Earlier this month, as part of our Year in Wonder project, we asked Atlas Obscura readers to help us.
We launched The Year in Wonder series because the past 12 months of world events have been difficult in so many ways, and yet awe-inspiring things did in fact occur this year. We know they happened because highlighting and reporting on such stories is our job! They include, among many others, extraordinary discoveries, unbelievable new records, thrilling breakthroughs, remarkable images, and stunning acts of bravery.
But we also knew there were plenty more such stories out there that we’d yet to hear about, especially smaller-scale ones that were unlikely to make the news. So we asked our readers to share their personal “Stories of Wonder” from the year, whether they were things that happened to them, someone they knew, or someone they read about from their local community.
Below, the editors have compiled our favorite responses, interspersed with a selection of images our Instagram followers shared with us in recent weeks via the hashtag #AOYearinWonder. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did, and wish our incredible reader community a wonder-filled 2018.
My parents and I live in an area where we frequently see hummingbirds, and about 5 years ago, a beautiful Rufous hummingbird (not common around here, known for their rust-red coloring and strange “whistling-buzz” in flight) took up residence in a tree near our house. He stayed year-round, not leaving like the rest, and was easily spotted on his favorite perch in the top of the mimosa tree. Sadly, in early December of 2015, our house burned down. With all of the smoke, commotion from rebuilding, and our absence for about 6 months (unable to put out nectar feeders during the rebuild) the Rufous disappeared and didn’t come back. Shortly after we returned, the mimosa had to be cut down, as it started to die, either from the smoke and heat, or the toxic (to plants) overspray of the flame-retardant foam. Now, even if he did return, his perch wouldn’t be there for him.
We were able to return home in June of 2016 and got our lives put back together, but our friend never returned. Just about a year later (August, 2017) we were hit by Hurricane Harvey. Our neighborhood near the bayou was one of the hardest hit, and we had well over 4 feet of water in our home. Luckily, the humans and pets all made it out alive, but it especially hard on my two disabled parents, and it was daunting to be looking at the task of starting over for the second time in as many years—this time, without insurance to help. But, with indomitable spirits and the support of so many (both known and unknown to us) we DID start over, and are now nearly complete with the rebuild.
About two months ago, the home was complete enough as to be livable, so we returned home, still looking at a long road ahead of us. One day shortly after returning, as I was taking the dogs out, I heard a very familiar “whistling buzz.” It didn’t register on me at first, because there are always various insect and bird noises around. I heard it again, and it was unmistakable. I looked around and didn’t see anything, but the third time, the sound came especially close. I looked up, and, hovering about 5 feet above me, was the Rufous. I am almost certain it is the same one, because his feathers, though still nearly iridescent in color, had a telltale slightly ragged look to them, so common in aging birds. Still, there he hovered, as if to say, “Hey! Pay attention! I’m back!” He flitted over to a new perch, in the sweetgum tree by the drive and settled down, preening. Over the coming days I was able to show him to both mom and dad.—James R. Martin, Dickinson, Texas
This year @laflaneure made it to the #1 spot on our Washington D.C. Most Places Visited board! We love this photo she took at another spot in the atlas, the Presidents Heads field in Williamsburg, Virginia. Share a photo of the most wondrous spot you visited using Atlas Obscura this year, and tag #AOYearinWonder- we’ll be regramming our favorites as inspiration for 2018!
