds, and, of course, Treebones.

“We only had to close for three weeks back in February,” Handy said. “All of our guests have been coming in and out of Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. The majority of people are still making the trip."

(Michele Falzone/Getty Images)

Where can I have the Big Sur experience?

In the north

From redwood forests to rugged coastline, Big Sur’s grandeur is easily accessible north of Pfeiffer Canyon, where you’ll find the most dense concentration of businesses as well as iconic vistas like Bixby Bridge’s graceful arches. Garrapata State Park is open west of Highway 1 with two miles of beachfront where sea lions, otters and gray whales make appearances, and a handful of trails are open to walkers inside Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The park’s Main Camp sites are operating on a first-come, first-serve basis, and the lodge is also welcoming guests.

Spend the night at Glen Oaks Big Sur, where a variety of accommodations nestled among the redwoods pair rustic designs with modern amenities, or bunk stop at the Big Sur River Inn, a historic motel known for its apple pie and the Adirondack chairs that visitors pull into the river to relax with a beer.

(Miles Ertman/robertharding/Getty Images)

Beyond the bridge

If you’re up for the trek, this is the time to experience Big Sur in relative solitude. South of the bridge is “really beautiful right now because it’s only locals there,” said Big Sur Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Stan Russell. “You can stand in the middle of Highway 1 and watch birds.”

Starting July 1, leave your car at Andrew Molera State Park and hop the shuttle to Point Sur Station, where you’ll pick up the bypass trail. Once you’re beyond Pfeiffer Canyon it’s a quick stroll to the Big Sur Deli and Taphouse for cold pints and hefty sandwiches or a short shuttle ride to the landmark Nepenthe restaurant, with its expansive patio overlooking a classic Big Sur view. Both have stayed open despite the road closures, serving as rallying points for locals isolated on “Big Sur Island.” Esalen Institute, the counter culture spiritual retreat known for its nude cliffside hot springs, is scheduled to reopen July 28 after five months of closure.

If money’s no object, consider Post Ranch Inn’s Escape Through the Skies package, which will whisk you comfortably over the road closures and straight to the resort, where elegant clifftop bungalows mirror the local hills with curving designs and amenities include wood-burning stoves, private hot tubs and decks that feel like they’re floating over the ocean or mountain ravines. Yoga classes and guided nature walks are included in your stay, and should you want to explore beyond the hotel, hop a chauffeured Lexus Hybrid or borrow an electric bike, and take on Big Sur’s famous curves while the road is essentially traffic-free.

In the middle

While Treebones’ yurts, campsites and human nest are usually booked solid this time of year, right now there are openings on the calendar. Seize the opportunity and brave Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to reach this 14-mile swath of Highway 1, which includes Limekiln State Park’s magical landscape of redwoods and waterfalls, prime coastline at Sand Dollar Beach and three campgrounds. If you can’t snag a spot at Treebones, consider Kirk Creek Campground, set on a bluff just 100 feet above the mighty Pacific.

In the south

From San Simeon, the southernmost section of Big Sur is accessible until Ragged Point. That means road trip-worthy highway, breathtaking coastal panoramas and destinations like Piedras Blanca Light Station (with free hike-in tours June 28, July 26 and August 30) and Hearst Castle, the opulent estate built by W.R. Hearst. Formerly known as Enchanted Hill, guided tours cover sections of this 165-room American palace that stands in stark contrast to its setting: fog-wrapped, ocean-battered Big Sur, where nature exerts its power again and again.

Other articles from Travel + Leisure:

Destination: Smithsonian

Smithsonian Magazine

The Postal Museum

Did you know camels were used in the 1850s to deliver mail in the American Southwest?
We know that camels were used as beasts of burden in Australia, and even in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. However, as shown in this drawing, camels also were members of the U.S. Army's Camel Corps in the 1850s. Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, started the program, using camels to deliver mail, along with supplies, in the American Southwest. The carrier service was short lived though; the camels were too cantankerous, and the rocky terrain injured their feet. Relieved of their duties, the surviving postal worker camels were soon sent to zoos. Reindeer were used to deliver mail in the North, with slightly better results.

National Museum of African Art

Ever seen how the Tuareg people of Eastern Africa saddled up their camels?
This particular camel saddle, made of wood, leather and metal, was used recently in the late 20th century, by the Tuareg of Niger. The word for saddle is térik, and these saddles are placed in front of the camel's hump on two to four saddlecloths, while the rider sits cross-legged with his feet on the camel's neck. This saddle, with its forked saddle horn and detailed leather decorations, is called a tamzak saddle. Most are made in Agadez, Niger, by blacksmiths. Wood is lashed together with rawhide and covered with colored leather and metal ornaments.

This modern light-colored camel bell is most likely from Somalia. It is made of wood and plant fiber and is a gift of Mrs. Duncan Emerick.

The darker bell, also made of wood and fiber, came from Ethiopia. Large wooden camel bells in the museum's collections are attributed to pastoralists in Somalia, Ethiopia and northern Kenya. Not just an economic necessity to these peoples, the camel is also a symbol of a nomadic way of life. In Somalia especially, camels—kept as milk animals or as beasts of burden#151;are the subject of extensive poetry. Although the bells' lack of embellishment suggests a practical purpose, the bells also seem to hold a sentimental value. One anonymous poem uses the phrase "...Like a she-male with a large bell."

Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Conrad Gessner's Historia Animalium from the 15th century tempered the often mythical and inaccurate statements about the Asian beasts and illustrated a bactrian rather accurately.
In the 15th century, an artist named Erhard Reuwich accompanied author Bernhard von Breydenbach on a journey from Germany to Jerusalem so that he could illustrate Breydenbach's book, Peregrinatio in Terram Sactam. Most of Reuwich's illustrations are panoramas of the cities they passed through, but there is also this almost whimsical hand-colored woodcut that features the exotic animals they encountered at their destination, such as crocodiles, giraffes, salamanders and a camel. A unicorn is included as well, and according to the plate's caption, "These animals are accurately drawn as we saw them in the holy land." Whether Reuwich actually saw a unicorn is questionable, as you can imagine. But it is likely that he did see the camel that is drawn most realistically here, equipped with saddle and bridle.

Pictured here is a woodcut of an Asian, or Bactrian, camel that was included in Conrad Gessner's Historia Animaliam, which he compiled in the mid-16th century. Gessner gathered information from a variety of sources: ancient and medieval books, folklore, and the often mythical and inaccurate reports of travelers, which Gessner tempered with his own direct observations whenever possible. In his book, Gessner also included a woodcut of the single-humped arabian, or dromedary, camel.

Le Dromadaire is a beautifully engraved illustration of a single-humped Arabian camel found in a book about the french royal (later national) natural-history collection, Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière, put together by George Louis Leclerc, the count of Buffon, in the latter half of the 1700s. Buffon served as the head of the collections, and his book included hundreds of such engravings.

Le Chameau portrays the double-humped Bactrian camel. Although Buffon's text notes that the Bactrian camel is native to Turkey and what is now Uzbekistan, the artist has placed it in Egypt. It is shown with one of its humps temporarily depleted and drooping, an indication that the camel's reserves are used up.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Artists like Louis Comfort Tiffany and Elijah Pierce included the camel in their painted works.
Here, camels carry the three wise men to the baby Jesus in this wood carving by self-taught artist Elijah Pierce (1892-1984). Pierce's imaginative use of oils, paper and glitter on carved wood expresses clearly the long shadows of night, the men's exhaustion from the long and tiring journey, and the dazzling light of the distant star. Pierce, a Southern African-American artist and preacher, is best known for his carved wooden panels inspired by Bible stories and fables.

