By George Stone, TRAVEL Executive Editor
Katharine Lee Bates loved to travel. A scholar and social activist, she had toured regions as far flung as Syria and the Alps, but she is best remembered for her 1893 pilgrimage across the U.S. That train journey inspired a poem which, set to music, became “America, the Beautiful,” the United States’ unofficial anthem, a hymn of love of country.
“Quite what Bates meant, in each line of the poem, is worth pondering, because the poem is a window to another America, and also, in its way, a mirror to our own,” writes historian Jill Lepore in her foreword to National Geographic’s book America the Beautiful: A Story in Photographs. (Pictured above, the Colorado River winding through the Grand Canyon at sunset.)
“Bates’s first draft...lavishes its love on the stops she made on that trip from Boston to Colorado Springs: the ‘music-hearted sea’ of Niagara; ‘thine alabaster cities’—the White City that she’d seen in Chicago; the ‘amber waves of grain’ she’d seen in the Kansas prairie; the ‘purple mountains majesties’ of the Rockies,” writes Lepore. “Fundamentally, too, Bates honored American history as a march of freedom. ... She celebrated American spirit."
Her intellectual drives and passion for wilderness were shaped in part by the love of her life, Katharine Ellis Coman, (pictured above, at left), an economic historian who specialized in the study of the American West. They lived together for 25 years. “They thought of the country differently. Coman could more easily see its errors, its violence, its bitter divisions; Bates (above right) could more easily appreciate its nobility, its ingenuity and invention, and the greatness of its ideas,” Lepore writes. “But they both loved it, all the same.”
What makes America beautiful to you? We asked for your thoughts on this momentous day, and here are a few responses:
“The Garden State—some laughed at the state that filled my soul as a child,” says Bernadette Forte of New Jersey. “I would wake to a field of daisies, and vines that seemed to grow overnight. The air was filled with cut grass ... sweet corn & juicy tomatoes. The land gave us life, sustained us. The fireflies gave us magic.”
Houston’s Lindmuth Fuller adores the region where Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico come together, “specifically Monument Valley, which I consider the home of my soul.”
George Deshaies of Buffalo has a topical choice: “What makes America so beautiful is the voting people who will bring hope to our country for a more compassionate and just system of governance, which has been lost during the last 50 years.”
If you are American, tell us about your America: From sea to shining sea, what region speaks to you? Which traditions fill you with pride? Email your responses here. And make sure to vote today, if you haven’t already!
Today in a minute
Hurricane Eta: The 28th named storm and the 12th hurricane of the season, the “extremely dangerous” Eta carried 145 mph winds as its outer bands struck Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast today, the National Hurricane Center said. For a time, Eta had 150 mph winds, making it the strongest of the season, CBS News reported. The emergence of Eta tied the high on record for number of named storms and hurricanes in the region in one season.
United begins COVID-19 testing: The airline is testing passengers over two years old this month on certain Newark–London flights. Passengers must take the test and must test negative to board the flight, the Washington Post reports. United hopes to persuade governments that such tests should be crucial in a broad reopening of international flights.
We walk with Harriet: Eight women, previously strangers, trained for months for a special journey—retracing Harriet Tubman’s 116-mile walk from her birthplace as an enslaved person in Maryland to freedom in Pennsylvania. “I wanted to emulate her path,” says Linda Harris. The Washington Post reported on her efforts to find partners for a retracing of the Underground Railroad during a time of U.S. racial tension. They made the walk in September.
What are you reading? Our in-house Travel Book Club is diving into Eric Weiner’s latest globetrotting work, The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons From Dead Philosophers, in which the author considers Socrates in Athens, Simone de Beauvoir in Paris, and 12 other thinkers. “Wisdom is portable,” Weiner writes. “It transcends space and time, and is never obsolete."
Your Instagram photo of the day
From the east, no Mongols: The rising sun illuminates the fortified church at Biertan in the central Romanian region of Transylvania. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, the strategically positioned church was built for defense as well as faith. In the 13th century, the Saxons in the area defended themselves against Mongol invaders.
Related: Vibrant murals cover these Romanian monasteries
The big takeaway
Threatened: Seaweed, salmon, cockles, and berries (shown being gathered above) sustain the Indigenous communities around Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest. Last week, a rollback of federal protections put more than half of it—some 9 million acres—at risk. Loggers can now move in, chop down 1,000-year-old cedars, and build roads in the ecologically significant area, which absorbs roughly 8 percent of pollution produced by the U.S.—and captures more carbon offset than all the other U.S. forests combined, Heide Brandes writes.
Overheard at Nat Geo
What does democracy mean? Veteran overseas conflict photographer Andrea Bruce spent years thinking about democracy while reporting from Iraq and elsewhere. For the past four years, the photographer has traveled through America, hosting a dozen town meetings, figuring out what democracy means in her homeland. In the latest episode of our podcast, Overheard, Bruce says she found the nation’s divisions—fueled by an economic divide and pervasive fear—to be much deeper than politics. She tells Overheard that’s she’s still awaiting Americans to agree on a definition of democracy. “If we don’t know what it is, or we don’t have a common understanding of it, then it will be hard to know if it disappears.” Catch the podcast here. (Above, Bruce took this photograph during the 2012 election at a polling site, the Police Training Academy in Richmond, Virginia.)
In a few words
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The last glimpse
Rushmore: It’s a heartbreaking, scandalous history, complete with land grabs, egos, and a visionary with Ku Klux Klan ties. Completed 79 years ago, weeks before World War II began, Mount Rushmore became a mountainside showcase for the faces of four presidents. The Black Hills site was spiritually important to the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho communities, which had the land taken from them, Nat Geo’s Amy McKeever reports. (Above left, it took 400 men using dynamite, jackhammers, and fine carving tools to craft the presidential faces; above right, a worker holding dynamite and detonators to blast rock at Rushmore.)