I’ve mentioned several times before that geo-oddities can be extremely localized, and I’ve used my own hometown of Arlington County, Virginia as an ongoing example. I created a bicycle ride over the weekend that highlighted a specific theme that I’ve not discussed before. Being located so close to the nation’s capital, Arlington County has been a hotbed of spies, espionage, and various cat-and-mouse games between the United States and the former Soviet Union (and now Russia).
A little Interubes sleuthing uncovered a few of the more noteworthy events and places in Arlington. I was amazed at the amount of activity that took place behind the scenes and I’m sure only a small portion ever made it into public view. Naturally I had to visit some of the known locations in person, and readers can too. I produced a map that begins and ends at the Ballston Metro Station. The complete route is about 10 miles (16 km).
All photos are my own unless otherwise labeled.
The Early Cold War
Arlington Hall as it Now Appears
Arlington Hall began as a girls’ school in the 1920’s. However, a ready-made facility with easy access to the Pentagon sounded really attractive to the government. The military seized and closed the school during the Second World War as vital to the American war effort. It became Arlington Hall Station, a headquarters of the US Army’s Signal Intelligence Service, where cryptologists focused on cracking Japanese codes. The Army decided to retain the property after the war because of an emerging new threat, the Cold War. Eventually the operation became part of the newly-formed National Security Agency.
Soviet efforts to penetrate Arlington Hall began almost immediately, and succeeded.
Many of the Arlington Hall workers lived in the adjacent garden apartments of Buckingham and the single family homes of the Arlington Forest neighborhood, and Soviet spies flocked there too. An off-premise Officers Club existed at the old Henderson Estate (now the site of the Lubber Run Community Center, map). Officials feared inebriated officers might say things that should remain silent so the club was moved onto campus. That didn’t halt the flow of sensitive information from deeply-embedded moles though.
Cryptology operations moved to more secure facilities in the 1980’s. One part of the Arlington Hall campus now hosts the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute and the other holds the US Army National Guard Readiness Center. That was the official word, anyway.
There were also rumors of Soviet and/or East German operations coordinated from a condominium building at 1515 S. Arlington Ridge Road (Street View). I had no idea whether that was true or not, although Arlington Ridge Road did make an appearance on Twelve Mile Circle in a completely different context a few years ago.
The Aldrich Ames Residence
Aldrich Ames serves a lifelong prison sentence at the Allenwood high security prison in Pennsylvania, as he has done for the last two decades. He had been a counterintelligence officer in the Central Intelligence Agency for more than 30 years when he was finally exposed and arrested in 1994. His job focused on targeting people who worked at the Soviet Embassy to see if they could be converted into moles. Behind the scenes, he sold information about the identity of Soviet spies who then promptly faced death or simply disappeared.
Ames was arrested at his Arlington home, at 2512 N Randolph Street.
The Arlington County property records noted ownership by Aldrich H. & Rosario C. Ames. The property was seized by the Federal government and sold in 1995.
A Dead Drop Used by Robert Hanssen
Robert Hanssen worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation until his 2001 arrest, and now serves a life sentence at Florence ADMAX prison in South Carolina. Like Ames, Hanssen sold secrets primarily for greed, and he exposed informants buried deep within the Soviet military system. Hanssen used a number of "dead drops," or inconspicuous places where he could leave documents and receive payments. At least one of those secret hiding spots was located in Arlington.
I used to take my children to the Long Branch Nature Center when they were younger (map). Little did I suspect that it had a hidden historical past. There, under the edge of a wooden outdoor amphitheater (photo), Russian agents left a paper bag filled with $50,000 in cash for Hanssen. The FBI was already on Hanssen’s tail at that point and watched the location for several days. Hanssen never showed-up although he was captured at another dead drop a little later. Upon arrest he reportedly exclaimed, "What took you so long?"
