Letter from the Editors

Through our best features and essays about the U.S., we bring some of the places—and some of the people—to you.

It’s easy to lose sight of the sheer vastness of this country. On an intellectual level, we know the United States is large: 3.8 million square miles. Add a dash of comparison—you could fit 32 Italys into the continental U.S.!—and the mind boggles. And those miles contain multitudes.

The United States may feel fractured right now—even something as benign as a mask has become tribal—but this collection of essays, features, and photo essays serves as a reminder of how our differences shape the country in the best possible way.  

Over the past decade, our writers have parachuted into America’s heartland, explored Puerto Rico’s revival, and revisited childhood idylls. Some stories highlight a search for family roots; others highlight the families we choose. There are stories of cross-country train travel. Stories of foods that connect us to the past. Stories of all manner of road trips: a British woman traveling with her Southern pen pal, a young family circling the West in a vintage VW van, a Lithuanian photographer in search of Americana. They testify to the power of travel to open our minds and shrink our differences. As we prepare to travel again across these United States, we hope they open your eyes to the possibilities. —The Editors

Islands

Photo by Rose Marie Cromwell

Key Change: How a Shifting Climate Is Transforming Florida

Why we love it: It’s rare to read a climate change story through such a personal lens. Rahawa Haile returns to the Florida Keys—home to some of her most treasured childhood memories and some of the most endangered parts of the state—and wonders what happens when the places we love start to disappear.

From the story: “How long can a state as susceptible to climate change as Florida continue to bet against itself by electing politicians who refuse to grapple with its vulnerability? We may very well be living in the dismantling, you and I, whether we choose to watch or not. And how does one build among constant erosion? Where do we go?”

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Photos by Rose Marie Cromwell

Puerto Rico, Revived

Why we love it: Two years after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, writer Ramona Ausubel landed on the U.S. territory. The resulting story is a powerful meditation on recovery and nature, resilience and humanity. There’s a hint of magic in Ausubel's words—you want to savor them just as she savors two ripe puertorriqueños (mangoes) on her last day on the island.

From the story: “At first the lights in the water were dim, like sea foam in moonlight, but as I got out to the middle of the bay, each paddle stroke turned the water bright green-blue. It was not just a distant glow. Beneath the boat there were streaks of light. I put my hand under the warm water and it looked like I was wearing magician’s gloves. I made a fist, and when I popped it open, sparks flew out. When I brought my hand back into the air my palms were dotted with stars for a brief, incredible moment.” 

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Photo by Yi Chen-Chiang/Shutterstock

The Beach That Makes Me Appreciate Hawaii

Why we love it: It seems fair to say that many people would consider Hawaii their happy place—but is that equally true for people who grew up there? Nicole Antonio grapples with her mixed feelings about the island in an essay about family, teenagedom, and the beach that finally made her feel something for the island state.

From the story: “But for that one glorious afternoon, my friend and I lounged in the sun and waded in clear, teal water. We talked about boys; the lack of tourists on the beach; what we hoped for life after graduation. I can’t tell you how many times we laughed about doing this all in the middle of a school day. For the first time, I felt I was spending my youth on the island in a way that could have made me happy.”

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Histories

Photo by Lucas Foglia

A Lone Star Story

Why we love it: It’s the realest small-town America story you can imagine. Chris Colin takes his keen eye to Silverton, Texas (population 611), which his family helped found. During a week spent with his great-uncles and other assorted family members, he discovers what it’s like to live close to the land, the ever-narrowing survival margins for a small ranching business, and the differences and similarities between family you’ve never met before. It’s a meditation on the importance of traveling to understand your own life, and your own country, in a deeper and more meaningful way.

From the story: “Somewhere in the state, per stereotype, slick oilmen, hissing evangelists, and snarling border vigilantes must have been doing their unsavory swagger. But here on the Panhandle I was already getting different vibrations. This was not the cartoon Texas I’d pictured. It was grander and stranger. Ten miles outside Tulia the sky went brown. Either the wind was whipping dry earth into the air or West Texas was making an elaborate point about entering a whole new reality.”

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Photos by Carlotta Cardana

The Intimate Photo Project That Explores Contemporary Native American Life

Why we love it: This photo essay beautifully illustrates stories of modern-day Native American life—stories that often get overlooked. It also showcases the importance of cultural curiosity: Photographer Carlotta Cardana, who grew up in Italy, met writer Danielle SeeWalker in high school and became intrigued by SeeWalker’s culture—a curiosity that ultimately resulted in the pair’s collaboration.

