November 28, 2021

"In many years of working as a travel writer — which I’ve often thought of as working the awe beat — I’ve come to understand that awe cannot be easily choreographed."

"Some of the times I have experienced awe: An hour of avalanches rumbling down the south face of Annapurna under a full moon. Fork lightning strobing across the empty deck of a cargo ship on Lake Victoria. An eagle hovering 20 feet above my shoulder in the Chilean tundra. These... transcendental moments... relied on serendipity...  Some occasions, by contrast, when I didn’t feel awe: gorilla tracking in Uganda, seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre amid a jostling crowd of people taking photos of it with their mobile phones, every safari I’ve ever been on.... Space tourism belongs to this subset of ostensibly awesome experiences that often feel anticlimactic precisely because they come with a promise of awe factored in... The sense of surprise that is arguably the most vital precondition for experiencing awe will have been watered down by the months of forethought and demystification.... It’s the difference between joining a 20-strong organized tour to see the Northern Lights and, say, camping alone in some Scandinavian wilderness and being roused from your tent by the aurora’s spectral green ripples illuminating the canvas.... 'The best way to access this everyday awe is by allowing yourself to wander, to avoid following a schedule each moment of the day. We didn’t evolve to feel awe about hurtling through space.'"


When have you experienced the sublime? Was it planned? Was it in a group? Did you pay for it? If it was planned, paid for, and in a group, did you really feel it, or did you fake it? What if other people murmuring about the sublimity they paid for punctured your sublimity? What if it left you cold, what if it felt like nothing? But you paid $450,000! 

81 comments:

Walter said...

Sainte-chapelle in Paris. Was crowded but the feeling of awe and wonder in the upper room was, well, awesome. I had been complaining about being told to visit as I was walking up the stairs. Whoops!

Walter said...

I saw the Mona Lisa in 1983, before cell phones. It was meh then.

Joe Smith said...

Very good writing in that first paragraph...

Seeing the enormity of St. Peters in Rome, and the Sistine Chapel was pretty awesome.

And being three feet away from 'Starry Night.' It has to be seen to be believed.

Don't even get me started on women that are too beautiful for words...

Clark said...

Not planned, not paid for. There were three of us. It was a late summer evening in the little town of Arolla high in the Swiss alps. (We were walking the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt.) After dinner we strolled up the hill on the main road with no destination in mind. We found ourselves looking at the full moon rising over a garden. And then immediately above us the sound of a piano drifted out of a second story window. Debussy. There was an audience in that room upstairs. But we were where the action was—-in the garden with the rising moon. The music should have been Claire de Lune. (If I shifted into story telling mode, I would make it so.) It was actually the first Arabesque, but that was close enough.

Darkisland said...

I spent a week in a plant that rotomolded plastic tanks earlier this month.

I was pretty awestruck by the process.

The cheese plant I spent a week in last month was rather awe inspiring too.

I'd never been in a cheese or rotomolding plant before.

I specialize in Industrial Tourism.

John LGBTQNY Henry

Darkisland said...

I Love the Peggy Lee clip, BTW. A few weeks ago I found a 90 minute compilation of her on Youtube.

Downloaded the Audio and wife and I are both loving it. Unfortunately this classic is not on it.

Thanks for posting it.

John Henry

Yancey Ward said...

A true sense of personal awe at nature? Rare in my experience.

When I was 13, I sat at the patio door watching an incredibly violent thunder and lightening storm in the middle of the night- the storm went on at a high intensity for over an hour, with nearby lightening bolts hitting about every half-minute or so on the surrounding hilltops. It was exhilarating and frightening all at the same time. I have never witnessed its equal in a thunderstorm since.

I have personally witnessed only one total solar eclipse (2017), and while it had a kind of awe-inspiring nature to it, I had seen them on youtube and video long before then, so the experience was somewhat attenuated from my initial expectations, though well worth it anyway.

I guess the only other experiences that induced that kind of surprised awe in me was when I went to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite the first time. We parked in a lot on the south rim of the canyon, but couldn't see the canyon on the approach or when we got out of the car because of the shrubs/trees that blocked the view, but as crossed out of that barrier, the canyon suddenly came into view, and we just stopped in our tracks staring at it. Also, in Yosemite, we visited the sequoia groves, and when you first go in, you can't see any of the trees directly, but when we spotted the first one walking in, it was the same effect- stupefying disbelief.

