Published: August 10th 2012September 23rd 2011
The Japanese characters mean 'Soul Consoling Tower'
Relatively few visitors to California make it into the Owens Valley.
Many of that do stick to a resort area called Mammoth Lakes.
For the rest, the valley holds a truly compelling piece of American history.
Most museums in California now talk about the Japanese American internment during World War II [see The Golden State
Where did they end up?
The answer is Manzanar, an armed camp deep in the Owens Valley.
Eastern California Museum
Until thirty years ago, finding anything about the camp was quite difficult.
Many people, including those held there, tried to pretend that it never existed.
Thanks to the dogged efforts of some detainees and local historians, that willing blindness slowly changed.
The first major efforts happened at the Eastern California Museum
It’s a worthwhile stop before seeing the site itself.
The museum is one of the many local history museums that cover parts of the west.
Most of them are intensely quirky affairs with a mishmash of haphazardly arranged artifacts.
The topics, intensely local, range from profound to inane.
The Eastern California Museum is one
Ancient Bristlecone Pine
Cross section of an ancient bristlecone pine at the Eastern California Museum
of this breed, focused on the history of the Owens Valley.
It consists of three cabinet filled rooms
Antiques, memorabilia, and old photographs sit next to typewritten signs.
I liked the arrangement better than the similarly themed Adams Museum in Deadwood [see The Western Tradition
] because the place is much less formal.
It stands above similar museums due to three very special collections.
First, it holds a slice of a bristlecone pine Edmund Shulman used for his research.
The wood is highly polished to show the tree rings.
They are nearly invisible.
Pins mark rings corresponding to notable moments of human history.
The oldest is the Egyptian pyramids, when the tree was less than a hundred years old.
Owens Valley Water War
Second, the museum holds a through display
on the Owens Valley water wars
Mono Lake from yesterday was far from the first manipulation of the area by the City of Los Angeles.
The city’s chief water engineer, William Mulholland
(the namesake of Mulholland Drive) set his sights on the Owens Valley as early as the closing years of World War I.
Owens Valley Water War
Exhibit on the struggle between Owens Valley farmers and the City of Los Angeles over the Owens River
He figured the elevation difference would allow him to build an aqueduct that would work purely by gravity.
The city wanted that water, badly.
The only problem from his point of view is that the valley was already occupied by ranchers and orchard farmers.
They thoroughly used the Owens River for irrigation.
If the city took their river, it would kill their livelihood.
A slogan from the era puts it memorably: “Steal my horse, run off with my wife, but damn you, don’t touch my water”.
Area residents fought against Los Angeles hard.
Some sued, some protested, a few threatened workers and sabotaged the aqueduct pipes.
The display covers all of this with old newspapers and photographs.
In the end, the California State Supreme Court in 1930 upheld the law that allowed Los Angeles to take the water rights by eminent domain.
Just like Hetch Hechy in 1913, the needs of the many city dwellers outweighed the needs of a few rural farmers.
On completion of his aqueduct, William Mulholland announced it to the city by turning on a huge fountain and
Artifacts from Manzanar detainees at the Eastern California Museum
speaking the words “There it is! Take it!
The final, and most important exhibit is on Manzanar
In 1942, Franklin Roosevelt signed an order requiring all people of Japanese ancestry, including US citizens, on the west coast to move to holding camps.
I’ve seen copies of it in museums throughout the west coast, including here.
The official reason was to prevent sabotage, but most historians agree that xenophobia was the real motivation.
In the late 1970s, this museum became the first in the country to actively collect artifacts related to the relocation camp.
Most of them were donated by detainees.
Manzanar was a POW jail.
Both the army and those held there tried to sugarcoat it, but the reality was impossible to ignore.
Movement and activities were tightly controlled.
The museum contains rare photographs of the camp, made by detainees with smuggled cameras.
Cases hold Japanese tea cups, a trumpet from a camp band, and other artifacts.
One section holds a recreation of a family living quarters, which was built quickly out of scrap lumber.
It looks about as comfortable as
Manzanar living quarters
Recreation of a family living quarters at Manzanar
the log cabin I stayed in Yellowstone [see Welcome to Wonderland
To get some sense of normalcy, residents farmed, founded a baseball league, and held a beauty pageant.
