It’s been nearly two months since Aloha Wanderwell hit bookshelves and, thankfully, sales have been strong. The reviews have been great, the media has been kind, and regular people have shown a strong and persistent interest in her story. We’ve had people from all over world contacting our various websites and social media handles, exclaiming appreciation or asking questions. Of these, the most common—by far— has nothing to do with Aloha’s amazing life story. Rather, what most people want to know is, “How on Earth did you find this story?” To which the quickest answer is: by fluke and perseverance. The fuller explanation is a bit of a story…
Almost 10 years ago my collaborator, Randolph Eustace-Walden, and I were co-developing a television show. This was during the height of the reality TV craze and our idea was to create a show in which contestants would attempt to circle the globe in eco-friendly cars. No gasoline allowed. Much like our process for writing the book, I was busy writing an outline while Randy conducted research into the more practical aspects of our project. He had just begun his research, when a cousin from Ontario called. She was flying to Hawaii for a holiday and wanted to stopover in Vancouver to visit Randy. She wasn’t sure, though, if Aloha Airlines was still in business. Randy didn’t know either, so he did a quick search online. What he didn’t notice, though, was that his previous search terms, “drive around the world” had not been erased. Among the results was a book from the 1930s for sale in Atlanta, Georgia. Entitled, Call to Adventure. The book purported to tell the story of a woman who drove around the world in the 1920s. Her name was Aloha Baker.
During a lunch meeting the next day, Randy asked if I’d ever heard of Aloha Baker. Among the many bakers I’ve known, Aloha was not one of them. In his usual animated style, Randy described the book he’d purchased online and said he’d pass it along if it was any good. Perhaps there were some lessons we could apply to the show we were developing. Or maybe we could contrast the trials of our teams with that of the adventurous granny from way back when.
I didn’t think much of our conversation, but two weeks later, during another lunch meeting, Randy shoved the book at me.
“You have got to read this,” he said. An American girl. Just 18! Model T Ford’s! Spies! Bandits! Kidnapping! Oh my!
I took the book home and, teapot at the ready, tucked myself into a corner of my couch and began reading. WTF? Could this really have happened? Aloha’s tale was astonishing, full of white knuckle adventure and derring do. This should be a movie, I thought. While not abandoning the eco-car TV show idea, my thoughts turned to creating a documentary. Perhaps even a book. I dug out my cell phone, extended the antenna, and told Randy my idea. He was already there. The eco-cars could wait. Aloha’s story needed to be told.
We spent the next weeks researching Aloha’s story, using many of the details mentioned in Call to Adventure. Dates, places, referenced events. It didn’t take long to discover something quite amazing about the Aloha Baker story: it was largely bullshit.
Simply put, the numbers didn’t add up. Persons mentioned in the book merited neither newspaper notices nor birth records. Aloha herself did surface in countless newspaper accounts (thank-you Google) but the details surrounding her adventures diverged wildly from the swashbuckling tale contained in Call to Adventure. Most troubling of all was her name: Aloha Wanderwell Baker. Public records were sparse, and nothing mentioned a maiden name. Was she Hawaiian? And what about this fellow she mentioned in her book: Captain Walter Wanderwell?
Walter Wanderwell certainly was in the papers, but not how Aloha recorded. Yes, he was the recognized leader of a round-the-world expedition, but he was also a suspected spy, smuggler, grifter, Black Tom bomber, and aficionado of underage girls.
It was only when we turned our research to Walter Wanderwell that, like a pencil rubbing, details about Aloha began to emerge. Surprise number one: Her real name was not Aloha Baker, or even Aloha Wanderwell but rather Aloha Hall. Or at least Hall – the Aloha bit remained suspicious. The second surprise? She was not American, or British. She was Canadian.
As with so many things in life, sometimes it only takes a small break for the light to get through. With new names and details to search with, the internet – and especially the now defunct Google Newspaper – offered up a lot more. An article about Aloha and Walter’s attempt to buy a schooner made reference to a daughter, named Valri. Another shift in focus. Might Valri still be alive? If so, how might we find her? Initial searches turned up very little. It wasn’t until we thought to search voting records that luck shined again. There was a listing for a Valri Lundahl-Baker in Honolulu, along with a phone number. It was a longshot, but I picked up the phone. To my great surprise, someone answered.