Camels, loaded down with people and possessions, sit and stand placidly among the dusty crowds of a Tangier marketplace in an 1873 painting by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933). No different from any other curious bohemian of his day, Tiffany traveled widely to exotic places and was greatly attracted to the colors and customs of the Orient, especially Morocco. The painting's lush details foreshadow the young artist's future fame for his opulent interiors, Art-Nouveau glass pieces and decorative objects.

National Museum of American History

Where else would you climb aboard a camel in the United States—but on a children's carousel ride?
Children have been climbing aboard delightful carousel animals since carousels, or merry-go-rounds, were first made in America in the late 1860s. Hand-carved from basswood in the 1880s by leading carousel maker Charles Dare in his New York Carousel Manufacturing Company, this camel is an "outside stander," unlike the jumping animals in the inner rings that move up and down. The camel's modest lines and simple detail are an excellent example of Dare's popular Country Fair style.

Camels are one of the most desired figures collected by carousel enthusiasts, along with pigs, lions and dogs.

The camel is part of the large collection of carousel animals, shop figures and weather vanes in the Eleanor and Mable Van Alstyne Collection of American Folk Art in the Division of Cultural History at NMAH, and was acquired in the 1960s.

National Air and Space Museum

Ever wonder how the Sopwith Camel got its name?
One of the most successful planes used by the British in World War I, the low-flying Camel got its name from the famous hump on its fuselage, which contributed to its round-shouldered appearance, accentuated by the fairing ahead of the plane's cockpit. However, it was so difficult to fly, that more men lost their lives learning how to fly it than in actual aerial combat. Rolled out in 1916 by the Sopwith Company, the Camel was the first British aeromachine of its class to have two Vickers guns attached as standard flight equipment.

Smithsonian National Zoo

Come visit Sake and Camille, a pair of camels who've been delighting zoogoers for years. Meet Brenda Morgan, their keeper.
I'll never forget the first time I ever laid eyes on Bactrian camels. The animals were exotic and immense, dark brown and shaggy, and loaded with an absurd amount of baggage. It was 1971, and I was with my father who was on a Peace Corps assignment in Afghanistan. There, in that austere landscape with the mountains of the Hindu Kush in the distance, these towering two-humped creatures were serving their keepers as they had since before the time of Marco Polo.

I didn't know then that I would one day count among my closest friends a pair of Bactrians, named Sake, a male, and Camille, a female. Both are 14 years old and were born at North American zoos. I have worked with Sake and Camille for about ten years, and during that time I have come to know them and they to know me. The camels can pick me, and a few of their other keepers, out of a crowd of hundreds of Sunday afternoon visitors. My fellow keeper, Ann Armstrong, taught Sake to come up to the fence and open his mouth so that we could show visitors his teeth. Camels have canines, which you would not expect in an herbivore. They are ruminants and will chew their cud like a cow. They produce copious amounts of saliva, but I have only once heard of our animals spitting on a person. It was a veterinarian whom Sake was not fond of having around, and he let him know about it.

For some reason Sake has this thing for pigeons. He doesn't hurt them, but when he has the chance, he gently corrals a pigeon in his stall, holds it down with his lips and then gives it a big sloppy lick, coating the poor bird with a load of sticky camel saliva. I like pigeons, so I rescue the slimy birds, too gooey to fly. I wash them in the sink, put them in a box to dry, then turn them loose. As far as I can tell this is just something weird Sake likes to do.

We camel keepers avoid going into the enclosure with the animals. Perhaps it is the way she was managed as a youngster, but Camille chases people from her enclosure, and trust me, it's best to avoid a chance encounter with 1,800 pounds of determined camel. Several years ago we had a tremendous ice storm that caused problems all around the region. More than an inch of glossy ice blanketed the entire Zoo. Cold weather is no problem for fur-insulated camels, but the slippery footing was another matter. Camille had gotten stuck at the bottom of the hill in the camel yard. Sake had managed to get up the ice-covered slope by turning and walking up back-end-first, a neat trick. But Camille would slip and fall whenever she tried to negotiate the slope. We were terrified that Camille would injure herself.

Desperate for some way to help Camille, I found an old pair of cleated golf shoes in a locker. With these spikes I slowly worked my way down the ice-covered hill, all the while feeling a bit apprehensive of what the territorial female camel might try to do. While keeping a watchful eye on the nervous Camille, I was able to surround her with hay that she could eat and use for bedding. The hay seemed to settle her down. As darkness approached, I looked around for something to lay down to improve traction on the ice. My eyes fell on a 40-gallon garbage can of camel dung. As a keeper I never thought I'd see the day when I would shovel manure back into an exhibit, but I did. The following morning Camille was able to get back up the hill and into the stalls, where she and Sake stayed until the ice melted.

To say Sake loves to eat would be an understatement. One look at that rotund belly of his rubbing both sides of a 40-inch doorway is proof this animal is motivated by food. When the commissary delivers bales of hay to the back gate of the exhibit, I move them by wheelbarrow to storage inside the camel barn. Sake's favorite is alfalfa hay, grown at the Zoo's Conservation Center near Front Royal, Virginia; and if a passing wheelbarrow stacked with alfalfa hay happens to catch Sake's attention, he'll snatch the 60-pound bale in his teeth as effortlessly as picking up a grape. In addition to the alfalfa, we feed grass hay, a pellet mix of grains, roughage and supplements; we give them tree limb browse, carrots and apples too. Sake eats lots of alfalfa, so he gets fewer pellets than Camille does, but Camille is reluctant to eat apples. I think it's because we used to hide wormer in apples, and she quickly figured out that we were messing with her food. Both animals love to eat fallen tree leaves, even dried brown ones. They relish these crunchy leaves like they were potato chips, and it certainly makes for less leaf raking inside the exhibit.

Our camels are oblivious to Washington's weather. They sleep outside on the coldest nights, and their remarkable coats insulate them from winter's chill. When I arrive on winter mornings, I sometimes find the pair asleep in their outdoor yard, having spent the night under the stars—the tops of their humps and the hair on the tops of their heads white with frost. They are so well insulated that the snow or ice will not melt on their backs. When they shed their coats in the spring, the tangled hair falls off in mats. Visitors have seen this tangled pile of hair on the ground in the camel yard and then chased down a keeper to report a dead animal in the exhibit. When you handle this soft hair, you have an immediate sensation of warmth. Its superb insulating ability prevents the loss of heat from your hands, and its effectiveness is instantly apparent.

After the camels shed in preparation for summer, tiny flies can drive a ton of camel indoors—even on a beautiful sunny day. When the flies are bad, the camels like to spend their time inside their darkened stalls, where fewer of the biting insects will pursue them. Of the two, Camille seems to be more susceptible to flies, which will often bite her forelegs until she bleeds. We use a citronella spray as a repellent. When these flies are feeding, I can sympathize with Camille, since they'll also bite a keeper in short pants. This past summer, late in the season, we experimented with releasing ant-size wasps that parasitize fly eggs. With the help of these wasps, both Camille and I had fewer fly bites on our legs, and next year we hope to get an early start with this biological method of fly control.

