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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted Date: 
Friday, May 24, 2019 - 04:45
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Smithsonian American Art Museum

(Underpass--New York)

Smithsonian American Art Museum
The street and sidewalks are empty; not a person, car, or even a stray dog is to be seen. What is the viewer supposed to see in this unpopulated street illuminated by glowing street lamps? Do the yellow street sign and the modest fireplug have some unexpected significance? The real subject of the painting turns out to be a newly built underpass designed to safely route cars under the train tracks in Binghamton, New York. During the 1930s several underpasses around Binghamton were upgraded by federal and New York State agencies working to improve city infrastructure while providing employment to those thrown out of work by the Great Depression. The stark lighting of street lamps at night shows off the clean lines of the freshly cast concrete as if the underpass were a modernist sculpture or an elegant new office building. The Smithsonian owns two other paintings documenting railroad underpasses built elsewhere in the country during the same era. All three were painted by Smithsonian American Art Museum artists working over photographs printed on canvas. Through documentary projects of this kind civil works became allied to artworks, providing employment for builders and artists alike.1934: A New Deal for Artists exhibition label

(Untitled) (Nightscene of Park in a City)

Smithsonian American Art Museum

10 Unexpectedly Scenic Places in Austria

Smithsonian Magazine

From remote, wild valleys to rushing waterfalls and sparkling blue ice caves, Austria’s landscape is as diverse as it is jaw-dropping. Its scenery inspires exploration at every turn, and there are countless ways to get close to nature, from panoramic cable cars to world-class ski slopes to Europe’s highest suspension bridge. Fuel your wanderlust now with these 10 awe-inspiring locations.

1) Kaisertal: the valley without cars

Image by Ferienland Kufstein. Sun sets over the secluded Kaisertal Valley. (original image)

Image by Ferienland Kufstein. Last year, Austrians voted the nature preserve the most beautiful spot in Austria. (original image)

Image by Kufsteinerland. Visitors must park at the nearby town of Kufstein, as no roads lead through the valley. (original image)

Image by Ferienland Kufstein. Stop by a remote alpine inn for a midday meal and try homemade schnaps, or fruit brandy. (original image)

Image by Ferienland Kufstein. At times, you may feel like you're the only person in the valley. (original image)

Image by Kufsteinerland. After visiting the reserve, drive to the nearby Fohlenhof Ebbs stud barn, cradle of the Haflinger horse breed. (original image)

Bordered by the quiet Kaiser mountains and dotted with remote Alpine inns, Kaisertal Nature Reserve is a well-kept secret. Only 39 people claim to live here, and visitors must leave their cars at the nearby town of Kufstein, since no roads lead through the valley. In 2016, Austrians voted the Kaisertal to be the most beautiful spot in the country. In the reserve, enjoy views of the imposing 13th-century Kuftsein Castle and surrounding peaks with nary anyone in sight. Be sure to stop by the Alpengasthof Pfandlhof and Veitenhof inns and enjoy generous cheese spreads or handcrafted schnaps. In the afternoon, take a ride at the nearby Fohlenhof Ebbs stud barn, the cradle of the Haflinger horse breed. Managed by the oldest breeder in the business, it features a museum and outdoor riding space.

2) The mythical Green Ring circular hiking trail

Image by Lech Zurs Tourismus. Encounter hidden installations and sculptures depicting Austrian folk tales along The Green Ring trail. (original image)

Image by Lech Zurs Tourismus. Stay a night in the wooden bivouc at the foot Bullhole Head and wake up to unadulterated nature. (original image)

Image by Lech Zurs Tourismus. Soak up the beauty of Zürsersee Lake. (original image)

Image by Osterreich Werbung. Or take a cable car to the top of Rüfikopf for scenery straight out of a fairytale. (original image)

Running through Lech-Zürs am Arlberg is an enchanting, circular trail known as The Green Ring. Along the way, encounter hidden installations and sculptures depicting giants, wizards and witches from Austrian folk tales. Journey up to the Rüfikopf by cable car, gaze out over secluded Zürsersee Lake or picnic in the mystical "Sagenwald" forest of fables and let nature bewitch you. To truly experience this fairytale, stay in the wooden bivouc at the foot of Bullhole Head for a night, and wake up to panoramic views.

3) Arlberg: the cradle of alpine skiing

Image by TVB St. Anton am Arlburg. Arlberg is known around the world for its world-class skiing. (original image)

Image by Lech Zurs Tourismus. Its slopes have attracted ski enthusiasts for more than a century. (original image)

Image by Lech Zuers Tourismus, Joseph Mallaun. Sometimes it is hard to know where the mountain ends and clouds begin. (original image)

Image by Foto Burger Wolfgang. The Flexenbahn cableway connects multiple villages in Arlberg, making it the largest ski resort in Austria and one of the largest in the world. (original image)

Image by TVB St. Anton am Arlberg, Sepp Mallaun. Families can enjoy a plethora of outdoor activities in addition to skiing. (original image)

Image by TVB St. Anton am Arlberg. A chalet lights up a snowy nigh in St. Anton. (original image)

Located high in the Alps of western Austria, Arlberg is often referred to as the “Cradle of Alpine Skiing.” With over 100 years of skiing tradition, it is Austria’s largest and most historic ski resort. Slopes blanketed in snow stretch for miles, and it is sometimes hard to know where the mountain ends and clouds begin. Purchase an Arlberg Ski Pass for access to 87 cable cars and lifts throughout the region. More experienced skiers can test their endurance on “The White Ring,” a legendary 14-mile ski circuit linking several villages.

