Melissa Block

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.

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.

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.

We hadn't planned to visit William Faulkner's home on our visit to Mississippi. We didn't think we had enough time. But really, the temptation was too great: It seemed sacrilegious to leave Oxford without making even a brief pilgrimage.

So before we headed out to the Mississippi Delta, we stopped by Rowan Oak, the stately antebellum mansion Faulkner bought for $6,000 in 1930. He had just published The Sound and the Fury.

You want to find pigs? Go to Iowa.

It's the largest pork producer in the country. The ratio of pigs to people in Iowa is about 7 to 1.

I've had a hankering to spend some time on a farm for my series "Our Land." Over the next few months, I'll be out on a road trip, visiting communities large and small, and talking with people about what's important in their lives.

So with farming in mind, off to Iowa we went — to Buchanan County in northeastern Iowa.

What becomes of a town when its heyday has passed? What convinces young people to stay when good jobs vanish?

Those are questions many towns across America have been trying to answer for years.

And they were on my mind when I headed to Independence, Kan., with a dwindling population that's now below 9,000. It's in the southeastern corner of the state, not far from the Oklahoma border.

Independence has much to boast about.

A week away from turning 99 years old, Frances Kolarek has a long view of life and presidential elections.

Born in 1917, three years before women won the right to vote, she cast her first presidential vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Now, in 2016, she has cast her vote early for Hillary Clinton.

"I think she is undoubtedly the most qualified candidate for the presidency that we have seen in my lifetime," she says from her home at the retirement community where she lives, independently, outside Washington, D.C.

Imagine: the chance to live on an uninhabited tropical island for a month, off the grid, creating art.

No phone, no television, no Internet.

Instead, spectacular night skies, crystalline turquoise waters and extraordinary marine life on the coral reef just a short swim from your back door.

You might assume that with the thawing of relations between Cuba and the U.S., Cubans would see positive change at home, and less reason to attempt the perilous water crossing to Florida. You'd assume wrong.

U.S. law enforcement authorities are confronting a surge of Cuban migrants trying to make the journey by boat across the Florida Straits; it's the highest numbers they've seen in two decades.

One of the last medals awarded at the Rio Olympics went to a 21-year-old middleweight boxer from Flint, Mich.: Claressa Shields.

It was gold. With that Sunday victory, Shields became the first U.S. boxer ever to win back-to-back gold medals.

On the podium, after the medal was slipped around her neck, she reached into her pocket, pulled out her gold medal from the 2012 London Games and draped that one over her head, too.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

The U.S. women's water polo team will be back in the pool on Friday, hungry for a second consecutive Olympic gold medal.

The women made it to the gold medal match after a decisive victory Wednesday against Hungary in the semifinals.

I watched that game with the mother of not one, but two players on Team USA.

Leslie Fischer of Laguna Beach, Calif., was sitting poolside, watching anxiously as the Hungarian players beat up on the U.S. team, including her daughters: Makenzie, 19, and Aria, 17, who's still in high school and the youngest player on the U.S. roster.

One story that's simmering at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro has to do with sex: in particular, the controversy over intersex athletes, who are anatomically and genetically ambiguous.

At issue: Is it fair to allow those athletes, who often have high levels of testosterone, to compete with women?

Much of the attention has focused on South African runner Caster Semenya, the favorite to win gold in the women's 800 meters on Saturday. Semenya has been identified as intersex in many media reports, though she has never confirmed that or spoken about it.

For all the superstar athletes at the Rio Olympics — the ones with cushy endorsement deals and worldwide fame — there are many more who never find the limelight, who will never even come close to getting a medal.

They compete for the sheer honor of it. For national pride. And for reasons all their own.

Among that group is a hurdler with a remarkable backstory.

I happened to find Maoulida Daroueche at the Olympic athletes village. He was wearing a green and white track suit with "Comoros" in red letters across the back, and we got to talking in English and French.

They come from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Ten athletes who are refugees are competing on the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team at the Rio Games. They are representing the estimated 65 million people around the world who have been driven from their homes.

