We arrived at Alabama Hills and started looking for somewhere to call home at 8:30pm on a Saturday night - surely not an ideal time to show up at such a popular location. Tired from our hike to - and through - Military Canyon earlier in the day, the first several spots we checked were occupied, but eventually we found a secluded-enough spot nestled in the rocks and leveled the truck. Fifteen minutes later, we were brushing our teeth and climbing into bed - each of us ready for some well-deserved shut-eye.
The catch - there's always a catch - was that it was fall-back for Daylight Savings, which meant that sunrise would be at 6:00am rather than the 7:00am that it'd been for the majority of the trip. I begrudgingly set my alarm, and then I was out.
Morning in the Alabama Hills is always one of my favorite times. The light - spilling across the sky, but not yet shining directly on the rocky outcroppings - gives the moonscape an ethereal feeling. And then, the Sierras rise majestically in the background.
It's easy to understand why Alabama Hills is so crowded, with views like this.
Not much snow on the Sierras. We need more precipitation!
Nestled into a private - or, relatively private - nook.
Knowing that we had quite a bit to accomplish before leaving the Owens Valley and heading north to Washington - a trip that would take us two full days of driving - I whistled to @mrs.turbodb, who joined me just as the sun broke the horizon, bathing the Sierras in a pink glow.
A few seconds before the sun hit the mountains.
A colorful morning.
The few degrees of sun movement at the horizon always seem to progress more quickly than mid-day, and before long, the entire area was bathed in sunlight. By that time, we were eating the last of our blueberries and packing away the tent for the final time. It'd been a great trip from a tent perspective, no rain or dew meaning that we never had to worry about putting it away wet.
And then, at 6:59am, we pulled out of camp - our earliest morning, by far, of the trip. I figured we could spend an hour or so wandering around some of the more popular sights at Alabama Hills, and then make our way north - making a few stops so @mrs.turbodb could see some of Owens Valley - before hitting Copper Top BBQ in Bishop for lunch.
One of my favorite spots was just a few hundred feet away, so we stopped at Sharks Fin just a couple minutes after leaving camp.
Some day we'll need to climb this one.
One thing I'd never noticed the first time I saw Sharks Fin was that a large, relatively flat slap of granite in front of the rock has four (round) morteros and a metate (the broader, smoother surface) decorating its surface. It's understandable, really, that centuries of civilizations would find this the perfect place to call home.
Kitchen with a view.
From Sharks Fin, we headed north for a mile or so, dust from the road hanging in the calm morning air - to the Arch Loop trail. This is a half-mile loop passing by several arches, the first of which is heart-shaped, and the last of which is the Mobius Arch. It's an easy stroll, with no real elevation gain, and we were lucky enough to have it to ourselves - our early exit from camp meaning that most were just waking up.
Winding through granite outcroppings.
Mobius Arch, always framing the Sierras to the west.
Better than any TV, for sure.
Many different ways to take in the same arch.
Soon enough, we ended up back at the parking area where we'd started, the sun really starting to turn the landscape into day at this point.
The contrast between the orange granite of Alabama Hills, and the white granite of the Sierras, adds to the drama.
The Alabama Hills were named for the CSS Alabama, a Confederate warship deployed during the American Civil War. When news of the ship's exploits reached prospectors in California sympathetic to the Confederates, they named many mining claims after the ship, and the name came to be applied to the entire range. More recently the area has become very popular with the overlanding, RV, and social media communities, prompting the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to begin work on the Alabama Hills Management Plan. This is a great thing in my opinion - if people can't be respectful, stay on trails, pack it out, and not overrun a place, it's only right to try to protect it. I've read through the plan and it seems more than reasonable, with camping limited by permits and several of the "random roads across the landscape," closed.
A place worth protecting.
Our last stop was at one of the northern-most arches in the area, and one that I'd camped near the first time I'd visited, some 10 months earlier: Boot Arch. It was fun to hear my companion exclaim that, "It really is a boot!" as we covered the few hundred feet from our parking spot to the proper viewpoint.
A boot-shaped arch in a boot-shaped rock.
And with that, we hopped onto US-395. Our next stop was only a few miles away, and it was one where I knew we could spend all day if we let ourselves: Manzanar - a Japanese Internment Camp from WWII.
A dramatic freeway exit to a dramatic destination.
I think the most respectful way to enter the camp is through the historical entrance, 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.
Today - unlike first time I'd visited - several of the remaining buildings were open, giving us the opportunity to see - and learn - a bit more about what the people who'd been held here experienced.
Our first stop was at the fire station. Construction crews built the fire station to support fire prevention and protection operations in Manzanar. They completed the central part of the structure in June 1942, and added the wings - serving as fireman dormitories, office space, and truck garages - in October 1942. Some Japanese Americans put personal touches to their work, inscribing dates, names, and phrases in the concrete foundation.
The original fire station was torn down, but volunteers rebuilt this replica.
