Stories Tenkara Trip Reports

Buddha, Barbed Wire, and a Bit of Freedom

Essay by Melissa Alcorn

“Fishing is the chance to wash one’s soul with pure air. It brings meekness and inspiration, reduces our egoism, soothes our troubles and shames our wickedness. It is discipline in the equality of men–for all men are equal before fish.”

Herbert Hoover

The sun was broiling us as we stood beside a flagpole on July 4th in the middle of a cracked desert in the Great Basin of Utah. Shade was not available except for the smallest creatures that could cower beneath sage. On a day commemorating a country built on foundational principles of equality and freedom, we stood in that beastly hot and forsaken location newly infused with a tactile and sincere sense of what independence means. Twisted into the fence just beyond the flagpole is the word “Topaz.”

We had passed through Delta, Utah at the beginning of the long weekend as we headed west towards the Sierra Nevada Range and fulfillment of a goal to return to Manzanar Relocation Camp with fishing rods after having discovered the story of the Manzanar Fishing Club months earlier. It became an obsession since that visit in March on the day President Trump ordered a revised travel ban and the whole world worried we were sliding into another period of internments. It was a particularly meaningful day to wander within the barbed wire and to discover fishing tackle resting on the monument in the cemetery behind camp. The idea of fishermen defying their armed guards to drop a line in water was something we latched on to, a glimmer of resilience during an anxious time.

The Topaz Museum in Delta was not part of our plan but felt unavoidable, a necessary piece of the puzzle of internment we were tracking. Beginning in December 1942, Topaz Relocation Center was the desolate, forced home for thousands of Japanese Americans. To the great credit of Delta residents, they have faithfully preserved the story of Topaz. Figurines made from shells found in the basin floor, tea cups, sandals, hair pins, school books—details of confined life are neatly displayed. It was the dress that stopped me cold. White silk, hand-sewn into a simple wedding gown. Brides in camp did not have the luxury of frilly princess seams and beads. The silk, I knew that silk, and felt I’d worn that dress. It haunted me as we drove west.

As a fortunate child, I regularly took advantage of easy access to doting grandparents and sweet treats they’d provide. They would talk as long as I was willing to stay. At the top of the stairs of their classic post-WWII home, a series of sliding doors hid treasures. When I was lucky, Grandma would disappear and return with an item and a story. Within those cabinets were the roots of my Japan focus, in there dwelled a ridiculous laughing Buddha, silks printed with colorful geishas standing in front of mountains, and other reminders of Occupied Japan.

It was grandma’s dress I felt on my shoulders as I stared at the one displayed at the Topaz Museum. A decade after our wedding, I pulled it from my mother’s cedar chest and carefully slipped it over my head. It fell beautifully. White chocolate silk draping over me in simplistic lines, the kind of gown I might have preferred to the bouffant beaded dress I did wear. Grandma was amazed that it fit me, apologetic that she never offered it, and teary-eyed at recalling the provenance of the fabric and their wedding. Spellbound by the dress at Topaz, I missed my grandmother and I wanted to know the interned bride, both regrettably beyond my reach.

My grandparents were rural Minnesota teenagers courting in 1941 with dreams of a lovely, simple life ahead of them. I never asked them about that December 7th, but it altered their plans. Grandpa was drafted into the Army in 1944, sent to train for service in Occupied Japan. Lillian sent her precious Sid off to the other side of the globe with a small New Testament simply inscribed: “All my love, Lillian.” While she finished high school, he sailed to Japan and the Philippines. He sent beautiful things home for Lillian, but it was the pure white silk that mattered most. He returned to Lillian in November 1945. On the fourth anniversary of Pearl Harbor my grandmother wore that parachute silk, carefully stitched into the elegant wedding gown.

