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1

I don't remember what I expected from my first view of Death Valley. I knew it to contain the lowest elevation (Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level) in North America and that it was really hot in the summer, but beyond that I had no clue. [Aside: the marine biologist in me wondered which metric 'sea level' refers to, and decided that it was probably mean low low water] I certainly wasn't prepared for the spectacular geology, although in retrospect I shouldn't have been so surprised. We didn't see much in the way of wildflowers, for one reason that I didn't anticipate but which makes perfect sense: although Death Valley received enough winter rain to form a temporary lake in the valley, there hadn't been enough rain in the autumn to trigger a superbloom. That was fine by me, as I'd already seen many wildflowers on the trip and was happy to be fascinated by the geology.

The Road to Nowhere
2019-03-28
© Allison J. Gong

There are at least two small waterways in Death Valley National Park that are called Salt Creek. The first one we encountered was in the hills above the valley, and is a rare desert riparian area.

Salt Creek oasis in Death Valley National Park
2019-03-28
© Allison J. Gong

This Salt Creek is fed by several small natural springs and runoff from the scant winter rains. As you can imagine, this oasis is a vital necessity for wildlife. Animals as large as desert bighorn sheep and as small as quail depend on this water source, which may contain the only somewhat reliable drinking water for 15 square miles.

As I mentioned, for me, Death Valley ended up being all about geology. I knew the valley floor was where we would find the lowest elevation in North America: Badwater Basin, 282 feet (86 m) below sea level. And now I can say that I've seen it, but there isn't much to see except the line of other tourists hiking out across the salt flats to take photos of the sign. So as a must-see destination, Badwater was interesting but not compelling. We skipped it.

But the rocks! The hills surrounding the valley, especially those on the eastern side, are spectacular. My favorite area was a range of hills called Artists Palette, viewable from a gorgeous 1-way loop drive off of Highway 190. When I saw the name on the map I thought it must be a place either a location where painters found minerals they could use to make paint, or a scene they liked to paint. Fortunately we decided to take the detour that meanders through the formations, so we could get off the main road and just gawk. I had never seen anything like this scenery. I know enough geology to understand that minerals come in all sorts of colors, but had not seen them together like this in a natural state. My eye is always drawn to colors, and I couldn't stop goggling at the variety of umbers, ochres, greens, and pinks, all jumbled together like some giant's ice cream sundae.

Approaching Artists Palette in Death Valley
2019-03-28
© Allison J. Gong
Approaching Artists Palette in Death Valley
2019-03-28
© Allison J. Gong
Artists Palette in Death Valley
2019-03-28
© Allison J. Gong
Artists Palette in Death Valley
2019-03-28
© Allison J. Gong

Artists Palette in Death Valley
2019-03-28
© Allison J. Gong

It's impossible to capture the grandeur of this landscape in a photograph. You really have to see Artists Palette in person to appreciate the vibrant colors of these hills. If you ever go to Death Valley , take the time to drive this little loop. You won't regret it!

Across the valley to the west, are the Panamint mountains. Beyond them, the Owens Valley and the mighty Sierra Nevada!

The Panamint Range, Death Valley
2019-03-28
© Allison J. Gong

So those are the rocks. The fish were in the second Salt Creek that we encountered, about 20 miles north of the Artists Drive loop. This Salt Creek is one of the remnant small bodies of water left after Lake Manly dries up. Lake Manly is a temporary lake that occasionally forms in Badwater Basin after unusual heavy rains. Most of the time, though, Badwater Basin is dry except for some small creeks. Salt Creek generally flows from north to south down the valley and eventually disappears into the sand.

Salt Creek in Death Valley
2019-03-28
© Allison J. Gong

Salt Creek is inhabited by a little pupfish, Cyprinidon salinus salinus, that looks like and is about the size of a guppy. Well, maybe it's a little bigger than a guppy. Populations of pupfish inhabit several creeks scattered over the desert across California and Nevada. Over time they have evolved into 10 genetically distinct species and subspecies, each adapted to the nuances of its particular stream. Two of the 10 have gone extinct in historic times. The Salt Creek pupfish, C. salinus salinus, is endangered, due to the ephemeral nature and fragility of its environment.

