This is the second of two essays about my trip to Area 51, a mysterious military base in rural Nevada. Start with the first essay about my journey to the base’s boundary for the whole story.
ACHEL, Nevada — On the first day of our trip to Area 51, we had come close to seeing the base, but not close enough. The buildings comprising the mysterious military installation sit in Groom Lake, a dry lakebed obscured from view by mountains on all sides. Almost 15 years ago, it was possible to hike up one of two mountains, Freedom Ridge or White Sides, to see Area 51 from only 12 miles away, but in 1995, the military seized the peaks to prevent people from photographing the base. Nevertheless, we had read that a mountain 26 miles from the base, Tikaboo Peak, was still accessible. Knowing that climbing Tikaboo would be our only chance to see Area 51’s secrets, we started a 25-mile drive on yet another dirt road into the desert. The directions to the peak made us a little nervous, reminding us that a 25-mile hike back to the paved highway awaited us if our car broke down. They noted, “It is advisable to bring a sleeping bag… Drivers may have to get out and repair [the dirt road] to continue further. (Bring a shovel.)”
As we drove, we read about the recent declassification of the A-12 OXCART, a Mach-3 aircraft designed by the U.S. military to avoid detection by Soviet radar. The OXCART flew 2,850 test flights out of Area 51 in the 1960s and had a wide, disk-like fuselage designed to carry huge amounts of fuel, which helps explain many of the Nevada UFO sightings during that time. But since the OXCART test flights ended by 1968 and UFOs are still seen frequently in the area, suspicion about current projects at Area 51 remains.
We arrived in our car at the bottom of the peak without even needing a shovel, and though the hike was steeper than we expected, we tackled it after a couple hours. At the top, we found a protective wall made of rocks surrounding a mattress of fresh pine branches with a tripod and a “Luau Party” sign. We assumed that someone had spent the night on the peak before we arrived drinking Mai Tais while looking for signs of new military aircraft.
Through my camera’s telephoto lens, each of us took turns looking into the abyss of Groom Lake. Finally, the secrets of Area 51 had been revealed, but again, we were disappointed. We saw a collection of plain, white buildings — no secret weapons, no space ships, and no aliens. After taking a final look at the installation, we climbed wearily back down to our car.
At night, we decided to take one more shot at seeing a UFO. We left the Little A’le’inn and drove once more toward the Black Mailbox. Every couple miles, I slammed on the brakes to avoid rabbits which kept leaping across the road, and we began to wonder whether Area 51’s secrets included a sinister rabbit breeding project.
“Every couple miles, I slammed on the brakes to avoid rabbits which kept leaping across the road, and we began to wonder whether Area 51’s secrets included a sinister rabbit breeding project.”
When we reached the mailbox, we parked our car under the dark, desert sky and waited, and waited, and waited. Since no alien spacecrafts appeared to be approaching imminently, we pulled out a laptop and, huddled in our car near the Extraterrestrial Highway, we watched “Dreamland,” a two-part “X-Files” episode series about Area 51. As we watched Mulder and Scully investigate strange occurrences at the military base, we sat waiting and hoping to see a flying saucer. During the two hours we staked out the Black Mailbox, we spotted some peculiar red and white blinking lights far off in the direction of the military base, but we suspected they were nothing more than the headlights of security vehicles and lights on Area 51 surveillance equipment.
Disappointed, we began driving again on the dirt road toward the base in the dark, hoping to improve our view, with “The X-Files” soundtrack playing on the car’s stereo. When we reached a position that Wendy deemed “close enough,” we continued to sit and wait. Our skin prickled with desperate expectation.
“WHAT IS THAT?!” Wendy exclaimed, as she gazed out the left-side passenger windows toward a distant mountain range. Suzanne and I looked over and saw a blinding, white sliver of light behind one of the peak’s ridges. As we watched, the sliver of light became larger as it started moving over the ridge.
A genuine unidentified flying object soared toward us over a mountain as we sat in the middle of the desert, an hour’s drive to civilization in every direction.
“GIVE ME THE TELEPHOTO LENS RIGHT NOW!” I yelled as I shifted the car into gear. Panicked, I hit the car’s accelerator in an attempt to get a better view. The engine revved but, for some reason, the car wouldn’t move.
“Where is it?” Rich asked.
“LOOK OUT THE WINDOW TO YOUR LEFT!” I yelled at Rich, exasperated. “IT’S THE BLINDINGLY BRIGHT UFO FLYING OVER THAT MOUNTAIN!”
“No, where is the telephoto lens?!” Rich yelled.
Chaos ensued as we stared in disbelief at the strange craft rising over the mountain peak and moving toward us.
“Maybe it’s just a tent,” Wendy offered, knowing full well that the spaceship appeared ten times bigger and 100 times brighter than a camping tent would if one were on the ridge.
Finally, Rich handed me the camera lens just as the sliver of light started to take shape. The sliver became a crescent. The crescent became a half-circle. The half-circle became a full moon.
We sat quietly as feelings of embarrassment began to wash over us. Only 30 seconds before, we would have been willing to swear in a Congressional hearing that an alien spaceship had flown toward us in the Nevada desert. But we realized we had been duped by an atmosphere created by our UFO Podcasts, the expert storytelling of “The X-Files,” and the well known optical illusion of an enormous moon rising quickly just above the horizon. As I wondered how many alleged UFO sightings are simply sightings of a rising moon, I looked down and saw that I had mistakenly positioned the car’s transmission in neutral.
Under a bright, full moon in the otherwise empty desert sky, we sat in silence. We glanced at the moon over the ridge. We glanced at it again, and then again.
Agent Fox Mulder would have been proud.
We wanted to believe. WB