Seeing the ocean for the first time. It was truly breathtaking. I’m 28 but I felt like a child when I saw the beach. I took my shoes off and walked on the sand. I picked up seashells. The smell and sound of the ocean was incredible. I am so grateful.—Tina Blacksmith, Salem, Oregon
Getting a total hip replacement. I know this doesn’t rise to the level of wonders around the world that you report on, but the procedure of getting a whole new joint replaced, walking on it the same day as the surgery and going from constant agonizing pain to freedom of movement, is a miracle. That the surgeon cut off my thigh bone, took out the ball joint, and replaced both with man made materials is… well the word “miracle” is too tame a word, but the only one that comes to mind. I now walk freely and pain free! Wonderful! Modern medicine is forging frontiers that our grandparents couldn’t even imagine. And I think it is so easy to take it for granted. So my story of wonder is my “bionic hip.” Thanks for asking!!!—Joyce Schlose, Denver, Colorado
My Story of Wonder comes from one of the devastating moments that happened this year. It was the 17th of August in Barcelona. I was there to attend a ballet summer course, a really important one, dancers from all over the world were there to put together a gala. That day, we had just finished rehearsals when terrible news spread. A terror attack, just few blocks from us. You can imagine the panic. But, after the first instants of total confusion, the director [of the show] said a simple quote: “The show must go on.” Just that. And we did that show. And it was incredibly powerful, even more because of the attack. So, if in 2017 there is something bright and hopeful it is art. All the art produced by every human being every day, it’s the only thing whereby it’s worth it to stay on this earth and go through this obscure period. And I wanted just to celebrate that.—Margherita Vassallo, Italy
The book collection contained in Brazil’s Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading rises three stories above the central study area on each wall. The cabinet was founded in 1822 by a trio of Portuguese immigrants, and today the collection receives around 6,000 new titles a year and is home to more than 400,000 volumes. Share a photo of the most wondrous place you visited using Atlas Obscura this year, and tag #AOYearinWonder- we’re regramming our favorites as inspiration for 2018! This photo was taken by intrepid explorer @nonagona.
At the beginning of the year I found what I thought was an empty sleeping bag in our local park, but upon inspection it contained the thinnest young man I had ever seen. I visited him for three days and nights, bringing him food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I softly spoke to him without looking at him because he seemed so frightened.
On the third day I told him to watch me do something and that it was OK to laugh or to cry or to stare, but that I would be OK even if I fell over because I could pick myself up and keep on going. I hoped it would pique his curiosity and it did. To my great joy, as I ran away from him, while looking over my shoulder, I could see him watching intently. As I expected, I ran into a branch and tripped over heavily because I couldn’t see where I was going. I saw him flinch and startle but the shadow of a smile appeared as I picked myself up and turned around and went running towards him, this time facing where I was going. He stretched out his hands towards me on my return and I took them and I said, “I think something has happened to you that has made you keep looking back to the past and because you can’t see where you are going, you keep falling and you never get anywhere because you are only seeing what is behind you. I’d like to help you learn to look to the future so you can move forward and find a better place to be in than where you are because the world is a brighter place with you in it and your story doesn’t have to end here.” He cried at first but then he laughed when I threatened to run around the whole park looking behind me again, and from that day he began moving forward. Slowly but surely and with a little bit of help he found a place to be, the will to live and a future ahead of him and he even started studying and for the first time in his life is looking forward to the following year.—Cassandra Kavanagh, Australia
A week or so after hurricane Irma, our lower Florida Keys were brown. All green in nature, along with many homes, was destroyed. After we dug out our little skiff from under a massive, fallen buttonwood tree and two coconut palms, we were thrilled to discover it still started. We headed straight for the mangrove islands of the backcountry. We cut the engines and drifted slowly with the current. Everything was still. No other boats. No wind. No waves. Only one lone cormorant swam by. Then it began. A gasp behind us. We looked to see only a few ripples. Minutes passed. Another gasp. Again, its maker was out of eye shot. More minutes. Finally a sea turtle poked its head out of the water, sucking in air as if it’d been a week since its last breath. He saw us. He looked annoyed. Surely it is better without humans around. But that day, we sat in silence for hours, smiling with new hope, and listening to the sea turtles breath.—Karuna Eberl, Cudjoe Key, Florida
Devil’s Den in Williston, Florida is a karst window, or a place where the roof over a subterranean river has collapsed, exposing the water to the open surface. We regrammed this gorgeous photo from adventurer @mistershaap (who also aptly noticed that the hanging plants look like “nature’s chandelier.”) Thanks for using #AOYearinWonder! It’s a beautiful spot. Share a photo of the most wondrous place you visited using Atlas Obscura this year, and tag #AOYearinWonder- we’re regramming our favorites as inspiration for 2018!
This summer I drove alone for 8,200 miles over 20 days seeing unique places in America. I traveled mostly off the major interstates and saw so many little towns. I went through the North, the Deep South, and “Out West.” Everyone I met was amazing. I can see on the news we’re a torn country with issues, but I didn’t experience that. I met a wonderful trio at the Roger Miller Museum in Oklahoma, a retired sea captain in the desert of New Mexico, and two Romanians who didn’t know each other in a small area of Wisconsin. I stood in a crowded park in San Francisco days after driving through Montana, where I didn’t see signs of humans for a few hours. Things look bad in the U.S. on a macro-level, but getting out there, getting into the micro-level, meeting individuals, hearing their stories and learning their passions was a life experience that changed me.
