An Inside Look Into The Smithsonian’s Museum Of Natural History

My favorite travel writers share a sense of curiosity about their surroundings, regardless of where they are. You can squish a dozen or so of them into an elevator, take them into an attic and they’ll find something of interest. If that attic happens to be just below the grand upper rotunda of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and those writers happen to be a subset of the Gadling crew, well, let’s just say it’s unlikely you’ve seen a group of people more excited about a dusty hallway lined with cardboard boxes and file cabinets.

I’m still thinking about the box that had “Porcupine, Old, Not Cute” scrawled on the outside in sharpie. And about the fact that there’s stardust down there in the mineral hall. And how when I leaned on that door to the lab while I was taking pictures, it swung open because it was unlocked. I’m thinking about looking down onto the marine hallway, over the top of a giant jellyfish, through a sort of peephole slot from above while kids looked at the same jellyfish from below.

While our guides, Education Specialist Margery Gordon and Director of Public Outreach Randall Kremer told us a bit about the history of the building and the collection, our archeology and history nerd Sean McLachlan called me over. “Stand there,” he said, and had me peek inside a box that contained Zip-lock bags full of bones. Don George pointed all the way across the open space under the rotunda. “What kind of bird is that?” he asked our guides. “What’s the story with all these boxes marked ‘Reburial only?'” I asked.”Oh my god, I want that!” said Laurel Miller of a tiny, spiky-haired critter that shared case space with a rhinoceros shot by Teddy Roosevelt. We were back on the main floor, away from risky unlocked doors. “It looks like a piece of sushi,” Grant Martin said of the tiny fairy armadillo. Kyle Ellison looked up at the life-sized replica of Phoenix, the Wright whale, and said, “Let’s just have a conversation underneath this whale, shall we?” “Man, that is one ugly fish,” said nearly everyone of a fist-sized yellowish lump of deep sea dweller.

“I’ll take you to see the giant snake – Titanoboa – and the Hope Diamond,” said Ms. Gordon. We followed her like a class of somewhat obedient fourth graders. “But first, you have to see these replicas of early humans. The heads are at the height they’d have been and you can look them right in the eye.”

“What does working in a place like this do to your sense of time?” “How do you deal with creationists?” “Where did the elephant come from?” “Can you imagine, you’re walking through the jungle and you see THAT?” “She’s tiny. Who knew she’d be so tiny?” “Oh. My. God… Space.” All that arch irony that travel writers at their worst can be guilty of was wrong. We were 12 years old again, our brains firing on the magic of science and history and the miracles you can find by taking a good look at the natural history of our planet.

We had about two hours at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. It was too short by about a week. The museum is at 10th and Constitution in Washington, D.C. It’s open every day of the year except Christmas Day. And get this: it’s FREE.

Weekend travel media’s top five

Here are some keepers from this past weekend’s English-language newspaper travel sections.

1. In the Financial Times, Philip Horne writes a fascinating North Dakota pilgrimage story that traces Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure in the Peace Garden State.

2. In the Guardian, Haroon Siddique writes about the Bed&Fed phenomenon (a couchsurfing/hostelling hybrid) across the UK and Ireland.

3. Also in the Guardian, Gemma Bowes weighs in on remarkable deals in Greece this summer, including an overview of luxury villas, some of which turn out to be surprisingly inexpensive.

4. In the New York Times, Jeremy Peters ponders 36 Hours in Genoa. In between his hunger-inducing restaurant and wine bar recommendations, Peters helps readers envision a day and a half of well-met culinary urges.

5. In the Times of London, Tom Chesshyre, Daniel Start, Alex Wade, Derwent May and Rufus Purdy list the UK’s 40 best beaches, from Land’s End to the Isle of Skye.

(Image Credit: Flickr/cm195902)

Where have U.S. presidents traveled and a personal sighting

The latest has an interesting slide show accompanied by text that covers various travel habits and destinations of American presidents through history. For example, Abraham Lincoln never left the United States, and Teddy Roosevelt is the first president to have traveled overseas while in office. Air travel had nothing to do with the amount, it seems. For example, check out Thomas Jefferson. He was an international traveling man for sure.

Browsing through the slides and texts is a bit of a history lesson, along with a glance at how presidents are tourists like the rest of us–except for the Secret Service. If you’ve ever seen a U.S. president in person, you’ve noticed the folks in suits.

The folks in suits is what tipped me of that I was about to get a presidential sighting when I was in Poland years ago. The first Bush–George Herbert Walker was in Warsaw at the same time. I was initially tipped off to some important happening by the American flags festooning the light posts of the street where we happened to be walking.