4) Styria’s rolling vineyards

Image by Steiermark Tourismus / Harry Schiffer. Tasting rooms line the South Styrian Wine Road. (original image)

Image by Steiermark Tourismus / Rainer Fehringer. Styria's hillside views merit a visit in and of themselves. (original image)

Image by Steiermark Tourismus / Harry Schiffer. Pack a picnic of charcuterie and pastries, and wash it down with a cold glass of wine. (original image)

Image by Archiv TV Kloch. Digest with a walk amongst the vines. (original image)

Less than an hour’s drive from Graz lies the rolling vineyards of Styrian wine country. Stop into a local wine tavern and enjoy fresh bread, as well as brettljausn—platters of smoked meat, cheese, spreads and pickles—along with an assortment of wines. A favorite is the Schilcher​, made as spicy rosé or sparkling wine. Round out the day with a visit to one of the many pumpkinseed oil mills or head to a restaurant back in Graz and enjoy local wines with dinner.

5) Central Europe’s tallest waterfalls

Image by OeAV Sektion Warnsdorf. A rainbow forms over Krimml Waterfalls. (original image)

Image by Located in Hohe Tauern National Park, they are the tallest falls in Central Europe. (original image)

Image by TVB Krimml. Approaching the falls from the village of Krimml, you will first see a glacial creek plunging over three tiers. (original image)

Image by Nationalpark Hohe Tauern. A hike up the falls promises spectacular scenery. (original image)

Passing through Hohe Tauern National Park, you can't miss the Krimml Waterfalls. The tallest in Central Europe, their sheer power amazes and merits an up-close look. Approaching the falls from the village of Krimml, you will first see Krimmler Ache, a glacial creek plunging over three tiers. Keep walking up to 4,216 feet, and you’ll arrive at the powerful Middle Falls. Here, take a break at Schönangerl Restaurant before ascending another 1.5 hours to the top of the falls. If you have time left over, head to the adjacent WasserWunderWelt, an aquatic theme park exploring water in its countless forms. 

6) The world's largest ice caves

Discovered in 1879, Eisreisenwelt is the largest ice cave system in the world. Thanks to unique air circulation conditions in the cave, spring melt water freezes into majestic natural ice sculptures and formations known fondly as the "Ice Giants." From May through October, you can strap on a headlight and explore this otherworldly scene. Your first stop will be the Posselt Tower stalagmite in the Posselt Hall, followed by the Great Ice Embankment, rising an impressive 75 feet. Keep an eye out for the stalactite formation known as the Ice Organ.

7) Stunning Hohe Tauern National Park

Image by SLTG. View of the Dachstein mountain range from Bad Gastein, the renowned high-valley spa town of the Hohe Tauern National Park. (original image)

Image by SalzburgerLand Tourismus. A woman relaxes in a hot spring at Entspannen resort in Bad Gastein. (original image)

Image by SLTG. The Salzach River runs through Hohe Tauern National Park. (original image)

Hohe Tauern National Park is the largest nature reserve in the Alps. It counts 266 mountains that stand over 9,800 ft, 551 lakes, and about 250 glaciers. The best way to experience Hohe Tauern’s untouched expanse is by going to the visitor’s center in Mittersill and setting off on a hike with one of the knowledgable park rangers. You’ll discover rare Alpine flowers, ibex, marmots, eagles and vultures in an unbelievable landscape. Pick wild blueberries and herbs in sweeping meadows, and enjoy the views from one of Hohe Tauern’s breathtaking summits.

8) Innsbruck’s vertigo-inducing Nordkette mountains

Image by Innsbruck Tourismus/Christopf Pertold. The view from Seegrube (original image)

Image by Christof Lackner. To reach Nordkette, first take the funicular, designed by star architect Zaha Hadid, from Innsbruck. (original image)

Image by @innsbrucktourismus. Next, hop on the Nordkette cable car to Seegrube. (original image)

Image by Tom Braus. Mountain biking is a popular activity in the warmer months. (original image)

Image by Innsbruk Tourismus. The Nordkette cable car runs year-round. (original image)

Innsbruck is known as the Capital of the Alps for a reason. The majestic Nordkette mountains surround the city and can be reached in 20 minutes by cable car. Take the funicular, followed by the Nordkettenbahn cable car, to Seegrube for fantastic views of the city. Continue on to Hafelekar station and hike 10 minutes to the summit at 7,500 feet. From the summit, you’ll see Austria’s largest nature park to the north, and Innsbruck to the south. On the way down, enjoy a traditional Austrian lunch and panoramic views at the Seegrube restaurant, and stop at Alpenzoo, Europe’s highest-altitude zoo.

