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A Very Big Little Country

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The micronation of Westarctica was founded 20 years ago and has since become an advocate for raising awareness of climate change in Antarctica.

Illustration by Sophie Minto

The micronation of Westarctica was founded 20 years ago and has since become an advocate for raising awareness of climate change in Antarctica.

For the past two decades, the micronation of Westarctica has grown in prominence—and is now using its power for something other than Antarctic domination.

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If eyes are the window to the soul, then it is especially convenient that Travis McHenry’s eyes are the cool blue of crushed glaciers, of wind-whittled ice reflecting the polar sun. Because even though McHenry is by every account a warm person—a true quick-witted, playful Gemini, apt to change and change again—it is somehow fitting that his eyes mirror a piece of frozen, barren land he’s laid claim to for more than half his life, never mind that he’s actually never been there: 620,000 square miles of Antarctica he’s dubbed Westarctica, a micronation he’s “ruled” as His Royal Highness Travis I, Grand Duke, since 2001. It is land that he is irrevocably connected to. Perhaps it is part of his soul.

The Westarctica portion of Antarctica, which is also known as Marie Byrd Land.

Before his reign, McHenry began his life in Benton, Pennsylvania, which sits 230 miles east of Pittsburgh in a valley between bumpy hills, houses dotted here and there, as if they were marbles that had rolled down grassy slopes and merely lost momentum. There is a sub shop and a Dollar General and a population of 755 people. McHenry’s relatives were original settlers of the town, and despite lore and legend and even local gravitas growing up—living next to Nomadland actor Frances McDormand, whose father was the pastor at Benton Christian Church—McHenry can’t remember a time when he didn’t wish for something more. “Ever since I was little, I had a yearning to go someplace bigger,” McHenry, now 41, says. “I always had dreams of making something of myself.”

In elementary school, McHenry was an unexceptional student, and on report cards, teachers expressed disappointment—he was a distraction to others, a ham. He had too much energy. By high school, he’d found his footing, sort of, becoming interested in history, English, and acting. After graduation, he began studying theater at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, 16 miles south of Benton. He read up on acting technique, tooled around with Stanislavski and Meisner methods. But after three and a half years, he felt more of a pull toward a bigger purpose. Clichéd, corny as it sounds, he wanted to make a difference. With what he calls “dreams of grandeur,” he enrolled in the Navy in January 2001, working as an antiterrorism intelligence specialist, floating the world on the USS Kearsarge.

That same year, McHenry was reading the CIA World Factbook, those glacier-blue eyes swimming over words, when he was stopped cold by one line in the Antarctica entry: “No formal claims have been made in the sector between 90 degrees west and 150 degrees west.” Heartened by the idea of presiding over a chunk of  The Ice—the pull of something bigger!—he read United Nations’ operating laws and the Antarctic Treaty, which dictates international relations regarding Antarctica. Convinced he had a case, he sent letters to the nine countries with territorial claims in Antarctica letting them know he had found a “loophole”—letters to Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the United States. “I didn’t know that I could do it [start a micronation],” he says today. “I just never doubted myself in the beginning. Stupid, youthful exuberance is probably the only thing that can account for that.” In an October 2001 note addressed to the State Department’s Office of Oceans and Polar Affairs, McHenry, proclaiming himself Consul-General, wrote:

“I have been heavily studying the continent of Antarctica, and I have come to several conclusions. There are very few places on earth where a man can be truly alone. Antarctica is one of those places. It’s [sic] vast ice fields hold more than just frozen water, the entire continent holds the potential to unlock the secrets of our past. 

“Therefore, at this time, I deem it necessary to formally claim for myself all land between 90 degrees west and 150 degrees west and south of 60 degrees south to include all seas and ice shelves. The area will henceforth be known as ‘The Achaean Territory of Antarctica.’ The purpose of this acquisition is to secure the territory for research and development and future colonization. Also, to protect it from those parties who would exploit the territory with misdeeds.”

