I am driving to a place that doesn’t exist. I am doing this because the President of Molossia emailed me. He’d seen something I’d written about his little nation, so he invited me for a visit. “I will gladly escort you around Molossia and show you the sights; it would be an honour,” he wrote. “I hope you will favourably consider my invitation and come see our great nation! Warmest regards, His Excellency President Kevin Baugh, Republic of Molossia.”
“Is he crazy?” friends ask me, but I don’t know the answer yet.
On a Friday in September, I begin the long drive from Berkeley through the Sierra Nevadas. I skirt the north end of Lake Tahoe and hit traffic headed to Reno for the holiday weekend. In Reno, I sleep over a casino. The next morning I drive through Virginia City, Nevada, an old boomtown over a vein of silver ore where Mark Twain began his writing career, just outside a fictitious locale made famous by Bonanza. Molossia is a reasonable distance into the desert. I spot the sign:
His Excellency Kevin Baugh, President of Molossia, emerges from the house dressed like a caudillo: he wears a tricolour sash of the Molossian national flag looped through a gold epaulette. Beneath the hat, a pair of Kim Jong Il-style sunglasses cover half of his face. He welcomes me enthusiastically, pumping my hand as if I am a long-awaited diplomat. I am encouraged to pay the customs fee: my pocket change. I deposit it into a tin can affixed to the door the Customs Booth. A sign informs me that many things are not permitted in the Republic of Molossia. Among them: firearms, ammunition, explosives, catfish, spinach, missionaries and salesmen, onions, walruses and anything from Texas with the exception of Kelly Clarkson.
I tour the "country" – there is a miniature-scale Molossian railroad, national parks, battlefields and cemeteries. The president moves from place to place talking about Molossia’s various conflicts: the Dead Dog War, the War with Mustachistan. I participate in the Molossian Space Program by launching a stomp rocket and am awarded the title of Space Cadet, along with a certificate.
After the tour, President Baugh stamps my passport and gives me a gift of Molossian money, circles of paper glued onto poker chips. I examine one of the coins: Ten Valora, the Molossian denomination illustrated with Emperor Norton I. Who better to be on this currency than the eccentric 19th-century San Francisco citizen who declared himself “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico” and was gently humoured by the people of the city until his death?
When he is not the president of Molossia, Kevin Baugh is a retired sergeant first class of the US Army, working in the human-resources department of the Nevada National Guard. It would seem that declaring himself supreme ruler of a sovereign nation would cause problems for his military career, but acknowledging Molossia’s playfulness keeps it off the US government’s formal radar. When visitors come around, he appears in full regalia, blustering, kind and deeply in character.
When he was a teenager, President Baugh – then, just Kevin – watched The Mouse That Roared. At the time, he and his friend James were living in Portland, Oregon. “We were really struck by the imagination of it,” he says. “A tiny country attacking the US, expecting to lose – but winning. We thought it’d be a cool idea.” Molossia was initially born as the Grand Republic of Vuldstein. James became king, Baugh prime minister. James lost interest in the project, and possession of the country fell to Baugh. The Grand Republic of Vuldstein traveled around with her only citizen. Only in the 90s did the country find a home in Nevada and adopt her current name.
In the last few years, much has changed in Molossia. She has acquired many new attractions: a trading post, bar and grill, president’s office. Molossia is not about money – there is little to no money to be made from the venture—and it is not about power. It is not about Emperor Norton-style delusion, though Baugh would, perhaps, allow you to think so, for a spell. With its costumes and characters and interaction with both real-world elements and fictional constructs, it seems like a LARP created for the spirit of the internet, even though it predates it.
For example, the country has been in an international conflict with East Germany since 1983, when Kevin Baugh was serving in the army. Military exercises woke him in the night, and he swore Vuldstein was at war against injustice. Years after East Germany fell, there remains, according to Baugh, a remaining piece alive – Ernst Thälmann Island, located off the coast of Cuba. The island was given as a gift to East Germany in 1972 by Fidel Castro and was never mentioned in any of the settlement treaties at the end of the Cold War. More recently, Molossia was briefly “invaded” by web-series star/comedian Doug Walker and friends, who took over and renamed the country Kickassia. Eventually, Molossia was restored to her rightful rulers.
Molossia exists. It’s equal parts play and parody, storytelling and invention. It is not imaginary like a child’s made-up playmate, it’s imaginary in that it’s born of imagination. It is not a place for separatists or cynics or conspiracy theorists. Maybe – just maybe – it’s a country for the rest of us.
I ask the President what Molossia is. I try to frame the question in a way that isn’t offensive or dismissive. I try to explain myself. Does he consider himself in character, like Stephen Colbert, constantly pushing the boundaries of caricature and reality? An artistic performance? Is this just a hobby?
“It’s an extension of myself,” he says. “It’s not a hobby, it’s – it’s like a passion.”
But why a micronation?
“It’s an expression of personal sovereignty, creativity, imagination and political satire,” he says, finally. “It’s a nice way to look around the world. You can see what countries are doing and say, ‘I can do that.’”