10 weirdly named natural places in America and the stories behind them.
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The Grand Canyon. The Rocky Mountains. The Great Lakes. Many of the names of our American natural wonders are ... a little on the nose.

To be fair, back in the day when people were exploring 3.8 million square miles of largely uncharted territory, literally circling the wagons to brainstorm the name of a random mountain or lake probably got old fast. “Well, they’re pretty rocky, ain’t they? Rocky Mountains — boom. Done.”

But in this vast, amazingly diverse land we call the United States, there are still lots of pretty damn strange names of natural features that might make you say, “Hm, maybe I should go to that pretty place with the funny name.”


As an avid hiker and fan of our national parks, here are a few of my favorite of those pretty places with funny names — and some that are still on my list of places to go.

1. Bumpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Bumpus Hell: when the neighbor's hounds eat all your turkey.

GIF via "A Christmas Story."

Bumpass Hell, on the other hand, is something very different.

Bubbling mud pots. Colorful steaming pools. Overwhelming stench of rotten egg. Lassen Volcanic National Park in the northern Sierra Nevada is Yellowstone's lesser-known cousin. Its biggest area of thermal features has a name that would make Sir Mix-a-lot proud: Bumpass Hell.

It gets its moniker from Kendall Vanhook Bumpass, an ill-fated late-1800s settler who fell into one of its boiling mud pits, severely burning his leg, which is one way to enshrine your name in history, I guess.

Today, you can avoid Bumpass’ fate by exploring the stinky-but-surreal area from the safety of sturdy, carefully placed boardwalks.

2. Big Bone Lick State Park, Kentucky

Whoever decided to put a sign for this park on the freeway clearly didn't have the best interests of teenage boys in mind. We may never know how many ounces of Mountain Dew were lost to the limitless guffaws this name has caused over the years.

Putting aside the adolescent yuks, Big Bone Lick is still just a weird name. Contrary to how it sounds, this place was not named for licking any kind of bones. It’s the site of an ancient salt lick — mineral deposits where mammoths, mastodons, and other large animals fed and died, leaving their big bones for William Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame) to dig up.

Ha-ha-ha, Big Bone Lick.

3. Unalaska Island, Alaska

Is this an oxymoron? Actually, no. Despite its name, this island is, in fact, in Alaska — in the 1,200-mile-long Aleutian archipelago, to be exact.

Unalaska doesn't mean un-Alaska — it's more along the lines of “near Alaska.” The word “Alaska” goes back to Russian colonial times, when it referred to the mainland of, yep, you guessed it: Alaska. “Unalaska” is thought to be a combination of Russian and the Aleut indigenous language meaning “near the mainland.” And while Unalaska may be hundreds of miles off the coast of mainland Alaska, that’s just a little jaunt in Alaska terms.

3. Grand Tetons, Wyoming

The Grand Teton mountains are just ridiculously beautiful.

Yeah. Photo via tpsdave/Pixabay.

Early French trappers thought so too. So much so that these wondrous peaks reminded them of other beautiful things from back home when they first laid eyes on them. Legend has it that these early Francophoners named the peaks Les Trois Tetons — The Three Teats (or The Three Breasts).

Devil's advocate: These dudes were probably super homesick and lonely, like ancient mariners who imagined mermaids on long voyages.

Or, they were just French.

4. Dolly Sods, West Virginia

Finally, a national park covered in neatly manicured Bermuda grass! ... OK, not quite.

The strange name derives from an 18th-century German homesteading family — the Dahles — and a local term for an open mountaintop meadow — a "sods." The wilderness area is also full of sphagnum (peat moss) bogs due to its unique terrain and ecosystem.

It's gorgeous to look at — just watch where you step.

5. Mount Fairweather, Alaska

This 15,325-foot peak that sits on the border between Alaska and British Columbia has “the unofficial distinction of the worst-named mountain on earth” — as it actually has terrible weather.

Margerie Glacier and Mount Fairweather during some fair weather. Image via Eric E Castro/Wikimedia Commons.

