In celebration of our 10th anniversary, earlier this year Atlas Obscura launched First Journey, a chance for one of our readers to win $15,000 toward a meaningful, once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s a competition inspired by our co-founders, Dylan Thuras and Josh Foer, who both went on transformative journeys in their early adult years.
We invited anyone who has never had the opportunity to take a real journey to propose an ambitious trip with a clear mission, and the response was truly overwhelming. Thousands applied, and it was no easy task to choose from among so many wonderful ideas. Today, we’re so pleased to be able announce our five First Journey finalists.
All five finalists proposed spectacular, deeply personal journeys, and we wish we could fund them all. The final decision of the judging panel on the winner of the grand prize—$15,000, logistical support, and the chance to be featured on Atlas Obscura—will be announced on July 31. Each of the four runners-up will receive $500, which we hope can serve as seed money toward making their journeys a reality.
We want to thank each and every person who applied for First Journey, and offer our hearty congratulations to the finalists—read more about their proposed journeys, in their own words, below. And stay tuned for an announcement about the winner on July 31!
Asmarrah Bedford, 39
Joshua Tree, California
The goal of my proposed journey is to lay bare the sources of revenue used to build many of England and Scotland’s houses of the National Trust. This journey would take me and my family to Jamaica, Ghana, England, and Scotland.
Over the course of the 18th century, thousands of British families erected lavish Georgian mansions throughout the United Kingdom with wealth amassed from the transatlantic slave trade. The brass heritage plaques adorning these homes often bury this truth.
For example, William Forbes purchased the Callendar Estate in Falkirk, Scotland, in 1783, but on the estate’s “history” page he is simply listed as the owner of a successful coppersmith business in London. There is no mention of the fact that he made a fortune manufacturing and exporting sugar boiling pans and rum stills to Jamaica, nor is there mention of the dozens of other business links he had with the island.
This journey is especially meaningful to me because I’m Jamaican American, my husband is English, and our twin boys are all of the above. The other thing to know about me is that six years ago, my life was temporarily derailed by a breast cancer diagnosis. I had received my master’s degree from UCLA and was an adjunct history professor with dreams of getting a Ph.D., and then I found a lump. Not long after my last radiation treatment, I then lost my mother, who was the keeper of the stories in my family. In addition to using this journey to get my academic career back on track, I want to honor my ancestors by telling their story—all of it—not to place blame, but to remember so we can continue to move forward, together.
Kris Bradley, 49
Matawan, New Jersey
The goal of this journey would be to follow the path of the painter Vincent Van Gogh’s life, while giving thanks to him for being such an amazing and powerful influence on my son. This journey would take me, my husband, and my son to a variety of destinations in France and the Netherlands.
My son has struggled with mental health issues for much of his young life (he is 20). He’s been through therapists, meds, and a brief stay in the hospital. Through it all, he kept a “diary” of letters written to Van Gogh, who was his one constant confidant who he could tell anything. Writing to Vincent helped him work through his fears, anxieties and, at times, his suicidal thoughts.
In the last few years, he (after having been assigned female at birth) came out as transgender and has been doing really well. He recently had his name legally changed to “Charles Vincent,” as a way to honor the painter. He has worked (and continues to work) so very hard through mental health issues, fears of rejection, the ignorance and hate that way too many people hold towards people who are trans, and just getting up every day trying to live a happy life. Vincent Van Gogh has given him a safe touchstone in his life, a confidant who is always available, who never judges, and who understand mental health struggles. While the conversation is, of course, one sided, we know that this relationship has helped Charles overcome so much.
This trip would mean the world to me on so many levels. Not only is it a trip that I could never afford to gift my son, it’s a way to honor the man who unwittingly helped us keep my son alive through his darkest days. We would be walking his paths, just as he was walking with Charles through his. The culmination of the trip would be to leave flowers on his and his brother Theo’s graves in a gesture of thanks for his help through the last few years.
In our family, there is a lot of love for my son and for Van Gogh, and I’m sure there will be much laughter and many, many tears.
Skylar Coleman, 21
It all started with an album. In a class I wasn’t supposed to be sitting in, someone played an old compilation of music from Upper Volta, a country now known as Burkina Faso. What I felt, hearing that music, was nothing less than enchantment. From that moment, I dug into the history of the country and soaked up everything I could, but lack of scholarship and online resources limited my reach.
