At night during the 1940s, Tule Lake in California used to be lit up like Las Vegas, a sprawling megalopolis, which was filled with wooden barracks, tanks, guard towers and a mess hall instead of casinos.
Its trade wasn’t gaming — it was the military, specifically the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. At its height, Tule Lake Segregation Unit housed nearly 19,000 prisoners, making it the largest of 10 so-called War Relocation Centers across the rural American West.
Among its inmates were the actor George Takei, the photographer Mary Koga and others who were known collectively as no-noes for their answers in a questionnaire meant to test loyalty. All that remains today is the squat concrete building that was the camp jail, and as I entered, Ranger Kenneth Doutt warned of bats, snakes and rats.
Swinging his flashlight about, he pointed out steel bars embedded in the walls, and holes where rods once supported bunk beds. The light then pinpointed pencil etchings, mostly in Japanese.
One was in English. “Show me the way to go to home,” the scrawled words read, reflecting, approximately, the title of Irving King’s 1925 ballad, which would have still been popular in 1942.
I had come to the camp, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006, during a weeklong journey last September across California’s proverbial Empty Quarter, the desolate northeast corner of the state adjacent to Oregon and Nevada. The trip had been on my mind for years, partly because the name sounded exotic, like the Rub’ al Khali, the Arabian Peninsula’s Empty Quarter, one of the world’s largest sand deserts.
I had heard little about the region, though I remembered vaguely from grammar school that it was settled by Basque sheepherders in the 1870s, which also struck me as adventurous and romantic. It seemed the farthest afield you could get in California and still be within its borders.
I was particularly keen to explore the area when I moved from Berlin, where I had lived for 14 years, back to Sacramento, where I had grown up, to be near my aging mother after the death of my father at the end of 2012.
Fifty years earlier, my mother, an immigrant from Spain, and my father, from Hungary, had taken their first road trip together as newlyweds to Mount Shasta, and tooled around the edges of the Empty Quarter. I have creased and weathered black-and-white photos of that trip, showing them giddily poking out of the sunroof of their white Volkswagen Beetle, skis strapped to the backside. I was nostalgic for something that I barely knew.
As I researched the Empty Quarter on my own, I learned about the State of Jefferson, a secessionist movement founded there in 1941 and still active, if only as a “protest of the mind,” as one observer put it. Encompassing the counties of Northern California and southern Oregon (with some joining and exiting since 1941), proponents seek to secede from their respective states so as “to form a state more representative of its customs, culture and heritage.”
The journey seemed my reckoning: California’s wayward gypsy daughter was now circling back and reconciling herself to it. A country whose history reflects its noble ideals and its inability to live up to them is hard to come back to. Though my circumstances were far different from those in the camp, “Show me the way to go to home” kept ringing in my ears as I navigated the land.
The morning I was to leave, my mother told me she was anxious about my traveling alone in my 1997 Toyota RAV4. For her sake, I agreed to rent a car, but when we reached Budget, most had already been taken.
I wandered to the back of the lot, itching to head out and annoyed with my late start, when my eyes fell on a white Volkswagen Beetle. At last, I was ready to roll.
The first night, I stayed in Burney, Calif., an hour’s drive east of Interstate 5 and Redding. Driving into town, I saw dozens of signs paying tribute to firefighters. Flames had ravaged hundreds of square miles of national forest lands across the Shasta region. The drought hadn’t helped.
I had wanted to stay in Burney so as to get an early start the next day to the waterfalls at McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. Upon entering, I was told by the ranger that this park, the second oldest in the state, is one of the most visited in Northern California; but that day, aside from an older couple at the observation platform to the falls, I was alone.
It was late morning and already about 90 degrees, but as I descended toward the falls, past lava rock, ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, nature’s air-conditioning kicked in, with a mist and even a rainbow across the turquoise waters. The beer company Coors, I read, had once used the luscious waterfalls as a backdrop for ads. The Native Americans who had lived here had christened them “laughing waters.”
And now I stood admiring the millions of gallons of water cascading over the 129-foot drop of mossy rock into the emerald pool. It was hard to believe a drought was suffocating the rest of the state.
But it was, and the Modoc Plateau was in the throes of it. Leaving the falls, I first cruised through the Modoc National Forest, which abruptly gave way to a hazy bowl-like valley. Getting closer, I saw a patchwork of golden wheat fields and miles of green alfalfa, and sagebrush, thickets of pine and fir, cattle herds and iron Daisy windmills.
It was near lunchtime, and my destination was Alturas, where I had heard there was a Basque restaurant called the Brass Rail. But when I arrived, the waitress told me that the Iberian cuisine was served only in the evenings. Moreover, the house specialty was lamb stew, which didn’t appeal to me. I had traveled in Spain’s Basque Country and savored the salty bacalao there, so was disappointed that wasn’t on the menu, either. But I settled for the tasty cod that was.
