Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

May 5 2015 9:15 AM

Welcome to Obscura Day 2015

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Last summer, just after I stepped down as Slate’s editor, I took a walk with my kids in Rock Creek Park, near our house in Washington, D.C. Down a narrow dirt path, we stumbled across something astonishing: the remains of a fort—moat, earthworks, gun emplacements—nearly swallowed by the woods. It was Fort DeRussy, one of the Civil War fortifications that repulsed the Confederate invasion of Washington. When Jubal Early’s rebels rampaged toward the capital in July 1864, it was the big guns of Fort DeRussy and Fort Myer that helped drive them back.

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Get smart at the Cushing Brain Collection

Photo:techbint/Creative Commons

Thanks to the Google- and Wikipedization of modern life, it sometimes feels like everything in the world has been discovered, that you can’t experience something new or surprising or wonderful without NASA-level funding. Unless you’re willing to outfit a submarine to plumb the Marianas Trench, you’re stuck with the dreary world you already know.

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But the world is ready to surprise you. No matter where you are, there is always something incredible to discover, just around the corner. This is the premise of Atlas Obscura (where I work now). And it’s the premise of Obscura Day. On May 30, 2015, we’re holding more than 150 real-world expeditions in 39 states, in 25 countries, and on six continents—all in a single day. (They were busy in Antarctica.)

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Marvel at the Sharmanka Kinetic Theater.

Photo:dun_deagh/Creative Commons

Obscura Day is designed to make explorers out of everyone, and to show the hidden treasures in your own hometown. See a sunrise falconry exhibition in the California desert. Explore the sacred Hindu caves of Goa Gajah, Bali. Tour the secret collections of the Allen Library in Seattle. Enjoy a private orchestral performance at the Robotic Church in Brooklyn. Visit the eerie ghost cities in Chernobyl’s contaminated zone. Walk through the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things in Lucas, KAnsas; worship at the Cathedral of Junk in Austin, Texas; or join an Icelandic sorcerer in a special invocation to ward off evil spirits at the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft. As for me, I’ll be leading a walk to Fort DeRussy.

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Visit Arcosanti’s unique vision.

Photo: Cody/Creative Commons

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May 4 2015 9:15 AM

Copenhagen’s Pink Geometry Park

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Copenhagen’s Superkilen park has transformed a portion of the city into a multicultural celebration. The space mixes design elements from across the globe with futuristic high-art touches, including a massive public thoroughfare that is completely covered in bright pink geometry.

Located just north of the bustling city center, Superkilen park is found in one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Copenhagen—an aspect of the city that the park was created to celebrate.

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The park itself is broken into three zones: the Red Square, the Black Market, and the Green Park. Each portion of the space lives up to its name. The Red Square covers a wide public walkway in angular neon pink, orange, and red shapes. The Black Market consists of black asphalt given texture by a series of tight white lines that curve and zag across the space, centered on a glistening black octopus that doubles as a playground. Finally, the Green Park is more of a traditional series of lawns formed into round shapes and natural blobs. The main theme of each section is presented in a stark, high-art motif, making it look like a psychedelic park of the future.

In addition to the large-scale design themes, the sections of the park are filled with benches, lamps, and features that have been taken from more than 50 countries. Here there are some benches imported from Brazil and a streetlamp from Iraq, there a trash can from England and a neon sign advertising a Chinese salon. All together, the park creates a sense of futuristic global culture coming together to mix and collide in one space.

The Superkilen park was opened in 2012, and continues to stand as a symbol not just of one Copenhagen neighborhood’s growing diversity, but the entire world’s growing interconnectedness. Also, the color pink.

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April 30 2015 10:15 AM

The World’s Highest Bridge Was Built Using Rockets

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

China has repeatedly bested itself (and others) in the competition for the world’s highest bridge. The current reigning champ is the Sidu River Bridge, which hangs over 1,600 vertigo-inducing feet above a canyon floor, connecting what amounts to two mountaintops. 

