By James David Martin March 20, 2013
When I first moved to the Bay Area as a student, at least once a week I would head to the Marin headlands "just because..." Twenty years later I still love driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, not only for the incredible views, but also because once you cross the bridge, the land is deceptively undeveloped. The hills of Golden Gate National Recreation Area appear untouched, except for the remnants of military bunkers or the Point Bonita lighthouse, so once I cross the bridge and turn off the highway I drive the winding road up through the hills with the feeling I am miles away from civilization. After a short drive, I park and explore the views.
I love walking the ridge line that faces south, which provides spectacular views of the cliffs that lead down to the beach where the Pacific ocean meets the North American continent. It also has fantastic views of San Francisco, and, on a clear day, Pacifica to the southwest. Dotting the ridge line are bunkers, the remnants of successive waves of military installations that began with the building of Battery Spencer in 1893 and didn't end until after the cold war.
As I wander around the bunkers, I often think about the Bay Area's long-held reputation as the place where tree huggers and peaceniks gather to reaffirm their pacifist beliefs. It's easy to forget that for hundreds of years -- from the time the Spanish built the Castillo de San Juaquin in 1794 (on the site of today's Fort Point) -- San Francisco was the most important site of concentrated military power on the west coast. After New York harbor, the San Francisco Bay was considered the most important naval target in the US, so the fortifications were extensive, and during war time, on high alert. The bunkers were once the home of huge guns designed to sink hostile ships attempting to enter the golden gate, manned by soldiers who lived in a constant state of vigilance. Now they are home to hawks, kites, falcons, eagles, vultures, osprey, and harriers, who all soar above looking for the other residents, which range from deer, bobcats, and mountain lions to wild turkey, two types of fox, and tourists from around the world.
I like to think about the soldiers who sat in these bunkers, manning enormous guns that were never really used against an enemy, so the panorama here is taken from the bunker at Battery Rathbone-McIndoe. I imagine sitting in this bunker day after day, waiting for the hostile fleet that never arrived, and I suspect that after the first tense week of vigilance, the calm that comes with the surroundings would eventually make me happy to sit and enjoy the view, especially at sunset when the Faralon Islands are visible against the giant orange globe of the sun as it sinks into the Pacific.