Atlas Obscura
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Oct. 8 2015 12:30 PM

What It Was Like to Drive a Horse Carriage in 1980s New York

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

Among the most iconic and enduring sights around Central Park are the horse carriages. A holdover from a bygone time, the New York carriage ride has managed to hang on through the breakneck evolution of the city's transportation attractions.

Today, the horse carriages are only allowed to operate in Central Park, but just a few decades ago, the carriages had potentially free reign over the Manhattan streets, competing with traffic and the insanity of the city just like everyone else. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has taken a strong stance against the carriages, which he sees as inhumane, and the horse-drawn carriage industry may be on its last leg.


Regardless of one's feelings about the industry, it has long been a singular New York institution, and to get a better idea of what it's like in the driver's seat we spoke with travel writer, and former carriage driver, Bruce Northam, author of multiple travel memoirs including his new book, The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons. Northam drove a horse-drawn carriage on the twilight streets of Manhattan for three years in the wild 1980s, when carriage driving was all about what type of outsized persona you could concoct. He let us in on his tricks for picking up customers, his thoughts on de Blasio's current campaign, and even how he got his old horse, Jerome.

So when did you first start driving a carriage?

Right out of college. I drove off and on from ’85 to ’88, except for 1987, where I did my first around the world journey, which focused mostly on Southeast Asia, and was funded by the carriages.

So it was essentially my first job out of college. I graduated with a BS in Physics, so I don’t think my parents were thrilled about that being my first job, but it ultimately led me into travel writing.

So you were a physics student in college–how did you become a carriage driver?

Well, I had just gotten back from college, and my older brother Brian, who was pursuing acting in the city, he was driving a carriage. I’d heard incredible tales, and he was doing well, so it just seemed to make sense. You know, driving a carriage falls into a category with waiter and bartender. But it’s different, and I think it’s absolutely more enjoyable.

It was a different business at the time. Now, you only see carriages in Central Park. When you were driving, carriages pretty much had free reign, correct?

Absolutely. Manhattan was still the Wild West. Nine of the ten theaters in Times Square were [showing] porno flicks. You could still buy fake IDs and drugs all over the place. So the Department of Consumer Affairs which monitors the bylaws of the carriage industry were very hands off, and we could ride right out of the stable.

The past 20 years, rules were made to keep carriages exclusively in the park, but at night, around 9:00, you were allowed to go to Rockefeller Center, and by 11:30 you were allowed to go into Times Square.

So it’s totally different—it’s all about the park now. When I was driving, I would literally leave one of the West Side stables I was working in and head straight to Times Square, the Rock[efeller] Center, or 52nd and 7th in front of Rosie O’Grady’s. I’d work there all night, and only go to the park by way of customer request.

There’s a lot going on politically with the carriages right now. For a while the ASPCA was on our case. That’s over. At a certain point the cops and the mounted cops would be on our case—that has stopped.

It’s basically an Italian and Irish industry, and it’s completely self-policing. These people know horses, and they know what they’re doing. It’s their career. If some bozo cowboy comes in and is going to run a horse or take a horse out that might have a sore foot or something, that person wouldn’t just be reprimanded. If they took it to the next step of being an idiot, they’d get beaten up. So it was old-style self-policing.

And it’s still completely self-policed. Everybody sees everything. There’s 68 medallions, that represents two full time jobs. You have 68 carriages going out in the daytime and then 68 going out at night. The day driver heads back to the West Side stables, they change out the horse, and the night driver heads out.

So at any given time, generally speaking, there’s 68 carriages around Central Park?

Well, when the weather’s nice, tourism is up—everyone goes out. But certainly on rainy, cold days, lonely Tuesdays in January—you might just see ten carriages out.

There was something like 25 carriage medallions in Central Park up until World War II. And then, when the war was over, more people wanted to come into the city to celebrate, and they jumped the number to 68 carriages, where it’s remained since post-World War II.

The carriages outside Central Park.

Photo: Matt Grommes/Creative Commons

Why 68? That seems like a very specific number?

I don’t know. But what I will tell you, is that Uber has dented the value of a taxi medallion, but it has had no impact on the value of a carriage medallion.

So who owns the carriage medallions?

People! People like me and you. As I said, historically, it was heavily Italian and Irish, and now it’s their descendants. In the past ten years, there’s been a pretty strong infusion of Turkish drivers.

