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Plunging into Darkness - Owens Valley #2

Morning didn't bring completely clear skies, but dang if it wasn't nice to wake up to more blue than gray, the sun streaming in beneath the clouds that still filled the eastern horizon.

Temps were chilly - in the low 30s °F - but I was a happy camper since the weather forecast had suggested a good chance of rain, but the tent was dry. I set about eating breakfast and packing up as soon as I was down the ladder, since I knew this would be my most busy day of the trip. Not only did I plan to make the couple hour trek north to the Volcanic Tablelands, but I knew that there were at least a couple stops along the way.

I rolled out of camp a few minutes after 8:00am, the clouds already starting to cover more of the sky. I'd expected this, really - the same had happened the previous day - and I could see that there were fewer clouds to the north, which was a good sign for me!

I'd already aired up in camp the night before - figuring that it would be a more pleasant task to do dry, in case it was raining in the morning - so when I hit the pavement of Movie Flat Road, I was able to just keep rolling. And, though it meant more pavement, I'd decided to head out through Lone Pine as opposed to heading north on dirt, just since I hadn't been that way before. Boy, was I glad I did - because on the way out of Alabama Hills, I ran across this monstrosity.

LOL.

I'm sure there's some great story behind Face Rock, but I can't imagine what it would be. I carried on, feeling like it was actually a reasonably fitting way to exit an area that was beautiful, but clearly overrun due to its proximity to civilization. Ironically, it's hard to tell that it's overrun as you drive by on the highway - in fact, it looks pristine - since everyone hangs out on the west side of the first set of hills.

One final look - boy, those Sierras get me every time!

Half an hour later, I reached my first stop on my trip north - the Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp. @mrs.turbodb and I have driven by Manzanar on a few occasions, but never with enough time to stop in and take a look. Today that would change for me - and as I pulled off the highway, the sole remaining watch tower was a stark reminder of the shroud of darkness that originally surrounded this place.

There are two entrances to Manzanar - one to the visitor center and parking area, and the historical entrance. I opted for the later, following in the footsteps of those who'd had no choice in the matter.

For anyone unfamiliar, 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 incarcerated during World War II. And, while much of the camp fell into disrepair after the war, some who'd experienced the oppression first hand began annual pilgrimages to the site in order to raise awareness of this tragic chapter in American history.

Due to COVID-19, only the self-guided auto tour was open as I arrived, and I was early enough in the day that I had the place to myself. I entered the loop near "Block 14," one of 36 residential blocks, each consisting of 14 barracks as well as a laundry, latrine, mess hall, and several outdoor spaces to recreate - swimming pools and basketball courts seemingly the most common as I made my way around.

Building 1 of Block 14. Nearly 300 people at a time would call this one building home.

Markers for the remaining buildings in Block 14 that were demolished.

Manzanar was designated as California Historical Landmark #850 in 1972, and was eventually added to the National Register of Historic Places. In February 1985, Manzanar was designated a National Historic Landmark, and on March 3, 1992, President George H. W. Bush signed House Resolution 543 designating it a National Historic Site, "to provide for the protection and interpretation of the historical, cultural, and natural resources associated with the relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II." Manzanar was the first of the ten camps to be achieve this designation.

My next stop on the loop was at one of several parks that existed throughout the camp. Originally named Rose Park, and then Pleasure Park, this 1.5 acre space contained meandering paths, waterways, flower gardens and bridges. One resident described it as, "...a lovely land you could not escape from yet almost didn't want to leave." After the camp was abandoned, the high winds of the Owens Valley buried the park under several feet of sand. In 2008, the children and grandchildren of Kuichiro Nishi (an interned resident, and the designer of the park) returned to assist the NPS in uncovering the park that had been a glimmer of hope for those imprisoned here.

Pleasure Park, 1943.

Blown sand is once again reclaiming portions of the park, the waterways beginning to fill in.

My final stop was at the Manzanar Cemetery. Located outside of the security fence - a simple barbed wire fence surrounding the 540 acre developed space of the camp - it's unclear to me if residents were allowed to visit this cemetery. Today, only a few headstones of the approximately 150 people who died in the camp, remain.

For anyone visiting this place, I think the most important thing to take away from it is well captured on the memorial sign now located near the flagpole. We as a people - our country - our world - is better than this. We must be better than this.

"May the injustices and humiliation suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism, and economic exploitation never emerge again."