From the story: “‘Carlotta has always been fascinated with my culture,’ SeeWalker says, ‘and she didn’t know more than the romanticized ideas.’ Together, they decided to explore issues affecting American Indians, and created the Red Road Project. The idea of the ‘Red Road’ derives from a number of different Native American teachings; it speaks to the concept of striving to live a life of positive growth and change.” 

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Photo courtesy of Ben’s Chili Bowl

Why Ben’s Chili Bowl, Home of the Half-Smoke, Is Hallowed Ground in D.C.

Why we love it: It paints a portrait of a restaurant that’s so much more than a restaurant. Over the course of its 62 years, Ben’s Chili Bowl has been a cultural institution, a culinary inspiration for other chefs in the city, and a “sanctuary in times of turmoil.” Writer Korsha Wilson weaves in several voices and memories, including her own, for a satisfying bite of history.

From the story: “Even before I ever went to Ben’s, I remember hearing about it; I remember the way adults in my life spoke of the restaurant, with a mix of reverence and appreciation, like they were discussing dining in the living room of a lifelong friend instead of a business. As I got older, I learned why it was held so dearly to those around me: the original location has been open since 1958 in a historically black section of the city, serving comfort food and welcoming everyone. Even as the neighborhood around it has changed, and changed again, Ben’s has been a constant.”

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Photos by McNair Evans

Learning to Understand the South, One Note at a Time

Why we love it: This was contributing writer Emma John’s first story for AFAR—and what an introduction. She, a liberal Londoner and classical violinist, travels to North Carolina to plunge into the world of bluegrass. The resulting story is an honest, humane portrait of both the South and bluegrass, digging into Southern culture as well as the roots of the music. The story hums with her characteristic humor and warmth. By the end of the piece, as she finally grasps what it means to play bluegrass, you’re humming right along with her.

From the story: “The notes appear at my fingers like letters on a typewriter ribbon, and as they do, something’s revealed—the underlying simplicity of the music, a music that until now has sounded to me so complex, so impenetrable. I feel like one of the apostles at Pentecost, when they opened their mouths and heard languages come out that they didn’t understand.”

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Nature

Photos by Brian Flaherty

Where the Wilderness Is

Why we love it: The 13-million-acre Wrangell–St. Elias National Park comprises some of the most remote wildland on Earth. With the help of a lodge called Ultima Thule, writer Freda Moon visits a place that people rarely see.

From the story: “Wrangell–St. Elias was not like any wilderness I had known. The kind of wilderness I had previously experienced was tame enough that I could actually convince myself I was at home there. Here, there were bears and raging, frigid rivers, and glacial crevasses that could swallow me whole at one misstep. This was bigger, wilder. Less predictable. And being here upended the usual comfort I took in the outdoors, any false sense of confidence.”

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Photo courtesy of Cedric Wright Family

Artworks That Prove Just How Inspiring U.S. National Parks Really Are

Why we love it: In his intro to this collection of photos, writer Peter Fish chews on the question: How to best capture the grandeur and glory of the national parks? Instead of ruminating on style and substance, Fish instead lets a collection of photos speak as his answer. 

From the story: “When Philadelphia painter Thomas Moran first set eyes on Yellowstone’s great canyon, he deemed it ‘beyond the reach of human art.’ That has been the quandary ever since. Our parks enshrine the country at its most majestic—canyons and mountaintops and coral reefs. How the hell does an artist do them justice?”

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Photo by Liv Greene
Photo by Aislyn Green

Living the Scandinavian Dream in the Pacific Northwest

Why we love it: The vivid description of a forest on a warm summer day would be enough to make you want to sit and stay with this essay a while. But thanks to Aislyn Greene’s deft hand, there’s a bigger message here about finding beauty in the details and learning to live with less—a note that’s especially relevant these days.

From the story: “There was, and is, nothing like bumping softly through a forest, feeling the cool air on your skin, as the sun trickles through the treetops and turns fiddlehead ferns into glowing, otherworldly creatures. All we’d hear were birds and our Volvo as it rocked toward its destination. And suddenly, we’d be there. The forest would give way to a grassy field with two A-frame wood cabins, a small pond, and in the distance, a fringe of trees guarding a steep cliff that overlooks Samish Bay. Freedom.”