Afterward, I drove along Alturas’s wide Main Street to the Modoc County Historical Museum, which is known for its arrowhead and gun collections. But I was more impressed by an esoteric display of frontier life. There was a massive iron lung in one corner, and alongside it a sophisticated (for its time) wooden wheelchair, and in another corner, chic and colorful silk fans and dainty dinnerware. It was rough-and-tumble here, to be sure. You had to be hearty and adaptable, but there had clearly been refinement, too.
I reached the town of Tulelake — one word, for unknown reasons — at dusk. Entering the town, I regretted that I hadn’t followed the advice of friends who had recommended heading across the border to Klamath Falls, Ore., for decent lodging and then backtracking to visit the Segregation Unit and the Lava Beds National Monument. Instead, I passed along the treeless and depressing Main Street and dozens of bare storefronts.
I checked into the simple but welcoming Fe’s Bed & Breakfast and chatted with Fe herself, a Filipina immigrant who opened her doors in 2001.
A National Geographic article that year had spotlighted the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, an important resting area along the Pacific Flyway; Lava Beds; and the 500-mile Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway All American Road, which starts at Lake Almanor and weaves around Lassen Volcanic National Park north to Crater Lake National Park. But the recession, like everywhere else, had stymied business lately.
The next day, as I walked about the Segregation Unit, it occurred to me that staying in Tulelake may have been the most appropriate course after all, as I tried to imagine what it must have been like for the thousands of Japanese-Americans sequestered here against this austere, lonely landscape. Ranger Doutt said that those brought here knew little of the climate and, moreover, that each inmate was limited to one suitcase.
Initially, there was freedom of movement. Pointing to the foreboding Castle Rock across Highway 139, and Abalone Mountain to the east, Ranger Doutt said that when it snowed, children at the prison would take trays from the mess hall and toboggan the slopes. But in November 1943, martial law in the camps was declared, and barbed wire went up around the grounds.
A few years before this trip, I had visited the Manzanar War Relocation Center in Southern California, which is now a National Historic Site and, as such, has intricately designed and interactive exhibits.
Tule Lake, in contrast, is rustic and barren, with just one explanatory sign, in front of the jail. I saw metal rings nearby, built into the ground, that were most likely once latrines for women inmates, and Ranger Doutt displayed photos of Japanese-Americans being rousted from towns across the western United States.
The tour ended several miles up the road at the Tule Lake Unit of WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument. The Civil Conservation Corps built the camp’s wooden barracks in 1935, essentially for themselves: vocational skills were taught here, so that trainees, between the ages of 17 and 25, could escape the economic misery of their day.
By 1946, when the camp closed, however, some 800 German P.O.W.s were the camp’s residents while they harvested surrounding crops. Japanese-American dissidents were also housed here. But now, despite the complex history, the barracks appear serenely, even quaintly, situated against the rugged expanse.
I drove to Lava Beds the next day, passing first beneath Gillem Bluff to enter the grounds and peer into the depths of Mammoth Crater. Quiet for now, Medicine Lake Volcano some 36,000 years ago had done what volcanos do, leaving behind an unworldly, almost demonic panorama of badlands that now resembles a “Planet of the Apes” set. I later climbed to the top of the coffee-colored Schonchin Butte for a view of dried lava fields. But the thing to do here, really, is to descend, deep into the caves.
In one of them, Hercules Leg (so named in 1918 by a local miller, J. D. Howard, because a pillar inside looks like a giant’s foot and leg), Ranger Steven Woodley directed me to the equally imaginative “dragon’s rib cage.”
Here, after a lava flow cooled, a pocket of gas got trapped and turned so hot that it melted the rock above it, sending the molten rock dripping down the walls like candle wax. These so-called lavacicles look strangely like long ribs. Add to this the swooping bats, and pack-rat palaces (heaps of brush and dust that rats build up), and we were in nature’s eeriest haunted house.
Before leaving Lava Beds, I went to see Captain Jack’s Stronghold, a cavernous maze of pit craters and lava boulders from which the Modoc Indian chief Kientpoos, better known as Captain Jack, and some 60 of his tribesmen held off the United States Army for nearly six months in 1872, sniping behind rocks but suffering few casualties themselves before surrendering. One of the last Indian battles in the continental United States, it was also one of the most photographed for the time, bringing the devastation of war to the American newspaper-reading public.
But it was sunset and peaceful now, as I walked among the black corridors. Off in the distance, I could see toward the Tule Lake Segregation Unit, and the verdant marshland of the wildlife refuge as wild geese flew over in tight V-formations, and I thought of the great human migration here, at times so violent, at times filled with pure awe and exploration, of Conestoga wagons and pioneers, natives and newcomers, and me, too, in a white Volkswagen Beetle, in search of new worlds.
Pictures with an earlier version of this article were published in error. The buildings shown near Tule Lake are farmworker housing, not historic World War II-era barracks from the time of Japanese-American incarceration.