National Geographic, show me the world

To see National Geographic’s Best of 2017, click here.


When I was growing up, the bookshelves at home were stocked with years and years of National Geographic.

Today’s digital world has overtaken some of the joy of paging through the latest Geo, but not the admiration of fantastic photographers who capture this world.

I’ll not travel the world as I would like, but thanks to these talented photographers, I can dream of scenery like this.

Our family’s National Geo magazines dated back to the 1930s, as I recall. On some, the spines were worn, others were dissected for use in school projects, still others were totally intact.

One of the saddest realizations when cleaning out the old homestead after Mom died came when the auctioneer told us no one wanted the ‘collection’. What? No one wanted this massive, treasured 60-year library?

Of course, none of the sisters claimed this library either– there was just no room. Still, we cherry-picked a few issues.

May 1948— My birth month.  “Belgium Comes Back” illustrated how this tiny country that was invaded twice is leading Europe in a return to normalcy after World War II. Advertisements boasted about the “first really new portable radio”, Bell and Howell 8 and 16 mm movie cameras, dozens of railways (including the Pennsylvania Railroad), Studebaker automobiles, the Flexifone intercom system, and Old Spice aftershave.

deadhorse pass

Klondikers headed up Chilkoot Pass to the gold fields.

And because it was National Geographic, most states and Bermuda, Canada, France and Britain lured travelers with photos and promises of adventure and beauty.

It’s “Wonderful in Wisconsin”. “They come from all over”– Massachusetts. Vermont– “If you feel low, take a high vacation”. Michigan — “nature-blessed playground”. Tennessee– “the Nation’s most interesting state”. Quebec– “truly French-Canadian charm and hospitality”. North Carolina– “Variety Vacationland”. San Diego– “Where California began”. Pennsylvania– “America’s Meeting Ground”. Maine– “Gives you more”. And the list goes on.

September 1953— Even 64 years later, this issue will be read again for its articles.  “Along the Yukon Trail” is the single most influential article that spurred interest in the Klondike Gold Rush. A few years after reading the story about the decaying ghost towns in the area, I twice canoed 400 fabulous miles from Whitehorse to Dawson and the gold fields. Ghost towns are scattered, some rotting away, on the banks of the Yukon River.

As a child, I looked forward to our glorious vacations across the country. By 18, I was fortunate enough to have seen all but one of the 48 states, although I wasn’t aware of my good luck at the time. We drove to national and state parks, deserts, mountains, oceans, salt lakes and found wolves, moose, prairie dogs, black bears, and puffins. Dad took Super 8 movies of it all, most of which is still in my sister’s closet. Soon, we must transfer those memories to a digital format.  I took the photographs with an Instamatic and the favorite subject was any ghost town.

Five Finger rapids

Sternwheeler slipping through Five Finger Rapids on the Yukon River.

In this issue, National Geographic also talks about southeastern Arizona, its cowboys and “live Indians”, Mexico and ghost towns. Tombstone is a tourist ghost town, that is, complete with gunfights at high noon, swinging saloon doors and bar room ‘gals’. I prefer the true ghost towns where one or two families hang on, soup cans seen through the long-abandoned general store window.  St. Elmo, Rhyolite, Bay Horse, Victor, and Balfour, for example. Few, if any, people get in the way of a photograph.

The lead story here is about the recent coronation in June 1953 of the current queen. With recent events about engagements, even the most jaundiced fan of royalty watched with interest.  Another story was “American family in Afghanistan”. A different story than our current situation, for sure.

November 1951– “Iceland Tapestry” is this issue’s second article.  Iceland was apparently named by the Vikings who tried to deter others from visiting the island by calling it Iceland. The larger island further north and colder was named Greenland. Really?


Tourists view the Keridh Crater in Iceland.

I read this story before heading there a few years ago but picked it for my collection long before that. Just the name– ice land– intrigued me.

The tactic of calling it the ‘land of ice’ didn’t work. It’s a beautiful place, as this article shows, and you can’t keep a secret like this for long. A recent online story calls Icelanders “the nicest people you will ever meet”. Beyond the grace of its people, Iceland’s scenery is spectacular, although not what you would imagine. There are no forests. Everything there is volcanic, including the heating systems. And don’t be scared off by its name– it’ll be colder here in York, Pa., next week than in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital.

Another story is “Rockhounds, Uncovering Mineral Beauty”.  During our travels, we still pick up pretty rocks as souvenirs instead of T-shirts and other dust collectors.

March 1985— A ‘local’ story was the reason this issue stayed on my bookshelf. “Susquehanna: Small-Town River’, is an interesting perspective of the York, Pa., area, and includes a fine photo of Lauxmont Farms, near Wrightsville.

The nuclear accident at Three Mile Island and what was in store for the power plant was discussed, but those predictions have changed dramatically.


Aerial view of York County’s Lauxmont Farms.

Even 30 years ago, the river was being ‘over-enriched’ by nitrogen and phosphorus.  How the Conowingo Dam plays a part ended the article. One official says he “saw 11 (bald eagles) here last Wednesday”. Today, that number has soared (pun intended). Some visitors claim to see 100 in a single day.

Anyone’s ‘collection’ of National Geographics is special for a basket full of reasons– mine was photography and travel. It had to be an extremely fascinating story for me to actually read the article.

During a conversation with a non-photographer friend of mine a decade ago, he mentioned that National Geographic photographers sometimes take 10,000 images for a single story.

“Well, if I could take that many pictures, I’d get National Geographic quality too,” he said.

Um, no. Millions of photographers around the globe have tried that trick, and most of them have failed.

It’s the quality that counts, not quantity.