Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Dreamland--my journey to Area 51

A little over one year ago, I traveled to Area 51...or as far as I could get before someone would shoot me.  This is an essay I wrote on the experience.  Photos from the travel can be found on my Flickr feed.
            A gauzy film obscures the peaks of the mountains.  At first I think it’s fog.  Then I realize it’s the cotton consistency of a cloud. A white, bulbous, dreamy cloud.  The air of Nevada is odorless.  It does not smell like the Chicago suburbs, where I work at an unspeakably meaningless job.  There is no mixture of lawn shavings, spilled lattes, and SUV exhaust.  It does not smell like Las Vegas, where I just came from.  There is no milieu of strong drinks, stripper baby powder, and casino perfume.  No, the aroma here is a blank slate, waiting for something to be written upon it.
            I am two hours north of Sin City.  Miles away from nowhere and the wind doesn’t have a name, as a friend once termed it.  It is a clean and undeveloped landscape that seems a stranger to the notions of HMO’s and credit card payments.  I ride through this broad, natural canvas in a compact car that was a decent bargain for what money I had.  I am headed for the periphery of a placed called Area 51.  “Dreamland” as it is known in military parlance.  I don’t want to go there.  I need to go there.
            A bit of history first. 
            As the 1950s dawned and the Cold War surged, the U.S. Government needed a place it could go to be alone and test new weapons.  They found it in central Nevada at a desolate place called Groom Lake.  The area was isolated by a void of both towns and any real vegetation besides scrub.  It was ringed by mountains and really just located where no ordinary person would want to take the effort to get to.  It would be easy to secure the land and render it “off limits” to all but those authorized.  What is more, the lakebed of Groom Lake was dry and flat, an ideal combination for the construction of a series of long runways.  The location was named “Area 51” after its grid number on a geological map.
In this place, the Air Force and security collectives such as the CIA developed aircraft; aircraft that were essential to national security, aircraft that were exotic and decades ahead of what any common aviation buff could have imagined.  The bleeding-edge nature of the technology being tested led many to nickname the base, “Dreamland.” 
            Admittedly, I am a military aviation enthusiast. As I turn off Nevada Highway 375 and onto the gravel and tan dirt of Groom Lake Road, I would love to see an F-15 break the sound barrier overhead.  It would certainly make my whole trip to catch a glimpse of an exotic, sharp-angled, black-tinted jet heretofore unseen in the air by civilian eyes.  Sure.  That’d be great.  But as the car rolls over the road’s tiny stones, creating sounds like popcorn stirring in a popper and kicking up a cloud of dust that would make Pig Pen blush, I know in my heart that the jets aren’t what I want.  Not really.  You see, whenever a place has such secrecy around it, wild stories are bound to develop.   None are wilder than those of Bob Lazar.
            In 1988, Lazar, a physicist, went public and stated that he once worked at Dreamland.  While there, his purported duty was to reverse engineer the propulsion systems of retrieved extraterrestrial spacecraft.  And not only did our government have actual UFOs in its possession, Lazar alleged that it also had the bodies of the occupants.  Yes.  Aliens.  Once that story was coupled with the sightings of strange aircraft in the Nevada skies, the phrase “Area 51” soon became synonymous with the words “alien” and “UFO.”
            Maybe it’s my windmill-charging desire to know there is something greater than us, that there is a vast universe out there that doesn’t care if Wall Street is folding and that I’m “not making hours” at work.  Or maybe it’s from a misspent youth of watching movies like Ghidrah the Three Headed Dragon and Mars Needs Women.  Whatever the cause, I’m in Nevada for the aliens.  Bulb-headed, almond-eyed aliens.  While I don’t expect them to be ducking and hiding between the Joshua Trees or waiting at the base boundary line, tapping a butt probe in their hands (I mean, one could hope), I still run the chance of being closer to them than I ever have before…that I know of anyway. 
            The stories of aliens, while exciting in their own right, are actually a few of the tamer Dreamland speculations.  For years I’ve tracked down every allegation about the base and gobbled the tales up like sugary gumdrops.  And the weirder they were the better they tasted.  Kennedy is being kept alive on life support in one of the medical buildings?  You don’t say.  The government is experimenting with time travel out there?  Tell me more.  The base conceals an entrance to a civilization in the Hollow Earth?  Oh boy, now that is good stuff.  I spend more time thinking about what lies behind those mountains and than when my mortgage is due.
