Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

July 29 2015 11:40 AM

An Alley Dedicated to the Nicest Guy in Rock Music

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

Possibly only the second alley in the world to be named for a rock artist (after Oklahoma's Flaming Lips Alley), Ohio's David Grohl Alley celebrates the career of the acclaimed drummer (Foo Fighters, Nirvana) with a collection of devotional fan creations, including the world's largest drum sticks.

Surprisingly, turning the formerly filthy byway in Grohl's hometown of Warren, Ohio, into a shrine dedicated to the musician was the brainchild of a police sergeant. Warren native Joe O'Grady had seen his city begin to decline and realized the inspiration that Grohl could bring to the local youth, and with this in mind, he lobbied the city council to change the name of a dingy alley and then spearheaded the cleanup and renovation of the space himself. O'Grady contacted local artists to create various tributes to Grohl, including statues, murals, and paintings honoring the man and his copious musical projects. 


Grohl himself attended the dedication of the alley in 2009 (proving himself once again to be one of the nicest guys in rock), which was repaved and is now a well-lit public gallery equipped with security cameras. Wishing the site to continue being an asset to the community, O'Grady commissioned the construction of the world's largest drum sticks, inspired by other "world's largest" attractions across the country. The massive drum sticks weigh 900 pounds each, made of a single log apiece.

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July 28 2015 3:20 PM

The Cave Where Jon Snow Lost His Virginity

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

We get it, Iceland. Every inch of your serene volcanic landscapes is filled with beauty and is very likely hiding some secret natural wonder. Like this fissure in the ground; instead of opening into a deadly abyss, it holds the natural hot spring known as Grjótagjá, a stunning cave pool that people can bathe in. 

The beautiful natural hot spring is located near Lake Mývatn and has been used as a bathing spot for locals for as long as anyone can remember. The waters in the shimmering cavern are heated by volcanic activity deep in the earth, making it the perfect spot to take a dip in the freezing Icelandic winters. In addition to being a popular bathing spot, the cave served as a redoubt for 18th-century Icelandic outlaw Jón Markússon.


In 1975, when one of the nearby volcanoes began to erupt, the water temperature rose to dangerous levels, and while the cave in the fissure could still be visited, people were no longer permitted to bathe in the hot waters. Lately the temperature of the waters has begun to fall and people are being allowed to jump in the waters once again. However, the status of the pools seems to be a bit tenuous, so visitors may want to check with local guides before trying to take a dip.

The cave is so beautiful and fantastical that it actually made its way into the fantasy canon when it was used as the secret sex cave where Jon Snow sealed his deal with Ygritte, in the Game of Thrones Season 3 episode Kissed by Fire. Great job, Iceland, you no longer simply seem like something out of a fantasy novel, you actually are.

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July 27 2015 5:00 PM

The Man Who Carved a Road Through a Mountain

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

Forget reality shows about the subject; the ultimate tale of man vs. nature may be the story of Dashrath Manjhi, who single-handedly carved a road through an entire mountain that had been isolating his village from essential services.

The Gehlour hills are a low-but-treacherous spine of mountainous terrain that once divided the settlements and services on either side. In fact many villagers from Manijhi's town had to trek for miles around the hills just to reach their fields and schools. However, this all changed with the tragic death of Manjhi's wife, Faguni Devi. Devi was traversing the narrow path across the tall hills to bring her husband some water when she was seriously injured. The nearest medical facility was over 40 miles away, and Devi perished shortly after her accident. 


Struck by his loss, Manjhi resolved to make sure such a tragedy never happened again. Taking up simple tools, he began chipping away at one of the hills, hell-bent on creating a road that would service his village and others like it. Ridiculed by his fellow villagers and ignored by the government, Manjhi worked dauntlessly on the road day after day, slowly but surely eroding a passage into the earth. In time the locals came to respect his work as they saw its promise and many of them began providing food and tools for the newly dubbed "Mountain Man."

After 22 years of back-breaking labor, Manjhi finished the 360-foot road in 1982. Tearing straight through the mountain, the road not only cut miles of travel for countless village travelers, it made traversing the area safer, as well as allowing for small automobile traffic.

The Mountain Man died in 2007, but the road that was the fruit of his labor still bears his name in an amazing testament to the power of the individual.

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July 24 2015 12:09 PM

A Very Still Life: The Music and Art of Jack Kevorkian

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 well-known that Dr. Jacob “Jack” Kevorkian was no stranger to death. But he is less appreciated for his lust for life, which led him down just about every artistic road available, resulting in a creative life that was almost as noble and insane as his professional one.

