37: Return to Heart Mountain

37: Return to Heart Mountain

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Mom, with Love

Return to Heart Mountain

I will permit no man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.

~Booker T. Washington

Like a little kid who gets too excited waiting to ride a roller coaster, I feel like I might throw up. I have been looking forward to this and yet my emotions alternate between complete euphoria and an overwhelming desire to turn the car around. I’m scared, but I can’t turn back. There is too much riding on this venture and so I continue driving into the unknown at sixty-five miles per hour.

It feels like my husband, Mike, and I have been driving on this rural Wyoming highway for hours, when in reality barely twenty minutes have passed since we left our motel in Cody. The land before me is beautiful, but I am unable to appreciate it because I am so preoccupied with what is about to happen. My hands take on a life of their own, fidgeting with the seatbelt, the window, my sunglasses. My eyes search the road for any sign of our destination. In my hand I hold the directions given to me by my grandma. The frayed edges are becoming damp in my sweaty hands.

“Is that it?” Mike asks. I follow his gaze and almost miss seeing a small brown sign with faded white lettering on the side of the road.

This is Heart Mountain Relocation Camp. This is our destination and the reason for our trip. We have come to visit the site of the internment camp where my grandma spent three years of her life locked up like a prisoner during World War II simply because she was the “wrong” race.

“That’s it!” I yell, but we have already missed our turn.

“Don’t worry, I’m turning around,” Mike says. He reaches over and pats my leg, both to reassure me and to make me sit back down in my seat.

“Here it is,” Mike says as he exits onto a small dirt road. I stare at the land, devoid of any markers that would hint at its importance, as we slowly make our way toward the camp.

The humming sound of gravel under the tires of our car has a calming effect, but it can’t drown the sound of my heartbeat in my ears or ease the tightness in my throat. I catch myself leaning forward, silently urging the car to go faster. The remnants of the camp come into view and I want to be there now. I need to be there.

We pull off onto what might have once been a dirt road, but is now nothing more than a path overgrown with weeds. There are no other cars around and even the birds that chirped non-stop since we arrived in Cody seem to have disappeared. As we park the car I sink back into my seat, unable to move.

Three buildings loom before me, the remains of my grandma’s former prison, fenced in by a chain link fence. A thin line of barbed wire tops the fence and the sight of it sickens me.

They were fenced in like cattle, I think. And guarded like criminals in their own country.

The buildings are predictably worn down, but after years of staring at pictures of the camp in textbooks, I recognize them. I recognize the black tar paper that barely kept out the wind and snow. I recognize the tiny windows in the walls.

In the far distance, I can see a tower made of bricks. I know from my grandma’s stories that it used to be a part of the internee hospital. It is infamous in my family because it is in that hospital that my grandma’s first daughter died when she was less than a day old, a baby whose only day on earth was spent behind barbed wire fences.

I am no longer afraid. Instead, I feel the resentment my grandma has been holding onto for half a century collect in a lump in my throat. The reality of what happened to her so many years ago hits me harder as I stare at the same landscape my grandma stared at for three long years. I am angry. Big salty tears blur my vision and I lose sight of my surroundings.

“Are you ready?” Mike asks quietly when minutes after we have parked we are still sitting in the car.

I nod my head, but still don’t move. Mike gets out of the car and I take little notice of him as he rummages through the trunk. My eyes are glued to the tower. Mike opens my car door and I jump at the sound.

“Come on,” he urges as he pushes my camera into my hands. Suddenly, I am out of the car, brushing past Mike and running toward the buildings. I remember why I am here. This place, so desolate and rundown, is a piece of my history. I am here to remember those who lost their lives and lost their years in this place. I am here to document what’s left of their prison. I have brought years of resentment and anger with me and I intend to leave them here. I have come in my grandma’s stead to make peace with the past that has held our family captive for too long. I have come for closure.

The land feels empty and eerie, but in a strange way it also feels welcoming, like it has been waiting for me. I move reverently among the buildings, snapping photographs and lightly tracing my fingers over the walls. I try to wrap my head around what I am feeling, but words escape me. I feel pain. I feel connected. I feel peace.

As I look through the lens of my camera I feel myself willing the buildings to give up their stories. For an hour I silently wander back and forth, taking pictures and taking it all in. As I walk, I can literally feel myself change. I unclench my fists and the anger that Grandma had felt, the anger that she had passed on to me, seems to drop to the ground like pebbles.

I close my eyes and take a breath.

“We forgive you,” I whisper, and as my words are carried away with the breeze the roots of resentment that kept my family tied to Heart Mountain begin to untangle themselves from the ground. I bend down and pick up two small white rocks from the dirt. I am taking home a piece of this place: one rock for me and one for Grandma.

As we slowly drive away from the site, I turn around in my seat and stick my head out the window desperate to watch it until it completely disappears. The wind whips my hair around my head in a frenzied dance. Years ago my grandma had lived here as a prisoner in her own country, forced to give up everything she owned. Today, I had walked the grounds offering forgiveness for the past and gaining closure in return. I did it for myself. I did it for my family. I did it for Grandma.

~Jessie Miyeko Santala

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