We will likely never have reproduction in our pair of camels. Camille has some medical problems that make breeding her unadvisable. She favors one leg, and as she has gotten older she has become a bit unsteady. Sake has always gotten around a little better. Perhaps nothing is more unusual to see, though, than a male camel in rut. Sake comes into rut in midwinter, and it's easy to tell by the odor. I don't know if the urine becomes stronger smelling or if there is simply more of it to smell. When in rut, Sake squats slightly, holding his moplike tail between his legs urinating on it until it is saturated. Next, he whips his tail up over his haunches, slapping it on his back with a smack, and droplets of pungent urine fly in all directions. His long hair gets soaked, and he seems to be acting supremely self-assured, looking down on the people and camels around him like a crown prince walking into a palace ball. He's back to his typical chowhound self in about five weeks.

Camels are usually the C word found in many children's alphabet picture books, and there have been times at the Zoo when I've seen a 2-year-old excitedly point out and identify a camel for a parent laboring behind a stroller. I like to tell the kids that you can remember that a Bactrian camel has two rounded humps just like the letter B, for Bactrian. And the dromedary camel has one rounded hump, like the letter D, for dromedary.

To make way for the American Prairie exhibit, Sake and Camille were moved to a nice paddock near the Small Mammal House. Their care was shifted to the keepers at the Lion House, and sadly I and my fellow primate and panda keepers no longer have the pleasure of working with the camels. But they still pick me out of the crowd and watch my every move.

There's an artificial mountain at the back of the new camel yard. It in no way compares to the grandeur of the Hindu Kush. But, when I stand along the railing with a crowd of zoogoers, and Sake and Camille come and find me in the crowd, I feel like I share in a long history of generations of camel keepers like those I saw in Afghanistan.

Smithsonian National Zoo

It was around 2500 b.c. that people began to use camels as beasts of burden. Meet Melinda Zeder and learn more.
Pioneer settlers in Australia were not the first to use camels to cross vast wastelands. In fact, more than 4,000 years ago, people in two different parts of the Middle East began a partnership with these desert-adapted animals that reshaped the course of human history.

Around 2500 B.C., in the far eastern reaches of present-day Iran, people began using the two-humped Bactrian camel as a beast of burden to carry both themselves and their goods. At about the same time, tribal peoples of the Arabian Peninsula, who had hunted the native one-humped dromedaries for thousands of years, began to use these animals in similar ways. It is probably no coincidence that when archaeologists found evidence for camel domestication in these two distant places, they also found evidence of a flourishing trade network that linked the Indus Valley civilization with Mesopotamian city-states clustered along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers of today's Iraq.

Some of the trade between these two powerful civilizations took a seaward route across the Indian Ocean. However, there were still large stretches of arid land that separated these two centers from Indian Ocean ports. There was also an overland route that linked these people, but it crossed the formidable salt deserts of the high Iranian plateau.

And this is where the camels came in. Camels are able to convert thorny desert shrubs and salty plants into highly nutritious food. They need little water for themselves, and they can carry large loads of people, goods and extra water. These abilities opened up barren lands that had once served as barriers to travel. Nomadic tribes that had previously eked out a modest living in these harsh areas now became major forces in both commerce and warfare throughout the Middle East.

Indeed, the rapid spread of Islam out of the Arabian Peninsula and across the large swath of territory from North Africa to Indonesia can be attributed at least in part to the use of these surefooted desert animals by early adherents of the teachings of Muhammad.

Detecting Lies

Smithsonian Magazine

An early form of lie detection existed in India 2,000 years ago. Back then, a potential liar was told to place a grain of rice in his mouth, and chew. If he could spit out the rice, he was telling the truth. If he could not, that meant fear of being caught had parched his throat, and his deceit was confirmed.

Since that time, scientists have searched for a truth tool more reliable than Uncle Ben's—one that can separate fibs from facts with the push of a button. Such a device could slash trial length, aid job screeners and protect borders. The person to fashion this magical instrument—as precise as DNA, and far more applicable—would shift the entire landscape of forensic discovery. It could create a gap in the dictionary between "periwinkle" and "perk," where "perjury" once stood, and a crater in the TV Guide, where "CSI" and all its spin-offs once reigned supreme.

But each advance in the field of lie detection has met with a hitch. Polygraph machines have drawn considerable scientific scrutiny and remain inadmissible in courtrooms. Functional imaging has pinpointed which areas of the brain become active when people lie, but the results are based on group averages and become less accurate when a single person is tested. Even people with incredibly accurate facial analysis skills, so-called lie detection "wizards," were called into question last month in the journal Law and Human Behavior.

What follows is an overview of the long and continued struggle to find the perfect lie detector.

The Polygraph

In the early 20th century, Harvard psychologist William Mouton Marston created his "systolic blood pressure test," more commonly known as the polygraph machine. Marston's hodgepodge of gizmos included a rubber tube and a sphygmomanometer—that childhood favorite the pediatrician wraps around a bicep and inflates with each squeeze of an egg-shaped ball. Polygraph 101 is clear enough: a person has typical levels of heart-rate, respiration and blood pressure when answering a basic question like "Is it true you live at 520 Elm Street?" If these levels remain the same during questions such as "Did you kill Jane Doe?" then the person is telling the truth. If not, he or she is lying.

Despite its reputation as the default lie detector, the polygraph has never received much credibility. In 1922, a federal judge ruled that Marston's device could not be used in a murder case; it did not hold "general acceptance" among the scientific community, wrote Justice Josiah Alexander Van Orsdel of the United States Court of Appeals. This decision, known as the "Frye standard," has essentially kept the polygraph out of courtrooms ever since.

In 2002, the National Academy of Sciences orchestrated a massive review of the polygraph. The Academy concluded that the tool was not consistent enough to be used as a screening device when hiring national security employees. The physiological responses measured by the machine can be the result of many factors other than lying, including mere nervousness.

"There are many people who will speak in favor of the polygraph," says William Iacono, who is a professor of psychology and law at the University of Minnesota. "The argument is, if the government uses it 100,000 times a year, how can it be so wrong? The reason they believe it is because of the nature of the feedback they get. Occasionally, people fail the test and they're asked to confess, and they do. But if a guilty person passes, he doesn't turn around on his way out and say: ‘Hey, I really did it.' They never learn of their errors, so they don't think there are any errors."

In the end, Marston's reputation made out better than that of his machine; he went on to earn fame as the creator of Wonder Woman.

The Guilty Knowledge Test

In the late 1950s, modern deception research took a new turn, when psychologist David Lykken of the University of Minnesota adapted polygraph interrogation with his guilty knowledge test.

A typical polygraph question asks a suspect whether he or she committed a crime. The guilty knowledge test focuses its questions on knowledge that only a perpetrator would have. Say, for example, you stole a purse from a woman wearing a bright green dress. A polygraph examiner might ask: "Did you steal the dress?" A good liar could control his response and pass the exam. Lykken would ask two questions: "Did you see a green dress?" and "Did you see a blue dress?" Regardless of your answer, the mere mention of the incriminating detail would cause a noticeable blip in your physiological reactions.

