Contents | October 2001
In This Issue (Contributors)
More on travel from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | October 2001
Pursuits & Retreats
The Most Beautiful Place in the World
Eight Atlantic contributors share their idiosyncratic but passionately held opinions
wide open spaces, usa
or me, the place is a sweeping expanse of country, newly discovered and promise-filled—an American vista. It's both a real place and an imaginary one. In its imaginary form it's ubiquitous, even clichéd. You find it in nineteenth-century American landscape paintings, and in mountain scenes airbrushed on the sides of vans, and in the description of the first explorers seeing the New World in the last pages of The Great Gatsby, and (most famously) at the end of western movies. That landscape in which the hero rides off toward the sunset is mesmerizing to me. When a movie ends that way, I watch it clear to the last syllable of the credits. I believe I could watch an entire movie consisting of nothing but that scene.
When I see an American vista in reality, I am sometimes moved to exaltation. I put one such moment in my book Great Plains, where I described coming out of the Rocky Mountains in Montana and seeing the prairie stretching away for a hundred miles. Vistas have surprised me on Mulholland Drive, high above the lights of Los Angeles; in the field by the bridge in Concord, Massachusetts, where the colonists fired the shot heard round the world; and on the balcony of a hotel room in Salt Lake City, where a busy avenue below dwindled to the horizon like a vision in Brigham Young's mind.
My most recent vista experience was in Hannibal, Missouri. I had gone there with my wife and kids to see Mark Twain's boyhood home, and we did that, and then we walked over to the riverbank where steamboats docked in Twain's time. The Hannibal riverfront is a long, straight expanse of high bank, ideal for setting a gangplank on. Below, the river runs deep and slow. A historical marker on the site says that more than a thousand steamboats docked there in 1847. It does not add that Twain was twelve years old that year. I turned from the marker and looked downriver, where the Mississippi spread out milky-brown and gleaming between the far-apart sketch lines of its shores. A thrilling familiarity miles beyond the cliché rolled over me, and I stood fixed in place, part of this basic American vista, and completely glad. —Ian Frazier
the karakoram highway, the congo river, the drâa valley
t is now a commonplace to say that there are no more remote corners of the globe—that the unexplored regions medieval cartographers once covered with paintings of dragons and sea monsters have all been mapped and equipped with airports, and even with Web sites. This is only partly true. There are still places that, either by some accident of geography or more probably because of war, are difficult or dangerous to reach. I nominate three such places as among the world's most beautiful.
The first is the terrain surrounding the Karakoram Highway, in northernmost Pakistan, between the Khunjerab Pass and the town of Hunza. There the summit of Rakaposhi, at 25,551 feet, trailed by an eternal plume of blowing snow, dominates lush, glacier-watered valleys where ibex and yaks graze and slate-gray cliffs where snow leopards hunt. As if all this weren't enough to marvel at, a deep breath at such altitudes splits the lungs and dizzies the head, imbuing visitors with an immediate and intoxicating sense of wonder. The second place is the 300-mile stretch of the Congo River between the towns of Mbandaka (on the Equator) and Lisala. There the jungle, a forest of teaks and palms, rubber trees and bombaxes, tumbles down to the river, whose water at sunset quivers as if it were aflame. The third place I nominate, the Drâa Valley of the Moroccan Sahara, once nearly took my life, when a fierce sandstorm buried the dirt track I was following back to civilization. In the Drâa storied casbahs of ocherous clay rise above oases of palms hung with golden dates. Once upon a time caravans laden with slaves and gold arrived there from Timbuktu, on their way across the Sahara. For me, the very idea of this route brings on a shiver. The beauty of the desert is a lethal one. —Jeffrey Tayler
princess louisa inlet, british columbia
he exact location of terrestrial paradise is 50.2°n, 123.8°W—or that's where it was in the summer of 1975, when my parents took my brother and sisters and me on a cruise up the channel between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. Such a trip was not as difficult or expensive for my family as it would be for most people, because my parents then owned a small marina in Seattle. What was hard, I suspect, was convincing four teenagers that they should travel 200 miles from their favorite glam-rock radio stations.
