Monthly Archives: September 2009

American Samoa, Disaster News and Travel

Posted by on September 30, 2009

The beautiful pre-tsunami Pago Pago harbor in American Samoa

The beautiful pre-tsunami Pago Pago harbor in American Samoa

If you have been paying attention to the news the last several days, you have probably heard about the tsunami which struck American Samoa. If you are also like most people, you have heard absolutely nothing about American Samoa in the news, maybe your entire life. Most Americans are probably not even aware that American Samoa is a territory of the United States, that they have a non-voting representative in Congress just like Washington DC, or that they have the highest percentage of people who enlist in the military of any state or territory in the US.

I don’t blame you if you don’t know these facts. Honestly, there is little reason to know them. I bring them up only because American Samoa is one of many places which are totally invisible to everyone until something bad happens. Afterward your perception of that place is forever tainted.

Many people are scared of traveling because the only thing they know about foreign countries is what they see and hear on the news. The news from American Samoa is microcosm of what is happening all the time, but is so subtle we are seldom aware of it. If the news involves a war, killings or terrorism, the impression which is left in the minds of people is even worse.

I write this because I’m one of the few people who have actually been to American Samoa. Samoa (both American and Western) is a beautiful place with some of the most generous, peaceful people you’ll ever meet in the world. Despite their fame in football, rugby and professional wrestling, most Samoans would never hurt a fly. When I see the photos coming out of American Samoa I’m not just looking at pictures of devastation, I’m seeing places that I’ve been. When I heard the news I had an idea of what might have been damaged and where. The shop I purchased my lava lava from might have been damaged, the restaurant I ate tuna sushi in was probably destroyed, and the McDonald’s near the industrial park was probably not touched at all. My perception is probably really different than yours because I’ve traveled there.

My point is that you should always keep in mind, a place is not the sum of the stories you hear on the news. Prior to Monday, people lived, worked, raised families and died in American Samoa and no one heard a peep about it on the news. Now most people only know it as the place that was hit with a tsunami. Whether it is a natural disaster, civil war, murders, riot or famine, don’t let your opinion of a place be formed solely by the headlines in the news.

Point Roberts, WA: America’s Appendix

Posted by on September 27, 2009

Satellite image of Point Roberts

Satellite image of Point Roberts

In 1846, the United States and Canada signed a treaty to finalize their border. It set the 49th north line of latitude as the border from the Lake of the Woods in Minnesota/Manitoba to Puget Sound in Washington/British Columbia. As part of the deal, the British were able to keep Vancouver Island south of the 49th parallel. For the most part the border worked as advertised, except for one thing. Just below Vancouver there was a bit of land on the tip of a peninsula which dipped below the 49th parallel. As per the terms of the treaty, that hunk of land was United States territory and today is Point Roberts, Washington.

What makes Point Roberts is that it is totally cut off from the rest of the United States by land. To get there, you have to drive 30 miles through Canada. The total size Point Roberts is only about 4 square miles and it has a population of about 1,500 people. It seems to have created a niche for itself as a place for Canadians to get cheap gas and to set up post office boxes to get mail which can’t be shipped to Canada. Despite its small size, Point Roberts has five gas stations and four places where you can get a post office box outside of the actual post office.

Welcome to America!

Welcome to America!

Given its proximity with Canada, there are several things you’ll find there you will not find anywhere else in the US.

  • All of the gas stations quote prices in liters, not gallons (the lady working the counter where I purchased gas said that 60% of their business was from Canada).
  • My iPhone was unable to pick up an ATT signal, so if I wanted to make a call I had to pay international roaming charges, even though I was in the United States.
  • The cash registers I saw were able to handle both US and Canadian currency on the fly. I’m told Canadian currency is used more often than American currency in Point Roberts.
  • The physical border has no fence. The backyards of houses in Canada literally emptied into the US. I saw swing sets, gardens, and hammocks a few feet from the border line with nothing between it and America.
  • That small curb is all that is stopping an Al Qaeda horde from storming across our border

    A small curb is all that is stopping an Al Qaeda horde from storming across our border

  • There is a special card locals can get for getting through the border with no hassle. Residents of Point Roberts have to go to Canada for almost everything, and everything has to come through Canada.

There is one other hunk of American soil you have to drive through Canada to get to, and that is at the other end of the 49th parallel border: The Northwest Angle in Minnesota. I went there several years ago and the border is even less controlled than Point Roberts. You see a sign indicating you are entering the US and a video phone booth you are supposed to use to contact immigration. The phone didn’t work when I was there.

Point Roberts is truly America’s appendix; a tiny dangling, vestigial leftover of a time long forgotten.

3,127 Miles Later

Posted by on September 25, 2009

I arrived in Vancouver today after grossly underestimating how long it would take to get to here from Banff. It wasn’t the distance so much as the roads and how fast you can go on a winding mountain highway. I also ended up pulling over to sleep for an hour in the middle of the day because I was so tired from driving. I’ve never had to do that before.

The Canadian Rockies are beautiful, especially Lake Louise. Trying to take photos when you are surrounded by mountains can be challenging because the sun is either blocked by the mountains, or shining right down on everything. I had to schedule my visits to a few places just to make sure I was there when there was quality light.

The license plates in British Columbia say it is the most beautiful place on Earth, and I don’t think I can argue with that assessment too much. The drive through the Fraser Valley is, in my opinion, one of the best drives you can take in North America.

In Alberta I was able to visit three more World Heritage Sites: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Dinosaur Provincial Park, and the Canadian Rockies. This puts my total of World Heritage Sites visited since March 2007 at 98. Numbers 99 and 100 should be Olympic National Park in Washington and Redwood National Park in California.

From Vancouver I’ll be heading south by way of Victoria Island, then taking the ferry to Washington, head over to Seattle and then go south to Portland, Crater Lake, Redwood and San Francisco. I’ll then take a trip to Yosemite and probably drive to LA before arriving in Las Vegas for Blog World Expo. If you are in any of those cities, let me know if you’d like to meet up when I am in your town.