During the Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing, China, citizen protestors clashed with their own army. One brave man even stared down a phalanx of tanks, stopping them dead in their tracks. Coincidentally at that time I was in Asia, only a thousand miles but a political world away from the horrors of Tiananmen, where hundreds of hopeful young men and women were killed. As I wandered the streets of Hong Kong early one Sunday morning during this massacre, tai chi groups flowed in unison and through tears in a downtown park, silent freedom fighters marched with a giant papier-mâché Statue of Liberty, and worried young couples pushed their babies in strollers along the waterfront.
Hong Kong, the most densely populated island on earth, is a place of contrast especially given its proximity to China. Towering office complexes and glistening apartment buildings define the skyline. Yet four extended families are likely to live together in a two bedroom apartment. Rolls Royce, Mercedes Benz, and Jaguars roll down boulevards while just across the bay and into China donkeys pull carts along rutted trails. The Hong Kong archipelago is home to some of the world’s wealthiest people and some of its poorest.
I was in Hong Kong for a few days to meet with the manager of the company that was printing our rafting business brochures. I was treated to five-star meals and personalized tours of the city. Factory and office workers hustled at a pell-mell pace to produce and achieve. Children in school uniforms played hop-scotch on asphalt playgrounds. The insane paradox of free-willed citizens living regular lives while people on the other side of a line drawn on a map were being bloodied in a fight to live unoppressed was evident all around. The death of innocents—some of whom were relatives of the people I spent time with—was the worry of the Hong Kong populace.
After spending a long weekend in this shell shocked city, I exited the taxi at the airport for my return flight home. I was politely besieged by locals who asked if I was American. They had a simple request: Could I please take a letter they had written to a loved one in China and mail it from the States? One after another, I was told that a letter from Hong Kong to China during this populist uprising would never make it to the person it was addressed to, as the Chinese security forces destroyed each one. If the letter was mailed from the U.S. there was a chance that their child, mother or father, sister or brother would get it. I took all the letters that time and space allowed. I boarded the plane with dozens of expressions of love tucked safely in my knapsack, saddened at the lengths that many people have to go through to live freely, and awestruck at how much their loved ones wanted to give them their hearts.
A couple of years later my brother, Sam, and I vacationed in Ireland, taking in the rich history of the Emerald Isle. Among a palette of lessons learned was that in the 1600’s Catholic priests were thrown in jail in Ireland for practicing against the faith of the country’s people. For a time Ireland did not like to be told how to live this way. While the Irish still bristle a bit when asked to behave, things are a little different than they were long ago. Catholicism is alive and well in Ireland as it rocks and rolls. The Irish blend godliness and good times with the best of them.
But four-hundred years ago, many of the good and some not-so-good Fathers were banished to Inishbofin Island, a speck of quartz, grit, and granulite seven rough-water miles off the mainland coast of the County Galway. To these priests, this island outpost must have seemed like the last stop on the way to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, one final chance at life and salvation before a walk on a plank. From inside dark gray cells it didn’t matter much that the rest of the island, all 3.5 miles long and two miles wide, was often covered in snow, rain, or fog. One has to wonder if that is what the holy prisoners felt their insides were covered in, too.
When Sam and I vacationed in Ireland the remains of Inishbofin’s hell-on-earth were largely eroded. Prison wall stubs poked up from sea grass. Beaches played host to gentle tides. Happy townsfolk gathered in the evenings to share stories and songs, always accompanied by a Guinness, guitar, squeeze box, and fiddle. To us, despite its dark history as a ruthless pirate’s hideaway, a naval garrison, and a death sentence for the men of God, Inishbofin sparkled. Its’ jagged black rocks, rolling green hills, fine white sand, bright azure sea, plus the sun on our backs and beers in our bellies—all against Inishbofin’s harsh past—were a brilliant backdrop to discover a culture that deeply knows and humbly admires itself.
For us Americans, whose country was born in 1776 (giving full respect to the Natives who were there long before America became America), it is a mystical treat to grab a sandwich and ale in a tavern built in the 1300s. It is also fun to be-bop down pedestrian-only Grafton Street in Dublin, where countless sidewalk musicians pound out beats for the thousands of Irish and foreign shoppers to enjoy as they explore block after block of stores and people watching. It is breathtaking to take in sunsets along the Connemara Coast, where vistas are exact matches to those you see in those picture perfect Ireland calendars. But it is the nights that reminded us most of how and why Ireland came to be one of the awesomely artistic and culturally-rich countries on earth.
