Country of Lost Borders


Owens Valley as seen from Sierra Nevada Mountains. Photo by Mike Prather. Click on the photo to learn more about Mike and his passion for the Owens Valley!

“If one is inclined to wonder at first how so many dwellers came to be in the loneliest land that ever came out of God’s hands, what they do there and why stay, one does not wonder so much after having lived there. None other than this long brown land lays such a hold on the affections. The rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous radiance of the spring, have the lotus charm.”

~ Mary Austin, The Land of Little Rain

I would like to rename, for a few minutes, my childhood home, the Owens Valley. Let’s call it Deepest Valley National Park, just for fun. Like the Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, all Americans know it and even if they’ve never been there, they love it. Deepest Valley National Park lies in the cradle between two massive chains of mountains – the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the White-Inyo Mountains. The tallest peaks of both ranges are well over 14,000 feet and the eastern front forms a continuous wall of massive granite that stands, without a break, 7,000 to 10,800 feet above the valley. “Here 600-million-year-old folded and faulted rocks and the 210-million-year-old granite that shouldered them aside are on dramatic display,” writes Genny Smith in her guidebook to Deepest Valley National Park. Smith adds that “Earth’s crust has moved and continues to move – a few inches here, a few feet there, up down and sideways – to lift the mountains and to drop the valley floor between them, producing this deepest valley on the American continents.”  

Continuing this scenario, imagine that documentary filmmaker Ken Burns features Deepest Valley National Park prominently in his series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” In your mind’s eye picture the park’s visitor centers telling the sweeping story of the region; it’s epic in scope. Cowboys, Indians, hardscrabble miners, rough-and-tumble cattlemen, Civil War soldiers, Basque sheepherders, city officials from hundreds of miles away buying up land, American citizens imprisoned during World War II – the film Chinatown doesn’t even begin to cover it. Millions of visitors from Great Britain, Japan, Germany and all 50 states are represented in the visitor surveys.

So now that we’ve established this national park, let’s examine a potential development that would essentially pave over some of it. An energy developer wants to build a 200-megawatt solar facility that would cover about 1,200 acres with some one million photovoltaic panels (if my math is accurate) on undeveloped land. Power from the facility would travel via an existing transmission line (which is a benefit of the project, as that infrastructure is already in place and would not require additional construction and environmental damage) to the power grid. Given Americans’ pride in their national parks, even a diseased and dying tree can hardly get cut down without public outcry. This fight over the solar facility could become a war.  

But Deepest Valley National Park does not exist. So the struggle between local residents and the city of Los Angeles will appear parochial and unimportant to anyone outside the region. I assure you we all need to care. The Owens Valley contains the heritage of all Americans – our prehistoric past, including Columbia mammoths, dire wolves, mastodons and saber-toothed tigers; the history of Western expansion and conflict between European settlers, native mammals like the California grizzly and American Indians; our present of recreation and tourism, including hiking, skiing, camping and fishing; and our future as a society that increasingly recognizes that without nature, our mental and physical health goes out the window, along with the rest of the planet. This is not an issue of concern just to Californians, but to all peoples.


Though some of the Owens Valley is publicly owned by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior, most of it does not enjoy the highest level of public land protection in the United States. Much of this land, fellow Americans, is not ours. But the valley does enjoy plentiful protection most of the time. More than 300,000 acres of the Owens Valley is owned by the City of Los Angeles and as a result, the valley’s open space and rural character has been more or less preserved, rendering it one of the most beautiful valleys on Earth (above, United States Forest Service map of the Owens Valley. Los Angeles owns the area in yellow. Photo by the author).
Former California State Parks ranger Dave Carle, who worked at Mono Lake, heard the opinion, expressed again and again, that “today’s sparsely populated Eastern Sierra was actually preserved by the water imperialism of Los Angeles; saved from the overdevelopment rampant elsewhere in the state.” Carle writes in Water and the California Dream that if Los Angeles had not diverted the Owens River, the town of Bishop might be a lot more urbanized, perhaps similar in population to Carson City, Nevada.

While I believe that the Department of Water and Power’s project to help meet California’s renewable energy goals is laudable, the siting is not. According to The Nature Conservancy (full disclosure, they are my employer) there are places that are well-suited for this kind of development. And we have the scientific data to show the way forward. Within the Mojave Desert’s 32 million acres, the Conservancy says there are roughly 1.8 million acres that are both already ecologically degraded and have the site requirements necessary for viable solar energy production. But Los Angeles doesn’t own them, which I imagine is a prime reason the city won’t be exploring that option anytime soon.

