Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

May 4 2016 12:30 PM

The Story of the Mojave Phone Booth

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This is the story of how a desert icon became, against all odds, a point of convergence for the masses, bridging the gap between the real and digital worlds. 

It was by pure happenstance that a man by the name of Godfrey Daniels even discovered the Mojave phone booth's existence. A casual mention of a telephone deep in the middle of the desert, miles from any paved roads, accompanied by its number, caught his eye in a zine one evening.

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The concept that a phone serving a mysterious clientele stood in the Mojave's moonscape, its ring echoing off into nothing, transfixed him. For over a month, he dialed the phone with increasing frequency. In his words, "I was just imagining making a phone ring out where presumably no one could hear it except the coyotes. But then there was also in the back of your mind, the thought—what if? Like, what if somebody is wandering by? Who would be out there? Who would pick up?"

Then, one day, against all odds, Daniels got a busy signal. In a frenzy, he called until the busy signal gave way to a ring, and a woman answered on the other end, solving the mystery of for whom the phone rang. Lorene, a cinder miner who lived off the grid, used the esoteric Mojave phone booth for her calls. Rather than ruining the mystery, Lorene's existence further delighted Daniels, providing crucial details to fuel his obsession. 

Now he knew the phone was real. And he could visit it. 

The Mojave phone booth was located between Baker and Vegas at the turn off for Cima, surrounded by Joshua trees in the middle of the Mojave National Preserve. In person, it was exactly as it had appeared in Daniels' fantasy. With the desert's unrelenting vastness expanding in every direction, he made a call from it, to his friend, completing the cycle.

But he didn't stop there—Daniels returned home and built a website dedicated to the Mojave phone booth, publishing its number (760-733-9969) so all the world could enjoy his finding. In 1997, this was the best thing the internet had ever seen. All of a sudden, people were making pilgrimages to the phone in the middle of nowhere, and the line rang off the hook. Visitors would take turns answering calls from the farthest corners of the Earth, having conversations with strangers when language barriers allowed. 

Unfortunately the phone's unbridled popularity became its undoing. Heretofore its location in the midst of the Mojave National Preserve had been a nonissue for the National Park Service. The sudden increase in traffic—one of the earliest examples of a real-world location going viral thanks to the internet—was a problem. 

One day, in May of 2000, the Mojave phone booth was there. Then the next it had been leveled, leaving only a concrete pad as a makeshift grave where that mysterious bridge between the digital and real worlds had once been.  

Admittedly, the pay phone itself had always been an outlier in the world. The fact that it was a little too good to be true is what drew so many to it over the years. So not long ago, a white-hat hacker and phreak by the name of Jered Morgan aka Lucky225 decided to resurrect the spirit of the Mojave phone booth. Anyone can now call the disembodied phone at its original number, where he or she will enter a conference call; much like calling the desert, someone may be waiting on the other end, or the caller may find only the sound of his or her own voice echoing in a vast (digital) emptiness. 

Back in the real world, the (physical) booth itself remains gone, and even the concrete pads have been demolished. Nonetheless a pilgrimage to the site of the former Mojave phone booth at the coordinates provided still seems honorable, given its historic virality and continued, disembodied existence out in the ether. 

For a fantastic podcast version of the story check out this 99% invisible episode.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor Natsuba.

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May 3 2016 12:30 PM

The Quest for LARP Insurance

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

"It's dangerous to go alone!” —Old Man, The Legend of Zelda

"You’re in good hands” —Slogan, Allstate Life Insurance Co.

Questing is treacherous business, and no one knows more acutely than the heroes and villains taking part in fantasy live-action role playing, or LARP, events. Luckily for their fictional personas, there are healing spells and potions in case of injury. But should their real-world selves get hurt during the game, these miracle salves have no effect. Fortunately, the real world has LARP insurance.

Fantasy LARPing has been around since the 1970s. It grew out of the popularity of tabletop games of Dungeons & Dragons, when players began looking to add a deeper level of realism and experience to their adventures. Since then, LARPing has slowly grown in popularity and complexity. Now there are countless games and organizations in America alone, bringing to life worlds of fantasy, horror, and war, in which players risk fictional life with their real limbs.

No matter what system they’re a part of, players will generally decamp to a campground or a rented field, and exit our world for theirs—if only for a weekend at a time. With these increased numbers comes increased liability, and that’s where the insurance companies come in.

“Generally you have two plans. You have to have a liability plan, and then you have to have a health/accident plan,” says Joseph Valenti, owner and ruler of NERO LARP, the most extensive LARPing organization in the U.S.