Of my grandfather’s perspective, I only know what a handful of tiny black and white snapshots can tell me from his time in Japan–bombed out airfields, random smirking soldier faces, a few stray dogs. I know where he spent some time because of a set of silk napkins with “Yokohama” shakily embroidered in red thread that I keep tucked away. I do not know where or how he acquired the parachute, maybe while cleaning the airfield; but it was common for servicemen to track the white fabric down, trade what they could, and gain that prized fabric for their girls waiting back home. A whole story could be spun of brides wearing Japanese parachute silk wedding dresses in the late 1940s. This is about two dresses and a path to understanding the precarious nature of freedom through fishing.

While my sixteen-year-old future grandparents were going on about their Midwestern life, teenagers up and down the West Coast were finding themselves on buses and trains to uncertain existence in 1942. The relocation and internment of Japanese Americans forced far too many to live within barb-wired perimeters and tar-paper barracks in desolate places. Manzanar, on a dusty patch of land in California’s Owens Valley beneath the inspiring peaks of the Sierra Nevada Range, is surrounded by streams and the promise of trout. Within the fence, routine was a façade of normal American life, if one could consider being under armed guard typical. Outside the fence was opportunity.

Barbed wire still surrounds Manzanar but there are no gates, just a dirt road and a few signs that articulate the terrible past of checkpoints and armed guards. A replica tower stands, with search light hauntingly turned to the inside of the fence. We drove in, unchecked, wound our way to the southwest section of blocks and parked beside the road across from the half-buried walls of a garden. I love the gardens at the relocation centers–silent voices of the importance of nature within the strangest confinements. These fountains and ponds were assembled as tranquil spots for spiritual escape. The gardens were inadequate release for the Fishing Club. With handcrafted rigs, they crept in shadows and under cover of darkness to escape camp altogether.

Fully illuminated, we pulled fishing packs out of the back of our truck, ironically a Toyota, and started walking under a hot July sun to that same spot. There’s a corner of camp where Bairs Creek slices in and provides liquid diversion from oppression. That’s where I sought the company of a fish and a better sense of Manzanar.

My grandfather brought a set of dainty pearl-white porcelain bowls back from Japan for his sweetheart. The thin petal shapes of the bowls clutch contents like a caress and turn a lowly scoop of vanilla into something extraordinary. For a while after they became mine, I dared not use them. To break them would crumble a little piece of me, but I need to feel them now and then. They make me day dream of what Lil and Sid might have thought of Japan. The bowls possess mystery.

Rusty nails litter the ground at Manzanar like rice tossed at departing newlyweds. Camp dissolved into the desert after closing in 1945. Our walk across Block 6 to gain access to Bairs Creek traversed a lesser trampled part of the camp where the ground yields relics. walking with my rod in hand and sweat dripping, my eyes seized upon a shattered plate emerging from the ground. This was standard mess hall ceramic, nothing dainty about it. The women had to leave their prettier things behind in hutches they would never return to. I picked up the broken plate, rolled it around in my hands, and wondered–did Block 6 Mess Hall lines buzz with rumors of the Fishing Club. Did they shelter returning fishermen when that last cast meant a return as light threatened to uncover their exploits? I tucked the sherd back in the dirt and walked on towards where the creek should be, watching my steps carefully.

Bairs Creek starts high in the Sierra Nevada and rolls down the eastern slope of Mt. Williamson as a mountain stream. Giant granite boulders greet its arrival at the Owens Valley and then the creek becomes something entirely different. If water could be bipolar, the creeks surrounding Manzanar would certainly be candidates. As we approached Bairs, the snowpack in the Sierra lingered above replenishing the stream, but only a trickle of clear water in a deep rut of desert makes the passage under the fence. Its pools are protected with menacing tangles of willow and sage, but at least now the flora does not provide cover for armed guards with instructions to shoot fellow citizens. We selected our fishing spots without any watchful eyes or fear of shadows at the fence line.  

