Behind The Mic with Atlas Obscura Co-Founder and Host of New Daily Podcast from Witness Docs
On The Atlas Obscura Podcast, listeners can expect a daily audio adventure to a wondrous location they’ve probably never heard of. The show is out now, and you can listen to new episodes every Monday through Thursday here on Stitcher.
Atlas Obscura’s mission is simple and admirable; to inspire wonder and curiosity about the incredible world we all share. With their official foray into the world of podcasting, AO hopes to invite listeners to both visit these locations (after the pandemic ends of course), as well as discover the stories behind what makes them so special.
We spoke with to Dylan Thuras, host and co-founder of Atlas Obscura, about his pandemic experience, fighting what he calls local blindness, and learning from an early age that you can find the most amazing discoveries from as close as your backyard.
Congrats on the show! One of the elements I really liked about the podcast is its bite-size format. Each episode provides a glimpse into a different place. Did you always envision the show being this length?
Yeah, my feeling was, I have a handful of podcasts I listen to pretty religiously. But a lot of them are an hour or an hour plus and it’s a commitment right? As a parent, there’s not a ton of times where I’m like, “okay I got an hour I’m going to listen to this.” Sometimes I’m cooking or something or washing the dishes late at night. But in 15 minutes you can tuck in these little moments of your day. I like that you can just tuck it in when you want to get transported out of your day and taken somewhere else. So that’s the goal is to take people to places, tell them a really interesting story, and send them back 15 minutes later.
When I heard the first episode, “The Gates Of Hell,” I immediately did an image search of it. It’s amazing. I started asking family and friends if they knew about an infinitely burning hole in the ground in Turkmenistan. Turns out they didn’t. What made you want to start the podcast with The Gates of Hell?
It went into the Atlas before the Atlas was even public. As we were building up the first set of content we put that in there because it is the kind of thing, when you tell someone about it, and then especially if they see a photo of it, they’re like, “how did I not know this existed in the world?” It seems like a crazy thing not to have been aware of it’s got that kind of star quality as a place. We almost went this year and the trip was cancelled. It holds a special place for me because I’ve been writing and thinking about it for such a long time. I wanted to talk about it, but I also wanted to talk to someone who would have a different perspective on it. That’s why I wanted to talk to Sona and get the perspective of being a tour guide in Turkmenistan, a country with 5,000 tourists, which is not a lot.
You talk about how Turkmenistan is an autocratic regime. Through your travels have you dealt with any pushback in your writing or visiting a country whose government was similar?
From the writing perspective, no. As long as it’s well researched, fact-checked, as long as it’s good journalism I think it’s very valuable to write about places that people don’t think a lot about. In terms of going there it is a bit more complicated. In more cases than not it really depends on how you’re going. Often the autocratic regime is not the people. The people who live in that country are the sufferers, the victims of oppressive state regimes and travel is this interesting thing; you want to be really careful that if you go to a place your money is not just being taken and used and you’re not being used as a tool of propaganda. On the flip side, going, learning more about the place, getting to know the locals, bringing money to locals as a traveler can be really powerful and almost a forcing function in opening a place like Turkmenistan up. Part of the reason it’s so closed and people don’t pay attention to what’s happening there is because it has so few tourists. There’s not a simple answer, but travel is a really powerful force in the world, economically, culturally, even as a tool of helping pressure autocratic regimes.
Awareness of these kinds of places is crucial. Have you had issues getting into certain countries?
Not really. Turkmenistan is one of the most challenging countries to get into from a visa perspective. But it’s funny, there are people who have tried to go to every single country in the world. There are people who, like their whole thing is ultimate, non-stop travel. That’s not really me. I’m mainly a nerd who enjoys travel, loves knowing and learning about the world and loves sharing that. I have had some exciting experiences traveling, but I’m much more interested in how storytelling and mythmaking about a place transforms our relationship to those places and what that does in the world. And one of the things that’s important to Atlas is, we’re going to tell stories about places like Turkmenistan, or one day North Korea. But many of the stories we’re going to tell are domestic. Some of the stories are literally in my own backyard. So it’s more about how you think about place as a kind of entry point to storytelling.