The museum holds the records of the baseball teams (in Japanese) and a signed ball.
Manzanar Relocation Camp
After the museum, I went to Manzanar
Aside from a single building, it consists of a large flat area of desert scrub with dirt roads passing the crumbling remains of foundations.
The view shows mountains reaching into the distance.
Without the entrance sign, the area would look wholly unremarkable; this was sadly the point for many years.
Before World War II, the area was a dying orchard
acquired by Los Angeles to get the water rights.
The city leased it to the army on the condition that everything would be torn down after the war was over.
The government sold the buildings for scrap lumber.
The one exception was a building that Inyo County bought as a storage shed, the only surviving building from the camp.
It now holds the main exhibits
While these are much
Model of the Manzanar internment camp in 1943
more thorough than those in the Eastern Sierra Museum, they consist mostly of text and photos.
The other museum has the actual artifacts.
The exhibit starts with a discussion of xenophobia
on the west coast in the 1930s.
It had been growing for a long time, starting with the anti-Chinese immigration campaigns of the 1880s.
Discrimination against Asians in California was as almost pervasive as discrimination against Africans in the South [see Welcome to Hell
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, feelings boiled over.
Like elsewhere, the exhibit has a copy of the exclusion order, officially Executive Order 9066
Families first had to report to assembly areas, from which they were moved to the camps.
Those that resisted risked arrest as enemy spies.
People forced to move had to sell their houses and most of their possessions at steep losses.
Their more racist neighbors openly celebrated this fact.
The camp was most definitely a prison.
Life, as noted above, was strictly regimented and very difficult
Detainees rioted on December 6, 1942 due to a lack of food.
During their confinement,
Memorial to the 12,000 Japanese Americans held at Manzanar
they did get permission to erect a large barn that served as a community meeting hall and recreation center.
Ironically, that building is the one that survived.
As bad as life was for civilians, it was almost as difficult for the soldiers who ran the place.
The camp was a hot dusty and windy near desert in the middle of nowhere.
The one positive aspect for a few was the ability to explore the Sierras on days off.
Even worse, they were guarding American citizens which most objected to morally.
When the first camp commander resigned in 1942, he told his successor Ralph Merritt to be absolutely sure he could look himself in the mirror each morning before taking the job.
The army gave a loyalty questionnaire
to all detainees in February 1943.
The two key questions concerned whether someone would renounce their loyalty to the Japanese emperor, and their willingness to serve in the American Army against Japan.
Most immigrants replied ‘yes’ to both.
Citizens saw both questions as insults and tended to reply ‘no’.
For the former, they had no loyalty
What's left of Manzanar's baseball diamonds
to the Japanese emperor to renounce; for the latter, they saw it as an underhanded method to find draftees.
Hundreds of detainees were ultimately drafted into the army, mostly late in the war as manpower shortages became acute.
They served in segregated units and mostly fought in Europe.
After the war ended, most internees had a very difficult time reintegrating into society.
All of their possessions, land, and businesses were gone.
Equally important, residents felt like pariahs in their own country.
Those wounds took a long time to heal.
Many moved from the camps to the east coast or Midwest, where the stigma was less and jobs were available.
The exhibit ends with three important items.
The first is a scale model of the camp.
It’s important to look it over before exploring the rest of the site, because the actual buildings are gone.
For anyone who has any doubts about the place, the way the camp looks like a war time prison should erase them.
Next is a set of cemetery offerings.
People who died at the camp were buried
The tallest peak in the continental United States
in its cemetery (more on this below).
Offerings left end up in this exhibit.
Finally, the exhibit holds the memorial, a listing of everyone held here (in English), silhouetted over a famous photo of the camp by Dorothea Lange
A self-guided auto tour covers the rest of the site.
Dirt roads pass large sections of scrubby trees next to crumbing foundations.
Signs mark what used to be where, including orchards, a hospital, the baseball fields, and the camp headquarters.
This is the only area with stone walkways instead of dirt, which still exist.
Internees called it “Manzanar’s Beverly Hills”.
One area held the textile factory.
The army recruited detainees to sew uniforms and other cloth.
Many eagerly volunteered.
They believed that supporting the war effort would prove their loyalty.
