My voyage is of a more modest kind, but I still ask the first couple of people I come across which way to go. “Just start riding east,” says this middle-aged guy, Jim. “The path will take you up by Fiesta Island. That’s the least-civilized part of the bay. There’s land up there they haven’t decided what to do with yet.”
“But you have no idea how civilized Mission Bay has gotten,” says his buddy Ron. “We were both brought up here. When we were kids, our houses looked out over mud flats. A few fishing shacks. And ducks? This was called ‘Duckville.’ But you’ll be surprised how much space there still is here.”
Five minutes later, I’m still hanging around west of the Ingraham Street bridge when I meet another guy, Bill, who says, “You should go to Fiesta Island.” He’s a bright-eyed 63-year-old riding a lowrider bicycle that pulls a little trailer cart behind it. Looks as if he’s got his life packed aboard. “There’s a guy hands out free meals there tonight,” he says. “Mission Bay, they look after you. And if they don’t, there’s always O.B. But that’s across the water.”
By “water,” he means the San Diego River channel. How he puts it means a lot, separating “real” San Diego — and its bigger, more famous, more legitimate bay — from here. As if this were a different country, with its own denizens, its own partisan take on things.
Half an hour later, I’m up alongside Fiesta Island. It’s as Jim said. Empty. Couple of rabbits, wind whisking. Hard to differentiate from the distant rush of traffic. Could that be the 5? There’s an occasional hardscape leading down to a canopy that shelters seats at the water’s edge. Farther on, beside an impromptu parking lot, a bulldozer has scraped a stretch of land, 100 feet long and 10 feet wide, from the underbrush. It turns out this is a model-plane airport. A sign lays out the rules for launching, landing, and racing. Then a tarmac-sealed road branches down to the water. Fiesta Island Road. It runs across a causeway onto a whole huge chunk of land that stretches off to the north and south. It’s as desolate an island as you’d care to see, with a road bordered by tussocky underbrush, berms protecting sunken, inland plains of dirt and stress-growth underbrush. Not a tree in sight.
I keep pedaling against the flow on this one-way island-perimeter road, circling west along its south coast, just to see if Bill’s right about the free-meal handout. I can’t believe anybody would pick this location to do it in. I head on till I find myself skirting the north shore of the inlet called Hidden Anchorage. Only sign of life is a distant man and a dog. Then I spot a ski-jump platform out in the water. A couple of runners puff by, then two racing-bike riders. Apart from that, it’s me, a high-flying, sweet-voiced songbird, and the wind.
I search, but no handout, nowhere, so I turn around, and when I’m almost back to the causeway I come upon a group of twentysomething girls and boys who have started a fire in a fire ring. “Spruce,” says a guy, Chris, when I ask what kind of wood he’s using. He’s in construction, so he can get plenty of good-burning wood without nails (they’re not permitted). He comes out here because of his black Lab, Thomas. Chris says that this is the only large wild area he knows where you can really run a dog off-leash. “We’re here every night,” he says.
Back across the causeway, I head north, the undeveloped areas giving way to grassy, cozy waterside areas with specialized uses, such as a playground for disabled kids, and then the luxuriously maintained areas around a Hilton Hotel. From here on, it’s more predictable and mowed-lawn civilized, and, yes, cute. De Anza trailer park shines across De Anza Cove, which makes it look sadly romantic. Twenty minutes later, I pass through the village’s guard post. Inside, it’s break-your-heart charming. Like Pompeii before the eruption, this village’s clock is ticking. Difference is, people know the end is nigh. Even the residents’ lawyers concede that they don’t have a legal leg to stand on. There are no squatters’ rights here, no matter how entrenched and genteel the community they’ve created.
And genteel it is. Everything is neat, village-like, scaled down. The small yacht club, the mobile homes, the community garden, the streets with their flower names: Astor, Begonia, Camellia, Narcissus. You can see from some of the gardens that folks have retired here and created little worlds they’d always dreamed of. On De Anza Bay Drive, there’s a Japanese-style house, with a perfect Japanese garden. Everything is to scale, and there are views, uninterrupted, across the artificial inlet of De Anza Cove. One perfect yacht is anchored in the middle. No wonder the city and the developers want to get their hands on this for parkland, which would probably mean a big fat hotel and other taxable development.
Indeed, the sense that this is a doomed society is brought home at the glass-walled, smart-looking community center. I feel like a voyeur, cruising round on my bike. You can see right through the building to the pool area. There are five girls in a Jacuzzi but nobody using the pool, or the bar, or the dining room. That’s it, life at the end of a lease.
I’m starting to get tired. The civilized path helps along here, but I want to move on. The sloughs of the Kendall-Frost Reserve and the Northern Wildlife Preserve shine green in the afternoon light. And then the path swoops you ’round Crown Point, into Sail Bay. I bike past crystal-white sand beaches and the venerable, still-charming Catamaran Hotel. Even more charming is the tight, footpath-linked community of mostly prewar cottages that make up the Mission Beach peninsula community behind Santa Clara, San Juan, and Santa Barbara coves. It’s San Diego’s most densely developed residential community, with the smallest lots in the city. If they could make density look and feel so good in the ’30s, what’s our problem today?