Operation Ghost Stories
FBI Video of a Dead Drop in Arlington
Just when everyone thought the Cold War was relegated to the distant past it reemerged from the underground in 2010, surfaced by the FBI’s Operation Ghost Stories. As the FBI stated,
The ten Russian deep undercover agents that were arrested — including two who lived in Arlington — were not convicted of any crime. They were allowed to return to Russia as part of a prisoner exchange; of spies traded for spies. Both sides continued the cloak-and-dagger.
The FBI released a large compendium of documents from their investigation in 2011 including a video of an actual drop taking place in an unnamed Arlington park, a bag containing $5,000. There was speculation about the actual location at the time. It could have been one of several Arlington locations because of the lack of visual clues in the video, although most signs pointed to Glencarlyn Park (map). Fittingly, that would be less than a mile from Hanssen’s dead drop. I looked around and couldn’t find an exact match although the bridges there were constructed in a similar manner (photo). I’ll keep looking.
Maybe I’ll find a bag of cash.
Loyal reader "Lyn" contacted Twelve Mile Circle a few weeks ago with a stack of digital images from a recent road trip to California’s Salton Sea. This has long been on my list of places I’d love to see some day, and I still hope that will happen, so I was pleased to receive the photos. These pictures plus the text I’ve created around them will have to keep me content until the day I can visit the Salton Sea in person.
This wasn’t the first time Lyn contributed to 12MC either. I mentioned receiving a web hit from Cameroon awhile ago. Yes, that was Lyn who happened to be in Douala at the time and knew I’d appreciate the ping.
I’m fortunate to add Lyn to the very selective list of 12MC readers who have provided material that became full articles. All photographs belong to Lyn and are used with permission.
According to the Salton Sea History Museum, this geographic feature was actually an extension of the Gulf of California until about four million years ago. The Colorado River washed enough silt downstream over numerous millennia to cut the tip off from the Gulf. This left behind a large, deep depression now known as the Salton Sink. The floor of the empty sink extended far below sea level, down to -226 feet (-69 metres). By comparison Death Valley — the lowest spot in North America — measured -282 ft (-86 m) so the Salton Sink compared rather favorably as the second lowest spot on the continent.
The Salton Sea was an artificial creation and an accident. People diverted the Colorado River to irrigate parts of the sink, and for a time around the turn of the previous century the area blossomed with cropland. The river busted from its man-made diversion in 1905 after it ran higher than usual, and flooded uncontrollably into the sink. Engineers couldn’t completely halt the breach for two years and by then the spill grew to 35 miles long and 15 miles wide (56 km X 24 km) within the depression, and formed the Salton Sea.
However it was an endorheic basin without an outlet to the ocean. The salinity increased over time, and continues to increase, making it difficult for the few fish species that survived there to thrive in ever worsening conditions.
That naturally brought up a legitimate point. Why would 12MC, or anyone for that matter, want to experience the Salton Sea in person? I supposed it had to be because every description I’ve ever seen of the few settlements still clinging to its shores undoubtedly referenced the phrase "post-apocalyptic" (e.g., Salton Sea: From Relaxing Resort to Skeleton-Filled Wasteland).
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. The Salton Sea held so much promise after its accidental creation while the water remained fresh, before salt built up and poisonous farm runoff added to the disaster. Bombay Beach was envisioned as an inland resort, a beachfront paradise, and was constructed in such a manner. Now it’s mostly a ruin, a desolate place strewn with graffiti and abandoned belongings in the searing Sonoran Desert by a fetid saline lake, a photographer’s paradise and an oddball’s dream. A handful of outcasts still live among the detritus adding character to the scene. Now does it make sense?
Harsh conditions created strange situations out there on the fringes of society. Slab City started as a marine corps training facility during the Second World War: Camp Dunlap they called it. The marines had no need for remote camps in the middle of the desert after the war so Camp Dunlap closed and the government dismantled it, leaving behind only the cement foundations of various buildings.