The most poignant, and photographed, part of Manzanar sits at the back, the cemetery
People who died at the camp are buried here, about a dozen graves.
As people’s willing blindness about the camp lifted, the cemetery became a pilgrimage spot.
Survivors now gather here every year.
All that remains of Owens Lake thanks to the City of Los Angeles. Imagine Mono Lake turning into this.
In the middle 1960s, they erected a white obelisk with Japanese characters that mean “soul consoling tower”.
It has become the camp’s most famous photograph.
Manzanar is an essential sight of United States history that everyone should visit at least once.
No exploration of World War II is complete without it.
It’s especially important for anyone who thinks that such a thing could never happen in this country, because Manzanar shows it already has.
Neither museum nor site points out the uncomfortable parallels with some current political debates, but they should be clear enough.
South of Manzanar, I reached the town of Lone Pine (not to be confused with Big Pine from yesterday!)
Lone Pine is the closest town to Mount Whitney
, the highest mountain in the Sierra Nevada.
It is also the highest mountain in the United States outside Alaska.
Observing it from Lone Pine shows a very steep valley that rises from Lone Pine to a saddle in the ridge near the peak.
It also has a relatively southern location, meaning no glaciers.
The combination of that
Part of the Joshua tree forest of Lee Flat
valley and the lack of permanent snow mean Mount Whitney is relatively easy to climb for anyone with the required fitness level, unlike the volcanoes in the Cascades [see Rainier is Shorthand for “Rains All Year”, Right?
That plus its record height attract outdoor people like a magnet.
To prevent environmental damage, climbers need a permit from a lottery
, which is nearly impossible to get.
While in Lone Pine, I also topped off the tank.
Prices in Lone Pine look like a bad dream, but they get even worse in the Mojave Desert.
Outside Lone Pine, the road forks, and I headed east.
I soon passed a vast depression that looked like an alkali salt flat with a swampy area in the middle.
The depression is all that remains of Owens Lake.
After the Owens River was diverted, the lake dried up
The swampy area exists thanks to a court order forcing Los Angeles to divert water into the former lake to prevent toxic dust from blowing.
If the City of Los Angeles had their way, Mono Lake [see The Ancients
] would have looked like this in less than a decade, showing
Panamint Springs gas
When prices at home seem expensive, think of this
just how important that fight really was.
Past the lake, the road climbs the Inyo Mountains.
Unlike the White Mountains further north, these are lower with gentler slopes.
The road finally reaches a flat area on the top of the range.
It rolls through starkly empty landscapes with mountain peaks in the distance.
As dry as the Owens Valley can be, this area is even drier.
I have entered the Mojave Desert.
The road reaches an area called Lee Flat.
The flat holds a large forest of scraggly looking plants that are too large to be bushes but have clumps of needles at the end of their branches instead of leaves.
Each has a central trunk that breaks into at least two branches.
Thanks to a U2 album cover
, most people recognize them immediately as Joshua trees
They are actually the largest member of the yucca family, and only grow in high elevation portions of the Mojave.
Here, they spread for a long way across the landscape.
Past the forest, the road passes mountains that
The furnace of America
Welcome to Death Valley
are starkly empty.
Nothing at all grows on them.
It finally reaches the head of a steep canyon overlooking a narrow valley filled with yellow sand.
Many switchbacks follow as the road twists away from that canyon into the next one over and descends to the floor.
This valley is quite hot and has no shade.
The only sign of any habitation is an isolated gas station on the side of the road, Panamint Springs.
While prices in Long Pine are a bad dream, these are a nightmare, nearly DOUBLE what I paid back in Sonora.
Past the gas station, the road crosses straight through the valley and climbs the mountains on the far side.
Panamint Springs is merely the prelude.
On the way up, desert plants reappear, scrub and yucca.
The road passes a special overlook with a west facing view of three separate mountain ranges.
Those mountain ranges are three of the four that stand between this area and the ocean, the high Sierras in the distance, the Inyo Mountains closer, and the Panamint Mountains underfoot.
Those mountain ranges are
Hot as hell
In Death Valley, this is a normal day!
responsible for the climate here
Every single one has a rain shadow, so by the time air gets to here, it is some of the driest on earth.
