When Americans take vacations, it’s often to places like theme parks, resorts, or national parks. Our guest says that there’s a treasure trove of unique destinations around the world if you veer off the beaten vacation path. He talks about a few of the places you probably never heard about but which offer unique experiences, educational opportunities and a lot of fun.
Dylan Thuras, co-author of Atlas Obscura: An explorer’s guide to the world’s hidden wonders
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Unique Vacation Destinations
Gary Price: When Americans take vacations these days, it’s often to places where they can have planned fun with the family – like a water or theme park. These types of getaways are great for a few days, but why not break out of the mold and try something totally off the beaten vacation path? That’s the kind of holiday Dylan Thuras remembers from his childhood, and it drove him and his two colleagues to seek out the mysterious, the strange and the totally crazy places they showcase in their book, Atlas Obscura: An explorer’s guide to the world’s hidden wonders.
Dylan Thuras: I grew up in the Midwest and as about a 12-year-old my parents took me on these long road trips and we would go to places like the Corn Palace, Wall Drug. We went to an amazing place called House on the Rock in Wisconsin, which is almost impossible to explain except to say that inside this building it contains a squid fighting a whale that’s the size of the Statue of Liberty and the world’s largest carousel with world’s most diverse carousel animals. So, basically, from a young age I was really interested in these kinds of unexpected, unusual places. And then I met my business partner Josh, and I was heading off to live in Budapest for a year, and we just started talking about the kind of place we both like to find when we went traveling – you know, these tiny museums that are only open on Tuesdays, or an ossuary where monks had collected all of the skulls of previous monks and stacked them into a basement room. I mean these are the kinds of places that kind of open your eyes to the possibilities in the world. And so we just realized that there wasn’t a good resource out in the world for this kind of stuff. So we decided to make it mostly for ourselves so we could use it when we traveled.
Price: Not all places featured in the book will appeal to all people, but there’s undoubtedly a handful that each individual will find fascinating. Take the “Integratron” in Landers, California. It’s a big, white dome built by a man named George Van Tassel, a UFO expert. He built this acoustically perfect building out of fiberglass, concrete and glass – but no metal at all, not even nails. You can stand on one side of the dome and hear someone sniff quietly or whisper on the other side. There are even “quartz crystal sound baths” that you can take that some visitors find to be a healing experience.
Thuras: People are real serious about that stuff and the kind of care and focus that goes into creating this sort of sound experience in the Integratron is really real. And even if it’s not your thing, even if you come away feeling like “That was silly,” or “I don’t believe in what they’re about,” it’s interesting to know that there’s people out there who really do find that valuable and healing. Our goal is to just kind of help expand your sense of what the world is. I mean, with the Internet and cell phones, the world can start to feel a little flat. It can start to feel like, yeah you know, it’s sort of all been done, all been seen, and the truth is it’s a big, weird world out there and hopefully the book helps people realize that there’s a lot of incredible things out there to go find.
Price: If you are into sound chambers, Thuras says that you don’t want to miss the quietest room in the world at Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis.
Thuras: I was just there and I got the chance to spend some time sitting very quietly in the Quietest Room. And what happens is as all the other sound goes away — cause it’s literally negative 20 decibels, so it’s quieter than basically the human ear can even really hear — and what happens is you start hearing all these other sounds. You start hearing the sound of your body. So I was there with my co-founder Josh, and he was sitting probably eight feet away from me and when swallowed, it was like “gulp.” You could hear it from across the room! And by the end, when I raised my eyebrows I could quite literally hear my scalp moving, which is just a weird thing to even know, to realize that our bodies are actually kind of making little sounds all the time, but you would never hear them until you are sitting, basically, in a room so quiet that there’s nothing else to hear.
Price: Thuras found that in the New Mexico desert and throughout the Southwest there are artworks created by artist Ra Paulette that the most discerning Egyptian pharaoh would be envious of.