Born in 1928, Kevorkian became a cultural phenomenon beginning in the 1980s and '90s: A constant presence on cable TV, he assisted in least 130 suicides, leading to his eight-year stint in prison starting in the early 2000s.


But amid all the furor surrounding his work as a pioneer in the right-to-die movement, there was another side of the man frequently depicted as a grim reaper. Kevorkian was quite alive—in addition to his medical work, he painted, played and composed music, wrote books, and according to a close friend, even filmed a movie that has been lost to the ages.

According to Neil Nicol, a close friend and colleague of Kevorkian, he “just tried to experience everything in life.”

“He did more than anybody I’ve ever known,” says Nicol. “Art was just one of the things he took his hand to.”

The man who would become Dr. Death began painting in the early 1960s, when he and Nicol worked together at what was then the Pontiac General Hospital. It was during this time that Kevorkian enrolled himself in an adult education course on oil painting. As Nicol tells it, “[everyone else was painting] apples and oranges, and bowls, and landscapes, and stuff like that. Jack did his first painting, called ‘Very Still Life.’ It was a picture of a skull with an iris growing up out of the eye socket.”

After creating what would become possibly the most iconic image of his art with "Very Still Life", he continued to paint, moving on to works inspired by clinical symptoms with titles like “Nausea”, “Fever”, “Coma,” and “Paralysis.” He also created satirical portraits inspired by religious holidays, specifically Easter and Christmas.


Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

In fact, while the imagery of many Kevorkian’s paintings was seen as morbid, nearly all of them had a sort of pitch-black humor lining their thought-provoking message. For instance, in “Nearer My God To Thee,” a terrified man can be seen falling into a black abyss of indifferent faces, his fingers scraping desperately on the walls of the rift, exposing the bloody bone beneath. But Kevorkian himself described the message of the painting as such:

How forbidding that dark abyss! How stupendous the yearning to dodge its gaping orifice. How inexorable the engulfment. Yet, below are the disintegrating hulks of those who have gone before; they have made the insensible transition and wonder what the fuss is all about. After all, how excruciating can nothingness be?

This is not to say that all of Kevorkian’s paintings were gruesome. He also created a handful of fairly straightforward works, like portraits of his parents, and of Johann Sebastian Bach. He further honored his love of music with a colorful painting of a simple musical note titled “Chromatic Fantasy.”

Maybe the most amazing thing about Kevorkian’s paintings is that, according to Nicol, none of the surviving works is the original. In the late 1970s, Kevorkian moved to California, where he took a pair of part-time jobs in Long Beach. After leaving those initial jobs after disputes with his superiors, he devoted his life and life savings to a failed film version of Handel’s Messiah. Set to the famed oratorio, the film would have explored the biblical themes of the music. Unfortunately, his quest to create this film drove him to the poorhouse, and Kevorkian was living in his car by 1982.

Both his original paintings and all the work that had been completed on his film were placed in a storage locker, the payments on which eventually lapsed. All of the paintings and all traces of his film were lost, likely ending up in a garbage dump. The only remaining record of the film seems to be Nicol’s own vague memory of the trailer:

It was about Jesus, and shepherds, and the Bible, apparently. [The trailer] showed a picture of someone dressed like Jesus, and another woman dressed as Mary. After that he started to run out of money, and he wanted to find clips that were done by the major studios, but that weren’t going to be used in the movies. So he started to buy those and integrate them into the Messiah. So it was kind of a disjointed presentation.

After returning to Michigan to begin his work on death counseling in earnest, Kevorkian decided to remake the paintings that had been lost, but had no visual record of them. Luckily, he was able to locate someone who had taken Kodachrome photos of many of the paintings, and Kevorkian set out to recreate a number of them. It doesn’t seem to be known how many, if any, Kevorkian failed to repaint, but according to Nicol, all of the works extant today are the second of their kind, and there may have been some that were lost forever.

Painting and film were not Kevorkian’s only passion, as he also dabbled in musical composition and performance. Kevorkian played flute and organ and actually released a full album in 1997, entitled A Very Still Life, appropriating the name of his first painting. The 12-track LP was a collection of jazz-funk songs comprised almost exclusively of Kevorkian’s original compositions. The album was completely instrumental with Kevorkian on flute and organ, sounding a bit like Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas by way of Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack. Only 5,000 copies of the record were ever produced, but it can still be found on YouTube.