The straits begin at Vancouver, a terrific city that, confusingly, is on the mainland and not on Vancouver Island. North of the city the Coast Mountains climb 8,000 feet up from the shore. Between the peaks are steep, crooked valleys that would be filled with Douglas firs if the mountains didn't stick into the ocean; the valleys are filled with seawater instead. People thereabouts can drive boats through the mountains for a considerable distance, which is what our family did that summer.
Jervis Inlet begins about halfway up the channel and zigzags seventy miles inland. Its course is miles wide and choppy sea-gray at first, but later on the passage narrows and the water turns to soft blue ripples. At the very end of Jervis Inlet is Princess Louisa Inlet, the most beautiful place on earth. For many years its sole inhabitant was a wealthy prospector named James MacDonald, who had first shown up there in 1919. He built a house on the inlet but became so disturbed by the thought of further development that after his house was destroyed by fire, in 1940, he didn't have the heart to rebuild.
The entrance to Princess Louisa is guarded by a set of what would be called rapids if this weren't the ocean. Inside is a faultlessly executed cut in the planet: a gorge five miles long and half a mile wide and a thousand feet deep and just amazingly still. Dozens of skinny waterfalls bounce down the cliffs and through the trees. Frilly oysters line the water's edge like crinoline showing at the hem of a skirt, and the sky is a pale, narrow slice of blue above the walls. At the far end of the inlet Chatterbox Falls drops more than a hundred feet onto a stone table and noisily kicks up a mist that is always filled with prism colors.
Blue sky and sea, vertical ramparts, roar of tumbling water—MacDonald couldn't get the place out of his mind. He bought the best part of it eight years after his first visit, and managed to make it into a park before he died. To this day Princess Louisa Inlet can be reached only by boat or seaplane.
When we visited, either nobody else was there (my sister's memory) or just one other boat was (my memory). In orthodox romantic fashion the northwestern drizzle stopped just as we passed the rapids. Late in the afternoon we pried a bucketful of oysters from the wall and beached our dinghy by the ruins of MacDonald's cabin. We slurped the oysters down with the juice of lemons my mother had brought from Seattle. Nicking oysters is probably illegal now, and rightly so. But they were cool and briny sweet—delicious, even to adolescents. I remember, too, the tiny raindrops glistening in our hair as the clouds peeled away for sunset, and how for just a little while we kids stopped trying to get some glam rock on the radio. —Charles C. Mann
dodger stadium, los angeles
odger Stadium is best from its cheapest seats. From there, at the rim of the Chavez Ravine, the players are too small to distract you from the view of the green-and-gold Elysian Hills, fading to blue in the sunset. What makes this vista beguiling makes Los Angeles as a whole winning: whimsical artificiality set against natural grandeur. A straight line of tall, absurdly skinny palms strings across the closest ridge, and a soda-pop-orange Union 76 ball appears to float among them—magically, a scene charming rather than vulgar. Seemingly just beyond these trees, and beyond the Police Academy's idyllic Spanish-style, eucalyptus-laced campus, loom the San Gabriel Mountains, among the most abruptly rising in the world and sometimes still snowcapped on opening day. In the other direction, out past the Dodger Dog stand, the whole of downtown, Art Deco to postmodern, appears smack at eye level, behind a grove of ficus trees, with their dense, vibrant-green, broccoli-like crowns. Some people hate Los Angeles because they perceive it to be artificial, but perched at the top of Dodger Stadium, you can see the city's art. L.A. has taken nature and made it better. —Benjamin and Christina Schwarz
río verde, chile
he beauty of Río Verde is partly that it lies so far away. It is a hamlet of clapboard houses near the southern tip of Chile, where the pampas spread west to touch the Pacific, and the Andes subside into the sea. The country there is not quite a wilderness but a cold and windswept grassland of sheep and cattle ranches, vast estancias along the shores of a saltwater sound called Skyring, which stretches into an archipelago of forested majestic mountains. The road leading to Río Verde runs north for fifty miles from Punta Arenas, on the Straits of Magellan, and turns to gravel across rolling ranges where ostriches pick at the ground and gauchos in wide-brimmed hats quietly tend the livestock. The scenery is stark and unforgiving, as befits such an outpost at the end of the world.
