Manzanar & the Eastern Sierra

After not having a day off work since 17 March 2014, I was ready for a trip.  Or so I thought.

I had been pondering a run up the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada for some time now.  It’s someplace that I’d never been before–I had always seen the Sierra from the west–so the idea of seeing something new appealed to me.

Oddly, as my time off from work grew closer, my indifference level about the trip increased for some goofy reason.  So much so, that I even just stayed put for the first days of my vacation.  I just lounged around the house asking, “Do I really want to go?”  Thankfully, I snapped out of the doldrums, loaded up the car, locked down the house, and hit the road.

My general make-it-up-as-I-go vision was to run up US 395 to Mono Lake, and then make a determination as to whether I would continue all the way to Lake Tahoe; head west into Yosemite; or even head east to Salt Lake City and “color in” a missing section of I-15 between Provo and I-70 on my infamous travel map.

Sierra Nevada Mountains near Lone Pine, CA

First stop: Cabrillo National Monument.  No, not as a vacation destination.  I’m there every week.  I stopped to activate the free national parks pass that I earned for more than 500 hours of volunteer service.

My route (map below) took me through the western edge of the Mojave Desert where there’s a whole lot of nothing but tumbleweed and high tension power wires.  As I approached the southern end of the Sierra, I was expecting it to be a bit more forested, but I was wrong.  When I thought about it, the western slopes get all the moisture from the Pacific, and the eastern slopes are quite arid.  By midway into the trip, I’d learn just how arid.

Lone Pine was my first stop of the trip.  After checking into the Comfort Inn, I headed off to a restaurant called Seasons.  It was a small place with a dining room in front and a bar area in the back.  The place was packed (good sign) so the only place for me to eat if I didn’t want to wait was at the miniscule bar in the back.  Not a problem.

The bar could comfortably seat about 6-7 people, and shortly after I sat down and ordered, we were very cozy with eight of us sitting shoulder to shoulder.  Virtually everyone there except me was a local, so it was fun engaging in conversation with them.

The woman next to me was from Lone Pine originally, but had moved away decades ago and was back visiting her sister who still lived there.  She was really interesting to talk with, and she mentioned that she had known the famous nature photographer, Galen Rowell, when she lived there.  Apparently he lived and worked an hour or so north in Bishop, California, and she planned on visiting his gallery there.  (Which was a good tip for me–I didn’t know it was there.)

I put myself in the unfortunate position of having to let her know that Galen had died in a plane crash in 2002–she wasn’t aware of that, and I think she’s was thinking that she may run into him at the gallery.  She thanked me for letting her know.

The next morning, I was off to Manzanar, the War Relocation Center where 10,000 Japanese Americans were held during World War II.  Little did I realize the impact visiting there would have on me.


Watch Tower, Manzanar

Every American who cares about preserving our Constitutional rights as individuals needs to visit Manzanar.

There’s not much left–a guard tower, the stone entrance buildings, the auditorium (where the visitor center and museum are located), a few barracks buildings, the cemetery, and a whole lot of concrete slabs where things used to be.  But even with so little that’s been preserved, the story remains.

It’s a story that moved me to tears.

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, and in February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the War Department to “establish Military Areas and remove from those areas anyone who might threaten the war effort.”

People of Japanese ancestry on the west coast, one of those designated Military Areas, were given just days to rid themselves of everything they had with the exception of what they could carry with them to the War Relocation Centers.  (Manazanar wasn’t the only center; there were nine others scattered across the U.S.)

Many owned their own homes or ran their own successful business, and they were forced to abandon it all.  Some were able to lease their homes to others, but many had to sell their homes or businesses for pennies on the dollar, or they simply abandoned them altogether.  Each family was assigned a number to be tracked and monitored by before they left their homes.

One person recounted that he was told that he was being relocated for his own protection, yet when he arrived at Manazar, he noticed the barbed wire fencing and the fact that the guns at the sentry posts were pointing in towards the camp and not outward as if to defend the camp from intruders.  He knew then he was in for a much different experience.  He was being imprisoned for no reason other than he was of Japanese ancestry.