Sebastian said...

"We didn’t evolve to feel awe about hurtling through space."

But we did evolve to watch avalanches for an hour?

I call BS.

Ice Nine said...

>When have you experienced the sublime? Was it planned? Was it in a group? Did you pay for it?<

Many times I've experienced it. Never planned and not in a paid group (tour groups and "adventure" travelers being the ruin of those places where one might hope to experience the sublime in travel). Just knocking around the world on my own.

A lunar rainbow at Victoria Falls, where the light from a full moon is of just sufficient intensity to be refracted by the heavy mist produced by the falls, creating the night time rainbow. Unreal. Yes, sublime. And totally because of serendipitous timing.

A "Belian" healing ceremony in the interior of Borneo, attended on the invitation of my local friend, whom I had met on the trip upriver. When I spat into the bundle of weeds held out to me by the Dukan, as all the other locals had done to purge evil spirits that were afflicting their neighbor, lying on the floor, I truly felt some of that juju stuff. ...Yeah, it was sublime. And totally because of a chance meeting with Augustono on a river boat.

There are more...

The writer is right about the lightning on the cargo boat on Lake Victoria and he's right about the grotesque mobs viewing the Mona Lisa. He's wrong about safaris and gorilla viewing in Uganda - if you hire your own guide and go just with him. But he's surely right about those last two if you go in a tour group. The very thought appalls me.

He is so spot on about the sense of surprise and allowing oneself to wander. Both of those will OD you on moments of awe.

n.n said...

They will feel awe-spired, but with progressive returns. The same as discovery through wandering aimlessly. Life evolves through conception, birth, and moderation.

Amexpat said...

The sense of surprise that is arguably the most vital precondition for experiencing awe will have been watered down by the months of forethought and demystification

There's a lot of truth to that. First time I went to Europe, as a teenager in the 70s, a visit to Stonehenge was at the top of my list. I think I had two albums with it on the cover. I was expecting some sort of mystical experience. Didn't happen. It turned out to be a big anti-climax.

A few days later I stumbled upon the smaller and lesser known Neolithic henge monument at Avebury. That was a special experience because I had the place to myself and could get some sense of the awe people in the Stone age must have felt.

svlc said...

I have only experienced one safari (Serengeti in 2010) but the moment that the first three elephants emerged from the forest in front of us was truly incredible. Of course, by the time we got to 300 elephants, that feeling had diminished somewhat.

At the top of Kilimanjaro, after 6 days of pain and suffering climbing to get there, all I felt was a sense of relief (no more climbing), lots of tiredness (I hadn't slept in 1.5 days at that point) and cold, and I couldn't wait to get down and back to the hotel for a Kilimanjaro Lager (that was awesome).

I saw the Mona Lisa when I was 14 (in 1979). Though the crowd at that time did not waive their cell phones around, the crowd was large and the painting is quite small. I think my feeling at that time was "that's it?".

In January 2011, my spouse and I flew to Whitehorse to see the aurora. It was cold and the aurora was awesome. But, an unplanned dog sledding event is what I remember most. That, and going to the hot springs and seeing how quickly my hair would freeze in the minus 40 celcius night air (very quickly).

Later in 2011, we took a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. It was awesome.

In 2016, we went to Barcelona. Neither of us have words to describe our trip to Sagrada Familia (neither of us are religious) on a sunny afternoon. "Awesome" is to plain a descriptor.

JPS said...

“Why Space Tourists Won’t Find the Awe They Seek”

Yeah. Remember that interview with Shatner just after he landed? He could hardly find the words to express his let-down.

Temujin said...

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe.

Richard Dolan said...

One wonders what this fellow means by 'awe.' A display of nature's power? Something that makes him feel small and insignificant? Hard to tell, really. But an essential element for him seems to be an experience without the company of hordes of deplorables, like that crowd taking iphone-pix of the Mona Lisa. His examples all sound like a travelogue by some 30-something out for an adventure he can write about. You know, the kind of book to let the deplorables know what they're missing.