Salt Creek pupfish (Cyprinidon salinus salinus) in Death Valley
2019-03-28
© Allison J. Gong

They are called 'pupfish' because they appear to be playing like puppies. Plus, they are very cute. But life as a fish in one of the driest places on the planet is a tough gig. Pupfish live short, intense lives, growing to adulthood and breeding in the span of a single year.

Salt Creek pupfish (Cyprinidon salinus salinus) in Death Valley


As you can see, the creek is hardly deep enough for these little fish to swim. Pupfish exhibit the sexual dimorphism common in fishes--females are rather drab and nondescript, while males are more colorful. The behavior that was described as playful, earning the fish the moniker 'pupfish', is really all about the business of living. Males are territorial, defending a spot against other males. When a female chooses to spawn with a male, she enters his territory. Then the two of them perform a short, wiggling dance, and spawn together.

From the perspective of an evolutionary biologist, the isolated pupfish populations are fascinating. Each waterway inhabited by pupfish is an independent 'island' in a very real sense of the word. The fish cannot migrate between streams, and thus populations evolve independently of each other. This is called allopatric speciation, from the Greek roots 'allo-' meaning 'other' and '-patry' meaning 'country'. Over time, each population becomes reproductively isolated from the others, so that even if Manly Lake were to become once again a permanent body of water, the fish from different streams would be unable to mate with each other.

Of all the things that manage to eke out a living in what is arguably one of the most inhospitable places in the world, these little fish are my favorite. Major props to them, for surviving where they do and making it look like fun!

Joshua Tree National Park gained a certain notoriety this past winter, when idiots went there during the federal government shutdown and trashed the place. The vandals chopped down the iconic Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia), let their dogs run around unleashed, left litter scattered over the landscape, and carved new roads through the desert. I'd like to give most people the benefit of the doubt and assume that they didn't realize the damage they were doing to the park. However, it takes only a few bad apples to destroy a public resource for everybody, as we've all experienced at some point.

© DesertUSA

The very first thing I learned about Joshua Tree is that it has two distinct desert habitats. Hey, I'm a marine biologist, and the desert--any desert--is new territory for me. None of this landscape has been anywhere near the ocean for millions of years! Anyway, the eastern half of the park is Colorado Desert, which is similar to what we had seen at Anza-Borrego State Park. Many of the plants in this region were also familiar to us because we had seen them in Anza-Borrego, but for the most part were more abundant here in Joshua Tree.

For example, we saw many more bluebells (Phacelia campanularia) at Joshua Tree than in Anza-Borrego. The P. campanularia at Joshua Tree also looked healthier (more robust and vigorous, less spindly) than they did in Anza-Borrego. Perhaps the higher elevation of the Colorado Desert in Joshua Tree (approximately 914 meters, or 3000 feet) compared to Anza-Borrego (182 meters, or 597 feet) accounts for this observation.

Desert bluebells (Phacelia campanularia) at Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

I really liked the Colorado Desert in Joshua Tree. Even though it was the same ecosystem as what we saw in Anza-Borrego, here the flowers seemed more colorful and striking. The yellows were a little brighter, and the pinks and blues a little deeper. The scenery was breathtaking everywhere I looked. I wish my photos could do justice to the beauty of the landscape.

Wildflowers at Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

Aside from the desert bluebells, other flowers that we had seen at Anza-Borrego included the brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), which seems to be ubiquitous in the Colorado Desert. The Arizona lupine (Lupinus arizonicus) was also common in Joshua Tree; like the bluebells, these appeared to be more robust here than in Anza-Borrego.

There were new flowers, too. My favorite, which I didn't see a lot of, was this desert globemallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua:

Desert globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) at Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

Here's a close-up of the same plant. Look at that gorgeous orange color!

