The Eastern Sierra, Inyo County and Death Valley. Four days. 900 California miles. Freeways, highways, winding mountain curves and dusty one-way gravel roads. Huge mountains overshadowing small towns with the ever present bright, glaring sun bleaching out the beautiful colors of the desert. Add the perfect traveling companion, my sister Barbara, and you have the makings of a great road trip.
Barbara and I set off on our adventure on Sunday morning and six hours later we arrived in Lone Pine, a small town lying in the rain shadow of the Eastern Sierra. Mt. Whitney, with an elevation of 14,495 ft., is the highest point in the contiguous United States. Its tall neighboring peaks in the Sierra Crest tower over the landscape here. It's hard to adjust to the majestic scale and ancient geologic history of these mountains without contemplating how tiny and insignificant we humans are.
The only other time I've been to Lone Pine was in the middle of July a few years ago. The dry dust and 109 degree temperature made for an uncomfortable visit. On this trip the cool mornings and evenings gave a different feel, but the sun on both trips was brillantly relentless. All of my photographs paled in comparison to the real scenery. The sunlight was simply too bright to take good pictures. It would be difficult to live in that sun for months at a time.
The point of our trip was to visit Manzanar and Death Valley. I've learned a lot more about the history and conditions of the Japanese relocation experience since the first time I visited there. For me, this trip was more about "feeling" the place in advance of attempting to write about it. The wind, the sandy dust, the parched landscape dotted with a few spring blooms, the white-flowering apple tree (a startling remnant of a long ago orchard) and the surprising sound of a small creek of running water. For people relocated from the coast, the little stream at the western edge of the camp must have been a soothing antidote to the rest of the arid and foreign environment.
The camp lies near the Alhambra Hills and is bordered on one side by Mt. Williamson, the second highest mountain in California, and across the Owens River Valley by the lower, rounded mounds of the Inyo Mountains. The contrast between the two views is dramatic, but both provided tangible daily reminders to the Japanese Americans of the additional barriers lying outside the barbed wire enclosure of Manzanar.
Death Valley is only about 100 miles away from Lone Pine but the drive is a challenging, twisting route through the Panamint Mountains. The desert scenery is stunning, harsh and filled with canyons and beautifully colored rock formations. Death Valley itself offered sand dunes, a saltwater creek, and Badwater, the lowest elevation of anyplace in the Western Hemisphere--282 feet below sea level. There is some surface water visible at Badwater but it is also possible to walk over the water on top of the salty crust that has built up over time.
Adaptation is the name of the game in this region of California. Many flowering plants bloom only in very early spring, and only if there has been sufficient winter rainfall. There are six unique varieties of Desert Pup Fish that can be found only in Death Valley. We walked along Salt Creek and witnessed the energetic breeding of the Salt Creek Pup Fish. Their activity was frenetic but understandable since there is only a short period of time when there is enough water to support their breeding. The activity doesn't go unnoticed by local birds like this kildeer that was pleased with the plentiful tidbits swimming by. Eventually lucky pup fish find their way into creek channels that retain some water during the summer. The less fortunate ones choose areas that dry up and end up suffocating in the creek's mud.
Adaptation was also essential for Japanese Americans forced to live in Manzanar. The stress of adjusting to a high-desert environment compounded by the cultural disruption of families living without privacy in 20' x 25' "rooms" along with five other families in a single barrack, communal bathrooms and shower areas, a strange new diet of cold Jello scooped on top of hot rice, the interruption of the childrens' education, and the tragic loss of livelihood and property. These citizens only had to endure life in the camps for several years, but the effects of their internment changed the course of their lives forever.
In Japanese there is an expression, "shikata ga nai." It translates as "it can't be helped." This was the attitude adopted by many of the internees, and I suppose it represents the mindset behind adaptation to a life of internment. In retrospect, it seems like an elegant response to a gross injustice. I bought a stone with these words carved into it. It's sitting on the corner of my desk where I can see it as I write. My challenge as a writer will be to create an elegant but accurate depiction of life in that decidedly inelegant time.