San Diego’s secret missile-testing sites

As of Friday, March 29, 2019

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.

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.

As absurd as it seems now, even if I’d owned a camera and thought to bring it, I probably wouldn’t have risked staying longer to use it.

At the end of my 15-minute drive, safely back in “the Ranch,” it was still unclear who owned the buildings, the road, and the soil beneath it — not to mention the air above or the rattlesnakes hiding in the chaparral. As for the “operations” conducted there, I was only fractionally closer to understanding what the hell went on. Even as an attorney — used to sorting through convoluted fact patterns and parsing recondite statutes — I couldn’t decipher the twisted relationship between the Feds and their intimate contractor buddies.

Over the next few years, as the millennium approached, I thought about the area from time to time, but distracted by other matters — and perhaps spooked — I didn’t return. One night, however, while sitting at the bar at the Red Bird Tavern in Poway, downing a few beers, I struck up a conversation with a guy on the stool next to me. What I learned from him would not only revive my interest but paint a detailed picture of the shadowy complexes in those canyons.

Meet B.R., Urban Explorer

“B.R.,” as I agreed to call him — should I ever have the need to speak of him at all — was a UCSD graduate student who had grown up in Poway. When I happened to mention the demise of my favorite local watering hole, the Big Stone Lodge (formerly the Pomerado Club), he commiserated, stating that the old rough-hewn roadhouse, once a Pony Express station, was one of the few genuinely intriguing sites in the area still intact. I then remarked that, although it wasn’t “old” by archaeological standards, there was another nearby place I found interesting and told him of the area I had “discovered.” B.R. nearly dropped his drink. “You know about Sycamore Canyon?”

I said that I’d run there on occasion and drove through once but hadn’t uncovered many details.

It turned out that B.R. knew a lot of details — more than he was comfortable mentioning at first. He asked if I’d heard the term “urban exploration.” I hadn’t. According to B.R., in San Diego, as in many other places around the country, a new activity — new, at least, in the sense that it was now formalized to some degree — had recently begun to attract participants, or adherents, if you will. Apparently, loose-knit cadres of the curious — not in large numbers, mind you — were finding that the cities of America held an astonishing array of opportunities for stealthy discovery. These sites, B.R. went on, wouldn’t appeal to the average suburbanite and certainly weren’t on the glossy tourist maps. Consisting largely of places abandoned during the last 100 years or so, they were artifacts of our recent past — old mental hospitals, decrepit hotels and office buildings, rusting factories, disused subway tunnels, decommissioned ICBM silos, and so on.

These places, B.R. said, were dirty, often dangerous and sometimes, though long since given over to weeds or peeling paint, still “protected” against intruders by way of sternly worded signs, high fences, or even men with guns. “My” area was such a place.

B.R., in his understated fashion, said that he considered himself part of the urban exploration “movement”; I gathered that his local forays had been extensive, and I pressed him for details. He was hesitant to provide them at the bar but agreed to speak with me by phone if I respected his anonymity. He’d tell me more — but nothing more about him. Under other circumstances, I might have been put off by his secrecy, but I figured that he was good for some accurate “insider” information unavailable elsewhere. Perhaps I could write a story about it.

Over the next few weeks, I had a number of long phone conversations with B.R.

Once out of public earshot he was quite forthcoming; while urban exploration might have hit the radar screen in some circles, it was still unknown to most, and hooking up with a fellow enthusiast — even a vicarious one like me — gave B.R. the chance to share his take on a place most of us weren’t “authorized” to visit.

There were five “missions,” as B.R. termed them, the typically day-long outings when he and his “pod” — two regulars and another buddy or two on occasion — visited the area.

The first task was to get the Chevy four-wheel-drive “club cab” pickup as close as possible to the good stuff without being noticed. Usually, the Pomerado entrance gate was open, but one time, B.R. confessed, it had to be “persuaded” by means of a pair of Sears Craftsman bolt cutters.

