Wednesday, March 23, 2016

It's all Louis Theroux's Fault.

A year ago today I experienced a few events that are forever engrained in my memory. The first of which was rounding a bend on the edge of Badger Mountain on US Highway 375, Nevada.

Up ahead, the curve of the bend revealed a stunning vista of the Mojave Desert. Highway 375 was in front of us but going off to the left I could see dirt roads leading into the distance snaking across a relative flat plane between Badger Mountain and Bald Mountain on the horizon.

It was breath-taking. The contrast of the reddish sand with the brilliant blue sky and the sheer scale of the view had an alien beauty I could never see in my green homeland of the UK.
Although this was my first visit it was an area of land I felt I knew. Since my teens I’d had a mild obsession with the area. I’d read countless books and watched dozens of documentaries but I never dreamed of actually making this pilgrimage.

Highway 375 has another name. In 1996 as part of the publicity surrounding the film ‘Independence Day’ the road was renamed The Extra-terrestrial Highway for it is the highway that travels past the small town of Rachel, Nevada and the infamous US Air force Base officially called Homey Airport or Groom Lake but to which the rest of the world refers to as ‘Area 51’.

I've been fascinated with the mythology of Area 51 since watching The X-Files. A fascination sealed by Louis Theroux’s wonderful late-90s documentary on the fringe culture surrounding ufology and Area 51.
Our first stop was Mail Box Road one of the dirt tracks trailing off to the south of Highway 375. We were disappointed, the mailbox was long gone. As we scuffed around in the dirt we found remnants of previous visitors. An empty bottle of Alien Lager lied on the dusty floor and we found a Geocache signifying the remains of the mailbox.

Traditionally the mailbox was a meeting place for ufologists visiting the area. Folklore had it that it was secretly a box of post bound for Area 51 itself but in reality it was the mailbox of local rancher Steve Medlin – a man so sick of his post being tampered with by alien hunters that he finally removed it a few months before our visit. As we stood there taking photos we had our first sign that this dusty road in the middle of nowhere wasn't all that it seemed. A big white bus with blacked out windows thundered down Highway 375, certainly not the type of transport local ranchers would be using.

Onwards, to the town of Rachel and another memory forever engrained. Stepping into the small roadside waterhole known as the Little Ale Inn. It was wonderful. A bar crammed with Alien trinkets and merchandise. UFO photos and signatures of famous visitors adorned the wall. Whether you believe the Area 51 mythology or not the local economy certainly benefits. We chatted to the friendly barmaid, purchased some alien tat and sank a few Bud Lights before we decided it was time for the big moment. It was time to actually visit Area 51.

“You guys be careful yeah?” The barmaid warned. What, from aliens and UFOs we asked? But here her mood shifted, she became quite serious, she explained she didn't want to see a customer of hers get in trouble with security.

I've lived in two different UK towns. Both home to secretive military facilities but you can freely drive around them without security batting an eyelid, this is where the US differs. We set off from Rachel and headed down the aptly named Back Gate Road. After a few miles we noticed a dust trail barrelling towards us. Emerging from the dust cloud as we neared the back gate was a white Jeep Cheroke with two passengers who looked like they meant business.

The Cammo Dudes are the private security force charged with guarding Area 51’s substantial borders. Of course, a security guard in the UK would spend their shifts drinking copious amounts of tea and trying to finish a daily Sudoku, not so their US counterparts. The Cammo Dudes looked lean, mean and they were eye-balling us.

As we passed they stared us out. “Woah, this shit is real” noted Ian. I should tell you in life I'm quite a shy type. My friends accompanying me on this Area 51 visit were two of the most confident people I know, two people I've always looked up to for their ease in social situations while I cower by the bar but right now they were nervous. Further up Back Gate Road we travelled and soon we found ourselves approaching the security checkpoint and guard cabin. It was surrounded by a number of CCTV cameras all of which swivelled to monitor our approach. After over half my life of studying the theories of Groom Lake I was finally stood at the gate to Dreamland, and it felt amazing.

The problem, of course, with visiting Area 51 is that once you've stood at that back gate that’s it. You've done it. All there is to see. The actual base is another 15 miles down the road – the road blocked by security. But there was one final drive to make. The Back Gate may look impressive. It has fences, cameras, security cabins and a big barrier but it isn't the most famous Area 51 border point. Back in the car and now we were headed away from Rachel towards Las Vegas but not before turning off the Extraterrestrial Highway one last time and heading down Groom Lake Road.

If you've ever seen a documentary about Area 51 it’ll be this road you've seen. As I've said, the back gate looks more impressive but it’s the Groom Lake Road border that film-makers concentrate on. It was a long and bumpy drive, past a few dead cattle and the visible sensors on the sides of the roads monitoring for approaching vehicles. Again we were buzzed by a white Jeep – the Cammo Dudes but soon we rounded a bend in the road and ahead was the landscape I immediately recognised.