But it’s a real multicolored tapestry of people. When I was doing it back in the ‘80s, it was a lot more geared towards actors, magicians, musicians. Now it’s become more like a job, to raise your family, and to finance your life, permanently.

Just to get a better understanding of how the industry works: there’s no one centralized company that owns all the medallions?

No. The centralized company would be the Department of Consumer Affairs, because just like taxi medallions—they monitor and control the carriage industry also. It’s bought and sold just like a taxi medallion.

Going back to your experience, did you get to pick a horse that you had an affinity with? How did the process go?

It would be like any job that relies on tips. You start at the low end of the totem pole. Just like the bar business or the restaurant business. You start out getting the Tuesday shift, and you work your way up, until you get the weekends. Some people are part time, some are full time. For me, I had a brother who was doing it at the time, so I had an in.

You really have to show, just like when you go into the military and you have to prove that you’re physically able, you have to be extremely aware to be a carriage driver. Horses are really sensitive to sounds and feelings, and you don’t want a two-ton animal being upset in traffic. The Department of Consumer Affairs test has gotten tougher—the written test.

[During training] you end up with a vet, talking about horses, and body parts, and what can go wrong. But the real training program is in the streets. You literally go out and ride along. And there’s so much that goes on.

Every horse is different. Some horses aren’t fond of when a beer truck opens its side door, and that noise. Some horses aren’t very fond of subway steam shooting out of the street, so you have to know which routes to pick, what your horse’s personality is. But again, the horses who come in—they try out also.

The horses come from Amish country, and that’s another thing that people don’t understand about the industry. These weren’t horses that were snatched from Kentucky bluegrass farms. These are Amish horses that were pulling carriages in the Amish country or literally plowing fields. They’re not alien to pulling things.

It’s usually a second chance for the horses. At the auctions out in Amish country in Pennsylvania, if they’re not picked up as carriage horses—it’s straight off to the dog food market.

So most carriage horses are older when they start?

No, they’re different. I mean there are some career horses that are in the city for 20 years. But some horses are trucked in from the Amish country, they go around the block a few times on some quiet night in the more rustic parts of Hell’s Kitchen, and some horses just are not cut out for it. Just like some people aren’t cut out for the city.

When you were driving around in the city did you have a specific horse you were assigned to so that you could have a relationship with it?

Yes. People stick with the same horse because it’s important that you get to know the horse. And know its personality.

Going around the corner.

Photo: eyeliam/Creative Commons

What was your horse’s name?

My horse was Jerome. He was a Strawberry Rhone. And again, when I was driving him it was the wild ‘80s. I would go out sometimes with the black tuxedo pants, no shirt, and a bowtie, and drive around the city and whatever. Narcissism can run deep when you’re just out of college. It was truly the Wild West.

Now, by law, only one person can sit up in the front of the carriage and drive. The only person that can be up there with you has to have a license. You’ll either be training a driver, or two drivers training a horse. So if you ever see two people up front, it’s either a driver in training or two experienced drivers training a horse in the city, so if anything goes wrong, one of them can jump off and take care of it.

When you were driving was there a sense that it was you and Jerome against the city, in a way?

No. The enemy of the carriage forces is not the taxis as you would expect. It would generally be the black airport service cars. Those were generally the ruder drivers. New York City is a crazy place, but most people, they just want to make it work.

So no, it was very with the city. It’s a very social job. It’s one of the rare tourist industries where you can walk up, and you have a choice between dozens of personalities. Between driver, carriage style, horse, and back when I was doing it, your route. Now the route is much more fixed. It’s either a short ride in the park, or a long ride in the park.

But in your day, you could, in theory, go anywhere in Manhattan?

Yes, but it’s just like a taxi. If someone wanted to go down into the Village, it’s a bit far for the horse, and then you might get stuck empty coming back. You wanted to be where the tourists are.

Walk me through a typical night from arriving at the stable on. At least what it was like when you were doing it.

Interestingly, it really hasn’t changed that much. I was a night driver, so I’d show up and wait for the day driver to come in. Back in the day, the drivers were responsible for saddling and harnessing the horses on their own. Which makes sense because you have to know your equipment.

So you’d help the day driver unhitch his horse and then bring down the night horse. You’d hook it up, put a bucket of oats under the carriage, then another bucket for water, that you would access through the night from either fire hydrants, or now, up at the park they have two water troughs for the carriage horses. Then out to work!