Seasonal campers in large recreational vehicles learned about the wide selection of perfectly level concrete slabs and figured that a favorable wintertime climate made this an attractive spot to park for a few months every year. Slab City came without amenities, however people remained there as long as they wanted for free. "And now thousands of visitors return to ‘The Slabs’ each winter."
I couldn’t be sure if the isolation created unique behaviors or if people with those traits saw the Salton Sea as a beacon and arrived there from elsewhere, or a little bit of both. No matter the case, this location provided a perfect backdrop for something as wonderful as Salvation Mountain by Leonard Knight (1931–2014).
I barely scratched the surface of the Salton Sea’s weirdness or Lyn’s collection of photographs. I need to save a few surprises for later in case I ever make it out there.
When I was asked to chauffeur a runner to a half-marathon with a course that crossed between the conjoined cities of Bluefield on the border between Virginia and West Virginia, how could I say no? A long weekend of fall foliage and geo-oddities? I felt like I was dropped into an episode of Weekend Roady.
Lotito City Park, Bluefield
To be clear, I’m not a runner. Even so I’ve enjoyed traveling with the athletic gang at several Mainly Marathon events. These journeys took me to some out-of-the-way corners of the nation including the Dust Bowl and the Lower Mississippi; five races (marathon or half-marathon options) in five days in five states. The newest event was the debut of the Appalachian Series. I would have loved to have stayed for all five races although we could only attend the first two before heading home, the races in West Virginia and Virginia.
Those two races involved the exact same course through Lotito City Park on both sides of the border in Bluefield. It counted as West Virginia on the first day and Virginia on the second day, or vice versa. That’s the way 50-state racers count things. Only one state can be claimed per race.
Play Tennis in Two States
I had to find ways to amuse myself as the runners ran the course. That wasn’t a problem with a state border drawn directly through it. Oh look, isn’t that a tennis court with the boundary cutting through it? Why, yes it is.
Little things like trying to count the number of times I could split myself with the borderline offered countless entertainment options. This was an image from the northwestern corner of that same tennis court, with West Virginia to the left side of the diagonal and Virginia to the right (and me in both). That was another weird thing: a border quirk at Bluefield made Virginia west and West Virginia east.
It wasn’t all about racing all weekend. By chance, we discovered an Oktoberfest celebration being held in the nearby town of Bramwell (map). Bramwell was originally one of the many towns of West Virginia that arose because of its proximity to the coalfields. It differed from many others though because of the wealthy owners that settled there.
It was a wonderful setting for an Autumn festival. I was also pleasantly surprised at the quality of craft beers brewed in West Virginia.
I’d never been to this area before so I made a series of minor jogs during the weekend to further pad my County Counting list. In Virginia I collected Bland, Giles and Tazewell Counties. In West Virginia I collected McDowell, Mercer, Monroe and Wyoming Counties. The jog to Wyoming County was the most memorable. The narrow twisting roads ran through genuine Appalachian settlements verging on stereotype, ambled past strip mines and climbed over mountain ridges (map). I was shocked that it remained paved and never swtiched to gravel or mud. After getting stuck behind the third coal truck I figured it out. The road didn’t exist serve the needs of residents so much as the mines.
The foliage approached peak Autumn glory, improving each day of our visit. That became a perfect excuse for a picnic at Pinnacle Rock State Park, located on a ridge between Bluefield and Bramwell (map). We climbed up to the overlook and saw nothing but forest to the horizon.
We rounded out the long weekend with a visit to Pipestem Resort State Park. Pipestem included the "County Line Trail" that crossed between Mercer and Summers Counties a couple of different times. We didn’t have an opportunity to hike it because of the rain. However, precipitation didn’t spoil the weekend and it didn’t rain the entire time. It just happened that one of the intermittent storms passed through the park at the wrong time so it limited our activities for awhile.
The tram running from the Canyon Rim Center down to Mountain Creek Lodge was operational though (map), and the views were fantastic between frantic efforts to wipe condensation from the windows. On the river valley far below, the Bluestone River overflowed its banks after several days of stormy weather.