In 1959, Lykken published the first study showing the effects of this method. He had some 50 subjects enact one or two mock crimes, while others enacted none. Then he asked everyone to take a guilty knowledge test. Based on physiological responses, Lykken correctly categorized about 90 percent of the subjects, he reported in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

One of the subjects, it so happens, was a Hungarian refugee who had twice fooled the KGB about his anti-Soviet involvement. After a 30-minute interrogation, Lykken had identified which of the two mock crimes this subject had committed.

Image by Reuters / Arnd Wiegmann. A researcher tests a polygraph machine. (original image)

Image by iStockphoto. A lie detector based on functional imaging, often called fMRI, allows scientists to monitor lying in real time. (original image)

The P300

One day in 1983, the phone rang in J. Peter Rosenfeld's psychology lab at Northwestern University. It was a CIA agent. He wanted to know if Rosenfeld would run the agency's new lie detection program.

Rosenfeld froze. How did the CIA know he had planned to start researching deception? After all, he had only told a trusted colleague, and his mother. But it soon became clear that the agent had been calling several researchers in the hopes of luring one to direct the new program. Rosenfeld declined but recommended a promising graduate student, and for the next several months, broad-shouldered men in suits popped out from behind trees on Evanston's north campus.

Finally, the agency decided to hire the student. She flew to Washington, D.C. and took a polygraph test as standard job-screening procedure. But as her husband and children prepared for a new life, she failed the test on a question about her sexuality and lost the job, Rosenfeld says. "It was a simple case of the polygraph making a mistake, but the CIA has to be more safe than sorry," he says. "At that point, I said we might as well try to have one [a lie detector] that's based on science."

Rosenfeld settled on a method that combined Lykken's guilty knowledge test with brainwave research performed by Columbia University researcher Samuel Sutton. In the 1960s, Sutton had discovered that human brains show a burst of activity 300 milliseconds after a person sees a distinct image. Rosenfeld's premise was simple: If a woman wearing a green dress is robbed, then the perpetrator's mind will store an image of the dress, and his brain will respond a certain way when later confronted with this image.

The basic science behind the idea is not much more difficult. Brain cells emit electronic signals in a rhythmic, up-and-down pattern. These signals can be recorded from a person's scalp, and the resulting sequence of peaks and dips is called a brainwave. One of these waves, the P300, swoops enormously when it recognizes an image. The "P" aspect stands for positive, and the "300" refers to the number of milliseconds the wave occurs after recognition.

In 1987, Rosenfeld tried his P300 test on ten subjects. Each subject "stole" one item from a box of nine desirables. By actually touching the item, subjects formed a bond with the object that would result in a P300 response, Rosenfeld predicted. The subjects then watched names of the items flash across a monitor. When non-stolen items appeared, the brainwaves showed up normal. But when the stolen item flashed on the screen, the subject's brainwave formed a distinct P300 response.

The main advantage of this method over the traditional polygraph is striking: deception is implied without the suspect saying a single word. In fact, the P300 cannot even be considered a lie detector. "You're looking at recognition, not lying," Rosenfeld says. "However, I think the inference is justified if you take the proper measures."

In the 1990s, a scientist named Lawrence Farwell combined the guilty knowledge test and the P300 technique to create a commercial lie detector called Brain Fingerprinting. In 2000, Brain Fingerprinting almost gained admission to the courtroom during an appeal of a murder case in Iowa. (A district court judge rejected the appeal but ruled that the technique could have been admissible. A State Supreme Court judge eventually upheld the appeal, but did not take Brain Fingerprinting results into account.)

But a drawback of lie detectors based on the P300 method is that investigators must work very hard to find unusual items that only the criminal would have seen. Take the case of the bright green dress. If that dress is truly unique to the crime, the suspect will produce a powerful P300 response. But if the criminal's wife happens to wear a lot of green dresses, the P300 wave could be blunted down to regular size.

Functional Imaging

Functional imaging, often called fMRI, allows scientists to monitor brain activity in real time. Subjects are wheeled on a padded platform into a noisy magnetic resonance imaging machine that scans their brains every two seconds in search of increased neural activity. A small mirror allows them to see and react to prompts shown on a screen outside the machine. Meanwhile, from another room, investigators collect brain activity for statistical analysis.

The first fMRI study of lie detection to receive widespread attention was published in 2002 by Daniel Langleben of the University of Pennsylvania. Langleben handed his subjects a playing card—the five of clubs—before sliding them into the MRI machine. He encouraged them to deny having the card, offering a $20 reward for those who successfully deceived the machine, which was more than enough incentive for his undergraduate subjects.

During the test, subjects saw various playing cards on a screen and pushed a button indicating whether or not they had the card being shown. Most of the time, when subjects denied having the card on the screen, they were telling the truth. Only when the five of clubs appeared was the response a lie.

Langleben compared truthful brain activity with deceptive activity and found that a person's mind is generally more active when lying. This result suggests that truthfulness might be our default cognitive status, and that deception requires additional mental effort.

But a lie detector based on functional imaging would suffer from a few potentially fatal flaws. Critics of the method often point out that functional imaging results are averaged from a group, not based on individual subjects. Such a limitation causes obvious problems in the world of criminal law.

In the fall of 2005, Langleben found encouraging evidence that functional imaging can detect deception on an individual basis. Using a modified version of his previous test, Langleben reported being able to correctly classify individual lies or truths 78 percent of the time. His results are the first evidence that functional imaging can detect deception for an individual person regarding an individual question. Still, 78 percent accuracy, while promising, is far from fool-proof.

Wizards

While driving on a dark night in northern California, Maureen O'Sullivan listened to J.J. Newberry, a former agent in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, discuss how he had been betrayed by a friend. Newberry seemed very upset by the incident, and very involved in the telling of it, O'Sullivan recalls. Then, suddenly, Newberry asked O'Sullivan to pull over. In the middle of his engrossing story he had spotted a man slumped over behind the wheel of a parked car across the street.

Such preternatural awareness has helped make Newberry a lie detection "wizard," says O'Sullivan, who coined the term with her colleague Paul Ekman at the University of San Francisco. The distinction is a select one: in 30 years of testing, the researchers have found fewer than 50 wizards. These people score in the upper ranks on a battery of deception tests developed by Ekman and O'Sullivan.

"These people are super hunters," O'Sullivan says. "What they see is unbelievable."

Ekman and O'Sullivan began testing for people who could identify deception with great accuracy in the late 1980s. They eventually settled on series of three tests. The first involves spotting people lying about their feelings. For this test, potential wizards watch a videotape of ten women, half of whom are lying about their current emotions, half of whom are telling the truth.

The second test shows ten men describing an opinion they have, and the third shows ten men discussing whether they had stolen money. Again, in both cases, half the people are lying and half are telling the truth.

For a person to become a wizard, he or she must first correctly identify nine people in the emotional test, then go on to identify at least eight people in one of the two other tests. As of 2003, having studied more than 10,000 people, the researchers had found just 29 wizards. That number has grown to about 50, O'Sullivan said recently.

Many wizards spent time in the Secret Service, says O'Sullivan. The practice of scanning large crowds for odd behaviors has honed their acuity. Whereas regular people make a quick decision when watching the test videotapes, wizards hold their final analysis until the end, tracking intonation changes, word choice and eye gaze. Therapists also score high on the tests.

Social psychologist Charles F. Bond Jr. of Texas Christian University is unconvinced. Bond believes the wizards are mere statistical outliers—the eventual result of testing thousands of people on the same task.