9) World Heritage Site: Hallstatt

Image by Viorel Munteanu. Hallstatt is Austria’s oldest and perhaps most photographed village. (original image)

Image by Osterreich Werbung/Sebastian Stiphout. Visitors enjoy a boat ride. (original image)

Image by Oberosterreich Tourismus. The village is nestled between the Dachstein mountains and Lake Hallstatt. (original image)

Image by Osterreich Werbung / Sebastian Stiphout. Many Hallstatt residences have access to the lake. (original image)

Nestled in the heart of the Sazkammergut lake region, Unesco-listed Hallstatt is Austria’s oldest and perhaps most photographed village. Framed by mountains and the glassy water of Hallstätter See, it boasts a 5,000-year old history. No cars are allowed through the village, preserving its pastoral qualities. Though beautiful at ground level, some of the best views of Hallstatt are from above. Take the cable car from Obertraun across the lake and walk to the “5 Fingers” platform, which extends like an outstretched hand 1,640 feet above the lake. Here, soak up views of the surrounding waters and Styria’s highest mountain, the fabled Dachstein. From the cable car, you can also reach Salzwelten Hallstatt, the world’s oldest salt mine. Opt to enter the mine via slide.

10) The ancient Dachstein glacier

Image by Osterreich Werbung. Walk out on to the glass Staircase to Nowhere and stare down at the imposing Dachstein ridge. (original image)

Image by Osterreich Werbung. The view from Dachstein glacier (original image)

Image by Osterreich Werbung. Hikers explore the glacier. (original image)

Image by Osterreich Werbung. A metal lattice suspension bridge hovers 1,312 feet in the air. (original image)

Image by Osterreich Werbung. After exploring the glacier outside, step inside the Ice Palace and wander past colorful ice sculptures. (original image)

Covering Styria’s highest mountain in a layer of blue frost, Dachstein Glacier is a sight to behold. From the lush valley at the foot of the mountain, take a panoramic cable car up 3,000 feet and watch the scenery transform into misty clouds and sheer cliffs. If you’re feeling adventurous, ride on the roof of the gondola surrounded by a secure balcony. Once at the glacier, walk out onto the "Staircase to Nowhere" skywalk, and look down through a glass panel at the jagged edges of the Dachstein ridge, or cross the metal lattice suspension bridge to Hoher Dachstein. At 1,312 feet, you’ll feel suspended in air. After you've finished taking in the view, step inside the Ice Palace and wander past its colorfully lit ice sculptures.

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Discover more incredible landscapes in Austria.

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10 most-read blog posts of 2015

National Museum of American History

Judging from our blog readers' favorite posts this year, military history is a popular topic. But you also kept some space on your reading list for 1930s delicacies and long-lost amusement parks.

1) An atlas of self-reliance: The Negro Motorist's Green Book
Read over 18,800 times, this post explored the dark side of the all-American road trip during the Jim Crow era. African American families on vacation had to be ready for any circumstance, should they be denied lodging or a meal in a restaurant. The Negro Motorist's Green Book helped "black motorists travel safely across a landscape partitioned by segregation and scarred by lynching," as guest blogger Jay Driskell put it.

Photograph of brown top hat

2) A closer look at President Lincoln's silk hat
Not just any hat, we're talking about the silk top hat Lincoln wore to Ford's Theater on the night he was assassinated. After the assassination, it spent 26 years in storage. Rich with details, this touching blog post by curator Harry Rubenstein has been read over 16,900 times.

Photo of table with white lace table cloth and many entree dishes on plates

3) Tasting the 1930s: An experiment with congealed salads and other one-dish wonders
Yes, it's a delight to work in a museum … right up until your boss asks you how you like the tomato aspic with vegetables she made after finding the recipe in a 1930s cookbook.

4) The delicate "war laces" of World War I
Thanks to a German blockade, seven million Belgians were cut off from important food and supplies during World War I. Lacemakers to the rescue!

5) A mother's solace: A letter from a World War I enemy 
The leader of a German balloon squadron writes to the mother of an American soldier he killed, sending Sallie Maxwell Bennett on an overseas quest to locate her son's remains and memorialize him.

6) What does LaGuardia Airport have in common with piano manufacturer William Steinway's long lost amusement park?
Bowery Bay Beach was also known as "The Coney Island of Queens" and it sounds like a fun family getaway.

7) The battlefield cross
The first appearance of the "battlefield cross" is a matter of conjecture.

8) The surrender at Appomattox Court House: 150th anniversary
Though just under 200 words, the terms of surrender for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia includes some interesting details. For example, Confederates who owned their own horses were allowed to keep them to plant spring crops.