Desert mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) at Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

Against the prevailing palette of yellows and purples, this orange really stood out and caught the eye. This plant is also called the apricot mallow, for obvious reasons.

Some other flowers that we saw:

Among all the colorful flowers in the overall landscape, there was this very subtle plant, easily overlooked by eyes accustomed to more brilliant blossoms.

Sand blazing star (Mentzelia involucrata) at Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

Something that tickled my funny bone was the little chia plant, Salvia columbariae. It looks like a prickly purple pom-pom. Two days in the desert had taught me not to touch things if I didn't know what they were, but I had to know if these blossoms were as pokey as they looked. They weren't!

Chia (Salvia columbariae) at Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

There are parasitic plants in the desert, too. The red branches in this bush are the desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum), a hemiparasite. It drains water and nutrients from its host plant but performs its own photosynthesis.

Desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum) at Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

In Joshua Tree National Park there's an area called the Cholla Cactus Garden. Chollas are cactuses with cylindrical stems, rather than the flat stems of the beavertail or prickly pear cactuses. The most common one in the Colorado Desert (that we saw, at least) was the teddybear cholla, Cylindropuntia bigelovii. As the name implies, it's a cute, fluffy cactus, but it's definitely still a cactus.

Teddybear chollas (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) at Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

Teddybear chollas (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) at Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

The teddybear cactus blooms in May and June, so we didn't see any flowers. In addition to having the normal plant sex using flowers, these cactuses also reproduce clonally by dropping branches. The dropped pieces roll around and find a new place to attach and grow. Interestingly, this type of clonal replication, called budding, is common in many marine invertebrates!

Buds of teddybear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

Here's a newly detached bud from a teddybear cholla:

Bud of teddybear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

And here's a recently established, young plant:

Young teddybear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

Cute little cactus, isn't it?

The trees that give Joshua Tree National Park its name live in the higher and cooler western region of the park, known as the Mojave Desert. The Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) live singly or in clusters. In some ways, Y. brevifolia is the symbol of the Mojave Desert. They are also abundant in the higher elevations of the Tehachapi Mountains along Highway 58 between Bakersfield and the town of Mojave.

Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) in the Tehachapi Mountains
2017-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

In Joshua Tree National Park, said trees were blooming in late March.

Blooming Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) in Joshua Tree National Park
2019-03-27
© Allison J. Gong

I'll have more to say about reproduction in Joshua trees and some other desert plants in another post. This one is getting long, and we had more desert adventures to come.

Next stop: Death Valley

The first new-to-me visit on our spring break road trip was Anza-Borrego State Park in the southern California desert. We arrived late in the day on Monday and had just a brief chance to look around. On Tuesday we got up early and went for a hike, trying to avoid some of the midday heat. Fortunately there was a bit of a breeze, which helped with the heat but made flower picture-taking challenging.

Anza-Borrego is located in the Colorado Desert, which is a western subdivision of the Sonoran Desert. The Colorado is a low-altitude desert (most of the surrounding hills are only ~900 meters tall) and thus gets much hotter in the summer than deserts at higher elevations, and very rarely experiences a winter frost. Winter is the main rainy season and some regions also receive rain during a late-summer monsoon season.

After a rainy winter, the desert explodes into vibrant life:

Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

The color of the day at Anza-Borrego was yellow. More details on the yellow players in a bit.

Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

It had rained a few days prior to our visit, and there a stream was flowing through the desert.

Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

This running water would be a temporary situation, of course, but one that is of great help to the wildlife in the park. At the park visitor center I read that wildlife large and small come to drink from the shallow streams, and that if we were to see bighorn sheep approaching the water we should stay out of their way. Water is so scarce for these animals that any delay in getting to it, or any separation of individuals from their family unit could be very stressful. I didn't know whether or not we'd even see the sheep, since they are shy, but we got lucky!

Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

Handsome fellow, isn't he? He was eating and didn't seem to mind us hikers as long as we stayed on the trail. Of course, there was an idiot who approached too close to get a better photo, and this ram wasn't happy about it. He withdrew away from us and then went about his business. Other sheep wandered through, too, to forage or drink from the stream. But this big guy gave me the best photo op.

A visit to the desert this spring, after all the rain we had over the winter, was all about the wildflowers. Most of them were new to me. One thing that struck me was that, instead of the carpets of color that we'd seen at Carrizo Plain or Antelope Valley, flowers at Anzo-Borrega were much more widely dispersed. Some species were very common and others I didn't see more than once or twice.

As I mentioned above, yellow was the predominant color at Anza-Borrego. There were several daisy-like flowers in both yellow and white, and some were very common. Fortunately for me, the visitor center had an easy-to-use pictorial guide of the most common wildflowers; using that, some wildflower field guides that we brought with us, and Calflora.org, I may have identified them all correctly. I'm sure that somebody will point out any identifications that I got wrong.

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

One of the defining characteristics of E. farinosa is the way that the blossoms are raised up above the grayish-green foliage. It's a cool morphology, and makes the plant look very different when you see it from the side. Here's a shot that shows it:

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

And brittlebush was very abundant!

Lots of brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

Another very abundant yellow flower was the very aptly named desert dandelion, Malacothrix glabrata. It looks like a typical dandelion, perhaps a more pale buttery color than usual, and when mature the blossoms have a small purplish red spot in the center.

Desert dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong
Desert dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

Our state flower, Eschscholzia californica, is typically a brilliant pure orange color, although sometimes the color can be more yellow. In Anza-Borrego I saw some plants whose foliage looked poppy-ish, but the blossoms didn't look quite right--a little too small to be California poppies and a color that was definitely yellow rather than orange. Turns out, though, that they were gold poppies (E. parishii)!

Gold poppies (Eschscholzia parishii) and one of the purple Phacelia species at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

And who can resist a plant called ghostflower? That palest of yellows, almost but not quite white, combined with the tiny dark speckles, makes the plant seem very quiet--indeed, almost spooky. Ghostflower is easily overlooked, compared to the vibrant yellows of brittlebush, poppies, and dandelions.

Desert ghostflower (Mohavea confertiflora) and gold poppy (Eschscholzia parishii) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

One of my favorite flower color combinations is yellow, white, and purple. Imagine how pleased I was to find it in the desert!

Desert dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata), desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana) and a purple phacelia (Phacelia distans) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

The color purple was represented by two species of Phacelia, P. distans and P. campanularia. Phacelia distans was by far the most common in the floors of the valleys, and we saw P. campanularia at higher elevations.

This is Phacelia distans. Note the shape of the inflorescences, and how the blossoms are arranged.

Phacelia distans at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-02-36
© Allison J. Gong
Phacelia distans at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-02-36
© Allison J. Gong

And this is Phacelia campanularia, the desert bluebell:

Desert bluebell (Phacelia campanularia) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-02-36
© Allison J. Gong

These plants have the same blossom shape, but very different blossom arrangements and foliage morphology. Nifty, the differences between presumably closely related species, eh?

Another flower in the purple family was the desert sand verbena (Abronia villosa). It occurred in sandy soils, often in washes or dunes, similar to the sand verbena that I see on beaches along the coast.

Desert sand verbena (Abronia villosa) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

The pink color family was represented by the bright pink Bigelow's monkeyflower, Mimulus bigelovii. They were fun. The golden-orange throat is the diagnostic feature for this species.

Bigelow's monkeyflower (Mimulus bigelovii) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong
Bigelow's monkeyflower (Mimulus bigelovii) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

I didn't get very many good pictures of the white flowers. It always seemed to be especially windy when we saw them. Desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana) is a white daisy-like flower.

Desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

This being the desert, much of the plant biomass was succulent in nature. The ocotillo were blooming, as were the teddybear cholla and other cactuses.

