More than just Israel’s birthday, May 15 is also the day of the year that delivered Hungarian astronomer and Jesuit priest Maximilian Höll to the world, in 1720.
In a move that would come to inspire countless comic book writers and professional wrestlers, Maximilian decided to change his last name from Höll to Hell. I don’t know why he chose the altered surname, other than the threat of an afterlife of eternal damnation sounding a lot more concrete when Max Hell was your priest.
Maximilian, the astronomer, was put through hell during his lifetime. After returning from a scientific expedition in Norway where he observed the transit of Venus in 1769, Hell was accused of falsifying his data, the cardinal sin for a scientist, and his reputation and career were ruined. In fact his data were as accurate as could be, but he was only vindicated a century later, long after his death.
Hell is also known for his pioneering work treating medical ailments like rheumatism with magnets. (The magnets didn’t actually work, but his ideas nonetheless inspired a young Franz Mesmer to formulate his own theory about the healing powers of cosmic fluids in the body. Mesmer’s technique has helped thousands of people to conquer their addictions and to believe they are chickens, among other useful applications. It’s called “mesmerism,” or hypnotism.)
Anyway, as a tribute to Hell, I’ve compiled a brief menu of sinister-sounding destinations for my fellow flashpackers to explore. To wit…
The Devil’s Swimming Pool – Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
Near the edge of the highest waterfalls in the world, Victoria Falls, is a natural pool ideal for aquatic acrophiles. From Wikipedia: “When the river flow is at a safe level, usually during the months of September and December, people can swim as close as possible to the edge of the falls within the pool without continuing over the edge and falling into the gorge….” Timing, as they say, is everything.
Devils’ Island – French Guiana
It doesn’t look like much in photos, but the tiny island was one of the most notoriously brutal prisons in the world. During its 100 years of operation, very few of the 80,000 prisoners to have called the island home managed to escape. One of the island’s prisoner-inhabitants, Henri Charrière, wrote about his numerous escape attempts (including a final, successful one) in Papillon, which was made into a feature film starring Steve McQueen in 1973. The prison closed for good in 1952; there is now a resort on nearby Isle Royale.
Devil’s Tower — Wyoming, USA
The first American national monument (as declared by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906), Devil’s Tower juts 1,267 feet into the air above the Belle Fourche River in Wyoming. It has become a climbing mecca, with about 4,000 visitors per year scaling its sheer, grooved walls to reach the mile-high summit. Bewitching to more than just alpinists, it might be more readily recognized as the model for the pile of mashed potatoes Richard Dreyfuss obsessively carves in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Hell — Michigan, USA
The town that launched a thousand ironic tee shirts, Hell is blessed (or cursed?) with infinite pun possibilities. The town hosts an annual, 10-mile “Run through Hell” and a hearse-and-ambulance show called “Last Rides.” Stop by during the winter and chortle giddily as Hell freezes over. Incidentally, Paradise, Michigan, is only 300 miles from Hell.
“The Door to Hell” — The Burning Crater of Darvaza, Turkmenistan
Geologists had no idea what they were getting into when they went drilling for natural gas in the Kara-Kum Desert in Turkmenistan in 1971. They tapped into an underground cavity filled with the stuff, opening up the 60-meter wide crater at left, which swallowed the drilling rig whole. In order to prevent the escaping poisonous gas to damage the surrounding area, they ignited it and the crater has been aflame ever since.
Hell Crater – The Moon
OK, so this one’s a bit of a reach, but the 6,600-foot deep Hell Crater is named for our birthday boy, so I decided to include it. Plus, with Richard Branson pushing Virgin Atlantic’s routes farther and farther into our solar system, it’s only a matter of time before we can all go straight to Hell and plant a flag for ourselves.