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Meg’s Favorite Islands, Part 6: Christmas with the Crabs

15 Jan

A short one!

christmas island location

Christmas Island is in the Indian Ocean and is a territory of Australia, and not much goes on there; I only mention it because it’s more or less overrun by coconut crabs. Which are fairly large crabs, and the island is home to approximately a million of these things.

coconut crabs dog

Once a year, when they migrate from the forest (forest crabs?), they have to cross roads and then the streets of Christmas Island fill with crabs. And the blood of the nonbelieving crabs, when they get crunched by the cars. Like, they have street signs there about please don’t crunch the Christmas crabs with your Chrysler:


So nicknamed because it’s mighty enough to crack open a coconut, birgus latro is the world’s largest land invertebrate, and there is a persistent theory that it’s to blame for the disappearance of Amelia Earhart’s body, wherever it landed. Yes. People think a gang of gigantic crabs ate Amelia Earhart and hoarded her bones in their burrows. (Hey, who am I to disagree?)

This is marvelous enough, but upon researching Christmas Island itself, I found an additional tidbit about this insane place (per WIkipedia):

An exploding population of the yellow crazy ant, an invasive species accidentally introduced to Christmas Island and Australia from Africa, is believed to have killed 10–15 million red crabs (one-quarter to one-third of the total population) in recent years. In total (including killed), the ants are believed to have displaced 15–20 million red crabs on Christmas Island.

yellow crazy ant

THE YELLOW CRAZY ANT. That is their REAL. NAME. These things form hordes and drag away the animals that they want to eat. They use TEAMWORK to kill.

Granted, this Wiki bit is about red crabs, which the island is even more overrun by, and not the biggies, which are the coconut crabs. Still, I love that these ants like “OK, team, everybody get in the huddle here. All right. That guy. Over by the garbage cans, all alone. He doesn’t see us. Ready? Annnnnd mobilize.”

They’ve probably killed and eaten a coconut crab too. I mean, they kill and eat, you know, whatever they can. They’re crazy. And yellow.

20. yellow-crazy-ants

Anyway. Aw, Christmas Island, I just love Christmas, what a beautiful vacation we’ll ha—oh god legions of gigantolor crabs invading the streets, oh god and there’s also yellow crazy ants all over me, oh god oh god

Delta Skelta

23 Oct

Here’s a picture of the Lena River Delta, where the river meets the Laptev Sea at the northern coast of Siberia. I found it on Wikipedia.


Aside from what’s in the WIki, I don’t really know anything about it, or if there’s anything to know; I just like the way it looks. Here’s the Google Earth view (click on it):


And the regular Google maps view but far away (also click):

Makes me think of fan coral.

The delta itself is 30,000 square kilometers/11,583 square miles, which is enormous—a little larger than the size of Maryland. (Speaking of Maryland, the fan-coralness kind of reminds me of the feathery coastline of Chesapeake Bay.) Lots of gulls and swans and ducks and loons and things live there, and it’s an important fish spawning site. It’s frozen for about 7 months out of every year. This is the nearest town, Tiksi, pop. 5000:


When the Soviet Union dissolved, most of the town’s apartment blocks were abandoned. I have liked spending the day thinking about squatting in a empty cinder-block Russian apartment block in Tiksi and visiting the Lena River Delta during the day to feed the swans and draw. And dying of exposure almost immediately.

That’s it!

Antarctica: The South Shall Freeze Again

25 Sep

Hey, y’all, I wrote this for a lecture-presentation at a stand-up showcase the other day and wanted to post it somewhere—BRB with the islands. Although this is TECHNICALLY about islands. In my opinion.

Welcome to my new favorite map! ANTARCTICAAAAA.


So I collect unusual old maps, and I found this 1963 map of Antarctica in an antiques store in Gilroy, California, on Labor Day weekend, and it hit a few of my buttons at once, being:

1. an old map
2. a National Geographic map with all the little editorial notes all over it
3. a map of a desolate, godforsaken place that can kill you if you just, like, are in it

As is well-documented here, I’m really into extreme geography, especially super-northern and -southern places. Additionally, this map has smaller inset maps of the Queen Maud Range, McMurdo Sound and a subglacial Antarctica! Like a state map, where it has the insets of the urban city detail—those are Antarctica’s urban areas, I guess. So I was over the moon when I found this thing. Fifty cents!

(Oh! By the way, I’m on the hunt for a moon map, but like a stylized, kind of pretty one, so if anyone ever sees one, let me know? It’s even better if it’s incorrect/out of date. I know, you can buy them online, but the new ones are all kind of boring-looking.)

(EDIT: Never mind, I just found one from 1969 for $2.50 on eBay and bought it, I’ll write about it when it arrives.)



