Belorado to San Juan de Ortega is 24km, mostly hugging N120 and passing through small villages with less than 100 inhabitants. The blogs I read online had warnings about a lack of ATMs and few places to find food. (Note to future self: stock up on energy bars.) The main attraction in San Juan de Ortega, which has only 20 (!) inhabitants, is the cathedral, which contains the sarcophagus of San Juan, the patron saint of fertility. (I mention this as a side note… it’s not of personal relevance.)
The pandemic has kept me near home, away from people. My ailing beagle has me housebound, within arm’s reach. It’s fair to say that my non-journey has begun to drive me crazy.
Today’s big plan was to drive our hazardous waste (some old fertilizer, sprays and solvents, and two 10-pound canisters of old batteries courtesy of my parents) to the county’s hazardous waste disposal, about ten minutes from our house.
It was the farthest out of town (… more specifically, out of my house) I’d been in a while.
But this morning, I said to Will, “I need to go somewhere.”
“It doesn’t matter. Somewhere that isn’t here.”
He nodded sagely. “I know just the place.”
Hello, and welcome to my photo diary from June 12, 2020.
We started at the Stanislaus County Hazardous Waste Disposal, took Crows Landing Road to Highway 33 through the town of Crows Landing, and then turned on Ike Crow Road. This is the “west side” of the county, bisected by Highway 99, which runs north-south through California. This is farmland: nuts, peaches, cattle, large ranches, small pastures with scraggly-looking goats. To the west is I-5 and a constant stream of semis, and beyond that, the Diablo Range, brown and humped in the distance. (Like brown elephants? Oh, shut up, Hemingway.)
By the time we turned on Ike Crow Road and a sign that announced this road was no longer being maintained by the county, I was pretty sure we were in for an adventure.
This is one of the great things about my husband. (Others: he puts together good playlists, is a solid pet parent, and kills the big household bugs with only minimal screaming/prompting.) He likes weird things, off-the-beaten path places, stories and legends. Also—you might know this, and if not, it may seem a little jarring the first time you hear it—he likes aliens.
At some point, the deteriorated road became a blocked road that only a very small Mini and two intrepid travelers could navigate. We made our way slowly onto what was once a Navy airbase, built in 1942 to train pilots for landing on aircraft carriers. At one point it was more than the barren, weed-choked strip of land we found, having barracks, a warehouse, hangars, a school and a baseball field. (It was jarring to see a school crossing sign in literally the middle of a weedpatch.) Approximately 1600 people lived or worked there in its heyday. In 1946, it was decommissioned as a wartime base, but it was later used to test the Lockheed QT-2PC, one of the first stealth planes.
Eventually, it was taken over by NASA in 1993, and it was rumored that aliens were stashed there in an underground facility. You can YouTube it; there are UFO sightings from the runway. (So my alien-loving husband tells me.) It was closed in 1999 and in 2003 there was an EPA clean-up, presumably from jet fuel and not just alien parts. The abandoned buildings, seen as hazards, were torn down in 2013. My nephew reported that when he was in high school—within the last decade—people went there to drift on the runway, which if you’re like me and not necessarily a car person, is harder to picture.
Today, it’s desolate—only a cracked runway overtaken by weeds, some used tire sculptures, a couple of smaller outbuildings and an air traffic control tower. It looked like it was possible to go into the tower, and I dared Will to do it, but the path was filled with waist-high weeds and the threat of snakes. (I didn’t see snakes, but I did see something that seemed squirrel-like and yet too big to be a squirrel. Possibly alien.)
Even though we could see traffic on distant I-5, it felt like we were the last people on earth, except for the driver of the white truck that drove parallel to us a few hundred yards away and kept us in its sights at all times. It looked like a CDF (California Department of Forestry/Fire) truck, with a red stripe and logo that was hard to make out at a distance, but to go along with the alien theme, MAYBE IT WAS FROM A SECRET GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENT THAT DID NOT WANT US TO DISCOVER EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE.
It was an unsettling feeling, being only half an hour from our regular life and so far away at the same time. On our way back to the main road, I looked behind me in the rearview mirror, noting a swastika painted on the door of a shed, hanging open. I shivered. Even in the middle of nowhere, we need our symbols of hate.
We drove through Patterson, just a few miles away, with its quaint city buildings and system of roundabouts, to the Jack-in-the-Box near I-5. It’s strange how, when you’ve been going absolutely nowhere, fast food is almost a panacea. It’s probably the salt and fat and the fact that someone other than me had cooked the food I was about to eat, but biting into that deluxe cheeseburger felt like a small miracle.
We didn’t want to leave Baxter for too long, and we were home again soon, round-trip three hours. It was our little adventure, a perfect nugget of time.
Paula Treick DeBoard