9) Remember the Lusitania: 3 pieces of World War I propaganda
In 2015, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the British ship Lusitania by a German U-boat, an event that preceded America's entrance into the war.

10) 5 fascinating facts about Alexander Graham Bell that aren't about the telephone
Did you know that Bell's actual voice was recorded 130 years ago, and you can still listen to it today?

As the manager of the blog, I'm lucky enough to have time to read all of our posts, so I thought I'd recommend a few of my personal favorites from 2015 that you may have missed.

Curator Alexandra Lord's blog post on early days of anti-vaccination sentiment in America blew me away. I had no idea that this issue had such deep roots and was fascinated by the story of posterchild "Little Belema."

You know how everything stops when a dog or baby visits your office? We enjoyed a visit from not just any pup but an actual war hero. Thanks for stopping by, Fausto

When I decided I wanted to work in a museum (a revelation that took place at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain), I imagined amazing behind-the-scenes experiences. Watching experts work closely with incredible objects was exactly what I had in mind. Our blog post on the conservation of General William T. Sherman's flag is as close as a non-museum-employee may get. 

This year has seen increased discussion on how we deal with mental health issues in America. For some fascinating historical context, I recommend this post on how Patrick Henry (of "Give me liberty, or give me death!" fame) dealt with his wife's mental health challenges. 

I learned to flirt using instant messenger while young people today text their feelings to each other, illustrated with copious emojis. Curator Harold Wallace's blog post reminded me that technology has always shaped how we send messages of love and affection. If I could send you all a CandyGram to thank you for reading our blog, I would. 

Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department.

Posted Date: 
Friday, December 18, 2015 - 11:45


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11 Fun Facts About Rio

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The French once held it for ransom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. It hosted the world's biggest soccer game

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

9. The city put QR codes in its mosaic sidewalks

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

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

10. Street art is legal there 

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

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

11.  It has a Carmen Miranda Museum 

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

12 Unique Ways to Experience Armenia Off the Beaten Path

Smithsonian Magazine

If you are like most first time visitors to Armenia, you are sure to tour the ancient monasteries, explore the national museums and visit the historic brandy factories. But there are many amazing things to do in Armenia beyond the usual guidebook highlights. This past summer, I had a chance to visit Hayastan​, the Armenian name for the country of Armenia, and step off the beaten path. I found myself soaring above alpine lakes, forming ceramics with local artisans and wandering through dusty shafts of light in an abandoned Soviet textile factory. Here are a dozen extraordinary ways to experience Armenia to the fullest.

1 | Paraglide Over Lake Sevan

(V. Grigoryan)

Soar through the skies paragliding above the mountains by Lake Sevan, the largest lake in the Caucasus. Gardman Tour arranges expert guides, many of whom have competed internationally, to provide equipment and tandem instruction for novices. It’s a thrilling and unique way to get to know the Armenian landscape. 

Float through the comfortable sunshine (the region averages 256 days of sun per year) and over rocky hills dotted with patches of wildflowers. In the distance, you can see the town of Sevan and the village of Lchashen. Farther off, high above the lake, spot Sevanavank Monastery, founded in the 9th century by Princess Mariam, and beyond that the mountain peaks of the Lesser Caucasus. 

2 | Discover Prehistoric Petroglyphs

(C. Rapkievian)

Surrounding a small sparkling glacial lake at about 10,500 feet above sea level near the top of Mount Ughtasar, prehistoric petroglyphs, dated 2,000 BCE to - 12,000 BCE, are carved onto the flat surfaces of manganese boulders left behind by an extinct volcano.

The petroglyphs were initially studied in the 1960’s, and archaeological research is still ongoing. Due to the site’s high elevation, the remarkable carvings are covered with snow nearly nine months of the year making them accessible only in summer months. Off-road vehicles take visitors through rocky fields full of flowers and butterflies that flit through the crisp mountain air. Celestial symbols, animals, hunters and even these dragons (pictured above) are evidence of the lives and imaginations of ancient ancestors.

3 | Create Porcelain Ornaments with Ceramics Masters

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

Visit the ceramics factory of Antonio Montalto. Master artists may even teach you the extraordinary technique of making a decorative egg. The clay is attracted to the porcelain mold creating the hollow form. After the first firing, the egg is decorated with glaze and then fired a second time to create a beautiful ornament.

4 | Explore a Mysterious Monolith

(C. Rapkievian)

Explore the mystery of Karahunj, an ancient site with a circle of placed stones. Astronomers theorize that this 7,500-year-old archeological site is a celestial observatory pre-dating England’s Stonehenge by more than 4,500 years. Two hundred lichen-covered basalt stones stand tall and approximately 80 of them have small holes that align with bright stars in the night sky.  A desolate, windswept site off the main road near the village a Sissian, visit Karahunge (literally translated as “speaking stones”) at dawn or dusk to experience its powerful beauty.

5 | Forge Iron in a Historic City

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

In the artistic city of Gyumri, visit the Irankyuni Forge to learn to create a wrought-iron souvenir with the expert guidance of a master blacksmith. Heat the iron in the hot fire and then hammer, with sparks flying, to gradually bend the metal. Historic blacksmithing tools can be seen in the Dzitoghtsyan Mansion Museum of National Architecture and Urban Life, and ironwork can still be found with the black and red tuff stone architecture around this centuries-old “city of arts and crafts.” Top off your visit to the forge with a delicious dinner next door at the blacksmith’s family-owned restaurant.

6 | Explore Spectacular Geological Formations in Mozrov Cave

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

Discover flowstone, stalactites, stalagmites, pristine rock “popcorn,” “soda straws,” “bacon-rind” and “draperies” while exploring Mozrov Cave, one of Armenia’s most decorated. The karst cave was discovered in 1965 during road construction. The entrance partially collapsed due to heavy snowfall in 2012, but the 300 meter cave is still accessible.

The cave is ideal for intermediate-level recreational cavers on their own and novice cavers with a guide. Discover Armenia Tours organizes excursions and provides hard-hats, head-lamps, flashlights and transportation to explore this wild and well-preserved cave located in Vayots Dzor province.

7 | Step Back in Time in an Abandoned Soviet Textile Factory

(C. Rapkievian)

Explore an abandoned Soviet textile factory in the Vayots Dzor Province deserted in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. The site sits frozen in time with yarn still threaded in machines, lockers filled with photos and tools and folktale murals on the wall of the factory-workers’ children’s day-care. The now-silent rooms can be toured with the local owner in arrangement with Discover Armenia Tours.

8 | Join a Public Sing-a-long

(C. Rapkievian)

Sing along at a public song workshop at the new Komitas Museum-Institute in Yerevan. The “Lullabies” workshops (held every-other month on selected Saturdays) recently won the “Best Practice Award in Museum Education” from the International Council of Museums.  On other Saturdays, the workshops feature seasonal songs that Komitas, a celebrated ethnomusicologist who is considered the founder of the Armenian national school of music, collected and arranged.  Knowledgeable staff teach each line of the song and visitors of all ages are encouraged to lift up their voices in Komitas’s sometimes spiritual, sometimes playful folk songs.

9 | Cook Up Traditional Recipes

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

Cook delicious gata and other Armenian treats with TV-cooking-show star Zara Karapetyan, director of Tasty Tour.  Under the trees, next to her herb garden and orchard, stir-up the ingredients, roll out the dough and cook the sweet bread in a tonier, a traditional oven usually buried in the ground.  Then dig in to a delicious lunch of local Ushi village favorites!

10 | Spot Rare Birds in Lake Arpi National Park

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

An extraordinary number of species of birds - over 350 - can be found in Armenia because even though the country is small, there is a great range in elevation and diversity of landscape. Luba Balyan, a noted ornithologist, forest ecologist and founder of a bird conservation organization in Armenia, is one of several field researchers who lead exciting bird-watching tours aimed at both devoted birders and the casual tourist. 

One particularly rich site to visit is Lake Arpi National Park in the northwestern corner of Armenia. Over 190 species of birds have been recorded in the park, including the globally threatened Dalmatian pelican, Egyptian vulture and European roller. Other birds include greater spotted and imperial eagles, red-footed and saker falcons, great snipes and semi-collared flycatchers. Plus, the park hosts one of the world’s largest colonies of Armenian gulls.

11 | Hear Ancient Chants in Geghard Monastery

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

Listen to sacred chants in the ancient monastery of Geghard, located in the Upper Azat Valley. The Unesco-recognized site is partially carved out of the colorful rock cliffs and hosts a healing spring in the oldest chamber.  The Garni Ensemble is one of the incredible a capella groups that performs by special request. In the near-darkness inside the tomb of Prince Papak, the acoustics are extraordinary – nearly a 90-second reverberation. The haunting harmonies of the 5-member ensemble sound as if you are hearing a 100-member choir.

12 | Sip Modern Wine Made With Ancient Techniques

(C. Rapkievian)

Celebrate with a visit to Trinity Canyon Vineyards in the Vayots Dzor highlands. The region's high altitude, sunny skies and volcanic soils create a unique terroir that the vineyard founders say allows for the cultivation of several wine styles. 

“Trinity’s main focus,” the founders say, “is to reveal the potential of Armenian indigenous grape varieties by drawing on the best organic viticulture practices.”  Using the Areni grape, the winery produces a wine that has been described as “silky, powerful, with refreshing acidity.”  

The Voskehat, another prominent grape endemic to Armenia, is used for their ancestral line of wines made in karases (ancient Armenian terracotta vessels). The resulting varieties range in style – from light and crisp to “bold, skin-macerated orange wines.” 

Their tasting area is a pleasant patio of rustic picnic tables near a garden set up for music and other special events with a demonstration vineyard on the hillside.  Raise a glass to toast executive director-poet-musician, Hovakim Saghatelyan, enthusiastic winemaker Artem Parseghyan and the rest of the staff as you reflect on the winery’s deep connection to the land and its gifts. 