"They presented the fact that a small number of people did well out of a huge number of people who took the test, as evidence that those people had a special skill, "says Bond, whose argument was published online recently in Law and Human Behavior. "If a lot of people play the lottery, someone wins."

Before government and legal agencies begin consulting these wizards, Bond would like to see outside sources conduct additional tests on them—a measure of validity that O'Sullivan says is now in the works.

But even with additional tests, perfection will have to wait until the next generation lie detector. To date, says O'Sullivan, nobody has scored perfectly on all three tests.

Discover Norway's Epic Coastline

Smithsonian Magazine

Norway’s coast is the landscape of legends. Fjords tower over bright blue waterways, colorful fishing villages hug rocky shores, Sami tribesmen herd reindeer to pasture and polar bears roam past Viking burial grounds. From Bergen in the south to the Arctic town of Kirkenes, a trip up the coast embodies the best of Norway: majestic and ever-changing scenery, with history present at every turn. Each season offers a new set of spectacular experiences: Hike past rushing waterfalls and over wildflower-dotted mountain passes in spring, cruise into famously beautiful Geirangerfjord in summer, watch migrating whales in the fall and in winter sit back for the nature’s best sky show – the Northern Lights.

For more than a century, Hurtigruten Cruises has introduced passengers to the magic of Norway's coast and is proud to be offering this experience to Smithsonian Journeys travelers beginning in 2018. Explore some of Norway’s most unique coastal destinations in the map above, and click through the slideshows below to discover why a trip up Norway’s coast is a must any time of year.

Spring

Image by CH/VisitNorway.com. The fruit orchards of Hardangerfjord are a popular place to see spring blossoms. (original image)

Image by CH/VisitNorway.com. (original image)

Image by Skiinformarmatie.nl. Spring melts mean stunning waterfalls along the coast. (original image)

Image by Terje Rakke/Nordic Life/VisitNorway.com. Kayakers enjoy warm weather in Bergen. (original image)

Image by Asgeir Helgestad/Artic Light AS/VisitNorway.com. From April through September, one million puffins nest in the grassy hills of Gjesværstappan. (original image)

Image by Andrea Giubelli/VisitNorway.com. Admire Art Nouveau architecture on a spring walk through Alesund. (original image)

As April melts into May and June, waterfalls begin to flow more heavily, snow disappears from hiking paths, and flowers begin to carpet the mountains. The days get warmer and lighter, and Norwegians emerge from their winter quarters to explore the new scenery. Hunting for blossoms is a favorite pastime, especially in Kristiansund—home to more than 20,000 flowers—and the fruit orchards of Hardangerfjord. Spring is also prime birdwatching season. Take a boat safari to Gjesværstappan, the nesting grounds of more than one million puffins, or hike to Hjelmsøystauren, which boasts the highest number of bird species gathered on a mountain in all of Europe. Here, you’ll find kittiwakes, common guilllemots and razorbills among other birds. In March, head to Bodø to witness the world’s strongest tidal current, Saltstraumen.

Summer

Image by Tmasz Furmanek/VisitNorway.com. The extended day makes virtually endless activities possible, like sea kayaking at night. (original image)

Image by Avani/VisitNorway.com. Hike to Svartisen glacier near Bodø. (original image)

Image by ManfredStromberg.com/VisitNorway.com. Or cycle through the countryside in Lofoten. (original image)

Image by CH/VisitNorway.com. You can even go dog sledding. (original image)

Image by Eirik Jensen/Flickr Creative Commons. In the summer, Bodø Golf Park is open 24 hours. (original image)

Image by Pedal-Power-Photos/iStock. Fog rolls in to North Cape, Europe's northernmost point. (original image)

Image by Harvepino/iStock. In his 1894 novel Pan, Norwegian author Knut Hamsuns wrote of the midnight sun: "Night was coming on again; the sun just dipped into the sea and rose again, red, refreshed, as if it had been down to drink. I could feel more strangely on those nights than anyone would believe." (original image)

Image by Frithjof Fure/VisitNorway.com. A boat treats passengers to midnight's starburst colors. (original image)

Image by Pedal-Power-Photos/iStock. Campers go to bed with the sun still in the sky. (original image)

Image by Frithjof Fure/VisitNorway.com. Take the Tromsø cable car up to a mountain ledge and watch the sun hovering over the peaks of Ringvassøya Island. (original image)

The phrase “eternal summer” takes on new meaning when it comes to Norway’s coast. Days stretch long into the night, and above the Arctic Circle, the sun never sets. In northern towns like Tromsø, watch the sun linger on the horizon in a frozen sunset radiating brilliant shades of red and gold over the Barents Sea. Even as far south as Bergen, nights are often so bright that you can take pictures without a flash. The extended daylight makes virtually endless activities possible. Sail through the legendary Geirangerfjord past gushing waterfalls and abandoned farmsteads, hike to Svartisen glacier, climb the twin-peaked Svolværgeita mountain, or play golf in the middle of the night at Bodø Golf Park. To end the day, do as the locals do and head to an outdoor beer garden. 

Fall

Image by m_dickson/Foap/VisitNorway.com. Autumn in Aurlandsfjorden (original image)

Image by Håvard Myklebust/VisitNorway.com. Light illuminates Hjørundfjord. (original image)

Image by Alex Conu/VisitNorway.com. Fall temperatures are perfect for hiking. (original image)

Image by molarleo/Foap/VisitNorway.com. Mushrooms are a common sight trailside. (original image)

Image by Mattias Fredriksson/VisitNorway.com . You may even find a few berries. (original image)

Image by Asgeir Helgestad/Artic Light AS/VisitNorway.com. A humpback whale dives under the rose-gold hues of sunset. (original image)

Image by Asgeir Helgestad/Artic Light AS/VisitNorway.com. Witness nearly 4,000 reindeer swim across the mile-plus wide Magerøy Strait. (original image)

Image by CH/VisitNorway.com. Visit a Sami camp and learn how they have made use of nature's "pharmacy and pantry." (original image)

Beginning in October, the lush greens of summer transform into rich hues of red, yellow and orange. This spectrum of color, combined with cooler temperatures, make autumn the perfect time for hiking. Head to Hjørundfjord, one of Norway’s most pristine fjords, for spellbinding views. Thanks to its steep cliffs, the area has been hard to cultivate and nature left to its ways. Fall is also a great time to learn about the close relationship of the Norwegian people to the land. Visit a Sami camp to learn how the reindeer herders use Arctic flora to prevent pain and discomfort, or go on an Arctic bushcraft harvesting excursion to learn how coastal inhabitants have harvested, stored, hunted and fished for centuries. Out on the water, see whales make their annual migration to warmer waters, and at Honningsvåg, witness nearly 4,000 reindeer swim across the mile-plus wide Magerøy Strait. 

