In our story, three strapping lads in their late twenties, armed with resolve, binoculars, high-velocity weapons and two cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon, set off towards the barren desert of Nevada. Their mission: to sit in the dark on a cold stretch of highway and search the night skies for top-secret evidence of our tax dollars at work. Confidence was high that the current President would not disappoint his citizens, and would allow some demonstration of what, exactly, their money was buying. The mission begins...
It is a long drive from the small town of Prescott, Arizona to the even smaller town of Rachel, Nevada, but we did it. No expanse of highway could stand in our way, we had waited too long. Finally, we made the turn onto Highway 375, shortly after sunset. Stopping at the "Extraterrestrial Highway" sign, we took the obligatory pictures and danced about, celebrating the first milestone in our mission. Continuing on, we stopped at the first cattle warning sign to again take photos of the legendary sight. It was at this time we heard the familiar whine of fighter engines and looked up to see two jets slaloming across the sky to the east. We all smiled-we were close. After passing Horneys rest stop we descended into the valley and watched the "White Mailbox" slide past our headlights and back into the darkness. We would be retuning to this spot later tonight, but first we had to get to Rachel and to our room at the Little A'Le'Inn.
Topping the last rise before Rachel, the town literally appeared out of nowhere as its lights came into view. Several minutes later we pulled into parking lot of the Little A'Le'Inn and shut down. Upon exiting the truck, there was much stretching and popping as we took in the silent scene of Rachel at night. Then, the moment had come and we strode triumphantly into the bar and whatever adventures it had in store for us.
After a late dinner and several Heineken's served by "Connie", we tossed some gear in our room and bundled up for the cold night ahead. (It got down to 19º while we sat out in the desert) Back down the lonely highway, we soon arrived at the mailbox viewpoint and set up our post for the night. Sadly, not a single light danced across the night sky, and the only things we saw all night were two cars passing by on the highway. Not to worry, we still had a full day and night ahead of us tomorrow, and we were all still 100% (+ or - 100%) positive that George W. Bush would not let us down.
Morning came with a bang, literally, as a sonic boom woke us from our sleep. We figured that was a good sign for the day and got moving. With some fresh coffee digesting nicely, we stepped outside into the crisp air and looked up. To our joy, a pair of F-22 Raptors were dog fighting overhead. We watched as they flew around using the vectored thrust to make incredibly tight turns into each other. They were either using a smoke system to show their flight path, or were using the contrail suppression system we had heard about. Their contrails would turn on and off at precise times, almost as if they would use them to visually acquire each other and then shut them off and commence the fight. All three of us being pilots, we especially enjoyed this free air show. Soon the F-22s left and we saw an F-15 pop over the ridge from Area 51 and make a low pass over the town at around 1000 AGL. We waited for anything else cool to happen, but while there was a lull in the aerial entertainment, the smell of bacon crossed over from the restaurant and we willingly heeded its call.
During breakfast, we met Pat and Joe Travis, the owners of the Inn. They were fantastic hosts and kept the coffee coming with talk of what to see and where to go during our stay.
Breakfast done, we loaded up the truck and headed for the back gate of Area 51, a short 10 miles from Rachel. As we approached the gate, a trail of dust in the distance indicated another vehicle headed for the border. He beat us to the gate and was just passing through security when we pulled up. The guard on duty jumped back into the guard shack as we pulled up and stayed there during our visit. Inside the perimeter, behind the guard shack, was a large radar which was operating. It appeared to be an older model that I have heard other readers talk about. We also saw the mysterious white antenna off to the right of the shack, but were unable to figure out its purpose.
Enough of that, time to head to the front gate and the border we have read about for so long.
As we approached the border, the cammo dudes were already waiting for us on their hill. We pulled off to the side of the road and stopped about 30 feet from the signs. One of the first things we noticed was a cow standing motionless in the brush to our left. Images of the movie "Top Secret" came to mind as we imagined several cammos hunched over inside the cow-suit taking photos of us. Strangely enough the cow remained perfectly still for the first 15 minutes we were there. It then crossed the border into the restricted area, despite our pleadings and calls of, "It's not worth it, don't do it!"
