I lived in Texas for 21 years, and for a few of those years had a job that provided me with a company car and assignments in every corner of the state, from the most accurately named town in the world --Notrees -- to the most wildly inaccurately named Humble.
And what Texas has in profusion along its highways, in addition to stunning wildflowers, are some of the world's most inventive roadside attractions.
But after moving to New York, I've learned you can never go home again. I loved Aquarena Springs, home to Ralph the Swimming Pig and submerged teenage mermaids whom you could watch through windows as they puffed from oxygen hoses like a sultan with a hookah.
Today the site is home to the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, run by Texas State University. Its mission is to inspire "research, innovation and leadership that ensures clean, abundant water for the environment and all humanity." Noble sentiments, but I gotta say Ralph's "swine dive" was inspiring in its own, modest way.
Aquarena Springs wasn't far from the Snake Farm. That first caught my eye with a string of large panels displaying carnival-style illustrations of poisonous creatures that crawl and slither.
As I recall, inside the main building, snakes (and spiders) were penned within terrariums mounted into the walls of a building whose design sensibility could best be described as early Jed Clampett.
But the farm, too, has cleaned up its act, renaming itself Animal World and Snake Farm Zoo, offering birthday parties and educational field trips, while touting its "mission to conserve, educate and protect" animals.
While I've got nothing against its mission (or, for that matter, birthday parties), I'm attracted to an offbeat or oddball enterprise that glorifies the overlooked, the goofy, the sensational, the historically wondrous, the all-but-forgotten. While an entrepreneur's passion for the subject matter can be a real plus -- I have to believe the world's largest twine ball was not wound for purely commercial reasons -- I'm content to visit low-rent, cynically conceived enterprises, provided they are executed with audacity.
Such attractions enlivened (or stained, depending upon your perspective) Weissmann Travel Reports from its first printing in 1985. Remnants of that destination content live on, for better or worse, in Travel42, a sister product within Northstar Travel Group.
My world was considerably brightened last year with the publication of "Atlas Obscura" by Joshua Foer, Ella Morton and Dylan Thuras, a book dedicated, as its title suggests, to overlooked but fascinating places around the world. It is published by the marketing geniuses at Workman Publishing Co., who, in 2003, also brought us "1,000 Places to See Before You Die," by frequent Travel Weekly contributor Patricia Schultz.
"Atlas Obscura" has a companion website (www.atlasobscura.com
). When you first land there, you'll be asked to sign up for its daily emails which highlight items of interest, current and historical.
When I first saw the book, it struck me that there might be a retail travel opportunity in focusing on the little-known and the odd, in addition to the must-sees. A tour that includes roadside attractions, highly specialized museums and markers of underappreciated historical footnotes could have surprising appeal to mainstream travelers.
Five mornings a week, the "Atlas Obscura" newsletter arrives in my inbox and calls attention to sights I would go out of my way to see (as well as a few that I might only check out should I be in the neighborhood). Most are far more substantial than roadside attractions. In one email late last July, I learned about Greenland's 300 "ghost villages" (abandoned towns) and some impressive-looking, fairly well-preserved Middle Age ruins in Kilwa Masoko, Tanzania.
Also in that email were Vilcabamba, an Ecuadorean "hippie town" whose residents seem to live much longer than their fellow citizens; historical murals in Quebec City; a can of water on display in the Historic New Orleans Collection that is not only graphically interesting, but has a story: It was specifically produced and uniquely labeled by Anheuser-Busch for distribution to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
I'd think it would be worth a travel adviser's time to scan the newsletter each morning to see if some content might appeal to certain clients. The website itself also offers an archive of its content, searchable geographically.
It will probably not surprise you to learn that "Atlas Obscura" itself offers tours, sold through its website. Its current offerings include the Amazon, Balkans, Bhutan, Barcelona, Bulgaria, Chile, India, Oman, Romania and Ukraine. (It may be an indication of why I feel some kinship with the brand that among these are some of my favorite destinations. I have been to all but the Balkans -- which I am headed out to see on a family vacation, beginning this weekend).
The tours include some attractions that have mass appeal, but clearly there's an audience for the lesser-known, as well.
Luxury marketers understand the value of scarcity. The less available an experience, a gemstone, a restaurant reservation, a suite, the more it is desired. "Obscure" isn't exactly a synonym for "scarce," but specialized knowledge in the little-known seems a ripe opportunity in travel.