Monthly Archives: May 2013

Unforgettable Unalaska


The 2013 season of Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch begins on Tuesday, June 4.   Those who watch it are already familiar with Dutch Harbor/Unalaska.  I visited there several years ago without Ruth.  She wasn’t interested in such a remote spot.

Unalaska is 900 miles or so southwest of Anchorage, Alaska, in the Fox Islands part of the Aleutians, and it’s hard to get to and away from, even in August.  My Alaska Airlines flight carried passengers only in the back 1/3 of the plane.  The rest was cargo.  The landing was so dramatic that I paid no attention to its breathtaking difficulty.

The entire time I was there this virtually treeless island, except for the few scraggly survivors at Sitka Spruce Park, was decorated with fog, clouds, and infrequent, always startling, sun patches.  I stayed at the Grand Aleutian Hotel and would again.  Its Chart Room was the best place to dine.

On my first full day I decided to rent a car, walked back to the airport, and left in a Ford Escort.  It quit on me 30 minutes later when I stopped to watch a nesting eagle.  Since the island is so small, I decided I didn’t need the hassle of ground transportation after all and returned the wheezing Escort. From that point I walked everywhere, which wasn’t a problem.

The best tourist attraction, aside from consistently grand scenery, was the Museum of the Aleutians at 314 Salmon Way.  Here I quickly learned a lot about a place I actually knew nothing about before arrival.  In an active Museum that changes exhibits frequently and focuses on all facets of life in an isolated place, I spent most of my time looking at wonderful old maps, the area’s volcanic geology, its whaling past, Unalaska’s involvement in World War II, flora examples (purple wild irises, mossberries), etc.  I wasn’t too surprised to learn that James Cook visited in 1778 and wondered if he left with a kamleika, a parka made from sea-lion intestines.

I tried to arrange a tour with a local but that didn’t work out.  However, I took a taxi ride with an island girl as driver/guide and traveled every road. I also managed to visit a seafood processing plant.  There are more than a dozen around.  Ice-free Dutch Harbor/Unalaska is #1 in the United States in quantity of catch.  Crab, of course, is king.

I also got inside  Holy Ascension of Our Lord Cathedral but not for a service in Aleut, Slavonic, or English.   Founded in 1824, built in 1896, restoration ongoing, Holy Ascension’s traditional Orthodox grandness dominates the townscape.

Paying attention to the always difficult weather, I decided I might have to leave when an opportunity presented itself and asked the red-haired receptionist at the Grand Aleutian about departures.  She literally took me outside, pointed to a pyramidal mountain to our right and said, “When the top if covered, nothing flies.”  “Delayed?” I asked.  “Cancelled,” she replied with finality.

The next day I understood why when I climbed aboard an afternoon flight to Anchorage.  We taxied to the end of a seemingly short runway where the plane swung around and I saw that soaring mountain pyramid rising to a barely visible peak at its not-far-enough-away end.  It was my first virtually vertical take-off.

I didn’t talk to one native who didn’t like it here.  Connie admitted that life could be difficult and summed up their home, “Everybody lives for now but that’s all they have.”

Unalaska still haunts me.


image above from

Where Is Fernando Po?

Fernando Po really exists, but now it’s usually called something else on maps, unless they’re made in Europe.

Reading a fascinating book last night called A Sense of the World, I came to Chapter 13, “White Man’s Grave”.  This non-fiction book that reads like an adventure novel is by Jason Roberts.  It was published in 2006 and profiles James Holman.  Born in 1786, Holman was completely blind by the age of 25. This did not prevent him from becoming one of the world’s greatest travelers.

Holman almost always went places alone and was fearless.  It never occurred to me that riding a horse would be a genuine accomplishment for a blind person.  According to Roberts, “Horseback is an active, not a passive mode of travel: even the most docile saddle horse expects a constant stream of commands from its rider and can become upset when those commands are unclear or contradictory.”  That didn’t stop Holman.  He borrowed a horse outside Cape Town, South Africa, and, like a bat, used the sound of its hoof-beats as echolocation to master riding.  At one point, a horse stopped abruptly and threw him.  Holman bled for 3 hours but survived.

In “White Man’s Grave,” Roberts described an island Holman visited called Fernando Po, a volcanic peak rising out of the sea and looking like part of paradise.  As I read about its thick clouds, dense jungle, and sharp green cliffs, I decided that Fernando Po was an imaginary “Lost World” kind of place, so I checked an atlas and couldn’t find it.  I wasn’t surprised. Covered in ochre clay with stomach tattoos, Fernandian men, Roberts reported, wore fanciful palm-leaf hats decorated with beads, parrot feathers, animal skulls, etc.  Holman was charged with contacting the king of the island and adventure ensued.

