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The geologist hands me a homemade brownie wrapped in a clear baggie, then points across my lap and out the window. “This glacial environment makes up one of the nicer outwash plains we have. See that line of cobbles? Then a dip, and another line of cobbles? That’s where one of the braided streams went through…

I came to Estes Park, Colorado, to see purple mountain majesties, blue hollows, and flaming red alpenglow. Maybe get some taffy and a T-shirt. My guide is a marked-up copy of Isabella Bird’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, a remarkable travelogue spun from letters the British writer wrote during her trip to Colorado…

“We bike and drink beer. And that’s pretty much it.” A barista in Fort Collins, Colorado, is describing local life here as she readies a hand-pour cup of an Ethiopian bean she calls “delicate, like a flower” (with a wink). We’re at Bean Cycle, a downtown café/printing press on a block of late 19th-century buildings…

Lyrically, “America the Beautiful” covers “sea to shining sea,” but at its heart it’s about where prairies and mountains meet. Katharine Lee Bates, a schoolteacher-poet from Massachusetts, wrote it in 1895, after a trip up Pike’s Peak in Colorado Springs, where she looked east over the plains and soon found herself reaching for a pen.…

One of the great things about visiting Europe is getting around by train. Even short hops get you to places with new cultures, languages, cuisines, even types of chocolate. Truth is, you can do that in the U.S., particularly along the Northeast Corridor. I’ve long wanted to do this—connect the dots by train or bus…

Across the Anacostia River from Capitol Hill, the 12-acre Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens has pockets of wetlands that predate city construction. And visiting it feels like a lost surprise. Built in the late 1800s by a Civil War vet who lost an arm at Spotsylvania, the park’s claim to fame, such as it is, are a series of man-made ponds filled with lilies and lotus blooms from Asia, Africa, and the Amazon.

This is part of Capitol Hill’s backstreet charm. Not Capitol Hill, that mound that holds up the U.S. Capitol for flurries of tourists and Congress folks. But what lies beyond, Capitol Hill the neighborhood: a leafy network of setback townhouses on little lawns filling the diagonal blocks of D.C.’s original layout. It’s closer to the National Mall than, say, Georgetown or Dupont Circle, yet it’s a sleepy secret to most visitors.

Philadelphia may not have Central Park, Millennium Park, Golden Gate Park, or the National Mall. But, quietly, it is home to the largest landscaped park in the United States. Fairmount Park, and its associated 60-some parks, fill 9,200 acres of green space in the City of Brotherly Love. That’s over 10 times the size of Central Park (843 acres). It took form in the 1840s but is linked to a 17th-century pastoral vision William Penn had for “Liberty Lands” in the present-day northwest of the city.

It’s fun to watch Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon, debate who’s weirder. Both cities—bastions of progressive ideas in (mostly) conservative states—have “Keep Austin Weird” and “Keep Portland Weird” stickers to drive the point home. But no matter how much they try, they can’t out-weird a city that hardly notices its quirks.

That’s Philadelphia, the original American weird. A different type of weird.

The man with graying dreadlocks raking outside a New York mansion is hip-hop pioneer Kool DJ Herc. He hasn’t switched careers, but is an artist-in-residence helping out at the Andrew Freedman Home, a one-time “country club” retirement home that’s now a workspace for graffiti artists, a 1920s-styled bed-and-breakfast, and space for homegrown art and theater.…