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Desert Companion

The truth is out where?

area-51-art.jpg

Area 51
Illustration by Rick Sealock

I needed to know: Are aliens real? So I took a ride around the perimeter of Area 51. On my bike 

It was late winter, a morbid time in my home in Alaska, when no sled dog outside its kennel is safe from lonely men wearing wolf pelts. The lack of sun does weird stuff to me too — like make me decide on a whim to buy a plane ticket to Mammoth, California to embark on a 1,000-mile bicycle ride around Area 51. A few friends voiced their worries about alien abduction, but my only real concern was riding through Las Vegas without becoming roadkill. I’d only recently recovered from the stress of pedaling through Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur during a Southeast Asia cycle tour I made with my girlfriend MC a few years prior. A Vegas writer friend of ours put me in touch with a local hardcore cyclist. He drew a route and assured me crossing the city would be so easy I’d be bored.

“I can’t believe you’re going to Vegas without me,” MC said, bitterly, at the airport. She’d spent three years in the city, completing a MFA in creative writing. I tried to get her to join me, but she couldn’t get time off. “You never stopped whining when you visited.”

“Look, this is about something so much bigger. It’s about finding the truth about bicycling,” I said, lying a little. I missed the desert, red mountains and blue sky of Nevada.

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“You mean about aliens,” she said. “Everyone knows that bicycles exist.”

“I know what I’m saying,” I said. “Let’s not fight. What if something happens to me? This could be the last time you see me.” I asked for a “hall pass” if I was abducted. She made a strange growling sound I interpreted to mean maybe.

According to Google, more Americans believe in aliens than God (77% versus 69.5%). Yet extraterrestrials are said to have only recently begun visiting Earth in earnest. The first well-known encounter was in the summer of 1947, when Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot, claimed to see nine “supersonic flying saucers” near Mt. Rainier. A couple of weeks later, something crashed into the desert northwest of Roswell, New Mexico. The military released a press statement they’d recovered a “flying disc.” Shortly later, another statement was released that the craft was actually a weather balloon. Stories spread of small humanoid creatures with over-sized skulls strewn across the desert. Some believe they were aliens; another account published by author Annie Jacobsen suggests — I’m not making this up — they were children mutated to look like aliens by Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor known as the “Angel of Death,” and funded by Josef Stalin, as an elaborate hoax to terrorize the United States.

Anyway, according to lore, the crash debris and potential aliens or children were whisked away to Area 51, America’s most top-secret military base, located 100 miles north of Las Vegas in a burnt red wasteland of desert and mountains. Since the Roswell incident, thousands of UFO sightings have been reported in Southern Nevada. More than two dozen UFO religions, including Scientology, have been created. The topless-equality movement is a product of one such religion, founded by the French, alien-educated prophet Rael. (No wonder the religion already has something like 100,000 members from more than 90 countries.)

My theory was, if aliens were as provocative and horny as Rael claimed, Area 51 was likely some sort of underground intergalactic party zone where sexy movies and adults toys were manufactured.

‘I’m looking for aliens!’

The mountain hamlet of Mammoth sits above a martian landscape. Death Valley is just a short drive away. It’s the sort of town where people ski all day and cougars hunt young men all night. My friends, Corey and Brigitte, Alaskan wilderness guides and California ski patrollers, picked me up. As we ate dinner, we talked of creating a reality show about hunting Area 51 aliens. I imagined it would be like Swamp People (except more kinky) and aliens would take the place of alligators. Film crews could follow teams of contestants, armed with crossbows, machetes and gallon Ziploc space bags. Their mission would be to kill or capture a live specimen, but they’d likely spend most of their time bagging and analyzing stool samples.

In the morning, I sped out of the snowy town, feeling like Braveheart. Two hours later, I felt like Tiny Tim, beat up by Braveheart. It generally takes around four days before I’m broken into my bike seat. I have a residual horror of wearing Spandex shorts, resulting from an incident that took place when I was 19 on a solitary ride across northern Canada. (A Hannibal Lecter look-alike and a couple of cohorts who could have inspired the movie Deliverance tried getting a little too intimate. One followed me in his truck for hours. It was the only time I felt threatened in six long bike rides and more than 10,000 miles of hitchhiking, and I blame those damn Spandex shorts.) At the end of the day, I no longer cared or believed in anything except that cycling sucked and my crotch was on fire. Alone in the darkening desert, watching stars slowly appear in the purple sky, I wrestled with existential questions. Was the truth of bicycles, aliens or anything else worth my nether regions feeling the way a baboon’s butt looks?

I crossed into Nevada beneath snow-covered Boundary Peak, the highest mountain in the state. An elderly, rough-looking man pushed a mountain bike west along Highway 95 as a line of semi trucks roared past.

“I’m on my way to Carson City!” he hollered with a toothless smile. We talked for a while before he asked me where I was going.

“Area 51. I’m looking for aliens!” I yelled as a truck sped past, leaving us choking in a cloud of dust. He glanced around nervously after a minute passed with me staring and not saying anything.

The following morning, the yipping of coyotes woke me as a blood-red smear colored the eastern mountains. Groggy and malnourished, I pedaled up the long hill to Tonopah, once a silver mining outpost and currently kept alive by radioactivity, looking for a cup of coffee and an omelet. After eating my fill at the Tonopah Station and picking up groceries, a hysterical girl came chasing after a boy across the parking lot.

“Forgive me!” she screamed. “He meant nothing! Don’t leave me! God, please don’t leave me!”