“Look at all those flags,” we said. “What’s that about?” The large parked cars with American diplomat license plates were another clue. “Hmmm, that’s interesting.”

“Isn’t President Bush on a world tour?” someone in my group asked. The dark suited men carrying walkie talkies and wearing sunglasses cinched it. We’d hang out with the rest of the commoners to see what came next.

Regardless of ones politics, there is something exciting about the hoopla that surrounds a presidential visit, particularly if you happen to be at a place where you didn’t expect a sighting. We might have been heading off for a bite to eat or to a museum. I can’t remember. As the years pass, the experience I remember most about the visit to Warsaw was that slice of time.

Before the motorcade approached, minutes after we stopped, the energy in the air crackled. People in the crowd craned their necks and stood on tip-toes, stretching for a glimpse. As the car road by and turned into the fortress of some official goverment type building, there was a flurry of waves and shouts in Polish.

My view of President George Bush, the elder, version and his wife Barbara was from a distance, but I could see both of them waving through the car window’s glass for a few seconds before they disappeared behind a gate and we continued on to wherever we were heading.

The photo is of President Dwight Eisenhower’s motorcade in Kabul. [Flickr/ Library of Congress via pingnews.]

John Muir: An Earth Day ode

Even though this weekend was filled with Earth Day activities, the actual Earth Day is today. Because yesterday was John Muir’s birthday, it seems fitting to mention those places that travelers are able to appreciate today due to Muir’s dedication to the environment. Besides, he was a traveler with a capital T, the kind Abha referred to in her post on Henry Lee McGinnis, the 80 year-old who has been walking for 16 years.

Born in Dunbar, Scotland, April 21, 1838, Muir quit his job at age 29 after a machine accident almost blinded him. He decided to start walking to learn about nature. The journey took him to Cuba, Florida and California. Remember he was walking. He was so enamored with California that he made it his home. Muir is credited with helping to create Yosemite National Park, as well as, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon National Parks.

And if that wasn’t enough, Muir helped influence President Theodore Roosevelt to form the National Monuments program and founded the Sierra Club.

Here’s a quote of Muir’s to take along with you this Earth Day.

Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer,.Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.

–from our National Parks, 1901.

WHS new “Tentative List”: Places to Love–Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Hawaii

For the Gadling series “World Heritage Site new “Tentative List”: Places to Love” we are covering the 14 sites that have been submitted for possible inclusion as an official World Heritage Site in the United States. The sites will not be posted in order of importance or in the order they appear on the list.

Number 10

Name of Site: Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Hawaii

Location: Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the surrounding waters. Go 140 miles northwest of Hawaii’s main islands and you are there. The span of this monument continues for 1,200 miles as you keep heading northwest. To see a selection of maps of the area, click here.

Reason for importance in a nutshell: This “string of islands and adjacent waters represents the longest, clearest, and oldest example of island formation and atoll evolution in the world.” The islands are also culturally important because 1,000 years ago people lived here and their artifacts can be seen today.

Jamie’s Take: Where does one begin when talking about a site that covers 137,797 square miles? First of all, this is the best coral reef system in United States’ waters and the “largest marine conservation area in the world.” It’s the least disturbed and the healthiest, probably because it so far enough away from Hawaii’s main islands that people don’t just hop on over on a moment’s notice.

Secondly, along with the green sea turtle and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, 14 million seabirds and other land birds call this home. Add in the diversity of the plant and marine animals found in the area (1/4 of them are only found here) and we’re talking a mega treasure trove of natural wonders.

The area includes: NWII Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Kure Atoll State Wildlife Sanctuary, and the NWHI State Marine Refuge.

As a note, the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge was designated in 1909 by President Theodore Roosevelt making it one of the oldest National Wildlife Refuges in the United States.

Also of significance, these islands are a bridge between cultures–the Hawaiian and Polynesian. 1,000 years ago people settled on two of the islands leaving behind their traces. Artifacts have been found that possibly connect the islands’ once inhabitants to Marquesas and Tahiti. Along with those artifacts are ones that connect the islands to more recent happenings. Pearl oyster harvesting, fishing and guano mining once happened here, as well as, the World War II Battle of Midway.

Within the atolls, there are more than 60 vessels and 67 aircrafts that have created a rich history below the ocean’s surface.

Whether or not the World Heritage Site folks name the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Hawaii one of the official sites, this is definitely a place to be treasured. I’m happy that there are so many sanctuaries and preserves involved in its protection. What a wonderous place past the boundaries of the Hawaii most people think of when they travel there.