Reading the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Environmental Impact Statement appendices on the plant and animal species, as well as the cultural and geological resources that would be affected, it’s unclear to me just how severe the impacts of a solar energy development would be to a burrowing owl, for example, which was not found during the assessment period. The alkaline slicks seem inhospitable to most life. Livestock graze here already. Conflicting points of view abound as to whether the solar panels would be very visible from nearby Manzanar National Historic Site. Former Park Superintendent Les Inafuku said to a KCET reporter in January that “Most of our visitors are urbanites. To have have an industrial site across the highway, would just make this area seem more like what they have down in L.A. or San Diego. The opportunity for visitors to learn here at Manzanar is greatly enhanced by maintaining the undeveloped nature of this greater area.” The Owens Valley Committee’s rendering of how the solar ranch might appear is below.Image


No matter how much I review the literature, I can’t convince my heart. I plead with Los Angeles: There has to be a better place for this kind of development. Not on land that is presently undeveloped. Not on land with 163 archaeological sites, 140 of which are from the prehistoric period. Not on land that contains 68 prehistoric sites that are recommended eligible for inclusion to the California Register of Historical Resources. Not on land that is home to sensitive wildlife species like the pallid bat, Townsend’s big-eared bat, the spotted bat, the Loggerhead Shrike and the American badger. Not on land where the little-appreciated salt-tolerant shrubs Nevada oryctes and the coyote gillia persist despite the lack of consistent rain. Not on land across from a former war relocation center where 10,000 Japanese Americans falsely accused and incarcerated lived in harsh, isolated conditions.

What I would like you to do, my Owensrivergirl readers, is take action. Write to the Inyo County Board of Supervisors, the Mayor of Los Angeles and the LA DWP (contact information below) with words like this: “It’s not in my backyard – but I still want it protected. The Owens Valley is one of the most beautiful valleys in the world. Find an already-degraded site instead.”  

Thank You readers.

“For all the toll the desert takes of a man it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars.” ~ Mary Austin


Contact Information,  City of Los Angeles:

Contact Information, Inyo County Board of Supervisors:

Inyo County Board of Supervisors

Box N

Independence, CA 93526


Field of (Broken) Dreams

Last year I visited a recreated baseball diamond accompanied by a panel with this quote: “Putting on a baseball uniform was like wearing the American flag.” I was not visiting a neighborhood park where a venerated Hall of Famer played as a child, nor was I conjuring the site of a long demolished stadium where the sport of baseball became legend. I was at Manzanar, and I was trying to imagine more than 6,000 acres of the Owens Valley taken over by the federal government for the false imprisonment of 10,000 innocent Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Baseball diamond, Manzanar, January 2011. Photo by author.

2012 marks the 70thanniversary of Executive Order 9066 that detained, behind barbed wire, more than 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent and resident Japanese aliens without due process. Following on the heels of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, some government officials feared  potential espionage and sabotage. The execution of Executive Order 9066 is one of the blackest marks in our history and a violation of Civil Rights the likes of which we must never forget. What occurred at Manzanar is just as relevant today; after the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995 most Americans jumped to the conclusion that the perpetrators were Arabs. Mass murder shooting sprees in Colorado, Connecticut and Washington, D.C. have similar story lines — our biases flare up and assumptions are made about who is to blame, about conspiracies and about religion. So it is critical that we visit Manzanar and learn the stories of those men, women and children who were betrayed by their government. The National Park Service has done an outstanding job interpreting the events, allowing ample pause for reflection and bringing Manzanar to life through footage, artifacts, art, crafts made in the camp and educational panels on a self-guided driving tour.

A reconstructed barrack is open for visitors, lending insights into daily life for internees. Photo by author.

Kumiko, Kiku, Yusuro, Lily, Chiyoke, Mitsuye, Misuko, Kenji, Takeo, Kentaro, Mariko, Aiko. The names of the people who lived here for three years are etched into glass in the Visitor’s Center along with thousands of others. I read them one by one, but after a few minutes I stopped. The list was simply too long. A good many of those interned were from a small fishing community in San Pedro, California called Terminal Island.

I wanted to see this deserted village, so a few months later I drove to San Pedro near Long Beach to try to see what the community suffered. Again, imagination is required to piece together the history of Terminal Island, as no trace of Japanese gardens, schools, merchants or recreation halls remains. On foot I circled the memorial established by a committee who did not want the history to be forgotten. Two larger than life sculptures of Japanese fishermen reeling in their catch arrested my attention. A regal torii gate stands guard over the past. No tourists visited in that remote part of San Pedro, only 18-wheelers hauling freight for unloading cargo ships of goods from Asia and Europe. I toured Tuna Street and recognized storefronts from 1930s and 1940s photographs that now stand empty and will probably be demolished. It was here that barber shops, pool halls, small mercantile, grocers and restaurant owners were forced out of business, bound for the Owens Valley where President Franklin D. Roosevelt apparently wanted them. The Navy subsequently razed their homes in the village.