With around 50 chapters spread across the country, NERO LARPs host hundreds of simulated battles and adventures each year. Players equip themselves with custom-made foam weaponry (calledboffers) and wade into (untrained) fantasy combat, creating what seems like a potential litigation nightmare.

“If you have a liability plan, you’re really covering burning down one of the cabins or the main kitchen hall/tavern,” says Valenti. Accident insurance covers any medical costs that might arise from a warrior breaking his or her ankle or a ranger falling down. It also makes sure the organizers have representation in case they get sued over such mishaps.

May 2 2016 12:30 PM

The Secret City of the Cosmonauts

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From the 1940s to the 1990s, the secretive USSR created a massive constellation of ghost geography. Hundreds of cities. Over a million people living off the map. Not "off the grid"—towns were literally left off of Soviet maps, kept from prying eyes. If you lived there, your city had no public name and as a citizen you were a nonperson. 

In one of these secret cities, established in 1960 and known as "Military Unit 26266 in closed townlet number one," young Russians were trained to be launched into the skies and beyond. Star City, located just east of Moscow, became the home of the cosmonauts.

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During the 1960s the Soviet Union planned extensively for a lunar landing and trained over 60 cosmonauts. Star City blossomed into a real town with its own post office, movie theater, railway station, and a couple of schools—all very, very secret. Its citizens were given special passports so they could enter and leave. Star City was a small world onto itself, kept hidden not just from other countries but from fellow Russians. 

The space program was once a powerful point of pride within the great communist dream, but in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, it left Star City and the cosmonauts in serious trouble. At the time, cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev was on board the Mir space station, with the landing site in Kazakhstan suddenly no longer part of the USSR. Sergei was left on board Mir for months as Russia struggled with the Kazakhstan government. 

Star City adapted and began working more closely with NASA. By the mid-1990s, the curtain of secrecy of Star City had lifted slightly. For the first time, visitors could catch a glimpse of the tank where cosmonauts practice their space walks underwater, or the gigantic centrifuge where the soon-to-be space travelers are swung around at dizzying speeds under eight times the force of gravity.

In 2008 control of Star City was officially handed over from the Russian military to space agency Roscosmos, making it a civil rather than military organization. It marked the first time since its establishment in 1960 that Star City became open to the general public, though still only with permission. Among the many travel packages currently available is a 10-day "Cosmonaut Overview Training" experience, a $90,000-per-person package that includes centrifuge simulator training, use of a space suit, spacewalk simulation in a buoyancy tank and dinner with a cosmonaut. 

Cosmonauts and their families, both past and present, still live in Star City, including Valentina Goryacheva, the wife of deceased cosmic pioneer Yuri Gagarin, and Valentina Tereshkova, who was the first woman in space. The town has recently built a new Russian Orthodox church, added a museum of space travel and human exploration, and established a monument to Laika, the first dog in space.

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April 29 2016 12:30 PM

The Tree on the Lake

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Seventy miles from the port city of Victoria, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island, a plucky arboreal wonder can be found on the quiet waters of Fairy Lake.

Living up to its name, Fairy Lake is in a remote and unspoiled landscape near the town of Port Renfrew. Sticking up out of the lake’s stillness is a submerged log. Clinging to that log for dear life is a tiny Douglas fir tree. The log itself is a Douglas fir. As the stunted tree’s only source of support and nutrients, it feels like the dead tree made a sort of noble sacrifice to the the tiny tree growing on it. Tourists, boaters, and hikers come seeking it as a unique window into nature and rebirth.

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The “bonsai” tree has attracted more than a few photographers to capture its struggle of endurance, including a winner of the National History Museum of London’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year award. Award or no award, each photograph of the little guy clinging to his dead log has demonstrated its own symbolic twist on survival. You needn't even hike through the wilds to find it. You can find bonsai serenity from the road.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor Repickled.

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April 28 2016 12:30 PM

Maeklong Railway Market in Thailand

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Samut Songkhram is the smallest province in Thailand but boasts the fifth-highest population density, leaving it somewhat crammed for space. The capital city—also called Samut Songkhram—in particular has little room to spare, lacking a large open space for farmers, fisherman, and artisans to sell their wares. Thus, the local market can be found in a novel and extremely narrow corridor in the center of the city, along the tracks of the Maeklong Railway.

The Maeklong Railway is only 3 feet wide, but it has 5–10 feet of clearance on both sides, giving merchants a tight but workable space in which to set up their tented displays. Market stalls line a 300-meter stretch of urban railroad, selling everything one might expect to find in any Thai market: fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, herbs and spices, clothing, flowers, and tempting street food. Six times a day, however, the hubbub has to momentarily pause in deference to a train rolling through its midst.

