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June 11, 2009

The Bullet Collector

During this year’s buildup to the Western States 100, I’ve been spending more hours and logging more miles than ever before in the Fort Ord Open Space.

The 7200 acres of public land feature countless (almost literally – some websites and maps put the number at 50, others as high as 85) miles on both fire roads and single track, over rolling terrain and long, grueling climbs, through dense vegetation and open plains. You can run for several hours there with minimal backtracking on any particular trail.

Fort Ord is also the local Mecca for mountain bikers – one of whom is my 10-year-old son. Over the past year, it’s become his favorite spot for our weekly ride, which in turn has become his favorite method of recreation. He can’t throw a spiral, hit a baseball, or sink a free throw – but put this kid on a saddle, and he can pedal up a 1000-ft climb like he’s cruising through the neighborhood park.

Although he does well now, my son was somewhat slow in warming to the idea of riding in Fort Ord on a regular basis. In fact, he might have given up the practice entirely if it weren’t for a couple of bullets.

Before it was an ultrarunner’s and mountain biker’s paradise, Fort Ord was an entirely different kind of training ground. For nearly 80 years, this landscape was used by the United States Army as a troop maneuvering area and field artillery range. Basically, it was a practice battleground for soldiers preparing for war; in its prime, almost 50,000 troops were stationed on the adjacent military base honing their skills for use on far more dangerous theaters that awaited them across the ocean.

In the years since the base closure in 1994, most of the Fort Ord land has been converted to public use trails, but remnants of its previous occupants are visible from nearly every fire road and hilltop. Abandoned foxholes remain protected by low fences; concrete bunkers defiantly resist exposure to the elements despite years of neglect; wooden posts stand lonely sentry from lookout towers.

There’s also leftover ammunition on the ground. A whole lot of it.

In fact, munitions cleanup is the biggest challenge facing the Bureau of Land Management, who are today’s caretakers of the open space. I mentioned that most of the land has been converted to public use; what I didn’t say is that the areas that remain off-limits still contain unexploded ordinances: potentially deadly stuff like trip wires and land mines and other things you definitely want to avoid.

So when you see a sign like this in Fort Ord, you should take it absolutely seriously.

Thankfully, most of the ammunition you come across is harmless – such as the bullets that my son collects. They’re littered on nearly every trail in Fort Ord – the public areas as well as the closed ones – left behind as a reminder of a time when the notion of exercise on these hills was taken quite seriously.

During one of our first bike rides here, my son spotted a couple of bullet casings, and slammed on the brakes so he could gather them up. He thought it was about the coolest thing ever. On every ride since, he keeps an eye out for more shells – and more often than not, he finds them. I generally don’t mind stopping with him, with one notable exception.

Fort Ord is also the site of a mountain bike race series, and this spring my son wanted to test himself against some other riders. Since he’s usually the youngest rider, and since he doesn’t know his way around the course very well, I get to ride the races alongside him.

He’s not the most competitive kid in the world – truthfully, he’s probably in the bottom 5% - so I have to lock up my inner racer whenever we do these events together, but I’m not always so good at it. So when he braked to a stop during his first-ever race in order to could pick up a bullet shell, let’s just say that I went, um … what’s a good word? … ballistic.

In the end, the Race Day Bullet Incident wasn’t that big of a deal. It certainly didn’t make any difference in his overall place or time, but it did prompt a nice discussion afterwards about the distinction between recreational riding, and stepping up to plunk down some money to put a number on your bike and race. By that time I had settled down, and I think the lesson went as well as I could have hoped for.

We’ve even worked out an understanding: during races, we don’t stop to pick up bullets anymore. But when we’re riding around Fort Ord for fun on our own time, he can stop for as many shells and casings as he wants to – just as long as can fit them in his own pockets.

I suppose if picking up a few pieces of ammo is all it takes to keep him coming out for these rides, I’m more than happy to oblige.


Backofpack 6/12/09, 8:03 AM  

Stopping in a race to pick up bullets is 100% boy! Perfectly normal is what I say. Sounds like you worked out a good compromise.

David Ray 6/12/09, 11:34 AM  

Love that last shot!

Andrew 6/13/09, 9:21 AM  

Kids are great! What a good story.

Anne 6/13/09, 1:13 PM  

I remember reading a piece on Fort Ord in an LA Times Magazine article years ago. Somehow they missed the runners/mountain bikers mecca part and just focused on the desolation on what is considered prime real estate. Nice of you to do the place some justice.

Dave 6/15/09, 7:54 AM  

great story, I always wondered that thought as well when I was training in Pendleton....what to do with all the lead and brass...


stronger 6/15/09, 3:21 PM  

Ahhh see...he needs one of your hydration packs to store the bullet casings.

Rainmaker 6/15/09, 7:18 PM  

Very cool. The story about your son stopping is pretty funny, hilarious. He'll love that in a few years...

pilotboywa 6/26/09, 9:42 AM  

I loved running and mountain biking on those trails when I lived in Monterey several years ago. I always made sure I was on a main well used trail, I was too worried about all those unexploded munitions.

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