My first memories of Manzanar are as a sort of ghostly roadside attraction, one of many markers along the road from Bishop to my Grandmother Lorraine’s house in Lakeside near San Diego. As mom or dad drove, my sister Carol and I looked out the windows and counted things such as train cars, Volkswagen Beetles, power lines, or big rigs. We always noticed Manzanar. As we grew older our questions about what it represented became more inquisitive. I realized after several years of asking that I would not know much more than what Mom and Dad said, namely, that it had been a sort of prison camp for the Japanese and now it was abandoned.

Soul Consoling Tower, Mount Williamson in background. Photo by author.

Addressing the deep wrongs of Manzanar has been a bipartisan affair – Gerald Ford revoked Executive Order 9066 in 1976; Jimmy Carter recommended an apology accompanied by payments of restitution and an educational center; Ronald Reagan delivered the apology and signed the act for payment; George H.W. Bush mailed the payment checks and signed the apology letters; Bill Clinton signed legislation establishing Manzanar as a National Historic Site; and George W. Bush signed legislation to preserve all ten sites where the Japanese were confined.  Now three of the ten original internment camps have been transformed into national monuments.

“Without baseball, life at Manzanar would have been miserable,” said one internee.

Sporting events were common inside the camp. A men’s team called the ManzaKnights played baseball; the Dusty Chicks played softball.

This year also marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX; recently I visited the Charles M. Schulz Museum’s temporary exhibit honoring the seminal legislation that addressed gender discrimination in girls and women’s sports in the schools. The gallery displays women’s uniforms through time as well as photographs of athletes such as tennis player Billy Jean King. In one section a grainy photograph of two teams of Japanese women playing volleyball at Manzanar was featured. Though they played under a scorching sun and competed behind barbed wire fences, these women put on their game faces.

Women play volleyball at Manzanar internment camp. Photo by Ansel Adams.

I feel a kinship to these prisoners unknown to me, as sports have always been a bonding agent with my family as well as a potent demonstration of patriotic fervor. Yet I am not proud to be American as I drive from the baseball diamond toward what used to be Manzanar’s hospital.  Before 2011 only the guardhouse entry building and the gymnasium, and the concrete foundations of the hospital and mess hall, remained. Now, thanks to the National Park Service, visitors can see recreated barrack buildings and learn about the camp through photographs and educational films and displays in the interpretive center. It’s a sobering visit, one that alternately makes you feel superior that it wasn’t you that made such an unfair decision to unjustly accuse and jail American citizens, and ashamed that it was your grandparents who probably supported it.

We passed Manzanar hundreds of times during our Owens Valley childhood, as it was the first touchstone along what seemed an interminable drive on Highway 395 from Bishop to San Diego. Traveling south, it was a sign that the journey had just begun; returning from Grandma’s house, it was how we knew we were almost home.

Its mysterious, shadowy past intrigued and plagued me; I had to write a story to include in my collection, Cover This Country Like Snow.

But what right do I have to tell a story set in Manzanar from the point of view of a third generation Japanese-American woman? I am reminded of the controversy surrounding Forrest Carter’s Education of Little Tree, a book originally marketed as an autobiography written by a Cherokee man and later found to be a fictional story penned by a white man with ties to racist groups.  While I’ll never fully understand the experience of a Japanese woman interned at Manzanar, I can do something about it by bringing it to light for a 21st century audience. My story is “The Mounds of Mitsue,” and writing it has taught me more about Executive Order 9066 than all the years of driving by the site of the former camp.

Military police sentry post built by a Japanese stonemason and internee, Ryozo Kado, serves as the present entrance to Manzanar. Photo by author.

The last Japanese American prisoner left Manzanar in November 1945, several months after the conclusion of World War II. Though they were forced to surrender their livelihoods and communities, the prisoners themselves volunteered to fight for the United States and thousands of them served in the Armed Forces. Many internees later wrote about the horrors in the camps, the extreme temperatures and the betrayal they endured. Photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams captured the experience for government department records. Despite the hardships the prevailing theme was – make the best of it and keep close to one another. U.S. intelligence services later found that not one Japanese American committed any act of spying or treason.

During baseball season we have our family’s teams games on nightly – Padres for me, Giants and Phillies for my husband. No matter what I’m doing around the house, whether it’s catching up on emails, preparing for work the next day or editing my book, I stop, stand up and place my right hand over my heart, and sing along to the National Anthem before a baseball game. I am proud to be American. Coupled with the Seventh Inning Stretch and the singing of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” these traditional ceremonies unite us all, as disparate as we are. And as flawed as we are.

Ansel Adams photograph of a baseball game, Manzanar

Turns out, even during years of internment, Japanese Americans at Manzanar War Relocation Camp felt the same way. Today, the DustyChicks and the ManzaKnights live on with just the merest suggestion of a baseball field, the ghosts of a cheering crowd rooting the players on and the crack of a wooden bat making contact with the ball in the middle of the High Desert of the Owens Valley, barbed wire well beyond the outfield.

Interested in learning more? Visit these wonderful sites: