What makes America so beautiful?

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By George Stone, TRAVEL Executive Editor

You can fit a lot into the nearly 3.8 million square miles of the United States. Life lessons, family connections, joyful moments, and big dreams. The idea of home is explored, from sea to shining sea, in National Geographic’s new book America the Beautiful, a celebration in words and images of America’s 50 states, six territories, and Washington, D.C. The title takes its name from the patriotic poem, which dates to 1893. But as Walt Whitman might say, each American sings their own song.

“I grew up in sunny Southern California, where the avocados grow in backyards and no one seems to own a winter coat.” That’s Maya Rudolph, speaking of her home state. Barack Obama told National Geographic: “What’s best in me, and what’s best in my message, is consistent with the tradition of Hawaii,” he says. “No place else could have provided me with the environment in which I could not only grow, but also get a sense of being loved.” (Above, the moon and the aurora borealis shine just south of Alaska’s Delta Junction.)

LeBron James, in his mini-essay, spares the sentimentality. “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. No matter where I go in the world, Ohio will always be home.” Some hometown lessons are easier. “I used to lean on the parking meters and watch the girls drive by; some nights I even made it into their cars. At night, you could pick up radio stations from all over the country, and it made me feel like I was connected to the world. What a way to grow up in a small town,” writes John Mellencamp about his native Indiana. (Below, a basketball hoop at an Amish school in Millersburg, Ohio.)

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Home is where the heart is—to use an aphorism generally credited to first-century Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder—and much power can come from home. Eva Longoria writes of her Texas home: “This is the land built by generations of Spanish explorers, indigenous tribes, Tejanos, and Irish. Sometimes we forget these brave, ambitious people are what made us strong.” Of his home state, James Earl Jones writes: “Michigan is really about the people with big open hearts, like the kind teacher who taught me to stand up and speak. Michigan is a place where a young boy can find his true voice.” A little to the south, Loretta Lynn writes: “There’s something about those mountains that roots itself within your bones. I am proud to be a coal miner’s daughter and I am proud to be a Kentuckian.”

Home is geography—and the many blessings wilderness brings. “Puerto Rico is nature, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea, the lagoons and rivers, the mountains and forests, the palm trees and fruit trees, the coquí frog with its eternal melancholy song, and the Puerto Rican parrots struggling against extinction,” writes actor Benicio del Toro. Way up in Alaska, singer Jewel tells us, “Biodiversity translated into diversity of thought—of adapting by being in tune with the needs of our surroundings. Alaska reminds us what it is to be wild. If I am anxious, I know I am out of harmony with nature. Alaska is always here, reminding us how to be human.” (Read and see more from America the Beautiful here. Below, from Chicago: A person servicing an antenna sits atop the 100-story, 875 North Michigan Avenue, formerly the John Hancock Center, with Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan in the distance.)

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Today in a minute

U.S. air travel is up: For the first time since March 17, the TSA screened more than 1 million airline passengers Sunday; last week’s 6.1 million passengers screened is the highest since the pandemic began. USA Today notes that these figures could be short lived if the number of COVID-19 infections in the U.S. continues to rise. Travel is still way down from last year. A year ago Sunday, for example, the TSA reported screening more than 2.6 million passengers.

Cleaner Edinburgh: The pandemic prompted Scotland’s capital to rid vehicles from two of its of busiest, most picturesque byways. It may stay that way, leaving more space for outdoor dining and casual strolling. Edinburgh’s Old Town has long been congested with tourists at the expense of locals, tour guide Robert Howie tells Nat Geo. “Old Town is a tricky place to live,” he says. “It’s much easier to buy a kilt there than a pint of milk.”

Beyond Dracula: “One of my pet peeves,” says travel editor Amy Alipio, “is how Transylvania is most known for Dracula. I’m on a personal crusade to change that narrative.” So she wrote the real story behind Dracula’s castle. Turns out Vlad Tepes—aka Vlad the Impaler—may have spent a night or two in this 14th-century fortress as a prisoner, or he may have attacked it once. Novelist Bram Stoker never visited the castle, or even Transylvania, before writing his gothic novel about a blood-sucking prince. And Romania’s former Communist government, eager to turn a few tourist dollars, went along with the myth, Alipio writes.

Dunes: Where is the largest sand dune formation in the Western Hemisphere? Nebraska. As the last Ice Age began to wane, glacial meltwater carried sand and silt from the Rocky Mountains to the central Nebraska Sandhills, where the relentless winds whipped up dunes like surf cresting offshore. We take a road trip to what the writer Jim Harrison once called “without a doubt the most mysterious landscape in the United States."

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Bridges: “Jing kiengJri” is the local name for these fascinating bridges made from tree roots. Found in the Himalayan foothills of northeastern India, the living bridges are a force of nature and human ingenuity. Photographer Prasenjeet Yadav says he was humbled to learn about them from people whose ancestors crafted them. Yadav and fellow photographer Anand Varma knew they needed artificial lighting to make a bridge stand out from its rainforest background. Yadav says it took weeks to get the image they in mind: “To make them look like they are right out of Lord of the Rings.

Related: India’s living—and long lasting—tree bridges

The big takeaway

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Fires everywhere: Drier landscapes, warmer weather, and intensifying fires may change many of America’s beloved national parks forever. NPS land managers are trying to cope with a climate that has brought their parks to “the extreme warm edge of historical conditions,” Kurt Repanshek writes for Nat Geo. “Nature doesn’t care,” says Craig Ackerman, superintendent of Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park. “Eventually those forests will come back in 500 years, and look just like they did 500 years ago. But in our lifetime, it will be a catastrophe.” (Pictured above, smoke from California’s Creek Fire settles over Yosemite’s Glacier Point.)

In a few words

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The last glimpse

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Living long: What is it about this village on a southern Japanese island? Ogimi has 3,000 villagers—15 of whom are over 100, and 171 others in their 90s. “About two-thirds of longevity is related to diet and way of life, the rest is genetics,” gerontologist Craig Willcox, an investigator for the Okinawa Centenarian Society, tells Nat Geo. In terms of preventing cancer and cardiovascular disease, the Okinawan diet gives more than five servings a day of fruits and vegetables and incorporates more heart-healthy fish than meat, says Willcox. (Pictured above: An Ogimi water festival is part of a robust social system that may help residents live longer; below left, a typically nutritionally dense yet low calorie meal; at right, elder women play key roles in ceremonies, such as this tea ritual.)

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This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Jen Tse selected the photographs. Kimberly Pecoraro and Gretchen Ortega helped produce this. What’s your favorite part of America? We’d love to hear from you at . And thanks for reading!