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Follow the Yellowstone Road

Back through Nevada and into Idaho

sunny 75 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

When we woke up at the America's Best Value Inn the day after climbing Half Dome, our first concern, apart from the unbearable pain in our legs, was the flat tire from Tunnel View. There was no way we would drive over the Sierra Nevada Mountains on a donut tire; as the German tourist so helpfully informed us, it was only rated to 40mph. As luck would have it, the concierge at the motel was married to a mechanic and, knowing all of the car shops in the area, directed us to Fast Tire down the road.

They were fast, holy crap! When we pulled up into their empty parking lot at ten in the morning on Memorial Day, four or five guys poured out of the garage, jacked up the car, and had the tire off before I had even had a chance to exit the vehicle. The tire was patched in record time, and the final bill came to ten dollars. Ten dollars! We were so impressed we gave them twenty (which still seems cheap to me).

Since the tire had taken us off our planned route, we decided not to travel over the Sierras via Ebbett's Pass, as originally planned, instead taking the quickest route back through Yellowstone (including driving at the highest altitude of the trip, 9890 feet) and Mono Lake. I'm so glad we did. At the adjacent town of Lee Vining, we stopped into Nicely's Restaurant and Laundromat, where you can get a nice hot diner meal while your clothes spin. Out the window, we could see the eerie and beautiful (I keep saying things are beautiful, but they are, dammit) Mono Lake, with its strange limestone formations, and a shape belying its volcanic origin. This was to be the beginning of a volcanic theme that lasted for the next five days as we crossed the country through Idaho, Wyoming and South Dakota.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Mono Lake

We saw a few strange things driving back through the northern part of Nevada. The "town" of Middlegate was essentially a restaurant at a crossroads which looked like a movie set, complete with a cowboy sweeping the porch as we pulled up.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Northern Nevada

While speeding down a highway at night, Matt suddenly shouted at me to get the camera so I could take the following picture:


Yes: Dunphy, Nevada. We actually came to a complete stop on the highway in front of the sign so the picture wouldn't blur. There was not a single other car on the road. Matt is pretty sure that this is only the second time he's ever come to a complete stop on a non-congested highway (the other instance being when an emergency helicopter landed on the highway in front of him in Harrisburg once).

We spent the night at a truck stop town called Wells that consisted only of motels, gas stations, and desperately seedy casinos. I sort of wish we'd had the balls and the energy to go into one of those casinos, just to see, but frankly, our legs were too sore to do anything other than creak towards a bed.

The next day: Idaho.

If you'd asked me what I knew about Idaho before this trip, I would have said, uh, they grow potatoes there, and, uh, there's a city called Boise, but I don't know anything about it. I would not have said atomic power and volcanoes. This is what we discovered Idaho to be about in our drive across it. First stop: Craters of the Moon National Monument.

How could we go past something called Craters of the Moon without stopping in? I had initially omitted it from our route because I worried that we would be rushed, but we decided to make time by rejiggering our schedule. Instead of racing to see Grand Teton before nightfall and arrive at Yellowstone that evening to camp, we'd take our time, stay the night in Idaho Falls, and hit the Tetons and the supervolcano first thing in the morning. In the meantime: VOLCANOS!

As you have probably guessed, Craters of the Moon is a very alien looking landscape, but this is not due to anything lunar or the presence of craters. Thousands of years ago, nearby cinder cones spewed large amounts of lava and debris over a wide area, causing the ground to be covered in tortured black pumice fragments, boulders, and crags. Authorities apparently called it Craters of the Moon to stimulate tourism, back before we figured out that lunar craters are caused by meteors and not volcanic activity. It seems kind of a stupid name. The moon is clearly white, not black. I don't really get it.

Ten points for it looking like something not of this world, though.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Craters of the Moon

Next stop: EBR-1, the first ever atomic power plant in the United States. It's been out of commission for decades, but back in the day, it was used to provide the energy needs of the nearby town of Arco:


Matt describes EBR-1 as "the creepiest place I have ever been." When we pulled into the parking lot, it was empty except for a lone motocycle. Two rusting turbines as large as houses lay to our left; to our right, a dusty desert plain was interrupted only by a road to a restricted atomic facility of some kind in the distance. In front of us, the EBR-1 building looked as deserted as the set for a movie about the apocalypse or the rise of zombies, an association that was greatly enhanced by a whistling and moaning wind that sounded like a horror foley cliche. Tumbleweeds blew around us. Actual tumbleweeds. The cheerfulness of the fifties-era signs only made the scene more ominous, especially when contrasted with the decidedly uncheerful warning signs about radioactive materials and hantavirus.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: EBR-1

Inside, the place is more like a museum, with displays about nuclear energy, the fisrt successful test, and the process of running a nuclear power plant. Much of it was put together after the tsunami in Japan and the aftermath at the Fukushima nuclear plant, and so read like a pro-nuclear public relations exercise, emphasizing the relative safety and cleanness of nuclear energy. I enjoyed walking around the facility, though Matt grew increasingly creeped out the longer we stayed. It's true that the place had a Alcatraz-type ambience, but it's so well preserved, I could imagine being one of the scientists involved in the first production of electricity by a nuclear reactor. Those guys were pretty badass. And many of them are still alive, and contributed contemporary oral histories to the displays, so it didn't feel too awash with ghosts.


For miles around EBR-1, the landscape is defined by cone-shaped buttes that, as their shape suggests, are volcanic in origin, although the exact geological mechanism varies. Aside from Mount Ranier, which we visited in 2003, this was as close as we'd ever been to a volcano, although the next day, we entered Yellowstone National Park and eclipsed that record by actually walking all over the crater of a supervolcano. Geology is pretty awesome. In the days that followed (and especially after our time in Thermopolis, which I'll talk about in a future blog entry), we discussed maybe one day going back to school for geology. For fun. We could attend classes together at night school and get matching Bachelors of Science. It would be the nerdiest and cutest thing ever.


It was really nice to pull into Idaho Falls before sundown, with no further sightseeing plans. We ate dinner at an awesome Mexican restaurant called Morenita's right around the corner from our motel, forced our stiff legs down the stairs to our room with much groaning, and fell asleep.


Posted by mormolyke 23:02 Archived in USA Tagged volcano california yosemite nevada idaho mono_lake ebr-1 craters_of_the_moon Comments (0)


sunny 85 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

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).

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Hoover Dam

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.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Area 51

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.

Posted by mormolyke 07:17 Archived in USA Tagged hoover_dam las_vegas nevada rachel area_51 Comments (1)

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