Families were placed into communal barracks with no separation between them, other than the makeshift walls they fashioned from sheets themselves.  Bathrooms were also communal–no dividers between commodes or showers–and the buildings themselves were hastily constructed and the holes in the roof and tar paper walls allowed much of the desert sand and dust to blow in at every opportunity.  Summers were oppressively hot; winters were bone-chillingly cold.

Residents of Manzanar did their best to continue with some normalcy in their lives.  There were dances in the auditorium, classes for children, gardens created and maintained, and even a baseball field for playing ball.  Still, it was far from the normal lives they were forced to give up.

After the war ended in August 1945, it took several months before Manazanar closed on 21 November 1945.

In Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933, he uttered his oft-repeated words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  Yet it was unbridled and unfounded fear that led him to issue Executive Order 9066, placing more than 120,000 men, women, and children into custody simply because they were of Japanese ancestry.  (About 80,000 of them were second or third generation, born here in the United States.)  It was the ultimate case of guilt by association.

Of course, the tragedy in all of this was the fact that the majority of those placed in War Relocation Centers were United States citizens, entitled to the protections afforded individuals in the Constitution.  There was no due process.  There was no protection from illegal searches and seizures.  There were no charges brought and no speedy and impartial trial before being imprisoned.  The FBI just came knocking on doors and carted people off simply because they were of Japanese ancestry.

Not a single Japanese American was charged with espionage, sabotage, or treason during the war.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act which apologized for the internment of Japanese Americans, admitting that it was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”  Reparation payments totaling $1.6 billion were made to survivors and their heirs.

If you think we’ve learned our lesson from that sad chapter in American history, think again.  We haven’t.  Post-9/11 fear-mongering is alive and well.

Worse, we’ve used that fear to erode our constitutional rights and liberties since 9/11:

  • The 2006 Military Commissions Act suspended the writ of habeus corpus by allowing imprisonment of individuals without being charged with a crime, violating Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution.
  • The USA PATRIOT Act resurrected the practice of “ideological exclusion” which violates the First Amendment right to free speech by denying entry into the U.S. if the person expresses opposing views to U.S. policies.
  • The Police America Act of 2007 gave the National Security Agency a blank check to wiretap Americans without judicial oversight.
  • During the Iraq war, we tortured suspects in violation of the Eight Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
  • The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System put into effect in 2002 required mandatory registration of only male non-citizens over the age of 16 who entered the U.S. legally and who happened to be from select countries in the Mideast and Africa (mostly Muslim countries).

Those recent actions, all taken in the name of patriotism and national security, are not as overt as putting 120,000 people in camps.  They are more insidious because they’re happening out of sight.  Too many Americans can’t take their noses out of their iPhones and Facebook pages long enough to realize that their constitutional rights are slowly being taken away, one legislative act at a time, and we keep reelecting those who are stripping us of these basic rights.

Yes, we live in troubled times that require constant vigilance, but we can be secure without sacrificing our freedoms.  We must insist on it.

Obviously, visiting Manzanar moved me very deeply and touched a nerve.  I applaud the National Park Service and what they’ve done to tell the story–it’s one every American should know and one that should never be forgotten.

Bristlecone Pines

On leaving Manzanar, I drove into Bishop and stopped at the Galen Rowell gallery, Mountain Light Photography, for a look-see.  His photography is inspirational and something us wannabe photographers can only aspire to.

After a quick lunch, I headed east into the White Mountains to check out some of the oldest living things on the planet–Bristlecone pines.  Let’s just say that I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into before setting off on CA 168.

The Owens Valley, nestled between the Sierra on the west and the White Mountains on the east, sits at about 3,900 feet / 1.200 m elevation.  The road leading out of the valley started up a nice gentle grade, but before long, I was twisting and turning on hairpin turns and going through a rock canyon on a one-lane section of highway (that had a blind corner so you couldn’t tell if traffic was coming in the opposite direction).