What a pathetic concept of awe. He might do well to spend a day or two reading Otto's classic, the Idea of the Holy, before tackling the subject again.

Sydney said...

When I’ve experienced the sublime:
The fattest, most brilliant rainbow I’ve ever seen directly in front of me while driving down a long stretch of highway with no other cars in front of me. It looked like it touched the horizon at the highway and seemed to last forever.
A huge full moon just above the horizon on another highway drive that had a lavender hue I’ve never seen before or since.
The multiple rainbows at Iguazu Falls and the butterflies that there that would land on your hands.
A snowy egret flying low next to me as I walked near Sandusky Bay.
Walking along a quiet beach at night in Nantucket illuminated only by a full moon. Had no idea the moon could provide so much light.
The sunset on Lake Erie
Watching a far off storm from across a flat field in north central Ohio
Hiking along a path facing Mount Ranier and seeing the blues and whites of its glacier.
Looking closely at a flower blossom with the close up of my camera.

Only paid or travelled to do a couple of those things. Most were free and serendipitous.

The Cracker Emcee Refulgent said...

You have to be shitting me . The take-off alone would be worth the price of admission. Not exactly monkeys and the Mona Lisa.

Walter said...

Had a friend volunteer me to help with two of the 600 balloons at this year’s balloon fiesta in Albuquerque. We have a local balloon race in StL and I’ve been there a few times and I’m kinda not excited. My friend has known the guy for decades—he makes it sound like the traveling balloonists are flying carnies. We show up with the other suckers (twenty of us!) at 5:30 am.

Then we arrive and I felt like a kid again. So much color! So much activity! Lay out and inflate balloons as the sun rises over the mountains. Holding the ropes as our badger ascends to the sky. Racing across the city in the bed of an F~350 chasing it, trying to watch it amongst the hundreds of other balloons following the breeze. Grabbing the ropes to guide it in to land. Laughing with dozens of children as they run barefoot over the silk to help it deflate.

Yes, it’s a tourist attraction. Yes, it’s absurdly crowded and expensive. Yes, it’s best appreciated by those 3-13 years of age. But I felt wonder and awe again, and that’s hard to come by in the middle of my sixth decade.

Kevin said...

The space trip is better if you smoke a lot of pot.

Like, a loooootttt of pot.

Then take a handful of molly and x right before you go.

I hear that's how the real astronauts do it.

Scot said...

NYC, 9th Ave & 50th St, 1991?

I was walking east to 9th & noticed police action. Motorcycles roaring downtown. When I reached the Ave I saw it was blocked to all traffic as far as I could see uptown. More & more motorcycles roaring by. Many questions.

Then I saw it: a line of elephants processing toward Madison Square Garden. Bulls to babies. The circus was coming. It was the most unexpected thing I have ever witnessed. So glad I did not have a camera. Otherwise, I would have wasted precious moments futzing with it instead of recording with Mk-1 eyeball. Wouldn't trade it for a tour to "outer space".

Big Mike said...

When have you experienced the sublime?

Standing atop the Acropolis and gazing at the remnants of the Parthenon, contemplating that it was built 2500 years ago without steam or diesel-powered machinery.

Was it planned?

Of course.

Was it in a group? Did you pay for it?

Of course. The bus picked us up at our Athens hotel, picked up other tourists at their hotels, and parked in a lot designated for tourist buses. The guide assembled us in front of the Acropolis, led the party up the approximately three million steps, and discussed the various shrines and smaller temples as well as the Parthenon (there’s a lot more than just the Parthenon up there).

If it was planned, paid for, and in a group, did you really feel it, or did you fake it?

Some people may not have felt it, but I surely did. Things that the guide pointed out that would otherwise have escaped my notice include (1) the four columns at the corners are slightly thicker than the others because they carry more load, and (2) the columns on the outside are not truly vertical but instead angle slightly inward, helping to transform sideways loads into downward loads the way the flying buttresses of Gothic cathedrals transfer loads. In neither case would I have realized the subtle effects without knowing to look for them. Also (3), to the common Greek, the British are a pack of thieves for not returning the Elgin Marbles.

What if other people murmuring about the sublimity they paid for punctured your sublimity?

I tuned them out.