Carriage drivers are called hacks. It’s a hustling sales job, and you needed to know where to be. So for me, I had it down to such a science that I’d do couple of rides early in the night, then I’d work the theaters. That’s over, but [at the time], I knew that Cats would break at 10:10, and I’d hit that. Then ride around Rock Center and parts of 7th Avenue. Then, bam, another show would break at 10:40, and I’d be right in front of that when the theater broke. You were guaranteed a couple of rides when the theater broke.

And the horse can’t work more than nine hours, so the business would be over by midnight or one.

What’s really interesting about the politics of de Blasio’s attempt to ban the carriages, which looks like it’s going to completely fail, is that there was this controversy behind all of it. Because a real estate group, for we’ll just say, an unnamed real estate group is very interested in the four stables on the west side of Manhattan, 37th Street, 38th Street, 48th Street, and 52nd Street. They want that real estate.

So basically the controversy is that these real estate developers put a lot of money into de Blasio’s campaign to do two things. To speak out against the carriages and attempt to ban them, and they also funded some animal rights groups to turn up the heat. So that they could put the carriages out of business, and those stables would be useless to the carriage industry then they could be bought, demolished, and turned into luxury high rises.

You took a year off, did you get the a different horse when you came back?

No, I got the same horse. I got Jerome when I came back.

Was he happy to see you?

Yeah! Horses know people and it’s all about voice and affection.

So going back to the job, you would take the horse out on the route and the head back to the stables on the west side.  

My first stable, I worked out of all four of them in the ‘80s, but my first stable was on 11th Avenue between 37th and 38th Street, and that’s now a park which opposes the Javits Center, which was built in the mid-80s.

When you would go and pick people up at the theaters and such, was there ever any conflict or rivalry with other drivers?

No. It’s a small industry. Just like in [Central Park today], let’s say there’s two drivers on the curb. You have first right for everything coming from one direction, and the other driver has first right for everything coming from the direction towards him. So while the passengers are walking along a row of horses, and [this line up] is on 59th Street in the park now, the drivers can only hack and approach those customers from the distance of the back wheel of your carriage to the nose of your horse. That’s your space. The minute a passenger enters another driver’s zone, that’s their turn to give it a shot.

In the ‘80s, when a driver was waiting out front for the theaters to break, that was more of a free-for-all, and everybody was guaranteed rides, so there was less conflict.

A carriage horse.

Photo (cropped): Jimmy Baikovicius/Creative Commons

It seems like back then, you guys were more theatrical about getting passengers in. It seems like each carriage had its own flavor.

Oh yeah. There’s different styles of carriage. Different colors, models. They’re all hand-made in Pennsylvania’s Amish country.

The carriages on Central Park are much more homogenous and the drivers seem much more restrained than in your day. You’d mentioned to me a story about your brother.

Yeah, my brother, you will never see that again. My brother had a pet monkey, a capuchin, the kind of monkey that can [act as a service animal]. He also picked up a goat while buying the horse at the Amish auctions. And he would go out with the monkey and the goat, and nobody’d say anything. The cops would look and smile and laugh. He got a lot of rides.

Were there any other drivers who had other memorable gimmicks?

We had a magician who would do card tricks. There was a guy for a while who had a parrot on his shoulder. Some people would do it by dressing up, either like a cowboy, or in a tuxedo. But mainly it’s the gift of gab.

When the people are on the ride, they don’t even see the horse, so it’s all about the driver. Some people are in a romantic mode, and they don’t want a tour, they just want to be together. But most people want to interact and they want to hear about the city, they want to hear about you, they want to hear about the industry. They have questions very similar to the ones you’re asking.

The trick you learn as a carriage driver, if you get kind of burnt out after answering the same questions every day, like, ‘Have you ever been mugged?, You ever meet anybody famous?’ you just turn it around on them. You ask any couple, ‘How did you meet?’ all of a sudden, you’re in for a 30-minute tale. If it’s fun for them, it’s fun for you.

What was the most standard complaint you would get from riders?

That the ride didn’t last long enough. But most people really enjoyed and got what they paid for.

What do you personally think the continuing appeal of the carriage ride is?

It’s iconic. It’s an iconic New York institution. People come to the city and on their list are certain things. They want to go up high in a building, Empire State Building, World Trade One, or the former twin towers, Rock Center. They’re gonna see a Broadway show. They have specific places they want to eat. And they are going to go on a carriage ride. I think a lot of it’s driven by Hollywood. Hollywood portrays carriages as glamorous and romantic.