Less than an inch of precipitation falls east of the Panamint Range each year, which can all appear in a single thunderstorm.
The Panamint Range does get snow in the winter, but with the dry air it directly evaporates every spring without ever becoming liquid water.
Past the mountain range, another view reveals a long and slender valley sandwiched between two long mountain ranges.
It’s longer, wider, and lower than Panamint Springs.
As the car drops into that valley, the temperature quickly rises.
The Owens Valley is hot, but nothing like this.
This heat becomes more and more oppressive until it feels like a furnace.
Sure, its dry heat, but it’s still more than most humans can handle.
The air is this hot because I have reached the consistently hottest place on earth, Death Valley.
The name is appropriate, because heat of this magnitude can easily kill.
As the dry air
Mosaic Canyon entrance
Early part of the Mosaic Canyon hike. Look at the rocks on the walls
from the Panamint Range sinks into the valley, it heats up.
It falls further and heats up more here than anywhere else.
Much of Death Valley is below sea level.
The complete lack of shade contributes to the process.
Many like to point out that the Sahara Desert has higher temperature readings than Death Valley.
It does, but only on certain days.
Averaged over an entire year, Death Valley wins the heat race.
I finally reached Stovepipe Wells
, which is about six buildings around what was once a mining claim.
The thermometer on the ranger station is nearly unbelievable, 110 degrees.
I tried to fill my water bottle from a water fountain and immediately spit it out; the water is so hot as to be undrinkable.
I got it from the gas station instead.
Mosaic Slot Canyon
Water bottles full, I drove to Mosaic Canyon
, one of the best short hiking trails in the park.
A deeply washboarded dirt road leads from the highway to the nearest mountains and the canyon.
This road makes the car severely vibrate, like a
Mosiac Canyon narrows
The glorious slot portion of Mosiac Canyon
bad theme park ride.
I did the entire thing in low gear.
This is actually one of the better maintained dirt roads in the park.
The road ends at a parking lot next to rocky foothills and an obvious wash.
The trail leads up the wash into the mountains.
At first, it passes through a curving ravine.
The walls rise and become closer together.
Finally, the show starts.
The canyon becomes only three feet wide, a slot.
Slot canyons are some of the most beguiling features in the desert.
They also rank among the most dangerous, since they have nowhere to escape if rain falls anywhere upstream of the canyon (which can be miles away).
Always check the forecast before entering one.
This is my first ever slot hike.
Like most slots, the walls of the canyon are covered in wavy patterns, caused by the scouring of sand carried by floods (in a slot, a single thunderstorm will cause a flood).
The walls themselves are smooth.
The canyon twists and turns as it goes.
The floor is mostly
Mosiac Canyon narrows
Another shot of the Mosaic Canyon slot section
Mosiac Canyon gets its name from the colorful rocks along the walls.
They have two distinct types: white marble with flowing black bands of rock, and old lava flows with embedded stones.
The two interweave along the walls, giving the canyon the look of a collage.
In places they flow together so tightly along the smooth walls they almost look painted on.
Most slot canyons are notorious for potholes and dry waterfalls.
These are spots where the water that carved the canyon poured over harder rock that it has not had time to erode.
If the pool at the bottom of the drop spreads out, it becomes a pothole.
Hikers must climb over these obstacles, which require technical skill and often specialized rock climbing equipment.
I reached a four foot dry waterfall I probably could have scrambled over with enough study, but decided to turn around instead.
In a slot canyon, going back is just as scenic and fun as hiking down in the first place.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
The sun was low in the sky when
Dune plant bowl
Bowl formed by plants holding back the sand of the dune they originally seeded on
I got back, so I went to one of Death Valley’s signature sights, the Mesquite Flat Dunes
Death Valley funnels wind along the floor between the mountain ranges.
The gusts pick up sand, so most of the valley is bare rock.
When the winds hit an obstacle, they drop their load, forming a set of sand dunes.
A large hill created these, the largest set in the park.
A short trail leads onto the dunes, where people can then scramble at will.
Hikers need to be careful of vegetation here, because their long roots help keep the dunes in place.
Without them, the dunes simply shift with the winds.
A few spots have bushes half covered in sand; the dune moved into existing vegetation.
