Behold the Beauty of this Bacteria-Infested Spring
The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park shows that bacteria can be beautiful. Those versatile prokaryotic organisms may be best known for causing pathogenic havoc, but when they hang around the sides of a warm Wyoming pond, the result is a glorious rainbow.
At 250-by-300 feet and up to 160 feet deep, the Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the USA. Its brilliant colors are the result of pigmented bacteria living on its perimeter. The hues change and become more or less vibrant depending on the kinds of bacteria thriving at the time.
The heat of the spring — it's 160 degrees Fahrenheit at the center — causes steam to waft and swirl, adding to the otherworldy look of the place.
Aquatic bacteria bonanza:
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Cerro Negro: Surf Down a Volcano
Today's installment of our exciting new series, I Didn't Know You Could Surf That, features a Nicaraguan volcano.
Cerro Negro is Central America's youngest volcano, having popped up in 1850.* It is also the first volcano to offer ash boarding.
Ash boarding, also known as volcano surfing or volcano boarding, involves strapping a wooden plank to your feet and coasting down the 1,600-foot ash-and-pebble slope of Cerro Negro. Boarders, wearing gloves, goggles, and jumpsuits, reach speeds of up to 50 miles an hour, kicking up clouds of dust on the way down. Those of a more timid disposition can opt to sit on the board or simply run down the steep slope.
The ascent is less thrilling—it's an hourlong hike—but the summit brings its own rewards. A stunning 360 degree panoramic view reveals the chain of active and dormant volcanoes, lined up one after the other, surrounded by blue skies and lush green foliage. Cerro Negro itself is an active volcano whose crater often emits smoke. It has erupted 23 times, most recently in 1999.
Other volcanic vacation spots:
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How to Go Surfing in the Middle of Munich
If you're riding the Munich subway in the dead of winter and you see someone carrying a surfboard, chances are they're headed for the Eisbach, a stream that runs through the city's biggest park, Englischer Garten.
A one-and-a-half-foot stationary welle, or wave, at a spot beneath a bridge was once an occasional sight, until local surfers funneled it into a more forceful, permanent swell by installing planks of wood on the sides of the river. Now the site attracts wave riders who brave the cold water — 39F in winter, 60F in summer — to surf the stream in front of a crowd of onlookers.
So popular is the site that queues of surfers form on both sides of the narrow river. Authorities have threatened to shut down the wave on account of its perceived danger, but a "save the wave" campaign won out, and surfing is now officially allowed. That said, the Eisbachwelle is not for newcomers — a sign on the bank warns, "Due to the forceful current, the wave is suitable for skilled and experienced surfers only."
Other watery wonders:
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The Rat King: So Much Worse Than it Sounds
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase "rat king"? Perhaps a sniffy-nosed rodent scampering about in a crown? Or maybe a ballet dancer in a rat costume, a la the Mouse King in Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker? Well, take those innocent visions, dash them, and report to Room 101. There, in your bespoke face-cage, you will meet the real rat king.
A rat king, or roi-de-rats if you want to get all classy and French about it, is a pack of rodents whose tails have become entwined. The adhesive for this rat tangle may be dirt, blood, or feces, or the tails may simply be knotted together. The number of rats in a rat king varies wildly — two rats can make a rat king, albeit a pretty pathetic one.
Reported rat king sightings date back to at last as far as the 16th century. Germany is a particular hotspot, for reasons unknown. The largest known specimen is a mummified 32-rat snarl, on display at the Mauritianum museum in Altenburg, Germany.
Behold the monstrous majesty:
There are also rat kings on show at France's Natural History Museum in Nantes (nine rats), the Zoological Museum of Tartu, Estonia (16 rats), and the Zoological Museum of Strasbourg (10 rats).
The big question in all this is whether rat kings can form without human intervention. Certainly a portion of the "found" specimens are best consigned to the category of Cryptozoology along with the Feejee Mermaid and the Skunk Ape. But did any of the rodents become entangled of their own accord? Are there real rat kings? The answer is a definite maybe. Sweet dreams.
Other creatures to make you squirm:
Oradour-sur-Glane, France's Chilling World War II Ghost Village
The village of Oradour-sur-Glane in central France has stood in ruins since 1944. Among the scorched, crumbling buildings are things owned by the people who lived here 70 years ago: burnt shells of cars; browned sewing machines; bed frames; the skeleton of a stroller. All sit quietly, at the mercy of nothing but weather and time.
On June 10, 1944, the Waffen-SS, an armed division of the Nazi SS, stormed Oradour-sur-Glane and ordered every resident to assemble in the village square in order to have their identity papers examined. The promised inspection never happened. Instead, the SS unit led the men to barns and sheds, where they had set up machine guns. They took the women and children to the church, locked them in, and set the building on fire. Anyone who tried to escape through a window met with a hail of gunfire.
