From the moment I open the door, it’s clear that the Sunshine Laundromat in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is an unusual place, with pinball machines crammed between its industrial-size washers and dryers. At the back—through a door made out of washing-machine parts—there’s a secret, unmarked bar that’s filled with even more pinball machines. I would never have found it on my own, but my tour guides—Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton—are experts in places like this. They’re the authors of Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, a compendium of the world’s most curious places and events. The pages brim with amazing oddities: a garden devoted to poisonous plants, a house built entirely out of newspapers, a lake pulsing with golden jellyfish, a medicinal-herb market. It’s an offshoot of the Atlas Obscura website, which Foer and Thuras founded nine years ago.
The pair met in 2007, brought together by Foer’s blog, the Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society, which was devoted to the life of a 17th-century German Jesuit polymath. When Thuras discovered the blog, “it was like a siren song across the internet,” he tells EW. “It felt like someone who was really excited about the same kind of weird and interesting stuff as I was.” When Foer put out a call for help planning an event, Thuras volunteered—and soon the two discovered they were both obsessed with strange, hidden places and found it frustrating that there wasn’t a resource for them. So they created one. The site started small but has mushroomed—there’s now a team of 30 and an office in Brooklyn.
How do they know when something is right for Atlas Obscura? “We have an adjective, ‘atlasy,’ which is sort of indefinable,” says Morton. “But you know it when you see it,” Thuras adds. Foer says it’s a place that “somebody in the know would have to tell you about, that you wouldn’t find on your own.”
Unsurprisingly, all three have great stories. On one trip Foer and Thuras searched for the homemade zip lines that dot the Andes, enabling villagers to cross deep ravines. “It was a matter of driving all around rural Colombia and asking people, ‘Where is the cable? Where is the cable?'” says Foer. In a moment of serendipity, they just happened to drive right past one. Locals told them that the line stretching over a 1,200-foot-deep canyon was more than 60 years old. Thuras, undaunted, tried it and documented the whole thing on his GoPro. “I had visions of Atlas Obscura ending right there,” says Foer.
Each of the authors has places they’re itching to see. For Morton, it’s the Tempest Prognosticator in Okehampton, England, a machine built by a 19th-century surgeon that used the behavior of leeches to predict the weather. Both Foer and Thuras long to visit the Door to Hell, a giant burning hole in the Turkmenistan desert. Foer says, “Dylan and I vowed that one day, when Atlas Obscura finally grows up, we will go there and have a bottle of wine.”