From Manzanar, my next stop was - conveniently - right across US-395. In fact, the Manzanar-Reward Road was a good indicator that my two destinations of darkness were forever linked by a thin line snaking across the valley.

Unlike Manzanar, the Reward Mine - or more properly - the Eclipse, and later Brown Monster Mine, operated by the Reward Mining Company - had a more uplifting history. A gold and silver mine snaking into the Inyo Mountains, the complex was a major producer while it was active between the 1860s and 1970s, producing nearly 50,000oz of the shiny yellow material!

While the road across the valley - now grazing land, full of cattle - was nothing to write home about, I started to get excited as I approached the Inyo Range. There, high on the hillside, I could see an enormous wooden structure - even from a distance, obviously an ore chute. I headed that way first, to check it out.

Still fully aired up, the loose, base-ball sized rocks on the steep road made for a slippery trip up the 25° incline, and as the road narrowed and it was clear I'd be backing down, I eventually stopped to hike the final quarter mile or so up the ravine to the remains.

Unlike any ore chute I'd seen before, this one had two levels, connected by a long metal pipe. I found myself wondering how the miners kept material from clogging up in the pipe as it made its way between the two bins - a good set of grizzly bars must have been used at the top level!

As cool as this old contraption was, it was not what I was here to see! Nor was the view that I got as I made my way back down the canyon to the Tacoma - though, like the mining equipment, it was nothing to complain about! Boy, the Owens Valley really is a beautiful place!

I'd apparently gained significant elevation over a short distance!

No, what I was here to see was something else entirely - something that even thinking about it, makes my skin crawl just a little. I was here to drive into the Inyos! To do that, I had to make my way around a fold in the mountain, the road here getting a bit rougher and serving as a bit of a gatekeeper for those who may be a little less sure of their vehicles capabilities.

And there is was - the mouth of the main shaft. Miles of tunnel exist deep into the mountain as miners followed an enormous vein of gold bearing material, and this main shaft allows for nearly a mile of driving - if I could keep from freaking out!

I was too excited as I went in, so the only photo of the entrance is me coming out!

Not totally sure of the situation, I walked the first hundred feet or so of tunnel. It looked like I'd be OK - the truck just short enough to fit through some of the low-hanging boulders on the ceiling - and so I headed to the entrance and drove myself in.

Am I crazy?

After the first 150 feet, which are reasonably flat, the shaft begins a descent. This, in conjunction with the curvy nature - to follow the gold - mean that you can't ever see where you're going for more than a hundred feet or so. There are - for anyone who gets nervous - several turn around points along the way, where vertical shafts lead away from the main tunnel.

Looking up.

My guess is that these vertical shafts were built slightly off to the side of the main tunnel so that as material dropped down, it wouldn't block passage through the primary thoroughfare, allowing work to proceed in parallel at several areas in the mine.

Eventually, I found myself at a larger "room" and figured that it was time for me to boogie back to the entrance. I wasn't all that worried - this tunnel hadn't collapsed in over 150 years - but why push my luck, really. I turned around, and for a moment, turned off my lights. Wow, that was dark! Lights back on.

Not a place for anyone who doesn't like tight spaces.

Going out wasn't really any more or less stressful than going in. The logical part of my brain continued - in its calming fashion - to remind me that the likelihood of anything bad happening was miniscule at best. The rest of my brain was like "MOVE IT!" Personally, I'm a fan of the photos, but in case you're wondering a bit more about the experience, here's a short clip of the final bit of mine shaft.

Well - while a whole different kind of darkness than Manzanar, the Reward Mine had proven itself to be quite the experience! I'd eagerly do it again, ideally with someone a little more squeamish in the passenger seat. Because boy, it would be fun to glance over every now and then. Maybe stop a time or two.

As I reached the mouth of the shaft, there were already a few other folks waiting for me to come out. They'd walked up - rather than driving - but still wanted to wait until there weren't any vehicles before entering. We chatted for a few minutes and I relayed how cool the mine was before heading back down the rocky road towards US-395. Clearing the rough section, I picked up speed - once again glad I'd been relatively early in the day, as a caravan of explorers hurdled towards me!

I'd crossed over it coming into the Reward Mine as well, but just before I got to the highway, I paused for a final moment as I crossed over the eroding runways of Manzanar Airfield. Used by the United States Military to resupply the Internment Camp, it was abandoned like the rest in the 1950s. Today, it sits idle in the desert, another reminder of those less pleasant times.

