Manzanar National Historic Site, CA

Thousands of Japanese-Americans were interned here during World War II.

Manzanar memorial, snow-capped Sierras in the background.
  • Manzanar memorial, snow-capped Sierras in the background.

When I arrived in Lone Pine, that sweet little town at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas, I planned to make a documentary about mountain climbing. I would try to climb Mt. Whitney, and I would do it alone. I planned to film this ascent, cut it together, and produce a 45-minute film about the process.

But then I heard about Manzanar, and I decided to take a detour.

Manzanar (Spanish for “apple orchard”) was once an internment camp for people of Japanese descent. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, thousands of families were taken from their homes, packed into trains, and shipped to the middle of the California desert, where they lived in barracks and endured 24-hour surveillance.

When World War II ended, the residents were released and given a small stipend to rebuild their lives. The camp was gradually dismantled. But the National Park Service did not erase that dark memory. Instead, the Manzanar National Historic Site consists of a museum, a cemetery and traces of the original architecture. Signs indicate where old buildings used to stand. The entire site is free and open to the public, and as long as you stick to the gridded dirt roads, you can walk pretty much anywhere.

As I strolled across the burnished terrain, I remembered those flashes of grade school education – one teacher or another telling of “America’s concentration camps.” People were not executed or worked to death at Manzanar, but the mass incarceration and overt racial profiling are astonishing even for a nation at war.

Manzanar Historic Site

Tour of Manzanar, former Japanese internment camp located in Lone Pine, California.

Tour of Manzanar, former Japanese internment camp located in Lone Pine, California.

I talked to my own camera and snapped photographs, thinking that perhaps I could weave this narrative into the final film. When I finished editing The Mountain a few weeks later, the Manzanar segment stood out as one of my favorite parts.

Hiking the Sierras is a glorious experience, especially for an East Coaster, but the historic significance of Manzanar, and its emotional power, enriched my excursion threefold. As I drove away, back to the Alabama Hills, I silently wished that everyone in America would visit the Apple Orchard, and remember what can happen in a nation blinded by nationalism.

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I visited Manzanar a few years back and you are right the emotional power was absolutely magnificent. I cried inside the museum when I found my friends family name on the wall - that was overwhelming, and the archived pictures were just fascinating to me. Especially the one where one their porch says Japanese not allowed, that made me cry more.

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