Mad Christmas Trip: Part 4 – Rachel & Nevada

To finish with the Canyon part of the story, during the 2nd day of our stay there, I got a chance to take a look at it from a totally different perspective – a helicopter. Somehow, despite numerous airplanes I spent endless hours in, I have managed to reach the advanced age of 38 without a single helicopter experience. My birthday present to myself was to remedy that. And if I were to climb on board something that looked incredibly small, noisy and unsafe, what could be better than to experience it in style – over one of the most mind-blowing and picturesque places in the world?

It worked. The trick is to get a modern helicopter (then it’s not at all noisy, and does not feel so unsafe), and a pilot who knows what he is doing (turns out that even the most modern and advanced helicopters don’t fly well in rain and darkness). The fantastic impressions made by the Canyon were confirmed, and we continued on our way.

The next item on the agenda was the Silver State of Nevada with the self-proclaimed UFO capital of the world, the desert and Las Vegas (the latter was planned to be ignored altogether). As soon as we got down from the Canyon heights, the climate got immediately warmer, the snow almost completely disappeared, and the scenery became more cheerful. At some point in time, seeing the road sign pointing to Los Angeles, we had to fight the almost uncontrollable urge to make a sharp turn in that particular direction and in some 5-6 hours bask in the warm California sun. But true to our intentions, we decided to stick to the original plan, and moved on into the midst of the Nevada desert, listed on all maps and guidebooks as the Mojave Desert. Quite unexpectedly, this very desert became one of the main highlights of the trip.

The Nevada Mojave Desert

Nevada can hardly be considered overpopulated. For the whole duration of our stay in the Silver State (with the exception of a brief drive through Las Vegas), the number of cars and people encountered on the road was minimal (I almost added “the way it should be”, but restrained myself). The desert seemed endless, the road was running to the horizon and beyond, and some seriously tall mountains could be spotted every now and then. Even from afar they looked huge, and judging by the fact that even after driving several hundred miles through the desert we did not seem to get anywhere nearer to them, up close and personal they must be absolutely humongous. But to hell with mountains: the desert – this was the most fascinating thing of all!

Despite the linguistic suggestion of emptiness, the desert was full of stuff – rocks, snow, cacti, cows and lots of other shit. Most of it is free range, meaning that nothing separates the cows and the road from each other. Based on observations, however, the road is mostly used by the cows for toilet needs – they literally get on the road only to shit, and spend the rest of the time peacefully grazing on bleak dry grass and probably cacti (since nothing else could be spotted there) in the desert, in strict observation of the “Don’t shit where you eat” rule.

Besides cows, the desert could also boast tons of rocks of all possible shades and colors – from bright yellow to predominant carmine-red ones. The snow provided a very flattering backdrop to those.

The first item on the agenda was the Extraterrestrial Highway (this, by the way, is the official name of State Road 375) and Rachel.

Welcome to Rachel, Nevada
Rachel, Nevada

As has already been mentioned, the total population of Rachel is 90 humans and X aliens, and the town itself, made up of a handful of run-down double-wides, is barely balancing on the verge between a village and a trailer park. Despite all this, the “Little A’Le’Inn” diner, the main bar in town, is open for extraterrestrial encounters daily, and attracts idiots from all over the world. Even though Rachel can definitely be classified as the ultimate shithole (or, at least, one of them – our planet somehow boasts more shitholes than wonders…) the number and variety of customers at Little A’Le’Inn can beat any cultural capital of the world. Having spent an hour at the bar, we met 2 Germans, a Denver family of five of Dutch descent, a couple of Mormon teenagers in suits with badges identifying them as “elders” (don’t know what the deal is there, but thinking back to the hordes of them on the streets of post-Soviet cities, I assume, it’s a common thing with them), several inevitable Asian tourists with big-lens cameras (the fame of the UFO capital reached the Asian continent as well!), and a dozen other individuals of unidentified race, sex and origin.