And with that, I headed north - the sky there, sunnier - clouds seemingly following me as I sped along. A quick stop to top off the fuel tank, and soon I was driving through Bishop. Schat's Bakery - a favorite of @mrs.turbodb's, which has had extremely long lines our last couple times through - was lineless, but I refrained from stopping, wanting to limit my interactions with the community during these crazy times, as much as possible. Soon, I found myself at the north side of town, and at the southeast corner of the Volcanic Tablelands, where US-6 begins it's long meander across the country.

I wasn't far from where I'd run over my camera less than a week earlier, and as I aired down the Tacoma to start a new exploration of the Volcanic Tablelands, I wondered to myself - would the third time be the charm?

 

A bit more on Manzanar
After posting this story, I was asked questions by several folks about Manzanar, and the feeling I got when I was there. The question was posed as follows:

It's a weird thing this Manzanar. Until this page I've never heard of it, and have only a thin understanding of the WW2 rounding up of Asians in our country. Yet, the images, the history here online, is incredibly uncomfortable. It is a 'for sure' stop next time we are down that way, thanks for sharing.

Semi related, at Barker Ranch my wife and I got huge doses of bad energy. Curious what we would feel there at Manzanar. Did you notice anything like that?

Additionally, Ian posted a comment below, which is worth a good read.

The energy there is interesting. Clearly, as I noted in my response below to Ian, these internment camps - there were 10 of them as I understand - were misguided at best. The energy from that is clearly not good energy. I'd call it sad, ominous, appalling, and embarrassing. But that all has to do with the compound itself. There is also an energy there - to Ian's story - of resilience. For me, that resilience energy was both strong and hopeful. I was surprised by it.

I can't help but to reiterate how important it is for us (as Americans, as a human race) to learn from our mistakes, and to ensure that the injustices and humiliation suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism, and economic exploitation never emerge again. (This is the quote at Manzanar that I included above.) I'd say that we haven't been doing so well at that as a society since WWII, even as I've been a benefactor of the bias's of that society. Something for us all to keep in mind.

 

The Whole Story

 

Love Owens Valley? Check out
Owens Valley
for all the amazing places I've been in and around this special place over the years.

 

16 Comments

  1. Brandon
    Brandon March 3, 2021

    Great photos and video. You are also crazy driving through the mine shaft. LOL!

    • turbodb
      turbodb March 3, 2021

      Thanks! Hahaha, @mrs.turbodb thinks I'm crazy too. Maybe you're both right!!! 😉 🤣

  2. Lapsley Hope
    Lapsley Hope March 3, 2021

    Been following along of recent, and this is fascinating stuff and the photos are well done and add that extra dimension to the stories.

    • turbodb
      turbodb March 3, 2021

      Awesome! Glad to hear that you've been enjoying Lapsley!

  3. So Cal Off Road Explorers
    So Cal Off Road Explorers March 3, 2021

    Been in the Reward Mine a couple of times & up to the ore bins, multi levels in the mine if you get out & explore the side cut outs. Did you get to see the reservoirs made by the prisoners when you were at Manzanar?

    • turbodb
      turbodb March 3, 2021

      Wow, going and exploring multiple levels in the mine is more than I was ready for the first time, hahaha! As for Manzanar - yep, I did see the reservoirs; really was amazing what went on there, and sad to look back what led to it now.

      • So Cal Off Road Explorers
        So Cal Off Road Explorers March 4, 2021

        Yeah, sad what went on but a whole different world back then. Stay safe out there & keep up the good work with the videos & write ups!

  4. Ian
    Ian March 3, 2021

    I've been to Manzanar on several occasions. The most recent, I met a man who was in the camp with his family. His name was Richard. He'd married after the war to a white lady. Richard's memories were of baseball and work on the camp's contribution to the war effort. They had victory gardens and manufactured camouflage netting for the troops. When you see the conditions inside the barracks building (which have been reconstructed only recently), it's easy to understand if people were angry. Someone asked Richard if he was angry-at first, his wife answered. She was undeniably upset and angry at the US Government for the indecency. Without cutting her off so obviously, he said "We were given lemons, we made lemonade". That 100% caught me off guard as he'd explained it wasn't the best situation (you also need to understand that when Japanese were rounded up, they often lost their property and belongings as well), they made the best of it and moved on when the war was over.

