Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


This is a good story, maybe even too good, though it’s a true one.

Even if you’re only a fringe member of the “urban explorer community” (and they don’t come much more fringe than me), you still get to hear about cool, ruined places where a psychogeographer might want to walk.  And I’d heard from more than one source about the abandoned federal prison outside of Boron, in the California desert.  The place had been the Boron Air Force Station before it was a prison, and by all accounts it was now some kind of radar outpost, though nobody seemed sure whether it was manned or unmanned.

It’s not exactly a secret location.  Anybody driving up the 395 can see the white radar globe sitting up on top of the hill, and as I found out last Thursday when I made the expedition, there’s a crumbling but perfectly serviceable road leading up to it.

I never get my hopes up too high when heading for places like this.  For one thing I thought the site might be all locked up, and although in general I’m not averse to hopping over a fence or ignoring a few no trespassing signs, I was aware that this was the American military I was dealing with here.

We drove up the road (yes, my lovely wife was with me - I take her to all the best places) expecting to come to a barrier or fence or at least a keep out sign, and we found none of these.  We arrived at a big, wide empty parking lot in front of a building that in other circumstances we might have thought had once been a motel.  We parked and began to wander.  The place looked thoroughly deserted, though a couple of fighter jets were flying in parallel high above us.  We made a couple of weak jokes about drones.

Of course nothing was signposted, but there wasn’t much that looked very prison-like, certainly no cells and no bars, and there were a few buildings that looked like dining or recreation halls.  People had tried to make gardens here and there, there was something that looked like an outdoor stage, there were squash courts.  

I’ve since done some research and found out this was a prison for white collar criminals, or at least for criminals with very, very good lawyers.  Prisoners could have simply walked out if they’d wanted to, but there were few escapees.  They’d have had to face the open desert, and if recaptured they’d have been thrown into real  prison.

There was also a small abandoned and ruined housing development on the site; what had been homes, first for the guys in the air force, and then for prison staff.  Here the old post-apocalyptic movie feel was unavoidable and many before us had been unable to avoid it too, painting various movie-based graffiti around the place.

And it occurred to me that the post-apocalyptic world (should there be one) will be very much as seen in the movies, because that’s how people learn so much of their behavior.  This world would be just like The Walking Dead or Zombieland because people have no other source of reference for post-apocalyptic etiquette.

In general the graffiti around the place were surprisingly restrained, surprisingly low on obscenity.  There were some some fabulous metal buildings and Quonset huts scattered around (I’m sure I must have told you about my love of metal buildings). 

And on the wall inside the one above there was this thing with sunlight shining in through those holes, which may or may not have been bullet holes. 

And as we were admiring this bit of art it seemed that World War Three started.  There was a bang, as loud as any bang I’ve ever heard, coming from all directions at once.  The building shook down to the concrete foundation, and the metal amplified the sound, and if I hadn’t been paralyzed with fear I might  well have thrown myself to the ground.  They were on to us it seemed.  They were using the metal shed for target practice.  We were terrified. But although there was so much noise, we realized more or less immediately that there was no explosion, no destruction: the shed and we were all perfectly intact.  And then a second after that we realized that we hadn’t been struck my some form of dark weaponry, but that one of the jet fighters up above us had just gone through the sound barrier.  It was a sonic boom that had hit us and the building.  A word to the wise here: do not stand inside a metal building when a plane is about to break the sound barrier overhead.  Good advice, I think, though not always easy to apply.

And shortly after that we realized we were not alone in any sense.  We saw a couple of unmarked SUVs driving down the hill, through the site and away.  They may not have seen us, but they’d certainly have seen our car.  We thought maybe they just didn’t care.  And when we got closer to the radar tower we saw, behind some serious fencing, there were a couple of guards in military uniform.  They certainly saw us and I wondered if it might be a good idea to go and talk to them, to show that we were innocents, but we decided against it.  We had been there walking around for an hour and a half, maybe more.  We reckoned it was probably time to leave.

We were nearly back at the car when a small civilian pick up truck came down the hill, and the driver stopped, stuck his head out the window and called to us.
          “You can’t be here,” he said, “This is federal property.  You’re trespassing.”
         “Oh, we didn’t see any ‘no trespassing’ signs.”
         “No, they got stolen a couple of days ago.”
          He didn’t laugh, and neither did we until after he’d driven away.

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