The beginning of the Extraterrestrial Highway

When planning the trip, I toyed with an idea of an overnight stay at the Little A’Le’Inn at some point, but having read about “outdoor facilities” and the limited number of rooms, the idea was, luckily, short-lived. Having seen Rachel and its sights first-hand, I did not have a shred of doubt that the decision to not stay there longer than was necessary for a coffee and a drink was the right one. This way, we avoided any first-hand experience with the motel part of the business (probably for the best), but had a chance to enjoy the diner/cafe/bar/whatever. The front yard of the diner located in a run-down double-wide, was decorated with an old truck, towing a flying saucer. The sign on the parking lot was asking UFOs and other means of air and ground transportation to self-park and observe house rules. The graffiti on the diner’s side door happily informed the Universe that the facility welcomed all forms of life.

Little A’Le’Inn

The interior of the 500-something square feet diner was chaos with weak attempts at organization and predominantly alien (of course!) themes. The ceiling above the bar was decorated with one-dollar and other small denomination foreign currency bills with visitors’ autographs (considering the huge amount of those the total worth of “decorations” could easily reach a couple thousand dollars). Rude Republican stickers, plastered all over the bar, were cursing Obama and Clinton, and encouraged the population to stock up on guns (looked like democracy was not overly popular on intergalactic roads). The space between the toilet doors was decorated with three rubber alien dolls, all three with huge sad eyes, and of bright green color. The bar served shitty coffee (America is a great nation, but somehow it completely phased out on coffee – the watery brownish liquid that usually passes for the drink here has nothing whatsoever to do with the real thing), and drinks of varied alcoholic content. They also carried “Alien Wine” – THE most disgusting liquid I had the dubious honor of putting in my mouth, a bottle of which I purchased nonetheless as a souvenir. Can always come in handy for serving to random enemies stumbling onto the premises…

The corner of the diner housed a gift shop, busy selling green alien head coffee mugs, copies of posters prohibiting entry and fly-in into the borders of Area-51, and other artefacts. The place is epic – should definitely be on everybody’s bucket list.

On the way to Rachel, we paid our respects to another landmark widely known in narrow circles – Black Mailbox. To stress the idiocy of the outside world, the mailbox is not at all black, but bright-ass white altogether, wildly decorated with UFO-fans’ autographs, meaningful “X-files” quotes and other inter-galactic memorabilia. The fame part, or why it continues, is not quite clear, for the story of Black Mailbox is quite trivial. The original Black Mailbox was, indeed, black – a standard-issue American mail box, of which there are thousands all over the country. The mailbox belonged (and still does) to the only local farmer Steve Medlin (whole name is still [though barely] visible through all the graffiti).

The Black Mailbox

For Mr. Medlin the main downside of having his farm located near Area-51 was the fact that his mail was regularly stolen by UFO-maniacs. They were 200% sure that the farm was just a cover for various inter-galactic indecencies happening there, and could not wait to be part of those. At some point the farmer got tired of this shit with mail, and his street smarts told him to sell his old (and original) Black Mailbox on eBay to one of the UFO-nutters for nothing less but a thousand American dollars, and weld a thick-leave iron box with a padlock on the pole where the old one used to be.

Mail heists stopped, and the farmer went back to the quiet farmer’s life. Only the UFO-fans, used to camping next to the Mail box, stayed true to form, and continued with the agenda, which with the exception of stealing the mail, went pretty much uninterrupted.

We stopped by the Mail Box early in the morning in the middle of winter, so the place was not too crowded. However, they say that in good weather with clear skies in summer, the nutters are still camping outside, burning fires, trying to spot a random UFO test flight. To each it’s own…

The “Nevada-desert” part of the story is still far from finished, but I will try to stop at the most interesting place, to tease the readers and wet their appetite – the cheap tricks always work…

Mad Christmas Trip: Part 5 – “Project Faultless” & Area 51

Continuing with the desert part of the story, our next destination was a place known in even narrower circles, than Rachel.

In mid-60-es the state of Nevada in general, and the Mojave Desert in particular were widely used for testing various nuclear-radioactive toys, as part of the popular “whose dick is bigger” Cold War competition between the United States and the USSR. Endless wilderness and absence of curious masses of population presented an ideal ground for these exercises, and to this day continues to attract military-research enthusiasts.

