By Kelly Jensen
The Nature Conservancy had the distinct pleasure August 21, 2011 to open Heart Mountain Ranch Preserve to Japanese-American internees who lived at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center between 1942 and 1945.
The internees and their families traveled to the Cody/Powell area to participate in the grand opening and dedication of the Interpretive Learning Center developed by the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
Although many had traveled back to the relocation camp site in past years, for others it was their first trip back, filled with mixed emotions. While some families said they had grown up hearing about the time in the camp, several said their parents or grandparents rarely spoke about being interned.
The event on August 21 was a pilgrimage of sorts to the top of Heart Mountain, a landmark that overlooked the camp, and served as a beacon for many who had lived inside the camp boundaries.
The group’s fearless leader was 82-year-old Bacon Sakatani, making his 10th trip to the top of Heart Mountain.
Bacon is a small thin man with a loud commanding voice. When he directed the group to get ready for pictures, they did. When he told them to start hiking, they did. When he instructed all of us to “rest five minutes” we did.
Bacon and his friend Keiichi were the first to arrive at Heart Mountain Ranch Preserve that morning, ready to hike. Bacon organized group photos at the ranch headquarters and again on top of the mountain.
He stayed at the top to make sure photos were taken as each and every group reached the top. With each arrival he unrolled a commemorative banner he carried in his backpack for the photo being taken. When the final group had reached the top and began their descent, Bacon took a final look around the top of the mountain and started home.
On that day, nearly a dozen internees reached the top of Heart Mountain.
They were joined by their children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and friends. Some took a moment to stand or sit alone at the top while others rejoiced and shared their joy with everyone they saw. Most lingered, visiting with each other and taking in the view while others fairly quickly turned around and began the difficult journey back down the mountain.
Janet Setsuda was interned at the camp when she was seven or eight. At the top she described how, as a little girl, she would sit inside the camp and look up at this majestic mountain.
She would see it through the razor wire fence and dream about some day sitting on top of the mountain and looking down on the camp. Janet has hiked other mountains including Mt. Fuji but said this was the most important thing she had ever wanted to do.
As she neared the top, the look of awe and joy on her face made it clear she had arrived where she needed to be. She was eager to visit with other internees on the summit as they sat for photographs or took in the view.
Janet’s family had arranged to have hiking sticks made that marked the occasion. They gave one to each one who had registered for the hike that day. Her grandchildren donated funds to purchase the sticks. They wanted this day to include a tangible symbol of the memories they would all carry.
Barbara “Bobbi” Konoo and her sister Marian Mimaki Murata will travel with me every time I hike Heart Mountain. Bobbi is 89 years old. Against her children’s wishes, she attempted the hike because her younger sister Marian, who is 87, very much wanted to be on top of Heart Mountain.
These two ladies, who are as small as hummingbirds, slowly made their way up the trail small step by small step.
On their journey, they met gracious caring people who gave them strength to keep going. Bobbi, who led the two, is afraid of heights. Her guiding angel Ken Stockwell (a Cody man she had never met) walked backwards up the trail and told her to watch his feet and step where he stepped. He had already been to the top and was headed down but realized she could use some gentle guidance.
With the help of Ken, Bobbi’s niece Jeanne (who was born in the relocation camp), and others who joined them, Bobbi reached the summit and looked down upon the camp’s location. As he helped her maneuver a rock outcropping, Ken said it was her heart, as big as the mountain, taking her to the top.
Her trip back down the steep trail was slow, cautious and gentle. Her greatest concern was always that someone might be hurt while helping her down.
Our group took turns guiding her and learning to appreciate the value we each brought to the trip that day.
When encouraged to rest during one stretch on the trail, Bobbi said she couldn’t stop at that place because there was barbed wire, and she didn’t want to rest where she could see it. Spoken so quietly, it reverberated like a thunderclap for those of us who heard it.
When she walked into the parking area she was met with applause and cheering, bringing a smile to her beautiful face.
Marian Murata, Bobbi’s sister, made it nearly to the top but heartbreakingly had to turn back. She was so sorry her older sister made it and she didn’t. Marian experienced altitude sickness on the way up the mountain but was insistent she could get there. She was blessed to cross paths on the trail with Dr. Caety Schmidt (a local doctor hiking that day in case she was needed). Also with Marian’s group was William, an incredibly giving EMT.
Marian made it within a few hundred vertical feet of the top but reached a medical state where Caety insisted she return to the bottom. Transporting an 87-year-old lady physically unable to walk is tricky. She was placed on William’s back. He gently carried her all the way back down to the parking lot.
And then, because he hadn’t reached the summit, he turned around and climbed the mountain. That evening, a chance meeting between William and Marian brought huge smiles and a big hug from a tiny lady for a kind young man.
The internees had an amazing day on Heart Mountain. We all did.
Kelly Jensen works for The Nature Conservancy's Northwest Wyoming program based in Cody.