Once inside, he found that various aerospace firms — laboring in stealth over several decades — had left indelible marks on the landscape. The biggest player seemed to be Convair (part of General Dynamics), which designated its complexes as “Site A,” “Site B,” and so on, all the way through “J.” It was difficult to piece it all together by chronological activity and land ownership; the amalgam of secrecy (both governmental and corporate), the incestuous relations among the military and industrial actors, and the passage of years had conspired to make a comprehensive timeline daunting.

Noise, Exhaust, Thrust, and Heat

In 1955, Civil Defense was all the rage. San Diego, like every other American city worth its radioactive salt, was dotted with Federal Signal air-raid sirens, tested religiously. Duck and Cover, not yet a cult comedy favorite, was scaring the crap out of little kids across the county more often than you could say “Bikini Atoll.”

And somewhere in the hills, between the clapboard houses of “old Poway” and the future home of the infamous “country living” license plate frame, Atlas prepared to flex his muscles.

In January of that year, Convair had been awarded a contract to build the Atlas ICBM. The missiles were to be assembled at its newly built Kearny Mesa plant and tested at what Convair dubbed its “STF” — Sycamore Test Facility. Unlike the test launches that would later be conducted at Vandenberg AFB up the coast and at Cape Canaveral in Florida, the STF tests were “static” — noise, exhaust, thrust, and heat — but with no glints of metal soaring heavenward, no UFOs to be explained away by “officials.” Instead, the Atlas missile of Sycamore Canyon would, in all its configurations, be tethered, straining mightily — but never succeeding — to break free of its test pads, which were operational by mid-1956.

It is the pads, of course, along with other concrete and steel accoutrements and not the missiles themselves, on which B.R. and friends clambered. As one might have expected, the cylinders themselves were long gone, but other things — massive, embedded, not designed for portability — were simply left standing like the moai of Easter Island. And if the carved stones of Polynesia were symbolic of belief, perhaps the boyhood playground of Atlas was as well.

August 29, 1956, marked the delivery of the first completed missile to Sycamore Canyon; static testing followed. In December, the fourth Atlas produced became the world’s first “flight-ready” ICBM. Too large to be transported by plane, it was placed in a cradle atop a massive trailer, wrapped in aluminum-covered canvas and trucked nine days to Cape Canaveral, Florida, under police escort. The ensuing years would be the “golden age” of the Sycamore Canyon tests, as a series of configurations — Atlas A through F — were tuned, tweaked, and tinkered with. In Florida, test flights of varying success continued until the Air Force, finally satisfied with the Atlas’s range and reliability, decided to deploy three “D” models at Vandenberg Air Force Base on October 31, 1959.

Photographs taken during the height of production show two free-standing test structures in adjacent canyons; although a network of dirt roads has sliced neatly through the hillsides, enabling heavy equipment to breach the sage at will, the (former) remoteness of the area is obvious. Tall and stout enough to muzzle the force of the globe’s first ICBM, the steel towers dwarf the supporting cast, such as manufacturing warehouses, administrative offices, and “security” blockhouses. Curiously, some of the buildings are a cheery teal, perhaps freshly painted, and make a pleasant contrast with the bright yellow buses parked nearby, apparently used to shuttle low-level workers to and from San Diego proper. Pictures of the control center reveal men — some clad in grey Sears polyester suits, others in what used to be called “sports clothes” — monitoring the static tests in a windowless building lined with ceiling-high computers and banks of reel-to-reel tape recorders. Staring at closed-circuit monitors — state-of-the-art then — these earnest techno-drones take Atlas’s vital signs as he roars to life, albeit briefly. The flames and glory of ignition prove to be short-lived; just a few years later, it’s all left to the weeds and the lizards and, eventually, to a handful of quirky, self-styled curiosity seekers.

Amateur Exploration of the Secret Site?

Although B.R. and his crew had a rough idea of what to expect, they were astonished at the size, scope, and contours of what Convair had left behind, the centerpiece being the massive test pads —- labeled “East” and “West.” To begin with, B.R. found that the pads weren’t flat circles at all but enormous concrete towers, at least 50 feet high, embedded into the canyon slopes, with curved walls extending from the front. During static testing, the Atlas missiles, sans warheads, would be secured within these grey straitjackets and the liquid fuel engines ignited; Atlas remained earthbound, but its flaming exhaust would blast through the front opening, the Venturi effect channeling the angry energy into the brush below. But that was many decades ago; by the time B.R. visited, the chaparral had long since reasserted its dominance. The edifices stood — but stood in mute repose, strangled by a thicket of riotous, unauthorized growth.

Granted, the “pads” were starkly picturesque. But, more challenging, and thus more rewarding — at least from the standpoint of the urban explorer — was the complex where Atlas’s masters held sway, the maze of underground bunkers and tunnels, five levels compressed like rebar layer-cake, sub-basement beneath sub-basement. There, B.R. and the others, who went by handles like “Bozo” and “Strontium,” descended by half-rotten rope ladders and vertical ventilation shafts into a vermin-infested time capsule, circa 1960. The place stank of mold, rat feces, and — so legend had it — the desperate sweat of a Vietnam-era Marine who’d flipped his lid and for years had carried out solitary recon missions for unknown armies. But the stench was worth it: Who else, at that moment, could say he’d wiped off 40-year-old dust from the faces of a dozen wall clocks, all stopped now, but each, in its youth, having displayed the time in every time zone that mattered in the nuclear world?

All told, 350 or so Atlas missiles were built, with up to 129 deployed at one time; but in 1963, the new Minuteman ICBM was ready. It was the beginning of the end for Atlas, at least as the standard-bearer of American military might. Although the Atlas was to live on as a satellite-launch vehicle for many years, via Project Centaur, it no longer had a place in the arsenal. Obsolete after a few years of glory — without having killed a single Communist — the mighty Atlas, the weapon that had cost billions, was headed for aerospace museums. And within a few years, the test pads in the hills would sit forlorn, overgrown with weeds and without purpose.

The demise of the Atlas nuke was hardly the end of weapons research in East Elliott, however. As B.R. stressed, some of the most intact exploration sites arose from other, more recent programs — and he was determined to see them all.

After Atlas Came Stinger and Tomahawk

Well after the end of the Atlas era, General Dynamics/Convair, Hughes-Raytheon, and others began assembling and testing other missiles — smaller but more advanced — soon known by their jaunty names, “Stinger” and “Tomahawk.” While neither could boast of the “first generation” status that had distinguished Atlas, these missiles, unlike the mighty ICBM, saw, and continue to see, actual combat. More importantly, in the practiced eyes of the urban explorer, their development left behind an even greater variety of structures and sites to tour.

B.R., as far as I could determine, was essentially apolitical. Yes, he admired Edward Abbey’s Hayduke, but not for ideological reasons. Rather, it was the defiant, nose-thumbing, outlaw panache that he emulated, all of it serving his penultimate goal: to satisfy a monumental curiosity. Attempts at secrecy and exclusion, he freely admitted, only served to heighten this curiosity, to intensify this compulsion to breach.

But the identity of the target was irrelevant; i.e., public sector or private, military, industrial, whatever — did it hold anything of intrigue? Could he be, if not the first, one of the first to explore it? By our second telephone briefing, I was convinced that B.R. would have tried the same thing in Russia, perhaps even in Iran or North Korea.

The military loves a good acronym, and “MANPADS” — man-portable air defense system — is as good as any. Not to be confused with, say, the “bachelor pad,” the first MANPADS was the Redeye missile, first deployed by the U.S. Army in the 1950s.

After nearly 20 years of faithful service, the venerable Redeye — which had no connection with bad snapshots or overnight flights but was named for the infrared sensor in its schnoz — was replaced by the Stinger.

The Stinger is perhaps best known nowadays for its role in the Soviet action in Afghanistan, circa mid- to late 1980s. First used in the 1982 Falklands War between Great Britain and Argentina, some 1000 to 2000 Stingers were supplied — courtesy of the CIA — to the Mujahideen terrorists, forerunners of the Taliban. Some of the missiles wound up in Iran, where they presumably sit, ready for action today. Like its predecessor, the Stinger was (and is) a shoulder-fired (or in some cases, air-to-air) missile designed to shoot down incoming enemy aircraft. General Dynamics started work on it in 1967, and after the usual prolix process of testing, the Stinger was ready for production, which began at Site J in 1978. All told, the ultrasecret complex in Poway’s back yard would give birth to most of the 20,000–30,000 units made.

