Traveler's Tales

Right About Now, We Could All Use a Life-Changing Natural Wonder in Our Lives

by Christine Lennon
The Big Island. Photo by Sarah Humer on Unsplash.

In her new thriller, The Drifter, novelist Christine Lennon writes about friendships, secrets, slacker culture, consequences, and the wild backdrops of America — from the shaggy campus of Gainesville, Florida, to the urban jungle of Manhattan. If and when you find yourself at a crossroads, take cues from Lennon and search out a view that is awe-inspiring and grounding.

AMERICA – Last fall, I needed an escape. As I dug deeper and deeper into the news, burrowing into the most fractious and antagonistic political climate I can remember, I felt frustrated and powerless to change it. I knew that the only thing that could right my thinking would be to put something in front of my eyes that was so awesome I had no choice but to feel inspired. I needed a life-changing natural wonder.

Over the years, I've established a travel pattern so obvious it took me forever to notice it. Whenever life is in transition, whenever I feel at a crossroads and in need of big-picture perspective, I skip town and look for clues in a wild place: a dense forest, an endless desert, a blue cove. The hope is to find a view so breathtaking and humbling that I am inspired to make a grand gesture to match it.

The idea is never to pull an Elizabeth Gilbert or Pam Houston and scrap city life for something off-grid. It's always to drop in for a bit, tip my hat to some natural majesty, and return to civilization, forever changed.

My first experience feeling truly moved by a natural wonder happened when I was about 20, in a very unlikely place — the bottom of a sinkhole in central Florida. I had forgotten all about Devil's Hopper, the funnel-shaped depression in the earth, until I sat down to write my first novel, The Drifter, a story about friendship and loss with Gainesville at its center. When I sifted through the details of my college memories, my visit to the sinkhole emerged as a turning point. At the time, I felt at odds with my surroundings. I was cracking through my complacent shell and discovering a newer, softer, still-forming one, one that made me feel ornery and rebellious and different than most of the people I knew, who, on the surface, seemed happily uncomplicated.

I went there with some friends on a whim one day, and when I got to the bottom, 120 feet below the surface, I couldn't help but notice the metaphor. An entire microclimate of fragile plants was thriving in a place where they had no business growing. On the surface, exposed to the elements, they would have shriveled and died. Down there, protected and hidden away, they found their place. That was how I would thrive, too. Stay low. Find others like me, and huddle close. By the time I got to the top, I had new resolve.

After graduation, I moved to New York. I was married, and then divorced, a decision that was prompted, in part, by a trip to the California desert that showed the promise of another way of life. I met another man, and during a drive with him in the opposite direction, west to east, across the rugged, desolate landscape, I decided I was brave enough to try marriage again. We swam at night with luminescent algae in a cove off of Puerto Rico, a sight so awe-inspiring that I felt an urgent need to share it, and every other beautiful thing I've ever seen, with other people — more specifically, a child or two.

The author's family exploring the lava tubes of the Big Island. Photos by Christine Lennon.

Now, in my 40s, married with almost 10-year-old twins, the world feels harsh again in new ways. As I try to make sense of it for myself and my children, I can't pretend that I don't feel exposed, naïve for thinking our societal progress was permanent and irreversible, and disappointed by what's happening to our country. So what to do? Change our perspective: We would show our kids a spectacular view of the America that we love and remind them to be proud of it.

We booked a flight to Kona, Hawaii, for a week over Christmas. On the Big Island, we hiked down into the Kilauea Iki crater along the Thurston lava tubes, crunching along the newest acres of American land that's still cooling from a long-ago eruption, and watched steam rise from its vents. We snorkeled with turtles and watched a humpback whale slap its tail against the water, waving to us 29 times.

Our plan worked, for the most part. We looked on in wonder. We felt big and small in all the right ways, newly committed to fighting to protect those resources that restore us. And we came home changed, feeling the tiniest glimmer of hope. It's a start.


See the author's top five list of incredible sites across the diverse American landscape.


Like what you're reading? Buy the novel.

The Drifter, by Christine Lennon


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