Area 51 is not for tourists. A joke is a joke, but this is serious. It is a top-secret military base and visitors are not welcome. All references to it should either be removed from guidebooks, or it should be made clear what the place is about. The only possible reason for going there is if you’re a serious investigative journalist but even then it’s probably not a very good idea.
I was up and out by 7 am. I wanted to get to Area 51, take a couple of photographs and be back soon after eight for breakfast. As I came over Coyote Summit, I saw something in the road ahead of me. I drew closer and from about 50 yards I could see that it was a cow. I was by now used to roads that ran through open ranges and the subsequent wandering of cattle on to the highway, but this was strange. This cow was standing stock still in the middle of the carriageway and staring straight down the road at me. I slowed down and stopped about 20’ short of the beast.
It was standing over the body of another stricken cow that had been hit by a car. A busted wing mirror and some fragments of glass lay on the tarmac. It wasn’t clear whether the supine cow was yet dead or not, but the one on its feet looked mightily cheesed off. I tentatively drove off the road and onto the ranchland so that I could get by and give the creatures a comfortably wide berth. I could sense that this cow recognized the agent of its friend’s destruction and I wasn’t prepared to face the consequences.
As per my directions, the Black Mailbox (now painted white) was on the side of the highway precisely 19.8 miles down the road from Rachel. A dirt track led off into the fields and disappeared into nowhere. On the corner were a couple in a tent, who had just woken up. One was boiling water, the other surveying the skies with binoculars. They both stopped to throw admiring glances at me as I motored off down the track, dust billowing up behind me.
I followed the road for about 4 miles keeping an eye out for “a mound of dirt with a water tank on the right and a corral on the left”. These details amounted to the only landmarks around. The road split three ways and I needed to take the centre track for about another mile. This took me to another dirt road, along which it was another 8 ½ miles to the boundary of the base.
I had been in some lonely vulnerable spots before, but this was in another league altogether. It was 7.30 on a Sunday morning, I was miles from anywhere and the only people who knew where I was were the military folk in the base who were doubtless monitoring my approach. As promised by my leaflet, a turn in the road brought me to the entrance between two hills where a reception committee awaited.
There were no stallholders wanting to sell me alien ephemera or “I’ve been to Area 51” T-shirts. No restrooms or picnic tables. Not even a hot dog stand. All that greeted me were two tripod mounted surveillance cameras up on the hill to my left, and a champagne colored pick-up with two ominous-looking guards sat in the front, about 20 yards within the boundary. I could just make out their expressionless faces and the nozzles of some tasty looking automatic weapons resting on the dashboard.
I got out to have a look around, but there was nothing to see that couldn’t be viewed from the car. On both sides of the road were a series of warning signs. One of them read “Photography of this area is strictly prohibited. Use of deadly force authorized.” I went to the car to get my camera, waved it in the air at the guards and pointed to the sign. No response. They didn’t even move.
I had to weigh up in my mind how much I wanted that picture. It was the only reason why I had got up early and come all that way. I had seen other photographs of the signs, so some people clearly had taken shots here before. I didn’t want to photograph the area as such, just the sign, but I also reckoned that the guys in the pick-up would have little truck with a defense based on such semantics. I didn’t really feel like putting them to the test. After all, deadly force is deadly force, and it wasn’t something that I was used to being authorized in my presence.
I went and sat in the car and waited a couple of moments. This was an eerie spot to be in. This was the top-secret end of the military of the most powerful nation on earth, and I had no business being here. They had probably already traced my license plate back to Hertz, tracked down my home address in London and cross-referenced it with US Immigration to find out my age, height and bank balance.
Nobody in the world knew I was there except them. Not even the people at the Ale-e-inn, who would probably assume that I’d made an early start if I didn’t return. If there was anywhere that I could disappear without trace, it was here. It was just me and them, and nobody would ever know anything about it. They could simply blame it on the aliens.
It seemed wise to get out of there as soon as possible. Being careful not to place even the edge of a wheel inside the boundary, I turned around and drove off. I was annoyed to have nothing to show for my visit and so I stopped at the bend to take a photograph in the direction away from the base. As I turned to get back in the car I put the camera to my chest with the lens pointed at the pick-up and clicked the shutter.