So, first thing that I want to say is that Antarctica is called a continent, but I personally disagree with that, because just like Greenland, the actual rock under the ice is depressed beneath sea level, so it’s technically an archipelago. Just one covered in ice. It’s like if you take some ravioli and melt a big piece of cheese on top, they become bound together by the cheese and all, but. They’re still separate little entities under the cheese-ice, not a big continuous ravioli-continent. In modern cartography practices, we’re pretty distinct about landmasses being separate from water on maps, so I say it’s standard practice to count only above-water land and not any of the frozen water that unites it. That is cheating.


Here’s what Antarctica would look like with no ice (but not if the ice melted, because that would raise the sea level by about 250 feet—this is just if it were removed and thrown in the garbage). To be fair, that’s is a big-ass contiguous chunk to the east that is clearly not an archipelago, but it comprises, what, maybe half of the acknowledged ice-and-land-combined continent of Antarctica. Half, tops. Although maybe you can call that big piece a continent. A mini-conty.

Then you’ve got some people calling Antarctica an island, and I disagree with that too, because with the ice on top, the whole dish is the size of Europe (actually a little bigger). So if it’s an island, then everything is an island—Africa, South America, anything with water on all sides, aka everything. I suspect that people call it a continent because there had been stories of a southern continent since Ptolemy’s time, like 1 AD, so people were like “It’s a continent! Like in that book I read one time. This is obviously that. Case closed. Next song.” it’s too big, though.


So I say it’s an archipelago. It’s basically a huge group of mountain-islands, like Hawaii. Just bigger ones. And with ice on top.


Speaking of Hawaii, there are totally volcanos in Antarctica! Which was so surprising and strange to think about when I first read it. It’s very mountainous on the east half, so yeah, some of those mountains are volcanic, under the ice sheet. Mt. Erebus is an active volcano, as is Mt. Sidley and many others. I was considering why I thought that was so bizarre and I was like “Why, self? Did you… think the ice would cool the volcanoes down?”

And then I was like ….well, yeah. Sheepishly. Yeah, self, that’s what I thought, I guess. I thought it would be impossible to have volcanoes in Antarctica because the ice would cool the volcanos down. Volcanos are a hot thing! Antarctica is a cold thing! Sorry.

So that was dumb of me. They are there. The ice doesn’t cool them down.

Oh, speaking of the east side and the west side, that’s sort of subjective, right, because Antarctica is on the bottom of the Earth? So anything can be east or west, right? All directions are all directions down there. Well, someone at some point decided that it’s oriented with the peninsula on the left side, kind of like how we’ve all agreed decided that the world is laid out with North America and Europe at the top and that’s just how all the maps are printed now, with the white people at the top, weird, hunh?

So similarly, some unknown-to-me people seemingly arbitrarily decided that this was the most pleasing way to depict Antarctica, with the tail on the left, and everybody does it now, and that’s sort of translated to the left half being west and the right half being east, and now those are the real names of those regions. West Antarctica and East Antarctica. Even though it’s meaningless when you’re at the bottom of the globe.

Or is it the TOP of the globe? HHHMMMmmm?!

(Yes, I did notice that the U.S. size-comparison graphic above has a different orientation of Antarctica. Maybe it was made before the mystery folks regulated it.)

treaty of antarctica

Even the emblem of the Antarcatica Treaty does it. Or should I say “especially.”

Another thing I love about Antarctica is the place names. Anyone who has ever heard me aspie out about about geography knows I’m a sucker for silly place names, and they seem to always run rampant on the silliness when you’re dealing with desolate or unpopulated places—anything kinda goes, because no one is gonna be complaining about how they don’t like the sound of spending spring break at Mount Terror.

(There IS a Mount Terror in Antarctica, named after one of James Clark Ross’s ships, the HMS Terror—James Clark Ross of the Ross Ice Shelf fame. But there’s also a Mount Terror in Washington too, in Whatcom County way up by the Canadian border, so I can’t talk too much trash on it.)

Also on my faves list is Four Ladies Bank: In 1937, a Norwegian whaling magnate, Lars Christiansen, was sailing toward it and named it after the ladies on the ship—his wife and daughter and two guests. That makes four! This cracks me up because I like the idea that he just looked around and started naming stuff after whatever he saw before him. Here’s Commode Fjord, and look, there’s Open Scurvy Wound Falls.

There a lot of “ice tongues,” which is not a place name per se, but which I enjoy, like the Thwaites Ice Tongue. Sounds like a disease. The word Thwaites also sounds like something you would say if you spoke with an ice tongue.

Also like “Butter Point.” It was named by UK Royal Navy Officer Robert Falcon Scott’s party as a depot point where their supplies were cached, most exhilaratingly (it seems) butter. I love how the experience they had defines the name of the place. Hey, I’m hungry, let’s go to Butter Point and get some butter. I feel like that’s where I was the last time I ate some butter.

Pressure ridges on the sea ice near Scott Base.

