Blog: Tourists, Travelers, and Pilgrims

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In 1942, over the course of about 60 days, Wyoming’s third largest city was constructed out of green wood and tar paper by 2,000 workers, many of whom were unskilled. At its peak, Heart Mountain Relocation Center’s population was 10,767. By comparison, neighboring Cody’s current population is 10,174 people.

Though 14,000 people lived at Heart Mountain over its three-year existence, at the end of 1945 the camp had no residents. Just a few years later, 465 barracks were removed from the site, leaving only two ramshackle barracks and a leaning brick chimney against the remnants of a large wooden building.

My first trip to the Heart Mountain National Landmark was several years ago, before the impressive Interpretive Center was built. I walked the self-guided pathways and read the interpretive signs. I considered the empty landscape and the presence of Heart Mountain. I took note of historical facts that I wasn’t familiar with. Twenty minutes later, I drove away satisfied that I could check off one more Wyoming historic site off my list.

I was a tourist.

On my second trip, I went as a traveler.

I experienced the 2023 Heart Mountain Pilgrimage held at the end of July. The annual event includes workshops about the history of the site told by those who lived at Heart Mountain. Scholars shared their work on different angles of its history—the resistors, the allies, the complicitors, those who made the best out of a horrible situation. Exhibits showed how the internees exercised resilience living in the concentration camp.

My recent experience at Heart Mountain was deep and impactful. The event made me think about due process and constitutional rights, and the dangers of government in making hasty decisions within the context of a racist and discriminatory culture. I thought of innocence and punishment, taking and restitution, forgetting and remembering, trauma and strength. Unlike my first visit, I considered the layers of meaning of the place, from the towering mountain sacred to the Crow to the mountain as depicted in haiku.

The most rewarding thing about traveling to Heart Mountain was being amongst pilgrims.

Most attendees of the Heart Mountain Pilgrimage have a personal connection to the site. Some were interned there as youth. They are now as old as 96. The next generation, the offspring of the internees, attends to understand what their parents may not have shared. Now, the grandchildren of the internees are encouraged to keep the memory and lessons of Heart Mountain alive. It is a generational experience. Many of these people attend the pilgrimage every year. It is a reunion of sorts, filled with stories, laughs, and tears.

The pilgrims showed me the humanity of the place. They reminded me of the importance of humility and reverence. They demonstrated the value of respect for place, tradition, meaning, ancestors, family, and community. Unlike the tourist or the traveler, the pilgrims experience Heart Mountain as a spiritual place, a place where one seeks inner peace. Though the site is one of a painful and brief history, the pilgrims demonstrated no shortage of joy and endurance. Their journey inspired in me mindfulness and a deeper sense of purpose.

I have visited Heart Mountain as a tourist, experienced it as a traveler, and was inspired by it through its pilgrims.