I kept following the signs and ultimately found myself at the Schulman Grove visitor center at 10,010 feet / 3.050 m elevation.  Thankfully, I brought my winter coat, as it was only 41° F / 5° C with a brisk wind.  There was even a trace of that four-lettered white stuff on the ground.

There were plenty of Bristlecone pines around the visitor center, but I didn’t really get out and explore too much, I’m sad to say.  The reason?  I was feeling as old as one of the ancient pines.  Going from sea level in San Diego to 10,000 feet in 24 hours left zero time for altitude acclimation, and I was huffing and puffing with each step, and developed a screaming headache.

I would have loved to have driven the 12 additional miles to the Patriarch Grove, but discretion was the order of the day, so I descended back to the valley.  (Plus, I wasn’t sure how well-maintained the gravel road was, and I didn’t want to turn my all-wheel-drive 5 series into a 4×4 off-road vehicle.)

Mono Lake

On the drive between Bishop and Mono Lake, near Mammoth Lakes, the desert and sagebrush finally yielded to rocks and pine forests.  It was the Sierra experience that I was hoping for.  That happened because I was once again at 8,000 feet / 2.440 m in elevation.  This time, the altitude bothered me a little less.

Mono Lake is about 60 square miles in size, and it has no outlet.  All the rain and snow from the surrounding mountains drain into the lake carrying with it the salts and minerals in the mountain soils.  That makes Mono Lake saltier than the ocean.

Underground springs also fed into Mono Lake and, as the lake level fell, calcium carbonate “tufas” were exposed.  They are unique and other-worldly in appearance, and very fragile.

Onion Valley

During my stop at Manzanar, the volunteer there told me about Onion Valley, and recommended that I check it out.  It’s west of the town of Independence.

Before heading into the valley, I needed to find a drugstore.  My lips were so chapped and cracked open from the dry air and elevation, I was in desperate need of lip balm.

Again, I probably should have done a little more research before heading there.  I heard “valley” in the name and assumed it would have been in the foothills on the east side of the Sierra.  Wrong.

Another drive up the foothills quickly turned into a series of hairpin turns negotiating their way up the eastern side of the granite cliffs.  The road was narrower than on the White Mountains the day before, and much of it was without guardrails.  Mom would have been in full-blown white-knuckle panic attack mode had she been on the trip.  (I was just in white-knuckle mode.)

There were a couple of pull-off areas where I stopped and looked down into the valley below, and down on the roadway that I had just traveled.  Wow.  It wasn’t much longer, and I pulled into the terminus of the road in Onion Valley–at 9,200 feet / 2.800 m elevation!!  Who puts a valley that high up??

But, spectacular, it was.  Pines, snow-capped peaks, and the half-moon hovering over everything.  The wind and temperature (41° F / 5° C) were something to contend with, once again, but it was worth every twist and turn to get there.

My descent down the mountain had me using the manual shift feature of my 8-speed transmission for the first time in a long time.  Had I not used the gearing to slow my descent, my brakes would have been toast, and I would have either shot off one of those guardrail-less hairpin turns, or slammed into a granite cliff face.  Neither option was desirable.

Yosemite – Not!

Snow on the Tioga Pass thwarted my idea of crossing over the Sierra into my favorite national park, so I guess I’ll just have to save that for another day.  Other passes closer to Lake Tahoe were also closed with snow.  I guess winter really is here, at least at elevation in the mountains.

The Essentials

This was one of my more tame road trips in comparison to all the others:

Total Distance: 990 miles / 1.593 km

Fuel Economy: 30.0 mpg / 7,8 l/100 km

Average Speed: 50.3 mph / 81,0 km/h

All in all, it was a great trip and I’m thankful that I overcame my indifference early in the week.  It’s nice knowing that I can be in Lone Pine in about six hours, and I can see a return trip in the future, perhaps in my old 1997 Ford F-150 4×4 pick-up truck to allow me a little more freedom and to explore some more remote places.  (Of course, it won’t handle on the hairpin curves like my BMW does!)

Happy and safe travels!

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