In 1999, Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree homicide by a Michigan court and was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison. While he served only eight years of his sentence before being released, his incarceration may have spelled the end to Kevorkian’s artistic endeavors. Nicol says that while Kevorkian thought about playing music or painting while he was in prison, it was hard to schedule a time in the crowded facilities, and “[Kevorkian] said it was just not worth his time.” Discussing how Kevorkian felt about his own works, Nicol says, “He bored easily. Once he’d get bored with them, he didn’t want to do it any more. He was very enthusiastic about it when he’d get started, but then once he got bored with it, he’d just stop doing it.” 

Kevorkian died from a blood clot in June 2011.

He did achieve some commercial success, post-death, from his artwork: In 2014 a gallery was selling his paintings for $45,000 a pop, claiming that the unsold work would go to the Smithsonian. This sale came after years of legal wrangling, as the work had formerly been housed in Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Artistically, though, Kevorkian's work remains enigmatic. It’s not easy to find a through line in Kevorkian’s shaggy body of creative output. From a bloody painting that uses decapitation as a metaphor to war, to the filming of a biblical opera, to some noirish jazz licks, Kevorkian seemed to follow whatever muse struck him. While his words are a bit opaque, his description of his first painting, "Very Still Life" seems to nicely sum up his body of work:

The message here, though somewhat capricious, nebulous and indefinable, is clearly underscored by intense feeling. Brilliant colors highlight the melancholoy age-old balance between the warmth of life and the iciness of death, spiced with the sardonic humor of irony. The disquieting mood portends inescapable doom for the frail symbol of individual life and seemingly callous extinction of its evanescent aura. The age-old balance is certainly skewed.

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July 23 2015 4:18 PM

Connecticut's Flat Hoax House

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

Arthur Everett "Chick" Austin, Jr. is best known as the celebrated director and caretaker of the Wadsworth Atheneum art museum, but his home is equally noteworthy, not for its extravagance, but for the fact that it is little more than a pasteboard fake.

Austin took inspiration for his unique home from the Italian villas of architect Andrea Palladio, classically styled edifices that incorporate a columned style. The Connecticut faux-manse was built in 1930 to Austin's strange specification that it be a long, thin, one-room-deep home. The "Facade House," as it came to be known, has an impressive edifice that stretches 86 feet from end to end, but viewed from the side, it becomes clear that the width of the home is just 18 feet. In addition to the illusory design, the home was constructed not out of sturdy brick and stone, but from pine board painted to make it look grander than it was.


The unimpressed locals took to calling Austin's house "the pasteboard palace," but Austin, ever the raconteur, soon turned his house to the hottest spot in Hartford, entertaining luminaries like Gertude Stein and Salvador Dali. The interior was lushly decorated with rich European furniture and decorations.

No matter how the Hartford community once felt about the strange home, it is now recognized as a National Historic Landmark and is seen as one of Austin's finest remaining works. Visiting the house, it is still hard to tell the true shape of the house from the front, and the effect of the unique shape is still strangely impressive.

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July 22 2015 5:50 PM

The Story of the Ejector Seat

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

Your instruments are frozen. You’re losing altitude. It’s inevitable. You’re going to crash. But wait! There’s one more option. The ejector seat!

In a split second decision, you reach for the emergency trigger and deploy it. Within seconds you are violently rocketing into the sky, until the parachute that was simultaneously sent out catches air and rights your seat. Your plane hits the ground in a distant ball of flames, as you gently float to relative safety.


This is the sort of exciting tale most people envision when they think of the ejector seat, but where did this life-saving technology come from?

While several people essentially invented ejection technologies independent of one another, it is widely accepted that the first ejection seat (as they are properly called) was patented in 1916 by a man named Everard Calthrop. He was a railway engineer and innovative inventor who had seen his friend, Charles Rolls (of Rolls Royce fame) die in a biplane crash. This tragedy inspired Calthrop to devise a pilot safety system that would allow airplane pilots to quickly evacuate their doomed craft. His first patent described simple but effective contraption that would, at the pull of a handle, tilt the seat backwards to prime the pilot for ejection. Then, with a blast of compressed air, a parachute (which Calthrop also had a hand in inventing) would deploy and yank the pilot out of the craft to relative safety.

From this simple system, the idea of an onboard system to jettison pilots from their craft was born. However, it was not until World War II that ejection seats as we know them began being standard parts of planes.

It was the Germans who first took to the trend, creating the first production craft to come equipped with an ejection system, the Heinkel 280. Developed in 1940, the turbo-powered jet never went into full production, but the nine of them that were made were outfitted with a seat that would be blown clear of the craft using compressed air. During testing the Heinkel 280’s escape seat even managed to save the life of pilot Helmut Schenk after his instruments froze over. Schenk is now seen as the first person ever to be saved by the use of an ejection seat.