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

Everything living in the desert survives only if it can take advantage of the minimal precipitation that falls every year. Cactuses must suck up as much water as they can during the wet season, and store it for use during the hot, dry summer. Barrel cactus (Ferocactus acanthodes) this spring are fat, like the barrels for which they are named, and full of water. Their bodies are pleated longitudinally, allowing them to swell up when water is available. Then, as their water stores are depleted during the summer, the pleats fold together and the body becomes more compact. The large saguaro cactuses in the Sonoran Desert do the same thing.

Blooming barrel cactus (Ferocactus acanthodes) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

A cactus whose blossom definitely belongs in the pink category is the beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaria). I think it was early in the blooming season for them, as I never saw any plants with more than a few open flowers, but most of them had many buds developing.

Beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaria) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

The chollas are cactuses in the genus Cylindropuntia, characterized by cylindrical stems. The teddybear cholla (C. bigelovii) was the one we saw at Anza-Borrego. It has dense spines that give it a fuzzy look but in reality form an impenetrable defense--it manages to say "I'm cute and fuzzy!" and "Don't touch me!" at the same time.

Teddybear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

The teddybear chollas were very abundant at Anza-Borrego. We continued to see them as we continued on our trip. Next stop, Joshua Tree!

1

We've had a good strong wet season this year, resulting in another wildflower superbloom. Over spring break we went to southern California to chase the flowers and, while we were at it, visit some places that I'd never been to. Our first stops were at familiar stomping grounds that we'd visited in 2017: Shell Creek Road, Carrizo Plain, and Antelope Valley. There were significantly more people at all of these places, compared to two years ago. Many of the well known sites for wildflowers have become very popular lately, and we tried to avoid the most crowded areas.

Location 1: Shell Creek Road

Just because I love the California oaks, here's one that is well festooned with lace lichen (Ramalina menziesii) and moss:

Coastal live oak (Quercus agrifolia)
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

The sky was hazy that day, making for less than ideal picture-taking conditions. The wind certainly didn't help, as the flowers were moving constantly. This early in the bloom the predominant color was yellow: a soft, buttery yellow due to the tidy tips and a much more brilliant, retina-searing gold due to the goldfields.

Goldfields (Lasthenia californica)
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

There was some relief from all the yellow, in patches of baby blue eyes.

Wildflowers along Shell Creek Road
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong
Baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii)
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

Location 2: Carrizo Plain and Temblor Hills

Soda Lake Road, which runs through Carrizo Plain, was quite crowded. We stopped at the vista point and then headed off the beaten track onto some less-traveled dirt roads.

Still hazy, see?

Soda Lake, from vista point
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

There was such glorious scenery all around!

2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

To the northeast of Carrizo Plain lie the Temblor Range hills, on which the bloom was just beginning. We saw fiddlenecks and goldfields at lower elevations, and splotches of purple Phacelia and orange poppies higher on the hills.

Fiddlenecks (Amsinckia menziesii), goldfields (Lasthenia californica), and Phacelia ciliata
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

Poppies weren't going very strongly yet, but were distinguishable as a faint orange wash on the hills:

Wildflowers on Temblor Hills
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

We'd see plenty of poppies the next day!

Location 3: Antelope Valley

Antelope Valley was overrun with people, climbing up hillsides with their dogs and selfie sticks. Seems that selfies of people sitting in poppy fields is all the rage these days. We didn't bother even trying to get into the poppy preserve, as there were lots of flowers to be seen in the surrounding areas.

Owl's clover (Castilleja exserta) and California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
2019-03-25
© Allison J. Gong
California poppies (Eschscholzia californica)
2019-03-25
© Allison J. Gong

Compared to what we saw at Antelope Valley in 2017, this year's bloom was different. This year the poppies were not as widely scattered as in 2017, but where they occurred they were extremely dense. Then again, this year we were early in the bloom, and by now it could be different.

Poppy field at Antelope Valley
2019-03-25
© Allison J. Gong

Next up: Anza-Borrego!