Why did you end up leaving carriage driving?

Because I became a travel writer. I’ve since authored four books, I make a living writing for magazines and website and book royalties.

Was there a moment when you decided to leave it behind and move on to your new career?

At the end of the ‘80s, I went on another year long, circle of the Pacific Rim trip. That’s when I started travel writing, so from then on I was doing what I always wanted to do.

Do you miss it?

Now that it’s confined to the park, it seems a little bit more like a job to me. But I do miss it. I do miss a chance to talk to people from all of over the world, and there’s a camaraderie among drivers. What I don’t miss is being outside in the rain and the cold weather.

Do you miss working with the animals?

Absolutely. I love horses.

Do you ever get over to the stables any longer?

I still have friends in the business. I still go talk to the guys frequently, whenever I’m walking along 59th Street. Whenever I get into Hell’s Kitchen, I’ll pop over to the stables. It’s too bad more people can’t see the stables. The horses have 24-hour care, full-size box stables, electronically delivered water. They’re groomed and brushed every day. The horses get more vacation time than the humans. Many drivers have two horses and they trade out every three months. The horses get eight weeks vacation every year, generally out in the Amish country or in farms within 100 miles of New York City.

I’d say a third of the horses that come in for a trial run in the city, it doesn’t work out. They head back out to the farm. It’s a mellower horse that adapts to this job.

Do you know what happened to Jerome?

In 1992 he was retired to a farm, and he passed on two years later.

Were you alerted when he passed away?

I wasn’t, but I do remember the day when he was sent out to retirement on the farm. My brother kept me abreast of how he was doing.

Does your brother still hack?

He did until 2000.

Do you have any final thoughts about your time as a carriage driver?

It was an incredible set up for meeting people from around the world before I went off to explore the world. I’ve now been to 150 countries, and many of them more than five times, some of them more than a dozen times. For instance, Britain, Thailand. So it was my set up to meet people from Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, England, France, the whole planet. And also people from all over the states. So even before I struck out to explore the world, I had already met it driving a carriage.

What is your current project?

My new book is called The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons. It’s 135 stand-alone short stories. Essentially it’s my Chicken Soup For The Soul, but with balls. It’s the life lessons I learned out there. It’s other people’s unsung hero wisdom that I’m delivering in the form of short stories. There are a couple of carriage stories in the book.

To see more of Bruce Northam's work, visit his website, American Detour.

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Oct. 7 2015 2:45 PM

The House on the Rock: Great Hoax or Great Art?

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 House on the Rock is unlike any other place in the world.

The dwelling, perched on a column of rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin, bills itself as containing "visionary architecture, eclectic collections and incredible stories." It's hard to wrap your brain around what the place contains: the world's largest indoor carousel, cases upon cases of antique armor, cars, guns, mechanical parts from a brewery, the list goes on and on. It is a location of such profound strangeness that fantasy author Neil Gaiman chose to make it a portal into the minds of the gods in his novel American Gods. In Gaiman's words, "It's a monument to kitsch and wonder and madness and uncertainty ... I had to tone down my description of it and leave things out in the book in order to make it believable." You will find your sense of reality altered by the experience of entering the house, whose wonders are so numerous, it's almost too good to be believed. 


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Oct. 6 2015 3:15 PM

A Tiny Island With Just Enough Room

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When islands get really small, they sometimes barely even count as islands, and so some places actually have criteria that the landforms must meet to be officially considered islands and not just crappy little scraps of land. Just Room Enough Island meets these standards just barely. 

Part of the nearly 2,000-isle-strong Thousand Islands chain, Just Room Enough Island was purchased in the 1950s by the Sizeland family, who were looking to create a holiday getaway. They built a house on the tiny speck of land, placing the walls right up to the edges of the island, creating a home that was just big enough to fit and giving the island its quirky name. A pair of bench chairs were placed in front of the home, and there was also a tree growing on one side. And that is all the room the island had.


While the Sizelands had hoped for their quirky little getaway to be a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of city life, it soon attracted hordes of sightseers and tourists who broke their placid solitude.

In order to be considered an island in the region, the land must be larger than 1 square foot, it must remain above the water level year round, and it must sustain at least one tree. Just Room Enough Island meets these criteria, but really it's more house than island. 

