Travel

Fort Ord: Creative reuse, festering blight blend in Monterey Bay

Faded military murals are scattered throughout the abandoned infrastructure of Fort Ord in Monterey Bay. This mural is on the California State University, Monterey Bay, campus.
Faded military murals are scattered throughout the abandoned infrastructure of Fort Ord in Monterey Bay. This mural is on the California State University, Monterey Bay, campus. San Francisco Chronicle file, 2008

Glass crunched under my shoes, shards so thick in spots they threatened to puncture my soles. Its sound, a grinding complaint echoing off the cracked cinder-block walls, added a spooky aspect to my wandering.

Dangling plaster ceiling, like the stripped bark of the eucalyptus trees out front, beckoned me onward as an ocean breeze wafted through the shattered windows. Detritus clung to the water-stained corners, used condoms and hypodermic needles resting beneath the exposed electrical wires in hollowed-out sockets. A bureaucrat’s desk, missing drawers and any hint of erstwhile authority, looked lonely and displaced.

Really, the only way to tell that this dilapidated structure – Building 4442, one of row upon row of such squat, khaki, standard-issue sandstone units at the heart of Fort Ord – once served as a proud and invaluable purpose are the murals that remain. Peeling and fading in places, but admirably preserved amid the blight that time and inattention have wrought, the murals stand out starkly, even ominously.

Just inside an unhinged door in what appears to be the eviscerated remains of a medical clinic, a nearly floor-to-ceiling mural features a fierce-faced eagle bearing a shield emblazoned with the United States flag and the caduceus, the well-known medical image of a serpent wrapped around a staff, with an olive branch and sword grasped in talons. Unfurled in blue streamers is the inscription: “To Conserve Our Fighting Force” and, underneath that, “Manchu Medico,” the nickname of the 9th Infantry Regiment’s medical team.

Kitty-corner, as if to leave no doubt as to Building 4442’s former function, another mural, this one in black-and-white silhouette, shows a helmeted medic tending to the torso of a fallen soldier, over his shoulder another blood-red cross serving as exclamation point.

You’ll find murals such as these scattered throughout the abandoned infrastructure of Fort Ord, which from its opening in 1917 to its closure in 1994 had been one of the Army’s largest and most important posts. Though, technically, these murals are not “open to the public,” anyone with an interest can park at abandoned parking lots on base and check out the buildings without too much danger of drawing the attention of authorities.

The murals have drawn enough notoriety even to garner an exhibit, “Insignias of Fort Ord,” mostly photos of the vintage paintings, now at the Monterey Art Museum. The buildings themselves, exuding an air of post-apocalyptic ruin, continue to hold people in thrall, even serving as the setting for a 2014 Dave Eggers novel, now in movie development. But they don’t draw enough attention, apparently, to protect the remaining murals from looters, skulkers and squatters who have haunted – and, from visual evidence, thoroughly trashed – the buildings during two decades of idleness.

This, sadly, is what a considerable portion of Fort Ord has been reduced to: empty shells of barracks and husks of headquarters; unexploded ordinance and toxic groundwater marring a lush, undeveloped hillside.

But, hearteningly, an equally considerable portion of the base’s 28,000 acres has been well tended to and put to productive use. California State University, Monterey Bay, has commandeered the northwest flank, melding modern architecture with a drill-sergeant’s hat tip to its storied military history. Acres of open space in a newly designated national monument, featuring serpentine single-track trails traveling across rolling hills carpeted by coastal scrub and dotted by gnarled oaks, have been preserved for the enjoyment of both bi- and quadrupeds, not to mention mountain bikers who zip by on studded tires. And just enough retail development on the outskirts has drawn people to new, but not huge and ostentatious, housing developments.

Whether you view the Fort Ord canteen as half-full or half-empty depends largely on one’s perspective and, as always, self-interest.