Scott Base. Photo may or may not include Butter Point.

Antarctica has quite a lot of Historic Monuments, or more than you would imagine, and I love to think about that because you know, you think of yourself traversing a frozen, endless ice plateau with howling winds and hiking toward blank nothingness for weeks, but it’s nice to think that there’s actually stuff down there! Towers and flags and things. Landmarks, so you know where you are. I LOVE the idea of toiling through an ice field and then seeing a flag in the distance and getting excited and slowly approaching it. Whose will it be? Who was here? Trying to guess!


What you imagine. Or what I used to, until now.

Yeah, so there are things! Naturally, you’ve got the flag at the South Pole, but it’s not a UN flag or a blank white flag or an Antarctica flag—it is an Argentine flag! Why? Because Argentina got a wild hair in the ’60s; they had a base down there and wanted to cement some land claims that they had made in the ’50s—they wanted the tail, because it’s right by THEIR tail. And their base was at the base of the tail. Then they were like, wait, why isn’t there a flag on the South Pole? Obviously, there should be. Obviously, we should be the one to put it there, to show how INVOLVED we are in Antarctica’s life. We are filing for more custody.

They’re right across the street from Antarctica, of course, so quietly, surreptitiously, while the world’s superpowers, U.S. and the U.S.S.R., were bickering, a group of Argentine soldiers mounted an undercover mission to plant their flag on the spot. Some secret military dudes went on a two-month mission just to put a [sort of] symbolic flag on the South Pole.

The best part is that they got busted too—shortly after arriving at the South Pole, they ran into an American radar operator from the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, who was like “Wait, what,” and questioned them. The Argentines were eventually able to convince them that they weren’t Soviets, whereupon the Americans took them in at the station and fed them. The first decent meal, it was reported, that they’d had in weeks.


Way to color-coordinate your outfit with your snowcat-mobile, dudes

Speaking of Soviets: There is also a bust of Vladimir Lenin that faces Moscow, placed at not the South Pole but the nearby Pole of Inaccessibility (heh), by Soviets in 1958, along with a historical marker plaque and a little building they built. And inside the building, there is a golden guest book for those who make it to the site, to sign in, and that would be the cutest thing if it were the sign-in guestbook of a bust of pretty much anyone other than mass murderer Vladimir Lenin.

Uh, there are dozens and dozens of rock cairns in Antarctica—DIY landmarks—and there’s a whole Soviet cemetery down there, and there’s a tractor at a the Soviet Vostok station, which they just left there when they were finished building it because what the hey, why bother bringing it back to Russia. You might need it again later. I only mention it because it’s also a designated historical site and has a plaque on it.

And then speaking of cairns, this one is not an historical cairn but it is my favorite cairn:

Somewhere on the Ross Ice Shelf, there WAS once an above-ground cairn containing the bodies of Robert Falcon Scott, captain of Butter Point, and his two buddies, Lt. Henry R. “Birdy” Bowers, and Dr. Edward Adrian Wilson, who froze/starved to death after they were stranded inside their tent in 1912. They’d been trying to race Roald Amundsen to the South Pole and they lost, then perished trying to get back home. When they were discovered eight months later by a search party, their bodies were buried in their tent, rather than taking them out and dismantling the tent. They just flattened it and built a rock igloo around the whole thing.


HOWEVER. Oh, lord, I love this. In the century since Scott and his comrades died, the cairn-tomb has been slowly traveling, because it’s erected on 360 feet of ice, on the Ross Ice Shelf, right? But after 102 years, it’s also come to be buried under 53 feet of ice. So thanks to ice movement patterns, the cairn with the dudes inside has traveled about 37 miles away from its original geographic location. So, in another 248 years or so, they’ll have traveled to the edge of the ice, where it meets the sea, but will be buried by more than 325 feet of ice by then! They’re way, way inside of the ice shelf, like a peanut in some peanut brittle.

BUT they’re not just gonna pop out of the ice and land in the sea in 250 more years. They’re expected to break off as part of an iceberg before they get to the ice front at the water, and then… they get to float around the Southern Ocean in a fricking iceberg, 350 years AFTER they died, which tops the list of all-time best ways to be buried, if you ask me. Way better than being shot into space, even.

Well, OK, the iceberg will eventually melt, so then I guess fish and stuff get to eat you. Or maybe you will wash up in Tierra del Fuego or something before that happens. You’ll be like a message in a bottle. SO MANY POSSIBILITIES.


This photo was taken the day they found out that Amundsen beat them to the Pole. Kinda ticked.

(Hilaridorably, someone has put Robert F. Scott on Find-A-Grave. The joke is! You can’t! It’s buried under 53 feet of ice!)

