It was in a shocking state that I woke the following morning at 7.20. The booze fairy had definitely visited during the night, nicked all my money, thrown my clothes around the room and done something highly unpleasant in my mouth. As a matter of urgency, I went to clean my teeth and then wake Bobby. We were midway through the first half already.
Fortunately it was a short hike, a straight road and, with most of LA still sensibly tucked up in bed, we were at the Cock & Bull English Pub as the whistle blew for half-time. It was already 1-1. We settled down in the darkness and ordered coffee. I was going to take full advantage of the American tradition of that everlasting cup. It proved to be a fairly dull second half with no further goals and the bar cleared out on the final whistle.
The drive out of LA was as unpleasant as it was long. California has enough miles of road to circle the globe three times, and most of them seemed to converge here. Motorway status highways intersected at short regular intervals with the result that traffic was constantly cutting across lanes in both directions. The fact that all other road users around me saw me as some sort of confused hick from South Carolina and seemed to be making special efforts to make my life unpleasant didn’t help.
Soon the yellow smog that enveloped LA was in my rear view mirror and normal visibility had been regained. I motored steadily out into the central Mojave desert towards the Nevada state line. I awarded my first prize for absurd town names to Zzyzx along the way.
Bobby had laughed when I told him that I was only going to spend an hour in Las Vegas. It seemed no more risible than only spending an hour in a lot of the places that I’d skimped on so far, but I saw his point. If I’d not visited before, I probably would have planned to spend the night. On my previous tour, I had done the “lose $100 in ten minutes” routine (you really do lose $100 in ten minutes) and this time I had a very specific and, hopefully, more sensible plan. My book on things eccentric in America told of a café where a rollercoaster-type ride wound in and around the diners. This sounded like something worth seeing and so I set my sights on the Sahara Hotel.
Las Vegas is an assault on the senses. Driving down the main strip, I felt bombarded by sounds and colors and this was at four in the afternoon. People flocked everywhere, desperate to find another outlet in which to piss their hard earned cash out of the window. In the streets, complimentary buses vied with each other to whisk potential customers off to their lairs. Misshapen hotels loomed large over the street on both sides, each trying to outdo the next.
By the time that I had driven the length of the Strip, I felt drunk again from this sensory overload. Well, not so much drunk as nauseated. At the far end I found the Sahara Hotel and pulled into the car park. I looked at my watch and gave myself an hour.
I walked through the casino which was packed with gray-faced automata, feeding bucket-load after bucket-load of coins into the banks of fruit machines. Did they know that there was sunshine outside? Did they know what time it was, or even the day of the week? Bodies hunched over the card tables gave the impression that they weren’t so much early for Saturday night but still here trying to claw back some losses from Friday night. At the far end of the casino I saw the café and the signs to the ride. I paid my $8 and joined the queue. I put my valuables and loose change in a locker as directed and climbed aboard.
The guy next to me asked if I minded him screaming. I didn’t have time to reply. The carriage shot forward with a whiplash jolt and fell vertically for a few seconds. I could just take in that we were now outside. We climbed, fell, and loop-the-looped before being shot upwards and held there perpendicular to the earth. After a few moments, we tumbled backwards and it became clear that we were now going to do the ride backwards.
As we docked back at base, the screamer asked the attendant how many times we had to do it. He was told that you got one more ride for your money but that he could get out now if he wanted. He took that option and I took advantage of being released from the restrainers and hopped out too. I felt that I was going to throw up really rather badly.
I was back in my car an hour and ten minutes after I’d left it (which had proved to be about an hour and nine minutes too long). In my enthusiasm to speed away, I missed my turning and so took the long way round through the very desolate Moapa River Indian Reservation. Now that was one place where I did not want to break down.
It was pitch black by the time I reached the junction with the Extraterrestrial Highway to Rachel. I picked my way cautiously through the darkness of the open range until in the distance I saw the flashing red, blue and green lights of a spaceship.
Television programmes have been made about the Little Ale-e-inn. It’s the only place to stay in Rachel, the nearest town to Area 51. Depending upon your point of view, Area 51 is either part of the top secret military installation officially known as the Nellis Air Force Range, or it is where the remains of the spaceship that crashed at Roswell in 1947 were taken and has been conducting some sort of exchange programme with space aliens ever since.
I didn’t want to pre-judge the situation, but it seemed unlikely that the extremes of the space alien conspiracy theory were plausible. Ignoring the coincidence that the aliens happened to choose somewhere conveniently remote and in the USA (we have to assume it was their choice and not ours), two things still bothered me.
Firstly, these aliens must have come from way beyond our solar system. To have come that distance makes them pretty sophisticated. In evolutionary terms, it makes them superior to us. Being in such a position of superiority and having made all that effort, it seemed improbable that they would not destroy any primary rival species that they met on their travels (just as European explorers killed huge numbers of aboriginal peoples when they encountered them). They surely wouldn’t have become so advanced without being at least a little ruthless.
Secondly, on the unlikely assumption that their mission were peaceable, what had they been doing in Area 51 all this time? Having foot massages, eating doughnuts and watching HBO? You would have thought that by now they might at least have liked to be shown around the planet a bit.
All that aside, I was quite prepared to believe that there could be a lot more to the whole UFO thing than a couple of crazed anoraks in a bivouac with a pair of binoculars and a Kodak Instamatic. It seemed more than possible that a government agency might know more about what was going on than was generally made public. I was at least prepared to believe that UFOs could exist, although I was broadly uncommitted on the subject. My reasons for staying at Rachel were more to do with light-hearted inquisitiveness than with serious enquiry.