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Road Trips

Photos by Carlos Chavarría

How an Unplanned Road Trip Helped a California Family Reclaim the Van

Why we love it: Glossy travel brochures and curated Instagram feeds can seduce us into thinking that our vacations will be just as pristine. But when writer Chris Colin takes a California road trip with his family, he quickly realizes that vacations don’t come with stylists. Road trips are messy, unscripted, and filled with surprises—and they’re all the better for it.  

From the story: “If you have had internet access over the last five years, you know #vanlife. If you have seen a sandy-haired twentysomething lean contemplatively against a surfboard at twilight near a ukulele sitting beside a mug of imported oolong near some tidily chopped logs awaiting a romantic campfire, you know #vanlife. Of course, Instagram overfloweth with celebrations of the good life. What distinguishes #vanlife from other travel porn is its lens-flare aura of virtue. No fancy hotels or restaurants there, just a simple van and a simple meal prepared on a simple stove. A quiet rebuke to the excesses of modern life.”

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Photo by McNair Evans

Why a Road Trip Is the All-American Way to Build a Friendship

Why we love it: The freedom of a car and an open road can create lasting bonds with even the most unlikely of companions. London-based writer Emma John discovers this when she climbs into the Toyota Corolla of her North Carolina pen pal, Genny. As they roam the South Carolina coastline together, the traveling duo quickly discover they have much more in common than meets the eye. 

From the story: “Genny and I attracted particular attention. ‘Are y’all related?’ We took turns giving our story at each new inquiry. No, she wasn’t my grandmother. Yes, this was an English accent. When the sun went down, we abandoned the porch for the comfortable living room–lobby that took up most of the downstairs. It gave the place a communal feel—like a youth hostel, but for retirees—and talk turned to collard greens recipes and the price of gas.”

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Photos by Algirdas Bakas

What All-American Culture Looks Like to a First-Time Visitor

Why we love it: Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to find beauty in the mundane. This is exactly what Lithuanian photographer Algirdas Bakas achieves on his epic U.S. road trip. Armed with his camera and his motorcycle, Bakas travels from coast to coast, and the result is a compelling portrait of American culture.

From the story: “‘It’s a big place, this America,’ Bakas says. ‘Driving through, it would often be over 100 miles of straight road, with beautiful blues and yellows meeting in the horizon.’ During his U.S. road trip, Bakas ‘clocked 5,985 miles, 129 cups of coffee, 49 stops, 13 states, and two flat tires.’ The result? An honest, up-close documentation of old-school Americana in all its glory, through the eyes of a visitor.”

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Photo by Shutterstock

Journey to the Geographical Center of North America

Why we love it: Part travelogue, part deep dive into the captivating world of geographical centers, writer Katherine LaGrave's ode to North Dakota is unlike anything else I've read about the Midwest. If, like most people, you've never considered what it means to be a center town, be forewarned: the stakes are high, the drama is real, and the truth is impossible to chart.

From the story: “I was born in North Dakota, like my father, and his parents. And though my family left North Dakota for Germany when I was three, like bees returning, back to the big sky we go. The geographical center of North America awaits. One of them, anyway.”

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New Perspectives

Photo by Dolly Faibyshev

How to Travel the World Without Leaving the United States

Why we love it: With its Thai temples, Mexican grocery stores, and Indian restaurants, the New York City borough of Queens might feel like anywhere but the United States. But few places could be more American, writes longtime resident and writer Anya von Bremzen, who explores the myriad immigrant communities around her and is received with open arms. 

From the story: “At this time when American politics have never felt more divisive, I was swept up by the emotion of the spectacle I encountered at the temple, by the welcome I received. It occurred to me that Queens, where more than 130 languages are spoken, offers an inspirational model of tolerant diversity. Perhaps the cultural and religious mosaic around me could cure a heart broken by politics. I hoped to find comfort in rituals, stories, and yes, new food experiences. I was seeking faith, you could say, in this shared America.”

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Photos by Justin Kaneps

In Big Sur, Learning the Value of Being Alone

Why we love it: As she contemplates past trips to Big Sur with a former flame, Allison P. Davis writes honestly about the way love can color memories of the places we visit. And even in the wake of a failed relationship, her affection for the Pacific Coast sanctuary remains.