That’s to be expected, perhaps, given that the federal government parceled out Fort Ord’s prime swath of Monterey Peninsula real estate to various interested parties, from the state (hence, CSU Monterey Bay) to the Bureau of Land Management (hence, the trails at Fort Ord National Monument) to local municipalities (hence, housing and retail in towns of Marina and Seaside). The agreed-upon Base Reuse Plan had as its mission the “Three E’s” – environmental protection, education and economic redevelopment – interests that have been known to clash.

One current fight is whether Seaside will approve plans for a horse-racing track, Monterey Downs, that also will include a training track, indoor arena, more than 1,000 housing units, two hotels and retail and commercial spaces – all abutting the national monument. Where city leaders and business groups see an economic boon to the region, conservation groups such as Keep Fort Ord Wild see creeping commercialism blighting a pristine environment.

And then there’s the ongoing debate of just how “pristine” Fort Ord really is, given the vast spaces, remaining under Army control, still closed to the public due to “munitions hazards.” Some grumble about the slow process of removing ordinance and toxic substances from the soil – contractors have been at it two decades and expect at least another 10 years to finish the job – but others grouse because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must set the hills on fire (“controlled burns”) to clear the brush and hasten the cleanup. Still others gripe that the Army should never have closed the post or, at the very least, should’ve held onto the land.

There are those, such as Richard Peterson, who feel torn between allegiances. Peterson, 74, a retired physician who lives in Monterey, was posted at Fort Ord’s hospital for 11 years. He is not wholly against private development, often goes running or biking on the 85 miles of trails under BLM oversight, and says he has an affinity for the views of Keep Fort Ord Wild.

“I have kind of mixed feelings about it all,” he said. “There’s lots of ordinance left. They’ve been cleaning up that ordinance for years, and it’s cost hundred of millions of dollars. In my mind, the Army maybe shouldn’t have turned it over. You never know, in the future, the Army might need this property again. I don’t know. Everyone wanted the land, but they all wanted the Army to pay all the bucks to clean it up. And to get to the ordinance they have to go burning, then people complain because they’re burning, the smoking hurting their (lungs) and allergies. You can’t win either way.”

Bear in mind that Peterson made these remarks standing at a trailhead before his Saturday morning run. He is, in an admittedly selfish way, happy that Fort Ord hasn’t been developed (or, in his mind, publicized) enough to draw the staggering amount of tourists that invade Monterey and Carmel. He can run for miles, he said, without encountering another runner and, though mountain bikers flock to the single-track and relatively flat trails, you can avoid them if you venture far enough inland. He tends to favor the wilder, rustic trails of the national monument, as opposed to the more peopled Fort Ord Dunes State Park on the other side of Highway 1.

The monument trails are lush with native plants and trees (lupine, manzanita, black sage, monkey flower) and populated by wildlife (bobcat, coyote, deer, wild pigs, sheep and the rare mountain lion). At high points, you can enjoy views of the ocean to the west, the agriculture-rich Salinas valley to the north and east and, in the distance, the Gabilan Mountains.

The BLM trails are well-maintained, if poorly marked. And while it’s easy to get lost amid a maze of single-track, you won’t wander long before running into wide dirt roads with names such as Machine Gun Flats, Engineer Canyon and Lookout Ridge. Those roads, if you carry a BLM map (and it’s highly recommended), will get your bearings back.

Now, if it weren’t for those darn unexploded ordinance and toxic waste, it might be the one of the best multiuse sites in trail-rich Northern California.

But those ecological challenges don’t faze mountain bikers such as Ryan Harnett and Cerine (“No last name, please”) bombing down the hills with impunity.

“There are signs telling you where not to go, and we don’t go there,” Cerine said. “No safety worries. The reason (mountain) bikers like it is the single-track and how, in the winter, the rain packs down the sandy trails. Other places in winter, you can’t go because it’s too muddy.”

Is there reason to worry about traversing outback ground once used by Army soldiers for target practice, munitions storin, and, in an area around Pilarcitos Canyon Road, where a mock “Vietnamese village,” replete with “booby traps” and other simulated hazards employed by the Viet Cong, once stood? The “village” may be gone, but ordinance have proved harder to discard.