Another interesting tidbit that I just love: Adolf Hitler had a keen interest in Antarctica and wanted to establish a German foothold there, so they could scout out a location for a naval base, but ALSO? Because they primarily used whale oil in their margarine, soap, and lamps! In the 1930s, Germany was the second-largest purchaser of Norwegian whale oil (Norway being the first) and they were worried about being able to continue to import it, what with the impending war. So Hitler launched an expedition in the late ’30s to the other side of the world, in order to get on the inside track on whale oil. His team zoomed around and photomapped about 135,000 miles of Antarctica, which they named New Swabia (Neuschwabenland) under the Nazi flag.

But they never made a formal claim on it, and then Nazi Germany didn’t really pan out in the long run, as you may have heard, so New Swabia belongs to Norway now. It’s still called that, but it’s a “cartographic area” of Queen Maud Land, which is about as meaningless as you can get in a geopolitical title. It means “someone made a map of this one time and said it was theirs, and someone else saw that map once and remembered the name and was like hey, someone already named this place, saves us time on thinking of a new one. But it still belongs to us. We’ll let your dog keep the name you gave it, because it answers to that name, but, uh, it’s our dog now.”


What else. Antarctica is the driest, the windiest, and the coldest place on Earth. Coldest temp ever recorded in history, at −128.6. I have to admit I was kind of disappointed when I read that. I thought it was gonna be like negative 267 or something. I mean, I would still die all the same at -128.6. I wouldn’t be unimpressed enough to not die.

Winds of over 200 miles an hour as well. I’m happy to report that I AM impressed by that. That’s like a jet. I guess kind of a crappy low-rent airplane. Still, that a lot of miles for one hour.

Also impressed by the greatest ice thickness ever measured being in Antarctica, which is 14,000 feet. Which you hear and you’re like, OK, that’s a number of a thickness, sounds like probably a lot, who knows, but guys, let’s talk about 14,000 feet because that’s Mt. Rainier. That’s two and three quarters miles of ice. If someone took that ice and moved it to the right, if they clicked rotate right, and made, like, a plateau out of it for you to walk on—I suppose the person who would be doing this is some kind of god, I don’t really know much about those but I guess they can do that? So if that happened, and you wanted to walk from one end to the other, it would take about an hour. To walk along the thickness of the ice blanket. People usually talk about snow in inches, so… it’s not measured in inches or even feet in Antarctica. They have snowfall (uh, ice-fall) in miles.


I do have a strong interest as well in the people who live and work in Antarctica, at McMurdo or what have you. Back in 2009 when nobody in their 20s had a job and I had just gotten kicked out of New York and was skulking back to Seattle, I ended up living in a mansion with eight other kids, and a few of my roommates and I made a pact that if we couldn’t find work soon, we would answer this Craigslist ad that was recruiting cooks/dishwashers for a 6-month stint at a research station in Antarctica. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think for one second that washing Antarctic dishes would be glamorous or magical, but I did a little research on it and there’s a distinct culture going on down there. Folks from 27 nationalities form a community. I realize now that there are more people who want to work in Antarctica than are jobs available, but it was a nice kick in the pants, to get my mind whirring and hatching on it, thinking about a place I never thought much about prior. And it meant that I accdentally found this very charming list of Antarctic slang words.

(I have trouble believing that anyone could call a cup of coffee a “grumble bucket” with a straight face, but maybe these people are ESL.)

So, like, yeah, ever since then, I’ve been horrifed-ly dreaming about it. WHAT IF YOU LIVED IN THIS PLACE. What if that was your home AND your job, every day, all day. What if you lived in a settlement with 19 other people and, like, those were your people foreseeably, overarchingly. And then if you didn’t like them or you wanted a change of pace or to go take a walk and get out of your science hut for 20 minutes, well, too bad because you will die just by going outside. To say nothing of being able to escape from the town-village, because you can’t do that either. What if you were there and what would you do? No long, hot showers! No vintage boutiques! No karaoke dive bars! No Netflix on Demand! No Caffe Fiore! No Amazon Local grocery delivery filled with salted caramel Häagen-Dazs or drums of cheese balls or Haribo Gummi Raspberries or whatever junk food you normally can have whenever the whim strikes you! No going online and booking a flight outta there when you get sick of it! Not a lot to spend your money on at all, really. Think! THINK ABOUT IT, MAN. You’d be screwed! You’d have to use your brain to remember stuff! You’d have to develop interpersonal skills and new things to talk about! You’d have to work out your problems when you have arguments with your co-Antarcticans! Hellish, especially for a lazy, tech-spoiled. socially avoidant, no-eye-contact-making Seattleite like me.


Public transportation is pretty bad in Antarctica. OneBusAway doesn’t even work there.