Within hours, the Waffen-SS had murdered 642 residents of Oradour-sur-Glane. Satisfied, they left, but not before torching every structure in the village.
When World War II ended, then French president Charles de Gaulle declared that while a new Oradour-sur-Glane would be built next to the original, the old one must be kept in ruins as a reminder of the atrocities of war. Apart from the addition of signs, plaques, and a museum, the ghost village is untouched. A sign above the entrance reads "Souviens-Toi" — "Remember."
Other remnants of World War II:
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The Italian Job's Grand Torino Rooftop Racetrack
During one of the many action scenes in The Italian Job — the Michael Caine original, not the Mark Wahlberg remake — the Mini Coopers race around a rooftop track in Turin. It's one of cinema's most civilized car chase scenes, as evinced by the thoroughly British line, "Try putting your foot down, Tony, they're really getting rather close."
Here's the scene:
The track featured is a real race track, built on the roof of a Fiat factory that opened in Turin's Ligotto district in 1923. The factory's assembly line began at the ground floor and ended on the top level, where cars were taken for a test run around the track. Spiraling ramps inside the building allowed the cars to be driven back down and into showrooms.
The factory closed in 1982, after which Fiat held a competition for its redevelopment. Architect Renzo Piano, whose work includes the New York Times building, and London's "vertical city," the Shard, secured the commission. His workshop transformed the old factory into a public space complete with shopping center, theater, hotel, convention center, and art gallery. A helipad and bubble-shaped, blue glass meeting room were added to the roof to cater for business travelers with big expense accounts.
You can still visit the rooftop test track, but the days of Fiat cars looping around the course are gone. If you can't shake the urge to race around a circle, head downstairs to the speed skating rink, which was built for the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics.
Other lofty diversions:
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How a Real Corpse Ended Up in a California Fun Park Spookhouse
It was 1976. Crew members from the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man were preparing to shoot on location at the Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach, California. The plan was to capture Steve Austin, the titular pricey fellow, riding in one of the cars along the track of a spooky ride called the "Laff in the Dark." The ride featured a tunnel in which ghouls, demons, and skeletons would pop up and scare you as your car jolted from side to side in the dark.
While sprucing up the set, a Six Million Dollar employee spotted a mannequin hanging from a noose in the corner. He reached for the mannequin's arm — and the arm broke off in his hand. Looking at the dismembered limb, the worker was astonished to see what looked like bone beneath layers of desiccated skin. This was no mannequin. This was a man.
The hanging corpse in question was once Elmer McCurdy, an outlaw who died in a gunfight with police 65 years before being found in the funhouse. In 1911, the mischief-making vagabond robbed a train near Okesa, Oklahoma, then took his spoils — $46 and two jugs of whisky — north, where he holed up in a barnyard on the Kansas border. Police pursued him and ended up killing him in a shootout among the hay.
McCurdy's body was taken to a funeral home in Pawhuska, but no-one claimed it. Seeing a money-making opportunity, the undertaker embalmed him and allowed visitors to view the preserved corpse if they placed a nickel in its mouth.
Five years into this lucrative scheme, a carnival man turned up at the funeral home claiming to be a long-lost relative of McCurdy and requested to take the body so it could be laid to rest properly. He was, of course, lying through his teeth. Within weeks, the McCurdy corpse was the star attraction of a traveling carnival.
For 60 years, McCurdy's mummy made the rounds of carnivals, wax museums, and haunted houses, until it turned up, inexplicably, at The Pike in Long Beach. By this time, the legend of Outlaw McCurdy was long forgotten, and the body was assumed to be a fake. After the Six Million Dollar discovery, police identified McCurdy and sent the body to Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma, for long-delayed internment.
McCurdy's grave is marked by a stone that lists his death date as 1911 and burial date as 1977, with no elaboration on the matter. A thick layer of concrete atop the casket ensures the corpse won't go walkabout again.
Visit Atlas Obscura for more on Elmer McCurdy. For the full run-down of McCurdy's travels — pre- and post-mortem — check out Mark Svenvold's book, Elmer McCurdy: The Life And Afterlife Of An American Outlaw.
Dark amusement parks:
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A Visit to Germany's Real-Life Grand Budapest Hotel
It turns out the fictitious European town in which The Grand Budapest Hotel was set isn't so fictitious after all. Hidden amidst the Brandenburg forest nine miles north of Berlin are buildings seemingly lost in time and built in such grandiose socialist-classicism style, you wouldn't be surprised if a concierge named Gustave greeted you at the door or a "Boy With Apple" painting adorned the walls. Winding back the clock a few decades to the Cold War era, it was within these very four walls that the German Democratic Republic (GDR) brainwashed young people and officials from all around the world with propaganda about the ideals of socialism and the evils of the capitalist West.
