Thursday
Jan062011

Strange Geographies: Travel Essays with a Twist

I love to travel -- but I’ve never been one for theme parks or resorts or pretty beaches.  When I travel, I look for the places they don’t tell you about in tourist guidebooks: the forgotten towns, the harsh landscapes, the weirdness at the margins that only the locals know about.  I’m drawn to the blank spots on maps, the little uncharted questionmarks, and Strange Geographies is the result of a hundred weekend trips to try and fill in those blank spots, whether it be an obscure chain of recently-cannibalistic islands in the South Pacific or an airplane graveyard baking in the middle of the Mojave desert.  I go hunting for stories in the fascinating but slightly unpleasant places that no rational person would use their vacation days to visit.  In a world where everything’s been discovered and mapped, I like to think that the new frontier is all the places we’ve forgotten about.

"Gloriously haunting photos." - Boingboing

 

 The Happy, Haunted Island of Poveglia

In which I sneak onto a tiny, reputedly haunted, officially-off-limits island just two miles from the glittering Grand Canal of Venice, which boasts both a sprawling abandoned mental hospital and thousands -- perhaps hundreds of thousands -- of unmarked graves dating back to the days when Poveglia was used as a dumping ground for victims of the black plague.  Given all that darkness, what I find is surprisingly cheerful and photogenic.  Read the whole article.

 

The Mojave Desert's Airplane Graveyard

I thought it was a mirage the first time I saw it. I was driving through the wastes of the Mojave Desert, two hours from anywhere, when off in the shimmering distance appeared the silhouettes of a hundred parked jetliners. I pulled off and tried to get closer to them, but a mean-looking perimeter fence keeps onlookers far away. All I could do was stand and stare, wondering what the hell this massive armada of airplanes was doing here, silently baking in the 110 degree heat. For years afterward I’d ask people what they knew about it, and I kept hearing the same thing: the place has been on lockdown since 9/11, and they won’t let civilians anywhere near the boneyard. But then my luck changed — I met a very nice fellow who works there, and with a minimum of cajoling on my part he agreed to take me beyond the high-security fence and show me around. Of course, I brought my camera.  Read the article.

 

Vanuatu: The Happiest Place on Earth?

In 2006, the “happy planet index” named Vanuatu, a tiny archipelago nation in the South Pacific, the happiest place on Earth. Determined to find out what all the fuss was about (and having already been to Denmark, 2008′s “happiest country,” and not finding it all that excessively cheerful a place), I booked a ticket and, two weeks ago, went there. Actually, I went there to go scuba diving and watch volcanos spurt lava from unsafe-by-Western-standards distances, and partly because whenever I told people where I was going they would scrunch up their faces and say where?, which pleased me (as if they had already forgotten season 9 of Survivor), but I figured as long as I was there I’d see if I couldn’t get to the bottom of this happiness business, and maybe get a little happy myself. (I did manage to lose ten pounds and work on my tan — certainly a good start.) Read the whole article.

 

Bombay Beach

Bombay Beach may be the most famously depressing place in California; the poster child for the post-apocalypse. On the edge of the dying Salton Sea, an enormous body of water half the size of Rhode Island and so salty and polluted that by 2030 no fish will be able to survive in it, there is a town. There are several towns, actually, along the Salton’s 70+ miles of rancid coastline, but the most in tact, the most iconically awful, is Bombay Beach.

It’s a 10-by-10-block square of squat houses and mobile homes that was somebody’s idea of paradise back when the town was incorporated in 1929. A beachy getaway 150 miles from the Pacific, it was supposed to be Palm Springs with water — but decades of hyper-saline farm runoff and other problems turned the sea into a nightmare; plagued by fish and bird die-offs and outbreaks of botulism that leave its banks littered with corpses and its beaches smelling like hell, all but the hardiest tourists and investors had fled the scene by the late 60s. Even worse, the Salton began to overflow its banks, flooding the bottom part of town repeatedly. The remains of dozens of trailers and houses that couldn’t be saved still sit rotting, half-buried in salty mud, along what used to be the town’s most prized few blocks of real estate.  Read the article here.

 

On Jumping Out of Airplanes

There is a town on the South Island of New Zealand where jumping out of an airplane is considered normal behavior, and doing so will raise nary an eyebrow. While I was in country, I spent three days in the adrenaline-fueled hamlet of Queenstown, where if skydiving doesn’t tickle your fancy you can bike down a mountain from a helicopter, rappel down a waterfall, climb any number of steep rock faces, take the controls of a small aircraft for twenty minutes (“absolutely no experience necessary!”) or participate any other number of “x-treme” activities which all claim to let you feel the icy hand of death on your shoulder without actually shuffling you off this mortal coil.

In retrospect, I probably never would’ve skydived anywhere else; the fact that travelers in New Zealand (well, not all of them) skydive before tea and a nap on Sunday and seem otherwise sane and slip the fact that they jump out of planes so casually into their conversations (girl in a backpackers’ hostel: “how was your skydive today?” other girl: “fine, not as good as yesterday though”) slowly lulls you into thinking that this is a relatively safe, everyday activity.  Read about my foolish escapade at fourteen thousand feet here.

 

East LA's Abandoned Hospital

Last year, while scouting for a short film that never came to fruition, some friends and I talked our way inside an empty, run-down hospital in Boyle Heights. The short was supposed to take place in a hospital, but after a few minutes wandering the halls of Linda Vista — alone and decidedly creeped-out — it became obvious that there was no way the place would work. It had been closed for twenty years, and it showed: there was dirt caked in layers on walls and mysteriously wet floors; windows were broken and doors hung off their hinges; ceiling tiles had fallen victim to moisture and gravity, and rats had chewed through the walls. We didn’t have the money to make Linda Vista look like anything more than a horror movie — a few of which had actually been shot there over the years.  Read the article.

 

The Little Town That Los Angeles Killed

There are lots of dry lake beds in California, and to the untrained eye, Owens Dry Lake is just like the rest. But there is one key difference: while most of the state’s stark, white alkali flats have been dry for thousands of years, Owens was an enormous, gem-blue lake stretching more than a hundred miles square — and an important habitat for millions of migratory birds — as recently as 1917. That’s when the City of Los Angeles stole it, diverting the streams that fed Owens Lake into an aqueduct that watered the booming metropolis 200 miles to the south. As the lake slowly dried up, so did the once-thriving town of Keeler, which had been both a mining town and something of a lakeside resort. Nowadays, the “lakeside” town of Keeler is more than a mile from the “shoreline” of Owens Lake — little more than a collection of marshy mudpits surrounded by an endless expanse of salt flat, the surface of which can reach 150 degrees on hot summer days.  Read the article.

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