Wed 23 May 2012 - Thu 24 May 2012 85 °F
After crawling back out of the Grand Canyon on Wednesday, it was time to hit the road again. Next stop: Hoover Dam. There's not a whole lot I can say about it except that the architecture made me think of Ayn Rand (since I'm composing an opera about the sex life of Ayn Rand for my dissertation, there are probably too many things that remind me of Ayn Rand at the moment).
We couldn't stay long (which was fine, because with all that white concrete, it was about as hot as the Grand Canyon) because we were headed for a pit stop in Vegas to have dinner with a friend I met at West Chester University, Chrissy McHugh. Chrissy is getting her masters in flute performance in Las Vegas and is not a fan of the city - and neither are we, despite our limited experience with it. In fact, it wouldn't have been part of the Roadtrop at all, if not for Chrissy.
Mostly, neither Matt nor I are particularly into gambling, drinking, magic shows, or hookers, which probably cuts out about 90% of the point of visiting Vegas. We also have had a beef with the city since 2008, when we planned to have our wedding vows renewed at the Star Trek Experience on our anniversary; our plans were foiled when the Star Trek Experience was closed down forever just two weeks before the date. The building in which it was housed was sold to developers to turn into condominiums. We choose to blame Las Vegas itself for this mishap.
Matt had never been before, but I visited Vegas when I was nine years old with my late dad, and I only have one clear memory of the city from that trip. My dad was the kind of parent who was always angrily telling me not to touch things in shops, which of course meant I touched everything as soon as his back was turned. I remember being in some touristy tchotchke shop in Las Vegas with him, and as soon as he looked away, I picked up a strangely shaped mug on a shelf. I was puzzling over the shape of the handle I clutched, when I realized in horror that it was a life-size ceramic penis, pointing up. I very nearly dropped it on the floor like a hot potato, which would have meant explaining to my dad why he had to pay for a broken erect penis mug. This thought was paralyzingly frightening. My heart was pounding as I replaced it on the shelf and sneaked into another aisle as discreetly as I could.
No such misadventure this time, as our only stop was Komex, a Korean Mexican fusion restaurant (think Korean barbecue tacos) recomended by Chrissy - a delicious choice, and at a bargain price. And Chrissy was lovely and entertaining company, as always.
Next stop: Area 51, via Nevada Route 357, officially known as the Extraterrestrial Highway. Yep. I didn't recently watch all nine seasons of the X-Files three times on Netflix, reliving an extremely nineties and teenaged infatuation with Scully and Mulder, for nothing. Also, when I first immigrated to America, I always said that I wanted to go to Area 51 after becoming a citizen, because even if they arrested me, they couldn't deport me. As of 2008, I am a citizen, so Area 51 it is. We both wanted to be able to say we'd been there (well, close by).
In my pre-roadtrop preparatory research, I found a website about visiting Area 51 that is bursting with far too much information about ufologist observation of the site. It contained detailed instructions about camping in the area, and the most exciting option seemed to be Campfire Hill, only two miles from the entrance to the infamous Groom Lake Air Force Base. According to the website:
You will have a decent view of the night sky, but you are also guaranteed to get a visit from Area 51 border security, known as the Cammo Dudes. Don’t worry, you are well within public land, so their goal is likely centered around ruining your night vision with their high-powered spotlights.
Make sure you have plenty of water, food, and gas before camping at this location. Also, you might need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to make the short climb to the top of Campfire Hill; however, you can always park your car at the bottom of the hill and make the short climb to the top.
Directions: Take Hwy 375 to Lincoln County mile marker 34.6, where an unmarked-well-maintained-dirt road intersects with the Highway (37° 24.892′ N, 115° 24.586′ W). If you are using a GPS this road may be marked “Groom Lake Road” or simply “51 Road”. In either case, follow the road about 12 miles until you see a small fork go the right. This road dead-ends shortly in a cul-du-sac, and you will see a small hill to your left. At the top is Campfire Hill.
We followed these instructions to the letter, arriving at the dirt road (which was indeed marked "Road 51" on our Garmin) at around 11PM. Neither of us had ever driven down 12 miles of bone-shaking dirt road before. That was an experience in itself, surrounded as we were by the dark desert and yucca trees (aliens) that loomed suddenly in the headlights like ghosts. By the end of the road, the exterior of the car was coated in a thick layer of dust, and we had lost our magnet from the Everglades. To my surprise, Matt didn't hesitate at this point to ram the Magnum off-road and right up the actual hill as though it were an actual Dodge Ram and not a low-slung station wagon meant for drag racing, while I squeezed my eyes shut and imagined our exhaust being ripped off the undercarriage by a rock, and how we would have to hike about 30 miles to the nearest store of any kind to call for help, if we weren't abducted by aliens and given cancer and forced pregnancy first.
To my relief, the car made it safely to the top of the Campfire Hill ... which was completely empty. There were no crazy people waiting around a campfire with binoculars and telescopes, eager to tell us of conspiracies and UFO sightings. It was us, and a whole lot of creepy nothing.
We bedded down quickly and slept fitfully on the slope of the hill, wondering if the Cammo Dudes would roust us during the night.
We were woken by the dawn light and an eerie soft tapping on our window. Dudes in Cammo? Aliens!? No, it was some kind of red-orange finch behaving very strangely (because it was an alien!), pecking and licking our window and flying around our car as though it wanted to get in. Or maybe it was only attacking its reflection in the glass. At any rate, it was time to get our car down from Campfire Hill and get moving.
Oh, we did have one strange encounter. At the bottom of the hill were some strange (to us) cylindrical structures that we assumed were cow feeders, but we drove closer to take a look. Despite the fact we were able to see any approaching cars for miles all around us, in the few seconds it took us to look at the feeders, a white pick-up truck was suddenly right behind us in the Road 51 cul de sac when we turned around. I'm not kidding. We have no idea how it got there so quickly. Perhaps Men in Black are really Men in White Pickups. At any rate, we made an immediate nervous exit, looking over our shoulder to see if we were about to be arrested.
To make our Area 51 experience more interesting, we decided to check out the A'Le'Inn, a strange little diner and motel a little further up the Extraterrestrial Highway. On the way, we stopped at the infamous Black Mailbox:
The Inn itself is kind of amazing and well worth the visit if you're fascinated by this kind of stuff. I'm pretty sure all the money we spent there on breakfast and souvenirs is going straight to the Tea Party, however:
Bizarrely, the only other customers there for the first half hour or so were three guys from Melbourne who had just been in Vegas for a bucks' night. It seems like wherever I go, I meet Australians. It was fun talking to them about Australian-American culture clashes, and watching their faces when a bunch of military men and women came into the inn in cammo BDU's. I may be (almost) used to running into uniformed military now, but there was I time when I made that same face.