Melissa Block

For Philip Schentrup, whose daughter Carmen was among the students killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., each day brings the same, sharp pain. The same search for answers that don't come.

"To be honest, it's the same day I live over and over," he says. "Since February 14, this is every day. Every day of trying to hold yourself together."

"You search for normalcy, a 'new normal,'" he says, then pauses.

"I say those words. I don't really know what they mean yet."

It's been one month since the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas.

In the Winter Olympics, where races can be won or lost by thousandths of a second, tiny imperfections can make all the difference.

Nowhere is this more true than in the ice venues, where skilled technicians called "ice meisters" have honed their expertise over years of crafting the perfect surface.

Make that surfaces: It turns out that all ice is not created equal.

Depending on the sport, the ice might need to be softer or harder, colder or warmer, textured or smooth.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There are Olympic athletes, and then there are Olympic families. NPR's Melissa Block caught up with a famous former Olympian as she watched her daughter compete in South Korea.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) We will, we will rock you.

Since she was a little girl, Ashley Caldwell has been in constant motion: jumping out of her crib, tumbling off the couch, leaping down stairs, flipping on a trampoline.

So it seems fitting that now, at 24, Caldwell is the reigning women's world champion in aerials skiing — a sport in which she somersaults and spins through the air, some 60 feet off the ground.

Remember this name: Maame Biney.

The short track speedskater just turned 18; she's not even out of high school. But she is already one of the biggest U.S. names at the Winter Olympics.

Here are a few of the big questions hovering over the Pyeongchang Olympics, about to get underway in South Korea:

  • Which Russian athletes will be allowed to compete?

  • How will the North Korean team fare?

  • Can the United States top its highest number of Winter Olympics medals — the 37 it won eight years ago in Vancouver?

But way up on my own list of burning questions is this: What do these athletes dream about?

Imagine running up 10 flights of stairs as hard as you can, and then immediately trying to thread a needle.

A similar union of two opposite skills defines the sport of biathlon. It combines the all-out exertion of cross-country skiing — pushing the limits of human endurance — with the calm, focused precision of rifle shooting.

Biathlon has the distinction of being the only winter Olympic sport in which the U.S. has never won a medal. The American team is hoping to finally break that drought this month.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Winter Olympics start this week in South Korea. NPR's Melissa Block brings us the story of one athlete who is astonished just to be there. Here's her story.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: She's an accidental Olympian.

At the Winter Olympics, which get underway next month in Pyeongchang, South Korea, some of the most blistering speeds will come in the three high-adrenaline sliding sports, where top athletes zip on the ice at about 90 miles an hour.

There's bobsled, kind of like a downhill race car on steel runners.

In the luge, athletes lie back on a sled, going down the track feet first and face up.

And then there's skeleton, where racers go head-first, face-down, in a blink-and-you-miss-it blur of speed.

The music of The Lemon Twigs has a sound that channels decades long past.

Michael, 18, and Brian D'Addario, 20, the brothers who make up the band, have a look that matches: We're talking peak 1970s shag haircuts, oversized tinted aviator shades and high-waisted bell-bottom jeans.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A moment now to remember one of rock music's most-beloved musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN GIRL")

TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: (Singing) She was an American girl.

On a recent, perfect morning at Johnson Farms in northern Michigan, workers climb wooden ladders high up into the trees, picking bags strapped across their bodies. The branches are heavy with fruit that glows in the morning sun. Their fingers are a blur, nimbly plucking fruit and filling bushel bags: about 50 pounds per load. It's hard, sweaty work.

Apple season was just getting underway on Old Mission Peninsula, a finger of land poking into Lake Michigan, dotted with lush farms.

Right after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, electrician Rocky Breaux, 53, loaded up his airboat in Houma, La., and drove to help rescue people from the swiftly rising floodwaters.

And now that the waters have receded, the ad hoc "Cajun Navy" has gone airborne: Breaux is now helping out with what's being called the "Cajun Airlift." Breaux has his own small plane — a Piper Arrow. When he heard that evacuees at one of Houston's big shelters needed more supplies, he loaded his plane, tanked up, and flew west, with Andy Cook as his co-pilot. "We're locked and loaded," Breaux says.

Sixteen-year-old Murad Rahimov peered down into a gigantic space he had only dreamed about before: the world's largest clean room, kept scrupulously free of any dust or contamination, where NASA assembles and tests spacecraft before launch.

Murad's eyes gleamed and a smile played on his face as he took it all in — the scientists encased in sterile white suits; the replica of the massive new space telescope, the most powerful ever built, that will study the first galaxies born after the Big Bang.

There are only two ways to get to Meyers Chuck, Alaska: by boat or float plane.

If you go by plane, you might hitch a ride on a de Havilland Beaver, circa 1958 — one of the planes that brings the mail every week. It comes in low over specks of islands and the forested Alaska coast, and curves into the protected inlet of Meyers Chuck, splashing down at high tide.

On the day we visit, a handful of boats are tied up along a floating mooring. Small wooden cabins are nestled among the trees.

He brooded, as Lincoln.

He seduced in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And he murdered, in There Will Be Blood.

This week, Daniel Day-Lewis — a three-time Oscar winner, and incomparable film chameleon — announced he is retiring from acting at 60.

A statement released by his spokeswoman gave no explanation, saying this is a private decision, and that Day-Lewis will have no further comment.

The actor has often taken lengthy sabbaticals between films, but this time it's apparently permanent.

So what will he be doing?

What does it mean to lose your land, your language, and your heritage?

For Alaska Natives, these are existential threats.

