A Witness to the World’s Most Awe-Inspiring Sights


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Leigh Ann Henion, above right, with a reindeer herder in Sweden, where Ms. Henion was in pursuit of the northern lights.

Leigh Ann Henion, 37, spent two years witnessing some of the world’s most amazing natural sights, including the aurora borealis in the Arctic and Catatumbo lightning in Venezuela. The writer, who lives in Boone, N.C., explores awe-seeking travel in her book, “Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World” (Penguin Press).

Following are edited excerpts from a conversation with Ms. Henion. DIANE DANIEL

Q. How would you define “phenomenon travel” and what got you started on that path?

A. I call it phenomenon chasing. Sometimes you’re actually chasing something, like in a van in tornado alley, and sometimes you’re just finding the right place to sit, like in the path of a total eclipse. I knew nothing about the topic until an editor asked me to do a travel story on the monarch butterfly migration to Mexico in 2007. I learned that a monarch butterfly flies thousands of miles across a continent to the same place — and sometimes even the same tree — of its ancestors. What I experienced on a mountain in Mexico in the presence of millions of butterflies was among the most moving and emotional experiences of my life. I could not let go of it. I thought, what else do I not know about?

How did you decide which to chase?

I decided to follow the ones I thought would give me the most dazzling amount of wonder.

Judging from the people you met in your book, there is a subculture of phenomenon chasers.

It’s more like a collection of subcultures. There was James, whom I met in the Arctic, where he lives to be near the aurora borealis in between total solar eclipses, his true love. Each group has its own insider language and specific places they meet. Fred Watson, an Australian astronomer, gives celestial science tours and takes people to see the aurora. It’s a marvelous interweaving of passionate people seeking wonder. One commonality is an enormous sense of curiosity.

How do doses of wonder affect people?

You have to learn to be comfortable with ambiguity. You might travel to the other side of the globe and miss what you went to see. Then there’s the mystery of what you’re seeing. These natural occurrences are a reminder of how little control we actually have, which is frightening but empowering. I think awe as an emotion is something we’ve relegated to children and don’t value in adults. Research shows that experiences that evoke awe have the potential to make people more generous and to say they’re more satisfied with their lives.

Do you have to be a world traveler to see amazing natural phenomena?

Not at all. There’s a road in Illinois that snakes cross every spring and fall in migration. In most urban areas you’re going to be able to watch birds migrating. One enormous opportunity is that on Aug. 21, 2017, a total eclipse will cross the entire country. The highest number of Americans in a century will be able to easily reach its path. This is something people go out on ocean liners or fly to tiny islands to see, and it’s going to be within driving distance for millions. A great resource is greatamericaneclipse.com. I saw a total eclipse in Australia. It’s a tremendous experience; you’re seeing the face of the sun. And to witness it with other people, you viscerally experience interconnectivity.

Did your travels change you?

I feel connected in ways I never could have before my pilgrimage. When you seek out the earth’s most dazzling natural phenomena, you bring that sense of wonder to bear in your own backyard.



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