Death Valley – Area 51 – Las Vegas
In July it sits around 125 degrees in the shade. It is about that time that the toughest race in the world takes place. For some reason people think it would be a good idea to hold a 135 mile ultra marathon from Badwater Basin (82 metres below sea level) to the trailhead for Mount Whitney (2548 metres above sea level). Not only do they run 135 miles in unbelievable heat, the whole race is uphill. This year only 81 of the 94 runners finished, the winner was a Portuguese man called Carlos Alberto Gomes. He took just over a day to complete the course at an average speed of 5.5mph. The more you consider the circumstances; course; weather and time it takes, it is just an incredible feat. The final finisher was a 41 year old woman who took nearly two days. One Swiss runner Iris Cooper says that Death Valley is magical at night and the stars are so bright that as she is running along they seem close enough to reach out and touch with your hand. If you want to know more check out the race website.The stories and tall tales section is great: http://www.badwater.com/
We didn’t sleep much at Furnace Creek. The wind was just as bad here as it was down in the basin and this meant the RV was dancing all over the place through the small hours as though she was in a club at RV Ibiza. We eventually got up and put the kettle on at 8am after having only 5 hours broken sleep. If only Furnace Creek had a campground; we could have hooked up the RV to water and electricity, putting on the air conditioning to cool us down throughout the night. I would have love a nice shower in the toilet block, yes we had a shower int he RV but it was small, cramped and smelt. Once we had left Furnace creek I looked up the village on Google maps to see how far we had traveled that day to find we had been surrounded by campgrounds. We camped in a lay by with palm trees either side of the road. Those palm trees were there to give privacy tot he campgrounds behind them! Brilliant! We had to eat up the miles today as there was a long list of things to do culminating in a night in Las Vegas. From Furnace Creek our next checkpoint was just over an hour away a few thousand feet up at Beatty, Nevada. Over 95% of Death Valley is wilderness. This is defined as “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. The photos I have taken in this wilderness are like nothing I’ve ever taken before. They could have been sent back from a Mars Rover or from a moon landing.
We stopped near an intersection to look down the road towards the mountains. It was something the Romans would have been proud of. Dead straight as far as the eye could see with heat haze rising off it. The roads themselves looked new and the tarmac was still dark, not the faded cracked roads that you normally get away from the freeways. We took a few photos at the intersection and began the 13 mile 4000ft climb up out of the valley. We had no seen any animal or plant life in our morning driving and walking around. The only animals we had seen were 2 crows just outside of furnace creek attacking some rubbish near a petrol station. I am sure the area was teeming with non visible life and no doubt there were scorpions just waiting to attack us if we strayed too far into the rocks. Once we were through the mountain pass we descended slightly to a plateau leaving California and entering Nevada.We pulled over to take a photo of the Nevada sign. It was covered in bullet holes and dents from bullets that hadn’t penetrated the meta sheeting. What the hell goes on in this desert?
Beatty was a strange little town. It is hard to describe what was odd about it, there was nobody around the place looked deserted. We refueled at Death Valley Nut & Candy and went inside to see what all the fuss was about. Just to the right of the store there was a small shop with merchandise inside, it was labelled as a closing down sale. We are big merchandise people so it was worth a look. It was all NFL team cartoons on t-shirts. It was very odd to find this here in the middle of the desert. There were also some hand made metal sculptures made using cutlery. Emma wasn’t a big fan of them but I quite liked the man made out of forks and I get the impression we were the only people to walk through the door that day. We spoke to the man behind the counter and he confirmed my suspicions that the place didn’t sell much. He was the owner and the only staff member. He was shutting the shop down and trying to offload all of his stuff and was struggling to do that. He didn’t know what he was going to do next but he was going to work the fairs and exhibitions doing his old job. I get the impression that he didn’t earn a lot of money doing either job and that wasn’t a problem. Nobody here appeared to have any money, everyone seemed to live hand to mouth and worked jobs that barely paid the bills. The Death Valley Nut & Candy store was certainly unusual. The first thing that hits you is the smell. It is not an unpleasant smell but you put a few tonnes of assorted sweets and nuts in a large room and it is an oddly sweet smell. There was also a Subway in the building, so we stocked up on snacks for the van and a large cup for our liquids. We had a brunch and grabbed a few postcards we would never send and headed north west.