To the left a gradual rise of scrub land dotted with sensors. To the right a more prominent rise with a dirt road and cactus and directly ahead the front ‘gate’ to Area 51 except there is no gate. Just two signs telling you to go no further. As we pulled up we noticed movement to our right. A cammo dude was pulling up at the top of the rise – as they always do in the documentaries – watching us. Wow we were getting the full treatment. Unfortunately this unnerved my friends.
“Shit, we’re going.”
But I didn't want to. My whole life I've loved the mythology of Area 51. I couldn't come all this way, probably the only chance I’ll ever get to soak up the atmosphere so I got out and did something stupid, something so unlike the usually nervous me. I walked up to the line. Right up.

“You’re a wanker.” Was pretty much the verdict of my friends but I’d seen the Youtube videos. Don’t mess with the Cammo Dudes, don’t push it and they’ll leave you alone.

I stood still, the famous Area 51 signs right in front of me and just savoured it for a minute.

Half an hour later we were back at the junction of Highway 375 and Groom Lake Road and savouring the view. Night was falling and another memory I’ll never forget. The silence. I mean it, I’d never heard silence so loud. No planes, no traffic no life for possibly miles around. Eerie but beautiful at the same time. We watched dusk come and go – soon the stars were out and with utterly zero light pollution it was the most amazing star scape I’d ever seen.

A moment of serenity in the Mojave Desert.

There were a few blinking lights in the distance over towards Groom Lake. Were they back-engineered UFOs or just base helicopters patrolling the borders? Like much of Area 51’s mythology that is completely up to you.

Monday, December 31, 2012

The Worst Year

Go to Facebook. Go on. What do you see? I bet somewhere in your timeline is a post bemoaning 2012. A friend declaring their hatred of the last twelve months and happy that a new beginning is arriving with the coming of 2013.

I usually hate these posts. Time is a creation of humans to rationalise the chaos that is existence. How on Earth does changing your wall calender magically reboot your life in a positive note? Life, I've always thought, is what you make of it.

All that changed on May 3rd of this year when my workplace was seriously damaged by fire. Utterly out of my control I faced a limbo while decisions were made about how to move forward. We reopened but it was tentative steps. We were damaged and uncertainty hung over us everyday. This continued until 19th September when it was announced we were to be taken over by a national company.

I tried to stay positive. I knew I'd miss working for a family owned business but surely a national chain would bring stability and investment? Sure enough builders moved in on day one to repair the fire damage and give the building a much needed re-fresh.

Three months on and I hate it. A head office 200 or-so miles away just can't relate to our needs. Every day brings a fresh battle against red-tape and paperwork. Everything we do has to be justified to the point where it's holding us back.

The knock-on effect is evident too. Out of work I've little enthusiasm or positivity for anything right now, when I get home I just want to withdraw and spend time to myself which isn't good for my fiancee or son.

So yeah, good riddance 2012. Tomorrow I will return to work. A building that was once filled with fun and happiness but now just a shell to what was but I will return knowing only I can change things. That fresh new calendar on the wall is a line drawn under the past. A line to step over, a starting gun in the race to find happiness again. Bring on 2013.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Get down Shepperton

It’s 16.47 on a cold January night and I’m stood in America’s deep west in 1855 excitedly tweeting that I’m about to board a spaceship.

I’ve been waiting a long time for this. Since 1998 in fact, when I last set foot onto Shepperton Studios backlot. It’s not the wild west - it’s an unknown film set on the edge of a carpark that marks the queue line for ticket-holders to the filming of Red Dwarf.

That night in 1998 is a very happy, hazy memory now. Visiting the set of the TV series you’ve grown up loving was such a barrage to the senses that I didn’t take it in. I just gazed open-mouthed at Lister, Kryten, The Cat and Rimmer, idols all there, right infront of me. If it wasn’t for the fact the DVD of Red Dwarf VIII is on my shelf I possibly wouldn’t be able to recall much of what I saw back when I was an excited 18-year-old in a geeky Red Dwarf baseball jacket.

Flash forward to 2012 and once again I’m wearing that jacket. Unfortunately it hasn’t developed a cider & Pringles belly like I have, so it’s slightly tighter but I don’t care. I’ve promised my self I’d savour every moment this time and not just gape. But walking onto Stage K at Shepperton my mouth plunges. The sets are stunning. They are brand new of course, a completely new take on the classic Red Dwarf bunk room. No longer stark-white or ocean grey but complemented with deep earthy tones, blimey they’re gorgeous. Perfect. I catch myself, pinch myself and start breathing again as our guide for the evening, Ray Peacock, introduces himself and the crew.

The cast step out in their new costumes. Again all new. Again so, so right. I love Red Dwarf, I’ll lap anything up if it claims to be new Red Dwarf but I’ll admit the recent Back To Earth special on Dave wasn’t quite right. Within minutes of ‘action’ being called I knew this WAS Red Dwarf. This was funny. Humour derived from the characters - the characters we’ve loved since 1988. It felt like early Red Dwarf with a long scene of dialogue between Lister & Rimmer. It could have come straight from Marooned. This is why I adore this show.

