The Atlas Obscura The Atlas Obscura
Conflict of Interests

The Atlas Obscura

by Cliff Kuang

June 12, 2009

Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras are cataloging the world's weirdest places to foster a new age of curiosity.

An enormous concrete dome that seals off the crater left by an atomic blast. The ancestral home of a nearly forgotten Kentucky family, which had four children born with bright blue skin. The hiding place of a memoir written by an infamous 19th-century fugitive-and bound in his own skin.They're all real places you can visit. And they're all collected at Atlas Obscura, a new website which aims to be a "compendium of the world's wonders, curiosities and esoterica," founded by Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras.You know Foer's family: His brother, Franklin, edits the New Republic; his other brother, Jonathan Safran Foer, wrote some books you might have read. The youngest Foer is hyper-successful as well: Later this year, he'll publish Moonwalking with Einstein, a chronicle of the time he spent competing in the National Memory Championships (he won). Thuras, a film editor and budding graphic novelist, co-founded one of the best antiquarian sites on the web, Curious Expeditions. The two of them met through Foer's own site (which is on hiatus), The Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society, and began working on the Atlas Obscura not too long after.Obviously, they both share a fascination with the world's moldiest, weirdest corners. But the sensibility, if anything, is ancient, harking back to Wunderkammern, or Wonder Cabinets-personal collections of bizarre and mythical artifacts, which became a fad among rich men in 16th century, and eventually evolved into the first modern museums. GOOD asked Foer and Thuras a few questions about the Atlas and the insider's tours they plan on offering of some of the places it includes.GOOD: How did each of become so consumed by hidden places? How, or why, did you come by your antiquarian sensibility?Dylan Thuras: I grew up in the Midwest, which has a disproportionate amount of oddities to population (serial killers too). Something about all that flat land I think. When I was about 12 my family went on a road trip, and we saw a place in Wisconsin called the House on the Rock, a huge complex packed with curiosities, including the world's largest carousel. Those Midwest oddities began my fascination. When I met Josh, I began pursuing them actively.Joshua Foer: I'm pretty sure it happened in college. One summer, when I was 19, I spent two months driving all over the lower 48 states trying to find all of the most bizarre places in America. It was an incredible trip, but it was also a real pain in the ass. They're hard to find. I had a half dozen guidebooks open on the passenger seat of my car, each of which was good but not great. That's when I realized that there needed to be a single online resource where people could share their knowledge of these sorts of obscure places.G: What do you think they reveal about the people that created them? Could you highlight some favorites?
JF: One thing we focus on is that the sites be real, concrete, places you can go and see. We tend to shy away from things like ghost stories or paranormal sightings, unless there is something concrete there. The should also have a good history. You don't need to gild the lily. The world is a strange enough place. Look deeply, and you'll find weirdness all around. The main criteria for the Atlas is that a place ought to inspire one's sense of wonderment. Michel Foucault gave an interview once in which he said that he said that he dreamed of a "new age of curiosity." When Dylan and I get drunk enough to start pretending that the Atlas Obscura has some sort of grand mission, that's pretty much what we have in mind: to help people realize how weird our world is. We want people to go out and explore it.DT: The people that created the places in the Atlas Obscura span from 19th-century doctors to crazed loners to governments. Each place is like a puzzle piece, revealing things about its creator and the larger world. Those odd outliers lend a great sense of history. ??Favorites places? I have a soft spot for "The Gates to Hell," a 328-foot wide hole in the Turkmenistan desert that has been on fire for 38 years, ever since it was set ablaze by Soviet miners to stop a natural gas leak. I also love the scale of Jim Bishop's Castle, which Jim built and is 16 stories high and has a fire-breathing dragon-in the middle of Colorado. But the places in the Atlas are like my children, I love them all!G: Joshua, you say the world is a "strange enough place." A lot of sites like yours try to resuscitate a Wunderkammer sensibility. Why now? Why is it vital today?JF: Those blogs-BoingBoing, Neatorama, Oddee, Dark Roasted Blend, Curious Expeditions, the Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society-clearly share an aesthetic sensibility with the wonder cabinets: namely, things that are singular and rare, and challenge our normal understanding of how the universe works. That's definitely a major part of what the Atlas Obscura aims to be.DT: That's tough. It's difficult to understand the moment you are in. Josh hit the nail on the head when he mentioned the "new age of curiosity." There is still a lot out there to be discovered. We are just beginning to understand the world. In 2005, scientists found the largest bioluminescent area in the world, a patch of ocean the size of Connecticut known as "The Milky Seas." This kind of thing fills your heart with a real sense of excitement.There is also, in this wunderkammer sensibility, a reconnection with nature and craftsmanship. The Atlas Obscura, Curious Expeditions, steampunk, cabinets of wonder, a Victorian design sensibility, even in pop culture with movies like "Night at the Museum"-it all flows from a growing desire to reengage with the past, with nature, and with objects that have personality and craftsmanship to them. It's a response to the impersonal face that consumerism, science, and technology has worn over the past 15 years.G: So tell me more about the tours that you guys are going to be doing. What's on the agenda? Will tour-goers pay for them? How are you choosing the venues?JF: The plan is to get a bunch of like-minded people together in various cities around the world, to visit some of the places in the Atlas Obscura. We're going to be setting up tours of museum back rooms, visits to private collections, and meetings with interesting people. The first place we're going to try this is in Philadelphia, sometime at the end of the summer. From there, it's on to Paris, London, Vienna, Boston, Rome, Tokyo...wherever we can get a critical mass together.DT: I suspect our tours might appeal to people who wouldn't normally go on tours, but who might come because we'll be showing them places that they wouldn't get a chance to see otherwise.G: So this'll be free for anyone that can pay their way? Or are you guys setting this up as a business?JF: We're still figuring all that out. I assume we'll charge some nominal fee so that we can cover our costs and Dylan can get a better hairpiece.DT: It's very important, my hairpiece. As for tour itineraries, I think it is best to leave them shrouded in mystery for now. But from what we have planned so far, they will definitely be unique in the world of tours.Catacombs photo by flickr (cc) user AlphaTangoBravo / Adam Baker
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