November 9, 2012
Snow fell lightly as we packed the truck in Tonopah. One enormous ominous cloud hung overhead from horizon to horizon. The night before, we had stopped there for gas and a break in driving south. As the afternoon quickly transformed into evening, it became windy and painfully cold; snow was predicted. We lost the will to go on to find a place to camp. After circling around the town a few times we settled on cheap lodging at the Clown Motel. The idea of it made me smile and I considered that possibility that it was a motel catering specifically to clown clientele. I frequently feel like a fool, not a clown, but maybe that would qualify me to stay there just the same. The room was well-used and threadbare, but it was good enough for us. It had a satisfying shower, fast wifi, a microwave and a fridge. Not to mention the now novel distraction of a TV. Everything your average clown needs.
The motel office walls had shelves stuffed with all kinds of small clowns. Larger ones sat on chairs or hung from the ceiling. The motel sign, as well as each room door, sported a clown. The only artwork in our room was, of course, portraits of clowns. I asked the office receptionist, what’s up with all these clowns? He shrugged and said tersely that the previous owner collected clowns. End of story. The whole thing was a bit amusing and I felt that the quirky over-the-top excess of Las Vegas had trickled into little Tonopah. I actually think clowns are a bit creepy.
Our big event of the day was to travel the Extraterrestrial Highway (NV Route 375 . . . yes, its really called the ET Highway, check your road atlas.) This 98-mile long stretch of road passes by the entrance to the notorious Area 51, part of Edwards Air Force Base. Area 51, if you are unfamiliar with it, is the subject of books, movies, TV shows, speculation and imagination. Many people believe it houses the UFO and its extraterrestrial crew that supposedly crashed in Roswell, NM. Area 51 security is so intense that trespassing signs are posted that say “lethal force is authorized”.
The ET Highway is also a remote scenic road passing by a variety of ecosystems on the way to Las Vegas. As we climbed elevation from Tonopah we saw that the surrounding mountains ranges were white with new snow. Entering a broad valley that swept upward to rugged hills in the distance, the line where rain turned to snow was as clear-cut as I have ever seen it, revealing that only a fraction of change in elevation and temperature can create a transformed world. (See photo below.)
The only town on the ET highway is a tiny outpost called Rachel. We planned to stop there for lunch. As we drive there, we traveled in and out of rain and snow. Thick fog often obscured our view; hills were shrouded in eery mist. Any hope for viewing a UFO were dashed!
Rachel has a small restaurant called “The Little A’le’ Inn”. We each had an “alien burger”, hoping this did not mean it was made from fresh alien meat. They also sell an assortment of Area 51, ET, and UFO goods, including mugs, posters and T-shirts. There were signed photographs on the wall from renowned ufologists and other famous people who had visited the restaurant. The decor included life-sized aliens hanging limply on the wall like hunted ducks. The outside had a flying saucer theme and included a real tow-truck hauling a disabled UFO. When Twentieth Century Fox released the 1996 film, Independence Day (which partly takes place in Area 51), they placed a time capsule outside the restaurant to be opened in 2050.
Heading again south we hope to find the dirt road leading to Area 51. Mountains come in and out of focus through the shifting white thick air. Small stubbly joshua trees start appearing for the first time on our trip. They are initially unbranched single trunks only 1-3 feet high, making it look like the desert needed a good shave or at least a tweezing. After a few more miles south, full-sized joshua trees, with their branches oddly akimbo, spread out across the arid plain. Chris spotted the landmark for Areas 51, a large white mailbox, and we stop. In good weather, groups of conspiracy theorists and the UFO-obsessed gather here. If you travel too far down this road, you will be visited by military security. We quickly take a few photos and then run for the comfort of our truck out of the persistent biting wind.
As sunset approaches, the sky begins to clear, creating dramatic lighting. We find Ash Springs Hot Springs, a sweet county park, and take a soak. Part of it is a man-made pool and the rest is natural, allowing us to swim under the trees in the warm wide creek. Lovely. A little farther down the road, we pull into Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge and park beside the lake for the night.