Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

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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April 15 2015 9:15 AM

The Invisible Tribute to the Paris Meridian 

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

A series of bronze medallions dots the streets of Paris in a pattern that would seem random to those who do not know their origin, but in fact they follow what was once one of the most important lines in the world. 

In the early 19th century, astronomer François Arago, working off of centuries of prior calculations, solidified a global meridian line that ran right through Paris. As it had already been for hundreds of years in France, Arago’s meridian was widely accepted by many astronomers and researchers as the “Prime” or “Zero” dividing line of the globe.

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Unfortunately, his was not the only meridian in competition to be The One. At the 1884 International Meridian Conference, which was put together specifically to determine which line of longitude would become the one true king of global spacial measurement, it was decided that the meridian line running through Greenwich would become the prime. This unfortunately left Arago and the centuries-old Paris meridian out in the cold, to be largely forgotten by time and progress.

However, some reminders of the Paris dividing line still remain, the most recent of which is an “invisible” monument to Arago’s work. Created by Dutch artist Jan Dibbets, the sprawling monument consists of 135 bronze medallions that have been set into the Paris streets along the path of the Paris meridian from the northern tip of the city to the southern tip. Each 5-inch coin bears Arago's name and an N and S to mark the direction they are pointing. The entire trail stretches over five miles. 

Despite centuries of development and entire lives of work devoted to establishing the Paris meridian, it often seems that it has been completely forgotten. Thanks to the Arago Medallions, countless travelers each day can remember a time when Paris was the center of the world.

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April 13 2015 10:00 AM

Dare to Press the Mystery Button: Seattle’s Enigmatic Soda Machine

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

Seattle’s Mystery Soda Machine dispenses cans of sugary pop for just 75 cents, and while the identity of the person/s stocking this aging landmark is unknown, the real question is what it will spit out when the Mystery button is pressed.

On the corner of John Street and 10th Avenue East, in the heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, lies the world’s most mysterious soda vending machine. The true history of the rusting machine, which looks like it was spat straight out of the ’70s, is shrouded in secrecy, but locals continue to plunk down their change and the machine never seems to run out of stock. Who first installed the outdoor machine, who stocks it, and who collects the money are all mysteries. 

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The modern antique offers a comparatively limited selection of drinks with yellowed plastic buttons offering Coke, Mountain Dew, Pepsi, and Barq’s, but the intriguing button marked Mystery generally produces none of these. According to a March 2014 report by Vice, spending three dollars in change on the mystery button yields a variety of drinks ranging from a raspberry Nestea to a Hawaiian Punch, none of which had their own button on the machine.

Given the air of the unknown that surrounds the vending relic, many locals have tried to divine the origins of the machine and its endless wellspring of name-brand soda, but so far few answers have been forthcoming, no matter how many times the Mystery button is pressed.

On a side note, should you want to tell the machine how much you like it, it does have its own Facebook page.

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April 10 2015 1:30 PM

Harvington Hall: A Great Place to Hide Your Priest

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

Harvington Hall is a strangely fortified English manor house whose name all but demands to be pronounced in a cartoonish British accent. It also holds a number of secret compartments built by the patron saint of illusionists to hide Catholic priests. 

Originally built in the 1580s by an undoubtedly British, and devoutly Catholic man named Humphrey Pakington, Harvington Hall quickly began to serve as a hideaway for Catholic priests, secretly worshipping during a time when practicing Catholicism was punishable by imprisonment or death. The manor house was uniquely suited to concealing the priests as it is surrounded on two sides by moats, and a lake bordering the third, making intense inspection of the property difficult.

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In the late 16th century, when the home became part of a loose network of houses dedicated to hiding Catholic priests, Jesuit builder Nicholas Owen was sent to the building to install a number of secret spots where they could be concealed, should the Queen's men come calling.