This morning I googled Fernando Po and learned that it’s now called Bioko, except in parts of Europe.  In the Gulf of Guinea 20 miles off the coast of Cameroon, Bioko is part of Equatorial Guinea.  With a population of 260,000, Bioko rises to 9,882 feet at Pico Basile, a dormant volcano which last erupted in 1923.   Malabo is the largest city on Bioko, which is shaped like a Christmas stocking.  Marathon Oil operates a natural gas plant near Malabo.


Bioko is where you’ll find “Africa’s greatest concentration of endangered primates” according to, the source of the accompanying green, white, and chartreuse map.

So here is yet another place in our shrinking world that I didn’t know about.  Rockall, yes. Fernando Po, no.   But blind James Holman went there after he traveled all the way to Irkutsk, Russia, only to find that the Czar wouldn’t allow him to go to North America once he reached Russia’s east coast.  Holman turned around and went back to England, his home country.  For a short time.


Nixon Library, Final Thoughts


Yorba Linda is just east of Anaheim and didn’t really exist when Richard Nixon’s family lived in the area in the early 20th century.  It wasn’t incorporated until 1967.  Today with a median household income slightly over $121,000, it’s often listed as one of the richest cities in the U.S.

When the Nixon Library opened there at 18001 Yorba Linda Boulevard in 1990, it was run by the private Richard Nixon Foundation.  The National Archives and Records Administration didn’t take over its operation until 2007 when the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum became one of the 13 it now administers.  Changes were made.  An exact replica of the White House East Room was added.  Reportedly, greater coverage of Watergate occurred.  Visitors can now listen to secretly taped conversations Nixon had in the Oval Office.  It’s a unique Presidential Library for many reasons.  It’s unusual, for example, to have both a President’s birthplace and tomb at the same site.

The Special Exhibit Gallery contains the Centennial exhibit I wrote about yesterday.  It’s great.  I especially enjoyed the tale about Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviet leader visited Camp David in 1973 and Nixon presented him with a Lincoln Continental.  A lover of fast cars, Brezhnev wanted to try it out right away and got behind the wheel.  Nixon climbed in and they took off. When Brezhnev took a steep curve at more than 50 MPH, Nixon cautioned, “Slow down, slow down.”  Brezhnev paid no attention.  After the ride, Nixon told Brezhnev, “You are an excellent driver.”


That Lincoln is now in the Kremlin Collection in the Motor Museum in Riga, Latvia, not too far from the Rolls Royce Brezhnev totaled in 1980 when he ran into a truck in Moscow.  I saw both vehicles in the fall of 2011 and blogged about them in “Riga’s Auto Museum”, which is in the archives.

Down the hall from the Special Exhibit Gallery is the re-created East Room and, in the opposite direction, a wall containing all of the more than 50 Time magazine covers featuring Richard Nixon.

The older, more traditional Exhibit Galleries in RNPL&M’s other extension require a lot more reading and reward the patient with opportunities to learn about Nixon’s speeches, campaigns, etc.  His 1960 Presidential bid remains the closest election in U.S. history.  Despite this loss, Nixon was a California Congressman, a Senator, a 2 term Vice President under Eisenhower, and finally an active and controversial President.  After leaving office, he re-invented himself by advising subsequent Presidents and writing 10 books including 2 major memoirs.

The older galleries have more about Pat Nixon.  Born in Ely, Nevada, Thelma Catherine Patricia was a farm girl, a movie extra, and a commercial subjects teacher before meeting Richard via a community theater production of The Dark Tower.  When they married 2 years later, Pat and Dick couldn’t afford a photographer so there’s only one grainy wedding picture of the occasion.  It’s on display as are their daughters’ wedding gowns, the red coat Pat wore during the Nixons’ first historic visit to China, etc.  Outside is a lavish garden containing official First Lady rose bushes near the white gazebo that Tricia Nixon Cox stood under at her 1971 White House wedding.

RNPL&M’s future plans include building a replica of Richard Nixon’s Oval Office, continued refreshment of the 25-year-old galleries, and more.  You might think that visiting here would be painful, but it’s not.  It’s actually healing, especially if you do it with Vietnam POWs.


Surpassing Expectations, The Nixon Presidential Library


Francis (Frank) Nixon bought a kit and built a dream house for his family. That house still exists.  It’s on the grounds of the 5 Compass Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, and still on its original site.  The only thing that has been done to make it safer for a steady stream of visitors is to lift and place it on a concrete foundation.  The furniture is original thanks to the foresight of a Nixon family member.  A model of the house inside the Library/Museum is worth seeking out to get another glimpse into the early life of a future President.

