As travel resources go, the website Atlas Obscura isn’t stodgy like Frommer’s, nor overly obsessed with shopping like Lonely Planet guides. Instead, it’s interested in bizarre destinations and singular geographical points of interest; on their site right now, you’ll find offers to visit Icelandic sorcerers who perform “evil-ridding” ceremonies and a map marking the homes of heroes of children’s literature, including Beverly Cleary’s Portland-based Ramona Quimby.
In the years since Atlas Obscura was founded by authors Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras, the site has exploded in size and ambition. Now headed by former Slate editor David Plotz, Atlas Obscura just published a gorgeous hardcover collection detailing 700 of the most interesting destinations in the world, and the organization is opening field offices in cities around the nation. The newest Atlas Obscura branch is in Seattle, and poet Shin Yu Pai is its head.
Pai is a perfect fit for Atlas Obscura’s mission, which she describes as a charge “to inspire a sense of curiosity and wonder.” She’s always been intensely interested in geography, from her collection Aux Arcs, which was all about her ill-fated move to the Ozarks, to last year’s project in which she used sunlight and letter-shaped stickers to “grow” the words of a poem directly onto the skins of apples in a public orchard in Carkeek Park. In her new role as the head of the Seattle Obscura Society, she’s charged with “planning events in obscure places that offer elite or exclusive access” to interested Seattleites.
The first big party Pai is assembling will serve as both a kickoff for the Seattle chapter and a launch party for the Atlas Obscura book. The “Subterranean Soiree” on the evening of October 8, she explains, “will be a tour of the Seattle Underground, with access to a part of the Underground that many people do not often get to see.” Under the streets of Pioneer Square, partiers will enjoy food, drinks, and live music from Greg Ruby and his Prohibition-era jazz quintet.
Pai says she’s “drawn to and excited by the idea of producing uncommon experiences that are not limited or constrained by the arts.” Each event exists somewhere in the common spaces of a Venn diagram of music, food, visual art, history, and the written word. She’s packed the next month or so with experiences that could only take place in the Seattle area: a tour of Robert Irwin’s UW campus art installation; a tea ceremony including a meal and guided meditation at Laurelhurst’s underappreciated East-West Chanoyu Center; a trip to a letterpress studio featuring a printing demonstration from artist Myrna Keliher; a Halloween-eve walking tour of Lake View Cemetery; a visit to the studio of fashion designer Malia Peoples; and an interactive lecture on the visual art of slime mold.
Pai believes Atlas Obscura and Seattle are a perfect fit. She looks forward to assembling a portfolio of events predicated on “the idea that we are all producers or makers with a capacity for the creation of wonder.” Interested parties can sign up for the Seattle mailing list or join the Facebook group at atlasobscura.com. Seattle Underground, 614 First Ave., atlasobscura.com. $60. 21 and over. 9 p.m. Sat., Oct. 8. Paul Constant is the co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. Read daily books coverage like this at seattlereviewofbooks.com.