You know this place is wide-open country. Nothing but sagebrush. Anybody could die in here, and they will never find his body.
—Moab Isolation Center Director Ray Best to inmates, March 1943—
During the Great Depression, the Dalton Wells CCC Camp sat just north of Moab. This isolated redrock outpost rehabilitated rangeland for a community in need. Dalton Wells also provided hope, refuge, and a brighter future to the thousands of men that served there. However, 15 months after the camp’s closure, with the onset of WWII, it became the Moab Isolation Center, a Japanese internment camp that was never publicized. It was home to Japanese-American “troublemakers” illegally incarcerated, without due process, for their alleged crimes. The same wild expanse that fed the CCCers was the prisoners’ privation. According to one inmate, no fences were needed for detention. “[T]he desolate setting was enough to keep the prisoners in camp.”
During the New Deal era of peace and reinvestment in our struggling country, Dalton Wells was home to hope. During the World War II era of fear and xenophobia, the desert’s solitude was weaponized.
It was an executive order that created the CCC. It was an executive order that authorized the detention of Japanese men and women. With the stroke of a pen, the political became personal for countless Americans. For better and for worse. With the stroke of a pen, the desert became first a priority and then a penitentiary. For better and for worse.
Through the stories, complexities, and complicities of Dalton Wells’ inhabitants (including CCCers, ranchers, internment camp guards, and prisoners), this project will look at how the political climate and our affected personal narratives color our view of landscape. It will also look at how our surroundings affect our sense of self and others.
I believe this tale is topical. As we see hate crimes and discriminatory policies proliferate, it is important to look back at previous mistakes born of fear and racism and learn from them. As our political leaders wage war against the environment, it is essential to examine our collective and personal relations with place. We must remember that this gritty skim of surface sand has held tales of hope. And it will again. Places can offer redemption—if our hearts and politics allow it. Redemption sometimes resides in the most unexpected territory.
For a decade now, the story of Dalton Wells has intrigued me. For years, my research has collected dust on a shelf, taking a backseat to other projects. I’m excited to dive back in, to reexamine the complexities of the people, places, and politics of the landscape I call home.
I recently completed the biography of Bates Wilson, known by many as the “Father of Canyonlands.” Bates served as Superintendent of Arches and Natural Bridges National Monuments from 1949 until 1972. In the interceding years, he also fell madly in love with the unmapped terrain that was to become Canyonlands National Park. He worked tirelessly – and unconventionally – to bring attention to Canyon Country, relying largely upon dutch oven diplomacy, Jim Beam and a contagious smile.