Not long after the Germans started using ejection seats, the trend began to spread. Just a year after the Heinkel debuted, the Swedish SAAB company created an ejector seat technology for one of their planes, and by 1946 the United Kingdom and the United States were working on systems to safely jettison their pilots as well. Soon, compressed air was replaced by gun powder as an accelerant, which was in turn eventually replaced by a chemical accelerant in modern ejector seats. Other safety features such as stabilization rockets and automatically inflating life boats were added. After decades of innovation in the field of ejection systems and pilot safety, the seats themselves are almost as complex as the jets they fly in.

Currently the Martin-Baker Company is the largest creator of ejection seats, having created over 70,000 exploding chairs for 93 air forces around the world, touting themselves as the “World’s Leading Manufacturer of Ejection and Crashworthy Seats.” A former aircraft production company, they turned their focus to ejection technology after a tale similar to Calthrop’s, wherein the titular Baker was killed in a plane crash in 1942, inspiring the titular Martin to devote his company to pilot safety.

Starting with the Mk1 and leading all the way up to the current Mk17, Martin-Baker marks the cutting edge of safely getting pilots out of speeding aircraft as safely as possible. The Mk17 is actually a pretty simple ejection seat with just a chair on blast plate, streamlined for lightweight and training craft. But the Mk16 is a bafflingly advanced creation built for fighter jets. The seat has five different modes that automatically deploy based on the altitude of the craft when the seat is deployed; it features a back-up air supply, a homing beacon, short-burst stabilizing rockets, a life raft, and arm, leg, and neck supports, just to name some of the advanced features. Yet even with all of these bells and whistles, firing one’s self out of a high speed aircraft is still insanely dangerous.

In a modern scenario, when a pilot activates an ejector seat, a few things happen in rapid sequence. First the pilot’s overhead canopy is blown off, then an explosive charge or rocket shoots the chair straight up out of the vessel on a guide rail. Then a group of stabilization rockets briefly fire, pushing the chair even further from the craft and helping keep it from wildly tumbling in the wind. A small guide parachute known as a drogue then deploys that keeps the chair upright. Depending on the altitude (automatically detected by the chair using oxygen sensors) of the ejection, a primary chute may deploy immediately or the chair may freefall for a bit, getting the pilot to a more oxygen rich part of the sky with a bit more haste. Finally, the chair falls away, and with luck, the pilot drifts to safety. Depending on the specific seat other things may happen, but the basics are much the same across the board.

In a 2002 interview with Smithsonian Air and Space, a pilot who only identified himself as Captain IROC described the experience of ejecting from a jet going 600 mph at 15,000 feet, as “the most violent thing I’ve ever felt in my life.” The immense wind speeds and stresses of g forces placed on the pilot, rarely leave them unharmed. Before limb stabilization was added, arms and legs would whip in the wind, breaking bones and dislocating joints. Even in advanced ejection seats, 1-in-3 pilots who eject from their planes fracture their spine as they are rocketed out of the plane. Modern ejection seats have a survival rate of over 90%, but it is definitely a last resort.

According to the counter on the Martin-Baker website, their seats have saved 7,480 lives. So while ejecting from an airplane may not be as smooth and cavalier an action as James Bond makes it out to be, it definitely beats the alternative—falling.

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July 21 2015 3:17 PM

The Heavy Hopes of the Lam Tsuen Wishing Trees

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 Lam Tsuen area of Hong Kong has been inhabited for more than 700 years. Its continued survival can be partly attributed to the famed Wishing Trees, located in Tin Hau Temple, which are said to grant any wish that can get caught in their branches. 

Tin Hau Temple dates back to the late 1700s, when it was constructed during the Qing dynasty. One of the nearby trees, a camphor, was said to be able to grant wishes. Thus was the tradition started that has drawn locals and visitors to the supposedly enchanted plants for hundreds of years.


Initially, visitors would write their desires on small joss paper scrolls (a parchment specifically used for offerings) and then tie them onto branches or throw them into the tree. The higher the wish got stuck, the better chance it had to come true—but if it fell out, it was not to be.

In more modern times, this practice has been transferred to a 200-year-old banyan tree. When a couple of large branches, weighed down by too many wishes, broke off and actually injured bystanders, the local government stepped in and outlawed the placing of wishes on the tree. To provide an outlet for everyone's desire for wish fulfillment, a wooden rack was constructed near the original tree and a whole other fake plastic wishing tree was even built.

