In September, I took my first extended vacation in three years. My only firm plans were to spend my first night in Bishop, California and eventually head up to fulfill a long-time dream of seeing the world’s oldest beings, the bristlecone pines in the White Mountains during my two-week journey. I threw all my camping gear in a rental car and headed up and over the Sierra Nevada and then south.
My first full day, I visited Manzanar National Historic Site. For those who don’t know about Manzanar, here is the description from the website of the National Park Service: “In 1942, the United States government ordered more than 110,000 men, women, and children to leave their homes and detained them in remote, military-style camps. Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten camps where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were interned during World War II.”
This might seem like a strange place to launch a vacation, since it is definitely not an experience I would describe as fun. But as someone who is committed to social justice work, it felt important for me to see where Japanese Americans and immigrants were forced to live from 1942-1945 for no reason other than their ethnicity.
It was a strange experience to visit this place in the Great Basin desert with stunning views of the mountains, and see it as picturesque when those unfortunate to be imprisoned there had such a different experience. I spent the whole day there, absorbing the former prisoners’ stories through listening to recordings, watching videos, standing alone in a reconstructed replica of the typical open room that housed 8 people with no walls and no privacy.
I had tears in my eyes most of the day. My heart ached for the suffering that accompanied this sad part of our country’s history. And yet I was touched by the beauty the people who lived there created despite their painful lives: stonework, gardens, landscaping at a desert spring, orchards. On the driving tour, I stopped at a site that was once a garden and another that was a cemetery for a few people unfortunate to die there. I paid my respects at both places.
I had my camera with me this trip but it was clear that it seemed inappropriate at Manzanar. Documenting the suffering that occurred here did not feel right. I took only a single photo outside the gate, of an old guard tower that stands against the backdrop of the stunning Sierra Nevada landscape. I wanted this image as a reminder for myself to be part of preventing such a tragedy from happening again.
A couple days later, I hiked up Little Rock Creek and found an oak sapling, less than two inches tall, growing out of the tiniest bit of fertile earth, a small patch of lichen on a boulder. I snapped a photo. Looking at the image now, taken soon after I visited Manzanar, it struck me as a reminder of the tenacity of the people so unjustly imprisoned in their own country.
I can offer these people who suffered nothing. I cannot undo what happened. But in my mind, I associate this tiny tree with their spirit, a symbol of life springing from what would appear to be impossible. So here are two photos to pay tribute to all of those at Manzanar and their loved ones and descendents–a guard tower that still stands as a reminder of what Japanese Americans endured, and the little tree that reminds me of the strength of the human spirit.