From the Edge of Bighorn Canyon

A friend once asked me to never tell him if the Japanese camp was a myth. He wanted to keep this story as it was, even if it only included some small element of truth. He did not want the mystery of this camp to be taken away. This desert holds many treasures and the story of the Japanese camp seems to be a rare narrative held dear in the hearts of local residents. I knew then, if the facts of this story proved to be a mirage, I would have to quietly close down the research and cast all of my efforts toward the setting sun. I really do not want to be forever known as the one who proved it never happened.

I have carried this thought with me from the beginning; What if it wasn’t true? What would I do? Many people have traveled to the camp to experience the wonder of standing there in that secret valley, to feel what it is like to be hidden from the world, to let their imagination run wild. Why would I want to discourage such expeditions into this wonderful wilderness? For over 50 years this single tale has served as a verbal enticement to launch countless individuals into the heart of the Bighorn Mountain Wilderness Area. By all means of transportation they have come here with dreams of discovering this valley to experience some element of this mysterious tale. While the Bighorn Canyon willingly reveals its rugged and natural beauty, it still holds firmly those secrets we are seeking.

By no means has this research reached a final conclusion. I have not uncovered the seeds of a desert myth but I continue to discover a myriad of facts that only fuel my desire to pursue this research. My imagination runs as wild as ever but now it is based on an increasing number of documented historical events. While I search for the one piece of information that undeniably proves the story of a mysterious Japanese Camp, I am continually gathering all of the bits and pieces that will someday tell the real story none of us could fully imagine. My effort is not to simply prove that this event occurred but to tell the story of how it all come about; I want for all of us to know what it was like from the perspective of the people who were here in this remote wilderness.

With my own imagination in tow, I often walk out to the north edge of the camp, looking into the distance toward the flats of Johnson Valley. I wonder about Maurice Donahue living out there next to his Japanese neighbors as they attempted their dry farming techniques; scratching into that dusty and desolate land for some tender reward. Were these the Japanese I was looking for? It was about 1938 or so, we were deep into the great recession and times were very hard. Did they finally give up on their farming experiment and seek refuge here in the mountains? Did they eventually move here into the Bighorn Canyon, just beyond One Hole Spring, beneath the low pines of the cool mountain valleys?

The sun sinks lower and it is getting near time to head back but I cannot let go. My thoughts turn southward, toward the new town of Lone Star where a Japanese man by the name of Sam Ishi was waiting to board the Hastie Bus at Warren’s Well. Overloaded with his wheelbarrow full of supplies, there seemed to be room on the bus for only one or the other. With some excited discussion of the logistical arrangement of his belongings, he soon traveled on to Twenty-nine Palms with all of his possessions safely in tow. He lived next to Bill Keys over in Joshua Tree where I see his name in the 1940 census and it leaves me wanting to know more about Sam Ishi, much more. Where did he come from with his wheelbarrow full of belongings? Had he ever wandered over into the mines of Bighorn Canyon? I have yet to find a record of his internment during the war and so I wonder what ever happened to Sam Ishi?

And finally, I am always thinking of those families that traveled through the desert on foot, northward across the Pipes Canyon, stopping at the ranch of Johnny Kee for a little encouragement and support. Carrying their belongings on long poles suspended from shoulder to shoulder, the kids, grandkids and parents alike were all headed over to work the mines of Bighorn Canyon owned by the Gold Basins Mine Company of Wheeler and Cunningham. I can only imagine it was the mine superintendent, Hiram Howard Cunningham who knew these families so well; If only we could have been there when they met. There was some work available at the mines but driving there was not an option for these families. It was the kind hearts and old truck of Johnny and Addah Kee who helped them along many a desert trail as they greeted them with their welcoming smiles. It was hard times in the 30s and 40s, most of us have no idea of the hardship they faced. Wandering on foot in this desolate land only to be imprisoned and separated at the internment camps, eventually released to endure a  lifelong barrage of racial hatred and prejudice; We have been telling an abbreviated tale of Japanese hiding here in the mountains but it is apparent their story is a revelation of incredible courage few of us can imagine.

We know far more now than when I began this exploration. We know some of the miners, the ranchers, we know their names, see their faces in the photos, we can walk on their land and trace some of their footsteps; it has all begun to fill in a broad landscape of great emotional depth and historical events. The Japanese families who were here in the desert have endured far more than we can really imagine and it is why I feel it is so necessary to complete their entire story.

I continue to stand here at the edge of Bighorn Canyon until the sun is long behind the mountain and the light is nearly gone. My imagination is not stilled by darkness; The broken pieces of china and decorative glass I have found in the sand become whole again, behind me I can hear the clanging of the supper dishes, the brays of the donkeys as they stir a little dust in the old stone corral and slowly, I begin to see the outlines of all the dimly lit faces glowing around the distant campfire of this secluded mining camp. Whether or not I am ever able to find definitive proof, I know now I will not be disappointing my friend with any evidence of a mythical tale. This story of Japanese families seeking refuge in the Bighorn wilderness is certainly founded in an abundance of truth. A simple gold mining camp, surrounded by mines, protected by its own seclusion in a hidden valley from an entire world in disarray; it certainly will remain an important part of our historical record and a true desert story we will continue to tell.