The Death Ray

Welcome to South Orange County, home of uranium 238, illegal immigrants, rare trout, and the most powerful military laser in the world

Art by Mark DanceyTHE VALLEY OF THE WEIRD

The best view of Orange County's Valley of the Weird is at the topmost point of Rancho San Clemente Ridgeline Trail, a dirt-path spine along a gully-cut plateau at San Clemente's summit, 888 feet above sea level. From here, you can see most of the Valley of the Weird, and what you can't see—like the artillery range at Camp Pendleton emitting the thumpa-wumpa, thoonka-whoonka of an 8-ton howitzer—you can hear.

The valley is just a few square miles at the southeast edge of San Clemente on the Orange County/San Diego County border. It's a small area, a crack in space, a geopolitical black hole where the 89.3 FM radio signal fades and leaks into 89.5 FM amid the hiss and buzz of distant lightning strikes and exploding galaxies.

It's small but includes the kind of distilled weirdness you'd swear needs a continent-wide canvas.

In addition to your howitzer thunder, you've got every radioactive U-235 pellet ever used at the 32-year-old San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (known rarely by its felicitous acronym, SONGS) cooling in concrete storage pools and steel casks while awaiting removal to some distant and as-yet-unbuilt U.S. government waste site. The plant itself is famous for its eternally perky D-cup concrete-and-steel containment domes, breast-like in so Hollywood a way that they've appeared as visual gags in Leslie Nielsen movies. Nearby, you've got border cops who subject American citizens to random inspections of their persons and property at a station 70 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, yellow signs of a madre and her niños running in silhouetted panic along the roadside, and the palatial former estate of Richard M. Nixon.

You've also got paradisiacal beauty, of course—acres of lush, vine-ripe tomatoes, a beach for nude sunbathers, and the world's most perfect breakers near Trestles Beach ("the Yosemite of Surfing," according to the Surfrider Foundation). There's even the San Mateo River, a waterway of rare steelhead trout—though the Marines plan to build base housing around the trout's river home, the county is eager to blast a new toll road (the 241) through the adjacent state park, and builders have bonneted the wild country with burned-earth terra-cotta-tiled homes.

Oh, and there's a secret death ray.

BUBBLE GUN

Standing atop Rancho San Clemente Ridgeline Trail, look north, and you'll see luminous white domes glistening brightly in the California sunshine on the ravine-creased hillsides of Christianitos Canyon. The bubble-top buildings belong to the TRW Capistrano Test Site (CTS), birthplace of Alpha, a $200 million megawatt-class space-based laser, the most powerful "beam weapon" in the U.S. military arsenal.

In the Valley of the Weird sideshow, CTS ranks as the real star. Located on San Clemente's northeast edge where Avenida Pico dead-ends into Christianitos Canyon at the county line, the site is used for large-scale testing of thrusters, rocket engines, propulsion systems and high-energy lasers like Alpha the Death Ray.

Neighborliness has led me to want to get to know as much as possible about CTS, which I first stumbled across when I moved to San Clemente in 1989. I've looked into the place because I can't deny the potential trouble—trousered ape, capital "T" kind of Trouble—that it represents for me and mine, since any hostile nation would almost certainly target its nukes at this very hot cool spot in the Valley of the Weird on the edge of my hometown.

But police, city officials, town newspaper—no San Clemente locals had much information about the place. A call to TRW yielded nothing, except the rather bizarre suggestion that officials would talk to me if I were "on assignment for Adweek or some more traditional aerospace publication that really speaks more to the industry." Because, you know, only industry people would be interested in the fact that a massive death ray is being aimed, fired and re-holstered in the hills of South County.

TRW operates CTS through its Space & Electronics Group, which is based in Redondo Beach. The defense contractor built the place in 1963 on 2,700 acres of what was then remote, almost inaccessible, unincorporated Orange County land leased from the Santa Margarita Co. For years after, CTS remained hidden in the canyon. Suburban sprawl has changed that. These days, you can see the place easily from a golf course, a baseball field and the 5 freeway. But TRW still runs the wide-ranging, mysterious, armed-guard-protected domain in top-secret mode. Don't even bother trying to find it on a map—unless it's this map: on Page A32 of the 1998 PacBell phone book customer guide, under "Nuclear Emergency Information," the Avenida Pico-Christianitos Road connection just above Camp Pendleton appears as something called a "Primary Evacuation Route." Incredibly, that route leads to the CTS guard gate and, beyond, to a private road.

A still-twitching reflex of our officially brain-dead Cold War, CTS looks as though someone had dropped a futuristic space park—designed by Terry Gilliam in a peculiar hybrid sci-fi lab/industrial smokestack factory theme with a killer chainlink-and-barbed-wire fence—smack in the middle of sun-dappled nowhere wilderness.

TRW calls the hemisphere-roofed structures "test stands," "radar domes" or "radomes." They are micro-environments for simulating outer space. Inside the domes, hardware like Alpha the Death Ray goes through trials by fire.

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