“We have the road to ourselves!” exclaims Keren Lieberman as she surges ahead on Highway 395, recently paved and smooth as silk, traversing Inyo County’s rugged landscape with barely a car in sight. We continue through High Desert, the Sierras rising precipitously on our left. Keren, Merkie Rowan, and I are headed to Manzanar in the Owens Valley, approximately 218 miles northeast of Los Angeles near Lone Pine. Four more docents will be meeting us at the Manzanar Interpretive Center tomorrow morning. All of us have been intensely curious about the site since the exhibition Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams opened at the Skirball.
This is a land of extremes. The snow-capped Sierras are home to the tallest mountain in the continental United States, while Death Valley boasts its lowest elevation and hottest temperatures. The relentless dust, intense heat, and bone-chilling winters of the Owens Valley serve as a metaphor for the barrage on civil rights that occurred here and at nine other camps during World War II, when Japanese Americans were incarcerated for more than three years without due process. Over two-thirds were American citizens!
After a pleasant night in Lone Pine, we continue to the former incarceration camp. Comprising one square mile, Manzanar National Historic Site is a poignant monument to 10,000 brave souls who chose to make the best of their adversity. Park Ranger Patricia Biggs provides an overview: “There were 504 wood and tar paper barracks, plus assorted auxiliary buildings such as latrines and mess halls, with fire breaks every two blocks.” Beyond the barbed-wire perimeter and guard towers with searchlights and machine guns, 440 agricultural acres were worked by the detainees. “The winds here are fierce,” she says. “They can reach 100 miles on mountain crests. The dust penetrated the barracks through holes in the roofs and gaps in the walls.”