Topaz, Utah

Today, virago curtained in the four cardinal directions. A harsh gray pallor coated the bottom of the sky. A wind caught in the bristly bushes and threw sprinkles of rain around. Off to the west, the hinterlands of eastern Nevada, snowy Topaz Mountain. I turned in all directions and assayed the harsh flat land, the barbed wire fences, the desolation that swept all the way to the icy peaks all around. Not even a Northern harrier or a kestrel, a raven, or a magpie.

The Topaz Relocation Center. Or what’s left of it. Some stone footings, some muddy roads coated with slick caliche. White signs that read, “Sentry Box,” “Main Gate,” “Administration,” “Guard Tower.” The signs are new, an Explorer Scout Project to try and keep alive a memory of the US Government’s internment of Japanese-American citizens from 1942 to 1946.

Relocation. In this case a euphemism for imprisoning. How about stealing assets and then imprisoning? If it was just relocation (for their own safety, as FDR said), why did the government pick the most god-awful spots? Hot: Gila River, Manzanar, Poston, Jerome, Rohwer, Topaz. Cold: Minidoka, Heart Mountain, Tule Lake, Manzanar, Granada…Topaz.

I remember Gila River, about sixteen miles from my home town. The barracks, the fences, the towers (I remember imagining guards up there with machine guns), the isolation. The camp was empty by the time my father drove us by Gila River on the way to my grandmother’s house. But still standing, as if waiting for the next tenants. My father called it the “Jap Camp.”

Betty and I went back to Gila River five years ago but it was gone. Zilch, zero, kaput. And today, Topaz, too.

If it was a battle where Americans had defeated (or had been massacred by) a foe, there would be a monument, a pillar, a National Park. But at Gila River and Topaz, nothing to memorialize locking innocent American citizens up in hellholes far from their homes. At Minidoka, Idaho, the locals wanted to build a feedlot next to the old “Relocation” camp and memorialize the location with invasions of flies and the scent of cow dung.

We drove back to Delta, Utah, and on to I-15 South, towards St. George. Tomorrow:  the Vermillion Cliffs, Marble Canyon, Cameron, Camp Verde, Casa Grande.

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