            There is a notch cut out of the hill ahead and the gravel road runs through it.  As I approach this point, that’s when I see the signs; two of them, one on either side of the road.  Both white with the large, bolded word “WARNING” boxed in red at the top.  They advise that travel beyond the sign is not permitted as the land is part of the Nellis Gunnery and Bombing Range, aka Dreamland.  The signs go on to inform base personnel that both they and their belongings are subject to search in order to prevent the wrong things falling into the wrong hands.  I probably couldn’t pay someone to take my monthly paperwork from me and these guys get a free pat down for it.  Some people have all the luck.
I get out of the car.  Rays of sun hit my exposed arms like streams from a hot shower.  On the hill to my left there is a thin metal pole jutting up between the Joshua Trees.  I can see a video camera and the spiny protrusions of a sensor array on it.  The rise to the right has a golden pickup truck parked atop it.  In the drivers’ seat, a man sits holding a pair of thick, black binoculars.  They almost resemble the eyes of the aliens I seek.  Every time I take a step, the man tracks my movements with the binocs.
There is no fence around Dreamland.  No need for one, either.  You can see anyone driving up the gravel road for miles because of the plume they trail.  Cameras track all movements.  Microphones listen for what can be heard.  Sophisticated sensors wait passively for the faint trace of ammonia that human skin gives off.  Yes, they can actually smell you coming.  And then of course there are the commandos in the trucks, stationed just a bit off to the side of the point of entry.  If I take one step past the sign, I’ll be treated to a personal introduction to a group of men who each know six different ways to kill me with their bare hands.  What do I have?  An Olympus digital camera that was on sale at Sears.
I snap pictures.  The signs, the truck, the barren environs.  I use my cell phone to Twitter gushing updates that read like I’m a 14 year-old girl seeing The Jonas Brothers. “Oh God!  I can’t believe I’m actually here!”  “I see a guard in a truck!  Think he’ll give me an autograph?” 
Yet there’s really nothing to see.  The Dreamland facility is about another ten or fifteen miles past the signs.  In an act of utter foolishness, I start to hop.  My thought is that if I gain enough altitude, I might see over the rise and catch a glimpse of the buildings in the distance.  Such a view is not forthcoming.  In fact, all I’m probably doing is giving Rambo up in the truck an itchy trigger finger.  So after a deep breath of blank air and a last look around, I go back to the car to head for the highway.  My thoughts churn with the gravel beneath the wheels.  I needed to come here.
            The Air Force holds war games called Red Flag in the skies of Area 51.  I’ve never seen the show, but I’m fairly confident it beats “team building day” at the office.  Technicians at the facility have worked on ultra-advanced aircraft from the old U-2 to possibly the Aurora, a spy plane that is reported to move at speeds greater than Mach 6.   I record minutia on state report forms with a sluggish Dell computer held together by bubble gum and fishing line.  Bob Lazar claims he deconstructed the components of alien anti-gravity drives at his job.  I spent the better part of one day at mine trying to find a way to unclog a toilet left horribly defiled by one of our clients.  I imagine conversations among Area 51 workers to run along the lines of “Were you here when that stealth fighter crashed in ’87?” “No, but I saw the Zeta Reticulans land in ’05.”  My fellow employees and I are more likely to ask “Why the hell do we need another staff meeting?” and “So let me get this straight, I have three supervisors?  And what are they paid to do the rest of the time?”  It is rumored that the entire base had to be shut down and evacuated due to radiation back in the 1990s.  I’ve pleaded.  I’ve urged God in prayer.  Never once has this happened at my office. 
            Dreamland is everything that I am not.  Whatever goes on at that base, whether it is the future of military aviation or things literally from out of this world, it is significant to humanity…and it is no doubt utterly fantastic.  All of it is right there in that lofty, desolate location, ultimately just a few miles out of my reach.
            I can think of no better name for this place than Dreamland.

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