Opened in 2009, the Sidu River Bridge (which crosses the titular river, as one might expect), beat out the previous record-holding span, the Hegigio Gorge Pipeline Bridge in Papua New Guinea, which is suspended just over 1,200 feet above the ground.

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The Sidu bridge was created as part of China’s ever-expanding highway system, connecting two disparate parts of the country that were previously separated by difficult, mountainous terrain, and multiple rivers. The bridge spans just over 5,000 feet across the river valley and was so long that the builders had to use a rocket to string the first pilot line across the gap. The hefty length is supported by two massive, H-shaped towers, one at both ends of the road. The suspension lines dip in the middle and rise back up again, looking more than a little flimsy for such a massive span. 

This is not to say that the bridge isn’t safe, as each of the massive, main suspension cables is capable of holding up over 43 million tons of weight, which should be more than adequate to support any number of vehicles that might want to make the trip across.

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April 29 2015 9:30 AM

The Starkly Modern Steilneset Memorial Remembers the Victims of the 17th-Century Vardø Witch Trials

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Sitting on the stark, barren coast of the Barents Sea in Vardø, Norway, is a pair of modern but somber structures known collectively as the Steilneset Memorial. The ultramodern installations honor the memories of the dozens of people killed during the 17th-century Vardø witch trials. 

Designed in collaboration between the architect Peter Zumthor and the late artist Louise Bourgeois, the pair of ultramodern constructions stand out against the natural coastal landscape yet don’t seem out of place, sharing a brutal kinship with the vistas. Zumthor’s portion of the memorial consists of a pine scaffolding, supporting a suspended silk cocoon. Within the cocoon, visitors walk along a 400-foot-long oak-floored corridor, illuminated by 91 small lights set into little windows, each one representing someone who was killed on suspicion of sorcery. Each window is accompanied by a plaque that also illuminates the story of one of the victims. 

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Bourgeois’ portion of the memorial is a large box made of smoked glass that sits just to the side of Zumthor’s silk missile. Called The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved, the piece was Bourgeois’ last major installation before her death. The darkened glass room contains an endless flame burning atop a steel chair, that itself is nested within a hollow concrete cone. The hot seat is surrounded by a series of mirrors that bounce the eerie light off each other and the glass walls, making the whole room dance with flames.

It took over 300 years for a memorial to be built for those tragically killed in the Vardø witch trials, but given how haunting and perfectly austere the resulting memorials are, it was well worth the wait.

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April 28 2015 9:15 AM

Beware France’s Disappearing Road 

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

If you need to get from the French mainland to the little island of Noirmoutier, you better hurry, because the road will literally disappear beneath you.

Running almost 3 miles across the Bay of Bourgneuf, the Passage du Gois is built atop a narrow spine of silt that has developed over hundreds of years. Eventually the line grew big enough that it rose out of the waters during low tide, creating a land bridge across the bay.

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Twice daily, during low tide, the causeway appears. Anyone wishing to travel to and from the island overland has a little over an hour to get there. The journey can’t take too long, because the waters rise back up as though the passage never existed, stranding people and vehicles in the middle of the bay. To prevent such a calamity, safety poles have ben placed at intervals down the road so that anyone overstaying their welcome can wait for rescue or the next tidal shift.

Every year the disappearing road is also host to a foot race known as the Foulées du Gois, during which daring runners try to beat the onrushing tides.

Despite the clearly marked signs, a number of people get caught on the road each year, swimming and splashing their way through the road that wasn’t there.

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April 23 2015 9:15 AM

The Abandoned Memorial to the Victims of Apollo I

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

What was once a hotbed for NASA rocket departures, Launch Complex 34, or LC-34, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, is now abandoned, and dedicated to preserving the memory of the three astronauts who perished in a shuttle fire at the site in 1967.

While a number of rockets were fired into outer space from LC-34, it was the tragedy of the Apollo I project (the first manned rocket in the series), that secured the location’s place in history.