This was just as well, or I might have taken a degree of offense when I arrived at the Little Ale-e-inn. They had not done a lot to add gravity to the cause. Along with the flashing spaceship in the car park, there was an “Earthlings Welcome” sign with a cartoon of the Roswell alien. The site was a collection of pre-fab huts and inside the main one, the room had been divided into three parts: a restaurant area, a bar, and a shop selling some of the most unimaginable tat. Bright neon strip lighting throughout did not help the atmosphere.
With its lighting and clientele, the bar felt more like a truckers’ stop. I asked for a beer, and went for a look around the souvenir section. I overheard the barman giving a couple instructions how to get to Area 51. I had assumed that it was a walk to the fence at the end of the Inn’s compound, and that I’d be able to take a photograph of the warning signs and be off in the morning. I checked with the barman who got out a leaflet that explained it was a 20-mile drive back down the highway to the Black Mailbox and then a further 15 miles on unmade roads to the entrance to Area 51. The leaflet also made the point, in capital letters, that UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you trespass beyond the perimeter or you will DEFINITELY be arrested. The fine for a first offense was cited as $600.
A woman in her fifties was sat down at the bar and had smiled at me a number of times whenever we had caught each other’s eyes. She took this opportunity to break the conversational ice. When she found out that I was from London and travelling around America by myself, she shuffled her stool up towards me enthusiastically.
She had come from a memorial service in Tonopah that day and was a bit squiffy. Her name was Jo Ann, and she had one of those kind maternal faces. She and her husband were staying the night before going home to Las Vegas the next day. She came from Illinois, but they had now lived in Nevada for thirty years and loved it.
I asked her if she knew how many people lived in Rachel and she reckoned it would be about 102. Another guy at the bar thought that it was more like 150. There was now a woman serving behind the bar who interrupted and said that there were 68. A small argument ensued and the woman behind the bar pulled a scrap of paper out of her apron pocket and started reciting the numbers in each individual family. “We counted ‘em up the other day. There’s definitely 68.” Game set and match. There was obviously not much to do to pass the time in Rachel, whatever the population.
An extraordinary looking man walked into the bar. He had a huge handlebar moustache and looked like he was going to a fancy dress party as a cowboy. He wore a large white Stetson, a techni-coloured waistcoat, a crisply ironed white linen shirt, tight jeans and pimply cowboy boots. He came over to us and Jo Ann introduced him as Jim, her husband. He’d clearly had a few drinks too.
“Oh Jim, this is Kevin. It’s wonderful. He’s going around all the 48 states in 48 days.”
“Oh you are, are you? Where’s your airplane partner?”
I explained that I was doing it by road. Jim asked if that were possible and wondered whether I had contacted the Guinness Book of Records. He said that he’d buy me a beer, but only if I promised him that I would keep a receipt from every state to prove to the folk at Guinness that I had achieved the feat in the specified time. It seemed an easy commitment to make, and my beer arrived.
Jim was in full swing and wanted to know what I did for a living. He thought it was fantastic that I had just given up my job and gone off and done this trip, and bought me another beer. I’d only had a couple of sips from the first one. He asked me how come I’d ended up in a place as small as Rachel and I told him that it was more interesting to go to small towns because large cities are so alike all over the western world. As he bought me yet another beer, I pointed out that I’d been in LA the night before and had spent the evening with a load of Brits.
“No sirree, you don’t want to be doing that. You want to meet real cowboys, with a real hat and a nice bib and a proper vest and linen shirt and jeans and no underwear and a gun in his pocket and real ostrich boots.” He was evidently talking about himself. I asked him what he meant by ostrich boots and he pointed to his feet and told me that real cowboys had boots made out of ostrich and that his pair had cost him $1500.
He wanted to know if I owned a gun. I said that I didn’t. He asked me if I liked going hunting and fishing. I said that there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for either in central London. He seemed surprised and bought me another beer to go alongside the second and third that I hadn’t opened yet.
He told me that he wanted me to send him a Christmas card, “and a nice one too, mind you”. He said that if I gave him my address, he’d send one to me with a picture of a cowboy on it. He was willing to pay for it in advance and pushed a ten-dollar bill across the bar to me. I told him that he didn’t need to pay me and we exchanged addresses. He had two places, a ranch with a few acres in Alamo and a house in Las Vegas. He said he’d love it if I could come and see the ranch because it had a lot of history and the previous owners had left behind some old wagons that were mighty interesting. He knew that I didn’t have much time and probably couldn’t do it on this visit, but he hoped that I would come back and stay with him and Jo Ann one day.
There was another guy sitting at the bar next to Jo Ann, who had been listening in. Jo Ann brought him into the conversation and introduced him to me as Hank.
“Hier ist eine schöne Ecke. Essen Sie gern Erdbeere zum Frühstück?”
I looked at Hank plaintively.
“Sorry. Don’t you understand German? I was sure that you were German. You speak English with such a German accent.”
I assured him that I wasn’t German and that it was the first time that that particular mistake had been made. He went back to his beer in a bit of a sulk. Soon Jim and Jo Ann were wilting and ready to go to bed. Before they left, we agreed to meet up over breakfast. And Jim got me one more beer in. Once they were gone, I had to ask the barman for a box so that I could carry my haul back to the room. I’d save the rest for another evening – I needed to be up early for an unanticipated extra 70 miles in search of any aliens who might want to come out and play.