It was the best I was going to get. I sped away feeling like Henry Hill in the closing sequences of Goodfellas. I kept looking out the windscreen up in the sky to find the helicopter that was following me. I hoped that nobody else was coming to have a look at the base because I was driving like a maniac to get away from the place. I covered the 14 miles of dirt tracks back to the mailbox in under ten minutes. I had no idea whether I was being followed, because I could see nothing for the dust in my rearview mirror. The bivouacers were just packing up their tent and looked even more surprised as I came screaming round the corner and back onto the pavemented road.
The cow was no longer in the middle of the road, but its companion had not been moved and was now very definitely dead. Instead of standing, the mourning beast was now knelt by the side of the carcass keeping a lonely vigil. If cattle could have expressions, this one’s would have changed from anger to confusion and bewilderment.
I felt strangely touched by a kind of sympathy with it. I had become accustomed to the extraordinary amount of roadkill that can be encountered on America’s highways and byways. I had noticed that, like the terrain, the type of stricken creatures often changed as soon as you crossed a state-line. My personal tally had been mainly restricted to insects and the like. Not just bugs and mosquitoes, but also some monstrous things that I had been relieved to find splattered across my windscreen and headlights rather than flying in through my open window. I had taken out one bird that had flown across my path, and a disturbing number of butterflies in Georgia. I had also seen all sorts of carnage from further up the food chain: armadillos, snakes, beavers, coyotes, even some cats and dogs. But a cow? There seemed something worse about the casual slaughter of a beast with a head larger than a human’s for a cause no more elevated than speed.
Neither Jim nor Jo Ann were in the dining room when I got back to the Little Ale-e-inn. I bought some tat from the shop and visited the UFO Research Center down the road, which turned out to be some guy’s front room. It took itself a touch more seriously than the Ale-I-inn, with quasi-academic conspiracy theory books and the like being sold by an earnest ponytail, and not a glow-in-the-dark rubber alien in sight. I picked up a leaflet on alien abductions. To date, 13528 American women have claimed to be kidnapped by UFOs, of whom 1501 reported that the aliens kept their underwear. Several of these pairs had since turned up in Nebraska.
I left the Extraterrestrial Highway and headed north. There was something here that didn’t add up. If, as I had concluded, gawping visitors were not welcome at Area 51 then why had the Nevada Tourist Commission decided to draw massive attention to it by officially designating NV 375 as the Extraterrestrial Highway?
Perhaps I had been a victim of a ruse and all of that mumbo jumbo was a deliberate ploy to suck in tourists and put the willies up them, ensuring they tell all the people they know who will then want to come and see for themselves. I thought about this a little and then dismissed it as unfeasible. It would be impossible for anything American to be that subtle. I couldn’t believe that the Nevada Tourism folk were that clever.
This suspicion was confirmed as I passed the Humboldt National Forest, which had been designated “Land of Many Uses”. As a descriptor, it lacked both imagination and accuracy. Land is generally a useful thing, but this inhospitable tract was probably among the least useful bits on the planet. Surely the same folk who named it thus could not have come up with something as fiendish as Area 51.
I reached Ely where I stopped to pick up my Loneliest Road Survival Kit. I was going to attempt to drive the length of US 50, or at least the length of it across Nevada that was designated the Loneliest Road. The AAA warns its members to stay off the road unless they are very sure of their survival skills. If you collected stamps from all five towns along the way, you got a certificate signed by the Governor of Nevada himself.
The Loneliest Road was in fact, by a distance, the busiest highway that I had driven in the whole of Nevada. I even got into a traffic jam at one point near some roadworks. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy I guess. If you try to draw tourists to an attraction, the axiom of which is its unpopularity, you’re going to end up losing one way or the other. Another strike for the Nevada Tourist Commission.
A sign along the roadside advised drivers to “Report Shooting from Highway”. I hadn’t appreciated that the survival challenge of US 50 included snipers, but I wouldn’t have needed such official encouragement – provided the shot didn’t prove fatal of course. I for one would be straight down the police station (possibly via the hospital).