Joe Smith said...

'I've seen things you people wouldn't believe.'

And I've been everywhere...

David Begley said...

For me the sublime was when I was on the shore of the Niobrara river looking at the Norden Chute that would have killed me if we had gone over it.

Big Mike said...

gorilla tracking in Uganda

Now if one of those alpha male gorillas had charged him, that might have given him a truly memorable, awe-inspiring experience! It would have been something to keep him excited for the rest of his (shortened) life.

tcrosse said...

A live performance of the Dies Irae of the Verdi Requiem did it for me.YMMV.

Wilbur said...

When I was 16, from about a mile away I witnessed an enormous grain elevator spontaneously explode, unfurling a huge fireball about 1000 feet into the air.

I've ridden out several hurricanes, but witnessing the damage wreaked by Andrew in 1992 was stupefying.

I find the beauty of Augusta National Golf Club is amazing even on TV.

The first time you buy a ticket and walk into a major league ballpark and emerge from under the dark grandstand and see the sunlit, immaculate playing field is special for anyone, but doing so at Wrigley Field just knocked me out. I was 10.

These come to mind. I'm sure there are others.

Baceseras said...

I agree with Sebastian 1:55 pm - "We didn’t evolve to feel awe about hurtling through space."

But we did evolve to watch avalanches for an hour?

I call BS.


And even before that, in the pull-quote header: "working as a travel writer -- which I've often thought of as working the awe beat" - did his editor snip the word "ironically" from that sentence? If he said it straight and didn't get a custard pie in the face, there's no justice. Aw, beat it.

Flat Tire said...

I've got a tiny off-grid cabin in the most remote part of NW Nevada. A night there alone always brings awe, in some form, if you are quiet.

Flat Tire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Narr said...

I was visiting my mother one afternoon at her care home, during one of many bouts of rehab she underwent before she died in 2018.

It was a cloudy day, but I glanced up as I walked across the parking lot to see I don't know how many big birds (dozens?) circling and circling in an open space directly above. I must have stared for minutes--predators are usually not seen in such numbers I think, but these were clearly kites or the like, probably attracted by the marshy area next to the grounds.

And one fall evening a few years ago, as my wife and I walked around the block, we must have been directly under the flyway of all the ducks in the world heading south. The air thrummed and vibrated for the 20 minutes it took us to walk the mile, and was still audible through the overcast an hour later.

As for manmade awe, live music has always been peak sublime for me.

Narr said...

So much for travel awe. I love travel and I love awe, but I don't do one to experience the other. YMMV.

Earnest Prole said...

I could not agree more. The goal when I travel is unmediated discovery, which means I never use a guide book or plan an itinerary, and instead wander through a landscape allowing my curiosity to guide my next step. Years later I can remember how the journey unfolded street by street.

wildswan said...

When I first saw Mt Rainier. I looked at the massive sides sweeping upward for awhile - the top was hidden in a line of mist. Then I looked up at the little white cloud far above the line of mist and I saw that was the top. There was some awe.

Dennis said...

Watching sunrise while sitting at the top of Temple IV at Tikal. Almost no one else around.

Touching the Intihuatana Stone in Machu Picchu on a star-filled, moonlit night. I actually felt the energy the stone legend says the stone projects. No one around but our Inca guide.

Hearing the first cuckoo of Spring at the Poulnabrone Dolmen in the Burren, County Clare.

Loren W Laurent said...

As a Young Beguiling Jewish Girl I modestly once provided a Sublime Experience by letting an Exchange Student spend a half-hour between my young supple thighs.

She was Romanian, so it was exotic for both of us.

Truth be told though, it was rather mathematical: she was a chess player and spent a lot of time moving pawns rather than going for the Queen, if you know what I mean.

But she said it was life-changing, and I was touched to be a part of it.

My inner thighs seem to possess a certain kind of magic.

-Loren

Michael said...

Standing on Omaha Beach at low tide and dawn breaking. Looking out at the waterline 200-300 out and realizing that nineteen and twenty year old kids ran all that way with heavy packs under murderous gunfire.

