There's a freedom here, standing on this cracked, weed-besieged runway on the edge of an airfield past.
It's banked by boulders and cattails and breathtaking Bay views. And backed by a quirky collection of businesses and breweries, a haunted Hornet and hollow hangars, dry docks and a skate park, kids playing soccer, artists welding metal and someone learning to drive. It's a no-man's land of contrasts and cool stuff that you should totally check out before it all gets suburbanized and Starbucked.
This is Alameda Point, the retired Naval Air Station where grand plans for progress have come and gone in the nearly two decades since the Navy left. Things are starting to change, though. There's already a shiny new Target (with a Starbucks inside) encroaching on the fringe and more retail and housing going up nearby.
Yet a complete makeover is still out on the horizon. Right now there's this wonderful, random, renegade feel. Hip and cool and industrial, where friends sip oatmeal stouts outside Faction Brewing or taste various versions of "vitamin V" at Hangar 1 Vodka. Hip and cool and vintage, when the throngs browse the jewelry, posters, doorknobs and old rotary phones on the first Sunday of each month at the Alameda Antiques Faire, its booths a patchwork of colors blanketing the base.
Then there are bleak, deserted spots, like a post-apocalyptic ghost town with crumbling military offices, their paint peeling, windows punched in and walls no doubt ravaged of any remaining copper.
Oh, there are laws on this land, thanks to Alameda police and private security. They don't want you climbing in unoccupied buildings and such. But for the most part, you can just wander -- drive, bike, walk, skate -- the whole base and explore this public property that makes up a good third of the island of Alameda.
Reach it by ferry, or use one of several drive-in entry points, the most direct off Webster Street down Appezzato Parkway, past an old mounted fighter jet at the east gate. Or circle around on the estuary side through the original main gate and past the art deco officers' quarters.
If you luck out, you might spot Discovery Channel's "MythBusters" crashing cars on the vast terrain of tarmac. You can have a family heirloom appraised at Michaan's Auctions, a la "Antiques Roadshow." Sit out by the dog park and the skate park to watch. Or view the giant cranes methodically loading cargo.
Tour the USS Hornet Museum, from fo'c'sle to fantail. Docked at Pier 3 and open daily, the aircraft carrier smells of old paint, WD-40 and history -- and she has ghosts in her belly. Try one of the spooky nighttime flashlight tours.
Or check out displays of old photos, uniforms and model aircraft at the small Naval Air Museum in Building 77 on Ferry Point Road.
On a recent weekday, I stood on the windy Bay side of the point, on a stretch of runway where, when the base was alive, I surely would have been hauled away and tossed in a brig faster than you can say hauled away and tossed in a brig. Now, it's fair game.
From this section, you can see unique views of the new Bay Bridge, through the gaping hole of the partially dismantled old. Cars inch along like caterpillars on a stem. You feel at once remote and connected -- though not necessarily the latter in terms of cellphone service.
Mystery and history There's mystery at every turn. Look at this odd-shaped, windowless building, an elaborate octopus of rusty ducts sucked up to one side. What was it for? Storing crashed UFOs, I'd guess.
There's history at every other turn, if you know what you're looking for. Luckily, local historian Dennis Evanosky does -- and he leads free Alameda Walks tours. The next is 9 a.m. on Aug. 9 (meet at the fighter jet), and you'll learn about the 1860s A.A. Cohen San Francisco & Alameda Railroad station, the first West Coast Transcontinental stop and the brick remnants of the old borax plant -- that existed long before the wineries took over from the weeds that took over from the Navy that took over from three original airports that took over from the railroads that took over from, well, nature.
Amid all this, there are neighborhoods, businesses and people, from the Alameda Point Collaborative, which provides a supportive housing community for homeless families, to the Alameda Community Sailing Center. There are catering businesses, event-production companies, piano refurbishers, a company that rebuilds huge buses, another that refits superyachts on a 3,000-ton floating drydock and even techie stuff like a wind-power firm recently purchased by Google X.
Someday this may all be pleasant planned neighborhoods, hiking trails and pretty cafes. We shall see. But for now, revel like a rebel in Alameda's mild Wild West.
Follow Angela Hill on Twitter @GiveEmHill.
IF YOU GO:
There's lots to check out at Alameda Point, home of the former Naval Air Station and now the site of a wide range of businesses and activities.
Alameda Walks tour: Explore the history of Alameda Point on an hourlong walking tour. The next one starts at 9 a.m. Aug. 9; meet at the fighter jet by the east gate entrance at the end of Appezzato Parkway, Alameda. Free. No pets, please. Details: 510-747-7529, bit.ly/Alamedawalk.
USS Hornet Museum: The retired aircraft carrier at Pier 3 is a registered State and National Historic Landmark. Open daily for self-guided or docent tours, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (gates close at 4 p.m.). General admission is $16, with discounts for seniors, kids and military personnel; check the website for info on the special "History Mystery" and flashlight tours on Aug. 15 and 16. Details: 510-521-8448, www.uss-hornet.org.
Alameda Point Antiques Faire: Billed as the largest antiques show in Northern California, with more than 800 dealer booths, the event is held the first Sunday of every month at 2900 Navy Way at Main Street. Admission is $15 from 6 to 7:30 a.m., $10 until 9 a.m. and $5 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Free parking and shuttles. No pets, please. Details: www.alamedapointantiquesfaire.com.
Faction Brewing: Sample Faction's microbrews at the brewery's new tasting room. Open noon to 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and until 6 p.m. Sundays; 2501 Monarch St.; factionbrewing.com.
Urban wineries: Check out Alameda's Rock Wall Wine Co. and the other Bay Bridge wineries at www.mercurynews.com/bay-bridge-wine.