When B.R.’s group explored Site J — sometimes referred to as “Sycamore Annex” — it had been abandoned only a few years. As recently as the early 1990s, the Stinger, along with the Tomahawk, was still in production, with Hughes-Raytheon the final manufacturer at the location. However, most of the missile’s accoutrements — office buildings, storage bunkers, and the like —- appeared to be of pre-1975 vintage, unadulterated Cold War memorabilia. Predictably, what B.R. found exemplified the leitmotif of “security first.” Yet, it was all curiously juxtaposed against what could only be termed a precipitous and careless abandonment, the alchemy that turns yesterday’s prized and expensive things into today’s trash.

The portal to Stingerworld, the passage beyond the concertina wire, had been a redundant series of gates and checkpoints, with turnstiles for pedestrians, all controlled by a master “security office.” The armed, scowling men with buzz cuts (small mustaches optional) probably looked no different from their Internet-age successors, but in the years before X-rays, full-body scans, and facial-recognition software, their tools were Paleolithic: long-handled mirrors to check for bombs under vehicles and a keen nose to sniff out the “unauthorized” visitor — nosy journalist or wayward hippie alike.

When B.R., arrived, the only sentries were the tall weeds sprouting through the cracked asphalt.

Once in the inner sanctum, the dedicated missile worker, or honored guest, would have found three sets of structures: an administration building, a production area, and a set of storage magazines (hillside bunkers) numbered 1 through 7. The star of the show was a little less than five feet long and, without its launcher, a hair over 22 pounds (33 with). Capable of hitting aircraft up to three miles away, the finned Stinger — whose power source was an argon-juiced battery pack — hurled its 3-pound warhead at mach 2.2 speed, hitting about 30 percent of its targets in the field.

Although B.R. was not averse to picking up a trophy now and then, he stressed that it was the experience of exploration that counted. B.R. didn’t see any spare Stingers lying about, but given the haphazard abandonment of the facility — the cavalier tossing aside of computers, office chairs, God knows what else — such a sight would not have been shocking. The best parts, he said, were the notices, signs, and insignias — the military-industrial hieroglyphics, if you will, that defined the people who worked there. First, there were the large Stinger logos painted on the walls. One portrayed a helicopter firing a projectile and was done up in a quasi-hip ’70s font that read (in lime green) “Air-To-Air Stinger.” A second logo showed a stick-figure soldier, white against a blue background, preparing to fire; next to him was written, simply, “Stinger.” It is unclear whether these renderings were intended as cues for absent-minded workers or perhaps as gathering spots for daily devotionals.

Unquestionably, the manufacture, storage, and delivery of the Stinger was a risky business, with the threat of fire and explosion and the daily exposure to noxious chemicals. Even with the projectiles and their craftsmen long gone, the signs — ranging from the elegant “Think Safety” to lengthy compendia of explosion-avoidance tips — had persisted. Inside the concrete-block magazines, where the Stingers once sat on shelves, ready for delivery to eager, well-heeled customers, wall-posted rules ran the gamut from the absurdly obvious to the anal-retentive stringent. B.R. particularly liked Rule #10: “Do not smoke, or bring matches into magazine.”

None of this firepower, accompanied as it was by hypervigilant security and obsessive attention to safety, came cheap, however. Depending on who was doing the buying, Stingers rang up at the register anywhere from $33,000 apiece for delivery to U.S. forces to $126,000 and $135,000 a pop to Switzerland and Lithuania, respectively. But at least the missile makers found one modest way to economize: Little Stinger had to share Site J with its distant relation, the Tomahawk cruise missile.

