reflecting on the past: that first day trip

One thing you should know — which, if you’re a close friend (and, really, even if you’re not), one thing you likely already do know — is that Brian and I were not always best friends. Stay still long enough, and Brian will recount the story of the time I snubbed him in my apartment while he visited another of our friends, my former roommate. While I don’t recall the events exactly as he does, I can’t deny that it sounds like me. I won’t defend myself: I was wrong, I know that now. But I didn’t know it at the time. And, furthermore, I didn’t care at the time.

It was either the next or later that same year (2007), during the annual desert party Brian has thrown with several of his friends since 1999, that things first changed for me. It was my first time attending. I remember very clearly, reclining on my very comfortable lounge chair, under my now long defunct shade structure, watching him dance to Double Dutch Bus. I don’t know if it was the heat boiling my brain or what, but there was just something about the playful way he enjoyed every second of that track under the desert morning sun… and that was it, I suddenly no longer had any problem with him, told him so, and a bizarre unexpected friendship was born.

The following year, 2008, things developed even further. The allure of San Francisco had been rapidly fading on me. I was single (again). The one guy I was most interested in was about to move to Australia due to visa and immigration issues. The rest of my local friends — which I will carefully define here as: those people with whom I would spend the abundance of my free time after work and on the weekends — either had already moved or were soon moving away from the city, and I was having a really hard time making new friends locally, so it really had become just an expensive place I was living so that I could have a job (it’s funny how history repeats itself — but that’s the topic for an altogether different post!). And so, when the opportunity to relocate to Las Vegas — on the company’s dime, no less! — landed in front of me, I jumped on it!

Around that same time, Brian had been promoted to position as regional trainer, which meant he got to travel out to Las Vegas frequently. One afternoon, having finished early (which, for him, meant like 11am), he stopped over for a visit. “Let’s go get something to eat, and then drive to Area 51!” he proposed.

For those of you who don’t know, Area 51 is the code name for the Nevada Atomic Test Site, an enormous area of land (about 30% larger than Rhode Island) overseen by the Department of Energy which was used historically for domestic nuclear detonation testing. If you ever are in Las Vegas, and can drag yourself away from the tables or machines for a few minutes, I cannot more strongly recommend a visit to the Atomic Testing Museum on East Flamingo Road. The video of the tourists watching from Las Vegas as the mushroom clouds float up into the atmosphere is breathtaking through the lens of hindsight.

This piece of land is very tightly controlled by the military. For a long time, this place didn’t even officially exist. When you reach any of the entrances, you’ll find a sign which declares: “Photography of this area is prohibited. 18 U.S. Code § 795” I think, and logic hopefully dictates, that this only applies once you’re actually ON the property. But it’s still funny to see it.

I heard a story once about a guy who had gotten himself genuinely lost wandering around the desert — as we are wont to do — and unsuspectingly began ascending the hills bordering some random area along the test site. Evidently, all that tax money we spend on military technologies goes directly into supporting this installation, because, as the story goes, he was descended upon within minutes. He didn’t make it anywhere near to any point from which he could almost accidentally see anything at all before military police were above him with lights shining and weapons drawn and pointed. They do not play around!

As a result, this area has some serious fame among conspiracy theorists. The most popular idea is that the alien spacecraft which crashed in Roswell, New Mexico is stashed and tested upon here, and that additional research into and experiments with space travel are performed here. (C’mon, you saw Independence Day. I don’t really need to explain all of this to you, do I?) I love that idea. The misinformation is totally encouraged by all the artificial lights that stream into and away from and around above that general area of land every night. It makes every sense to me to think that the military would use that area — much of it literally poisoned by radioactivity, anyway — to test top secret aircraft: it is a genuinely huge area of land, intentionally protected from view on all sides by a ring of mountains, and the huge dry lakebed makes a perfect runway. That’s the most likely real story. But my other favorite story is that it’s actually a city where members of the federal witness protection program who are too unsafe to be really released into the public are held. Hilarious! Whatever the real story, if the United States government ever truly fell, that is the first place I would want to run.

So: yea, of course this is TOTALLY the place I want to go off and try to find with you! What are you talking about? Yes, of course! Why haven’t we done this sooner?

