Saturday, April 16, 2016

Less Obscura by the Day

Today is Obscura Day 2016, a collection of tours and other events serving as "grassroots marketing" according to David Plotz, CEO of Atlas Obscura, an online atlas (duh!) that encourages people to discover "curious places—in your neighborhood and around the world."

In New York, there are 14 events planned, including a "Coney Island Creek Excursion" with Underwater New York. Melvin was intrigued by the tour of the FAST Corp Fabrication Facilities and Mold Field, but not enough to drive eight hours.

Image of "Burnt, sunken barges in Gravesend Bay mouth"
by Jim.henderson and used through Creative Commons license.

In recent years, Atlas Obscura has joined Roadside America and the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) Database as tools for our trip planning. On #ObscuraDay, I thought I would highlight three potential destinations on this year's Baseball Byways.

Airstream Ranch

Not all of the sites cataloged in the atlas are obscure and that is certainly the case for Airstream Ranch, an art installation inspired by Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. The eight, classic, aluminum travel trailers are visible from Interstate 4, about halfway between Tampa and Lakeland, Florida

Image by Carlye Ellis used through Creative Commons license.

The site was on my itinerary in 2013 but I spent too much time at nearby Dinosaur World and had to rush to St. Petersburg for a Rays game. Melvin and I will try again when we are in Florida during the first week in May.

Also mapped for our first trip are, in alphabetical order, the Koreshan State Historic Site, the abandoned Miami Marine Stadium, the also abandoned Splendid China, and Whimzeyland, which I visited in 2013.

Cape Romano Dome House

Image by Andy Morffew used through Creative Commons license.

At the end of May, Melvin and I head to the Gulf of Mexico and vicinity—very, very loosely defined. The Cape Romano Dome House, an abandoned vacation home off the tip of ... wait a minute! Cape Romano isn't on the Panhandle; it's near Naples, south of Fort Myers.

When I informed Melvin that he had his dome homes confused, he replied, "Seen one, seen them all?" So much for the organizational structure of this post.

Google Street View image of 1005 Ariola Drive, Gulf Breeze, Florida

No matter. It appears the Cape Romano site is located on the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and can only be reached by watercraft or by hiking in. And for that matter, the Street View image above is from January 2008. Perhaps this vacation home has also been washed out to sea.


The last trip that we have planned takes us from New York through Pennsylvania to Toronto and back. Melvin mapped 12 potential destinations from Atlas Obscura, including Northlandz, reportedly the "world's largest model railroad."

Image by Howard Hall used through Creative Commons license.

Also mapped are an abandoned subway, an abandoned company town, and an abandoned rail viaduct—do I detect a theme?—as well as the Mercer Museum and Fonthill Castle, a contemporary standing stones park, the reputed steepest street in the United States, and "a private collection of ... taxidermy, jarred specimens, medical implements, and bizarre weaponry...." Curious places indeed!


Melvin and I email each other about Atlas Obscura. Melvin wrote, "Do you find A.O. to be relatively more or less valuable that the other major sources (Roadside America and CLUI)?" I don't think that is the question and although he posed it, I don't think Melvin does either. All three sites have their strengths and weaknesses.

Roadside America is encyclopedic to the point of excess. A pole barn that has been converted into a cavern by some guy who glued washing machine agitators to the ceiling and floor (imaginary example) might be cool but experience has taught me that it probably won't be worth a detour. The only way to form one's own opinion is to go, which often leaves me feeling like I wasted my time.

Melvin lacks enthusiasm for Muffler Men so I only search them out
when I am traveling solo, like a 2011 trip to Virginia and North Carolina.

Atlas Obscura is more curated but that makes it much thinner. The CLUI database is robust but much of it—for example, the numerous listings of military facilities that we cannot enter even if wanted to—makes what is useful to us a much smaller subset. Still, some of that subset can't be found anywhere else.

And, not for nothin', Atlas Obscura is a prettier website, with more attractive photographs. Roadside America has its own circa 1990s charm, with a hyperactive layout. The Center for Land Use Interpretation database is about as sexy as its name. The internet is old enough that we have all come to expect a certain amount of design sophistication.

So, it's not a question of which of these tools is more or less valuable. They're all valuable and Atlas Obscura is a welcome addition. It must be right for us since, after it debuted, numerous friends emailed and asked, 'Hey, have you guys seen this?' If you haven't seen it yet, we suggest you check it out. It's Obscura Day!

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