Owen built little cubbies hidden behind false attic walls that could be accessed through a fake chimney; a beam that could flip up on an access point revealing a chamber in the walls (which was only discovered 300 years later by some children who were playing in the house); and, most elaborately, a secret room hidden behind another hidden compartment under a false stair. Smaller compartments to hide the priests' tools were also built into the floors. 

Owen's skill at building hidden rooms was so great that no priest taking refuge in one of his creations was ever found out. Unfortunately, Owen himself was captured by the Crown while distracting soldiers from a hiding priest. He was taken to the Tower of London, where he was tortured to death, never uttering a word on any of his hidden charges. He was later canonized and is now considered the patron saint of illusionists and escapists.

Harvington House still stands, and is the best preserved example of priest-holes still extant in Britain. In addition to the historic holes, a number of Elizabethan wall-paintings were uncovered in the residence. The house is now owned and maintained by the Catholic church that it worked so hard to preserve.

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April 9 2015 9:15 AM

The Null Stern Hotel Provided a Deliberate Minimum of Comfort

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 Null Stern Hotel (read: No Star Hotel) was opened in a stark concrete nuclear bunker beneath an otherwise unremarkable Swiss apartment block. True to its name, the lodging provided nothing to write home about. On purpose.

The work of artist twin brothers Frank and Patrik Riklin, the spartan hotel was advertised as a space where “The Only Star Is You.” Despite the brightly clever tag line, the institutional conditions of the hotel belied what seemed like a much crueler joke. Visitors to the hotel would enter through a thick blast door behind the apartments above, where they would then be checked in at a tiny reception kiosk before being led to one of two large rooms where the beds were placed in rows with no dividers. The washrooms were also communal.

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All in all, the hotel held six single beds and four double beds, potentially sleeping a total of 14 unlucky souls. The stark concrete walls and floors of the purpose-built bunker remained unchanged, but the no-star hotel did offer amenities such as a single old television called “the virtual window,” hot water bottles for anyone who got a chill in the cold underground rooms, and, most hilariously, a fancy butler who delivered complimentary morning beverages for some reason.

For their part, the owners of the hotel seem sincere about the project, touting it as an experiment in minimalist reuse of space that would otherwise be left empty, also serving as a pointed alternative to increasingly opulent hotel culture. Yet the prankish air of the endeavor lingers.

The Null Stern operated for only a year, between 2009 and 2010, before the space was converted to a museum devoted to itself, as the owners pledged to branch out and open Null Stern Hotels all over the world. None has yet to appear, but the museum will still lead interested visitors through the old space. Alternatively, anyone craving the full experience could simply sleep in a construction site.

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April 7 2015 10:15 AM

Turkmenistan’s Giant Disco Ball Wedding Venue

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 white marble city of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, is packed to the borders with strange architecture and puzzling statues. One of the most surreal sights in the city is a government building known as the Wedding Palace, which is topped by a massive, geometrically caged disco ball.

Built in 2011, the Wedding Palace is a civil building, but it looks as though it was created by a wealthy eccentric. The lower floors of the white and gold structure are star-shaped and stacked in a staggered fashion so that their points don't overlap. Atop the initial floors is a huge globe that features gold maps of Turkmenistan. The oversized disco ball is enclosed by a frame of eight-sided Turkmen stars.    

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Inside, the building delivers essentially what its name would suggest, acting as both the office where newlyweds can legally register their union as well as a venue in which to hold the ceremony. There are 11 floors in the complex, all devoted to getting people hitched. The grandest hall in the structure, known as the Shamchyrag, is located smack in the middle of the giant globe.

Unique to the Wedding Palace, couples who wish to tie the knot in the opulent castle must have their photo taken in front of a portrait of the president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. Who better to feature in the pictures of your special day? 

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April 6 2015 2:00 PM

Pay Fealty to Ireland’s King Goat!

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

All hail King Puck, Lord Goat of Killorglin! Staring off into the future as proudly as a goat can, the statue of King Puck in Killorglin, Ireland, is a monument to the country’s oldest festival, the Puck Fair.