2

The United States entered World War II in December 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. With Japan now considered an enemy state, part of the U.S. response in 1942 was to order more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast and in Hawaii into forced interment in remote camps operated by the military. The internees were men, women, and children; immigrants and U.S.-born citizens. They were considered a risk to national security, and their removal from society was widely (but not universally) viewed as a justifiable precautionary measure.

Memorial in cemetery at Manzanar
2019-03-29
© Allison J. Gong

Executive Order 9066 was issued and signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in February 1942. This order authorized the Secretary of War to build and operate military installations where Japanese Americans, German Americans, and Italian Americans would be imprisoned for the duration of the war. The order doesn't specify which Americans would be interned, but uses the term 'alien enemies'; given that at the time the U.S. was at war with Japan, Germany, and Italy, it doesn't take much imagination to figure out who the intended prisoners would be. Interestingly, or perhaps not, only Americans of Japanese descent were interned in large camps. A total of about 14,000 people of German or Italian descent were interned.

Of the Japanese Americans interned, about 70% were U.S. citizens. Many more would have been, but for the fact that Japanese-born immigrants to the U.S. (Issei) were by law forbidden to take U.S. citizenship despite having no loyalty to Japan. Their American-born children (Nisei) were, of course, American citizens, eligible to be drafted into the military and fight for the country that had interned their families.

Women's latrine and mess hall of Block 14 at Manzanar
2019-03-29
© Allison J. Gong

Manzanar is one of the internment camps. Located in the eastern Sierra just off Highway 395 in the Owens Valley in southern California, it sits in a most glorious location. Even today it is hours away from any type of city, but definitely worth the drive to visit. I learned a lot at the visitor center, which is probably the best one I've ever been to. We were there for over three hours, learning about the lives of the people interned at Manzanar.

The camp was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Eight guard towers (built, ironically, by Japanese craftsmen) were manned by military police. The fencing and most of the guard towers are gone now. At some point after the camp was dismantled, most of the buildings were removed to other locations. There isn't much remaining on the site, but what is there is crammed full of information and artifacts from the people who lived there.

Manzanar housed ~10,000 internees, most from California and Washington, plus civilian and military families. Internees were stuffed into 504 barracks organized into 36 blocks. Each block, home to 200-400 internees, contained 14 barracks, a mess hall, men's and women's latrines, and a laundry room. There were also school buildings, a Buddhist temple and a Buddhist church, housing for military and civilian residents (built of much better quality than the barracks for internees, with indoor plumbing, solid walls, and insulation). Within the barracks there was no privacy. Seven or eight people, who could be family members or complete strangers, lived in a 20-by-25 foot room, or 'apartment'. For each room, the government provided cots with straw mattresses, blankets, an oil stove for heat, and a single hanging light bulb. The restored exhibits in Block 14 are much better lit now than they were when people were interned here.

Apartment at Manzanar
2019-03-29
© Allison J. Gong

The internees would hang blankets or use personal belongings to contrive some semblance of privacy in a small room shared with strangers.

Apartment at Manzanar
2019-03-29
© Allison J. Gong

When internees began arriving at Manzanar, the barracks were built of wood covered with tar paper--no insulation or even sealant between the boards of the walls and floor. This construction was woefully inadequate for the frigid winters and blazing hot summers of the high desert, and provided no protection from the wind that blows year-round and the dust that it carries. Dust storms were very common, and internees would hunker down for the worst of the storm and then sweep out the dust. The barracks were eventually reinforced with real walls and some degree of insulation, but linoleum wasn't installed on the floors until late 1942.

The internees were very resourceful people who did a remarkable job of making an extremely unpleasant situation as bearable as possible. Many were craftsmen, and they built furniture from whatever they could get their hands on. Fruit packing crates provided lumber that was built into tables, chairs, and cabinets.