From 1951 to 1990, the FDJ (Freie Deutsche Jugend) youth academy was the top-secret educational facility for the official communist youth movement of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, occupying a vast 460,000 square feet at Bogensee near Wandlitz. Today, despite being relinquished and left to decay for over two decades, these buildings haven't lost their majestic, otherworldly charms.
Goebbels' Love Nest
In 1936, the city of Berlin gave Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels the Bogensee property and its surrounding terrain, along with a humble log cabin, for his 39th birthday. Three years later, Goebbels built a grand villa there costing 1.5 million Reichsmarks. Otherwise known as his "Liebesnest" ("love nest") where he brought his long succession of affairs, the forest retreat comprised 30 private rooms, 40 day rooms, a bunker, a guest house in which the SS guards stayed, and a cinema where he examined the newest Nazi propaganda films.
Establishment of the FDJ Elite
After the end of World War II, the property was first used as a military hospital by Western allies before it was taken over by the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SMAD) on March 9, 1946, and the FDJ youth academy was established there. In 1951, Berlin's Stalin Allee architect Hermann Henselmann was entrusted with the construction of a complex of monumental buildings, encompassing conference rooms, interpreter cabins, dance halls, boarding school dormitories and banquet halls — turning the once-private country estate into a small Soviet gingerbread-style town.
Intended to be the source of a socialist stimulus for the world, the institution taught students philosophy, Marxism-Leninism, scientific communism, dialectical materialism and the political economy of capitalism. Liberation organizations across Africa, Latin America and Asia started sending their young members to the academy, and, from the mid-70s, even students from West Germany and Western Europe, delegated by their Communist parties, were enrolled, in the hope that the seeds of socialism would be carried to the West.
The End of the Palace of Red Dreams
The end of the GDR and a divided Germany also meant the end for the elite at Bogensee. By January 1990, the FDJ broke up, by March the last People’s Police guarding the area finally withdrew, and by summer, the last students left the campus. Saying the derelict property has fallen on hard times today is an understatement. Dripping — in the truest sense of the word — with history, the grand hall's roof is leaking, rotten floorboards crunch beneath your feet, and the musty "smell of the East" permeates through the damp peeling walls. In a losing battle against Mother Nature, there’s no longer a guest in sight for poor Gustave to greet, the only patron getting a spin on the old dance floors is tumbleweed and the "lobby boy" holding up the fort today is an old janitor named Robert.
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Bedrock City, the Run-Down Home of the Flintstones
In the middle of the Arizona desert, south of the Grand Canyon, is a real-world version of Bedrock City, the Flintstones' home town.
Established in 1972 — six years after the animated show ended its 166-episode run — the roadside attraction features replicas of Fred and Barney's favorite haunts, including their homes, a grocery store, movie theater, gas station, doctor's office, and a dinosaur with a built-in slide. The famous foot-powered cars also make an appearance, though attempting to drive them is an exercise in exhaustion.
From a distance, Bedrock City appears abandoned. Everything is run down and you're likely to encounter at least one "Out of Order" sign. But that only adds to the bizarre charm of the place.
Pose for photos next to giant bones, pet the "goatasauruses" (a.k.a. sleepy goats wandering around a pen) and crawl through the giant concrete snake, watching out for pebbles and burs along the way. Then get in your car, speed away, and wonder if it was all a fever dream.
As seen on TV:
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The Dramatic Remains of Canada's Deadliest Landslide
At 4 am on April 29, 1903, the 600 residents of Frank in Alberta, Canada, were sound asleep when a terrific rumble rang out above them. Less than two minutes later, 15 percent of the population was buried beneath 90 million tons of rock.
Founded as a coal mining town just two years earlier, Frank lay at the base of Turtle Mountain, a 7,251-foot-tall limestone peak. On the morning in question, a section of rock 1,400 feet tall — the height of the Empire State Building — 3,280 feet wide, and 500 feet deep plunged from the summit of the mountain. The southeastern part of Frank, home to 100 people, two miles of railroad, and the coal mine, instantly disappeared beneath 50 to 150 feet of rock.
Amid the destruction came tales of extraordinary survival. The parents of Gladys Ennis, 15 months old at the time, found her choking on mud after the rock slide destroyed the family home. Two-year-old Marion Leitch landed safely on a pile of hay when the rock torrent threw her from her house. Seventeen coal miners, trapped inside the mine, spent 14 hours digging their way out.
Multiple factors led to the rock slide, but Turtle Mountain's unstable geology was a primary cause. Tectonic shift during the creation of the Rocky Mountains caused structurally stronger rock layers to sit on top of weaker ones. Water seeped into the mountain through surface cracks, eroding the limestone. When it froze and thawed, the cracks widened, breaking apart the rock from the inside. Mining operations may have contributed to the mountain's instability, but they were not the main cause of the slide.
Of the approximately 90 victims of the slide, only 18 have been recovered. Those found were beneath shallow rubble — the rest are still buried under the rocks that killed them in 1903.
Other geological oddities:
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