No one responded, but McHenry pressed on, his dreams of traveling to Antarctica to set up a permanent camp never wavering. Slowly, the community grew, despite its sole presence being a basic Yahoo website with a “god-awful” teal-blue background, project name, and email address. (“I still don’t know how the hell people found the site,” McHenry says.) In 2004, he had a revelation: The land should not be a territory, but a sovereign state with rules and regulations. He renamed it Westarctica, partly in homage to the historic Napoleonic Kingdom of Westphalia, in Germany, and partly to evoke images of western Antarctica. (Plus, McHenry admits, Westarctica rolls off the tongue a little easier.) He crowned himself Grand Duke and got married, his bride wearing a tiara during the wedding ceremony. He gave royal titles to friends and family—barons, dukes, counts, countesses—the names a hybrid of actual locations in Westarctica and pulled from Emil Ludwig’s 1928 biography of Napoleon. “My imagination took it from there,” he says. But after the military discovered that McHenry was communicating with foreign governments, they gave him an ultimatum: Give up on Westarctica or lose your security clearance—and leave the Navy. As a result, in 2006, McHenry absconded the throne and Philip Karns, Westarctica’s Duke of Ravencroft and Minister of Information, took over.

But 10 months into Grand Duke Philip’s reign, Westarctica had virtually disappeared. The nobles had faded from public view, and the official website for the nation went defunct. Concerned, Westarctica citizen Jon-Lawrence Langer—the Duke of Moulton-Berlin—reached out to McHenry. After some back and forth, the title of Grand Duke passed from Philip to Jon-Lawrence in October 2008. By November 2009, Westarctica was once again in shambles, with a citizenship of around 25 active members, many of them disagreeing over how the country should be run. 

On May 26, 2010, McHenry—who had left the military two years prior—seized control of Westarctica. A week later, on June 4, he celebrated his 30th birthday by declaring himself Grand Duke once again, making the announcement official from a suite at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa in Anaheim. Since then, much has changed. McHenry has hosted a rambling podcast about his life and become an ordained deacon in the Baptist church. He worked in the film industry. (After burning out in the film industry, he began working as a recruiter for psychics, all the while becoming more and more interested in the paranormal.) He raised $500,000 on Kickstarter for original tarot and oracle decks with meaning drawn from occult magic traditions. He wrote three books. He had two children, divorced his wife, and married a man. He has read Napoleon, Homer, and Plato, and can quote them all, but perhaps the words of Plato are most apt. “Everything changes and nothing remains still.” Still, mea culpa to Plato, one thing has remained constant: Westarctica has been a country ascendant, even if it is for reasons altogether wholly unexpected. 

McHenry’s royal dress includes a midnight blue jacket with cobalt blue cuffs and collar, a sky blue sash, a gold belt, and Westarctica medals.

The world’s oldest territory-based micronation is Elleore, north of Roskilde on the Danish island of Zealand. Established in 1944 by a group of eight teachers from the Østersøgade School, it was intended as a sanctuary, a place where free thought, dialogue, respect, and an alternative form of education could flourish. (Its motto: Et rige uden historie er jo som en løve uden bag—“A kingdom without history is like a lion without a back.”) Today, there is a population of 275, a king and queen, national sports, and a time zone that is 12 minutes behind Copenhagen. Elleore has otherwise remained intensely private, but at its core, sources say, it’s about building a utopia, about being a part of something better. “Elleore is a state of mind, body, and soul, which we share to the benefit of us all,” says Claus de la Porte, an earl and Elleore’s secretary of culture. “May that stay so forever—on the farthest edge of the Kingdom, closest to the sunset.” 

Despite Elleore’s quiet ascent, it wasn’t until the 1960s that micronations entered the public consciousness. For it was in 1967 when Italian engineer Giorgio Rosa built a 4,300-square-foot platform 11 miles off the coast of Rimini, Italy, and dubbed it Repubblica dell’Isola delle Rose, or Rose Island. It had a bar, restaurant, post office, nightclub, and souvenir shop. On May 1, 1968, the platform declared independence. The Italian government, convinced that Rosa was more interested in raising money from novelty-hunting tourists and avoiding national taxation, was not impressed. On February 13, 1969, after assuming control of the island, the Italian Navy used explosives to destroy the facility. (No one was harmed in the destruction of Rose Island, though Rosa later claimed his dog was on the platform at the time of detonation.) 