Just as the U.S. military had blithely looked to the German V-2 rocket for ballistic inspiration, it saw — in the Nazis’ V-1 “Buzz Bomb” — the potential for a new and improved winged missile. The first American efforts, V-1 knockoffs like the Mace, Matador, and Regulus missiles, were early Cold War players; although widely deployed, they were never, as the argot goes, “fired in anger.” Other programs, like the Snark and Navajo, were stillborn, largely due to cost concerns in Congress. The rise of the ICBM also contributed to the decline in enthusiasm for the winged missile. By the early 1960s, their role (even with nuclear warheads) was limited to that of adjunct to the B-52’s arsenal.

In the early 1970s, the military sought to develop a smaller, lighter, and more accurate missile, one that would travel relatively slowly but would follow the contours of the terrain with unerring, deadly precision. The end result, first deployed in 1983, would be the “cruise missile,” specifically, General Dynamics’ Tomahawk — the mother of all winged, subsonic guided missiles, the tubes we eventually watched on CNN as they pummeled Saddam Hussein’s “fertile triangle.”

The Tomahawk plant at site J made the Stinger facility look, well, dainty, by comparison. At around 20 feet long, with a 21-inch diameter, an 8-foot-plus wingspan, and an armed weight of a ton and a half, the Tomahawk required much more room to build and store. But space was no problem, and by the late 1970s, an enormous rectangular box (B.R. estimated it at 500 feet by 250 feet, certainly much larger than a football field) had been erected. There, the stolid “G.D.” workers turned out Tomahawks at a prodigious rate, taking the half-finished missiles (trucked in from Kearny Mesa) and installing the rocket motor and conventional warheads. The missiles would then be fueled (gingerly) and placed (lovingly) in their protective tubes for storage until that magic moment when the lucky customer would take delivery.

B.R. described the Tomahawk facility as “imposing,” the epitome of military-industrial might, things done on a large scale. This was classic assembly-line manufacturing, with overhead rails to move the missiles through build stations and tall, stout steel racks — row upon row of high-strength girders — to hold them securely. No one wanted to drop a Tomahawk. The storage bunkers were also Brobdingnagian; while there were no nukes, the 1000-pound high-explosive charges, if inadvertently detonated, might have — at minimum — brought undue attention to the place, not to mention destroying missiles at a million bucks a pop. Eventually, Hughes-Raytheon took over production of the Tomahawk and in the early 1990s moved production to Tucson, bequeathing San Diego another abandoned place, another urban exploration site.

“Green Farm” sounds like the name of a preschool book — a story about a place where contented cows graze in verdant hills, all under the gentle stewardship of a kind farmer.

Well, at one time, there was a “Green Farm” just down the road from General Dynamics’ Sycamore sites and across the way from Miramar NAS. Apparently, there was a Farmer Green and a herd of dairy cows, and even if the pastures weren’t lush, by all accounts, Farmer Green’s bovine charges were content, indeed. But by the late 1950s, the farm had fallen into the hands of government contractors, folks whose tastes ran more to guns than butter.

For the curious who traipsed about the “farm” a few years after its clandestine operations had ceased, there didn’t seem to be much “high-tech” about the place; little of the bucolic, overgrown ambience spoke to what had been tested there and, moreover, what might have been, with unlimited funding. Yet, of all the goings-on, all the projects in East Elliott, the ones at Green Farm were the most futuristic, the most “cutting edge.”

Bizarre Projects

The Electromagnetic Gun was anything but another newfangled rifle. Although the military had continually looked for ways to fire more bullets faster, farther, and with more accuracy, the electromagnetic gun — or “rail gun” — was a radically different approach to shooting projectiles. Manufactured at Maxwell Labs’ Kearny Mesa plant, the 90 mm rail gun, intended as an anti-tank weapon, had a 38-foot-long barrel and was powered by magnetic pulses. The super-intense magnetic energy enabled it to shoot plastic “bullets” at velocities of up to 9000 miles per hour — which it did, one shot at a time, during the course of some 250 tests carried out at Green Farm from 1986 to 1999. Although the rail gun was to ultimately prove workable, Maxwell needed a larger, more remote test site. Green Farm wound up as nothing more than a dusty collection of tumbledown, wooden-frame shacks, steel-and-concrete bunkers, and piles of debris, all of it buffeted by the wind and surrounded by weeds.