“Is this Mrs. Valri Lundahl-Baker?”
“Yes. Who’s calling?”
“My name is Christian Fink-Jensen and I’m calling from Vancouver Canada…”
“Oh, good old British Columbia! How I miss it!”
“Oh, you’ve been here?”
“My stars, yes. I grew up in Victoria. Happiest days of my life. The Empress, the harbour. There were whales in those days, you know.”
For a moment I thought I might have the wrong person on the line. I explained that I was looking for information about a certain Aloha Wanderwell, an obscure traveller from the 1920s.
“Yes, mom passed away in ’96. In California.”
My heart stopped. Ohmagosh.
“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about your mom?”
This seemed to give her pause. “What sorts of questions?”
“Well, basic things, really. Like was her name really Aloha.”
“Oh goodness no. That’s all showbiz. Her name was Idris.”
“Yes, Idris. Strong British name. Why are you interested in her?”
“I’m a travel writer, you see. When I heard her story I was so impressed and… Well, I’m thinking of writing a book about her life.”
“Oh, how lovely. Will you come for dinner, then? Friday perhaps?”
“Um… I don’t think I can get there that quickly.”
“Oh. The Friday after, then? We can go to the canoe club.”
Goodness. What kind of life was Mrs. Lundhal-Baker accustomed to leading? Whatever it was, we had to find out. I gathered my resolve.
“Certainly. Next Friday will be fine.”
Randy didn’t need much convincing and set about researching the Hawaii connection. Within days he’d discovered, among other things, that Honolulu’s Bishop Museum had some of Aloha’s films in their collection. For my part, I, at long last, discovered birth records: a girl named Idris, born in Winnipeg in 1906. Her last name, however, was not Hall, but Welch. Another twist that, in due course, would yield fruit.
Hardly ten days later Randy and I were seated at Honolulu’s exclusive Outrigger Canoe Club, feasting on Mahi-Mahi and having a fabulous conversation with the charming and beautiful daughter of one of the most outrageous and unlikely explorers of the 20th century. A woman who, it turned out, had led her own amazing life as a Vogue model, Mexican soap opera actor, world traveller, accomplished equestrian rider, and poster girl for the Hawaii Pacific Clipper.
As it turned out, that visit was only the first of several with Valri, and marked the beginning of three years of research trips that would take us to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Baltimore, Santa Barbara, Laramie, Washington D.C., Qualicum Beach and more. Each new thread seemed to lead to a new twist and knot.
One might think that all that travel was necessary because Aloha was so rootless, but the real reason was rather more prosaic: late in life Aloha discovered she could earn fees and tax receipts by donating her collected mementos to museums. Simply put, more museums meant more money. So Aloha scattered her papers, films, and photographs to the four corners of North America and Hawaii.
Along the way we discovered new films, received security clearance at the US National Archives, worked closely with experts at the Smithsonian and several other museums, filed more than 30 requests under Canadian and US freedom of information acts, unearthed countless reams of letters, articles, legal documents, and, time after time, rehearsed Aloha’s story to incredulous people who invariably asked us: Why haven’t I heard of her before?
It’s a fair question. And the work of creating the book has been almost as varied and bizarre as the story it recounts. Aloha’s life, as we found it, was a wilderness of broken mirrors. Putting the pieces back together was a stern challenge – creatively, emotionally, financially – and the details of that adventure would easily make for another book.
For now, though, Aloha’s story remains our focus. Inevitably, many details about her life are still missing. It is my hope (and Randy’s too) that with the book’s publication, new information will continue to surface and that her amazing story will float back into popular imagination.
In a world that’s crawling back to barbed-wire nationalism, Aloha’s adventure-game attitude and tireless horizon chasing offers us another way to approach our times. Travel, she said, is the best education and the best way to promote peace. “Go with your hat in your hand and wherever you are they will treat you as a guest.” Certainly, experiencing other cultures with an attitude of humility and sincere interest could do our worldview no harm.
Get your copy of Aloha Wanderwell through your local independent bookseller or online here.