The year 1967 was also when Ray Bates, a former Major in the British army, founded the Principality of Sealand seven miles off the eastern shore of Britain in a fortress island built during World War II to protect against German invaders; towers of concrete and steel, they were left derelict after the war. (Bates formally claimed “Jus Gentium”—or “Law of Nations”—over a part of the globe he said was “Terra Nullius,” or “Nobody’s Land.”) In 1968, Sealand’s legitimacy was questioned in court, but the judge dismissed the case, saying, “This is a swashbuckling incident perhaps more akin to the time of Sir Francis Drake, but it is my judgment that the U.K. courts have no jurisdiction.” 

For many micronationalists—and those adjacent to it—it was Sealand’s success that made headlines, grabbed hearts, and spawned imitators. The Republic of Minerva (250 miles off of Tonga) followed in 1972, as did the Empire of Atlantium (New South Wales, Australia) in 1981. But Philip Hayward, one of the world’s foremost researchers on micronations, says the biggest shift came with the advent of the internet: All of a sudden, “territory” was up for interpretation. “Prior to the internet, micronations were generally claims on actual territories by people who had either lived on or had been to these territories, or who actually had some kind of aspiration for these territories to have micronational status,” Hayward says. “The chief characteristic about the internet era is that many of them [micronations] had no connection or affiliation with actual place claims.” 

Today, there are nearly 100 active micronations around the world, although the number fluctuates frequently. They engage in diplomacy, have feuds, military uniforms, and self-fashioned leaders with opulent titles, because—well, why not? Sometimes, they even print their own stamps and currencies: Westarctica’s legal tender is ice marks, with banknotes featuring McHenry, penguins, and the Westarctican coat of arms (orcas flanking an azure shield adorned with snowflakes). It is microprinted with ultraviolet ink and printed on 75 percent cotton rag, 25 percent linen paper, like U.S. banknotes, but it is essentially a collector’s item and nothing else. 

Hayward says he’s often asked why he takes micronations seriously, that colleagues will discuss all of the academic ways in which they are completely impracticable. To him, this is kind of missing the point. “A lot of them are not about viability,” he says. “They’re about gesture, or performance, or fantasy, or whims.” But Hayward is quick to add that even through parodying actual nations, micronations serve as critiques of nationhood and the assumptions we take for granted as members of a country. It is insight, he says, into people’s notions of power. 

Ask anyone in the micronational community about misconceptions, and they refute the idea that all micronations are made equal. No two countries are the same. Why, then, would any two micronations be? Some are larks, dreamed up in bathtubs and enacted in bedrooms, lasting only a few weeks. Others, like Obsidia, which calls a two-pound rock its “humble territory” and serves as a mobile, feminist-only nation, are intent on using awareness to increase visibility for “femme/feminist/LGBTQ people and explore concepts for an ideal governance.” Says Obsidia’s founder, Grand Marshal Carolyn Yagjian: “If you broaden the definition of micronations, you’re really looking at a truly fascinating area of geography. There are micronations of all kinds, from true separatists, art projects, nonprofits, and community land projects.”

Others still are so deeply part of a person you couldn’t have one without the other. Such is the case with the Republic of Molossia and its president Kevin Baugh, who works in human resources and who originally founded the micronation in 1977 as the Grand Republic of Vuldstein, later renaming it and establishing it on a small plot of land in Nevada. Today, the republic has a population of 34—all family members—but Baugh, its president and the founder of MicroCon, a ​​semiannual summit of micronationalist governments, says it is not an act. “After all these years, it’s a part of me,” he says. “There’s no way to separate it from me. It’s an extension of myself and it really means everything. It’s also an extension of my own imagination and creativity. We’re always trying to enhance the idea of having one’s own nation and see where we can take it next. And I imagine most nations are on some level, you know, seeking what they can do better.” 

In essence, Westarctica is a gumbo of these elements: It started as a lark, dreamed up on a ship until the idea became real. For a time, Westarctica existed without McHenry, but he was always there, its patron saint and first duke. But in 2014, McHenry—a year into that lucrative job recruiting psychics—says he was seriously considering disbanding the micronation. 

“I did some soul searching,” he says. “I hadn’t really accomplished the goal I set out to accomplish, which was to protect this [Antarctic] area. And I decided that either I need to do this, or I need to just completely let it go. I decided to go 100 percent and really be committed to the dream that I originally had.”

And so: In 2015, McHenry pivoted. Instead of focusing his efforts on establishing and occupying a research station on the continent of Antarctica, he would establish Westarctica as a nonprofit focused on fighting climate change. In doing so, he reasoned, Westarctica would be a global voice for western Antarctica, raising awareness about protecting its plants and animals and ice sheets and seas. (Despite the fact that there are 70 permanent research stations on Antarctica—and thousands of biologists, ecologists, and geologists there representing 29 countries and every continent on Earth—Antarctica and the threats to it can never be discussed enough, according to McHenry.) Sure, he might not have a scientific background, but he does have a profile. Knows how to hold an audience. He would use it to be a part of something bigger, but in a bigger, better-for-the-environment way. “It changed everything for Westarctica,” McHenry says of this decision. “Absolutely everything.”

Westarctica’s currency, ice marks, shown alongside the flag and seal.

As the coldest, driest, and windiest continent, Antarctica is one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. Westarctica itself is such harsh terrain that it is typically mapped by air. Officially known as Marie Byrd Land, it is named after the wife of naval officer Richard E. Byrd, who led the first exploratory flight over the stretch in 1929. Though bordering Vinson Massif mountain, the continent’s highest point, much of Marie Byrd Land comprises the Bentley Subglacial Trench, the lowest point on the continent and one of the lowest points on Earth not covered by ocean. The west coast of Antarctica is also one of the most rapidly warming parts of the planet, experiencing five times the mean rate of global warming. Snow and ice covers are melting at terrifying rates, affecting everything from penguin colonies to the invasion of plants. 

Since 2018, when Westarctica was granted tax-exempt status by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, its receipts have ticked steadily upwards: Through gifts, grants, and fundraising, it pulled in $14,000 in 2018, $16,500 in 2019, and a little more than $20,000 in 2020. (Like other directors and officers for Westarctica, McHenry, who runs his own tarot card business and contributes 5 percent of profits to Westarctica, is not compensated.) Today, Westarctica has 2,300 citizens, 500 of whom McHenry says are very active—donating, joining public campaigns to stop whaling operations in protected oceans, participating in letter-writing drives to raise awareness about climate change in Antarctica, attending climate change rallies on behalf of the micronation. (In 2018, the micronation was an official partner with the People’s Climate Movement to help organize the Rise For Climate protests.) Around the world, from Brazil to Japan to Ukraine, Westarctica has 26 international diplomatic representatives with the express purpose of promoting “economic and cultural relations between Westarctica and the country in which they reside with the goal of strengthening Westarctica’s image abroad.” After all, it’s easier to craft relationships, McHenry has found, with the spirit of cooperation than with a conqueror’s mentality. 

I think about the ideas I had in 2001 and what I thought Westarctica was going to become, and it’s evolved into something so completely different,” he says. “I gave people something to believe in. And if it’s for a good cause, they’ll jump behind you.”

For the past two years, Westarctica has offered a $500 conservation scholarship for early-career researchers who are pursuing work in climate-change science. In 2021, the recipient was Katie O’Brien, a doctoral student at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, who is researching penguins on Signy Island, off the coast of Antarctica. It is a small stipend, O’Brien says, but a meaningful one. “As I’m doing a PhD in molecular biology, prices can really hike up, and it doesn’t leave a lot of room for me to explore potential avenues of research,” she says. “This grant will allow me to carry out a trial run of some genomic sequencing that I have been dying to have a crack at, so it means the world that Westarctica believes in my project as much as I do.” Says McHenry: “Westarctica has gone from an ego project to being of service to the environment. The work that I do is not for my own benefit or aggrandizement anymore.”

McHenry is hardly the first micronationalist to use fame to fuel conservation efforts. In 1964, writer Leicester Hemingway—brother of the other Hemingway—founded the micronation of New Atlantis on an 8 x 30-foot barge floating off of Jamaica; he intended to use money raised by selling coins and stamps to funnel oceanographic research via the International Marine Research Society, which he started. “There’s no law that says you can’t start your own country,” he told the Washington Post. But within a few years, North Atlantis had been completely destroyed by storms. On November 2, McHenry and Westarctica will mark two decades. 

The west coast of Antarctica is also one of the most rapidly warming parts of the planet.

Dinny Pulipati first met McHenry in California in 2014, when both were working at the same company, albeit with radically different responsibilities: Pulipati as a software engineer, and McHenry, still, recruiting psychics. After six months of circling, McHenry approached Pulipati and asked him on a date; soon, they were going steady. And after a mere month together, McHenry told Pulipati he was royalty—sort of. 

“When he mentioned it, I thought, ‘What the heck?,’” Pulipati, now McHenry’s husband, says. “But at the same time I thought, ‘OK, it’s just for fun.’ It sounded like a game to me—‘Let’s call each other kings and queens.’ But in time, I saw his work and his efforts and his dedication.” 

Of royalty, McHenry likes to joke he is perhaps most like Albert II, Prince of Monaco, who is the son of Prince Rainier III and actor Grace Kelly. Like Albert, he is a bald man who wears glasses, he’ll quip. But more seriously, he’ll admit, he admires Prince Albert most for his focus on environmentalism and ocean conservation. It is impressive, he says, the way Albert is raising money for ecological preservation and ensuring Monaco uses renewable energy to help combat climate change.

As with any royal—Albert or Elizabeth or William or Harry—one expects the public persona is very different from the private one. Add the fact that the royalty is from a nation that isn’t quite real, and it’s understandable, then, the side-eye, the squint, the sometimes snark, the questions. Is Westarctica just McHenry’s long con? The Grand Duke the greatest acting role of his life? “No,” says McHenry, who splits his time between California and Nevada. “It’s 100 percent me.” Adds Pulipati: “It’s not a joke to him. It’s not, ‘I’m doing this for fun, I’m doing this for fame.’ No. Everybody has their own way [of creating good] and this is the way he’s doing it.”

On Westarctica’s 20th anniversary, McHenry will open the front door of his new Las Vegas home and head into his yard. There, he’ll string up a Westarctica flag, 3 x 5 feet of teal bisected by a cross, with a crown in the top left quadrant. It is a small gesture, but a meaningful one. Even from his perch in the fastest-warming city in the United States—and even though he will soon step down as Executive Director of Westarctica, to make way for the nonprofit’s next chapter—the country is never far from mind.

A few days later, on November 6, the Westarctican community will gather at a Hilton Garden Inn in Charlotte, North Carolina, to celebrate together. McHenry, who will retain the Grand Ducal crown and continue as Westarctica’s Chairman of the Board, will be in royal dress: a midnight blue jacket with cobalt blue cuffs and collar, a sky blue sash, a gold belt, and Westarctica medals. There will be a welcome reception, and dinner, drinks, and dancing, but at the end of the night, eventually, Westarctica’s citizens will return to their rooms. In time, they’ll travel back to their hometowns around the world, where they’ll live as teachers, doctors, scientists, and lawyers, secret and not-so-secret citizens of a fake country trying to effect real change, McHenry among them. Those long-ago dreams of grandeur are not so easily gone, you see. 

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