Project Orion didn’t belong exclusively to San Diego, nor did it ever come close to fruition. Yet, its mere presence here — evanescent, incomplete, almost inchoate — was noteworthy, if only by dint of its intended scope. In 1958, a group of physicists, including Freeman Dyson and Theodore Taylor at General Atomics, became obsessed with the notion that deep-space exploration was not only necessary — costs be damned — but feasible. They proposed a gargantuan spaceship, powered by hydrogen bombs, that would travel at unheard-of speed, up to 50,000 miles per hour. True believers, they were apparently unconcerned with issues like radioactive fallout. Initial tests — small-scale mock-ups using conventional explosives — were conducted in Point Loma and, after neighbors complained of the noise, at Green Farm. However, not even the hardest hard-core technocrats, the coldest Cold Warriors — nucleophiles one and all — could see this thing working, so by 1961, Orion was a footnote in The Journal of Bizarre Scuttled Projects.

Because East Elliott, STF, the Forbidden Zone — whatever one chooses to call it — was, for the tenure of its existence, unknown to most San Diegans, it provided an ideal setting for half-truths, lurid rumors, and, in some cases, unpleasant facts that could “neither be confirmed nor denied.” While on his final tour of the area, B.R. took in the Seabees building, which while wholly unremarkable for its prosaic uses, was to B.R. and others quite remarkable for other functions.

The Seabees were essentially Navy “combat mechanics,” men who did for the “materiel” of war what combat medics did for soldiers, sailors, and Marines. As it turned out, the first structure I’d encountered on my runs served as a Seabee training center, with an assortment of offices and small, blast-proof rooms. On one wall, B.R. took note of a large Seabee insignia that portrayed a half-man, half-bee creature firing a machine gun while holding a wrench and a hammer — “multitasking” at its best. Most of the place had been trashed, however, evidence that long after the industrious wartime hymenopteran had flown the hive, inventive teenagers, oblivious to the asbestos in the air, had staged more than a few lively parties there.

Still another chapter of the building’s history exists — more apocryphal, by far, and only anecdotally documented. For years, a rumor had persisted that somewhere in the canyons an insane asylum operated, far enough away to muffle screams and squelch attempts at escape. There is nothing to indicate that a genuine nuthouse ever graced the neighborhood. However, according to B.R., several Navy veterans told him that after arriving back in the U.S. following a tour of duty in Vietnam, they, along with up to 50 other servicemen, were held captive for several months in the Seabees building and force-fed LSD.

During my last conversation with B.R., he mentioned that he was contemplating moving to New York — something about a Ph.D. program, as well as a lot of tunnels to explore. A while later, when I tried to call him, I found his number disconnected.

Busy with the boredom of practicing law, I boxed up my notes and, for a time, lost track of the box.

Granite Countertops, Hardwood Floors, and Unexpected Ordnance

In the fall of 2007, my wife and daughters came home one Saturday afternoon after looking at some newly built houses up the road. “Please humor us,” my wife said. “You’re going to be pleasantly surprised. You’re going to like these places a lot.”

My girls chimed in. “Daddy, they have separate ‘casitas’; you can have your ‘fort.’ ”

Sure, they admitted, it was still Scripps Ranch, but it wasn’t the usual sea of homes; there was a lot more room, some decent views, and besides, these places were pretty upscale. We’d contemplated moving for a few years, but like many locals, we’d been shut out of our preferred destinations — Del Mar, La Jolla, Rancho Santa Fe — by outrageous prices driven by mega-wealthy newcomers. Even in the less-celebrated places like Encinitas, Leucadia, Olivenhain, and Solana Beach, “high six figures” wouldn’t get you much more than a cheesy tract home or — if you had the temerity to seek a (partially obstructed) view of the Pacific — a 1200-square-foot cracker box with moldy walls and no parking.

I’d never turned east on Stonebridge Parkway and, for some reason, was only peripherally aware that, for the past couple of years, the true Kings of San Diego — the real estate developers — had been making serious inroads into the area.

