Wandering through life you can find yourself in some amazing places quite unintentionally. It’s one of the reasons I used to try to get lost on purpose when I ventured out into an unfamiliar city. In some places, it was easy to get lost (hello, Tunis!), in others, like pretty much any American city, it’s not so easy. But it’s in the trying where you meet discovery.
I was walking through New York City one day in the 1990s on what I thought was a residential street without any businesses when I saw a four-foot-tall cutout of a Robert Crumb character on the sidewalk. I stopped to look at it and followed an arrow on the sign up a flight of stairs. Anything could have been at the top of those stairs. It was Manhattan, after all.
But what I found was a room full of original Robert Crumb artwork. I assumed it was a gallery because things had prices on them, but there was no one there to ask. I suppose I could have walked out with an armful of valuable Crumb artwork, but art heists aren’t really my thing, and besides, for all I knew, there was someone watching.
Seeing all that Crumb work unexpectedly in an intimate setting was astounding, unexpected, and unforgettable.
On another occasion, walking down a street in Paris one night after a typical three-hour Parisien dinner (all I ordered was a bowl of vegetarian Bourguignon, but it still took three hours) when I heard music coming from an unmarked doorway. The door led to a staircase that went down into a small, dark cellar room where a jazz trio was playing. I paid 25 Francs to a woman sitting at the bottom of the stairs (about $2.50 at the time) and turned to walk into the room.
The jazz trio in itself was not terribly unexpected, but the audience was. They were all wearing American 1950s costumes, pompadours, poodle skirts and all, and dancing like they were at a 1950s American high school sock hop. Or how I imagine that looked. I’d been in Paris for a week, so I thought I’d seen about as much of Paris as I wanted to see. I was wrong. I stood against a stone wall and took in the scene for half an hour. When I surfaced to the street, it was like emerging from a weird dream.
In the late 1980s, I was introduced to Joshua Tree National Monument (now National Park). We used to ride mountain bikes in the park (I know, I know, not cool, but at the time, I was new to the desert and didn’t know how destructive bikes are to the desert crust). I’d split off from the people I was with and was cranking through the desert by myself when I neared a little ridge of rocks on a hill.
For some reason, I was curious about what was on the other side, so I laid down the bike and climbed over the ridge. There in a small deep valley, was a cluster of palm trees. There are only a few places where palms grow in the Park, and I’d never seen any before, so for me, they came out of nowhere. I spent the rest of the day climbing down to what I later learned was called the Lost Palms Oasis and then climbing back out. It wasn’t an easy climb in either direction.
I didn’t worry about leaving my bike unattended because the park, or maybe just the southern part of the park, wasn’t visited much back then. We always came out on weekdays, and on some trips, I’d see maybe three or four other people all day. That kind of “aloneness” is unimaginable now, so the memories are vivid.
Then there are places I’ve found while trying to get out of the rain.
I was trying to get lost in London (a great city to get lost in because you can just hop on a random tube line and end up who-knows-where) when it started to rain. I ducked into the nearest lit building under an overpass, and it turned out to be an exhibition of Sebastião Salgado’s huge photos of mine workers in Serra Pelada, Brazil. I love photography, so to come across something like that by chance was a miracle. That happened more than 30 years ago, but I remember many of those pictures to this day.
But the best rain story is easily one I shared with Ayin when we took a road trip on the east coast and wound up on the Canadian side of Niagra Falls for a couple of days. We were driving to see something that must have been outdoors because when it started to rain, we scanned the roadside, looking for someplace to pass some time indoors. There was a small sign with the silhouette of a butterfly, and we wondered, “Butterflies? What does it mean?” and pulled into the lot and went inside.
It was the Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory, and the experience was literally jaw-dropping. Going from a car in the rain to an indoor forest of butterflies in the space of a few minutes was disorienting and borderline unbelievable. We wandered through the 100-acre sanctuary in awe, and that awe didn’t let up until we reluctantly left an hour later. When we stood still, butterflies of every description landed on us. When we sat down, they sat down with us and on us. Hold out your hand, and within 15 seconds, there’s be a butterfly in your palm. It was like nothing either of us had ever seen or experienced.
The Butterfly Conservatory was awe-inspiring. I think at least part of that awe was the element of the unexpected, as it was in all of these unexpected discoveries. Had we planned and looked forward to a trip to a butterfly conservatory, I’m sure we still would have been awed, but it wouldn’t be unexpected awe. And for me, the unexpected aspect adds flavor that nothing else can.
Unexpected surprises weren’t always beautiful. When we were on that East Coast road trip, we made a stop in Rochester, New York, to visit Ayin’s cousin in college. On the way out of town, we stopped for lunch and decided to eat in the car. We pulled onto a residential street and parked in a shady spot. As we began pulling food from the bag, an old excavator rumbled up to the house directly across the street and proceeded to tear it down. In the time it took for us to eat, the house was flattened into a pile of rubble.
That was awe-inspiring in a different kind of way but memorable enough to type it here.
Keep your eyes open and your awe close to the surface!