Situated at the east edge of the camp, the fire station's location was unfavorable. Fire chiefs and inspectors worried about increased response time to fires. They also complained about the slow fire alarm system, which delayed response time up to ten minutes. In 1944, the department requested the purchase of a fire siren, but it "was denied by Washington without further justification."
Despite these setbacks, Japanese American firemen successfully battled 91 fires, averting catastrophe for those incarcerated in Manzanar.
The original truck used at Manzanar.
For the first few months, Manzanar's fire personnel relied on hand tools and a borrowed truck. On July 11, 1942, the Army Corps of Engineers delivered a new Ford engine with a pump capacity of 500 gallons per minute.
After the war, the Bishop Fire Department purchased the Ford and used it for decades. They expanded the bed and added the ladder in the 1950s. The National Park Service acquired it in the 1990s. A second truck used by Lone Pine Fire Department before being transferred to the Keeler Volunteer Fire Department, where it was used for years. They donated it to Manzanar in 2017.
From the fire station, we headed to investigate the buildings that had been closed due to Covid-19 on my prior visit. Replicas of buildings that once made up a part of "Block 14," they allowed visitors a bit of insight into the living conditions of the residents.
Outside, a dirt court allowed for some recreation - though playing basketball in the desert heat must have been quite the experience.
Living quarters. While rather spacious in this photo, eight people would have been packed into a single room when the camp was occupied.
Wooden furniture was largely built on-site.
Each block had a sewing room.
I thought this cook top, oven, toaster was quite ingenious!
Each of the 36 blocks at Manzanar consisted of 14 barracks as well as a laundry, latrine, and mess hall, so after visiting the barracks, we made a quick pass through the remaining buildings.
The women's latrine. Privacy - even here - was non-existent.
The mess hall, where most residents took their meals.
As a woodworker, I enjoyed seeing some of the period, cultural, joinery on the boxes used to store goods. Works of art, really.
An original range.
After touring the buildings, the remainder of the camp is accessible via a self-guided auto tour, where you can stop anywhere along the way to get out and read about various elements of the camp. Our first stop was at an area known as the orchards, a remnant from a time when hundreds of apple, pear, and peach orchards occupied the Manzanar landscape. Romeo Wilder planted these pear trees around 1918, which thrived during years of expert care and have since grown resilient through long decades of neglect. Manzanar's Bartlett and Winter Nellis pears, as well as its prize-winning Winesap and Spitzenburg apples, brought profits to a few, but others' dreams of wealth eventually withered like the trees themselves as water became more valuable than the fruit they produced.
Our 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.
The southeast corner of Pleasure Park.
A bridge, built of local cottonwood, in the Japanese style.
Our 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.
Kanji characters inscribed by Buddhist Reverend Shinjo Nagatomi translate to "soul consoling tower."
And with that, we'd spent nearly two hours solemnly absorbing what we could of this unfortunate chapter of American-Japanese history. 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.
"May the injustices and humiliation suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism, and economic exploitation never emerge again."
These words are - in my opinion - as relevant now as they've ever been. Our country - our world - must look for ways to reduce conflict and find compromise. To work together and build each other up, rather than picking sides and fighting at every turn. We are all humans, and we need each other.
A reminder - as we left the compound - that leaving wasn't always an option.
Having covered only a few miles since sunrise, our final two stops were half-an-hour north on US-395, in Big Pine. The first was an installation that I've wanted to check out for quite a while - the Owens Valley Radio Observatory.
One of the largest university-operated radio observatories in the world, it was established in 1956 and is owned and operated by Caltech. Additionally, it contains one of the ten - enormous - dish-antenna radiotelescope systems of the Very Long Baseline Array that is operated out of New Mexico and that I'd hoped to visit when we'd run the New Mexico BDR earlier in the year. Needless to say, when we pulled up, I was quite excited.
Note: I've included more information about the radios in the comments below, courtesy of Mike @mk5 and Ken @DVExile.
Look at the size of the Very Long Baseline Array dish! Every other dish was dwarfed in comparison.
A small bit of the array.
Nearby, a dish that looked to be a smaller version of the VLBA stood off by itself, and had a road leading right to its base.
OMG, it started moving! And OMG, I filmed it crooked!
Watching the dish rotate 180 degrees was certainly a highlight of the visit, and with that, we decided that it was time to go eat lunch. We'd heard lots of good things about Copper Top BBQ, and we'd noticed that there was one in Big Pine - in addition to the one we had previously planned to visit in Bishop. So, we backtracked into town and soon, we were enjoying a meat-laden meal.
Special Tacoma-only parking.
Ultimately - and perhaps it was because of what we ordered - we weren't all that impressed. It was tasty for sure, but the full rack of pork ribs seemed a little too smoky, and the pulled pork sandwich could have used a nice dollop of coleslaw to contrast with the sweet meat.
That said, we didn't throw anything away.
And with that, all that was left between us and the end of the trip was an 18-hour drive north. We'd do 8 hours into the evening, and another 10 the next day. Another successful trip in the books!
And we can't wait to get back!
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