According to the website of one development, “Calabria,” the homes — blessed with a “spectacular, semi-rural setting” — are “inspired by an ancient hillside village in Italy.” With “an irrepressible combination of sophistication, ingenuity, and tradition,” “reverence for nature’s endless beauty,” and “mesmerizing vistas,” who wouldn’t want to live there?

The ad copy is standard real-estate hyperbole, as one might expect from folks who insist, with a straight face, that the first “R” in “realtor” must always be capitalized. That’s not to say the houses of “Calabria” and the other tracts aren’t nice; by most standards, they are. Indeed, in one development I toured, I was rather impressed by the larger models, the 5000-square-foot, million-dollar abodes with 30-foot-high “great rooms,” copious amounts of marble, tile, and hardwood, and — of course — the “man fort” I’d so long desired. Though it wasn’t the beach, I suppose I could see living here — if we ever had the money, that is. I also thought it ironic that in the near future, I might live directly on top of, or at least disarmingly close to, the land that contained the vestiges of Atlas.

My interest reawakened, I decided to ask a few questions of a sales representative for one of the builders, Warmington Homes, whose development “Viscaya” sits near the northeastern terminus of Stonebridge Parkway. Did she know what had been there?

By my calculations, and by the water tank that has stood there for decades, Viscaya, and several other upscale sets of homes, are close to the former Atlas test pads and perhaps even closer to the old Stinger and Tomahawk facilities.

The sales rep said that the land south of Stonebridge Parkway was used by the Marine Corps and willingly referred me to a terse disclosure. She read me a boilerplate exculpatory clause, pulled from a drawer in her office, which stated that the Marines “might increase or decrease their activities” in the future and that homeowners agreed to hold the builder harmless for damages (ranging, I suppose, from vague psychic distress to severed limbs) resulting from, inter alia, such gyrene staples as aircraft noise and unexploded shells. She did, however, attempt to reassure me that had any live ordnance perchance remained, it surely would have exploded when the bulldozers graded the hills. As for the areas to the east and the non-Marine occupants, former or present, she evinced no knowledge.

If you drive around Stonebridge Estates these days, or perhaps down Beeler Canyon Road to the San Vicente Pipeline Project area, there isn’t much that’s visible — that is, from publicly accessible viewpoints. The most obvious reminder of the area’s military-industrial past is the Doppler “vanilla cone,” apparently still used by Miramar pilots.

The SDG&E substation is there, as well as the formerly white water tank, its exterior now a tasteful, environmentally friendly adobe brown. Other, more sinister reminders — the residue from decades of weapons building and testing — may yet surface.

When Hughes/Raytheon pulled up stakes and moved to Tucson in the early 1990s, it left many things behind, not just buildings, bunkers, and signs, but chemicals.

There’s no denying that missile-building, indeed, the manufacture of any modern weapon of war, requires chemicals, many of them quite toxic. No slouches when it came to utilizing the periodic table of elements, the folks who brought us Stinger and Tomahawk left San Diego with a dizzying array of spent and surplus chemicals, in copious quantities; apparently, they hadn’t thought in reverent terms about the canyons of East Elliott. According to a report filed with the Environmental Protection Agency, about 200 tons of hazardous materials from Site J were “processed” between 1993 and 1999 by several waste-disposal companies; they incinerated some of it on-site and trucked another portion for incineration or landfill duty in other lucky burgs. The EPA document, some 140 pages long, reads like a Who’s Who of dangerous substances: a (very) partial roster includes heavy metals like cadmium, chromium, lead, and mercury; cyanide compounds; an all-star array of acids and other solvents; and the ever-popular liquid high-explosive “MEK,” or methyl ethyl ketone. The only substances lacking are the radioactive — an omission, one must presume, that stemmed from something other than caution.

As for the former haunt of Atlas, the Marine Corps has produced an “Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan” that states, without elaboration, that the site had been contaminated by PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) and asbestos but was cleaned up by 1997. The Marines also say, “There is a potential for the presence of WWI artillery, WWII inert practice bombs, and WWI training items.”

POSTSCRIPT: There is a new wrought-iron gate guarding the recently renamed “Sycamore Test Road.” A sign on the gate reads, “For Access, Call 577-4059.”

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