With such marvelous and unique opportunities in Armenia, you will hope to return as soon as possible!


Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1934 Trav-L-Coach house trailer

National Museum of American History
The Cate family of Lakeport, New Hampshire purchased this trailer in 1936 to serve as their vacation home. Cars and highways had created vast new recreational opportunities, and during the Depression many families who were financially stable still enjoyed driving to remote scenic areas. The Cates, like other trailer owners, thought of touring as an extension of home life, and they could afford the security, comfort, and intimacy of a manufactured cottage on wheels.

Eben Cate was a rural mail carrier on a route through several villages near Lake Winnipesaukee. He earned two weeks of vacation time per year. In 1936 he saw this trailer in a showroom in Laconia, a few miles from his home, and purchased it for pleasure trips. Eben and Vernie and their children, Rudolph and Virginia, made one trip to Florida in their new trailer in 1937, staying one night in many different locations. Every summer during the 1940s, they spent a week at Decatur Motor Camp at York Beach on the southern coast of Maine. They kept house in the trailer, went for walks, and swam in the Atlantic Ocean. Vernie did the housekeeping — not much of a vacation for her, but a change of scenery nonetheless. The Cates also visited Vernie's relatives in East Corinth, Vermont and parked the trailer "out near the barn" with an electrical hookup. The wooden trailer came equipped with a bedroom, sofa beds, table, kitchen, closets, and cupboards.

House trailers were so appealing that thousands of itinerant people lived in them full-time in the 1930s. But early residential trailer camps had poor sanitary conditions and no landscaping. Some observers believed that traditional communities were threatened by the existence of these ad hoc, transient communities. Trailers created contradictory feelings of pride and disapproval —a far cry from the euphoric autocamping outings of the 1920s.

1939 World's Fair [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Alternate title transcribed from negative.

Katlan, Alexander W., "Salmagundi Club Painting Exhibition Records 1889-1929," Flushing, NY: Salmagundi Club, 2008, pg. 347.

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

Orig. negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

2:45 am Until Sunrise on Tet, the Lunar New Year, January 31, 1968, U.S. Embassy, Saigon, Vietnam (Looking North)

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Von Mertens's series As the Stars Go By depicts the position of the stars at specific violent moments in American history in which "what came before seems separate from what follows." With the aid of a computer, she manipulates empirical data into subjective patterns, making these distant events personal. She then meticulously translates her compositions into fiber, bringing the image forth stitch by stitch on hand-dyed fabric over the course of several months.

Connections: Contemporary Craft at the Renwick Gallery, 2019

4th graders' notes made a difference to Vietnam War soldiers

National Museum of American History

My main memory as a fourth grader in 1972-73 was playing "Little Willy" by The Sweet on the classroom's record player while waiting for the school bus to arrive. I also remember Wednesday nights in front of my grandparents' television, watching Walter Cronkite on the evening news talk about the latest developments in the Vietnam War. The war was far away, and, for a nine-year-old, that was enough to know. But for a certain fourth grade class taught by Jeryl Davis in the Yorkship School in Camden, New Jersey, the war was a bit more personal. It was the 1967-1968 school year when a bunch of nine-and-ten-year-olds adopted a platoon of soldiers serving in Vietnam, and the soldiers in turn adopted them.

The story of these unlikely pen pals began in 1967, when Mrs. Davis assigned homework to her students in the form of writing letters to soldiers in Vietnam. A local boy, Glenn Williams, was the recipient of these letters. Glenn was killed in action in October that year, and in response to his death the children began sending packages and letters to other members of Co. A, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry. The children donated their Halloween candy and sent it off; Christmas packages filled with cookies and other treats were put in the mail in November. They even recorded a tape of Christmas greetings and songs for the soldiers. In return, the soldiers sent Christmas cards to the children, and photographs of their Christmas celebrations in country.

Young, blond soldier with large gun, at a high point above a mountainous landscape

A military tent with "Merry Christmas" and decorations hanging over it

Each student was assigned a pen pal within the 4th platoon; some students wrote to several soldiers that January. Letters from the soldiers were read out loud to the rest of the class, and afterward pinned onto the board Mrs. Davis had created especially for the pen pal project. The members of the platoon sometimes sent small gifts to the children, usually insignia patches or pins.

Lined notebook paper with blue pen matching students with soldiers

Black and white photo of a young boy and girl, looking at a bulletin board, with a uniformed soldier

Yellow triangular patch with horse at top right, bar going diagonally across, and pins at the bottom

In February 1968, Co. A 4th platoon's leader, LT Eugene Moppert, was killed in a sniper attack near Hue, Vietnam. Word of his death reached Mrs. Davis, who gently broke the news to her students. The students were stunned. Some began to cry. It was unthinkable that one of their pen pals had been killed in action in a war so far away.

In June of that year, Eugene Moppert's widow Sandra came with her toddler daughter to Yorkship School, bearing a special gift. It was the flag that had been draped over Moppert's casket as he was laid to rest. She felt that the children should have it, as they had given so much happiness to Moppert and his men, so it was placed in a case and hung in the hallway of the school.