In others, sand forms a bowl around a tangled set of bushes; here, the dune is moving away from vegetation that grew on top and the roots are holding the sand back.
The largest dunes occur a distance from the parking lot.
Near sunset, these cast incredible shadows that make for stunning photographs.
After the dunes, I drove
Dunes in late light
The picture of dunes in late day light that appears in many guidebooks
north out of the park.
I crossed the Amargosa Mountains into a flat desert.
Soon afterward, I crossed from California into Nevada.
Unlike before, there was no produce inspection station this time [see Big Trees
Driving through desert mountains near sunset is a little surreal.
Thanks to the clear air, the mountains cast incredibly sharp shadows.
Above the line it is bright as daylight, below it twilight.
Soon after entering Nevada, a road splits off to the left with a tiny sign reading ‘Rhyolite Site’.
It runs to the base of the nearest mountains and ends at a ghost town
Rhyolite is not the largest or most famous of the west’s gold rush ghost towns (those honors go to Bodie
in California) but it is almost certainly the most tragic.
Shorty Harris and Ed Cross discovered gold
in the Bullfrog Mountains near here in 1904, incredibly late by gold rush standards.
Miners rushed here from throughout the west, many from other areas that had played out.
Rhyolite was sited here due to the proximity to the mines and a railroad, even though it had
Rhyolite bottle house
The Ted Beatty bottle house in what was once Rhyolite
Within two years it gained a Victorian main street with stores and banks, along with a railroad station serving three separate lines.
Things were booming.
Prosperity turned to tragedy remarkably quickly.
Miners had found lots of gold veins, but all of them were shallow.
They ran dry after only four years.
The mountains held the promise of more, but finding them would require investments to sink deep shafts.
The main source of such investment was San Francisco, and in 1908 residents of that city had more pressing things to deal with (if it’s not obvious what, seeThe Golden State
People moved away as quickly as they had arrived, and by 1919 Rhyolite was a ghost town.
It ranks as the shortest boom to bust in the west.
For what it’s worth, miners ultimately did find more gold in the area several decades later, but they based their operations in Beatty several miles north.
All but two of the standing buildings line what used to be Main Street.
Downtown merchants, having learned from the fires of previous gold rush towns [see The Western Tradition
All that remains of the Cook Bank, which cost over $10,000 to build
their buildings out of fireproof concrete and brick.
The roofs and interiors have fallen, but the outer shells survive.
Second largest is the remains of a two story bank, the Cook Bank
The largest building is the old railroad station
at the far end.
Now surrounded by a fence to prevent vandalism, it was designed after a Spanish Mission [see California Coast and Open Road
Empty streets stretch off from Main Street to the surrounding hills.
All of them look like empty desert at this point.
A sign warns against hiking them, thanks to the area’s large population of rattlesnakes.
No western town is complete without at least one eccentric, and Rhyolite had two of them.
The one that lived here while the town was alive created Rhyolite’s most famous building, the “bottle house
Tom Kelly liked to drink beer.
He saved the bottles and stacked them sideways, filling the gaps between them with concrete.
Before long, he had four walls.
He then put a roof over them, added a porch, and raffled it off in 1906.
Area residents have preserved this one, so
Rhyolite train depot
Rhyolite's largest building
it is still intact.
It too is surrounded by a fence to prevent vandalism.
The modern eccentric is artist Albert Szuklksi, who built a shack near the ghost town in 1984.
He proceeded to fill the surrounding land with large metal mobile sculptures, and forms made of cast concrete, creating the Goldwell Museum
The sculptures are significantly better than average folk art.
Their meanings, if any, are incredibly obscure.
The most famous sculptures are the “ghosts”, white robes of cast concrete draped over non-existent human forms.
One group of these replicates the Lost Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci.
I had dinner and spent the night at Stovepipe Wells.
I had practically no choice, since the high heat makes camping and cooking outside nearly impossible.
All of the built up areas in this National Park have similar food and rooms at similar high rates, and Stovepipe Wells has the most convenient location.
My room had one powerful air conditioner :)
The food was pretty average.
Be aware that a gratuity is automatically added to the bill, since most visitors outside winter are foreign tourists not used to tipping.