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Oct. 5 2015 12:30 PM

The Smallest House in Great Britain

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Also known as the Quay House of Conwy, the self-proclaimed "Smallest House in Great Britain" is definitely a tiny abode, but it actually looks quite cozy.

The minuscule home was created in the 16th century and remained in use until 1900, when the final tenant was forced to leave by order of the city council. In terms of space, the little home only measures 10 feet deep and not even 6 feet wide. The ceiling is only a little over 10 feet high from the floor to the top of the eave. Remarkably, it is split into two floors. The first floor is devoted to the living area with room for coal and an open fire, and a water tap tucked behind the stairs. The upstairs holds the cramped bedroom, which also comes with a small niche for storage. How luxurious.


The Quay House has not been lived in since its last owner was made to leave over a century ago, but the interior has been preserved to provide a glimpse of the spartan life of a historic Welsh fisherman. Visitors are welcome to briefly explore the little home and are usually welcomed by a woman in traditional Welsh garb. They can explore the first floor, but the second floor has become too unstable, although guests can still peek their heads into the still-furnished bedroom.

Construction in recent years has seen the amount of tourists to the house decline, but the proud smallest house in Great Britain endures.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor thescousewife.

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Oct. 2 2015 3:30 PM

Before the Hyperloop, There Was the Morgantown PRT

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Although the Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit system may look quaint today, automated guideway transit systems like this one were at one time believed to be the future of American transportation

Before the Hyperloop, there was the PRT. And before the PRT, there was a lot of traffic in downtown Morgantown, West Virginia. 


Morgantown is home to West Virginia University—a school that underwent considerable expansion in the 1960s. Early attempts to move tens of thousands of students between campuses and classes in a reliable fashion proved futile. Luckily for WVU, West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd had a prodigious gift for directing government funds towards the Mountain State. 

The first of its kind, and greenlit in the early 1970s as a federally-funded transportation pilot project, the Morgantown PRT was designed by Boeing and cost $120 million to construct. In continual usage since 1975, the system consists of a fleet of 71 automated, rubber-wheeled vehicles operating on an 8.7-mile-long network of elevated guideways. It features a number of inventive features, including a heating system that pumps chemicals and warm water onto the tracks to clear them of snow in the winter. Unlike similar transit systems, travelers on the Morgantown PRT can travel directly to their final destination, without additional stops along the way. 

The PRT now accommodates around 15,000 riders per day, primarily WVU students. It has become a key piece of university cultur, and takes center stage during the annual PRT Cram, where student organizations compete to see how many people they can fit in one of the eight-person cars. The record? 97. 

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor georgeindc.

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Oct. 1 2015 12:15 PM

This Post Office Is Actually Just a Barrel

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

Located on Floreana Island in the Galapagos, Post Office Bay has been acting as a sort of passive post station since the 1700s, using nothing but a barrel and the camaraderie of sailers and travelers.

The site was established by whalers in the 18th century. As whaling ships headed out from England and the United States to hunt the gentle giants of the sea, they would use the Galapagos Islands as a stop-off to refill on food and water. They often feasted on endangered giant tortoises, eventually eliminating them from some of the islands. The hunting trips were long and the lonely sailors wished they had a way to send messages back home. So a barrel was placed on Floreana Island where whalers on their way out could put letters. The letters would then be picked up and delivered by sailors returning home from their trips. There was no postage fee, simply the trust that whoever grabbed your letter would get it to where it needed to go.


Surprisingly the mailbox and its honor system are still in use today. While the letters are no longer the missives of lonely sailors just trying to get messages to their loved ones any way they could, thousands of letters still pass through the barrel each year. Nowadays the postcards and letters are generally left and delivered by hopeful tourists, but many still seem to make it to their destination.

As described in an article in the Washington Post, groups of visitors (often tour groups or cruise patrons) will stop by the barrel and pull out the available mail, hollering out destinations to see if any of them are near enough to deliver. After the existing mail has been divvied up, people then leave notes and letters of their own for future visitors to take.

Today the site is surrounded by debris and driftwood, much of it covered in stickers and graffiti. Post Office Bay now resembles the fantasy of a remote island post spot more than it did when that was its true purpose.  

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Sept. 30 2015 12:00 PM

America’s Only Metric Interstate

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

For better or worse, the United States remains one of only three countries that have not officially adopted the metric system. America’s refusal to adopt the metric system has not been for lack of trying, however.

