New book brings At­las Ob­scura site’s won­ders to printed page

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FEATURES - By Beth J. Harpaz

An elf school in Ice­land. A hospi­tal for fal­cons in the Mid­dle East. A mu­seum in Kansas City, Mo., for art­work made from hair.

Th­ese are the types of at­trac­tions fea­tured on the At­las Ob­scura web­site, a fan fa­vorite among cu­rios­i­ty­seek­ing trav­el­ers. Now the site is bring­ing its geeky and mag­i­cal world of won­ders to the printed page.

The new “At­las Ob­scura” book of­fers a sam­pling of 700 of the web­site’s 10,000 cu­ri­ous at­trac­tions, from a pile of rocks in Butte, Mont., that makes bell-tone rings when struck with a ham­mer, to the skulls and body parts on dis­play at Philadel­phia’s Mut­ter Mu­seum.

At­lasOb­ was launched in 2009. To­day it has over 5 mil­lion unique vis­i­tors a month and 12 mil­lion page views, along with over 120,000 reg­is­tered users. But it’s not the type of travel site that fea­tures in­fin­ity pools, five-star ho­tels and tast­ing menus. In­stead, you’re more likely to find macabre historic land­marks, mys­te­ri­ous nat­u­ral won­ders or odd cul­tural phe­nom­ena, like a Swedish univer­sity’s col­lec­tion of plas­ter-cast noses or Las Pozas park in Mex­ico, a sub­trop­i­cal gar­den filled with Sur­re­al­ist sculp­tures.

The book, out Tues­day, is pub­lished by Work­man, the com­pany that pub­lished “1,000 Places to See Be­fore You Die.” Work­man is billing “At­las Ob­scura” as a “bucket-list guide to over 700 of the most cu­ri­ous, un­usual, off-the-beaten path des­ti­na­tions from around the globe.” Cover blurbs in­clude this from Lena Dun­ham: “At­las Ob­scura may be the only thing that can still in­spire me to leave my apart­ment.”

Why take At­las Ob­scura out of the vir­tual world and onto the printed page? “There is noth­ing like a book,” said Dy­lan Thuras, who founded the site with Joshua Foer. “It’s hard to ex­plain to peo­ple ex­actly what At­las Ob­scura is, so we just felt like it would be so nice to dis­till this into a beau­ti­ful, phys­i­cal ob­ject and be able to hand it to some­one. Open it to any page and hope­fully it gives peo­ple a sense of joy and won­der. For me, hav­ing worked in the ephemeral medium of the in­ter­net for so long, to hold some­thing in my hand and say this is the re­sult of years of work, it feels sat­is­fy­ing.”

Thuras said the process of win­now­ing the web­site’s 10,000 en­tries down to 700 for the book was painful be­cause so many fa­vorites had to go, but he sees the vol­ume “as a kind of en­try point. The hope is that some­one un­fa­mil­iar with what we’re do­ing might see the book and sud­denly some­thing clicks, that the world is full of th­ese in­cred­i­ble mag­i­cal places.”

One of Thuras’ fa­vorite en­tries in the book de­scribes a hand­wo­ven bridge that he walked across in Peru. Ev­ery cou­ple of years, vil­lagers have to re-weave the bridge us­ing twine made from grasses. “It’s this un­bro­ken piece of cul­tural his­tory that you get to walk across, with this rag­ing river be­low. It’s what you think of when you think of adventure.”

The web­site is crowd­sourced and gets many more sub­mis­sions than its ed­i­tors can vet, but Thuras says they rarely get sub­mis­sions that are off-base. Fans “re­ally seem to un­der­stand what we’re af­ter,” he said, adding that most of their fol­low­ers are what he calls “adventure nerds,” se­ri­ous trav­el­ers who “like div­ing into un­usual sub­jects, get­ting out there and ex­plor­ing.”

The com­pany has a staff of 19 and is lo­cated in a for­mer pen­cil fac­tory in the Brook­lyn, New York, neigh­bor­hood of Green­point, once known as a work­ing­class Pol­ish area but lately a trendy mag­net for 20- and 30-some­things. Rev­enue comes from ads and spon­sored con­tent, but At­las Ob­scura has also started or­ga­niz­ing events and tours, part­ner­ing with tour guides and non­prof­its. One such event of­fered a night of mu­sic at Green-Wood Ceme­tery, a sprawl­ing 19th­cen­tury historic land­mark in Brook­lyn known for its land­scaped grounds and or­nate mon­u­ments.

At­las Ob­scura is also start­ing to of­fer in­ter­na­tional tours, start­ing with sev­eral small group trips to Cuba this fall. But the itin­er­ar­ies won’t be the usual top 10 hotspots found on ev­ery other tour. “We’re go­ing to Ice­land in the win­ter, tak­ing peo­ple to a plane wreck site on the rocks,” Thuras said.


In this file photo, the skull of a 7-foot, 6-inch gi­ant peers out to vis­i­tors at the Mut­ter Mu­seum in Philadel­phia. The Mut­ter Mu­seum is among hundreds of cu­ri­ous at­trac­tions fea­tured in “At­las Ob­scura,” a new book that cat­a­logues some of the in­trigu­ing won­ders fea­tured on At­lasOb­scura. com, a web­site beloved by trav­el­ers with a taste for the off­beat.

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