Despite being on a space ship 3 million years into the future you can connect with these characters. To me the crew of Red Dwarf have always felt much more real and raw than any incarnation of Star Trek has ever managed, and that’s a show that prides its self on exploring the human condition. The situations the Red Dwarf crew are put through might be bat-shit crazy but the characters have always remained grounded. It’s when the characters go 2-D, which happened occasionally in later series, that Red Dwarf loses its edge and goes a bit pantomime. (Lister, Kochanski & Cat Dibblying it up in Back In The Red and the whole Blue Midget/Cat dance were my personal lows....and I saw that being filmed!)

Through a stroke of luck I ended up seeing two episodes of Red Dwarf X that night. Episode One is very series V in feel and focuses on one character in a way we haven’t seen for a long time. It’s good, very good and the gag rate is brilliant. Meanwhile episode five feels closer to series II. Quite talky, some new character development and a revelation that made the whole audience gasp.
The night was wonderful and the cast all on top-form. Robert Llewellyn in particular plunged himself into Kryten’s character maintaining it even when cameras weren’t rolling. Peacock was a fantastic warm up. Some great interaction with the audience - stealing guests food and teasing the floor manager. I’d happily pay to see him again, let alone see more Red Dwarf.

All too soon the shoot ended, and we were abruptly ushered out into the real world and the glamour of a film studios left behind for the excitement of Sunbury Premier Inn.

So yeah, that’s it. I’d love to go into detail about what I saw but Doug Naylor swore us to secrecy and as co-creator of my favourite telly the least I can do is respect that.

If you’re a fan of Red Dwarf you are in for a treat when X airs on Dave in September.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Listen, do you smell something?

'I want to believe' proclaimed the poster that adorned Fox Mulder's office wall, and later my student bedroom. You see I'd love to believe but I'm a man of science. I need data, statistics & evidence. That's why I was a tad disappointed when I tagged along on a local ghost hunt to mark Halloween last weekend.

There were no PKE metres, no Ecto-goggles. Just a pair of duff movement sensors and a pair of mediums.

Yes, mediums.

There are people out there that fully believe in psychics/mediums but it's not for me. I follow the Derren Brown view that it's all trickery & performance. Ouija boards are less likely to be a form of communication with the spirit world - more an indicator of the ideomotor effect I didn't see anything that night that convinced me otherwise. The mediums put on a good show but that's all I ever felt it was.

So with such a sceptical outlook why did I even bother to go? Well, skeptics aren't nessecarily non-believers. For so many reports of hauntings and spectres throughout the history of humankind there must be something in it. But what? I don't actually believe that ghosts are restless souls. Instead perhaps they're some kind of recording? Some fluke of atmospheric condition or geo-magnetics. Perhaps they're not even physical but all in the mind, triggered by something unique to the locale in which they're sighted.

Anyway my ghosthunt last weekend proved fruitless, but it was great fun and it was amazing to gain access to historic buildings in Hereford that are usually out-of-bounds. The strange, pale, glowing monk in The Black Lion even agreed.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Out Of Date?

Yes, I kid you not - less than one month left but 2009 calendars are still available in town!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Star Trek Traning

So I now have a 3 month old son.

Most dad's would be starting to wonder how to share their passions with their child. For a lot fo dads this would be football. How best to ensure their son follows the 'right' team etc. Of course I'm not into football instead Science Fiction is my passion. I'd love mini-me to share that interest but how do I go about it? How do I introduce him to Star Trek. Which series do you start with and if you're starting with the original series do you show him the new film first or the old 60s stuff?

Thankfully has this guide to making sure your child is a Trekkie:

10: Talk like William Shatner: “Hey… kids. Time… to… take out the trash.”
They’ll soon wonder who holds the patent on this eloquent way of speaking.
Build a phaser for the school science fair: Chances are, you’ll at least be able
to build a phaser that works on stun. If you throw it at someone.
8: Play
“What Would Spock Do?” All kids are faced with times they have to make logical
decisions, make it interesting by channeling the values of everyone’s favorite
7: Refer to your car as “The Enterprise NCC-1701-A” and going to
visit the in-laws as “going through the worm-hole to fight the Jem’Hadar.”
Nothing says how much you enjoy a visit to the in-laws when you liken them to a
violent warrior race jacked up on drugs.
6: Pay out allowances in
gold-pressed Latinum. - Considering the price of gold, this may be hard to come
by, but completely worth it if you can pull it off.
5: Call your eldest child
“Number 1.” On second thought, this might sound like favoritism, but follow it
up with “Make it so,” and to their siblings it’ll just seem like they are
receiving the brunt of the chores.
4: Make the kids drink Earl Grey tea.
“Because that’s what Jean-Luc drinks.”
3: Dress up like a Klingon and take
them to a Star Trek convention. Nothing tests the bonds of love more than
hanging out with a family member dressed like a Klingon.
2: After dinner
every night have a family discussion concerning the positives and negatives of
the Prime Directive. Most specifically, identify which neighbors would qualify
as “Pre-Warp” civilizations.
1: Teach them that instead of cursing when
frustrated or angry, yell “KHAAAAAAAN!!” Their friends may give them strange
looks, so teach them to clench their fists and furrow their brow to sell

Monday, June 01, 2009

It's Official

Summer 2009 has now begun!