I read somewhere you could go to the fence of Area 51 and we were only 60 miles from it. The problem is that the whole area is restricted so 60 miles as the crow flies was 200 miles on the road. We were aware of this and allowed accordingly. Emma wanted to go to the Little A’Lee’Inn Cafe. The cafe is legendary for being a place that is a but unusual and plays up on the fact it is next to Area 51. The drive through the southern Nevada desert was nothing short of beautiful. The sun was shining leaving us wearing cap and sunglasses yet the temperature was not what you expect of a desert. It was comfortable and if anything a bit chilly when the wind picked up. This was because we were sitting at over 5000 feet. This area in the summer sits at desert like temperatures but in the winter drops down to lows you would expect at snow covered peaks. It experiences the extremes of heat with very little rain or snow. In fact they get more snow than rain here.
There wasn’t much around and signs were few and far between. There was one that made me laugh and instantly check the fuel gauge:
‘NEXT GAS STATION 163 MILES”
As we drove through I struggled to keep my eyes on the road looking round at the landscape. We started to pass through some open ranges. This was new to me. In Nevada the federal state owns 80% of the land. When the government divvies up land into homesteads the land given is suitable for a farm or small ranch. The problem in Nevada is the lack of decent land. There is not good enough soil to grow crops and there isn’t enough water to have widespread grazing. So what you are left with is large spaces of nothing and huge open ranges. An open range is where the cattle roam free, anywhere they want, including right n front of your car at night. Twice we had to stop for cows in the road in front of us.
The cattle aren’t scared of cars, they will stand in the road and watch you slow to a halt before walking off to go do whatever cattle do once crossing the road. I couldn’t see any tags or reflectors on the animals. There was nothing to give a warning they were ahead at night. I suspect on more than one occasion a driver and been surprised to see a cow in his headlights after sunset. Nearing Rachel we spotted something by the road that looked out of place. It was man made and was deemed worthy of stopping the RV and checking out. As we neared it, it became clear it was either a grave or a memorial. It was a memorial to a man named Michael David Adams. He was a 33 year old geologist who in 2005 was just passing through late at night when his Jeep encountered a cow on the road. The marker, quite some distance from the road is placed where his Jeep came to rest. The owner of the cow was protected by the open range laws. The laws which are a century out of date put all the responsibility for the crash on the driver of the car. These laws were created when cars could barely do 20mph and are still in place nowadays.
I’ll offer you a situation. You can be driving through the desert with no one around. No streetlights, just a warning sign with a cow on it. You are sticking to the speed limit of 55/65 and are paying attention. Out of nowhere a see a cow in front of you, it has no reflective tags or markings, and no fences nearby to keep it in. It crashes through your windshield killing you and anyone else int he car at the time. Not only is the rancher free from prosecution, they can sue your grieving relatives for the loss of a cow, and then compensation on top of that. That seems wholly unfair and the law needs updating. The family of Michael Adams have tried to get these laws updated but in this area the ranchers are very powerful and the open range laws remain. The parents of Michael Adams sued and won compensation for their sons death from the rancher but it was overruled on appeal. Despite the fact he died 8 years ago the court fight is still proceeding.
In the desert you don’t leave flowers and anything else is just polluting the environment. The people who visit the memorial leave rocks and stones not found in that area. It leaves a lovely multicoloured collage of respect for the man. As we had stumbled across it we had no rocks to lay so just gave our time. It was then we became aware of the silence. It was like standing in a vacuum. It’s difficult to describe the silence. When we both stopped talking and moving I could hear my own heart beat. It wasn’t unpleasant but it was very strange to be somewhere where there was absolutely no sound. We reborded Bertha and rolled into Rachel. We found the Little A’Lee’Inn Cafe easy because it was the only building with a sign outside it. Instantly I was a little disappointed. It was basically a shack with some locals sitting outside chatting. When they established we were there needing service we went inside. Inside it was a treasure cave of awesomeness. You could tell this place was once very popular. The walls were covered in alien memorabilia, pictures of people in the cafe, and letters from all over the world. A portion of the film ‘Paul’ was filmed here, written and starring Simon Pegg and Nick frost. There was a large signed film poster half hidden away against a wall.
