So as you know, I recently returned from an extremely fun trip through the Southwest. Don’t worry; I know this is a geek blog, and you didn’t come here to be subjected to someone’s vacation photos and stories. However, I DID go to more than a few extremely nerdy places, that (I hope) you’ll appreciate hearing about and seeing pictures of.
Since this isn’t about the trip itself, but rather a couple of the cool places we stopped at, I don’t feel the need to stick to chronological order. Ergo, we’re going to start with the absolute coolest place (to me) I got to visit: Area 51.
Naturally, I didn’t get to go onto the base (or anywhere near it, really) itself. But we did drive up to the back entrance, which has more to see than the road to the main gate; you can’t get anywhere close to the facility or see anything at all going that way; the buffer “kill zone” is far too large. The back entrance actually has some cool little guard shacks and stuff to look at, so we went there instead. (The back entrance is also far closer to the town of Rachel–more on that later–than the front, making it more convenient as well as more interesting.)
Pretty damn awesome. Being the enormous X-Files fan I am, this was definitely something of a pilgrimage for me. And even before the show, I HAD always wondered what the hell is out there–so strange. I’m pretty sure it’s not aliens. Don’t get me wrong; simple probability states that there MUST be intelligent life somewhere in the universe, I’m not debating that. But as to whether they’ve actually visited us in secret (let alone made contact, crashed, shared technology, etc…), I’m pretty sure that can’t be the case. Covering up something like that would be truly next to impossible (I think…I hope?) I’m sure the government knows more about the whole UFO thing than they want us to know–the fairly inept coverups of THAT knowledge, in addition to info about things like Project Bluebook gained via the Freedom of Information Act has made that pretty clear–but I’m still far more inclined to believe that we’re talking about bleeding edge human tech they want kept secret, and not anything otherworldly. (Again, I think/hope.)
So, all that said, Area 51 still bugs the crap out of me. We have plenty of secret projects elsewhere in the country, and other bases where we develop big supersecretawesomekickass planes and weapons systems. What is it about THIS place, out of ALL those, that is so special? There has to be something more. It may not be the ONLY military base on whose grounds an innocent civilian cantering around may be shot on sight without question, excuse or trial (although to be fair, no records of that occurring anywhere, including Area 51, exist, not even hoaxes, so I’m inclined to believe they’ve never executed that prerogative) but its certainly one of the most blatant. Its just WEIRD.
I dunno the answer to any of this, guys (nor does anyone but the people who work there, I suppose, and even they probably only know their own little part of…whatever the hell it is the base does.) But I do know that, if we do indeed get to meet God when we die, and ask him a question or two, “what the hell is going on in Area 51” will be darn near the top of my list. Like I said…its just weird.
One of the oddest things about my particular visit is that the place seemed…well, deserted. No one (that I could see) was in the guard shack, and none of the infamous “camo dudes” were anywhere in sight, despite the desert being completely flat and open. I dunno what I expected, but not seeing ANYONE, especially at an obvious guard checkpoint, wasn’t it.
Anyway, after a visit to the legal outskirts of the base, we stopped in Rachel, NV, home of the famous (well, if you’re into UFO lore, anyway) Little Ale’Inn:
The place is a hoot. They sell all kinds of little souvenirs inside, and the food is pretty good too. And considering that Rachel is pretty much the only bit of civilization (and by “civilization” I mean “its a tiny trailer park”) near the base at all, so its an important pit stop if you intend to sightsee or go hiking around the area.
Then, of course, on the way back to Las Vegas, we had to stop at the ALSO very famous Black Mailbox:
What is the Black Mailbox you ask, and why is it called “black” when its clearly white? Well, this box belongs to a rancher named Steve Medlin (or it did…I honestly don’t know if he still owns it, or is even alive anymore.) Its just about the only marker on Highway 375 (“The Extraterrestrial Highway,” for those keeping score at home) which leads to the road that leads to the base. (This mailbox is one road over from Groom Lake road, which leads to the front entrance.) This makes it a very important landmark for amateur ufologists, who used it (and still use, although not as much anymore) it as a meeting place for expeditions around the base perimeter. It also marks one of the clearest spots from which you can observe the actual airspace over Area 51 itself. As such, more UFO sightings have been made from there than just about anywhere else. Very cool landmark. Oh, and as for the reason it’s white? It used to be black (hence Black Mailbox), but the rancher, tired of people trying to steal and/or deface it, finally replaced his old black box with a white one, in hopes of throwing people off the trail.
As is evident from the picture here, that didn’t work so well. 😀
Incidentally, as we were driving back to Vegas, we spotted a small little convoy of vehicles coming down the main access road from the base. It could very well have been some tourists who drove out to the perimeter just for fun. …But then again, maybe it wasn’t. (Sorry for the crappy quality of the shot; I did the best I could from a moving car.)
We visited Roswell, NM too, which you know if you’re at all into UFO lore. Of course, the crash site is on private property and not open to the public at all, but the International UFO Museum is!
I also ran into a very cunningly disguised utility droid while hanging around the visitor’s center:
We went to Carlsbad Caverns which, if you’ve never been to, you NEED to go if you ever have a chance. I consider going there one of the absolute highlights of my life. The jaw-dropping natural wonder to be found there is, quite literally, almost indescribable. To think about the hundreds of millions of years it took to form this cave…and the absolute and total darkness these breathtaking formations were created in…I dunno. It feels like there’s something very profound and important there that I just can’t articulate. Wow.
Of course, the fact that one of my all time favorite movies, Journey to the Center of the Earth (the GOOD version from the 50s, not the remake), was filmed there just added to the coolness factor. Sadly, the place is so huge and (even though its lit well to the naked eye) so dark that none of my photos turned out that well. Still, I have to share a couple with you…sorry again for how dark they are; I did my best.
Look at the center-top of this (admittedly dick-shaped) formation, and you might be able to see the uncannily headcrab-like shape I was trying to capture:
And this one, in person, looked exactly like I expect Cthulu will, when he rises from his sleeping place in R’yleh. Seriously, he’s got the tentacle face and everything”
Longtime readers of this blog will know that I love just about everything to do with astronomy, so you can imagine what a thrill it was to visit the Very Large Array, which is the…very…largest…array of radiotelescopes in the world. Look, the scientists aren’t good at naming things, but the place itself is just amazing. The whole time I was looking at these things I just kept wondering, “what are they hearing right this second?” Awesome. And of course if you’re a movie fan, you’ll recognize this as the place where Jodie Foster’s character first hears the alien signal in the movie Contact.
Unfortunately most of my pictures of this place turned out blurry (I don’t know why!) but these two are pretty good:
So! That was Hawk’s (semi) nerdy vacation through the Southwest. Hope you enjoyed the stories and pictures.