Approaching Río Verde, the road follows a deepwater channel to a ferry crossing, where a two-car barge shuttles to a sparsely inhabited island. Overlooking the ferry landing stands a rustic hotel, with a dining room, a fireplace, and a generator that provides a ration of electric light at night. It is called the Hostería Río Verde, and is open year-round. It has a phone (56-61-311122) and an e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org), though reservations are usually unnecessary, because it also has very few guests.
There is not much to do there. One can walk to the hamlet and drink maté with the gauchos. One can cross to the island and set off on foot for thirty miles down a dirt road along the edge of the magnificent sound, its dark waters torn by the wind and flecked with ice through the long winter season. I don't know if that makes Río Verde the most beautiful place in the world, or even how to measure such a quality. But it's a place I like to revisit, to work and walk in solitude. And it often comes to mind. —William Langewiesche
san galgano, italy
few miles southwest of Siena, on a low hill above a plain, Galgano Guidotti, a twelfth-century knight, built himself a hermitage after renouncing the violence and dissolution of his first calling. He died in 1181, at the age of thirty-three, and was canonized four years later by Pope Urban III. Below his lonely hilltop an order of Cistercian monks established an abbey in San Galgano's honor; their Gothic church is said to have inspired the cathedral in Siena. Eventually the abbey was dissolved, and the ruined buildings are today in the keeping of a community of Olivetan nuns.
Of all the sacred spaces I have seen, the church at San Galgano is the most beautiful. On a bright morning in early spring tiny white flowers sprinkled the churchyard grass, and freshly planted fields stretched toward the woods and hills beyond. The brick-and-stone walls of the church are intact, but the roof collapsed long ago. Light plunges in from above, picking out planes and curves on the interior arches and casting recesses into blackness. Only the carving on column capitals and window peaks remains for decoration. Where stained glass may once have lodged, now there is simply air; against a brilliant blue sky on that spring morning the symmetry and detailing of the high windows stood out as they never could have from a dim enclosure. The lower windows framed mutable landscapes ribboned with the colors of the Tuscan countryside—gold, green, mauve, gray-blue. The cooing of pigeons made the church's music; its officiants were sleek cats wandering in shadows on the earthen floor and swallows crisscrossing the nonexistent ceiling. Paint, gilt, marble, and tapestry, packed into the gloomy cavities of whole churches all over the world, seemed in comparison like barriers against the glory to which San Galgano opens wide. —Martha Spaulding
2,000 feet up
hen aviation was new, it was suicidally risky. The memoirs of those who survived, like Beryl Markham and Charles Lindbergh, are filled with references to those who did not, like Amelia Earhart and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. But memoirs from the early days of flying are filled with something else as well: their authors' exhilaration at being among the first to see the world from above. For centuries people had climbed trees and built spires in hopes of glimpsing what birds saw. The best explanation for the popularity and romance of flying in its perilous early years is the thrill of seeing what Saint-Exupéry famously called "the true face of the earth."
Big modern jets have taken nearly all the danger out of air travel, and nearly all the glamour, too. But small airplanes—much safer than those of Lindbergh's day, though more perilous than the big jets—still offer the view for which early aviators took such risks. Sometimes the low-altitude view through the plane's wide windshield is breathtakingly beautiful: along Puget Sound from Seattle toward the San Juan Islands, for instance, or across San Francisco Bay at night. More often it is fascinating in its connectedness, like the world's most richly featured map. Low-altitude flying has a dreamlike quality, allowing one to zoom in three dimensions toward whatever is interesting.
Once, on a frigid midwinter morning, I set out by myself to fly from Centennial Airport, outside Denver, to southern California. After climbing to reach and cross the passes in the Rockies, I came to Grand Junction, Colorado—and spent the next ninety minutes following the colorful, elaborately carved canyons of the Upper Colorado River toward Page, Arizona, where I stopped for fuel. What I saw in that hour and a half was like a private version of the Grand Canyon—no roads or buildings visible in any direction, no indication that anyone had previously seen these sights. It was a perspective available only from 2,000 feet up. —James Fallows
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 2001; The Most Beautiful Place in the World; Volume 288, No. 3; 102-105.