Having stopped for lunch at Eureka (“the friendliest town on the loneliest road” – another blatant lie) and found nowhere open on a Sunday that could offer me a stamp on my passport, I abandoned the challenge. I’d had enough of Nevada and just wanted to get out of the state as quickly as possible. Surly youths really should be allowed to get over adolescence before they put themselves in the position of serving the public.
The road up to Battle Mountain actually was very lonely. In 88 miles, I saw three other vehicles, but at least this meant that I could put on some speed and I drove at a rather reckless 90 mph most of the way. The day was running short and I didn’t know where I was going to stay. If Battle Mountain had looked at all inviting, I would have stopped there but it didn’t.
The same could be said of Winnemucca, 50 miles to the west. At 7 pm, I turned north towards Oregon knowing that I was running out of options. There were only three towns for the next 220 miles, Orovada, McDermitt and Burns Junction, and I had no information about any of them. Orovada was a town of three or four buildings, one of which could have been a motel. Then again, it could have been a disused abattoir.
McDermitt was pretty rough, but slightly more promising. It even had two bars and a choice of motels. I opted for the one that was based in the gas station, but had to wait ten minutes as the cashier had locked up to go off on an errand. The motel comprised some cabins around the back, and soon I was safely installed and looking forward to a beer at the Desert Inn, on the recommendation of the cashier/receptionist.
It would have been better named the Deserted Inn. I was the only customer. An old man was playing the slots at the back, but left soon after I arrived. I tried to talk to the barmaid, but she was having none of it. All I could get from her was that it wasn’t bad for a Sunday. I presume she meant that at least nobody had died in there that night.
Across the road was the Say When Casino with 24-hour restaurant and bar. I walked through the casino to the bar. A portly woman with black tressy hair and a badge saying Rebecca came up to serve. I asked for a beer and she gave it to me with a “New Zealand or Australia?”. I explained that I came from England. “Oh. Ing-err-larnd. And what part of Ing-err-larnd do you come from?” When I said London, she made a similar mock-moronic pronunciation of Lon-don with both syllables rhyming with “Ron”.
It must have been her way of being welcoming. We got to chatting and in no time she had her road atlas out, suggesting places that I should go to in Idaho, her home state. She’d gotten divorced and had come down to Nevada on Christmas Day 1999 to be near her daughter, and was now putting her life back together.
The fourth beer was on the house, although Rebecca said she didn’t know how I could drink that flavorless American stuff. She’d been to some micro-breweries and commented that Budweiser must taste like dishwater after proper English beer. She then excused herself and went off to buy some candy for the barman “who was in a bad mood”.
I tried to chat to her colleague, but got nowhere. He was Mexican, and his English was about as good as my Polish. I asked him how long he had been here and he held up four fingers and said something that sounded like “twelve”. I remarked that it was a lot colder than Mexico and asked him how come he had ended up coming as far north as McDermitt. He shrugged his shoulders and said “twelve” again. Perhaps that was the number they’d featured on Sesame Street that morning.
Rebecca came back and the Mexican was pleased with his chocolate. She enthused more about Idaho and I had to point out that I was only planning to go across the tip of the panhandle, even though I knew that was a dodgy part of the world to go to. She looked at me puzzled, and then the penny dropped. “Oh, those white supremacists you mean. Na. Don’t worry. Bunch of kooks and weirdos. And yuppies. No one takes ‘em seriously.” At least she’d known what I was referring to without my having to tell her.
McDermitt was right on the state line according to my atlas and I wasn’t sure whether we were still in Nevada. I checked with Rebecca and found out we were, but only just. Oregon started 50 yards up the road. Another drinking joint straddled both states and was only allowed to have gambling in the half of the building inside Nevada.
Despite the fact that we’d been talking at length about my trip, Rebecca seemed surprised and impressed that the next day I was proposing to drive most all the way across Oregon.
It was then that she told me that I was the most interesting man she’d ever met. Nevada had now brought me a couple of comments about myself that I had never heard before. To keep it in perspective, I told myself that the Hank the German speaker probably didn’t get let out much and Rebecca was undoubtedly working off a fairly low base.