I never wanted to move to Scripps Ranch — not with its swarming real-estate agents and white-bread, attend-the-church-of-your-choice ethos, its compliant shrubs, its matrons in SUVs, that whole lifeless suburban drone. And where the hell was the “ranch”?
Shit, the only “ranch hands” I could find were short, nearly invisible men pushing lawnmowers around patches of Bermuda grass. Perhaps they’d been ranchers back in Chihuahua or Sonora, but here, in this developer’s dream, this lair of software engineers and other half-bright techno types, there was nary a cow to be seen.
Back in Del Mar, I’d run every other day from our rented shack on Ninth Street, across Camino Del Mar, and down to Torrey Pines, where I would continue south — at least on days with a sufficiently ebbing sea — to Black’s Beach, one time going as far as the Scripps Pier. On other days, I’d run up the Flat Rock trail to the top of the Reserve. In my late-30s, a bulky 190 pounds from years of weightlifting, I set no records.
What’s Behind That Gate?
As soon as I set foot in “the Ranch” in 1996 I knew that, although I was living only eight miles from the Pacific, I’d now have to work a lot harder to capture that bliss.
Of course, I could drive to the beach, but I’d always preferred the purity of running directly from home, and the prospect of battling traffic was a deterrent.
While hardly Death Valley, Scripps is hot in August, with any errant ocean breezes conditioned by their journey over industrial parks and tract homes on the intervening mesas. And no matter the season, Scripps is prosaic in its tightly controlled, residential regularity, its kingdom of homeowners’ associations and glad-handing realtresses. There wouldn’t be much mystery or romance in running these suburban streets. Yes, there was Lake Miramar — and in the ensuing years, I’d run it often — but a man-made lake encased in suburbia was not on my short list of endorphin-producing milieus. So when I first saw the sometimes-locked gate off Pomerado Road, I was more than intrigued.
During the first quarter of the 20th Century, San Diego was defined as much by its “camps” as anything else. Originally parts of ranches — or perhaps ranchos — these sprawling swaths of scrub were named for military demi-luminaries like Elliott, Holcomb, and Mathews, figures unknown to most locals save for military history buffs.
The largest of these, Camp Elliott, occupied 27,700 acres — approximately 43 square miles of dry mesas and minor canyons — where Marines were afforded the privacy in which to haze their initiates and test all manner of ordnance. Even this expanse proved inadequate for the reveries of training, and 1944 saw the move to Camp Pendleton. In the seamless, almost incestuous way that service-to-service land transfers take place, the bulk of Camp Elliott was turned into the Miramar Naval Air Station and later returned to the Marines as the extant MCAS. However, about four square miles of Elliott remained — which nowadays is best described as the land east of I-15 ringed by Tierrasanta, Santee, the Sycamore Canyon/Goodan Ranch Open-Space Preserve, Poway, and Scripps Ranch. This was to become the zone of inquiry, the locus of my obsession.
Initial forays into the zone were tentative, even timid, limited by both range and risk tolerance. I’d never run farther than 11 or 12 miles — and that was accomplished in the ideal conditions of cool ocean breezes and the firm, flat sand of Torrey Pines at low tide. Longer runs — on flat terrain — typically topped out at around 6H to 7 miles, which meant that the hilly 3.4-mile round trip between home and the Pomerado portal would sap my energy, preventing me from venturing too far beyond the gate. At least that’s what I told myself.
What a gate it was: redolent of Cold War paranoia and authoritarian bombast, it appeared to me — festooned with an eclectic array of signs — as both a warning and an invitation; indeed, there was an unsettling ambiguity about it. The gate sat — as its modern replacement does now — about 50 yards down the turnout from Pomerado Road, just southwest of Spring Canyon Road. Some of the ambiguity stemmed from its random open/closed status; did this mean “keep out now and then”? The welter of signs also confused me: some proclaimed the sanctity of military soil, while others announced the holdings of the Feds’ kissin’ cousins — General Dynamics, Hughes/Raytheon, Lockheed Martin; still another told of a U.S. Forest Service office, listing an “Old Pomerado Rd.” address. Most of the signs were metal, a few wooden; while most looked old and weathered enough to be defied, some appeared newer. Who the hell knew who owned the land or who maintained the road? What had gone on there — and what went on there still?
The first time I ventured beyond the gate, it was padlocked, so I scrambled up and over a low dirt embankment to the left and kept running. Obviously, I told myself, the gate — a rusted and bent relic of the Cold War — was meant solely to keep out vehicles; pedestrians were tacitly permitted, even expected. Nonetheless, my quickening stride was not due to carefree bravado but to the overwhelming feeling that this place was, at minimum, spooky. I’d wanted a place to run in solitude, and this appeared to fit the bill: the winding, soft asphalt; the smell of sage; the soaring, red-shouldered hawks; and the sound of the wind. But what about that sign at the entrance — the buffoonish rhetoric about “consenting” to search, the reference to some hoary but draconian “Internal Security Act of 1950”? Did this mean that, at any moment, perhaps as I crested the next blind hill, a goon squad, maybe a pack of officious jarheads or Wackenhut “security” cretins — would emerge and attempt to apprehend me? If so, could I simply turn around and flee back to the free world, or would I be interrogated, worked over, “processed,” as it were, for violating the sanctity of this military-industrial paradise? Sure, I didn’t look like a kaffiyeh-topped Islamo-terrorist, and God knows I wasn’t carrying an Uzi or a pair of box cutters, not even a putty knife or a subversive political tract. But still, as Frederick Exley once said, “The world is run by goons,” and during my time, having attracted the attention of more than a few, I was at once afraid of them and determined to defy them. On that first run, as I estimated my distance by step count, I decided to make a U-turn at a mile, feeling a palpable sense of relief when I re-emerged without having seen anyone at all. I’d committed a small act of defiance and vowed to go farther next time.