Winter

Image by Alex Conu/VisitNorway.com. Come night, the lights of houses glow like embers and green wisps appear in the sky. (original image)

Image by CH/VisitNorway.com. Dog sledding is a popular way to enjoy the Norwegian winter and its light shows. (original image)

Image by Gaute Bruvik/VisitNorway.com. Northern lights dance over the Tromsø Bridge and Arctic Cathedral. (original image)

Image by bogdanhoria/iStock. Witness the northern lights through the ceiling-high glass wall of Tromsø’s Arctic Cathedral during a candle-lit midnight concert. (original image)

Image by Samuel Taipale/VisitNorway.com. Camping under the northern lights in Lofoten (original image)

Image by zettel/Foap/VisitNorway.com. Tromsø wakes up to a winter scene. (original image)

Image by Alex Conu/VisitNorway.com. Snow dusts a fishing village in Lofoten. (original image)

Image by FotoKnoff. Sun sets on the village of Reine. (original image)

Image by Terje Rakke/Nordic Life/VisitNorway.com. In lieu of dog sledding, opt to ride in reindeer sledge guided by a Sami tribesman. (original image)

Image by Gaute Bruvik/VisitNorway.com. Northern lights fill the sky above the Kvaløya wilderness. (original image)

In the winter, nights get longer, and towns in the extreme north can see days without a sunrise, known as “polar nights.” But these days of darkness aren't without a light show. Electromagnetic radiation causes shades of green, blue, yellow, red and orange to dance across the sky, beckoning photographers and thrill-seekers from around the world. For a true Norwegian experience, set out to hunt the lights in the wilderness of Kvaløya on a Sami reindeer sledge, dog sled or snowmobile. Far from artificial light, you will feel transported in time. At Tromsø’s Arctic Cathedral, witness nature's show through its ceiling-high glass wall during a candle-lit midnight concert. In Kirkenes, embrace the frigid weather to the fullest by spending a night in a hotel made almost entirely out of ice and snow. Fishing enthusiasts will enjoy the world cod fishing championship at Svolvaer, where the world’s largest catches of cod are made from January through April, and in February music lovers flock to Kristiansund’s annual Opera Festival, based out of Norway’s oldest opera house.

*   *   *

Discover more of Norway's epic coast with Hurtigruten

Don't Miss Jupiter Shine Bright Tonight

Smithsonian Magazine

For any stargazers pining for a glimpse at Jupiter, tonight is the night to break out the telescope. Earth is just about to pass directly between Jupiter and the sun, making this the brightest that the gas giant will glow in the night sky for the entire year.

Starting at 6 AM on March 8, Jupiter will directly oppose the sun, appearing to rise as the sun sets. So as long as skies are clear, the planet will show off its sparkling face after nightfall and will continue to be easily spotted from dusk till dawn for several days. At its peak, the giant planet will appear brighter than any other stars and the second-brightest planet after Venus.

Jupiter will also be at its closest tonight, meaning even those without telescopes can get a great view, Geoff Gaherty writes for Space.com. To find it, just look for Leo. Right now, Jupiter lingers in the southern regions of the constellation, shining nearly 30 times brighter than the nearby star Regulus, Deborah Byrd writes for EarthSky.org.

If Jupiter alone isn't enough of a treat, its moons should provide plenty of entertainment. Upwards of 60 different moons orbit the gas giant, but are usually too tiny to spot with the naked eye. The four largest moons (Io, Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa) are visible alongside Jupiter even with just a set of binoculars. First observed by Galileo Galilei in 1610, the four moons, which are known as the “Galilean Moons,” are some of the solar system’s most intriguing objects.

According to NASA, Io is the most volcanically active object in our solar system, and is shrouded in thick clouds of multicolored sulfur. Europa, on the other hand, is cloaked by a thick sheet of ice, which astronomers believe may cover a massive ocean of liquid water or slushy ice—a potential spot for lurking life.

Callisto has the oldest landscape in the solar system and is riddled with craters that can provide astronomers with a physical record of our planetary system's earliest days. Meanwhile Io is the largest moon in our solar system and is the only one that generates its own magnetic field.

With a small telescope aimed at the sky, eagle-eyed viewers can watch as the four moons zip through their orbits around the giant planet. On the night of March 14, almost week after Jupiter enters opposition, stargazers will get a chance to see Europa and Io transit in between Jupiter and the Earth, with Europa beginning its journey at 9:27 P.M. EST, and Io following shortly after at 10:12 P.M, according to Astronomy Magazine.

Although Jupiter enters opposition once a year, the exact timing varies because of differences between Earth’s orbit and the gas giant’s. It takes about 13 months for the Earth to get back in position between Jupiter and the sun, which means that each year opposition occurs a month later than the year before.

So cross your fingers for a clear night and point your eyes to the skies to catch Jupiter shining bright.

Door County, Wisconsin, Night

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Dutch Calendar Medal

National Museum of American History
This relatively large silver calendar medal, inscribed in Dutch, consists of two discs with cutaway sections that reveal scales on central, slightly larger, silver disc between them. All three discs are riveted together at the center. One side shows a landscape, including a windmill. Below it, perpendicular to the image, is a table that lists symbols for planets next to names of the days of the week. Thus a symbol for the sun is next to the word Sondagh, of the moon next to Maendagh, of Mars next to Dingsdagh, of Mercury next to Wonsdagh, of Jupiter next to Donderdagh, of Venus next to Vrydagh, and of Saturn next to Saturdag. A cutaway along the edge next to the names of days of the week reveals seven consecutive numbers on a scale on the middle disc that runs from 1 to 31 – hence the dates corresponding to the weekdays. The other side of the middle disc has four concentric scales, each is divided into twelve parts. The outermost sections each show a signs of the zodiac and a number between 9 and 12. One is visible through a window in the lowest disc. Text adjacent to this window reads: CALENDARIUM PERPETUUM. The next circle going inward on the middle disc lists the months of the year and the number of days in that month. The third circle going inward on the middle disc has numbers ranging from as low as seven to as high as seventeen. One window on the lowest disc showing this scale is labeled “Nacht langh”, and indicates the length of night. An opposite window, showing the length of day is labeled: Dagh langh. The opposite numbers always add up to 24. The innermost scale on the middle disc also is shown in two windows, one showing the time of sunrise and the other the time of sunset. These times range from 3 ½ to 8 ½.. Opposite numbers always add up to 12. At the center of the instrument, pierced by the rivet, is an image of what might be a sandglass, with wings. The instrument is unsigned. It came to the Smithsonian from the collection of Henry Russell Wray. Compare MA.316924. Also compare number 99 in Ackermann’s catalog of calendar medals in the British Museum. She dates a similar calendar medal to the seventeenth century. Reference: Silke Ackermann, “Maths and Memory: Calendar Medals in the British Museum Part II,” The Medal, Spring, 2005, vol. 46, esp. pp. 10-11. Object 99 described here has catalog number 1958,1006.2453 in the collections of the British Museum.

Early Moonlight, Capri, [photomechanical print]

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
(Printed on image:) Copr. Detroit Publishing Co. / 029662.

(Label on back, stamped and inscribed:) Library of Congress / Copy Received 2/21/1910 / Copyright Entry / Class J XXc. No. 138742 / Copy B Delivered to Prints Division / 43992 / Coleman, Charles Caryl / Early Moonlight, Capri.

EcoCenter: The Land

Smithsonian Magazine

We are excited to present a special editorial section about The Land.  Please visit www.smithsonian.com/ecocenter for the full feature.

