Armed, Roving Enforcers
Over the next year, until late 1997, I returned now and then but never made it my regular route, usually opting for shorter, flatter runs around Lake Miramar that, while less interesting, were considerably easier on my knees. But whenever I gathered the stamina and nerve to go back, I ventured a little deeper, treating each winding segment as another step closer to a point of no return. The first structure I encountered was an antenna of some sort, a metal gridwork tower topped by a large, white ball that reminded me of an industrial, vanilla ice cream cone. The antenna, perhaps a mile and a half in, was apparently still in use and surrounded by a network of barbed-wire fences.
A little past the antenna, looking north, I saw a large compound of what looked like serious electrical equipment — transformers and such — which I later learned was, and still is, an SDG&E substation. On one occasion, I ran about two miles down the road, where I found my first “mystery” buildings — two structures whose ambiguity of identity and purpose struck an unmistakable, if ineffable, chord.
The first building was a rectangular, two-story job, architecturally undistinguished and apparently abandoned, its windows boarded up. I assumed it to be military in origin.
I could not tell how old it was but was confident that it held no military antiquities — nothing, say, on the order of a Revolutionary War musket or even a WWII pamphlet on the use of the stimulant Pemoline. Even though its fences had long since been breached — it was now guarded solely by a phalanx of weeds thrusting through broken pavement — I did not think to go inside. Its companion in ignominy was smaller, wooden, and painted green. Its fences seemed sturdier and newer, and although I could detect no activity on the premises, it fairly bristled with antennae that looked as if they might be operational. Along with the customary “US Government — No Trespassing” postings, it bore a sign reading “Forestry Service Radio & Repair Station,” which conjured up the notion of conducting surveillance on subversive oaks or rogue redwoods.
As it turned out, I never encountered armed, roving enforcers and, save for a camouflaged jeep traveling a dirt side road in a canyon to the south, didn’t spy much evidence of military activity. I saw a few vehicles from time to time, mostly big rigs hauling cargo to and from sites I hadn’t yet reached. Yet I never saw another runner or a cyclist.
Was there a reason for this? Why would the inventive recreational athletes of San Diego spurn such an area? Moreover, who owned this place and what, if anything, still went on there?
That was as far as I ever ran down the road. Sometime later, my right medial meniscus gave out; after arthroscopic surgery and a short rehab, I was back running — but not hills.
Still curious about my former (occasional) haunt, and having noted that the gate was open at least as often as it was closed, I decided to drive the road one crisp Saturday morning in January. In some ways, this made me more apprehensive than running the road had because — in the eyes of gun-toting “authorities” — the mere act of driving a car in certain places constitutes such an incendiary act of unbridled chutzpah that it justifies the seizure of one’s automobile or (in the case of resistance) summary disembowelment.
Because the pavement was slick from rain the night before, I made a note to take it easy on the throttle; even under the best of circumstances, my ’95 Mustang Cobra, heavily modified, would fishtail like crazy around these hairpins, and I didn’t relish calling the Auto Club to winch my car from the bottom of a ravine. But there was no deadening the exhaust note: anyone skulking in the canyons of East Elliott would know that an interloper was cruising around, perhaps even peering at things that some entity had gone to great lengths to hide. As it turned out, there was no one to confront me, and as before, I saw no one at all.
After passing the buildings I’d encountered on foot, I drove on, climbing and descending a series of increasingly steep hills, all the while twisting and turning deep into what I’d begun to think of as a no-man’s-land — hopefully minus the Claymores. I found myself amidst larger, more imposing installations that looked, well, more military, more industrial, altogether more threatening. These were relics from the era of Thunderbolt air-raid sirens and Frenchman Flat tests — quaint Civil Defense exotica — or were they?
In volcanic terms, they seemed neither extinct nor active. Rather, they appeared dormant. Silent and windblown, yet surrounded by high fences and plastered with every manner of signage, they were suffused with the eerie ambiguity that made the “forbidden area” both vaguely frightening and inescapably fascinating.
There were huge buildings that looked like warehouses or factories and smaller structures that might have been offices. Everything was metal, some of it painted green that had mellowed in the canyon sun to a quasi-pastel.
At one complex, there were rows of long metal tubes and other items that could have been weapons components, or perhaps something much more prosaic, less romantic. Whatever they were, they appeared to be in a state of disuse but not disrepair. Was anyone watching me? Could there be a cluster of penny-ante fascists in those buildings, ready to pounce with lights and sirens? Perhaps I was the only guy who’d toured the place by car, but that seemed unlikely. Maybe no one gave a shit, and this was just paranoia, the feeling that comes on late at night after too many bong hits.
A moment later, I reached a gated dead end that thwarted my plan to make a round-trip back to Pomerado Road via Beeler Canyon Road; it required a U-turn to get out of this military-industrial ghost town. A jolt of fear coursed through me: What if — during the time it had taken me to get here — the entrance gate had been locked, trapping me? So I didn’t linger to get closer, to take notes.