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A warning bell lets buyers and sellers alike know that its time to clear the tracks for an approaching train. Awnings are folded up and goods displayed near the tracks are either rolled back on wheeled tables or arranged low enough so that the train can pass right over them. The train sounds its fog horn when it draws near and everyone gives it the narrowest of berths, passing mere inches from the goods and people as it rumbles down the middle of the market.

After it passes, the whole scene immediately unfurls again, popping back to life and carrying on as if nothing had happened. This regular closing and opening has earned the market the nickname Talat Rom Hup, or “the folding umbrella market.”

Maeklong Railway Market is open daily from 7:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and is one of the largest fresh seafood markets in Thailand.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor lewblank.

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April 27 2016 12:30 PM

An American City Stranded at the Tip of a Canadian Peninsula

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

The Convention of 1818 between Britain and America following the War of 1812 had a tough job to take on: determining the border between Canada and the United States. In an effort to avoid controversy and confusion caused by drawing the boundary based on watershed, the two countries agreed on a simpler solution: the 49th parallel.

There were, of course, multiple problems that arose with this solution, including the fact that Vancouver Island was split in two by the imaginary line. The debate over whether the line of latitude should split the island in two or if it should be ignored, giving the full island to Canada, was known as the Oregon Boundary Dispute. In 1846 President James Polk proposed making Vancouver Island an island of two countries, therein designating more land to America, but this was immediately rejected by the British. In the end, the British and Americans agreed to give the entire Vancouver Island to Canada, while giving the San Juan Islands to the United States.

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Problem solved, right? Not exactly. Due to limited knowledge of the region's geography at the time, there was one land area that both the Americans and the British failed to notice: the Tsawwassen Peninsula. 

This peninsula was unknown at the time, but once discovered, it was too late. The agreement had accidently cut off a tiny piece of Canada and given it to the United States.

Nowadays, at the end of this peninsula, there is a little American town called Point Roberts, Washington. The only land route out of Point Roberts is through Canada. This town of over 1,000 people has a clinic, a police station, a fire department, a marina, and a primary school.

As a result of this geographic peculiarity the town has some strange habits. Every day, a large portion of the Canadians living just north travel across the border to buy groceries and gas, which are about a third cheaper in the U.S. It is said that Canadians will also travel over for the medium-rare burgers, which are unheard of in Vancouver because of the strict Canadian health code. Point Roberts is also an unusually safe city: Because of the border security, the crime rate of Point Roberts is over three times lower than that of Washington as a whole.

Despite all of these intriguing qualities, it seems that keeping this geographically isolated town in working order is remarkably difficult. The county that this town belongs to has been slow in providing it with adequate infrastructure, considering that it took two years to install a single streetlight. Business is slow, except for in the summer, when the residency quintuples due to Canadian tourism. There's no shoe store, no veterinarian, and no dentist. There also isn't a single school that serves students from grades four through 12. To access these things, it's necessary to cross the Canadian border to Tsawwassen, circle to White Rock, Canada, and finally cross the American border to Blaine, Washington. This trip is 40 minutes there, 40 minutes back, and it requires four borders to be crossed. For students who live in Point Roberts, the bus to Blaine High School leaves as early as 6:25 a.m., which is before sunrise on most schooldays.

Regardless of the pros and cons, it is quite spectacular that places like these exist. It's a place that's almost as Canadian as it is American, where maple leaf flags fly high. (The vast majority of boats in the marina are owned by Canadians.) It's a place that is here by accident, by foolishness, a mistake that went unfixed. It also shows the ability of people to adapt and to make this strange geographical exclave a livable home for over a thousand people.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor lewblank.

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April 26 2016 12:30 PM

The Forgotten Secret Language of Gay Men

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These days, very few people know what it means to vada a chicken’s dolly eek.

Vada (“look at”), dolly eek (a pretty face), and chicken (a young guy) are all words from the lexicon of Polari, a secret language used by gay men in Britain at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Following a rapid decline in the 1970s, Polari has all but disappeared. But recently it’s been popping up again, even appearing in the lyrics of a song on David Bowie’s final album.

Polari is a language of, in linguistic professor Paul Baker's words, "fast put-downs, ironic self-parody and theatrical exaggeration." Its vocabulary is derived from a mishmash of Italian, Romani, Yiddish, Cockney rhyming slang, backslang—as in riah to mean “hair”—and cant, a language used by 18th-century traveling performers, criminals, and carnival workers. Many of the words are sexual, anatomical, or euphemisms for police.