Image by iStockphoto. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska
The dramatic tidewater glaciers that define this 3.2-million-acre park are remnants of the Little Ice Age that began about 4,000 years ago. With 16 active glaciers, Glacier Bay is the park's main attraction. As recently as 200 years ago the bay was almost completely covered by a glacier more than 4,000 feet thick and some 20 miles wide. But as it retreated over the years, it left behind smaller, separate glaciers. (original image)

Image by Jim Sugar/Corbis. Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
From lush rain forests to tropical beaches and snow-covered peaks, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park protects seven different ecological zones and houses the world's most active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. The more active of the two, Kilauea, has created more than 568 acres of new land and buried almost nine miles of highway with lava as deep as 115 feet. (original image)

Image by iStockphoto. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Perhaps the most iconic park in the U.S., Yellowstone National Park is famous for having the greatest concentration of geothermal features in the world. Geysers, steaming fumaroles, multi-colored hot springs and boiling mud pots make up the 10,000 known thermal spots in the park. Old Faithful is one of the most popular, regularly shooting 8,400 gallons of scalding water into the air every 33 to 120 minutes. Congress officially protected the Yellowstone area in 1872, making it the first American park and the only preserve of its kind in the world. (original image)

Image by iStockphoto. Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Located in the biologically diverse Florida Everglades, Big Cypress National Preserve protects more than 720,000 acres of swamp and provides habitat for many mammals, birds, reptiles and plants unique to Florida's climate. It's also home to eight federally listed endangered species that include the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, the West Indian manatee and the Florida panther. The Florida panther is the most threatened mammal in the U.S., and almost 40 of them live within the preserve's boundaries. (original image)

Image by iStockphoto. Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park in the desert of eastern Utah boasts more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches formed by wind and water erosion over millions of years. The red sandstone arches range in size from a three-foot opening to Landscape Arch, which measures 306 feet from base to base and is the longest freestanding natural span of rock in the world. Towering spires, fins and balanced rocks are also hallmarks of the park and some of the most unique formations can be seen at popular sites such as Balanced Rock, Courthouse Towers, Delicate Arch, and Fiery Furnace. (original image)

Image by David Muench/Corbis. Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri
The Ozark National Scenic Riverways is world famous for more than 300 known caves. The park's landscape is typified by karst terrain—rocky ground, springs, caves, sinkholes and underground rivers. Jam Up Cave is one of the Ozark's most spectacular, and it's only accessible by boat. The entrance is about 80 feet high and 100 feet wide. During the Civil War, Northern and Southern soldiers received medical care in Hospital Cave, located in a bare-rock cliff, while farmers in the surrounding area are also thought to have used Meeting House Cave as a hideout. (original image)

Image by David Muench/Corbis. Fossil Butte National Monument, Wyoming
Located in southwestern Wyoming's cold sagebrush desert, Fossil Butte National Monument contains 13 square miles of Fossil Lake. This 50-million-year-old lake bed dates back to the Eocene age and is one of the richest fossil sites in the world. It contains some of the most perfectly preserved remains of ancient fish, reptile, bird, mammal, plant and insect life. A combination of quiet, deep waters and fine-grained lake sediments created conditions that kept the skeletons intact. (original image)

Image by Hal Horwitz/Corbis. Name: Resurrection fern (Selaginella lepidophylla)
Habitat: Deserts of Mexico and the southwestern United States
Strange Factor: During frequent droughts, it folds up its stems into a tight ball and goes into a state of dormancy that can last for years. When the rains return, the plant's cells rehydrate, its metabolism increases and the stems unfold. (original image)

Image by Reuters/Corbis. Name: Corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum)
Habitat: Equatorial rain forests of Sumatra, Indonesia
Strange Factor: The flowers only bloom about three or four times during their 40-year lifespan, releasing a horrible stench that's been compared to the odor of rotting meat. (original image)

Image by iStockphoto. Name: Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)
Habitat: Nitrogen-poor environments, like bogs, in the Carolinas and northern Florida
Strange Factor: This carnivorous plant catches and digests insects and arachnids when two trigger hairs, called trichomes, on the leaves are touched in succession, or when one hair is touched twice. The two lobes of the leaves then snap shut, usually in less than a second. The plant secretes enzymes that digest the prey over ten days, after which the leaf reopens to prepare for another meal. (original image)

Image by Frank Krahmer/zefa/Corbis. Name: Strangler fig (Ficus aurea)
Habitat: Tropical climates of southern Florida
Strange Factor: The strangler fig is vine-like and grows up a host tree, eventually strangling it and becoming a self-supporting, independent tree. The fig grows to massive size, averaging about 60 feet tall by 60 feet wide. (original image)

Image by Kevin Schafer/Corbis. Name: Sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica)
Habitat: Brazil
Strange Factor: Growing up to 18 inches, the plant is known for its movements. When the leaves are touched, they will droop downwards temporarily. The same thing occurs when the plant is shaken or deprived of water. Reacting to the absence of light, the leaflets fold together at night and droop downward until sunrise. (original image)

Image by Frans Lanting/Corbis. Name: Meat flower (Rafflesia arnoldii)
Habitat: Rain forests of Indonesia
Strange Factor: The meat flower has the world's largest bloom; it can grow up to three feet across and weigh up to 15 pounds. This is a parasitic plant that attaches itself to a host plant for nutrients. Like the corpse flower, the plant emits a smell similar to rotting meat when in bloom to attract insects that will pollinate it. (original image)

Image by Martin Harvey/Corbis. Name: Living stones (Lithops)
Habitat: Africa, mainly Namibia and South Africa
Strange Factor: During frequent periods of drought, the plants' thick leaves go below the soil level using contractile roots. The plant gets its name from its strange physical resemblance to stones. (original image)

Image by iStockphoto. Name: Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis)
Habitat: Wollemi National Park, 125 miles west of Sydney, Australia
Strange Factor: Prior to its 1994 discovery, the Wollemi pine was presumed to be extinct, only known to botanists through 90 million-year-old fossils. The conifer, or cone-bearing seed plant, can grow up to 112 feet tall and has dark green foliage and a bubbly bark. The pine is critically endangered—fewer than 100 mature trees currently live in Wollemi National Park. (original image)

Image by Frank Krahmer/zefa/Corbis. Name: Bottle tree (Adansonia digitata)
Habitat: From sub-Sahara Africa to South Africa
Strange Factor: The bottle tree is not particularly tall, only reaching about 70 feet. But the tree's name comes from its colossal trunk, which can grow 35 feet in diameter and resembles the shape of a bottle. The trunk—or trunks, as many old trees have more than one—is used to store water during dry periods and can hold more than 1,000 gallons. (original image)

Watch this video in the original article

Watch this video in the original article

Image by Cheryl Carlin. (original image)

Ecuador, Land of Malaria, Iguanas, Mangoes and Mountains

Smithsonian Magazine

This sign just north of Tumbes is a clear sign, if the mangroves aren’t, that one is entering the muggy, and in some ways dangerous, tropics. Photo by Alastair Bland.

We Enter Malaria Country The desert gave way to the muggy climes of the tropics, at last, in the northernmost 50-mile stretch of Peruvian coastline south of Ecuador. We had been pedaling past cacti in the morning and hadn’t seen a sign of a mosquito in Peru—until that afternoon, when we passed a billboard reminding travelers to defend themselves against malaria. We noted the warning—but anyone who has toured on a bicycle knows that stopping to dig through panniers is a chore best deferred until a later time. “We’ll take our malaria pills tonight,” I shouted to Andrew. Thirty feet ahead of me, he answered with a thumbs up.

