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.

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