Historically, people who spoke Polari "were generally ‘the oppressed,’ the bottom of the rung,” says Jez Dolan, a Manchester artist whose work focuses on queer culture. "Polari is very much a working-class thing." During the 19th- and early 20th centuries, the language was used by merchant seafarers and people who frequented the pubs around London’s docks. In the 1930s it was spoken among the theater types of the West End, from which it crossed over to the city’s gay pubs, gaining its status as the secret language of gay men.

April 25 2016 12:30 PM

The Great Boston Molasses Flood

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In Boston’s industrial North End is a small, easy to miss plaque memorializing a very strange moment in Boston’s history: the Great Boston Molasses Flood, in which a sugary tidal wave wreaked deadly destruction on the city.

In January 1919, the Purity Distilling Company, located at 529 Commercial Street, was in the molasses business—in a nefarious way. Rather than using the sticky substance for dessert-friendly syrup, the company had taken to fermenting it to make booze and bombs. In a desperate race to turn this sweet sticky stuff into booze before Prohibition hit in January 1920, the company had filled its largest holding tank with as much molasses as it could get its hands on.

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This tank was a five-story-tall metal cylinder, 90 feet in diameter and filled to capacity. When it burst, a two-story-tall wave containing 2.3 million gallons of molasses issued forth, traveling out in all directions like a shockwave. Molasses spread across the city at an estimated 35 miles per hour. And it wasn’t just the sugary tidal wave that was so deadly; the tank was ripped into sharp projectiles and shot metal bolts from its sides like bullets.

As the wave and debris crashed down Commercial Street, buildings were smashed to bits. Some were picked up by their foundations and floated away in the tide of molasses. Electrical poles keeled over, exposing live wires. A steel elevated train support beam was torn to smithereens. The elevated train just barely missed being knocked off the tracks, and only through the quick work of the driver was the next train warned that there was no longer a track to run on. Molasses covered everything. According to a Boston Post article, “Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly paper.” It wasn’t just horses. The Great Boston Molasses Flood killed 21 people.

The disaster caused over $100 million of damage in today's money. In addition to the 21 killed, 150 were injured. Molasses made finding the dead extremely difficult. The final body wasn't found and pulled from the water under the Commercial St. Wharf for nearly four months. 

It took weeks to remove the molasses from the surrounding streets and houses, and the area was said to have remained sticky to the touch for years afterward. While the molasses flood took many lives and destroyed a neighborhood, you would never know it today—save for the flimsy little sign on Commercial Street. Despite its lack of grandeur, it is worth seeking out, for no other reason than to stand and contemplate what was once America’s strangest disaster scene.

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April 22 2016 12:30 PM

A Roadside Attraction From the Future

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On the road? Thirsty, but not sure for what? Feel like deciding based on color? Then Pops is the place for you! And you won't have any trouble finding it, thanks to the giant, neon statue of a soda bottle stationed outside.

Established in 2007, the Route 66 restaurant is designed like a classic roadside attraction straight out of the future. The restaurant building itself is designed in an ultra modern style, all angular steel and glass. It is purposefully reminiscent of old-style gas stations (it is also a gas station!) with a large overhang out front that juts over the entrance. Inside, the restaurant is decorated with a huge wall of soda bottles that are stunningly arranged, not by flavor or brand but by color. Pops sells around 700 different kinds of soda and drinks. 

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The jewel in Pops' crown is the massive soda bottle statue standing out front of the restaurant. The 66-foot-tall bottle looks like it's made of rings of neon, but it is actually lit with LEDs, set into the metal rings. Each night, the bottle lights up in an impressive light show, worthy of Route 66's sensational heritage. The abstract bottle claims to be the largest in the world, but given that it's not really able to hold so much as a drop of Coca-Cola, that's debatable. 

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor lucrown1.

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April 21 2016 12:30 PM

The Center of the Nation Monument Is Not Located at the Center of the U.S.

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While the center of the contiguous United States is marked by a small plaque and plinth in Kansas, the actual center of the United States (including Hawaii and Alaska) is off in a field in South Dakota. Oh, but the actual monument is about 20 miles away from that.

Hawaii became the last U.S. state to join the union in 1959. Previously the middle of the nation had been mapped as a spot in Lebanon, Kansas, but this point moved over 200 miles with the addition of the island state. The new spot was determined to be out in the middle of some South Dakota farmland, where a metal pole was driven into the ground to mark the location.

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This seemed like kind of a weak way to honor the very middle of America, so the city of Belle Fourche, a little over 20 miles south of the makeshift marker, decided to do it up right. In 2008, the city installed a large granite compass rose and dubbed it the "Center of the Nation" monument. There is even a metal disc in the middle that looks like an official geographic marker for people to stand on and take pictures.

Sure, it might not be on the exact center of the country, but let's face it, this lovely granite compass makes a better photo op than some pole in a field.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor arc459.

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