Near dusk, we turned toward the coast to stay the night at Puerto Pizarro. We headed down the side road and noted signs for mangrove swamp tours. We realized that malaria country had sneaked up on us—bad news when preventative pills are to be taken daily beginning 24 hours before arrival in the malaria region. Entering town, we encountered a pair of cops who waved us to the side of the road and warned us to get inside quickly, before it got dark. “Ah, yes—mosquitoes,” I said. “No—people here will see the gringos and try to rob you,” one of the men answered. They directed us to a hotel. After paying, we hurried across the courtyard to our room—a separated cabin with three beds and a bathroom for $20. Andrew fumbled with the key. “Quick, there are mosquitoes,” I said. He dropped the keys as he slapped one on his arm. “Bug spray!” he yelped and unzipped his pannier. I went into my own saddlebag for my malaria pills. I shook out two of the shiny red tablets and handed one to Andrew along with some bubbly water. He said, ”I don’t think this is textbook malaria prevention,” but took the medicine anyway. We opened the door, shoved in and slammed it behind us.

We were in the tropics. A brief warm rain fell that night, and in our bungalow beds, sweating in the humidity, we studied our map. We had just 20 kilometers to the border. We would be in Ecuador by noon.

The wild, rapturous foliage of the breadfruit tree—native to the Pacific islands—is a common roadside sight in the lowland regions of Ecuador. Photo by Alastair Bland.

We Enter Ecuador The next day, after passport control, the landscape transformed dramatically and rapidly. Large trees with splayed out trunks like buttresses stood grandly in fields, outliers of the rainforest. Other trees, with huge and voluminous canopies, grew on one side of the Pan-American Highway while their long, graceful branches dropped fruit pods on the other side. Banana orchards began, and continued for miles. Scattered among them were cacao trees, with large football-shaped red pods hanging from the branches, and vast sugar cane fields. Breadfruits dangled from elegant but wildly prehistoric-looking trees 70 feet tall with leaves like fan palms. Large green iguanas skittered across the road. Road-killed animals the size of sea otters with shiny black tails lay on the shoulder—some sort of jungle beast we couldn’t recognize. And while plant life fought for elbow room on almost every square foot of soil, that supreme conquistador of invasive species grew in groves—the eucalyptus tree. The people looked and behaved differently than in Peru, too. There was an obvious African origin in many of the locals we greeted as we rode. They honked their horns less—much less—as well. We also encountered more and more men and women carrying machetes, pocketknives of the jungle. Several miles to the east, across the banana plantations, the Andes began as an abrupt bluff blanketed with forest and disappearing into the rain clouds. Roadside households offered direct sales of fruits grown in the backyard. Avocados, watermelons, mangoes and pineapples lay in piles outside front doors, as did Pepsi bottles full of sugar cane juice. We needed money, and in a town called Pasaje we approached an ATM by the main square. I entered and removed my card, typed in my pin and waited for what riches would emerge. The machine sputtered and rumbled and emitted a smashing surprise—American dollars.

At a roadside banana shack, the author checks out the selection of fruit-flavored homemade traga, or sugarcane liquor. Photo by Andrew Bland.

We found beautiful bunches of bananas for sale at roadside fruit shacks—and they were hilariously cheap. A cluster of 25 red bananas—the specialty sort that fancy groceries in the States sell for $1.80 per pound—cost us 50 cents. The same shack was also offering traga, cane sugar-based alcohol infused with different fruits, like grape, apple, watermelon and cacao. We bought a bottle of banana traga and moved onward. We stopped for lunch under a bus shelter, and a local man named Antonio came out of a home with his two kids to meet us. We asked him about local fauna—especially bears and jaguars. Long ago these animals occurred here, he said, but people have shot them all. “But up there, jaguars and bears still live,” Antonio said, pointing toward the mountains.

Here, the author has only just begun one of the hardest climbs in Ecuador on this sunny day. The mile-high town of Pallatanga lies in the background, while ahead, the highway climbs for 30 steady miles. Photo by Andrew Bland.

We Enter the Andes Our destination was Quito in five days, and after 200 miles of pedaling through Ecuador’s muggy, hot lowlands, our road led into the Andes. Our spirits rose with the altitude, and we realized we’d been sorely missing the mountains for two weeks. But cycling in the Andes is not quite like cycling in other ranges. In the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Rockies, the Sierras, the Toros—in nearly any range of large mountains in the world, a cyclist can say with certainty after several hours of hard climbing that the top of the pass is near. Not so in the Andes, where even the lower of the many mountain passes are higher than the highest summits of other ranges. Climbing from La Troncal over the mountains and eventually into the so-called Avenue of the Volcanoes, we saw an amazing transformation of the land. Whereas the lowlands teemed with bananas, iguanas, mangoes and malaria, two miles above we saw country with a strong resemblance to Mediterranean Europe. Cows grazed on green mountainsides among scattered pines. Trout streams flowed out of the canyons. Plum and apple trees grew in yards. The clouds broke occasionally, offering staggering views of the land’s vertical relief. Vast chasms plummeted into V-shaped stream valleys, towns and shacks clinging to the slopes, while the peaks vanished above into the fog. At several points we were able to see what lay ahead—miles and miles more of steady ascent, with no switchbacks in sight.

Descending trucks spewed the smell of burning brake pads. Motorcyclists dropping out of the high country were bundled up like Ernest Shackleton. The summit, obviously, was still hours away. But the monotony, the gasping for air, the slow, slow pedaling, our aching necks—it all finally ended as we crested out on the top of the pass. Trucks, buses and cars honked their congratulations. We believe the elevation there was about 12,700 feet. On the north side were checkerboard farms and villages scattered over rolling hills and looking like Ireland. Beyond, the titans of the Andes loomed, snow-covered volcanoes three miles high and more. The summit of Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador at 20,500-something feet (sources give varying heights), hid behind a veil of clouds. Due to the shape of the Earth and its equatorial bulge, Chimborazo’s peak is the Earth’s closest point to the sun.

Andrew Bland stands at 12,700 feet, on the pass between Pallatanga and Rio Bamba. The northern horizon is seen in the background. Photo by Alastair Bland.

Speaking of the sun, it does amazing things in Ecuador’s highlands. Its path leads it high overhead every day of the year, coaxing plant life into bloom that could never live at such altitudes elsewhere. We saw fig and avocado trees sagging with fruit at almost 10,000 feet—an elevation at which even pine trees struggle to grow in the middle latitudes. And whereas grapevines go dormant each winter in most places, farmers in Ecuador—and winemakers—may harvest two crops per year. The sun is so powerful here that it even burned us through our T-shirts.

Up Next: We Enter the City of Quito

Electrical Building at Night, Chicago Fair, 1933

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Elk Grazing on an Autumn Prairie

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Encounter in the Darkness

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Enter Here

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Etna

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Evening Recreation

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Evening at Paestum [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
"Vassar College of Art Gallery, Paintings, 1300-1900," Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar College Art Gallery, 1983.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

Gift of Matthew Vassar.

Evening at Paestum [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Photograph taken by Paul Juley in Feb. 1966.

Digitized image was taken from damaged photograph.

"Vassar College of Art Gallery, Paintings, 1300-1900," Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar College Art Gallery, 1983, pg. 37.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

Gift of Matthew Vassar.

Evening in Vermont [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Photograph taken by Paul Juley in June 1963.

Negative marked 229.

"Vassar College Art Gallery, Paintings, 1300-1900," Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar College Art Gallery, 1983.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.
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