The heritage of Ireland is found on the fiddle strings that are bowed nightly in neighborhood pubs across the country. Its pride is boomed from robust voices singing with pick-up bands in towns north and south. And, its beauty is found in the laughter and smiles of those who gather as their ancestors have for centuries—for a pint and a pat on the back. We ended up in awe at the people of this isle who truly reveled in each other’s company, who honored a culture that time has only enhanced.
The Lofoten Islands, north of the Arctic Circle in Norway, served as another source of adventure inspiration one summer. Running north to south through the land of the midnight sun, the Lofotens are home to a few thousand hardy souls and the most dramatic mountains on earth. Here straight-up escarpments rise thousands of feet from the ocean, with serrated tops that slice into the sky. At their base, fishermen head out to maelstroms at sea, seeking cod and other fish that have sustained their country for generations.
In an effort to find new rivers to run and to take a break from managing a busy rafting company in Norway, I boarded a train near Lillehammer with my friends Leo Durand and Kate Jeremiah for the twenty-hour journey north. Norway is so long that even after a day and a night on the train we were just over half way up the country. To get even further north, we took a ferry to the town of Å (that’s right “Å”, but it’s pronounced “oh”). Even though Å is at the top of the alphabet, it is serenely perched at the bottom of the Lofotens. After grabbing a cup of chowder (deciding against a bowl of alphabet soup) we headed up island and ended up that afternoon in Reine, a fishing village nestled in a harbor at the base of those towering mountains.
We checked into our rorbu, a converted fishing shack with beds, a bathroom, and the most beautiful views imaginable, and laced up our boots. After a short hike up a mountainside to a hidden tarn, we lay our travel-weary bodies down in tufts of Arctic grass. At that moment, a Norwegian Sea breeze began to blow, moving threads of clouds into our line of sight from behind the ridges above us. The wisps literally ran over the mountain tops like a crystal clear stream spilling over rocks. It was as if we were under water looking through it to the sky. The clouds were vapor liquefied, all the while changing color and flow. I remember getting goosebumps as Mother Nature held us in her sway, aweing us with her beauty.
As I traveled on these three unique islands, very different things gave me feelings of awe. I found wonder in the drive for freedom and expressions of compassion. I was struck by a people who share a common past and passion for their countrymen and women. And, I was awed by the glory of nature. There have been countless other times and places where awe pulsed through me, a divine blend of amazement, humility, and love. Most notably was when my children were born. I will never understand the connection I felt the moment they took their first breath and I held them in my arms.
Awe takes your breath away, drops your jaw and gives you goosebumps. Goosebumps have a couple of simple physiologic origins. One is to increase insulation with elevated skin when we are cold—with bumps. Another is to make ourselves look bigger. When we were (and some of us still are) pursued by warring tribes or giant animals that wanted to kill us, we would get goosebumps from facing something larger than ourselves. This was an autonomic nerve response to get hair to stand up on our arms, shoulders, back, head, or wherever, in order to look a little bigger than we were in hopes of scaring the hungry beast. We often banded together at these times, connected by our common fear, respect, and awareness. While this ancient survival mechanism has largely become obsolete, we still react similarly to things way bigger than ourselves. Sometimes this still comes from fear, but mostly it is from incredulousness and reverence that we experience awe.
Awe arises from the need to connect and to honor something much bigger than ourselves. It’s a reminder that we need to pursue a life that extends well beyond our narrow here and now. It is to remember that much in life is beyond explanation. It’s a nudge to stand quietly rapt together, to cherish beauty, the human spirit, and universal love.
As we hiked down from the river of clouds and into a week of more collective amazement on the Lofotens, I was struck by the irony that my deeper understanding of awe as a connector came on three very different islands. Generally, the metaphor of an island evokes thoughts of isolation and solitude. But virtually every one of us experiences awe as we stare at spectacular sunsets, feel blessed by newborns, marvel at majestic mountains, rollick in rooms of laughter, and honor freedom as a birthright. In awe, we are always and forever connected.