One of the lesser-known, but still epic events within the nuclear research program was “Project Faultless” – underground detonation of a megaton nuclear bomb right in the middle of the Mojave Desert. The reason for this particular test was quite peculiar – ordinarily, hydrogen and other big-ass bombs were detonated much closer to Las Vegas, getting on frayed nerves of one Mr. Howard Hughes, an elderly Texas multi-billionaire, enjoying his retirement in one of the hotels on The Strip. The race for nuclear armament sped up to a point when a bomb was going off in the vicinity of the Desert Inn, a hotel, chosen and then bought by Mr. Hughes for his residence, every three days. A pissed-off multi-billionaire is a force to be reckoned with, and Mr. Hughes‘ angry letters to all sorts of officials, and personally to President Johnson quickly got the attention of the Atomic Energy Commission. They agreed to move the testing site deeper into the desert, which they hoped would reduce the shaking of the ground near The Strip, and calm down the pestering billionaire.

Those conducting the experiment probably could have guessed that its results would not be too cheerful, but the nuclear curiosity combined with military determination and the desire to get rid of Mr. Hughes, got the better of them. The bomb with a yield of 1.0 megatons (“only” about 67 times the energy of the one dropped on Hiroshima) was put a thousand meters under ground, and happily detonated there. The results were devastating: the ground in the radius of several miles collapsed, forming a huge underground cave at the point of detonation. Radiation levels on its bottom were similar to the core of a nuclear reactor and will stay this way for the next couple thousand years.

The force of the explosion pushed the steel pipe used for putting the bomb down almost 10 feet up (initially it was level with the ground) and at the moment it remains the only sign of the past outrage.

On the way the site of “Project Faultless”

This was the sight we intended to find and visit. Which was not all that easy. Armed with GPS coordinates and directions found on the Internet, we drove to the end of the Extraterrestrial Highway, pushed on for another hour down an adjacent road, and then for another 40 minutes along the snowed-under dirt track. After that we had to open up our eyes and start searching for the pipe. Big and tall close up, it was completely lost in the endlessness of the desert. Our tireless efforts paid off, and the pipe was localized. It towered up in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by lame warning signs, blabbering something about petroleum pollution, and notifying the visitors not to drill, dig, or pick up rocks from the site.  Sure… Petroleum…  Just what we thought!…

The plaque on the side of “Project Faultless” (quite an ironic name, considering the consequences…) did explain what it was all about, but only in very general terms.

For the record, even though I did not happen to have a Geiger counter in my luggage, according to all available information the level of radiation on the surface had nothing in common with the insides of a nuclear reactor, and was not expected to have any ugly consequences for visitors to the site. Which is basically confirmed by free access to the epicenter of the past horror. Just in case, I decided to follow the advice of the warning signs, and abstain from excavations in the vicinity of the pipe, or pocketing rocks for souvenirs.

“Project Faultless” – yes, we found it!

The pipe, however, made an impression, and took a well-deserved place among lesser-known sights of the North American continent. Come to think of that – any moron can go and take a look at the Grand Canyon, but only the rare few would make it to “Project Faultless” in the middle of the Nevada (sorry, Mojave) Desert… Not to mention, that even the existence of the latter is probably known only to a handful of completely fucked up nutters… What can I say – I am proud to join the screwed up minority.

Esoteric and exotic as “Project Faultless” was, it was still a side-effect of the program, and the 2nd main destination after Rachel was Area 51. Since coffee with wine, combined with ogling at the walls at the Little A’Le’Inn and searching for the pipe in the middle of the desert took quite some time, we got down to this part of the program already in twilight. Which only added the spice to the moment.

Area 51 spawned so many legends, stories, and myths, that retelling them all here would be an exercise in futility. The curious are free to browse the Internet in search of truth and folklore. There are dedicated web sites, updated on a daily basis by nutters, chronicling the history and everyday life (real or imaginary – is up to the reader to decide) of Area 51.

