I was surprised when the ranger at the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center recommended the “Prison Camp” campground for our stay in the Coronado National Forest. Despite the unappealing name, we headed there because of its location on the trail we planned to hike.

An interpretive sign at the campground explains why the campground is called the Gordon Hirabayashi Prison Camp. A “Federal Honor Camp”, which is apparently a euphemism for prison labor camp, was built on Tucson’s Mt. Lemmon in 1939. Prisoners, who were convicted of non-violent crimes such as tax evasion and draft-dodging, were held in this remote camp without fences and used as labor to build the Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway. One former prisoner is quoted as saying “Before I went to the Honor Camp, I thought prisoners only broke rock with picks in cartoons.” At some point the prisoners were given power tools and the 27 mile road rising 6300 feet from Tucson through five vegetation communities was completed.

So there really was a prison camp at this location (a part of our history that seems so medieval that I was not aware of the fact), but who is Gordon Hirabayashi? He was a Japanese student who was a senior at my alma mater (University of Washington) in 1942 when all people with any Japanese ancestry living on the west coast were ordered to abandon their property and businesses and report for “relocation”, i.e. being held in internment camps for the duration of the war. Rather than quietly submit to the forced relocation and abide by the curfew imposed on Japanese people, Hirabayashi turned himself into the FBI as a dissenter, challenging the constitutionality of the relocation and curfew. He requested to be imprisoned at an outdoor prison work camp. The FBI would not pay to transport him to a work camp, so he hitchhiked to Tucson and turned himself in to a Federal Marshall! In 1987, his case was reopened and his conviction overturned. Shortly after, Reagon signed the Civil Liberties Act into law, which acknowledged injustice and apologized for the Japanese internment. Hirabayashi is quoted to say that the Civil Liberties Act demonstrates the resilience of the US Constitution: “This is a great Constitution, but if it doesn’t serve you during a crisis, what good is it? We faltered once, but to show how good our Constitution is, we were able to apologize and acknowledge an error, and we’re going to be stronger for it”. What a story! I certainly did not expect the US history lesson at the National Forest, where the lessons are usually on natural history.

We camped at the former location of the prison camp for three nights all together – two nights before a backpacking hike and one night afterwards.

Sunset on our first evening.

Sunset on our first evening.

Cycling up the scenic mountain road is a popular afterwork and weekend activity, based on the number of bicycles we saw during our stay.

Cycling up the scenic mountain road is a popular afterwork and weekend activity, based on the number of bicycles we saw during our stay.

I hiked the Soldiers Trail from the campground to stretch my legs on our rest day.

I hiked the Soldier Canyon Trail from the campground to stretch my legs on our rest day. 

While I hiked, John climbed to the nearest ridge and went fishing for wifi signals, since neither our AT&T phones nor Verizon hotspot received signal at the campground, despite its proximity to Tucson.

While I hiked, John climbed to the nearest ridge and went fishing for wifi signals, since neither our AT&T phones nor Verizon hotspot received signal at the campground, despite its proximity to Tucson.

First van fix! The water tank showed only 50% full, yet when we tried to fill it the water overflowed. John found the culprit - a kinked breathing valve, and fixed it with his favorite accessory, a gear tie.

First van fix! The water tank showed only 50% full, yet when we tried to fill it the water overflowed. John found the culprit – a kinked breathing valve – and fixed it with his favorite accessory, a gear tie.

We stopped at the Alder Picnic area for lunch while driving to the top of Mt. Lemmon along the Scenic ByWay.

We stopped at the Alder Picnic area for lunch while driving to the top of Mt. Lemmon along the Scenic Byway.

View from near the top of Mt. Lemmon. Steward Observatory is located at the peak and is gated from public admittance, so we could not quite get to the top. The Observatory does offer tours, but we did not know how to sign up for one.

View from near the top of Mt. Lemmon. Steward Observatory is located at the peak and is gated from public admittance, so we could not quite get to the top. The Observatory does offer tours, but we did not know how to sign up for one. 

The trip report for our backpacking trip will come soon, but in the meantime I will leave you with the highlight.

We have wanted to catch a glimpse of javelinas ever since we learned about them at Big Bend National Park. We got our chance! Here is a momma and child that were closest of their herd to the trail.

We have wanted to catch a glimpse of javelinas ever since we learned about them at Big Bend National Park. We got our chance! Here is a momma and child; the rest of the herd munched on cacti a bit further back from the trail.

2 Thoughts on “Doin’ Time at Gordon Hirabayashi Prison Camp

  1. Rita on March 3, 2014 at 3:48 pm said:

    You two just constantly amaze me. Thank you.

  2. Tamar on March 23, 2014 at 6:47 pm said:

    Nice van fix John! Love the javelinas 🙂

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