Remembering Manzanar (PCT Days 46-50)

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The southern sierras were spectacularly beautiful, but we had a problem. We’d heard rumors of a weather forecast… 20% chance of snow on Tuesday. Sure it was just a rumor, sure it was just a 20% chance, but 100% of the time that they’ve predicted at least 20% chance of precipitation in California I’d gotten rained on. Not only that, Tuesday (not quite a week away) was the day that I hoped to climb Mt Whitney and/or traverse one of the scarier passes of the Sierra.

“That’s not how I want to do the Sierra,” I said as people bandied about racing through ahead of the storm or just hiking through the storm. The Sierra is supposed to be one of the most amazing stretches of the PCT. I didn’t want to have to rush through it, and I didn’t want to have to be any colder, wetter, or more miserable than I had to.

Luckily one of my friends had similar ideas about the Sierra and we came up with a plan to hike to the next town and wait out the storm there. As we hiked through the southern Sierra in beautiful weather for the next few days we wondered if the alleged storm was still coming, but we stuck to our plan. It’s so early in the season that I figured hiking in the Sierra was a bit like hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, you never know what the weather will bring.

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Sure enough when we got into town the forecast was calling for snow, and lots of it considering that it’s May in California in a drought. We had definitely made the right decision and were going to weather the storm in town.

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As the day of the storm got closer and closer I got antsier and antsier. I wanted to be hiking… Or at least doing something!!! I went to the film history museum in town, I went for walks, I checked out all the shops, I did all my errands… But without a car I felt stuck.

As I was sitting around town twiddling my thumbs somebody mentioned that there was a national historic landmark just nine miles north called Manzanar. I’d never heard of it before, but quickly learned that it was the first of the “relocation” centers built after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Surely a dark and stormy time in American history when we forced anyone with Japanese ancestry on the west coast to move to these camps.

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As soon as I heard about it I knew that I had to go. It wasn’t ok that I had had no idea what Manzanar was. Acknowledging and increasing awareness about the dark chapters of our history is incredibly important. We’d like to think that as American citizens out government would never tear us from our homes and families and revoke our freedoms, but it’s possible… It’s happened before and we need to make sure that it never happens again.

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The day of the storm I took the bus up to Manzanar. The dark clouds behind the museum and the reconstructed housing units seemed fitting. I’d arrived about 10 minutes before the museum opened and was sitting there trying to imagine what it must have been like when a man that had lived through it walked up to me…

Mr. Sasaki had been relocated to Manzanar with his family when he was 7 yrs old, and for the last 10 years he’s come to Manzanar every May to talk to people about his experiences at here. I felt lucky indeed to have the opportunity to talk to him during the time before the museum fully opened. He talked a lot about working and playing with the other kids his age… When I asked about how his parents dealt with being relocated to Manzanar his eyes glazed over for a moment lost in old memories before he returned and said that his parents had been tenant farmers, so it wasn’t as bad for them as it had been for a lot of the other families that had lost more.

I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like for parents during the relocation, trying to protect their children from the harsh reality of the situation… Trying to put the most positive spin on things for their kids as their lives got ripped out from underneath them… Facing such an uncertain future in such hostile circumstances.

The museum and exhibits were clearly still being updated and upgraded while we were there, but I learned a lot and thought that Manzanar was well worth the visit. In addition to talking to Mr. Sasaki, the other exhibit that really made an impression on me was in the children’s section of the museum.

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How did people end up at Manzanar? All you had to do was claim Japanese ancestry and you were in. “being brown had it’s advantages,” said a boy of Mexican ancestry who wanted to go where his friends went. Contrasting that with the exhibit talking about the Japanese man who underwent plastic surgery to avoid relocation but was discovered and relocated anyway was pretty powerful.

I am thankful that I have the freedom to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and to live my life in the ways I see fit. On this Memorial Day it seems fitting to remember and honor the sacrifices that have been made, both military and civilian, in the name of our country.

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