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Despite a number of concerns over the amount of flammable material contained within the cockpit of the Apollo I landing module, among other design flaws, the conical spacecraft went through a rehearsal launch in January 1967. During the exercise, a small cabin fire ignited, which led to a deadly chain of events, leaving all three astronauts (Command Pilot Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White II, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee) in the cabin dead. The fire reacted with the pressurized oxygen and other gasses in the chamber, and within 16 seconds it had turned the air inside caustically lethal, quickly melting the astronauts’ suits and hoses and exposing them to the unbreathable atmosphere before they could open the door.

Following the tragedy, LC-34 stayed in use for another year, but was finally retired in 1968. Many of the large structures were dismantled, but the main rocket cradle, as well as a couple of ramped fire guards, were left in place. The large cement cradle sits in the middle of the launch pad and is now the official memorial to the brave astronauts who perished there, adorned with a commemorative plaque that tells their tale.

It might be earthbound, but the memorial remembers an important, if tragic, bump on our road to the stars.

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April 21 2015 9:45 AM

The Eiffel Tower’s Secret Apartment

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

When the Eiffel Tower opened in 1889 to universal wonder and acclaim, designer Gustave Eiffel soaked up the praise. But as if that wasn’t enough, it was soon revealed that he had built himself a small apartment near the top of the world wonder, garnering him the envy of the Parisian elite in addition to his new fame.

Located on the third level of the tower, Eiffel’s private apartment was not large, but it was cozy. In contrast to the steely industrial girders of the rest of the tower, as RM1000 reports, author Henri Girard described the apartment in his 1891 book La Tour Eiffel de Trois Cent Métres as being “furnished in the simple style dear to scientists.” The walls were covered in warm wallpaper, and the furniture included soft chintzes, wooden cabinets, and even a grand piano, creating a comfortable atmosphere perched nearly 1,000 feet in the air. Adjacent to the small apartment were some laboratory areas equipped with the experimentation gear of the day.

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Once word got out about Eiffel’s little nest in the sky, all of Parisian high society turned simultaneously green with jealousy. Eiffel is said to have received a number of sky-high (pun intended) offers to rent out the space, even for one night. He declined them all, preferring to use the space for quiet reflection, and to entertain prestigious guests such as Thomas Edison himself, who gifted Eiffel one of his newfangled phonograph machines.

Today, after being off limits for years, the apartment is on display for visitors to come and peer into. The furnishings remain much the same and there are a couple of rather wan-looking mannequins of Eiffel and Edison. For the right type of architectural admirer, Eiffel’s secret apartment could inspire as much jealousy today as it did when it was built. 

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April 20 2015 10:00 AM

The World’s Kindest Prison

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Just under 50 miles off the coast of Norway’s capital, Oslo, is tiny Bastøy Island. More accurately known as Bastøy Prison, the isle has a legacy of incarceration going back over a century. During that time, conditions have vacillated from brutality that triggered a revolt of young boys, to the humane criminal commune it is today.

Like San Francisco’s Alcatraz, Bastøy Island proved to be a prime natural spot for incarceration, with the natural sea barrier preventing most any escape. Thus, in 1900, the Bastøy boys’ home opened on the island and began taking in wayward young men to be reconditioned in the isolated environs. The conditions in the institution were stark, and the punishment for misbehavior was draconian, even for the day.

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The poor treatment came to a head in 1915, when a group of boys tried to escape. They were caught, but the arrest caused the rest of the youths to riot, burning down a barn in the process. It took the intervention of the Norwegian military, which deployed troops to the island to bring the boys in line. Unfortunately the riot changed little, and the boys’ home remained in operation until 1970.

Once the home was closed, the island was converted to a minimum-security prison that took a more humane approach to prison life. In Bastøy Prison, which still operates in the same conscientious manner today, the inmates are treated as part of a community. They are given jobs that they must perform, but they are also given downtime and the limited freedom to roam the island. They are roomed in well-appointed cabins and fed meals prepared by a professional chef. And these are not minor offenders, either. Among the more than 100 inmates living on Bastøy Island are those convicted of rape, murder, and drug smuggling.