Apartment 'living room' at Manzanar
2019-03-29
© Allison J. Gong
Apartment 'bedroom' at Manzanar
2019-03-29
© Allison J. Gong

The lack of privacy extended to the most personal of daily activities. The women's latrine of Block 14 has been restored:

Toilets in women's latrine of Block 14 at Manzanar
2019-03-29
© Allison J. Gong

There's another bank of five toilets on the opposite side of the white partition. Imagine waiting in line with dozens of people, many suffering from diarrhea due to the unfamiliar diet and stress, for the chance to use a toilet with nine other strangers in such close proximity. This lack of privacy in latrines was cited by many residents as one of the greatest hardships of life at Manzanar.

Showers in women's latrine of Block 14 at Manzanar
2019-03-29
© Allison J. Gong

Internees ate all of their meals in the block mess hall. At first internees would venture from block to block searching for the best chef in the camp, but eventually the authorities cracked down on such wandering and forced internees to eat in their own block.

Meal prep began well before dawn and continued through the evening. Meal times were stringently scheduled throughout the day. Kitchen scraps were used to feed hogs, and an on-site chicken ranch provided eggs. Eventually chefs were provided with the materials to make tofu and miso, which were used to make more palatable meals for the internees. Mess halls also served as social areas and often hosted movies, dances, or meetings.

Interior of Block 14 mess hall at Manzanar
2019-03-29
© Allison J. Gong

Japanese craftsmanship is evident in the tools used by the chefs. Internees built this baker's table, and also the massive steaming basket on the industrial stove.

Baker's table in Block 14 mess hall at Manzanar
2019-03-29
© Allison J. Gong
Stove in Block 14 mess hall at Manzanar
2019-03-29
© Allison J. Gong

Exhibits at the Manzanar visitor center include recordings of internees recollecting their experiences in the camp. In many ways the internees tried and succeeded at making life as normal as possible. There were two schools, one for younger children and a high school. An on-site hospital was run by one of the woman internees who was a physician; she was extremely insistent on cleanliness throughout the camp and that all residents receive inoculations against disease. Couples were married and babies were born. Kids played the all-American games of baseball and basketball, even against other high schools that came to Manzanar. The Manzanar teams were never allowed to compete at other schools, though.

The internees at Manzanar must have been fully aware of the irony of their situation. They were prisoners of the U.S. government, their property and businesses seized, their rights stripped away. The worst of the indignities, in my opinion, was the loyalty questionnaire. Its purpose was, ostensibly, to determine who were the 'loyal' Japanese Americans who could be safely released from the camp to states in the interior of the country. Questions 27 and 28 were especially problematic. They were worded slightly differently for men and women, but the overall gist is the same.

Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?

Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attacks by foreign and domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or disobedience to the Japanese Emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?

Question 27 was problematic because if a man answered 'yes', he could conceivably be drafted into duty and have to fight against his ancestral homeland, where he may still have family residing. Some men answered 'no' for this reason and were deemed disloyal as a result; they were segregated from their families and sent to even more strict camps.

Question 28 was problematic for more subtle and insidious reasons. Many Nisei (American-born children of Japanese immigrants) were insulted by the implication that they had any loyalty to Japan or the Japanese Emperor. For Issei, who were denied U.S. citizenship, a 'yes' answer could leave them without a country. Recognizing the difficulty for Issei, the WRA (War Relocation Authority) did revise Question 28 to read as follows: Will you swear to abide by the laws of the United States and to take no action which would in anyway interfere with the war effort of the United States?

As a native Californian, I feel I should have known more about Manzanar and the role it played in our country's history. The gathering and imprisonment of Japanese Americans for no reason other than their Japanese-ness was misguided and, as it turns out, unnecessary. None of the Japanese American internees at Manzanar were ever found to have committed any act of treason, sabotage, or disloyalty towards the United States. I see similar attitudes in recent attempts to close our borders and separate immigrant children from their parents, and fear that those in power who most need to learn the lessons of Manzanar will choose to remain ignorant. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I leave you with this image of the basketball court at Manzanar. Kids shooting hoops in the afternoon sun--how much more American can you get? But that fence. It gives me the creeps. What does this image say to you?


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