In 2013 there was a travels story competition in Latvia organized by the biggest social network here and National Geographic. Not only my story was one of the 12 winners who got their articles published in National Geographic Latvia at the month of the win, I also was the first ever annual winner of the competition! My prize with the support of Turkish Airlines was all expenses paid trip for two to National Geographic headquarters in Washington where I got to meet the amazing editorial teams and learn all about behind-the-scenes life at the magazine. When I returned, I wrote a story about this experience.
It’s been a few minutes since we took off the runway; we are eating superb food (tastes like in a restaurant! No wonder Turkish Airlines was named the best airline in Europe) and finally I am starting to believe that I really am going to Washington.
The city makes us dizzy with the smell of linden in bloom and greets me with nearly tropical rain during the nights. We go walking by the Lincoln Memorial one day, when it starts pouring so much that we are soaking wet upon return. The locals say that this is the best time of the year for visiting the city, as in a months’ time the heat will be unbearable. The streets are full of school children excursion buses and government people in nice suits (in contrast to the running shoes they are wearing, fancy shoes in hand). Seems there is an equestrian sculpture on every corner. Apparently, the position of the horses legs matters – if two are in the air, then the depicted warrior died in action, if only one – died from injuries in battle. If all legs are on the ground, he died of other reasons. But in reality sculptors don’t really follow this rule and only about 30% of all sculptures in the city are accurate.
What really surprises me is that entry to all Smithsonian museums in Washington is free, including Steven F. Udvar-Hazy National Air and Space Museum! This was exactly the place where in the 2009 movie Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird switches to the side of Autobot. Without abovementioned aircraft one can also the space shuttle Discovery, listen in to the air control tower speak to the pilots and take a look at food-in-the-tube made in Estonia – borsch.
But there is a place that travel guides don’t write about, simply because only few have had the glory to be there. We arrive to the National Geographic headquarters at least half an hour too soon, full of excitement. Walk around a bit the inner garden, observe the people. Finally the time of the appointment is here! We see how people in meeting rooms discuss the upcoming articles (one article takes two years to prepare!), appreciate how accurate the facts are (artist sketches a picture of lion for several months, then lion anatomy expert takes a look and checks if all the muscles are drawn correctly). We also find out why National Geographic photos are so famous. To prepare pictures for just one spread 40 000 pictures are shot, but for an extensive article even 100 000! Almost all the pictures are taken by photographers not employed at the magazine full time. We also visit the basement where we see slides of Riga from the thirties and listen to stories of people who get to change human thinking all around the world, every day.
Someone once asked me why I would want to visit the most boring state in the United States, Ohio. We avoid the interstates and choose the small roads instead. It’s completely dark, and starry skies accompany us. We see how light from the car reflects in the eyes of the roadside animals. A few times they quickly cross the road. Other times they disappear in the long grass. Those are American badgers. We stop at the railroad crossing; red light is on and the warning signal is blasting. A train with numerous carriages passes and we get to see the most amazing scenery in the fields – millions of lightning bugs are dancing in the night. As far as we can see there is Morse code of sound and light around us. They glitter and stop, accompanied by a particular noise. Amish counties are the cleanest lands in the whole state, so they also have the healthiest lightning bugs population. Who are Amish? It’s an Anabaptist community, which considers traditional Christian church to be too removed from Bible and believes in modest way of living. They still ride in buggies even nowadays. Women wear bonnets and… sneakers. They have dresses in single color that are closed with pins. As the guide from Yoder Amish Farm told us, the buttons are not used because those can be associated with military, but Amish are pacifists. Men wear dark pants and shirts, straw hats. They can ride in a car driven by someone else, but are not allowed to drive themselves. Only those who need it for business are allowed to use mobile phones. Electricity from the grid is forbidden, but batteries are allowed, and gasoline lawnmowers are used actively as well. Amish are not allowed to pose for photographs and they dislike being photographed. As we have seen Amish Mafia on TV, we didn’t even attempt to do that. When someone asked the guide about the show, he just waves and says it’s all a lie. How can he know if he isn’t watching TV? They don’t use social networks, for that they have their own magazine The Budget, where communities from the whole country send in their updates. Adults speak English, but children until school age understand only Pennsylvania Dutch. After 8th grade children don’t go to school anymore.
When we enter Detroit from the Canadian side, the boarder guard is surprised and asks what is it exactly that we want in Detroit. Dramatic sight unveils. Once grand buildings, now without windows, with high fences and enormous signs “No trespassing, violators will be prosecuted”. This has to be taken seriously, as there are movement sensors in many places and police will appear immediately. When I watched “Only Lovers Left Alive” by Jim Jarmush, I saw an unusual place. The abandoned Michigan Theater which now is a parking lot. You can only get in if you agree with the guard. We get lucky, he is in a good mood and lets us in to an enormous space that used to be the main hall. There are mirrors on the walls and drapery, pieces of dusty carpets and a basketball board on the side.
The valley of Shenandoah, where the National Park lies, is covered in legends. One of the versions about its name refers to the Indian translation “the beautiful daughter of the stars”. I feel like calling it the Great Smoky Mountains little sister, as the mountain layers in the distance remind me of the most popular national park in the United States.
The park is full on weekends so we don’t get to see that many animals. A skittish deer in the distance or a bear breathing out hot air. Right before sunset we get lucky – next to the road, just five meters from the car there is a mother bear and her two cubs. They all look at us attentively, and so do we at them. Few minutes later a line of cars forms, sunroofs open and cameras clicking. As soon as the sun disappears, animal kingdom reclaims the park. Freshly mowed roadside is full of little hairs eating grass! I exit the car and I feel like I am in a cartoon – there are so many of them! Ears move whenever we look and we just want to smile! Does are walking around the picnic tables and birds start to chirp even louder and we are sad that we have to leave. Infatuated with all the animals we miss the sun that disappears here quicker, right behind mountains. With darkness setting in the valley and mountains is taken over my thousands of lightning bugs.
5500 km in 8 states and one federal district, over 7000 shots taken but you can’t count all of the impressions we have had! Nearly three weeks in the United States was an unforgettable experience!