That is awe.

gilbar said...

my $0.02

Most (nearly ALL) people, will NEVER see anything awesome, ever again
In the unlikely event that they are where something AWESOME happens (grain elevator explodes?);
instead of SEEING it, they will fumble for their phone
IF they find their phone, they will (LITERALLY!) cover their eyes with their phone;
so that INSTEAD of SEEING the awesome thing; they can watch a safe version on a screen
If they CAN'T find their phone, they'll spend the time looking for it
WHY? i do NOT know; if THINK it is because they think they're expected to

When things happen; you should LOOK at them. Why aren't you?

kcl766 said...

Corny, I know, but viewing Mount Rushmore at age 65. I had only seen photos and was so awed by the sight that I cried. My husband had seen it many times and was surprised by my reaction!

Ex-PFC Wintergreen said...

Sitting in the Jefferson Memorial on a pleasant spring afternoon, reading the words engraved on the walls, contemplating life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Plenty of other people around. I don’t live in NOVA (other side of the country in fact) and wasn’t there for work, so yes I had paid for the experience. But sitting there, taking my time, metaphorically communing with the Sage of Monticello, a very imperfect human being, but one who at his best was OUR best and one of the most profound thinkers in recorded history. The thoughts captured on the walls of the memorial, made real by this very imperfect nation, provide us a Platonic ideal to strive for, knowing that we’ll never get all the way there but also knowing it matters that we try. Sublime? Yes indeed.

Rory said...

I was walking my dog at night, and heard a flock of geese booking north. I looked up - couldn't see them. Kept looking, and they entered a little shaft of moonlight. A huge orange "V" pulsed in the sky. A couple seconds later, a second V. It was perfect.

deckhand_dreams said...

Mendocino, CA standing around on the beach. Nothing to see really, except a nice sunset. Suddenly a feeling that we are being watched. Are those eyes peaking out between the waves? Yes, seals of some variety. Their deception discovered, they approach the shore. Live fish thrashing about in the mouth of one these creatures, the last few moments of its life. is this an offering of some sort? Wait, who's watching who? Yelling at step daughter "stay away from those things, they're dangerous!". Sublime. Wife throwing up in a plastic bag on the way home. Spell broken, back to reality.

Tim said...

Most sublime moment ever. My wife and I have a favorite hike on the Cumberland trail that comes out on Brady Bluff Overlook over Grassy Cove, TN, a beautiful little valley full of farms and fields and woods. Just below the bluff is a stand of woods, and we often watch a red-tailed hawk floating below us hunting. I told my brother about it, and the first time he comes with us, the hawk is sitting in a tree above the overlook as my brother steps out of the woods, and the hawk bursts out before him and his daughter. The joy and amazement on his face at that moment I will never forget.

tim maguire said...

I was in Belfast on a study abroad program about 20 years ago, walking down a street of bars near an old church. The bars were lit with neon, the steeple looming over them lit by the moon. When I noticed it, the moon was behind the steeple—completely blocked, but the wispy clouds around it glowed in the moonlight. The clouds behind the steeple, of course, were blocked so although you couldn’t see the steeple itself, you did see a steeple-shaped blackness cutting through the moonlit clouds. It was an awe-inspiring sight—the neon of the club scene at street level, and over it a medieval steeple looming in ghostly blackness. Ominous in way only gothic can be.

I came back every nightcwith a camera to try to capture it, but it was never so perfect again.

rcocean said...

I guess if you come with overheated expectations of what you're going to see/experience, reality will always disappoint. I'm surprised this man, is thinking this way in 2021, since people have had access to the internet for almost 25 years.

My biggest letdowns occured when I was younger and knew nothing. We went Hollywood once, and I expected somethng spectacular. It ended up being a run-down nothing. When we visited Manhattan, it was dirty, grimy, and not the glamorous place shown on TV in the early 70s. I can't imagine Doris Day and Rock Hudson walking around that NEw York City or Central Park.

The Grand Canyon is frankly boring, unless you want to hike down to the river, then its quite spectatular. And the best thing about The Tower of London was the quides talk before hand, and walking back to the hotel along the Thames at Sunset.

walter said...

This would be a good post for a bit of old school Laslo...

NorthOfTheOneOhOne said...

Space tourism belongs to this subset of ostensibly awesome experiences that often feel anticlimactic precisely because they come with a promise of awe factored in...