Flag folded triangularly in a wooden case with a gold placard at the bottom

This past August, an inquiry made to Smithsonian Visitor Services came to my attention. The inquirer, Bill Harrison, asked if the Smithsonian would be interested in collecting the casket flag, which was still hanging in the hallway in the Yorkship School. Bill had been a member of that long ago fourth grade class. He and another of Mrs. Davis' students, Kathie Cromie Gabriel, approached the Yorkship School about the possibility of donating the flag. The story of the flag had been lost over time, so the school agreed that it would be better off in the collections of the National Museum of American History.

An adult man and woman and a uniformed soldier stand in front of the flag case in a school hallway

Bill and Kathie each had treasures to donate related to their pen pals. Bill had letters and insignia from his pen pal SGT Joseph Meskaitis, which were still in the same box he had stored them in as a child. Kathie had several pen pals, and had kept those letters, but she also had a number of letters that had been given to her by Mrs. Davis. In addition to the students, the soldiers wrote regularly to Mrs. Davis and her husband Bob, and she had kept all the letters.

Battered white shoe box with letters in black script in front

Two letters and their envelopes

On November 14, 2014, Bill and Kathie came to the museum with the casket flag, the letters, and items sent by the soldiers. Also in attendance were some of the fourth graders and their families, SGT Joseph Meskaitis and his family, and Mrs. Davis, who flew in from South Carolina. Many of the students had not seen Mrs. Davis or each other for many years. The reunion was a great success. The former Yorkship School fourth graders of 1967-68 are together again, and the museum now has a collection of letters and mementos of the Vietnam War which remind us that the soldiers in Vietnam were young men a long way from home and in need of comfort, and found it through the innocent musings of fourth graders.

Ten adults around a table with the flag and boxes of letters

Kathleen Golden is an associate curator in the Division of Armed Forces History.

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96 Hours in Qatar

Smithsonian Magazine

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

Day 1

Morning: Visit Katara Village

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

Afternoon: Discover The Museum of Islamic Art

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

Evening: Stroll Through Souq Waqif

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

Day 2

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

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

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

Afternoon: Promenade on Doha’s Corniche

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

Evening: Cruise on a Dhow Boat

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

Day 3

Morning: Visit the New National Museum of Qatar

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

Afternoon: Tour Al Shaqab

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

Afternoon (Seasonal): Attend a Camel Race

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

Evening: See Art in the Middle of the Desert

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

Day 4

Morning: Kayak Through Mangroves

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

Afternoon: Visit Al Zubarah Fort

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

Evening: Reflect & Depart

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

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

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Dancer and a Scientist Deliver a New Take on the Moon Walk

Smithsonian Magazine

In his graduate school days at Arizona State University, Jim Zimbelman, emboldened by a student discount and an artist spouse, purchased the occasional pair of tickets for campus dance performances. One performance, which featured the work of trailblazing American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, left him mystified.

“I didn’t have a clue,” he says of that and the several other encounters with modern dance. For a scientist engrossed in the geologic interpretation of remote sensing data for a Martian volcano, the cultural gulf was vast. In those days, the Smithsonian planetary geologist says, “I wasn't thinking about art, I was thinking about rocks.”

But time has a way of serving up second chances. And so last May, the affable Zimbelman, who has worked at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., for the last 20 years and relishes the opportunity to interact with non-scientists, responded to an email that had bounced from queue to queue in museum channels: choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess, described by a Washington Post dance critic as the “poet laureate of Washington dance,” was in search of scientists to interview for his new dance work about space. Zimbelman, whose professional interests lean toward extraterrestrial sand dunes and volcanoes, recalls thinking, “Dance company? Sure! I'll see why he wants to talk to a scientist.”

In short order Zimbelman found himself face-to-face with Burgess, whose troupe, The Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company, has been a lauded presence on the Washington dance landscape for more than 20 years.  Each man confessed to a modicum of uncertainty about how such a conversation would unfold, but the exchange was exciting—even “fun,” as Burgess puts its.  “I think each of us came away from the visit having learned something about the other and about our different perspectives on this broad topic of space,” Zimbelman says. 

What Burgess learned will be revealed on Saturday and Sunday, September 19 and 20, at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, when he and his dancers premiere the new half-hour work, “We choose to go to the moon,” an exploration of the connection between human beings and space. The title alludes to the 1962 “Moon” speech delivered by President Kennedy and establishes for the piece a note of nostalgia—a nod to the early bold days of the space program and to the now-ebbing generation that led the way. Laced through the score are sound bites from Burgess’s interviews with scientists—Zimbelman and others—reflecting upon the mysteries and majesty of space.   

Just as chance played a role in bringing Burgess and Zimbelman into conversation, so, too, had it played a role in leading Burgess to the subject of space for his new dance. In fact, the connection was as random as a seat assignment on an airplane.