“How could you?” the boy sobbed. I rode away, feeling like a piece of my heart was breaking. That night, wild horses chased each other in a mountain pass as the sun set. I made camp nearby, next to a game trail covered with deer and antelope tracks, and spent hours watching shooting stars and satellites.

Had they taken the city?

At the ghost town of Warm Springs, I turned onto the Extraterrestrial Highway. The most UFO and alien encounters in the world have been reported on the next 98 miles of road. The area has also been the site of 900-some nuke tests, which may have explained why my skin took on a green glow. An hour passed before I saw a car — the loneliness of the plain and distant snow-dusted mountains was so romantic I drifted into a reverie. In the quasi ghost-town of Rachel, at the Little A’Le’Inn, I enjoyed a burger and a few beers. At my camp in Coyote Pass, the ground periodically shuddered — perhaps aliens and military workers were partying and blowing stuff up underground. I glanced over my shoulder. There were recent accounts of an alien called J-Rod frequenting the area. I was tormented by a jock named J-Rod in high school and couldn’t help wondering if he’d relocated to Rachel. One thing was for certain, if I bumped into him, I’d likely get a wedgie and my feelings hurt.

Near Crystal Springs and the junction of Highway 93, a pack of stray dogs rooted through rubbish. A black furry mutt followed skittishly for a half-hour as the sun sunk behind the horizon. I pitched my tiny tent, drank a tallboy and tried to quell a strange feeling of guilt. At the Junction of I-15, I rode up the lush Moapa Valley, quickly forgetting the hundreds of semi-trucks that buzzed me the day before. In the Valley of Fire, I wandered red labyrinths of rocks and studied Anasazi petroglyphs. The famous “Mystical Bat Woman” and Anasazi anthropomorphs painted elsewhere in the Southwest are reminiscent of popular depictions of aliens. Some hopeful theorists postulate these ancient Pueblo people were visited by, or even were, extraterrestrials.

Bats fluttered overhead as I pedaled out of the Valley of Fire in time to witness a sunrise over Lake Mead so eerie and wonderful I got goosebumps. In the heart of Las Vegas, I met up with friends I hadn’t seen for a few years. We watched as the lights of the Strip were turned off in honor of legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian, and then we went to an author reading. Laughter, sympathy and literature: The oddest thing about the day and a half I spent in Vegas was how nice everyone was — it almost made me paranoid. Had aliens taken the city? Should I join ranks and stay here forever? I rode to Pahrump with a tormented soul, but billboards advertising brothels, fireworks and quilting made me miss Vegas a little less.

I rode into California to avoid Highway 95 — that road has a way of making you think about whether or not there’s a next life a little too much — and dipped down into Death Valley. A coyote, looking for a handout and perhaps a little company, joined me during a break. Traversing back into the lonesome sweep of Nevada, it began to rain, then snow. I had 16 miles on Highway 95 to travel before I could get on a quieter road. There was heavy traffic and no adequate shoulder. I pushed my bike for hours through a blizzard.

The alien baby

In the bitterly cold morning, as I broke camp, a strange thought occurred to me. I’d seen no UFOs, but what if I was being visited in my sleep? This would explain the near-constant pain in my butt, swollen prostate, weight loss, strange dreams and changes in skin color. Had I, in my fierce skepticism, taken Area 51 too lightly? Unnerved, I pedaled through snow flurries and a fierce headwind up a seemingly endless mountain to the ghost town of Lida. Near the 7,400-foot pass, a strange elderly woman with eyes that twinkled like stars pulled over in an old Subaru.

“You’re almost there,” she said sinisterly.

“Oh, lord,” I said, trying not to make eye contact. What did she mean by there? Had the government brainwashed me and sent me on this strange and terrible bike ride? These sorts of questions plagued me as I hurtled down the mountain, past ghost towns and mines, and onto a valley floor alive in a dust storm. By nightfall I was a nervous wreck. I sat behind a giant cattle corral, listening to the wind howl and metal fence vibrate. I drank a few beers and ate a big bag of Doritos, a couple sandwiches, a three-day-old cold chili hot dog, a can of Spam and a half dozen donuts. Not long after, something inside of me began moaning and clawing around like it was trying to get out. All these signs were pointing to one thing: I’d become the host for an alien baby.

By morning, I was sure of it. My belly was speaking Klingon. The rest of the ride was an emotional roller coaster of rage, sorrow and acceptance. From Mammoth, I tried calling everyone I knew, to tell them I loved them, say my goodbyes and warn them about Area 51.

As I hugged a ponderosa pine, my lamentations abruptly ended when I realized the potential media frenzy and money to be made. I’d send a proposal for a reality TV show to National Geographic with a jar of stool samples for proof. They’d offer a huge contract and soon I’d be richer than all the Kardashians combined. I imagined teaching my Klingon son how to swim, play baseball and take over the world. I considered the dogma of the religion we’d create. Perhaps followers would wrap their heads in tin foil and wear their pants backwards on Tuesdays as a sign of solidarity. Bjornanism would be humanity’s only chance of salvation, so I’d need to start stockpiling warehouses full of tinfoil.

Tragically, however, after a day of moderate eating and punishing my Mammoth friends’ toilet, my belly stopped looking and acting pregnant. My dreams of fatherhood and world domination were dashed. That night, before returning to Alaska, I stared up at the seemingly endless expanse of stars above the snowy Sierra Mountains. The truth was safe, somewhere very far out there. 

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