On a trip to Southeast Alaska, I traveled to one village that is finding new ways to survive: Klukwan, ancestral home of the Tlingit tribe.

Nestled along the banks of the Chilkat River, Klukwan is quiet and tiny, home to about 90 people.

It all started with vellum.

We were led to believe that Queen Elizabeth's speech opening a new session of the British parliament next week was being delayed because it had to be printed on vellum: a parchment made from the skin of a calf.

And, that ink on vellum takes quite a while to dry. Hence, the delay.

Fascinating! So British!

Well, it turns out, the Queen's speech used to be inked on vellum, but those days are long gone.

Now, it's printed on goatskin parchment. But don't be fooled: there is no actual goatskin in the Queen's goatskin.

Alaska is home to about 18,000 fishermen who harvest nearly 6 billion pounds of seafood each year. Salmon dominates the catch, five species in all: chum salmon, sockeye, king, coho and pink.

For a taste of Alaska fishing life, we head out with a father-daughter fishing team as they go trolling for king salmon in the waters off Sitka, in southeast Alaska.

Southeast Alaska is known as the Panhandle:

It's a long, narrow strip of mainland coastline, plus 1,000 islands and the braided waterways that surround them.

In most places, there are no roads connecting the communities there, so Alaskans depend heavily on ferries: the Alaska Marine Highway System.

If you fly into Haines, Alaska, you'll be on a prop plane so small that your pilot will call the roll.

"Melissa." Yup. "Mary." Yes. "Joseph?" Right here.

Just 2,500 people live in Haines — a small town in southeast Alaska surrounded by water. The scenery is incredible, with snowy mountains and lush green forest beyond. The city center is just a few blocks, with several bars, a few restaurants and a beautiful, award-winning library.

What happens to a town when a key industry collapses?

Sometimes it dies. But sometimes it finds a way to reinvent itself.

Case in point: Ketchikan, Alaska, where the demise of the timber industry has led to a radical transformation.

Many people who used to earn their livelihoods through timber have now turned to jobs in tourism.

It's an identity shift that makes the city far different from what it was in the logging heyday.

"It was this boomtown!" says longtime Ketchikan resident Eric Collins. "It was just a crazy, wild frontier place."

In rural Alaska, providing health care means overcoming a lot of hurdles.

Fickle weather that can leave patients stranded, for one.

Also: complicated geography. Many Alaskan villages have no roads connecting them with hospitals or specialists, so people depend on local clinics and a cadre of devoted primary care doctors.

I followed one young family physician, Dr. Adam McMahan, on his regular weekly visit to the clinic in the village of Klukwan.

Before we headed out on our latest road trip for the Our Land series, we put a call out on social media, asking for ideas of places we should go in Arizona and New Mexico. Shannon Miller's suggestion really caught our attention: "White Sands are the only white gypsum 'sand' dunes in the world. They are actually crystals and it is beautiful."

How could we resist?

There's really no place like it on the planet: White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico. It's the world's largest gypsum dunefield, miles and miles of stunning white landscape.

Depending on where you sit, the U.S.-Mexico border is:

a) a dangerous frontier that allows drug traffickers and illegal immigrants to cross freely into the U.S.

or

b) a familiar frontier that is navigated as a regular part of everyday life.

For people who live along the border in the twinned cities of Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico, it's nearly always the latter.

The sister cities are known collectively as Ambos Nogales, or "Both Nogales."

Think about the avocados you mash for your Super Bowl guacamole, or the fresh tomatoes you enjoy in the winter. There's a good chance they came from Mexico.

Our southern neighbor is the United States' leading supplier of fresh produce, providing 70 percent of the fresh vegetables we import and more than 40 percent of our fresh fruit imports. That trade has boomed since NAFTA — the North American Free Trade Agreement — was signed in 1994.

Think of the Mississippi Delta. Maybe you imagine cotton fields, sharecroppers and blues music.

It's been all that. But for more than a century, the Delta has also been a magnet for immigrants. I was intrigued to learn about one immigrant group in particular: the Delta Chinese.

To find out more, I travelled to Greenville, Miss., a small city along the Mississippi River. I meet Raymond Wong in Greenville's Chinese cemetery, right across a quiet road from an African-American cemetery. Wong's family has long been part of a thriving — but separate — Chinese community.

We hear a lot about U.S. companies laying off workers and shipping jobs overseas.

So, amid the global pressures to downsize, how do you hang onto your workforce?

We went looking for answers in Chelsea, Mich., home to a family owned manufacturer that's managed to thrive over four generations, since the company's founding in 1907.

The Chelsea Milling Co. is better known as the manufacturer of Jiffy baking mixes. You know the ones. They come in those signature little blue and white boxes: mixes for muffins, cakes, pie crusts, biscuits, brownies and more.

Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed it "The Jewel of the Delta."

Booker T. Washington praised it as a model of "thrift and self-government."

Mound Bayou, in the Mississippi Delta: a town founded in 1887 by former slaves, with a vision that was revolutionary for its time.

From the start, it was designed to be a self-reliant, autonomous, all-black community.

For decades, Mound Bayou thrived and prospered, becoming famous for empowering its black citizens. The town also became known as a haven from the virulent racism of the Jim Crow South.

If you're in Clarksdale, Miss., home of the Delta blues, everybody says you have to go to Red's juke joint. The hole-in-the-wall club is the real deal. It's just a small room, a few tables and a fridge full of beer. Red lights are strung around a low ceiling. On the night we visit, octogenarian Leo "Bud" Welch plays in the center of the room, hunched over a sparkly, hot pink, electric guitar. Red Paden, the owner, sits out front, surveying from behind the bar.

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