Having recently completed a B.A. in International Studies, I can tell you more than you’d like to know about Russian history, the South China Sea, or the European Union, but the American academic world falls short when it comes to Africa. In many institutions, if you’re going to learn about the African continent at all, you’re likely going to learn about it in a development context.
My proposed First Journey would take me to at least six countries across Africa (including Nigeria, Morocco, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and Egypt) and serve as a chance for me to learn about and document the doers, makers, and thinkers in these change-making regions. Through the people I meet and interview, I hope to immerse myself in local perspectives on the places I visit. From music that brings people together where artificial borders tore them apart, to organizations saving women from sex trafficking, people are rising to challenges and tapping into a creativity that could only be inspired by the wonders and hardships of the African continent.
For so long, I’ve been someone so good at the structured pace of academia that I tumbled through a bachelor’s degree in 2 1/2 years while working full time. Everyone in my life would like to see me take my next step soon, to start grad school without a moment to pause and think. Eventually, I do hope to get my master’s degree in cultural diplomacy, which would turn much of what I want to do on this trip into a career.
This step has to wait, though, because I can’t fathom spending another second learning about the world on whiteboards. This is a passion project, something that no one is asking me to do. And at 21 years old, this is an opportunity that I may never have the time or flexibility to do again. I know I can take this First Journey, and I’m asking you to believe in me too.
Kaitlyn Schwalje, 31
My First Journey proposal is to explore the impact that tsunamis have had on humanity’s collective consciousness, by telling the stories of the artifacts they’ve left behind.
I am the daughter of a safety engineer. Growing up, worst-case-scenarios landed on my father’s desk in the form of overstuffed manila folders—a slip and fall in the Bahamas, an electrocution in Hawaii, and plenty of dryer fires from all over the U.S. The nature of the work in my family’s business is determining cause and culpability.
That’s a big part of how I became fascinated by disaster, both in trying to understand its cause and its human impact. After reading the stunning and heartbreaking book Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry, I started a kind of dossier of tsunami facts and relevant places: a collection of tsunami clocks all frozen in time at the exact moment the tsunami hit; tsunami survival pods; tsunami museums in Hawaii and Thailand.
I’m fascinated by the idea that objects can hold memory and be elevated from ordinary to extraordinary depending on their history. My First Journey proposal is to document the stories of tsunami artifacts. This journey would take me to Indonesia, Japan, Hawaii, and finally to Seattle, Washington.
By focusing on the objects of tsunamis, I hope to document stories that represent themes of hope, loss, and scientific achievement. This journey will also serve as a meditation on the fickleness of our home planet—a place that sometimes insulates us and sometimes tries to shake us from its surface like a bucking bull.
Jenn Smith, 37
North Adams, Massachusetts
When I think of India, I think of people. The density of the masses, the dialects, the differences in religion, politics, spices, fashions, and passions. The months of August through October in India are packed with festivals, from Independence Day to Diwali. So why just observe culture, when you can join in with the people and celebrate it? My goal is to take part in a dozen festivals in and around India over the course of 90 days.
This journey has been an idea incubating inside me all of my life. I was born in an orphanage in Kolkata, India, and adopted and raised in Western Massachusetts by loving people of Irish-Polish-Lithuanian descent. While I’ve embraced my family’s lineage, I’ve always felt a desire to return to my Motherland and cultivate connections to it.
My childhood bedroom included pink walls, a unicorn wallpaper border, a poster of the Taj Mahal purchased at a yard sale, and a globe with a star inked onto my birth city. Growing up, I would write poetry of India imagined: saris, songs, and brilliant sunsets. I researched and wrote book reports on Indian elephants and the Indian diet.
In college, I took a South Asian studies course and made Indian friends, but I worked multiple jobs during the school year and throughout the summer. I was never able to study abroad or save up for a leisure trip.
A few years ago for my birthday, some dear friends of mine gave me a card and a check—seed money to help me to start saving for the journey I’ve been talking about since high school. For the first time, I was given a blatant nudge into action.
It’s time for me to experience this place and people I’ve longed to know. Most people know the Indian festival of Holi, with color festivals being adapted across the globe, but there are so many festivals and fairs across India that are equally exciting yet less explored. Through my own eager, curious eyes, I hope to come to my own understanding of Indian culture by sharing the stories, sights, sounds, and souls of the cities and villages I visit during these beautiful, bountiful, and boisterous celebrations.