Thuras: You’d call him, basically, a sculptor, maybe an outsider artist. And he’s made it his mission to create these beautiful, intricate caves carved out of sandstone. And they are effectively…some are done as private commissions for individuals who pay him to come and do this, some of them he’s sort of done as part of his own artistic mission. And they’re sort of slightly hidden, you know you have to know how to get to them, but through some little hole in the desert that you maybe wouldn’t otherwise notice, deep below is this kind of beautiful, intricate cave with tons of twisting columns and beautiful sculptures carved into the sides. They’re really wild.
Price: Speaking of pharaohs, if you ever get to visit Wadsworth, Illinois, you’ll see how ancient Egypt influenced the architecture at a personal residence there…complete with pyramid and giant statue of a real-life king.
Thuras: It’s this enormous, enormous pyramid that was covered, at least for a time, I think it may no longer be, but it was covered for a time in a layer of 24-karat gold. And it was basically built by a family. It’s a family’s house. They live there. It’s about a six-story tall house. And they opened it up for us, we too a tour, some people came through. It’s got a moat around it; it’s got this huge statue, 50-foot statue of King Tut. Basically the family was believers in a 70’s theory of pyramid power. The idea that if you live in a pyramid, it kind of focuses the power of the universe onto you and you’re able to kind of succeed in the other pursuits of your life. But, it was believed to be the largest 24-karat gold plated object in North America.
Price: If you’ve ever wondered what life was like for military and government personnel who watched over our nuclear armament program at the height of the Cold War, all you have to do is visit Arizona where the Titan Missile Museum is housed.
Thuras: That’s one of a whole slew of what you’d sort of call “atomic tourist” sites which are these remnants of, you know, the big atomic age and now we’ve sort of stepped back from that, thankfully. But, the Titan Missile Museum gives you the experience of what it was like to, basically, be one of the guys who had their hands on “the key” and was ready to get the order and basically start, you know, thermonuclear world war. And so I think that’s another place where going there and experiencing it, it really helps you understand your own history, the history of this country. And there’s all kinds of other places. I mean, they only open it a couple of days a year but the Trinity Test Site out in the desert outside of Las Vegas is incredible and it’s basically where they blew up the first atomic bomb. And the entire desert was formed into a sheet of glass called “trinitinium.” They frown on you taking that because it’s slightly radioactive. But these places, I think, really help us understand our world and understand what’s possible and the history all around us.
Price: In his travels, Thuras found a number of unusual museums that cater to some very familiar items – like the Idaho Museum of Clean, the Canadian Potato Museum on Prince Edward Island, and the Bunny Museum in Pasadena, California to name just a few. Why would anyone want to create a museum to “clean” or “potatoes”? Well, he says that these entries are a testament to people’s individualism and curiosity about everyday things.
Thuras: We have quite a few museums in there where someone’s basically said, “I’m going to make this my life. This is going to be the thing that I do with my time.” You know, the Museum of Clean is just one example of that. We also have a vacuum cleaner museum in Portland. If you’re someone who’s particularly obsessed with keeping your house tidy, the Museum of Clean might be your heaven.
Price: Although it’s tough to pick a favorite collection or place out of the hundreds he and his cofounder have cataloged, Thuras says that he found one amazing and very, very remote location.
Thuras: One of my favorites is a place called Balls Pyramid, which is this volcanic spire in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. So imagine just this like little point of rock shooting out of the ocean. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that one of the world’s largest insects – a thing sometimes called the “walking sausage” or the “land lobster” – was discovered. And the crazy thing about this insect is it had been believed to have been extinct for 80 years. There had been rumors about this and finally these guys made it out, they climbed up this and under a single bush on this rock in the middle of the ocean with nothing near it, had survived a single colony of this insect, of the Lord Howe Stick Insect. And it’s since been taken and there, there is a breeding program for it and it’s just like this spectacular story.
Price: Dylan Thuras says that he hopes people who read his book, Atlas Obscura, leave thinking that the world is a magical place if they keep an open mind and venture beyond their own communities and interests. Thuras invites listeners to their website at AtlasObscura.com where you can find stories and videos of more mysterious, funny and intriguing places to pique your interest, and maybe offer a few of your own. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.