Its moniker wasn’t given ironically, though: Legendary explorer Capt. James Cook supposedly named Mount Fairweather from the comfort of his ship offshore in 1778 during a rare period of clear skies.

The rare badass who's climbed it would likely say otherwise.

6. Donner Lake and Donner Pass, California

They say fortune favors the bold. "They" are wrong, at least sometimes. Fortune certainly didn't favor the bold but ill-fated Donner Party in 1846.

California-bound, the Donner Party group of settlers gambled on a newly discovered shortcut through the Sierra Nevada, past what was then called Truckee Lake. They hit a wall of early snow at the pass and ended up stranded for months in the freezing cold. They soon ran out of food and, faced with starvation, eventually resorted to cannibalism. Rescuers finally reached the camp in late February, leading about half of the original 87 members of the party to safety.

Donner Lake from Donner Pass. Image via Frank Schulenburg/Wikimedia Commons.

Today, busy Interstate 80 traverses the pass between Sacramento and Reno. Take a moment on your drive to pull off at the gorgeous Donner Lake viewpoint, remember this grisly bit of history, and give thanks for your warm bed and three squares a day.

7. Pando, aka Trembling Giant, Utah

This natural feature is unique on this list: It’s a living thing — an 80,000-year-old living thing. Formerly thought to be largest living thing in the world (the actual largest living thing in the world is now thought to be a humongous fungus in Oregon), Pando is a massive grove of 47,000 quaking aspens in Utah that are all one life-form. The trees are genetically identical and all grow from the same root system. Wild.

Unfortunately, Pando isn’t doing so well. Overgrazing by deer and cattle is killing its young trees, which could lead to full collapse of the organism. Scientists, heroes that they are, are of course trying to save it.

8. Delmarva Peninsula

How do you name a peninsula shared between three different states? You combine their names, of course! The 170-mile-long Delmarva Peninsula, which forms the east side of the Chesapeake Bay, owes its name to the combination of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, all of which have a foothold on the landmass. Presumably, Virginia goes last because its sliver is the smallest. Hey, fair is fair.

Image via Planiglobe/Wikimedia Commons (altered).

9. Denali, Alaska

Denali. The stuff of legends. The highest peak in North America, at a staggering 20,310 feet.

Photo via skeeze/Pixabay.

Located in the eponymous national park in Alaska, this peak was recently in the news for a name change — or, more accurately, a name reversion. The word "Denali" means "the high one" in the local native Athabaskan language. What a perfect name, right? But as per usual, back in the day some greedy white dude mucked everything up by renaming it after newly elected President William McKinley, who these days is mostly known for being assassinated and succeeded by Teddy Roosevelt (sorry, Billy).

The national park was also called McKinley from 1917 to 1980. It was renamed Denali when it was combined with Denali National Monument. At that time, the Alaska state Board of Geographic Names also restored the mountain’s original name, but the U.S. Board on Geographic Names did not recognize it until President Obama put an end to all that last year, restoring it to its rightful name: Denali.

No word yet on whether President Trump will re-revert it to Mount McKinley. Or, knowing him, Mount Trump.

10. Glass Beach, Fort Bragg, California

Sometimes, one generation's trash makes another's paradise.

This beautiful beach is covered in litter. Seriously — it’s strewn with glass from a former city dump site. But the powerful California surf has shaped and polished millions of small shards into smooth pebbles, to colorful effect. (The red ones are old taillights.)

In a twist of irony, the glass at Glass Beach — which, again, is trash — is now protected by the California state parks as a “cultural feature,” which means you can’t remove any garbage from the beach.

Some of these places may sound made up, but they're very real, and they only begin to scratch the surface of what America has to offer.

If you're looking for a breath of fresh air and need something a little more novel than yet another trip to the Grand Canyon, give some of these breathtaking locales a try.

But a quick warning: Like many of Earth's greatest treasures, a few of these spots are in danger from climate change and other forms of human impact. (Glass Beach is basically made of garbage, for cryin' out loud.)

Visit them while you can — or, at the very least, let those catchy names be a constant reminder to always, always act in service of the planet.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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