The yearning to travel—from place to place as well as in time—impelled us to devote last April’s issue to the subject. I asked Senior Editor Carla Davidson, who was in charge of the major components of that issue, as well as this one, to tell me how she went about her work:
“Travel in one way or another has always been part of our beat. We were barely a year under way, in October 1955, when Wallace Stegner described for us the Saskatchewan-Montana country of his youth. ‘Across its empty miles,’ he wrote, ‘pours the pushing and shouldering wind, a thing you tighten into as a trout holds himself in fast water.’ And in the December 1957 issue Bruce Catton revisited the Gettysburg battlefield: ‘…the ground today is just the same, the sun still slants down in late afternoon from the crest of the blue mountain wall to the west.…’ In April 1971, when Oliver Jensen, then our Editor, joined the ultimately successful fight to save the steamship Delta Queen—that perfect icon for the history-minded traveler—he reminded us that 'very few people in this age of cities, automobiles, and air travel ever really see the secret parts of the rivers that course through the central half of America.’
“So down through our years, history and travel have been entwined. We instinctively knew that exploring one could only shed light on the other. This is familiar territory for me. I’ve always been convinced that one has only to stand on any square foot of this country—city street or farmer’s field—scuff one’s toe on the surface, dig a little deeper, and shortly a rich stratum of historical event will be revealed. (I’ve wanted to do this with my 1904 apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side: trace its origins, find out what smaller dwelling was there first, whose farmland it was before that, and ultimately what story was told by the rocks and sedirnent that came before all the rest.)
“We’re continuing to do what we always did—just a little differently. In this issue we’ve gathered together a group of writers who are as comfortable with the past as they are eager and keen-eyed travelers—not an easy combination to find. We’ve devoted the entire issue to journeys to special places. For Tom Crouch, who knows everything about the Wright brothers, the vast windy beaches of North Carolina’s Outer Banks still bear traces of Orville and Wilbur, despite changes that have been wrought along that coast. Nicholas Lemann captures New Orleans as only a native son could do, with just the right blend of skepticism and love. And for those like me, who have wondered exactly what the prairie is, where it is, and what remains of it, Wayne Fields takes us to the reaches of ancient prairie that still exist.”
In another context I recently defined American Heritage as a ship of discovery on an ocean of time.