In 1975, Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act, which declared metric as the preferred system of the United States. The U.S. Metric Board was created to implement this conversion. In keeping with this plan, road signs on Interstate 19, connecting Tucson, Arizona, to Mexico, were changed so that distances were posted in kilometers. It remains to this day the only highway in America with distances posted solely in kilometers.


As might be expected, a number of motorists have been confused by the unique distances on the signs, and measures have been taken to replace the metric signs with ones with distances displayed in standard American units of measurement. Luckily, the road has been able to maintain its unique identity thanks to the efforts of locals who didn't want to have to change the signage and directions for their businesses. Presumably they were also dismayed at the thought of losing their singular speedway.

America’s metric experiment proved to be short-lived. The Metric Conversion Act and U.S. Metric Board were dismantled only seven years after they were created. Forty years later, America remains committed to its customary system of measurement. However, if you are willing to give an inch and forget about miles, head to Interstate 19, and see what it is like to drive a few kilometers.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor steedjb.

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Sept. 29 2015 12:30 PM

A Cemetery Plot Full of Famous Authors

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Nestled within the lovely expanse of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, is a little plot that is full of the graves of a staggering number of famous authors.

Author's Ridge is a scenic little corner of the large cemetery and is the final resting place of a laundry list of legendary authors and transcendentalists who once lived in the city of Concord. During the 19th century, Concord became a hot bed of forward-thinking transcendentalists who were eager to usher in a new age in American history. Many of the followers of the social movement would go on to pen some of the most indelible works of literature in the American canon. From Henry David Thoreau's natural reflections in Walden to the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, their progressive ideals would help shape the direction of national thought.


Then, of course, they died.

The list of names of famous authors who died while living in Concord is impressive. There are Thoreau and Emerson, but also Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott and her family, and William Ellery Channing, all interred near one another.

Author's Ridge is a popular pilgrimage site for lovers of literature. Literary explorers routinely leave pens, poems, and little notes around the graves of their favorite authors. As it turns out, the transcendentalists’ greatest achievement may have been to leave a mark on American literature that transcends even their death. 

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor st7n.

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Sept. 28 2015 12:00 PM

What Counts as Wilderness?

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 you hear the word wilderness, what do you picture? Vast woods full of leaping stags? A mountain rearing up into the clouds? Jungles tangling in all directions? Or something else entirely?

Your answer likely depends on your formative experiences—which books you've read, the types of landscape you visited growing up, and, of course, your native language. For American English-speakers well-versed in Ralph Waldo Emerson and his literary descendants, wilderness might bring to mind endless trees, raging rivers, and "the distant line of the horizon" described in his 1836 essay, "Nature."


But for those who grew up elsewhere, the word, and the concepts behind it, could conjure up something entirely different. In Japan, for example, the closest analog to wilderness is kouya, which means "rough, dry fields." In Iceland, the concept includes vast, sublime landscapes, but no wildlife, as even untamed animals are more likely to live near warm human settlements than in what Icelanders think of as "wilderness." 

"Wilderness Babel," a virtual exhibition maintained by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, curates linguistic experiences of wilderness, or lack thereof, from around the world. Part map, part lexicon, and part grab-bag natural history lesson, the project collects different languages' words for "wilderness" (or their closest analogs) and drops them on a map. Click on the region you're interested in, and you're treated to a short essay by an environmental historian familiar with the area, along with imagery and sounds taken from the places described. 

This Icelandic fox may be posing in the wilderness, but he's not a part of it.

Photo (cropped): Claudia.Garad/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons

Some of the differences depend on landscape and climate features—"wilderness" is forest for Estoniansrolling moors for Scots, and desert for the Hebrews. But as with so many things that, on first glance, appear "natural," political, economic, and social concerns roil underneath. 

The undulating grassy hills and sparsely populated rural landscapes that many people in the U.K. consider their wild heritage were emptied fairly recently, by famines, persecution, and emigration. In the Philippines, the word for "mountain," bundok, took on connotations of wildness and unpredictability only after the U.S. invaded during the Philippine-American war. (Meanwhile, in U.S. English, the Tagalog word morphed into boondock, which was initially a term for a confusing, remote area, but has now become slang for a backwards-seeming place.)

For those with a closer tie to nature, a place need not be untouched by humans to be considered "wilderness"—it just needs to be less touched, or left alone for the moment. The Finns happily go into the erämaa during hunting and fishing seasons, and for the Nez Percé of the Western U.S., who live off the land entirely, "wilderness" is not even a place—it's a particular rite of passage, in which initiates go without food or human contact for a long period. 