The doctor who delivered Richard Nixon in 1913 arrived by horse and buggy.  Nixon claimed that it was at the family table in the living/dining room that he learned to debate.  3 of the 5 musical instruments he played are on display as are the National Geographic magazines he doted on long before he became a serious world traveler.  He once said, “Sometimes at night I was awakened by the whistle of a train, and then I dreamed of the far-off places I wanted to visit someday.”

A short walk from the white house is the Sikorsky helicopter that often took Nixon to and from The White House.  Now on loan from The Marines, this helicopter served 4 Presidents between 1961 until 1976.  After being mothballed and forgotten, it was found in Rhode Island at March AFB and moved to the Nixon LIbrary.

Nixon’s first job was buying fruits and vegetables for his father’s store. While in high school, he would get up at 4 am and drive into LA where he would negotiate price and buy produce.  Back in Whittier, he would wash, sort, and arrange it before leaving for school at 8 am.  He graduated 3rd in his Duke Law School class, took a job in Whittier California’s oldest law firm, and made partner within a year.  While at Duke, his typical breakfast was a Milky Way candy bar to save money.

I learned a lot of this in the new exhibit at this Presidential Library to celebrate the Richard Nixon Centennial, 1913-2013.  Signs for it call him PATRIOT, PRESIDENT, PEACEMAKER.  When I asked when this humanizing display will end, I was told sometime in 2014,  The date has not yet been determined and I hope it becomes permanent.

While he was President, Richard Nixon brought troop levels in Vietnam down from 475,0000 to 24,000 and ended the war.  He was re-elected in 1972 in a true landslide with the opposition carrying only Minnesota.   He went to China, shook some hands, and ended 25 years of non-communication and scary confrontation.  He negotiated the SALT Treaty that limited nuclear weapons, saved Israel from defeat in a 1973 War, and managed to make the voluntary desegregation of Southern schools happen. Nixon started the EPA and the DEA.  Because of Watergate, he became the only President in American history, so far, to voluntarily leave office.


ps.  We were lucky enough to visit on the day that Richard Nixon’s brother Edward was there to sign his book.  It was delightful to meet him.  In person he looked a lot like his presidential brother.


Wells Fargo, Still on a Roll


Find a need, fill it, and you will flourish.  This appears to be the business model that has helped Wells Fargo thrive for more than a century and a half.

In 1852 Henry Wells and William Fargo created a company that required a “pioneer transcontinental stage line”.  Fargo, North Dakota, was named for William.  I was not surprised to learn this in the Wells Fargo History Museum at 333 South Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles.

This is one of 11 free museums, 5 of them in California, maintained by this banking and financial services company that do an excellent job of telling both the Wells Fargo story and the saga of westward expansion.

Gold Rush miners trusted Wells Fargo to send money home in an era when “seeing the elephant” became a common phrase for hardship and failure to strike it rich in places with names like Hardscrabble Gulch and Camp Stick-in-the-Wind.

By  1866 the telegraph had made the Pony Express obsolete and Wells Fargo was running 2,500 stagecoaches across The West.  Driving them was a much sought after job.  To sit next to the man with the reins was by invitation only and an honor.  As I was reading vivid passenger diary entries and stories about these drivers called Jehus, Ruth came over to lead me to a fascinating interactive map describing what happened to both on each of the 24 days between St. Louis and San Francisco, 2800 miles of hard-bouncing misery. By the time they reached their destination, travelers had consumed 109 cups of beans and 72 cups of coffee.  Imagine the results.

By 1905, Wells Fargo’s express and banking operations were split and the company moved to New York City but the bank stayed in California.  Wells Fargo was completely out of the express business by 1918 because the federal government used its war-time powers to consolidate such companies.  By then Wells Fargo had already made the transition to rail, and it Fargo Fast train chugged from New York to San Francisco in 4 days.  It was already creating the California of today by shipping its produce all over the U.S.

Through mergers, acquisitions, sales, 2 wars, a deep Depression, etc. Wells Fargo endured to become, according to President-CEO John Stumpf, one of only a dozen or so U.S. pioneer companies still in its founding business under its founding name.

I’ve now been to 3 Wells Fargo museums and have benefited from each. They all seem to have restored or recreated Concord coaches like the one pictured above and lots of pioneer artifacts but enough about a particular region to address local color.  For example, I spent a lot of time studying a detailed 1889 map of Orange County that showed both rapid growth and a large number of ranches.

All in all, I applaud Wells Fargo, whose fortunes have been woven into the very history of our nation, for continuing to tell its story in these excellent, 4 Compass museums.