With six years of Olympic preparation behind him, American Jason Pryor took to the fencing strip in Rio on Tuesday.

When I caught up with him a few days before his match, he told me, "I've never been more ready for anything in my entire life."

Pryor, 28, from South Euclid, Ohio, is the top men's epee fencer in the U.S., and ranked no. 24 in the world.

His opening opponent is Benjamin Steffen of Switzerland, ranked no. 13.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We are just a couple of hours away from the opening ceremonies at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Organizers say to expect lots of samba, of course, and a lot more. NPR's Melissa Block is in Rio and is with us now. Hey, Melissa.

Two new flags will be flying high at the Olympic Games in Rio.

For the first time, South Sudan and Kosovo have been recognized by the International Olympic Committee.

South Sudan has three runners to its first Olympic Games. Kosovo, which was a province of the former Yugoslavia, will have eight athletes competing.

Tucked amid the tumult of Lower Manhattan's Financial District, right across from a factory-outlet shoe store promising "probably" the lowest prices in the city, you'll find Alexander Hamilton's grave. With the explosive popularity of the Broadway musical Hamilton, that grave is seeing a surge of new fans coming to pay respects to the Founding Father.

Lillian Hasko has seen the musical twice, bought the soundtrack, and felt compelled to make the pilgrimage downtown.

Guy Clark, one of Nashville's most renowned singer-songwriters, has died at the age of 74. This profile of Clark originally aired on July 23, 2013, on All Things Considered.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Some Belgians say the terrorist attacks have brought the country together, and that's what the country needs. Others says the bombings show the country needs to split, with one part made of French-speaking Walloons, the other Dutch-speaking Flemish.

"We want to get rid of Belgium," says Sam van Rooy, a spokesman for the Vlaams Belang Party, or Flemish Interest Party, on Belgium's far right.

"It's actually a non-state. It has two different peoples, two different cultures, and we see it doesn't work. And it's one of the causes that we had these terror attacks now," he adds.

Turn on the radio in Belgium and you get news of the terrorist attacks in French and in Dutch. Belgium is divided into Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia. There's a German-speaking area, too.

To make things more complicated, Brussels, the capital, is subdivided into 19 municipalities, each with its own government. And there are six local police forces.

It all adds up to a decentralized system, a dismantled federal state. And in light of last week's attacks, some have even gone so far as to suggest Belgium is a failed state.

Yesterday, NASA announced that astronaut Scott Kelly will retire from the space agency as of April 1st. Kelly holds the U.S. record for the most time spent in space.

For nearly a full year, he zoomed along at 17,500 miles per hour — orbiting 230 miles above earth — on the International Space Station. And for those million or so of us who follow him on Twitter, Cmdr. Kelly's year in space gave us a mind-expanding view of planet Earth.

Kelly posted spectacular photos — awesome, in the true sense of the word. He called them, earth-art.

When President Obama travels to Cuba next month — the first visit by a sitting U.S. president in nearly 90 years — it will mark a historic step on the path to normalizing relations with the island nation.

While Obama is in Havana, two U.S. businessmen are hoping the president might spend some time with them — or even take a seat on a prototype of the tractor they plan to assemble and sell in Cuba.

You don't host All Things Considered without having a list of memorable interview moments with musicians, actors and authors.

On her last day as host, NPR's Melissa Block takes a look at some of the highlights over her 12 1/2 years as one of the voices of All Things Considered.

Editor's note: NPR's Melissa Block was on a reporting trip to southwest China in May 2008 when a massive earthquake hit, leaving some 90,000 dead or missing. Now, as she wraps up her time hosting All Things Considered, she reconnected with a girl, now a young woman, who has overcome great obstacles since that traumatic event. The original version, published in English, is here.

Editor's Note: NPR's Melissa Block was on a reporting trip to southwest China in May 2008 when a massive earthquake hit, leaving some 90,000 dead or missing. Now, as she wraps up her time hosting All Things Considered, she reconnected with a girl, now a young woman, who has overcome great obstacles since that traumatic event.

You can also see this story in Chinese.

Pages