As it happens, we hadn’t done this sooner because this would be the first time we would do something like this together as friends! Tho I discovered the desert first in 2002, when friends brought me to Palm Springs for the first time (during an ironic 57 year record-setting torrential desert rainstorm!), and tho I spent much of the summer of 2007 exploring the area surrounding where our annual desert party is held, I hadn’t done anything like this with Brian. But, we were locked in at least to this adventure together!

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some years back, the Nevada Department of Tourism decided it would be more advantageous to just fan the flames of alien conspiracy theories than to dismiss them!

About two and a half hours directly north of Las Vegas, on the middle of the Extraterrestrial Highway, on the northeast corner of the Atomic Test Site, at about 5000′ above sea level, sits Rachel, Nevada: a town with a population of 54 as of 2010, and where no structure is taller than two stories.

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Just the same, the Little Ale’Inn, a 13 unit motel, gift shop, and makeshift cafe claims a million unique visitors annually!

This place is truly special. A mere 150 minutes from debatably the brightest city on earth, you can find one of the darkest spots in the continental United States — a place that gets so dark, you can experience those super cool astronomical phenomena that you only get to see when it’s really really dark, like the zodiacal light, and the gegenschein. And being an extra few thousand feet closer to the sky doesn’t hurt, either: less dust to obstruct your view!

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They really do pour gasoline onto the fire that is alien conspiracies out there, tho: at one point, KFC even installed an ad there which presumably targeted hungry aliens. (I was crushed that it was removed before our first visit!)

We visited the Inn when we arrived in town, chatted with the innkeeper (she shared the statistic about the number of visitors!), bought some obligatory tchotchkes — a coffee mug, and a posable alien refrigerator magnet — and went on our way. We weren’t altogether sure what we were looking for, we just knew that something was out there. At the time, I had a proper GPS, and we noticed a very large, very wide, very well graded looking dirt road in front of us labeled on the GPS unit as “Road 51” (today, Google Maps shows it as Back Gate Road).

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I’ve come to think of this as “the road to nowhere”

As always, taking the viewpoint: “What could possibly go wrong?” we took off down the road to nowhere with reckless abandon. Arriving at the entrance to the base, we were greeted by two signs that we remember: the first, as we were told to expect, prohibited us from photographing the area; the second prohibited us from accessing the property without prior authorization, and informed us that the use of deadly force was most certainly authorized if we should violate the rules and attempt to gain unauthorized access. Upon the hilltop about 1000′ through the entrance, two heavily armed — like, M16 or AK heavy — military guards exited their vehicles in order to assure us of their every ability to impose such a penalty, should the need arise. Their stance was most certainly threatening. We were most certainly impressed.

We stopped for a few minutes, debated whether or not to tease the guards by putting literally one single toe over the line — which we ultimately decided was just a plain bad plan (see? we do know how to behave like grown adults when it really matters!) — and then called the adventure a success. Brian captured a couple pictures of the sign which says that you can’t take pictures of it as we drove back into the desert, away from certain incarceration.

But the story doesn’t just end there, kids. I mean, it could – it was certainly fun enough! It would have been memorable. But it really needed… just a little something more to make it a true desert queens’ adventure!

So we had stopped somewhere in Vegas for lunch. And then we drove for, yanno, more than a couple hours. It was time for an evacuation of accumulated solid waste! And what better place to take care of that than the middle of the open desert? That’s what the animals do, right? And I’m always at least somewhat respectful, carefully burying my poop and paper (sorry die-hard environmentalists: I’m not carrying soiled toilet paper back with me unless you make a really REALLY GOOD case, and I’ve just not heard it yet!). So I pulled aside, grabbed the shovel and emergency TP I keep in the trunk of the car, and walked about 30′ into the desert, leaving Brian at the car to smoke.

No sooner had I dropped trou and begun my purge than three buses carrying the employees from the base came barreling down the road towards us. Apparently, it was shift change. What can you do? If a random person shits in the desert, and nobody is there to see it… there’s a joke there, I just know it.

It’s amazing what can happen when a person is able to admit he was a jackass and sincerely apologize for it. I guess it’s not unusual for a relationship which endures a struggle and persists through it to result in something stronger. I like to think that we just went directly to the struggle part so that we could dispense with the nonsense and get on to a good, strong friendship! We’re efficient like that.

I’m happy I was wrong.