    Something about the cemetery I didn't know was that it's located outside the fence so that those buried there would be free (I'm probably not explaining it well enough but you get the idea) and not buried as prisoners. Upon his passing, the man who served as priest for the camp was cremated and his remains scattered among the hills behind the camp. Definitely visit the monument.

    Ansel Adams produced a book featuring photographs and words and although cameras were not allowed for internees, Toyo Miyatake was able to document much of life at Manzanar using his camera. Along with the self guided tour, baseball fields, and barracks buildings, there are displays inside the Visitor's Center that shouldn't be missed.

    If you call yourself a fan of the Eastern Sierra and 395, you really should visit Manzanar.

    • Paul D.
      Paul D. March 3, 2021

      Great information. Thanks much Ian...!

    • turbodb
      turbodb March 4, 2021

      That's a very cool experience you got, and meshes nicely with what I took in at Manzanar. Quite clearly, it is a place that should have never existed. Japanese who lived here, and were rounded up, were Americans - equals of those who imprisoned them. Humans who deserved more. Their resilience and ability to make the best of a very bad situation were apparent (to me) in the compound. The gardens they built were *still* beautiful; the organizational attention that they clearly paid to layout, harmony with the surroundings, etc. was palpable. Some of the stories on the informational boards also portrayed life there as a balance - with understandable uprisings and hardship, as well as feelings of community and hope.

      As with other regrettable imprisonments and mistreatments of fellow humans in our past, we should have acted differently from the get go and done more to acknowledge our mistakes after the fact. Perhaps one day we'll learn and stop making the same mistakes again and again; we can always hope.

  5. Paul D.
    Paul D. March 3, 2021

    Great pics AdventureTaco...! Will put it on my bucket list. Heading up that way later this month (3/21/21) to spend a week in DV. Might have to do a quick detour to drive my Land-Rover Perentie down a mine shaft. Wonder how in the heck you knew about that one..? Cheers, Paul

    • turbodb
      turbodb March 3, 2021

      Thanks Paul. A whole week in DV - that sounds like great fun! You'll be there at a good time of year as well. Wildflowers will be out (depending on where you are) and temps won't be sweltering yet. Have a great time!

  6. Mark Tullis
    Mark Tullis March 3, 2021

    Another excellent installment of your adventures! Your mineshaft photos were particularly gripping. Seems a good thing your vehicle was no taller than it is. Fantastic photos!

    • turbodb
      turbodb March 4, 2021

      Thanks Mark! Great to hear you enjoyed the story and photos! 👍

  7. Trader Vic
    Trader Vic March 5, 2021

    I've travelled countless times between LA and the Eastern Sierra since the early 1960s. Here's a little more on the history of Manzanar. Before it was an internment camp, Manzanar was a well-watered farm community known for its bountiful orchards that shipped apples and stone fruits by rail to support Los Angeles. After the LA Dept of Water & Power bought up much of the Owens Valley land and water rights to build the infamous Owens Aqueduct in 1908-13, the original settlement of Manzanar literally dried up.

    I've never known and have always been curious as to how the federal government came to find and select such a desolate location for their "War Relocation Center" as they called it. My Dad was living in LA as a teen when the Japanese were rounded up in early 1942 amid the hysteria of a feared Japanese military invasion of the US mainland in the months following Pearl Harbor, and he told us kids what Manzanar had been as we drove past the site. It was hard to visualize, even as an imaginative kid, because Manzanar had effectively vanished from the landscape. All that was visible from 395 was the gymnasium (now the visitor's center) that in the 60's was an Inyo County roads department equipment shed, and the entrance road guard house that was just stone walls until the government started restoring portions of the camp in the 1990's. There was no signage or anything else to indicate there had been 10,000 people imprisoned there just 30 years earlier. The wooden watch tower there is a reconstruction, also from the late 1990's early 2000's. There was nothing of it in the 60's. The original barracks buildings were not demolished. They were sold and many are still serving other uses around the Owens Valley, as undoubtedly was the lumber from the few frame buildings, whose foundations and slab floors can still be found in the southeast quadrant of the 1 mile square site. The government repurchased several of the barracks to return and restore at Manzanar.

    • turbodb
      turbodb March 5, 2021

      Fantastic Vic! Thank you so much for the additional information and your own personal story. I really do appreciate it, and I hope everyone who happens upon this adventure of mine has a chance to read it as well. I never envisioned my experience leading to the comments and discussion that have taken place as a result, and yet as they occur, I find that they make the ongoing experience so much more rewarding. Safe travels, and again, thank you!

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