The desire to visit the surroundings of this sight (clearly, I was not invited to The Area itself), was partially caused by the curiosity to verify whether everything said about its security and mysteriousness was really as serious and conspicuous as the UFO-nutters tend to believe. Upon verification, turned out that it was.

The sign to the Area, near Steve Medlin’s farm

Area 51 (aka Edwards Airforce Base facility, aka Nellis Bombing & Gunnery Range) is a military base, belonging to US government, and reporting to US Airforce command. At the same time, the Area is guarded by a private security company, protecting the base from those same individuals supporting the websites and legends that for the duration of many years have been stubbornly combing the Mojave Desert for aliens, government conspiracies and various evil plots of inter-galactic proportions. I cannot really vouch for the aliens or inter-galactic conspiracies, but the fact that Area 51 is protected very seriously has been verified through personal experience.

For starters, it is located deep in the desert, about 20 (if not more) miles off Extraterrestrial Highway, in a valley surrounded by mountains. The valley was formed by drying out of a big-ass lake, that a couple of centuries BA (before The Area) represented a nice change to the surrounding rocks and sands.

Road leading to Area 51

An inconspicuous dirt road runs off the Extraterrestrial Highway somewhere into the vicinity of the Black Mail Box and disappears into the mountains on the horizon. This was the road we took, hoping to see if not the gates of the mysterious base, but at least something – warning shields, “cammo dudes” in white jeeps (according to the Internet folklore, these particular vehicles are favored by the Area‘s security), anything that would prove the base really exists.

The road leading to the main entrance to Area 51. No entry past this point. Deadly force authorized…
Close-up of the sign – found online (I was afraid to come close and take a photo)…

It took us about 40 min driving at pretty high speed in rapidly thickening twilight, when we saw the warning shields on both sides of the road, that continued further into the mountains. The shields were notifying trespassers that continuing down the road would cost $60,000 (!) and more in fines and a minimum of 10 years in prison time. They also stated in no uncertain terms that the use of deadly force within the perimeter behind the shields was authorized and very much encouraged. The cacti in the desert on both sides were generously mixed with antennas, video cameras and microphones, with absolutely no attempt at disguise. The nearest high hill was decorated (just as was promised by the nutters at the UFO websites!) with a big white jeep with two dudes in camouflage with binoculars. When we stopped at the signs on the road, the dudes started the engine of the jeep, and pointed their binoculars in our direction. They looked like they meant business.

White jeep with “cammo dudes” sitting on top of the hill near the road leading to Area 51

I have to admit, that while driving along the Extraterrestrial Highway, and even on the way to the Area, all the stuff I read about Area 51 on the Internet seemed to be just shit and giggles. However, the sight of the white jeep with “cammo dudes” in the darkening twilight in an empty desert, quickly made us change our minds, turn around, and get the fuck out of there. The road back to the Extraterrestrial Highway was driven not just in twilight, but in almost complete darkness. What’s interesting, is that some ten minutes after we turned back at the warning signs, a pair of Xenon headlights flashed up on the dark road behind us, and started closing in in on us with disturbing speed. This became an additional incentive to flooring the gas pedal, and getting back to the highway as quickly as possible. Having followed us for about five minutes the headlights flashed one last time, and disappeared.

The desert left not only great sightseeing memories, but also some of the most remarkable culinary and accommodation impressions. Due to historical allergy to the gaming industry I had no intention of staying in Las Vegas, and we ended up spending two nights in a town of Alamo, that was chosen for its closeness to Rachel and could easily beat up the latter in size and crappiness. Even though the place we chose for accommodation had the ZIP code of Alamo, it was situated well outside the town border in the desert, and represented an oasis of comfort in the form of a dozen of huts with own restaurant and (of all things!) a bakery. The Windmill Ridge of Alamo, was an oasis of comfort and luxury in the desert. Each hut was the size of a spacious hotel room, and had top-notch facilities. All owned by a family that also managed the oasis. Everything was fantastic – from rooms to steaks that melted in our mouths. Our applause and other ways of supporting and promoting small business!

The Windmill Ridge in Alamo