Atlas Obscura co-founder Dylan Thuras shares his tips for finding weird places and what he packs to document his travels.
Dylan Thuras is off to vacation at the Gates of Hell.
It’s been a running joke between him and fellow Atlas Obscura co-founder Joshua Foer for ages. Before they even started the site, they agreed that if things were still going strong in a few years, they’d celebrate by cracking open a cold one at the giant flaming (and slightly terrifying) Darvaza gas crater in Turkmenistan.
“If we make it, I’ll see you at the Gates of Hell,” he recalls joking with Foer—and now, ten years later, the duo is finally making it happen. But Thuras doesn’t think you have to venture to Hades and back to experience something amazing. Atlas Obscura, a community-run travel guide to the world’s weirdest locations, specializes in finding hidden treasures anywhere and everywhere—and with nearly 19,000 entries and counting, chances are some of the oddest places on earth wait right outside your front door.
“I love places that expand your sense of what might be out there or what’s possible.”
“These places don’t have to be far away; there are a lot of these amazing little stories,” Thuras says. “Whatever place you’re in, hopefully, you’re trying to figure out what it’s about and if there’s something more interesting—something that’s special, or playful, or fun, or kind of feels like it’s got some magic to it.”
Here, the delightfully curious traveler and artist shares what he packs to document the strange places he goes, as well as his tips for discovering the beautiful parts of the world hiding just under our noses.
Even though some places are generally weird, I often find what’s interesting about them isn’t that they’re strange, but why they exist—why someone made them, what the backstory is. The places that I really love kind of keep opening up. It’s cool if they’re visually amazing, but that’s not the top thing for me—the thing is when as you learn more and understand more, a crazy story unfolds, and you can tell other people about it and they say, “This is the wildest thing I’ve ever heard.” I love places that expand your sense of what might be possible.
Tools for documenting the world
A sketchbook; this is a really old one that I’ve had since I was in high school, but there is some newer stuff in here. I just draw as a good distraction during travel. And then my bag of shame—all tech, a million different things: My crappy camera, which I’m happy to let bang around—it’s old and I’m fine not to worry about it, which is one of the reasons I like it. I take audio gear with me because sometimes I need to record voice-overs or sometimes I just like recording the sounds of a place, so I have a shotgun mic and a field recorder I take with me.
“The places that I really love kind of keep opening up.”
The #1 way to find cool hidden treasures
If you can find one great place—one weird, interesting place—you just ask the person there what they think the weirdest, most interesting place in the area is. A lot of times, it takes people a long time because everyone gets a kind of a “local’s blindness.” If someone asked you what the weirdest, most interesting place in New York is, you’d be like, “I have no idea.” But if you talk about it for a while, and you start to talk about examples of what you’re looking for, you start to think, “Oh, there is that place!” And so then you go to that place, you ask the people there, and you get even more interesting places.
But I’d get on an airplane, dump coffee on myself, stumble—everything would be ruined."
"She’s like a nature witch," he says.
Minimal pants, maximum socks, and aspirational running shoes
I bring a lot of socks, a lot of underwear, and not very many pants. When you want a new pair of socks—they get wet and you’re like, “Oh I wish I had a fresh pair of socks!” Running out of socks and underwear is so much more terrible than wearing the same pants two days in a row. Leaving behind a pair of pants and bringing more socks and underwear is definitely my big thing.
Then there are my aspirational running shoes—I bring them with me all the time and I never run. I run like twice when I travel, so they’re just these giant things I carry with me as like, a block of shame. But I take them with me all the time!
It works better than melatonin for jet lag
For jet lag, this is my sleep solution. It’s a tincture of a plant called skullcap. It works amazing, better than melatonin. You never wake up groggy at all. It’s like a nerve agent that calms you down and generally helps you sleep through the night if you’re somebody that has a lot of random waking up.
The next book you should read on the go
Bruce Goldfarb just wrote this book: It’s about these tiny dollhouses that were used to stage murders. And they were made by Frances Glessner Lee who was a wealthy socialite in the 1930s or 40s. She really would have been a scientist or a forensic investigator, but there was no entry point for women into that world. So the entry point she built for herself was making these perfect replica houses and they’re still used by the Baltimore detectives to train on how to look for clues. You can go see them all at the Baltimore medical examiner’s office. They’re beautifully created and to scale.
A weird place under New Yorkers’ noses
In the Coney Island Creek, there is a handmade, DIY scrap metal submarine that was built to be a treasure-hunting submarine but it basically sunk before it got a chance to do that. It has been stranded out in this little bay in the back of Coney Island for 30 years. It’s so great. It’s right here. And it’s got this kind of great story with this shipyard worker, Jerry Bianco, who wanted to do something bigger than life, and he built a totally functional submarine—he just had a problem when he put it in the water. But he got it rated by the Navy and it was rated to dive five to six hundred feet! I love places that are about one person’s crazy quest—someone who’s dedicated to something only they understand, and they get deep in it. I think that’s very beautiful.