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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 Pitcairns are 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 the Pitcairns on an airplane. So let’s just start off by saying that this spot is very, very 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-ass 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

Meg’s Favorite Islands, Part 1: Heligo, We Won’t . . . Go

12 Jan

So the other weekend, I did a little live presentation on geography at the January edition of my friend Emmett Montgomery‘s monthly variety show, Weird and Awesome, and a few folks who missed it have been asking for a text version. It was about my ten favorite islands, and I only got through four of them before I ran out of time; I’m debating on whether to post them all here or sit on the last six in hope of presenting them at a later show. Wouldn’t wanna give the milk away for free or nothing.

Anyway! This seemed like the spot for it. No. 1 was:

Adorable Heligoland and its millions of uses

1. Helgoland,_Germany,_ca_1890-1900

Map of Heligoland circa 1890-1900. It more or less still looks like this.

So Heligoland is a teeny tiny pair of islands not even a mile square put together, and it’s located in the North Sea about three hours’ sailing distance from the northern German coast, and I like it for a bunch of reasons.

First, I like it because although it’s a German territory, it used to be Danish AND British, and they don’t speak German but a dialect of Frisian, which is charming the living bejesus out of me.

(I mean, Frisian is still spoken in and around Germany, but it’s the actual, official language in Heligoland, like German is in Germany.)

(They actually speak “Heligolandic” in Heligoland, which, oh my god.)

So there are two islands, and one is called Düne, and it’s a dune with a little airstrip on it that the Nazis built, about a quarter of a mile in area. And then the main island is a geological oddity—it’s made of a very red sedimentary rock, unlike anything else along the continental coastline in the area. It’s like something you see in, say, Arches National Park or Devil’s Tower or something. So there’s this big rocky Utah-style tower called “Large Anna,” and I decree that to be pretty cute.

2. Lange-Anna-HelgolandThere she is. You can’t miss her.

I also really like Heligoland’s motto, which does NOT rhyme in Heligolandic, but which does happen to rhyme in English, LUCKILY, and it goes like this:

Green is the land,
Red is the cliff,
White is the sand,
These are the colors of Heligoland.

Is that not the Germanest thing that ever Germaned. I like to add a dramatic pause before the last line.

Uh, Heligoland has lived various lives as a center for crime and espionage against Napoleon in the early 1800s, as well as a seaside spa town for Hanoverian richies only about 20 or 30 years later. It was also a refuge for revolutionaries in the 1848 German revolution, because it was owned by the British but suuuper conveniently located if you were a German who, for some weird reason, suddenly needed to get out of Germany.

Then it was returned to Germany in 1890, and theeeeen it was evacuated during World War II and used as a bombing range. There are just so many uses for this handy little contraption. Today, it’s back to serving the upper class on their holidays. And it enjoys tax-exempt status, FYI. Duty-free booze and perfume, et cetera.

Another thing I like is that cars are generally frowned upon on Heligoland—there’s, like, an ambulance and a couple firetrucks, and then there are a couple electric cars used for moving stuff around, and that’s it. The police got their first car in 2006—they were on foot or bike before that. The GERMAN POLIZEI had no cars when on Heligoland. Your powers are useless here.

I dunno, I love this precious little thing. Heligoland! I wanna wear it on a necklace.

The Only Empty Jug in Chicago

20 Sep

Aside from being heartbreakingly gorgeous, this map outlining the territories of Chicago’s gangs in the 1930s is also hilarious and darling and is making me die of love. I mean, I also feel bad because it’s about murderous gangsters, but oh, god, their sweet little faces and word balloons.

This is inspiring me to enroll in some kind of ancient wood-cut/Victorian children’s book illustration class. I’m dizzy, guys.

See the whole thing at the University of Illinois of Urbana-Champaign Library’s historical map collection right here.

The Hansen Family

18 Jun


Oh, hello, I’ve just been sitting here marveling over Kalaupapa, Hawaii, once a leper colony and home still to about a dozen senior citizens who were exiled there between 1866 and 1969. No big thing.

(Dear smarties: Despite my headline, for the duration of this piece, I’m calling it leprosy and not Hansen’s disease, because these people didn’t have Hansen’s disease in the year 1900 or whatever. They had leprosy. It was called leprosy. They were exiled as lepers, not as, uh, Hanses. I mean . . . Hans. Sons of sons of Hans.)

Located on a chunk of peninsula on the north side of the island of Molokai, Kalaupapa is a natural prison; sheer, 2,000-foot sea cliffs—some of the highest in the world—block the settlement off on three sides. The only access to the rest of the island is by a foot trail along the ocean. The original native population was killed by a series of epidemics in the 1800s, so you can see how the story writes itself: the Hawaiian government was like, “Oh, hey, there’s an outbreak of a highly communicable disease—let’s shuttle everybody off to the spot where everyone already died off from disease without infecting us. Thanks for testing that out for us, native dudes.” More than 8,000 people were exiled there over a century and change, beginning, reportedly, with three women and nine men who were dumped overboard and told to swim. The overwhelming majority were native Hawaiians. You know this story.

In 1873, the Catholics took over and the community was managed and nursed by a young Belgian priest, Father Damien (fka Joseph de Veuster), and a young German nun, Mother Marianne Cope (fka Barbara Koob), both of whom advocated for the patients and established homes and medical facilities for them. I guess it probably helped; Jack London visited Kalaupapa in 1908 (why? why would you take a trip to a leper colony?), expecting to find a hellhole, but after chilling with the population, watching horse races and joining in on dinnertime sing-alongs, he wrote that he was “having a disgracefully good time along with eight hundred of the lepers, who were likewise having a good time.” Father Damien and Mother Marianne are now hailed in Hawaii and beyond, with a statue of the former standing in the capitol building in Honolulu and latter having been canonized in 2009.

This shocked me to read it: It was estimated that at some point, every patient on Kalaupapa either gave birth to or fathered at least one child while s/he lived there. But state law mandated that any child born to a leper be whisked away and put up for adoption, right, and then most of those kids were lied to about their origins, so they never knew where to look for their birth parents, should they want to.

Can you imagine an entire community of people who’ve had their babies forcibly taken from them immediately after birth? In addition to living with a disfiguring, disabling, painful disease? That often blinds you? Like, if that data checks out, then 100 percent of the people in this village suffered in these ways. People synthesize that kind of trauma in myriad ways, I realize, but think about the magnitude of personal suffering afoot in this place, man. Or the likelihood of the magnitude. And it was still kind of a party, sounds like.

Kalaupapa is a national park today, although you have to get clearance from the Hawaii State Department of Health before you can go there and take the donkey-led tour around the settlement and see the church and Father Damien’s memorial and such, and kids under 16 aren’t allowed. Once the last inhabitant dies, the DOH will transfer authority to the Department of Hawaiian Homelands and it’ll (probably—what am I, a wizard) be open to the public.

As if geology and the DOH hadn’t done enough to segregate it from the rest of Hawaii, Kalaupapa is in Kalawao County—a separate county from the rest of Molokai, which is part of Maui County—and it clocks in as the second-smallest county in the U.S., after Loving County, Texas (pop. 71). In 2011, the USPS considered shuttering the community’s tiny post office, but everyone raised holy hell about it because it would require 80-year-old leprosy patients, who have no Internet access or cell phone service, to either take a mule across the island or fly to another island to get their mail. So, the USPS backed off. I’m sure they’re probably, like the DOH and everyone else who’s ever been involved with this place, just waiting around for everybody on Kalaupapa to die off.

Above all, I’m blown away to hear that there’s a small community of patients still living there. Who are, of course, free to go, and who decline, because their home is in exile.



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