The day I visited Fort Ord happened to coincide with a public presentation by the community group Fort Ord Cleanup. The group arranged bus tours of the Army’s landfills, showing where and how it capped “dirty water and dirty soil” at its landfills and how it uses methane-gas tracking systems to gauge air quality.

Out front of the cleanup headquarters, on four large bulletin boards, were mounted examples of munitions extracted from land both in the BLM-managed areas surrounding the monument and the Army-managed lands still deemed too unsafe due to munitions hazards. Among the exhumations: rusted hand grenades, circa World War II; a “high explosive Anti Tank M222 guided heat-seeking missile”; mortars ranging from 4 inches to 2 feet, thicker than a steer’s hind quarter; a Vietnam-era “60mm projectile illumination candle”; and a disturbingly corroded 81mm smoke shell.

Perhaps meant to reassure visitors that the cleanup was thorough and far-reaching, instead these found ordinance raised my suspicions of what hazmat-suited workers weren’t finding.

David Eisen, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, reassured me that the areas open to the public under BLM control are safe. To an extent.

“On the trails, yes, it’s safe,” Eisen said. “Inside, off the designated trails, potentially (you could encounter munitions). And that’s why we’ve always said to stay on the trails. It’s not evident because there’s a lot of brush covering it up. The rules are trail-use only. The BLM has a new leash law it instituted to keep dogs out of the brush. But this is also a sensitive habitat reserve, so the stay-on-the-trails program is crucial. We’re looking at another eight to 10 years on the project. The groundwater cleanup, especially, takes a long time.”

I looked Eisen in the eye and asked,“Will it ever be totally safe?”

He smiled, chose his words carefully: “Along the cleared trails, yes.”

Perhaps the bigger question to casual visitors of Fort Ord is: Will the remaining blighted military buildings ever be gussied up and put to some use other than squatters’ quarters?

Short answer: In time, hopefully.

Incrementally, long-dormant facilities have seen new life. There seems no master plan for reuse. Some buildings have been spiffed up and put to use, whereas, next door, dry rot and weeds envelop crumbling structures.

The Army’s veterinary hospital – at its peak, it served nearly 1,500 horses and mules during the horse-drawn field artillery maneuver days – now houses the city of Marina’s equestrian center. Down a slight slope, though, the old stockade, erected post-World War II, is moldering and barricaded by coils of barbed-wire fencing.

Not a quarter mile from where rows of buildings ooze neglect, CSU Monterey Bay last year completed the conversion of Fort Ord’s Cold War-era vehicle maintenance headquarters on Eighth Street into “The Promontory,” a 176-unit student housing that helped to somewhat ease the university’s significant housing shortage.

But to some, such as the novelist Eggers, the abandoned buildings resonate. He set his 2014 novel, “Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?” there. In the novel, a disturbed, overtly political man kidnaps various authority figures, handcuffs them to poles in rotting Fort Ord buildings and engages in Beckettian dialogue about humanity and philosophy.

In an interview last year with the Monterey County Weekly, Eggers expressed what, perhaps, many visitors feel upon stepping foot on Fort Ord:

“On the coast of California, on priceless land, we have this vast crumbling symbol of past U.S. military build-up and preparation. ... It is really one of the more incredible places in California. The setting is so dramatic, and the coastline so beautiful, that to have this crumbling, enormous base in the middle of this landscape is utterly fascinating.”

Sam McManis: 916-321-1145, @SamMcManis

Fort Ord

Directions: From Highway 101 south of Gilroy, take Highway 156 West to Highway 1 south. Exit at Lightfighter Drive. Follow Lightfighter onto the Cal State University, Monterey Bay, campus and the decommissioned Fort Ord base.

▪ For a map to BLM-managed trails at Fort Ord, go to blm.gov (search for Fort Ord)

▪ For a slideshow of murals at Fort Ord, go to planetord.com

▪  “Insignia’s of Fort Ord: Art in Everyday Military Life” is at the Monterey Art Museum through April 18. For information, go to montereyart.org

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