Last year, en route to visit his ailing father in New Mexico, Burgess and his partner found themselves chatting with their seatmate, a NASA communications manager, Barbara Zelon, who works on the Orion program. The meeting and subsequent conversations with Zelon fortified Burgess’s curiosity about how the relationship between humans and space could be articulated by dance.

On a more profound and personal note, however, during what became a series of visits over the final months of his father’s life, Burgess often found himself sitting outside his house, peering up at a clear night sky bedecked with stars and pondering existential matters of life and death, enunciated in his father’s waning days and writ large in the cosmos.

“All my projects have a personal interest factor,” Burgess says. “Something occurs in my life and I think, ‘This is fascinating—I need to learn more.’" As the idea of space—the nation’s 50-year commitment to exploration, the ever-burgeoning body of knowledge, the poignant image of a fragile Earth—took hold, Burgess reached out to scientists at NASA and the Air and Space Museum, exploring their own relationships, professional and personal, with space.

The work choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess crafted embraces both nostalgia and wonder, casting a wistful backward look at the space race and marveling at the scientific revelations of the present. (Photo by Mary Noble Ours)

While Burgess initially viewed these half dozen or so interviews as research, he came to see them as integral to the texture of his piece. “There was a passion and wisdom about their voices that I loved,” Burgess says of the scientists. “And their voices were so diverse—they sounded like music to me.”

Into the score, then, Burgess incorporated sound bites from his interviews with Zimbelman and NASA scientists, among them Neil Gehrels, an experimental astrophysicist who studies gamma-ray bursts and supernovae, and Bruce McCandless, a former astronaut who, in 1984, made the first untethered flight in space.

The work Burgess crafted embraces both nostalgia and wonder, casting a wistful backward look at the space race and marveling at the scientific revelations of the present. Popular songs of bygone years—“Stardust,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” and “Catch a Falling Star”—alternate with documentary elements like an excerpt of President Kennedy’s 1962 speech and a NASA recording of the magnetosphere.

Dancers Kelly Southall, Sarah Halzack and Alvaro Palau perform “We choose to go to the moon.” (Photo by Jeff Watts)

As the dance begins, the rising curtain reveals a line of dancers whose individual faces are tightly framed with light. To the melodious strains of “Star Dust,” they “toss” the lights toward the back of the stage and create a star field. When the work draws to a close, a lone figure remains on stage, gazing at an image of Earth diminishing slowly until it vanishes from view.

Of their meeting and his brief speaking part—an ominous reference to dark matter—in Burgess’s score for “We choose to go to the moon,” Zimbelman says, “It makes me consider my work in a different light—it makes me try to appreciate it not just as a scientist but as a human being. Who would have thought that, years down the road, I might somehow influence a choreographer?”     

For Burgess, the conversations with scientists left him with a sense not of the gap between science and art, but of the common ground: “They are using creativity in order to make discoveries. Like a choreographer, a scientist cannot reach for discovery without leaps of faith—a hypothesis of what could be.”

On Saturday, September 19, and Sunday, September 20, at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company presents Fluency in Four: three repertory works by Burgess—Picasso Dances, Mandala, and Confluence—and the premiere of his newest work, "We choose to go to the moon," created in collaboration with NASA. 

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

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

A Gothic Chapel Is Transformed Into a Spectacular Sky

Smithsonian Magazine

King’s College Chapel at the University of Cambridge is one of England’s iconic buildings. Started by Henry VI and completed by Henry VIII, it’s known for its Gothic majesty. Now, its visual merits also include an entire universe of stars—thanks to a breathtaking light show by digital projection artist Miguel Chevalier.

Chevalier was invited to the University of Cambridge to create artistic accompaniments for a massive fundraising event that featured speeches by the school’s famous professors and alumni. Using immersive projections, Chevalier helped the audience picture everything from neuroscience to physics, using only the vaulted ceiling of the university’s King’s College Chapel as a canvas.

Chevalier explains how his method works on his website:

For the event, Miguel Chevalier imagines a number of different graphic universes, which are generated in real time and use their own “digital” language to illustrate and interpret a wide variety of subjects...We discover [a] colourful living universe constantly renewed. Everything floats, branches out, appears and disappears, always turning into something else. Colored lines of light sketch out mental landscapes before our very eyes.

As if glowing brains and spinning suns weren’t spectacular enough, physicist Steven Hawking made an unannounced appearance at the end of the evening. As he spoke about black holes, Chevalier turned the entire chapel into a universe of stars. Given that Hawking has recently canceled many appearances for health reasons, the night was that much more special—and the chapel’s swooping, pulsing stars helped illustrate the phycisist's work like never before.

(h/t Bored Panda)

Image by Miguel Chevalier. (original image)

Image by Miguel Chevalier. (original image)

Image by Miguel Chevalier. (original image)

Image by Miguel Chevalier. (original image)

Image by Miguel Chevalier. (original image)

Image by Miguel Chevalier. (original image)

Image by Miguel Chevalier. (original image)

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