Pictures show children playing at this bend of the creek, drawn to the cool water on those miserable high desert summer days. There are stories of children trying to pull random trout from the creek with whatever they could string together, and even a tale of a guard providing would be trout catchers with droplines. Other than the ornamental garden ponds sprinkled around the camp, this was the place for flowing water and a little less confinement. Yet confined is exactly how it felt to me–used to alpine lakes and mountain streams, Bairs Creek feels like entrapment. It was flowing water, and there were fishy spots, so we fished it. Our lines never tightened and I realized I need a shorter rod for water this technical and small. I understood it now–the pull to see the creek beyond the fence, surely out there the fishing is easier. It was time to exit camp.

“I guess I am catching the same thing they did—a sense of normal.”

Stephen Alcorn, July 3, 2017 standing beside Bairs Creek just beyond the fence at Manzanar

Stephen is a warrior. He led tank platoons on to battlefields and knows the meaning and price of freedom in intimate ways. My frame of reference is far less enlightened. That the act of fishing could be subversive activity is hard to imagine until you stand by the barbed wire and imagine the faces of Americans looking at the crisp heights of Mt. Williamson with her promise of alpine lakes and trout bounty. We walked the line between interment and self-determination until we found a spot where the bottom wire sagged to the ground. We each set down our fishing rod to crawl under and emerge on the free side of the ridiculous boundary. No guards, just lizards hiding in shade from the heat bearing down on all of us souls thirsty for the tug of a trout.

Contrary to my silly hopes, Bairs Creek does not open into a pristine stream on the other side of the fence. It remains a desert snarl. If anything, the sage and willows grow taller and the bushwhack more challenging and abrasive to exposed flesh. I slithered down the eroding, steep embankment to gain access to crystalline shallow water. If the trout are here, it will be a challenge to get their attention versus spook them. Casting carefully at the bend, I floated my self-tied tenkara fly across water I hoped possessed a free creature. This made me wonder, was that part of their release via fishing? Was the fact a trout can move willingly about the stream and choose to take a fly within the equation that urged fishing club members out for the sport? It is a derivative of the hope I maintained that if I kept carefully drifting my fly on this narrow stretch of water I had a chance to catch something. The intensity of my focus on the snowcapped Sierra vistas I was catching while casting upstream through the shrouded corridor of water grew as my optimism melted. No wonder they kept pushing deeper into the hills.

The fishing club assembled fishing kits with the few items they possessed—sewing thread and needles, rice for bait, willow branches. While I struggled with getting my line lassoed between sage and willow into tiny pools, Stephen collapsed and packed his tenkara rod. I watched him select a willow branch and sit on the sandy bank to begin whittling away a slim tip. He trimmed his level line to match the length of his branch, tied one of my kebari flies on the end, and then stood to assess his new rig. I was intrigued as he triumphantly made his first cast. After his second cast, he hesitated in realization that willow is unforgiving in contrast to his modern rod. Finesse comes slowly, but the experience connected him with the fishing club.

He placed the stick rig in my hand in exchange for my rod, and I attempted to cast as if it was the exact same thing. It was not. Eventually I gained some agility with the system–it is less about flinging the fly onto the water and more dropping it at precisely the right spot and floating into the face of hypothetical fish. My respect for the men, and women, out in the desert with sticks and string rose exponentially. As if daring bullets was not enough, this genre of fishing is extreme.

Fishing club members slid out in the night and walked along the creek for miles to fish their way back to camp, hopefully returning to camp without drawing attention. We fished unnoticed, or at least unbothered, by guards, park rangers, or trout. The heat overcame our desire to keep casting beside Bairs Creek. We retreated across ground littered with 1940s beer cans and more nails, retracing our steps to our portal under the barbs. It feels different going in and somewhat perverse to sneak into an internment camp. The willow branch joins the modern fishing gear stashed in the truck. The pole goes home with us, a tactile vestige of chasing freedom and fish. We were not quite done fishing Manzanar but we would stick to our own rods and better our odds.

