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Portraits

Worldly Tales: When Travel Was Adventure

April 29, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

A woman by the remarkable name of Aloha Wanderwell Baker has lived in the same apartment on Lido Isle in Newport Beach since 1949. Her living-room picture window offers a view of Newport Bay. But in her den, with its stacks of filing cabinets, the view is even more expansive because it encompasses the whole world, in hundreds of photographs and frayed clippings documenting some of the more exciting--and least known--adventures of the early 20th Century.

In 1922--when Baker was 14--she joined the expedition of a Polish adventurer whose name was so difficult to pronounce in English that he adopted "Wanderwell." His mission was to drive a Model T Ford around the world. Only Baker stayed with him through the entire trip, which ended triumphantly in Detroit three years later. For Baker, it was the start of a marriage, a career on the lecture platform and a nomadic kind of life that didn't end until she and her second husband, Walter Baker, settled in Newport Beach.

Today, a tall, lean, white-haired woman with the courtly bearing of her English background, a firm handshake, eyes that both dance and penetrate, remarkable energy and total recall, Baker is finishing a book about her travels while living a life of quiet refinement with her husband who "allows my tribal customs and serves me tea twice a day."

She came out of an unlikely environment for such perilous adventures. Her parents were British citizens who migrated to Canada in the early 1900s out of a romantic longing to carve a livelihood out of the Canadian prairies. A cholera epidemic drove them to Vancouver, and the start of World War I drove them home, "where my father went back to his regiment."

But this love of the prairie conditioned Baker and her mother the rest of their lives. It was also responsible for the unusual name. "It has nothing to do with Hawaii," its owner says today. "Mother was of the gypsy spirit and thought Aloha was a pretty word."

Her father was killed in World War I, and after the war, Baker's mother put her two daughters into a convent school in Belgium while she searched for her husband's body. "It was never found, and Mother thought he might come back. But after two years, she finally gave up and we moved to the south of France."

There Baker grew up and grew bored with school. "I was very big for my age. I haven't grown since I was 13, and I was taken as an adult." One of the people who took her as an adult was a French war ace who courted her so enthusiastically that Baker's mother took her back to England to "meet some proper boys." One of them asked to marry her, but she was too young to announce an engagement, so it was agreed that she was "spoken for." With that mission accomplished, the family returned to Nice.

That's where Baker met Capt. Walter Wanderwell. He was on the first leg of his journey around the world by car and was making his expenses by lecturing en route. He was 27 then, an "enormously handsome" Pole who had run away to sea as a small boy and had seen virtually the entire world when his ship put in at Baltimore in World War I. Cap--as Baker was to know him--left his ship and began to hike across the United States, paying his way by giving talks in churches about the situation in Europe. He actually became fluent in English by using it from the lecture platform.

He was in Atlanta when the United States entered World War I and was immediately looked on with suspicion as a foreigner of dubious leanings. He spent several months in jail while authorities checked out his background. When he got out, he joined the Volunteers of America (an organization helping the Armed Services in a variety of ways) and rose to the rank of captain. He had already adopted "Wanderwell" on his hiking tour, so he became--for the rest of his life--Capt. Wanderwell.

After the war, he conceived the idea of an auto trip around the world. He discussed the project with Henry Ford, but declined Ford's sponsorship so he could make his own decisions. He had a special steel-plate model built on a Ford touring car chassis and set out with a crew of four from Detroit. He had already been to England when Baker caught up with him in Nice. She was enchanted and managed to meet the captain after his lecture. He told her they needed an interpreter fluent in both French and English and asked if she would be interested. She said she would; she also told him she was 16.

"It took mother four weeks, but the gypsy in her finally prevailed and she agreed. Cap told me there would always be another woman in the party, and he lived up to that whenever he could. We took on interpreters in every country, so the cast kept changing. I was the only one who stayed with him through the whole trip."

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