I don't know, Shatner came back pretty much in awe when he took a brief ride on one of Jeff Bezos' rockets. The kid billionaires that went with him, not so much. Maybe it takes a certain level of humility to appreciate what you're seeing.

Lem said...

When you are filling the gas tank, the pumping and the counter abruptly stops when the fuel reaches the tip of the nozzle. After topping off at least once every day for the last 3 years the fueling stopped at the even number of $32.00 dollars, just the other day. That's never happened to me before. My thought was 'too bad I hadn't videoed it, the kids at reddit would've upvoted the hell out of it.' That's as close to awe as I'll probably get and I'm ok with that.

I had actually forgot about this until i just happened to see the sell-by-date of a half a gallon of eggnog in the fridge. The date is 12-11-21.

hilaris said...

I experience the sublime every day in the beauty of creation, from sunrise to starry sky. All that's required is my attention.

Eleanor said...

Helping a polar bear deliver two cubs. They only weighed around 20 ounces and were about a foot long. Realizing it wouldn't be very long before it wouldn't be safe to get very near to these tiny little creatures unless they were heavily sedated like their mom. Being able to stroke the fur of the mother was awesome.

Jeff said...

Laslo Spatula is sublime. Pony Tail Swish!

tim in vermont said...

The sublimity connected with vastness is familiar to every eye. The most abstruse, the most far-reaching, perhaps the most chastened of the poet's thoughts, crowd on the imagination as he gazes into the depths of the illimitable void. The expanse of the ocean is seldom seen by the novice with indifference; and the mind, even in the obscurity of night, finds a parallel to that grandeur, which seems inseparable from images that the senses cannot compass. With feelings akin to this admiration and awe—the offspring of sublimity—were the different characters with which the action of this tale must open, gazing on the scene before them. - Pathfinder, James Fenimore Cooper.

I will be honest with you, I didn't really understand that paragraph when I first read it, while I think I may now, but it stuck in my mind.

madAsHell said...

And being three feet away from 'Starry Night.'

I had seen that painting many times in history books.....and thought it was a nice composition.

When the Van Gogh exhibition visited Seattle, my mother-in-law bought tickets for us. She said, "Go see the "Starry Night"!"

"Starry Night" has to be seen. It has qualities that can't be captured in a photograph.



Sublime......didn't anyone take chemistry or physics??

Assistant Village Idiot said...

CS Lewis The Abolition of Man. I can't think of anything to add.

ALP said...

Depends on how easily amused one is. I am such a person. I experience awe the morning after an ice storm in upstate New York. Totally amazed at how each tiny little thing in the landscape was covered with a delicate layer of ice.

I am also awed by artists that are masters of minimalist abstract art - doubly so if they started out with classical realism. Totally awed at how they made that journey from creating a likeness to abstract images that really speak to me and hold my attention for a long time.

Leland said...

Travel writer can't afford ticket to space, so poops on the idea that others may enjoy it.

Leland said...

I've worked at NASA. I can tell you just watching a launch is awesome. You've never seen anything go that high, and that scale is something previous experience can't help you imagine. I haven't met an Astronaut that wouldn't go again, and they'd give up a lot for that opportunity. In Building 1 at JSC, there was this picture of a space walking Astronaut just standing in a foot restraint framed in a way that made it look like a platform diver about to jump into the Earth. Just looking at that picture blown up to life size was awesome.

In short, awe to me has to do with scale, and space is on a scale you've never experienced.

Fred Drinkwater said...

Hearing from my daughter about her square dancing with Guy Steele.
Standing next to Newton's grave.
Seeing Rainbow Bridge. I literally thought "That's impossible."
Seeing the David in Florence. The crowd vanished.
Seeing Saturn through the telescope I built.
Sitting in the pilot's seat in the cockpit of Concorde 001 in Toulouse.
Watching the coastal fog pour over Half Moon Bay Gap.
The awe-inspiring is everywhere.

Rollo said...

Travel is so pre-COVID pre-Climate Change and pre-Internet.

Staying put is the new travel.

Ann Althouse said...

“ I experience the sublime every day in the beauty of creation, from sunrise to starry sky. All that's required is my attention.”