The whole idea of wilderness is relatively recent. "Go back 250 years in American and European history, and you do not find nearly so many people wandering around remote corners of the planet looking for what today we would call 'the wilderness experience,' " the environmental historian William Cronon wrote two decades ago.

The Philippine word for mountain isbundok. U.S. soldierscoined the related military term "boondock"based on their fighting experiences

Photo: curiositydrivesthecat/pixabay

As different societies urbanize to varying degrees, they start to define wilderness more starkly—according to the Dutch Wilderness Babel pages, in the Netherlands, which is heavily developed, a streetside meadow might be considered wild, "even though meadows are not 'natural' to the Dutch landscape and therefore show past human activity.” 

That Thoreau, Frederick Jackson Turner, and others who started the wilderness trend were steeped in suspect ideas about primitivism, nationalism, and consumerism has led to associations between the idea of wilderness and the very things that are most likely to destroy it. Scrolling through Wilderness Babel, with its tales of Japan redefining wilderness just as Mount Fuji becomes capped with noodle shops, doesn't do much to dispel this hunch.

But in the present moment, when so much of the future seems to depend on working out exactly how humans should relate to our environment, this language barrier has practical implications as well as historical ones. Alexandra Yannakos, the Wilderness Advocacy Coordinator for the National Outdoor Leadership School, has found it difficult to explain her job (or even say its title) to people she encounters on her travels. "In many languages, one has to be creative and combine words and meanings to recreate what the American wilderness movement stood for," she wrote in NOLS' magazine, the Leader, in 2004.

By understanding how various cultures define the word, we may be able to better picture a truly international wilderness movement might look like—one equally considerate of natural processes and the largely cultural systems that decide just what "natural" means. 

More wonders to explore:

Sept. 25 2015 2:15 PM

A Passport for Falcons

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're boarding a flight to or from the United Arab Emirates and spot a blindfolded falcon hanging out in first class, do not be alarmed. The bird of prey is allowed to travel in the cabin and has been subjected to the same stringent security checks as you have—including passport control.

In the Emirates, falcons get issued their very own forest-green passports. The unusual documentation scheme is due to the fact that, in the UAE, falcons are highly prized and therefore attractive to smugglers. Falconry, in which the birds of prey are trained to hunt, is a significant part of the region's Bedouin heritage.


Though the UAE's desert dwellers no longer rely on falcons for food delivery, falconry continues as a sport and source of national pride. An annual falconry festival in Abu Dhabi lures hawks and their trainers from around the world. Falconers from the region travel the Persian Gulf and beyond with their birds to engage in festivals, competitions, and displays. Hence the need for passports and first-class accommodation. 

A top falcon can sell for up to $1 million, writes Ali Al Saloom in the National. The high value of well-bred birds has led to an illegal trade—which is why, in 2002, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna, or CITES, moved to crack down on falcon smuggling by introducing a mandatory falcon passport for jet-setting birds of prey.

Fly, my pretty! But get the required documentation first.

Photo: cloudzilla/Creative Commons

Each passport corresponds to a particular falcon. That falcon must also be fitted with a leg ring inscribed with an identity number that ends up on the passport. This guards against one bird impersonating another. Sadly, the passports do not require photos, but falcons, you'll find, are somewhat hard to tell apart based on their head shots alone. They also travel with tiny, eye-covering leather helmets on their heads in order to stay calm, making face-based identification even more difficult.

CITES stipulates that, when flying with an avian companion, a falconer must present the bird's passport to a border control officer, who, as with human passports, "should validate it with an ink stamp, signature and date to show the history of movement from State to State." Passports are issued by the UAE's Ministry of Environment and Water for a fee of 500 UAE dirhams—around $136—and remain valid for three years.

The passport "certifies the legal origin of the falcons used for falconry and ensures smooth and easy documentation for falcon travels," says Maribel Broso of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital. After being issued a passport, the birds may fly accompanied by their falconers to eight countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Morocco, and Syria. 

In September 2013, Gulf News reported that over 28,000 falcons had been issued with passports since 2002. The UAE's scheme—the first falcon passport in the world—has also influenced other countries in the Gulf. Last year, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia all agreed to issue their own CITES-approved passports for falcon travel.