Many have raised eyebrows at providing such an experience and calling it punishment, but only 16 percent of prisoners released from Bastøy Prison end up reoffending, compared with Europe’s general average of 70 percent. The prison also sets out to be ecologically aware by having the prisoners care for the natural habitat of the island. The prison governor summed up the philosophy nicely in a 2012 CNN report: “If we have created a holiday camp for criminals here, so what? We should reduce the risk of reoffending, because if we don’t, what’s the point of punishment, except for leaning toward the primitive side of humanity?”

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April 17 2015 2:45 PM

The Ballad of the Traveling Man: The Story of Texas’ Giant Folktale Robot

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Depending on which corner of Dallas' Deep Ellum neighborhood you find yourself in, you'll catch a different chapter of the story of giant robot known as the Traveling Man, be it his birth, his stroll, or his rest. 

The three large installations in the neighborhood are the work of artist Brad Oldham, who created the figures to replace a previous bunch of murals that were once seen as the welcome mat of the neighborhood. The murals had to be taken down due to construction of a light rail system, and The Traveling Man statues were born. Each of the figures is built of polished metal sheets held together with rivets, all meant to evoke the railway history of the neighborhood of Deep Ellum.  

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Moving from one statue to another, the story of the Traveling Man proceeds from birth to life. The first statue, called Awakening, features just a portion of the Traveling Man's head and one of his clamps emerging from a pit of gravel as one of his songbird pals looks on. According to the story devised by the planners of the robot mascot, the Traveling Man began life as a regular locomotive buried beneath an elm tree, but when a splash of gin was spilled on the roots of the tree, the weird folktale transformer emerged from the ground

Continuing down Good Latimer Street, you next find the huge robot reclining against a piece of debris salvaged from one of Deep Ellum's old rail tunnels. This time the Traveling Man is represented in full, with a smile and a guitar as he sits, his legs leisurely crossed, in a piece known as Waiting on the Train.

Finally the Traveling Man lives up to his name in the last, and tallest, piece of the three. In Walking Tall, the Traveling Man is seen taking a jaunty stroll with his avian sidekicks on his arm and around his feet. 

The Traveling Man, in all of his forms, is located not far from the Deep Ellum light rail station, making him the ambassador for the area. He reminds visitors and locals alike not only of the neighborhood's history with trains, but also its more recent history as a cradle for the arts.

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April 16 2015 9:15 AM

“Persecuted for Wearing the Beard”: The Hirsute Life and Death of Joseph Palmer 

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Despite the perception that the past was a hairy wonderland of bearded outdoorsmen, bushy facial hair was long considered the mark of lunatics, or worse, heretics. Today there is a Massachusetts gravestone that remembers one man’s heroic fight against the forces of anti-hirsute vigilantes and a whole town’s persecution of his epic mane.   

A veteran of the War of 1812, Joseph Palmer began wearing a beard in the 1820s. In his day Palmer’s beard was considered by most all in his small town to be a sign of poor hygeine and ungodliness. He was even criticized by his local preacher for communing with the devil, famously responding to the accusation, “ ... if I remember correctly, Jesus wore a beard not unlike mine.”

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In May of 1830, Palmer was attacked by four men outside a hotel in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Armed with razors and scissors, the men attempted to forcibly shave Palmer’s face, but the bewhiskered man stabbed two of his attackers with a pocketknife and was subsequently arrested for assault. He could have avoided jail by paying a fine and court fees, but Palmer refused, maintaining his innocence, and more importantly his right to a glorious beard. He was subsequently jailed for 15 months, including time in solitary confinement.

Upon leaving prison, Palmer joined the Fruitlands utopian community in nearby Harvard, Massachusetts, after being influenced by his friendship with fellow Fruitlander Louisa May Alcott. The character Moses White from Alcott’s Transcendental Wild Oats would later be based on Palmer.

Palmer died in 1865 and his tombstone displays a portrait of him with a long beard, and as a final act of rebellion, the inscription “Persecuted for Wearing the Beard.”

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