On the Map and Back in My Heart

Cover of Barbara Rowell's 2002 book "Flying South: A Pilot's Inner Journey."

Cover of Barbara Rowell’s 2002 book “Flying South: A Pilot’s Inner Journey.”

Last Saturday night I sat enraptured in a cozy South Lake Tahoe cabin, listening to a member of the Ninety-Nines (an international organization for women pilots) reminisce about Barbara Rowell. Barbara learned to fly to fulfill her dream of freedom, expression and self-exploration. As the spouse and business partner of famous climber, explorer and photographer Galen Rowell, Barbara had a front seat view of back roads, wilderness, rare plants, enigmatic animals and ancient human settlements that very few people ever see. Yet perhaps she wanted to do something for herself on her own terms, not Galen’s.

I first became aware of Galen Rowell through National Geographic articles. His  photograph Rainbow Over the Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet, 1981 (below) imprinted upon me as though I were a young bird. Years later, browsing in a bookstore after college graduation, I came upon it in one of Rowell’s color calendars. But there was more. I screeched with delight and gestured to my then-boyfriend Joe. I was practically jumping up and down. “Look, it’s Bishop! This is where I grew up!” The calendar contained a couple of photographs featuring the Eastern Sierra and the Owens Valley. The biography printed on the back of the calendar noted the couple lived in Bishop. I had no idea! After fruitful careers traipsing all over the planet to shoot exotic locales and cultures, I soon learned that Barbara and Galen had found home.

Author’s copy of “Galen Rowell, A Retrospective.”

Until that point, hardly a soul I met in college or early in my career in Washington, D.C. had ever heard of Bishop. Even when I moved back to California to the Bay Area coastal community of Pacifica, most people only knew Tahoe. Bishop and the Owens Valley seemed like a fantastic secret that only my family and childhood friends shared. Yet here was famous adventure photographer Galen Rowell’s Fall Sunrise on the High Sierra Over the Owens Valley and Old Wagon Beneath Mount Tom and Snow Bent Aspen Trunks, South Fork of Bishop Creek Canyon. Bishop Creek Canyon! The hamlet where I lived in an A-frame house from the time I was six months old seemed like too small an outpost to be recognized by such a big-time artist!

Old Wagon Beneath Mount Tom, Round Valley.

Galen Rowell put the Owens Valley on the map and back in my heart, for shortly thereafter I began writing my book, Cover This Country Like Snow And Other Stories. A new generation of rock climbers and outdoor enthusiasts would follow Galen’s lead to the valley. As a result, Main Street in Bishop is now home to several backpacking, climbing, mountaineering and travel equipment stores.

Fall Sunrise on the High Sierra Over the Owens Valley from "Galen Rowell, A Retrospective," Sierra Club Books.

Fall Sunrise on the High Sierra Over the Owens Valley.

Months after I discovered Rowell’s photographs of my beloved Owens Valley and the Eastern side of the Sierra, Galen and Barbara died in 2002 in a plane crash at Bishop’s Eastern Sierra Regional Airport (Barbara was not the pilot). Though I did not know the couple, I was devastated by the tragic loss to the conservation and environmental movement. I  felt somehow that my hometown had let Galen and Barbara down, that the runway, or perhaps the rural darkness, had betrayed them.

Galen wrote “I’ve known all along that more of what I am seeking in the wilds is right here in my home state of California than anywhere else on earth. But … I couldn’t say it with authority until I had all those journeys to Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan, China, South America, Antarctica, and Alaska behind me (Galen Rowell: A Retrospective, Sierra Club Books, 2006).

Like Barbara, most women pilots seek to prove something to themselves by learning to fly. For me, flying is about possibility and power. Whether the power of the engine, the power of nature below or the power of the mind to overcome fear, aviating is as important to me as my Owens Valley. About three years ago I flew from Death Valley over the Inyo Range into the Owens Valley. My instructor Maria helped me land in Bishop. As I climbed out of the cockpit I immediately turned my face up to Mount Tom, which was entirely covered in a sheath of glittering white marble snow. Though I had taken countless pictures of that majestic peak, it still took my breath away. I am certain Barbara and Galen felt the same way.

Mount Tom Beneath the Wing

Mount Tom Beneath the Wing. Photo by the Author.

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A Heart as Big as a Mountain

I met Keiko Wright at the Japanese American National Museum this summer at a screening of her touching and powerful film Hiro.

Heart Mountain, photo by crew of Hiro.

Heart Mountain, photo by crew of Hiro.

The documentary starring Keiko’s grandfather Hiroshi “Hiro” Hoshizaki, follows him to Heart Mountain in Wyoming, where he was imprisoned by the U.S. government during World War II.

Hiro and Keiko during filming, 2010.

Hiro and Keiko during filming, 2010.

A new visitor center and museum opened two years ago at Heart Mountain to interpret the events of the Japanese American relocation camps (see my post on Manzanar). Like Manzanar, Heart Mountain falsely imprisoned more than 10,000 Japanese Americans under the auspices of Executive Order 9066, which ordered that all people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast be removed forcibly by the U.S. military to prison camps far from home.

Issued by President Franklin Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, this order authorized the evacuation of all persons deemed a threat to national security from the West Coast to relocation centers further inland. In the next 6 months, over 100,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry were moved to assembly centers. They were then evacuated to and confined in isolated, fenced, and guarded relocation centers, known as internment camps. From the National Archives

Issued by President Franklin Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, this order authorized the evacuation of all persons deemed a threat to national security from the West Coast to relocation centers further inland. In the next 6 months, over 100,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry were moved to assembly centers. They were then evacuated to and confined in isolated, fenced, and guarded relocation centers, known as internment camps. From the National Archives

Hiro as a historical record of what it was like to live through such injustice is important, but what stayed with me most was that Keiko achieved something miraculous in the collective endeavor to preserve our memories of World War II – she convinced her grandfather to talk about it. My own grandfather Frank, who during World War II served in the Navy in the South Pacific, was as stoic as Keiko’s grandfather Hiro.

Yet Keiko prevailed in coaxing Hiro to share his memories, and as a result, has made a film that demonstrates that two very different generations can see eye-to-eye, just long enough to remember the difficult past.

I asked Keiko how she persuaded her grandfather to speak so openly. She said that at first it was difficult, but eventually, once he realized that she was not only directing the film, but fundraising for it too, and that a lot of people were counting on her to complete it, he readily complied with her artistic direction. The result is a study in stark beauty, whether it is her grandfather’s face etched by the lines of time and his own powerful resilience or the semi-arid landscape near Cody, Wyoming.

Please support this terrific new voice in the history of our nation. Keiko is selling copies of her film Hiro here.

To hear more stories about Heart Mountain, have a listen to this wonderful Wyoming Public Radio program.

If you find yourself in Los Angeles, be sure to visit the Japanese American National Museum, where volunteers dismantled a portion of a barracks from Heart Mountain and transported it to Los Angeles, where it is now on permanent exhibit on the second floor.

Heart Mountain barrack at the Japanese American National Museum. Photo by the author, July 2013.

Heart Mountain barrack at the Japanese American National Museum. Photo by the author, July 2013.

I am certain that Keiko’s grandfather was mighty proud last year when The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selected Keiko’s film to receive the Gold Medal in its collegiate documentary category. Cuba Gooding, Jr. handed her the award. This woman is Oscar-worthy in more ways than one.

Cuba Gooding, Jr. presents the award to Keiko

Cuba Gooding, Jr. presents the award to Keiko