The Manzanar Reservoir was constructed, largely by internees, to divert and collect water from Shepherd Creek beyond the northwest corner of camp. The “Water Crew” were among the first to discover the freedom of sneaking off with a fishing rod for a few hours of chasing trout, particularly the night watchmen, and sometimes their children. The “Farm Crew” similarly had access to the outside and George Creek south of camp. We opted to visit the reservoir and to see if Shepherd Creek was less of a thicket and more forgiving.

Why I expected water in a reservoir constructed to keep a long-dormant internment camp and relic of war’s uglier side hydrated is perhaps best explained by heat exhaustion, but it surprised us to find an empty concrete bowl rimmed with decorative Sierra rocks like a beautiful Japanese garden. Inscriptions in the concrete provide names and thoughts of those building the “Manzanar Wall,” and turns it from sterile water containment into a spiritual shrine.

Driving a distance farther down the rocky road with a windshield full of Sierra scenery, we were grateful for air-conditioning as the thermometer broke triple digits. If we found a break in the vegetative shroud preventing access to Shepherd Creek we were quite sure we would not fish it for long. Apparently when you have freedom, and live in supreme fly fishing terrain, you are much less dogged in pursuit of a stream.

Shepherd Creek maintains more of her mountain soul than Bairs and tumbles from rock to drop through the sage forest. One of us had called it a day, having exhausted his desire to fish in the heat. I, however, needed to keep going in my pursuit of Manzanar trout. The pocket water was promising, so long as I could keep the tip of my Japanese rod free of the willows and place a fly on the water. It was some of the most precise fishing I have attempted and I enjoyed the challenge.

As I extricated a fly from a branch, I realized this too was a likely motivator—reduced to the simple tasks of living in camp, the fishermen needed to feel the adrenaline of luring and landing a trout in a tough stretch of water. The experience of fishing restored dignity and purpose, especially if they were catching speckled beauties. I was not and I was at the point of relenting to the heat. I collapsed my rod, wound my line on the spool, and stood there by Shepherds Creek a moment praying the universe would spare any population from feeling the shame of illegitimate internment. Better we all just go fishing.

We often say the fishing is not the point of standing out there with a rod and line, and I doubt there was a more poignant example of that principle. Striped of respect, privacy, nationality, and everything they had built in their lives, the ability to escape to a place of solitude and soothing nature unobscured by guard towers and fences was a way to cope. It was a means of rebelling and demonstrating resilience. It was indeed, a little bit of normal. It was as American as my grandfather returning from his Japan occupation, marrying his beautiful Lil wearing her parachute silk gown, and a few decades later teaching me how to patiently wait for a fish to take my worm.

The Independence Day sun shining on Topaz was brutal. Unlike the internees and fishermen (and women) of Manzanar, those held within fences in the dusty Great Basin had no soothing mountain views or chances to stand near cool streams. I stare at the terrain and rubble, yet many more nails, and wonder what they dreamt of. I hope they found their means to cope. We crisscross camp noticing landmarks—the hospital, sunken gardens, and administrative buildings—but what strikes us most is the dedication of substantial block space to baseball. I walk lines worn in the dirt connecting ghost bases of the Block 24 diamond, the batting cage still there. There is no doubt the men and women, boys and girls that played on those fields were as American as the sport they clearly loved, as American as the Fishing Club.

 As we drive home and the sun that has tortured us with heat all day finally settles into the shifting horizon, we watch fireworks dancing in the sky in celebration of freedom. I find myself newly infused with a sense of what that word means and the import that we never take for granted that we all bleed the same, we all have the same four nucleic acids coding our DNA, and we all have things like wedding dresses, fishing, and baseball that make us feel at peace no matter what obscene things are going on around us.

Melissa Alcorn is based in Colorado, where her and her husband Stephen spend all their spare time playing in the outdoors. Drawn to tenkara as backpackers, they have stayed due to its simplicty and beauty. Instagram: @melissajalcorn

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017-18 issue of Tenkara Angler Magazine.

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