I think it’s like people who like horror movies? And they get off on being afraid but they know it’s not real and that’s part of the thrill as well? I freaking hate horror movies, and maybe I don’t have that kind of suspension of disbelief when i’m actually watching human beings get hacked up on film, before my eyes, but I think I get a similar kind of adrenaline buzz from wondering about geographic places inside my mind. My brain is never confused about whether I’m actually there or not—it’s clear that I am not—so It’s the concept that gets me all jazzed. The possibilities. All the many ways in which Antarctica could just come around the corner while you’re making out with your boyfriend and take both you out in one swipe. Terrifying and thrilling!


I guess that’s all. I think Antarctica is scary and stupefying, like every other of the world’s frozen hellscapes that I’m perversely into. The horror.

My boyfriend and I are traveling to Australia in February and there are a handful of tourism shops that charter flights and cruises to Antarctica out of Melbourne, and I’ve been stupidly daydreaming about taking a short side trip there, even though they’re outrageously expensive. I won the Aussie trip and everything’s paid for, so it’s like, well, I might be willing to sink some of my own cash into an experience like that, because when else will I have the chance? The main thing that’s stopping me is that they don’t let you get out and walk around; you can either fly over and look out the window for a thousand dollars, or you can cruise in and out of the fjords (probably not that close to the land, re. ice) on a boat for ostensibly slightly fewer dollars. So I couldn’t say I’ve “been” to Antarctica.

But even getting near it would be a big deal. Using my eyes to look at it. My heart is getting all wild and pre-sobby over here from thinking about this. Can you even imagine?

sunken antarctica yacht

Meg’s Favorite Islands, Part 5: The Diomedes and Their Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)

13 Aug

Researching the Burdwood Island Group for work yesterday reminded me of Little Diomede and Big Diomede.



So when people like to say that the United States and Russia are only two or three miles apart, it’s on a technicality—what they’re talking about is the Diomede islands (whether they know it or not). The Diomedes—Little Diomede and Big Diomede—are specks that sit exactly in the middle of the Bering Strait, and they’re right next to each other but not near the coastline, like little kidney stones in a wide stream, and the left one is Russian and the right one is American, along with teeny little Fairway Rock, on the lower right.


They’re the remains of the land bridge, obviously, and during winter, an ice bridge often forms between the islands, so you can actually walk across to Siberia. Added to my “Tasks” app.


Eeeee, look at the ice bridge, I wanna WALK on it, or maybe hop between the floes and it’ll be just like Toad Mushroomhead from Super Mario Bros. 2 


(To any brain geniuses out there who feel compelled to inform me that that’s not how sea ice works and I definitely don’t want to walk on the ice in the Bering Strait: it was a joke. Wish I didn’t have to put these disclaimers, but you should see the comments I delete on this thing.)

So yeah, in 1867, when the U.S. bought Alaska from Russia, they ran the border very carefully right between the two islands, with Big Diomede belonging to what is today the Chukotsky District of Siberia and the little one included in the purchase price of the fresh new U.S. state of Alaska. At the time, the indigenous peoples who lived on both Diomedes pretty much ignored this and continued to move freely between the two islands, as they always had. But this development became kind of a problem once the Cold War got going, in the years following WWII, and a Soviet military base was installed on Big Diomede. Once this happened, the native population of Big Diomede was evacuated to the mainland by the USSR. Folks were able to stay on Little Diomede, however, which still has a native population of about 170 people.

Little Diomede

Here’s the little guy, still mildly be-villaged today

The entire smaller island comprises the city of Little Diomede, although only a chunk down on the water is inhabited, thanks to the ~40-degree slope that prevents the plateau from being easily accessible from the shore. Probably windy up there anyhow. Life in Little Dio is, as you can imagine, rough, with hostile weather, extreme temperatures, and severe isolation. A weekly mail delivery by helicopter and a charter from Nome arriving once every summer are the only links to the outside world. There’s a store, but the people mostly lead a subsistence lifestyle, harvesting crab and fish and hunting birds, seals, beluga whales and the like. Sometimes they get polar bears walk-swimming over on the ice from Alaska, which are fair game as well.

Now empty, Big Diomede (aka ostrov Ratmanova in Russian) was inhabited by Yupik originally, although according to the First Alaskans, the people of both islands are actually the closely-related-to-Yupik Inupiat, including the relocated population from Biggie. When the Cold War was going down, the section of the border between the Diomedes was called “The Ice Curtain” by some. Aw, sounds pretty. In 1987, when American Lynne Cox got the wise idea to swim between the two islands as a stunt for peace, she was congratulated by both Gorbachev and Reagan, but then they kept fighting for a few more years. You can imagine that the people on Little D were somewhat chagrined when she did that because THEY weren’t allowed to travel between their own two islands, but this white lady from L.A. can for some reason.

(Guessing they probably didn’t want to do it via swimming, but who can say.)


Big Diomede. Ain’t nobody here but us sky-chickens.

For over a century, proposals have been continuously made to build a bridge or tunnel connecting the two islands and thereby the countries and continents, and they pop up a little more often now that the conflict with the USSR is over (as well as the USSR itself). But there are serious obstacles in the way, naturally, starting with the difficult environment, the restricted hours of daylight available for building, and the fact that constant collision with ice floes would put major pressure on any structure that was built. China has been particularly interested in the project lately, according to a 2014 report in the Beijing Times, but it sounds like nobody is really doing anything about it right now There’s a wiki about the whole history and lore of the concept here that’s pretty compelling (uh, to me), if you have some time.


Big D, as viewed from Little D

Hereby collectively known to me as Biggie Smalls, which I just made up right now because I just typed the word Biggie up there and oh my god, one is big and one is small, it’s perfect, the Diomedes are also sometimes called Tomorrow Island and Yesterday Island. That’s because, along with the national border, they’re also separated by International Date Line and therefore Big Diomede, on the Russian side, is 23 hours ahead of Little Diomede (sometimes fewer, depending on whether Daylight Saving Time is in effect or not). Anyway, I just love that. That is my favorite thing about the Diomedes. It is almost always two different days on them.

For an additional treat, you can click here for a panoramic view of the west-facing village on Little Dio, taken on a sunny day in the throes of winter. Look at all of their shanties and then Big Dio in the distance. And the people, who live there. There are people! Look at them. What if you lived there like those people.

Meg’s Favorite Islands, Part 4: Antelope Island, Salty Boogeyman Hideout

2 Jun

So way back when we were first discussing my Meg’s Favorite Islands presentation for his variety show, Weird and Awesome, my pal Emmett Montgomery told me about this one:


Emmett grew up in Utah and was telling me about how there’s a handful of scabby islands in the Great Salt Lake and that one, Antelope Island, is this mountainous, salt-encrusted national park that doesn’t look too exciting, but! It was once home to a dude who was exiled there, and there’s a spooky legend that has built up around him. Especially among the littlest Utahns.

In 1862, a guy named Jean Baptiste was convicted of stealing clothes and other stuff from the dead, which his job as a gravedigger offered him lots of opportunities to do. It had been going on for a while when he was finally busted: A young criminal was gunned down by the cops and, when no one came forward to claim the body, was buried in an outfit donated by one of the officers. But when the boy’s brother finally showed up to move the coffin to a family cemetery, he found that the corpse was naked. Baptiste’s house was searched, and the clothing, shoes, and personal belongings from over 300 graves were found.

The Mormon community was horrified and furious. But annoyingly, I am sure, grave-robbing was not a capital offense, so they couldn’t kill him. For his crime, Baptiste was tried and initially sent to prison, but even his fellow inmates utterly shunned him (for doing, it seems, the worst possible thing you could do? taking clothes from dead people? surely there’s nothing worse than you could do to, I don’t know, an alive person?), and it was decided that he wasn’t safe in custody or out of it.

That’s when King Brigham Young himself stepped in and vowed to make the grave-robber “a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth”—Baptiste was tattooed with the words “BRANDED FOR ROBBING THE DEAD” (!!!!) and transported by a wagon in the dead of night from the prison to Antelope Island, to live there in exile forever and more. Not long after, he was moved to the deeper waters of the more-remote Fremont Island, to prevent him from wading ashore.

6. Antelope_Island_State_Park_Map

Three weeks later, cattle herders who showed up on Fremont Island to survey their livestock found that a heifer had been killed and its hide tanned, and that some lengths of wood had been broken off of a fence. No trace of a living Baptiste was found anywhere on the island, but they didn’t find his corpse either. The theory was that he built himself a raft out of cattle-fence and hustled on out, but no one ever heard from him again, so who can say for sure.

However, these facts were not well dispersed among the community, the topic having been considered taboo by the Deseret News. All the townspeople had to work with were vague whisperings of a missing fugitive and no body. As such, the local legend seems to end at Antelope Island, Baptiste’s last publicly known location, where he allegedly stayed and became a professional boogeyman, with continual claims throughout the 20th century of him showing up at the south shores of the Great Lake to steal kids and rob graves and wreak havoc.

(Apparently an immortal boogeyman, if Brigham Young was his living contemporary in the mid-1800s. Or maybe he haunts it in ghost mode. I guess he probably knows all the industry secrets of how to become a ghost after you die, if he was a grave digger.)

After 30 years, a headless skeleton in leg chains was discovered by a nearby river, and a human skull was found not far from there around the same time, and so rumors circulated anew about the missing outlaw. Supposedly, though, Baptiste wasn’t in chains when he was dropped off on the island. Maybe he committed another crime, though, and was incarcerated and escaped AGAIN? Was it him? You don’t know!

So we know he’s definitely dead by now, but the fact that Baptiste was never heard from again is inspiring, I say. Like, sure, maybe he drowned in his escape or whatever, a la the Alcatrazers. But MAYBE he got away successfully and enjoyed a fruitful life of crime in Tombstone, Arizona, or something, far away from that mean old Brigham Young and his keen judgmental eye, and he found happiness there and it was great.

So yeah, without a body to confirm anything, I can’t blame the kiddies for letting their imaginations run with this story: It’s fun to think of all the possibilities. I like the idea that he died on the island and dug his own grave and buried himself.

antelope island

Meg’s Favorite Islands, Part 3: The Unique Scandals of the Pitcairn Islands

23 Jan

The third installment in a series on my favorite islands is probably… my favorite island? Of all? I just kind of can’t believe this really went down.

5. pitcairn location

So the Pitcairn Islands, or just Pitcairn collectively (pronounced “pit-kern”), is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom that lies halfway between New Zealand and Peru, or about 3,400 miles off the coast of Chile. It takes about six hours to get from Chile to Pitcairn on an airplane. So let’s just start off by saying that this spot is very, very, super, duper remote.

These are volcanic islands and there are four of them, but only the main island, also called Pitcairn, is inhabited because two of them are atolls and one is a coral island so it’s all rubble and sinkholes. The islands are spread out over hundreds of miles, so no one ever really goes to the other ones. Everybody lives and stays in the capital city of Adamstown.

So Pitcairn is my favorite/least favorite island because the deal with Pitcairn is that it is the actual site of the real Mutiny on the Bounty. The HMS Bounty itself still lies at the bottom of Bounty Bay in Adamstown, as it has since 1790. This is a real historical event and not just a novel. The British mutineers ganged up against Captain Bligh and half of the ship, then teamed up with a bunch of Tahitians they’d probably kidnapped and settled on the main island, Pitcairn, then went BACK to Tahiti and kidnapped some women, and brought them back to their sweet new settlement. And that’s where they stayed, isolated, in the middle of the ocean.

As such, everyone who lives on Pitcairn Island today is by and large descended from the original British and Tahitian settlers. Which is apparent in the surnames of the population: just about everyone’s last name is Young, Brown, Warren, or Christian, per the mutineers. They speak English and Pitkern, which is spelled Pitkern and is a mishmash of 18th-century English and Tahitian. Notably, current Pitckern slang includes a bunch of old-timey maritime sayings—such as the word “whettles,” stemming from victuals (“vittles”), meaning food. It’s also heavily influenced by the King James Bible and Seventh-Day Adventist literature. Love it, love it to pieces.

Pitcairn has some pretty marvel-arious place names as well, although fewer than Orkney and Shetland, owing to it being super-small. A list of the ones that I like include:

  • Red Allen
  • Where Freddie Fall
  • Bitey Bitey
  • Scissors
  • Headache
  • Oh Dear
  • Break Im Hip
  • Bop Bop
  • Little George Coc’nuts
  • Ugly Name Side
  • Down the God
  • Flattie Heywood
  • Stonepeoplefightfor [sic]

Read more of their wackadoo place names here.


So here’s the other weird/horrible bomb re. the unbearable smallness of Pitcairn that’s captivated me:

It seems that for the first three centuries or so, it was culturally fine for grown men in Pitcairn to sexually assault the island’s teenaged girls. For you see, in 1999, a British police officer was on a temporary assignment in Adamstown and she started to notice that the kids were really sexually, um, open with each other… as well as toward adults. And she was like hang on just one second, so she started asking questions and immediately began uncovering signs of rampant sexual abuse. A study of island records uncovered that most girls—not women, girls—had their first child when they were between 12 and 15 years old.

It turns out that the island’s populace had teamed up and just arbitrarily decided that age of consent was 12. Without consulting the British crown, which turned out to actually disagree on this point. Also, beyond that, a bunch of the adult men were just, like, subsequently ignoring the whole “consent” part and helping themselves.

There was also this general idea among the islanders that they had rejected the British crown when they muntineered and burned the Bounty, so they’d thereby rejected their British citizenship in 1790 and they weren’t a British colony and they didn’t have to do what the UK said. But the UK was like, yeah, the thing of that is: We still own you? Consult your money and see whose face is on it? So you can’t actually rape little girls if you want to keep using that money.


The British authorities did a bunch of research and interviewed everyone who’d lived in Pitcairn over the last 20 years, many of whom had moved to New Zealand, and quite a few women were like, yep, got raped by grown men all the time, nobody cared. They came up with 55 charges against seven different men, including the mayor of Adamstown, ranging in ages from about 30 to late 70s. And so they had a trial, and they also tracked down a bunch of alleged perpetrators who weren’t living in Pitcairn anymore and held a separate trial for them in Auckland later.

As well, a handful of the sexual assault charges were against kids who were, like, a whole lot younger than 12. Like, 5.

Meanwhile, the island’s mothers and grandmothers were totally resigned to this practice, and they became outraged by the trials—they were like, what’s the big deal, it’s just part of our culture. We got raped in the watermelon patch when we were trying to do our chores, and so can they. There was also a sentiment, from the women!, that the 12- and 13-year-olds had been willing participants, so it was not actually rape.

Here’s the rub on that. If you try to incarcerate seven of the islands’ adult men from a population of 47 people, that takes away a serious chunk of the labor force. And they’re living on fish and breadfruit over there. So you can see maybe some of the motives for protesting the men’s innocence—they need every able-bodied adult they can get on Pitcairn, or they’ll all starve.

So in addition to these men being husbands and fathers whose families needed them, Pitcairn wasn’t going to be able to get anything done without them, and if they were incarcerated, the failure of the settlement was looking very possible, 300 years after it was founded. The islanders began to think they had been unfairly bullied by the UK. It was amaaaazing. Some people—again, largely the women—decided it was a conspiracy theory on the part of the British to close the island down. They honestly, utterly believed this. It’s not that children were raped; it’s just a random conspiracy by those big British meanies to put us out of business.

(For the record, one woman, the Pitcairn government’s secretary, did break ranks with the other women and claimed that it was, in fact, frowned upon in Pitcairn to rape little girls. And that the men absolutely knew they were British subjects and that British law applied to them. Just one person, though.)

In the end, six of the seven dudes were actually convicted, and the UK had to build a prison on the island, but they also had to let the guys out constantly in order to help man the longboat whenever anyone needed to come in or leave Pitcairn, or things like that, and a few of them got community service instead because the community super needed them. So, I dunno what the standard of excellence is on Pitcairn these days. You’d think they’d have learned their lesson, but maybe they’re back at it, raping in protest or something. Ugh.

Anyway. Thaaaaat’s Pitcairn, ladies and germs! My mind is blown apart anew from writing this. I emphatically recommend Google Earth-walking through charming, half-colonial English/half-shantytown-looking Adamstown, if you feel like being weird for a while.

Meg’s Favorite Islands, Part 2: Orkney and Shetland, Twin Scottish Weirdos

14 Jan

[Here’s Part 2 in a continuing series of posts on my favorite islands. I, uh, guess that part is probably obvious. -Ed]

No. 2: Orkney/Shetland and its nutty, nutty placenames

So Orkney and Shetland are separate groups of archipelagos that lie northeast of Scotland, and I like them not only because I have that thing that lots of white Americans have where they don’t like being plain old American so they try to emphasize their Scottish or Irish or whatever-white-people heritage, like it has meaning or something, and like just about everyone in Seattle, I’m secretly kind of Scottish. (Byers? A sept of Clan Lindsey? Enh? Enh? Do I have ethnic cred yet? O gad please) That is not the only reason.

Another is that as a person who likes remote islands, these ones are about as mystical as you can get, being basically untouched other than little quaint-ass villages dotting the coastlines. These things are also lousy with Bronze Age mounds and concentric rock circles and weird circular stone houses. Only Iceland gives them a run for their mystical money, really.

But! The best thing about these islands is the placenames. Good god, the names on these things. English cartographer Steve Goldman, who made the marvelous maps below, said it well:

“I’ve loved placenames on Orkney and Shetland since I was a kid. They are by turns surreal, beautiful, nonsensical, rude, and bizarre… There seems to be no consistency to them at all. I’ve done some online research to try to find their derivation, but there seems to be little out there.”

4. Shetlands Names 3. Orkneys Names

So, I didn’t even try to research their etymology—I don’t need to understand them to love them—although I did look up a bunch of them to try to find out what they are. Rock formations? Lakes? Geographical oddities? had them all but didn’t tell me what they were. But they were totally on the maps.

So, yeah, here are some of my favorite nonsensical placenames among Shetland and Orkney:

• Gentleman’s Ha (not just a commoner’s, pedestrian ha)
• Tongue of Gangsta
• Stinkanie Geo (I really like Stinkanie—it’s like what an uncreative 5-year-old bully would call someone named Stephanie)
• I usually don’t work blue, but: Ladies’ Hole, oh my god, what were you thinkin’
• The Slithers
• The Sands of Doomy (I think of the car from the Beetlejuice cartoon that could turn into a werewolf-car—I believe its name was Doomie? With the little skull hood ornament?)
• Dandy’s Water (I keep thinking of Simpson and Son Revitalizing Tonic)
• Taing of the Busy
• Quear of Estafea (sorry, it’s the spelling, not the pronunciation, that I’m lolling at)
• Da Niggards (several people approached me after the presentation to tell me what the word niggard means. I know. I knew.)
• Tingly Loup
• Twisting Nevi . . . like a nevus? Like a birthmark?
• Scare Gun (wouldn’t you say every gun is a scare gun? I would.)
• Rushy Cups
• Whaa Field
• Flossy Groups, which is my burlesque name starting tomorrow


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