Wanting to get a better view, we drove up the jeep road that parallels the border to the right of the signs. We parked on top and broke out the lawn chairs and the cooler for some fermented adult refreshments. As we did this, the cammo dudes backed further up their hill to its crest. (Presumably to put more distance between them and us) Then, as we sat there talking, to our surprise, the cammo dudes left. They backed down the far side of the mountain and drove around the corner toward the guard shack inside the border. We all found this interesting because we had just been talking about how they should relax, we were not here to hassle them or mess with their border. They were gone for about 10 minutes before returning. Then we figured it was a bathroom break, or the changing of the guard.
During our sit on the hill, we heard the distant sound of a jet and then a turboprop coming from inside the border. We saw neither. About a half hour later, a second jet was heard and we watched an F-16 climb up over the ridge and drop in low across the valley. He headed towards the White Mailbox and then turned south in front of the far mountains. As he completed his turn, he descended low and disappeared into a canyon-presumably a low-level route.
After about an hour and a half, we decided the cammos had earned their keep for the day and packed up the truck. We drove down the hill and back into the valley. A little over a mile down the road was a knoll which we drove up to look back and see if the cammos were still watching us. In the distance, we saw their truck back up the hill, turn to face us, and flash it's lights. Apparently, they were indeed still watching us, even from miles away. It was lunchtime.
On the way back to Rachel, we pulled over to take some photos of the "E.T. Highway" sign. As we did this, the sheriff passed by us and doubled-back. We quickly asked each other if we had crossed the border by mistake or done anything else illegal. With a verdict of "No", we smiled as the sheriff pulled over next to us. With our pistols plainly visible on our belts, we walked up to his car. He and his partner kindly asked us what we were up to, and we told them the usual tourist stuff. They reminded us not to cross the border, smiled and drove away. Whewww, that was interesting. Time for a "Blue Ribbon".
We spent most of the afternoon hanging around the Ale'inn talking to locals. The big news of the day was a local who had been picked up for his 3rd DUI in as many months and was now enjoying the posh accommodations of the county jail. We all toasted his memory and continued the subject of aliens and Area 51. Over the course of the afternoon, several Canadian bicyclists came in, a nice Australian couple on their honeymoon and a minivan full of Italians. In true form, one of the Italians ordered a cappuccino from Mr. Travis. Mr. Travis looked at him and promptly replied, "Cappuccino???? Son do you know where you are??" The lad settled for a cup o'joe and returned to his table.
Night quickly settled on us and it was time to head out into the vast desert for another round of staring into the night sky. This time we headed north from Rachel to a ridge at the far end of the valley. The locals had said that since this spot was on the extended centerline of the Groom Lake runway, there was a chance we might see some fast-movers heading out. Fortunately, tonight would be nothing like last night.
The activity began around 10 p.m., with multiple aircraft making high-speed runs out of the groom valley towards Tonopah. Judging by their speed, they were standard military jets; but none-the-less, left the area in a hurry. We continued to see aircraft circle up and out of the Groom airspace, with one in particular climbing almost vertical until we lost sight. This aircraft was being trailed by a slower pace plan, so we assumed we had seen this night's scheduled flight test.
In addition to the aircraft darting about, there was also a meteor shower this night, which added to the magic of the evening. Over the course of four hours we saw around 40 meteorites flash across the sky.
Thrilled by our sightings this night, we headed back to our room at the Ale'inn and crawled into bed.
The mission was a success. Although we did not see anything which we would classify as a "black project" we did see lots of nightly activity. The Little Ale'inn was everything we imagined and the staff was superb. Anyone pondering a trip to Rachel: DO IT! You will not be disappointed. Make sure you bring warm clothes and some snacks for when the grill is closed. The Ale'inn has a superbly stocked bar, slot machines and a video library unequalled this side of the Pentagon's secret vault. Kudos to all the Rachel citizens who made this mission a success: we'll be back soon!
P.S. Gas in Alamo and Rachel was between $1.70 and $1.90 a gallon. Be prepared.