By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
The day of my first descent into this parallel universe begins very early after a near-sleepless night. I pick up Stecyk in West Los Angeles by 6:30 a.m. There’s a military designation for that time, but I don’t think I’m ever going to learn this math. As Stecyk packs his gear into my Cherokee, I notice he looks a bit like a tortoise himself — long neck, hairless head, thick skin. I try not to make too much of it as we head east on I-10. In the weeks that follow, I try not to make much of the fact that nearly everyone I meet in the tortoise-saving business begins to look like one.
Our plan is ...well, we don’t have much of a plan except to try to crash whatever party might be going on out in the desert. But we do have a destination: Barstow. As anyone who has traveled from there to Las Vegas knows, Barstow is a portal into all kinds of weirdness. Out there are military bases, ghost towns, mines, meth labs, bikers and escape artists of all sorts. And somewhere in the desert surrounding that town, Stecyk has heard, tortoises are being bagged and tagged for relocation off a huge military base I know nothing about.
On the way, Stecyk tells a story about taking his kid out to the desert near Edwards Air Force Base (mascot, Eddie the Desert Tortoise) in 1997 to see Chuck Yeager break the sound barrier on the 50th anniversary of the first time he made history. (The general did the same thing in 2007 to commemorate the 60th anniversary.)
As we drive farther, Stecyk, whose son is now a lieutenant stationed in Iraq, fills my head with ideas about how we’re surrounded by military bases bent on expansion. But he didn’t always think this. When the Cold War was first over and won, he thought, like a lot of us did, that we were at the beginning of a remarkable and unprecedented event in which an empire, ours, would voluntarily draw down its military at the height of its power and invest in peace instead of war. We called it the peace dividend, and the potential implications for our country and the world were as vast as they were benign. In 2000, our budget surplus was a record $230 million. It was expected to go up by another trillion over the next 10 years. We had just made the largest payment of our national debt in history.
Our priorities, it seemed, were shifting. A new era of investment in education, infrastructure, civil society — the world — was at hand. Then came September 11 and everything after. Our deficit is now approaching $500 billion and our national long-term debt has nearly doubled to more than $9 trillion (adding more than a billion a day) since Bill Clinton left office. We’re fighting incredibly expensive wars in ways that seem to ensure no end. And, we’re completely out of money.
“We’re so fucking fucked, it’s almost meaningless,” laughs Stecyk. “But not the military. It’s bombs away with them.”
Where it once looked like the great bases would be mothballed or put to other uses, now they are expanding and consuming and surrounding us. Or so it seems when you start looking for patterns.
When you step back and think about it from the long view, or just get out a map instead, what Stecyk says begins to make sense. Just a little north of Lancaster is the 301,000-acre Edwards Air Force Base, the most fabled flight-test center in the world. Continue north on the 395 to Ridgecrest and you run into China Lake Naval Air Weapons Testing Center, a behemoth weapons-development and -testing range taking up some million acres (1,723 square miles) of the Mojave Desert 75 miles north of Barstow. Fort Irwin’s National Training Center abuts China Lake on its eastern border. Head south a bit from there and you have the Marine Corps Logistics Base on the south side of Barstow. Go east about 35 miles on I-40 and you run into the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms. These bases form a nearly contiguous desert perimeter around greater metropolitan Los Angeles — indeed, military operations account for one-third of the Mojave’s land — making this one of the most highly militarized zones in the world. Throw in Point Mugu Naval Air Station in Ventura and Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in North County, San Diego, and we’re surrounded on all sides by military operations. This is an oft-overlooked aspect of our existence here. Some of these bases want to get bigger—foremost among them, Fort Irwin, within whose southern boundary that old chap number 166.614 2554 used to reside.
Stecyk and I make it to the Starbucks near the Tanger Outlet Center in Barstow by about 9 a.m. That’s 09:00 to you civvies (I guess I’m learning this new math after all). I pay for a WiFi card to look online for anything that will point us in the direction of the soon-to-be-displaced tortoises. But first, I ask the barista if she knows where the tortoises are.