A few of the other episodes I’ve heard so far, “Camp Anza” and “Miss Baker” are both great examples of how there are such rich stories at unexpected locations.
For Atlas, place is kind of a keyhole into the whole world, into the whole universe. We find it very helpful to have a place anchoring you. This is a place in the world that exists. You could go see the grave of Miss Baker. You could put a banana on it. But the story is obviously about the life of Miss Baker. And in the case of Camp Anza, that’s a very personal story from the caller made about him growing up and what it was like to grow up where he grew up. There’s just a lot of different ways you can use place as an entry point into stories.
I wish I knew about Atlas Obscura years ago when I used to travel more. Unless you know someone who is familiar with the location, it’s hard to know where to go and what to look for. One quote you said about getting “local blindness” resonated with me. In New York, I couldn’t tell you a unique place to go even though I’m sure if I thought for a while I could think of something. Do you find yourself having “local blindness”?
There are still places within a five mile radius of me that I have yet to go and check out. It’s like, “well I’ll get to it later.” In New York it’s often, “I don’t want to deal with the crowds or “that’s a tourist trap.” The reason that travel can be so invigorating is you are actively in that kind of questing, seeking, curious space and [travel] forces you into that space because you don’t know what the hell is going on or where you are. And it’s very helpful to have guides to help you find really interesting stuff and great stories. Our brains are built to edit out extraneous noise and we can’t always stay in a kind of constant looking out, seeking mode. One of the beautiful things about working on this show is we talk about backyard wonders and I’m forcing myself to think like, “oh okay what are some things that are close but have the storytelling, the myth-making to them?” It’s very rewarding to do that, for the show, but also personally.
What was your reaction to travel shutting down from the pandemic?
Here’s the irony. I have two young children so I am not gallivanting around the world all the time. I take trips. I do stuff for work and personally. But wherever you are, in a 50 mile radius of you, there is certainly enough for a year’s worth of interesting exploration. Mostly my pandemic experience was like everyone else’s, stuck in the home. The irony of it was that even though that was true, that there’s all these wonders close by, mostly I was annoyed in my house, slightly bored, wanting to see people, feeling frustrated that I couldn’t do more of that. But it was okay. Atlas as a company, as an organization, part of what we’re about is not exactly travel. But we’re really about a sense of discovery about the world. Knowing about The Gates of Hell without going there at all. It opens your world up a little bit. It starts to cast the world into the magical place that it actually is.
What inspired you to want to travel?
I didn’t take my first international trip until I was 17 or 18. I went on a little trip to Europe with a friend for the summer. Most of the travel I did as a kid with my parents was just like road trips in the Midwest, which is where I grew up. But the Midwest is really weird. And so we went to all kinds of bizarro amazing places including, there’s this place, House on the Rock that I cite as my original Atlas experience. It’s just filled with all kinds of unbelievable, insane stuff. And so that definitely was an influence. As a teenager I was into graffiti and urban exploration. I was in Minneapolis. I was a straight-edger. I didn’t drink or do drugs. But the way I got into trouble was I snuck out at one in the morning, got on my bike and then went and walked around a giant abandoned grain silo or went and figured out how to get on the roof somewhere. That also was a kind of early entry point into this idea that exploration and discovery can take a lot of different forms. And if you talk to graffiti kids they have a very particular relationship with place and with cities that is really different. It’s like three dimensional. They know all the little weird spots. They know the alleyways and the underpasses and the rooftops and the bridges. It’s a very different way of experiencing a city.
What episodes are you particularly excited for listeners to hear?
Gates of Hell is a great one. There’s one called Root Bridges which is about a place in India that are these living root bridges grown from elastica trees. I just find them fascinating and magical. There’s an incredible [episode] like Miss Baker. It’s really fun and just tells this story you didn’t know. There’s another one not reported by me about the Scandinavian practice of singing to cows to get them to come to you. There’s one called “Institute of Illegal Images’’ which is about this guy who has a home museum of LSD blotters. It’s like an art museum of blotter paper. Every episode is its own different thing. Every episode takes you somewhere new and deals with different subjects. Hopefully people will find something that they really love and that connects with them.
– Ian Scott Goldstein