From the story: “Whenever I think about Big Sur now, it’s like someone Eternal Sunshine-d me; the memory of my then-boyfriend faded to the background. I remember the drive—the thrills of navigating the hairpin turns in places where the guardrail drops and there’s nothing but a cliff. I remember the fireplace in my room at Glen Oaks, which was always lit by some invisible hotel staff and stayed burning all night.”

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Photo by Michael George

Why a Train Trip Across the U.S. Is the Fastest Way to Slow Down

Why we love it: Ever wonder what it’s like to ride Amtrak across the United States? Writer Eric Weiner takes the plunge and quickly discovers that what Amtrak lacks in glamour, it makes up for with an offering of colorful characters, memorable scenery, and perhaps most importantly, the gift of time. 

From the story: “Feeling childlike, I decide to play a game of I Spy. I spy graffiti—museum-worthy explosions of color and form. (You don’t fully appreciate the creative flair of U.S. graffiti artists until you take a cross-country train trip.) City yields to country, and I spy dirt roads and baseball diamonds and old fairgrounds, dismantled and forlorn. I spy wheat fields (they really are golden) and barns—more barns than I, a child of Baltimore, have seen in my life.”

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Illustration by Gaurab Thakali

She Came, She Saw, She Told Jokes: A Comic’s Last-Minute Trip to Kansas City

Why we love it: For our America issue, we asked comedian Negin Farsad to board a plane on 24 hours’ notice to the destination of … Kansas City. And after spending time with the city’s friendly residents, taking in its thriving jazz and art scenes, and even doing a little stand-up, Farsad falls in love with this heartland destination. 

From the story: “I went to Kansas City assuming I’d be a brown girl in a decidedly red state. I went to Kansas City thinking, I live in New York and there’s no way KC is a real urban center. I went to Kansas City suspecting it was flyover territory for a reason. Basically, I went in without an open mind. But Kansas City challenged me at every turn. Nay! It double-dog dared me to resist its charms. Your preconceptions are putty in Kansas City’s hands, because, it turns out, Kansas City is not what you think it is, and it will confront the pants off of your assumptions.”

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Family

Photos by Ryan Dorgan

On a Horseback Trip Through Wyoming, a Mother-Daughter Duo Return to Their Roots

Why we love it: On its surface, this story is about writer Peggy Orenstein and her daughter taking in the West from atop saddles. But at its heart, it’s a meditation on finding beauty and sublimity, even when acknowledging a painful legacy—and even when our country is its most fractious. 

From the story: “B.J. Reed stood on a granite outcropping just west of Grand Teton National Park, a barren, windy spot that, at an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet, felt like the top of the world. Her sun-bleached hair hung loose under her cowboy hat, its brim throwing her weathered face into shadow. She placed her hands on her hips, planted her feet wide, surveyed the snowy slopes and flower-studded meadows far below, and began to sing.”

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Photo by H&D Zielske/Gallery Stock

Where to Uncover the Magic of New York City on a Family Trip

Why we love it: This story, from writer Chris Colin, starts in a volcano and touches on grief and grand indifference. Count on him to reliably bring you from point A to B, with plenty of New York color—and charming family vignettes—in between.

From the story: “New York is the opposite of a big, empty-headed grin. It’s not meant to cheer you, or reassure you, or do anything to you at all. It exists for its own sake. The veneer of gentility has been not just peeled back here, but peed on, wheat-pasted over, demolished by a Saudi developer, and then photographed from inside a garbage bag by an art student whose parents have been priced out to Hoboken.”

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Photo Courtesy of Visit Maine

Why Moosehead Lake Is My Happy Place

Why we love it: For writer Natalie Beauregard, Moosehead Lake has always been a place associated with family, even as that family changed. In this essay, she writes about something that will ring true for many of us: finding joy in a rich relationship with a place. 

From the story: “Despite being the largest lake in Maine, and the largest mountain lake in the eastern United States, Moosehead is relatively unknown outside the state. No, it’s nowhere near Portland, or Kennebunkport, or Acadia National Park. The closest ‘city’ is Bangor, more than two hours south, and the Canadian border is less than three hours away. Moosehead Lake is just a big, beautiful body of water in the middle of nowhere. You can spend hours without seeing another soul.”

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