I agree

Fred Drinkwater said...

I should add that some of the 60s era astronauts remarked that their extensive training, simulating every aspect of the mission, over and over and over, did dull the impact of the actual event. But our travel writer was, I think, unlikely to have been subject to that. For any of his "missions".

God of the Sea People said...

I was recently in Alaska for work, and managed to pack a lot of awe-inspiring moments into a busy week. I managed to see mountain peaks, tundra, ice-choked rivers, wild animals, and the aurora borealis twice. I think those things still would have been as beautiful and amazing if I had seen them as part of an organized tour, but there was absolutely something exhilarating about being able to experience those things incidentally, out in the wilderness in subzero temperatures by myself, thousands of miles from home.

But there is no way to experience space travel in that kind of incidental way. You are either going as an incredibly rich tourist, or as an astronaut for one of the handful of spacefaring nations. If you can’t be awestruck through space travel within that context, I feel sorry for you.

Stephanie A. Richer said...

A friend of mine recently quit his day job and did a remarkable job outfitting a van to live in. This is not your typical "van life hipster" but someone who has learned how to live a good life off his travel photography.

He hosts a group on Facebook and something I pointed out to him was the difference in how he and I approach travel photography and travel, in general. Dave will camp in some remote part of northern Norway in bitter cold to see the Aurora Borealis and be happy as a lark by himself. I want to walk streets and drive roads to see the people, and how they live. And both approaches are about hoping for - not planning - serendipitous moments of awe. If they come, great. If not, well, there has been a lot of fun in placing oneself in a situation where it just might happen. And there is no one road to that situation.

Marcus Carman said...

So, in other words, stay home, it isn't worth it anyway. Hmmmm.

mikee said...

The need to name drop Annapurna, Lake Victoria, the Chilean tundra, the Scandinavian wilderness, instead of just saying a mountain, a lake, the tundra, the wilderness, gives the game away here. Awe depends upon the author being in places more cool than you normies will ever visit. Uganda and the Louvre - maybe out of the ordinary but not cool places - especially when overrun by plebes.

Awe is a reaction to something larger than oneself, and depends on the location less than described by the linked author.

Lurker21 said...

In a world of mass tourism and the plain style of expression the aesthetic travelers of the 19th century seem a little hard to believe. One suspects that maybe it was cultural -- people having the feelings they were told to have and describing the experience in the language they were expected to use. The experience may have been "sincere" or it may not have been, but it was one they were expected, almost programmed to have.

Today we tend to feel that an "indescribable" experience probably shouldn't be described. You can tell me that I "simply have to go" to Annapurna or Lake Victoria, but please don't go on and on about it. One can attribute that distaste to the disillusionment of the world wars and the reaction against fine language or to modern commercial society or the coming of mass democratic culture.

Remember The Crown? Philip's midlife crisis, his feeling that the astronauts had had this profound experience yet were unable to say anything deep about it. I can see a parallel. But of course, bus drivers aren't tourists themselves. Their job is to get people there safely. Many explorers and pioneers have to tread the ground before a poet can come and admire the view. The first Dutch sailor in the New World probably wasn't "compelled into an æsthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

Tofu King said...

This year on Independence Day I was sitting in a beach chair at Wallowah Lake Oregon along with probably a couple hundred others who had come for the post twilight fireworks. A beautiful bald eagle flew back and forth over the small beach area for about 10 minutes. It gave me hope that the promise of liberty is not yet extinguished.

Tina Trent said...

Sitting in the dark train gulley under the CNN Center at 3 a.m. waiting for freight to arrive, watching smoke curl up from my coffee while the city slept, and suddenly realizing that what I was smelling wasn’t my often pungent co-workers, or bums snorting and snoring, but the circus animals in town for the Ringling Brothers Show. A giant tiger sitting very still only a few feet away in a train car with bars on one side, staring at my breakfast sandwich, and an elephant in the next car.

Also staring at my breakfast sandwich.

Bilwick said...

Every time a statist dies, I experience the sublime.

Hannio said...

"Seeing the enormity of St. Peters in Rome..."

That word doesn't mean what you think it does. Not that a lot of people wouldn't agree with you anyway.

Matthew Borcherding said...