During this ancient celebration, a wild male goat (known as a puck) is crowned king of the town for three days before being returned to his normal life in the Irish hills, his royalty all but ignored by his fellow goats. The festival begins each year on Aug. 10, when the captured goat is brought to the town square where he is crowned by the “Queen of Puck,” who is not another goat, but a young girl from the town. His worldly station raised, “King Puck” is then put in a cage on a high scaffold where he may survey his kingdom for the duration of the festival. The bars are allowed to stay open extra-late during the fair, so his majesty generally gets to see some drunkenness. At the end of the three days, the king goat is deposed and led back to into the wilderness.

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The origin of the festival is lost to time, but it dates back to at least the 1600s, and is likely much older. Some say that the festival has its origins in pagan symbolism and ritual, but the most popular theory of how the fair began involves Oliver Cromwell and a heroic billy. As the story goes, Cromwell’s English raiders were making their way toward Killorglin when they spooked a herd of goats. One of the beasts hoofed it into the town, and when it arrived, tired and agitated, the citizens of Killorglin realized that something was up. They were able to fortify their town against the oncoming force, and the day was saved. The Puck Fair is said to have been established in honor of that Paul Revere of goats.

The Puck Fair is still celebrated in Killorglin each year, and the statue of King Puck that stands in the city makes sure that in the time between each festival, no one forgets who is really king.

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April 3 2015 7:13 AM

The Secret Address of the Manhattan Project and the Woman Who Kept It Running 

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 need to be dropped off at a top-secret research facility that does not exist, what address do you give the driver? For two decades, that address was 109 East Palace in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Located a few blocks from Santa Fe’s city center, the unremarkable building served as the first stop for Richard Feyman, Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer, and innumerable other scientists working on the top secret Manhattan Project in nearby Los Alamos. Dozens of scientists, technicians, and other workers would arrive each day to be ferried up to "the Hill" where work on the atomic bomb (and possibly other secret science projects) actually took place.

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According to Voices of the Manhattan Project, the primary contact person who greeted arrivals at 109 East Palace was Dorothy Scarritt McKibbin, who became nearly as vital to the Project as any of the scientists. McKibbin would process each of the arrivals and keep the overwhelming secretarial work in order, essentially making sure that the top-secret trains ran on time. She also became a close confidant of Oppenheimer, the man widely considered the father of the atomic bomb. McKibbin ended up staying in Los Alamos after the Project was dissolved and became a bit of a local celebrity, earning the nickname "The First Lady of Los Alamos."  

The building at 109 East Palace ceased being a receiving station for Los Alamos in 1963, but a plaque in the back of the gallery now occupying the space commemorates the building’s history.

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April 2 2015 9:15 AM

Fiddling, Charming, and Grunting: Calling Up the Crawlers at the World Worm Charming Championships

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

Because everything has to be a race, the small English village of Willaston hosts a yearly competition known as the World Worm Charming Championships, where competitors come from far and wide to try to convince as many worms as they can to rise to the surface.

Known alternately as fiddling, charming, or grunting, the practice of coaxing earthworms from the wet dirt can be found all over the world, usually as a method of collecting bait for fishing. While the exact method differs from wormer (as they call themselves) to wormer, the basic idea is to create vibrations in the ground, usually by sticking a rod called a stob (like a pitchfork) in the dirt and smacking it with another rod known as a rooping iron. While it may seem a bit odd, the practice is incredibly effective. Some people do it as a profession.

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The World Worm Charming Championships began in 1980. A local schoolyard in Willaston was sectioned off, and contestants furiously tapped at the ground to get at some worms. The contest has taken place every year since, consistently growing in popularity, but changing very little. The wormers are given small squares of land to fiddle, grunt, and charm their way to glory by collecting more worms than anyone else. The current world record for worm charming is held by Miss S. Smith and Mr. M. Smith, who won the championship in 2009 with 567 worms.

Should anyone have any moral concerns for the captured crawlers, fear not. The collected worms are released that same day after dark so they are less likely to be eaten by birds.

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