In 2008 a smaller banyan was planted a few meters from the original banyan version of the tree so that the growing wish-tree line would not die out—although casting wishes into the new tree is also outlawed. Most people now make their wishes on the colorful plastic tree in Lam Tsuen, although the wish-granting efficacy of this replacement is not known.

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July 20 2015 2:33 PM

The Goodyear Airdock, Where It Rains Indoors

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

Built in 1929, the almost unbelievably huge Goodyear Airdock in Akron, Ohio, was created as a space where blimps, airships, and dirigibles could be constructed, but building such a massive space created some pretty weird problems, such as indoor rain, and putting the whole thing on rollers so that it could expand and contract with the seasons. 

For a brief, beautiful moment in the early 20th century, it really seemed like airships and zeppelins were going to be the future of air travel, with docking towers built in major cites and aspirational advertisements filling Americans with dreams of luxury sky balloons. It was this era that led to the creation of the Goodyear Airdock. The almost comically large hanger stands over 200 feet tall and well over 1,000 feet long, all without any interior supports like pillars or struts. At the time of its completion, the building was the largest of its kind in the world. The building holds over a million cubic meters of space in which to create massive lighter-than-air ships. To get the ships out of the airdock once they were completed, both of the rounded ends of the building actually slid apart like rounded wedge doors. Each of the doors weighed 600 tons, powered by their own separate power plants. Of course, construction on this grand scale created some surprising issues.


For one, the huge building was expected to expand and contract as the temperature changed, so much of the structure was placed on rollers so that it could do so without doing any structural damage. In addition, the temperature inside and outside the building would often be drastically different, creating a sort of indoor weather system. To combat this, rows of massive windows were installed on either side of the hanger which open up to equalize the temperatures. However, despite this, during certain conditions, condensation can accumulate in the upper air of the hanger and begin to "rain" on the builders below.

The Goodyear Airlock is not open to the public, but the monolithic black slug of a building can be seen by passersby on the highway.

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July 16 2015 12:56 PM

The Øresund Bridge Brings Literal Meaning to the Term Bridge and Tunnel

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

Supporting both cars and trains as they pass between Denmark and the southern tip of Sweden, the Øresund Bridge (or Øresundsbron, as it is nicknamed in a mish-mash of Swedish and Danish)transitions from bridge to tunnel as the road and railway dip beneath the waves. 

The passenger travel connection was completed in 1999, connecting the Swedish city of Malmö to the Danish metropolis of Copenhagen. While building a bridge over the Øresund Strait was not a huge challenge in itself, doing so without interfering with the air traffic above or the shipping traffic on the water seemed almost impossible. Building a suspension bridge tall enough to allow ships to pass beneath it would prevent the busy Copenhagen Airport nearby from functioning. A bridge built any lower would have halted ship traffic. The simple yet unusual solution was a bridge that would descend beneath the waves halfway across the strait.


A man-made island known as Peberholm was built to support the transition point, and a tunnel was dug beneath the strait on the Danish end (known independently as the Drogden Tunnel). On the Swedish side, the sweeping suspension bridge was constructed to slowly slope right into the water, making it look from the outside as if the bridge gives up and curves into nothingness.

Today the bridge is the longest combined automobile and rail bridge in Europe, despite being half-tunnel. (The people making such distinctions do not like to be discriminatory.) With an estimated 17,000 cars passing over and under the Øresund Strait each day, this span brings a newly literal meaning to the phrase bridge and tunnel.

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July 15 2015 3:48 PM

The Stilt Village of Ukivok

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 tiny King Island off the western coast of Alaska, the stilt village of Ukivok was once the winter home of sea-faring natives who have left it abandoned for the last half-century.

King Island is surrounded on all sides of its squat, mile long width by steep slopes and cliffs that make inhabiting the already hostile environs an even greater challenge. However a local Inupiat population calling themselves the Aseuluk ("People of the Sea") or Ukivokmiut, built a small village on one of the slopes using a precarious arrangement of stilts and huts. The Ukivokmiut subsisted mainly from fishing and whaling during the summer which they did from the mainland, but during the winters when thick ice formed, they would migrate to the village of Ukivok to poach crabs, seal, and other game for the cold season.


The cliff village was in use until the mid-1900's when the Bureau of Indian Affairs forced the closure of the school on Ukivok, requiring all of the Aseuluk children to return to the mainland year-round. Without the support of the younger generation, the gathering of winter food became too much and eventually the entire Ukivokmiut population migrated permanently to mainland Alaska.

The stilt village remains, clinging to the seas-swept slope of King Island, essentially left as though they would return the next year. In recent years, local researchers have worked to facilitate this, allowing some members of the original population to return to the village. 

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