Sunsets bring out the awesome. Particular ones for me: just plain looking out over the water in Carmel and at Pigeon Point Lighthouse near Pescadero. Sunsets over Mono Lake and Methuselah Grove of the gnarled Bristlecone Pines in the Eastern Sierras.

Watching clouds pour like soft serve ice cream over the Triple Divide from east to west in Glacier National Park on the Going to the Sun Road. People were pulled over and pulling out folding chairs just to watch.

Driving in the Santa Cruz Mountains at night, driving over a valley filled with fog with the full moon reflecting off that fog.

Watching a double geyser eruption in Yellowstone.

The view into the crater at Crater Lake. Doesn't hurt if some snow is still around.

Yosemite Valley in the early Spring, without the hordes of tourists.

The ruins of the Temple of Poseidon in Sounion, Greece and the ruins at Delphi.

The Last Judgement at the Vatican (which takes up an entire wall and is only part of the Sistine Chapel).

In many of these cases, there were few, if any, people there with me. Group awe is tougher to do than solitary or small group awe.

autothreads said...

When have you experienced the sublime?

The birth of my children.

autothreads said...

Prof. Althouse,

Apologies in advance, I understand that this might not make it through moderation but all these comments about the moon made me think of this. It might make you laugh.

My ex and I were engaging some intimate activity and as I looked up at the nighttime sky through the open windowshade, I saw the full moon, nested perfectly between her butt cheeks. It kind of ruined the mood, but I couldn't keep from laughing. Even now I smile about the full moon over the full moon.

Not sublime, but very funny at the time.

Pete said...

One's sense of awe stems not from what is happening, but from what it represents.
Ask any parent that witnessed the birth of their child.

Edmund said...

Seeing the Apollo 15 launch from 3 miles away.

mongo said...

Watching a space shuttle launch at Kennedy Space Center.

Balfegor said...

I don't know what space travel will be like for tourists -- how comfortable it will be, how long the trip will last, and so on -- but I think the sort of person who would become a space tourist is precisely the sort of person who is primed to feel a sense of awe at the experience. They probably grew up with the dream of space travel, looking at grainy old videos of Saturn V launches, or watched footage of the fragments of Mir breaking up on atmospheric reentry. Maybe they read "High Flight" as a child:

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God."


Especially as tourists, without any responsibility for the practical necessities of space travel to distract them, how could they not feel a sense of awe at the curve of the earth and the black void beyond?

Honestly, I've seen the Mona Lisa, and I don't know how it could compare. Although I can also understand how one might view it differently, if one didn't grow up dreaming of rockets and space shuttles.

gpm said...

>>That word doesn't mean what you think it does. Not that a lot of people wouldn't agree with you anyway.

I had the same reaction, but decided it wasn't worth making a stink about it. Plus, I tend to lean toward descriptivist rather than prescriptivist (except, of course, when I'm not). Not quite sure when, if not already, this battle has been lost.

--gpm

Balfegor said...

Re: Lurker21:

The first Dutch sailor in the New World probably wasn't "compelled into an æsthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

Sure, but perhaps that Dutchman felt:

like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise--
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.


Or perhaps not, haha

gpm said...

I remember the Peggy Lee song from when I was in high school. Seemed (and seems) very retro. And kind of a downer. But still lovely to listen to.

--gpm

Narr said...

Martin Luther thought St. Peter's was an enormity, for one.

I've been there, but I was too young, hot, and exhausted to experience awe.

Not awe exactly, but once I was heading home from a meeting with some fellow ACWABAWS buffs at Shiloh N.M.P., going due west in the late afternoon on Hwy 57. At some points on the long straight road between woods, I could see nothing ahead of me but orange light--the blacktop reflecting the setting sun glowed like a smooth carpet of flame unrolled just for me-- the Prof should have been there with her camera!

Someone mentioned Omaha Beach. I felt something like that looking from the north side of Dill Branch about a quarter mile from the Tennessee River, down the steep slope to the narrow valley, and up the steep southern side where the right wing of the Rebs finally reached the culminating point of their one godawful day of victory. What-iffers give up hope here.



The Crack Emcee said...

I've traveled the world and transcendental moments are indeed serendipity.