I’m a fairly optimistic person but this renewed my happiness and refreshed me in a way I didn’t know I needed. I’ve traveled extensively through my life but traveling so many miles alone allowed me to be more introspective and appreciate everything a little more. It also forced me out of my shyness which is a good thing. I realized, and I’m sure this site will understand, this can’t be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This kind of traveling and curiosity is a lifestyle. It’s not even a choice really, it’s just the way some of us are made. Roadways, motels, foreign beds, strange sights, truck stops, rough towel… these are part of my ecosystem and natural habitat. Like Clark Griswold, I’ll be heading on my European vacation for the sequel in a few months where I’m sure I will meet more fantastic people, see more zany places, and eat more wonderful food! I hope 2018 is great for everyone!—Andrew Cretella, Hockessin, Delaware
My 18-year-old was in a moped accident, flew off a 15-foot embankment and landed pretty much on her head. She suffered a left frontal subarachnoid hemorrhage, left frontal contusion, and a right subdural hematoma. In all she had 15 fractured bones, mostly in her face, her right collarbone, three ribs, and some transverse process fractures on her spine. She was in ICU for a week.
What is so wonderful about this story is that she is alive, walking, and from ICU to the inpatient therapy facility she was only in the hospital for 2 weeks!?! I lost count on how many doctors told her that with the amount of displaced fractures in her face and head it is absolutely amazing that she did not have to have facial or brain surgery. You could not tell by looking at her that she had fractures from her maxillary bone up to her temporal bone on the right side. The only surgery she had was to repair her collarbone. She has a bit of memory loss from around the time of the accident but other than that there will be no long-lasting issues from the brain injury. She is my story of wonder for the year 2017 and I could not be more grateful!—Christina Ragan, Rolla, Missouri
I don’t know why this story [about the reconciliation of the Roger Taney and Dred Scott families in Maryland earlier this year] wasn’t in the national news. It should have been. In a year where we struggled with race and conflict, we had some bright moments that were over shadowed by negative stories.—Sara Bell, Washington, D.C.
The Arab Room at Cardiff Castle is a Victorian-era, harem-inspired fantasy in a Welsh castle. In order to accommodate the room’s elaborate high-vaulted ceiling, the upper two floors were removed. It is estimated that the gold in the Arab Room alone amounts to a whopping £8 million. Share a photo of the most wondrous place you visited using Atlas Obscura this year, and tag #AOYearinWonder- we’re regramming our favorites as inspiration for 2018! This photo was taken by intrepid explorer @crushedveneer.
I saw a meteorite falling. I was driving home one late afternoon when I saw it—a thin white line cutting the stark orange of the sky, growing longer by the second. I think it was a meteorite, even though I’d never seen one before… and even though the line made a curve, which I think meteorites don’t do when they’re falling. I’m still not sure what it was. I would have taken a picture, but I didn’t want to endanger myself or others by using my phone while driving. None of my friends had a picture, but I still remember that moment well.—Veronica, São Paulo, Brazil
My delightful daughter, Sidra, introduced me to a group called TWNMLL (“the world needs more love letters”), which takes nominations, and then each month offers up five or so candidates in need of a little support, encouragement, comfort, and cheer in their lives, and in their mailbox. I try to send one or two a month, although as a freelancer whose busy season is summer, I may not always make that in the crazy months, alas.
They’re currently doing the 12 days of Love Letters, and I’ve gotten such pleasure from sending one off each day, carefully decorating the envelope, and writing an honest and heartfelt letter to go inside. Humans helping humans, keeping the kind in humankind. I do believe that the mailbox can be a treasure chest, and this lovely organization offers just that. It is a special kind of wonder that something so little can mean so much.—Tracy, Portland, Oregon
I’m an adoptee who was reunited with my birth mother for the first time in my life [this year]. Choosing to search is fraught with what-ifs, imagining the worst outcomes, and wondering if you can gracefully navigate the worst (whatever that may be) if it happens. To not only be reunited but to find that my birth mother is an emotionally healthy person was a relief. To discover she’s completely open to answering any question and supporting my response to new information is a gift. To learn she and her family and circle of friends have always reserved a place for me to occupy without obligation to do so has been miraculous. I feel as if I’ve hit the jackpot.—Michelle, Pennsylvania