As Mike drove, we passed neighborhoods whose names suggested they were transplanted from the British Isles: Sussex, Edinburgh, Stratford Place.
“I remember back in the ’70s there was a rumor this big neighborhood was coming,” Mike said. “We didn’t believe it.”
Who would want to build on the Pits?
The Pits. That’s what Mike and countless other kids who grew up in Hayfield and Franconia in the 1970s called the necklace of trails, ponds, sand dunes and gravel pits on land owned primarily by the Lehigh Cement Co.
The Pits. It’s where Mike rode his bike. It’s where he fished. It’s where he first smelled pot. It’s where he watched guys on motorcycles carom over hills.
And it’s the subject of a documentary Mike made with Ean Eschenburg and posted on YouTube last month. The 15-minute film is called “The Gravel Pits Before It Was Kingstowne.”
Mike, 59, grew up around here. His dad was in the Marine Corps, so the family moved a few times. But in 1968, the family bought a house in Hayfield, becoming the home’s first owners.
“It was a lot of military people,” Mike said of the neighborhood. “Fort Belvoir is right next door. They were training soldiers for Vietnam. We could hear the guns going off all night. For fun we’d go back there and find bullet shells.”
And they’d go to the Pits. You didn’t need a raft or a river to be Huck Finn, spending the day exploring, fishing, chilling.
“It kind of gave us an area — as well as the motorcycle riders — where nobody would really mess with you,” Mike said. “Even when the cement company was still there, they didn’t really mess with us. It was okay. It was a place to go to hang out, to fish and ride your bikes and whatever else.”
The Pits had their own lore: That time the hippies’ Volkswagen got stuck in a pond. The year it got so cold the lake froze and kids ice skated on it. The wild parties featuring Savage, the unofficial band of the Pits.
“A lot of it was about making our own entertainment,” Mike said of those days. “Back then, parents seemed looser.”
After fishing, Mike and his friends would scour the area for empty glass bottles they could return to 7-Eleven, spending the deposits on Slurpees.
Mike lives not far away, in Newington.
“I’ve been kind of interested in documentaries,” said Mike, who writes for the Mount Vernon Gazette. He got a book called “The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide” that convinced him you don’t need to be Ken Burns to make movies.
Eight years ago, Mike made a video about “Biscuit Boy,” a guy who worked at the Silver Diner in Springfield and sang show tunes when taking hot baked goods from the oven.
For his Pits documentary, he put a sign up at the local Moose Lodge asking for people to reminisce. He interviewed motorcyclists who rode at the Pits. He interviewed Cary Nalls, from Nalls Produce on Beulah Street, and Carl Sell, curator at the Franconia Museum. He found a guy in North Carolina named Allen Beale who possessed the Holy Grail of any documentarian: photos from back in the day.
“In the ’70s, people didn’t carry cameras,” Mike said.
As we drove through his old stomping ground, Mike gave a running commentary.
“This used to be a chicken farm,” he said as he steered down Telegraph Road, passing a condo complex called the Crest. He turned onto Old Telegraph. “People used to line up here for parties,” he said.
It’s sometimes dizzying to orient oneself in the altered landscape. How could something that once had an almost lunar appearance be so sweetly suburban now? The only things that haven’t changed are the high-tension power lines that still dot the landscape, like steel standing stones from an ancient henge.
My tour almost over, Mike stopped near a playground under the power lines. A nice paved path was cut through bushes and wildflowers. A biker — on a Cannondale, not a Suzuki — whirred past.
In the 1980s, bulldozers started grading the Pits, beginning the process that would turn it into Kingstowne. I asked Mike what he hopes people take from his documentary.
“That this area has a history,” he said. “It’s important to make things like this so people don’t forget. This wasn’t always just expensive houses and things like that.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.