The Little A’Lee’Inn Cafe
The young waitress that came in to serve us was pleasant enough. We ordered burgers and used the toilet. The food arrived within minutes and was delicious. I spent most of the time looking around. Above the bar there were hundreds maybe thousands of one dollar bills signed and placed there by customers. We had a look at the merchandise in the corner and purchased a couple of small things. We then got talking to the owner. A brash tanned middle aged woman. Before we ate I had found and signed the geocache by the front door of the cafe. This prompted a conversation about geocaching with the owner. The highway that passes by the cafe has the longest geocache trail in the world. There are over 1800 caches placed ever 1/8th of a mile through the desert. This brings a lot of traffic through Rachel. It turns out this traffic is the only thing keeping the town alive. To begin with I didn’t have much time for her, she was rude and overly opinionated. But the more I listened to her the more I realised she was just a frustrated business owner hanging onto her life at the whim of a bunch of hobbyists. The trail also brings with it problems with the local transport agencies. They do not appreciate people pulling their cars over to the side of the highways to treasure hunt. There had been a few situations where people had done so dangerously and the DOT (Department Of Transportation) had banned geocaching on the highway and removed the caches.
She explained that there were around 40 people in the town of Rachel. Of those probably 20 were of the working age and 9 of them were employed by her. The town had lost its gas station and convenience store. It was slowly dying and one of the only things keeping it alive was the steady stream of geocachers coming through using its restaurant and 3 bedroom motel. When the DOT shut the trail down she fought tooth and nail to get it reinstated. It was and the cafe can live another day. It is not for everyone though. The online reviews of the place are very polarising. You either like this sort of thing or you don’t. If you are used to the Holiday Inn and haven’t camped or roughed it in a while then you won’t enjoy it.
Once we left they gave us directions to Area 51 and a little map showing us the way. We got most of the way down the road before turning round. It got very very bumpy and I wasn’t confident the tyres or the undercarriage would come out unscathed. So we got out had a look around. Area 51 is what is advertised. A dry lake bed with nothing to see. Even when you get to the fence there is nothing to see, the area is so vast that you can’t get anywhere near anything interesting. Most people associate Area 51 with aliens and Roswell. Roswell is hundreds of miles away in New Mexico. Officially Area 51 is a restricted area, not because of aliens but because it is a testing ground. The US Air Force is the most advanced in the world; they have their secrets to protect. There are not many places they can test their top secret military projects away from prying eyes so the Nevada desert is perfect. The Lockhead F-117 Nighthawk commonly known as the Stealth Bomber was one of these projects. The fact that the boundaries of flight are being explored in this region might explain the strange lights, sounds and happens most people attribute to aliens. For instance in the mid 1980s before the Stealth Bomber was public knowledge there was an incident whereby an alien hunter saw with his own eyes above Area 51 a triangular shaped black flying object like no other plane he had ever seen fly across the sky at the speed of sound yet did not show up on his radar. I too would have screamed extra-terrestrial beings.
We bought a map of the local area and decided to pay a visit to the gate of Area 51 and the black mailbox. The mailbox is at the join of the highway and Mailbox Road which leads to Area 51. The staff in the Little A’Lee’Inn though advised going to the back gate and showed us a road that would take us there. The road narrowed and got a lot rougher. Not the sort of place for an RV so we stopped took in the sights or lack of them and turned round. The place is very eerie, and it felt like we were being watched. I used the zoom lens to scan the horizon and hills around us and spotted a couple of suspicious objects but no Will Smith lookalike singing bad rap tunes going “uh yeah men in black.”
The black mailbox which is actually white was just a mailbox. I know right, show and horror! I suspect that as there is nothing in this landscape a lone mailbox at the end of the road to Area 51 is a prime suspect for stickers and graffiti. I was half expecting to see scrawled in barely adult handwriting ‘Dave luvz c0ck’. But no, it was mainly UFO freaks and geocachers.
The sun was low in the sky as we set off for our final destination of the day, Las Vegas. My sister had bought us tickets to Penn & Teller at the Rio and we were not going to miss it. We had to check into the MGM and get a cab there. Loads of time so long as there weren’t any traffic. It was strange being back round crowded civilisation again. We had spent 3 days practically alone in the desert and had quite enjoyed it. We would be alone in the desert for another 2 days after Vegas while going through Arizona and Utah.
Vegas Baby Yeah!
When we arrived at the MGM we drove round to the valet and were promptly scorned by the people there. The MGM did not allow RVs to park in their valet car park. Bertha is a big girl at 12 feet tall and they wouldn’t touch her for all the $1 tips in Vegas. So they called Security. Not to apprehend us but to take the RV away and park it somewhere safe. We unloaded our million and one bags and waited to give Security the keys. We still had an hour until we needed to be at the Rio. It was here I versed Emma in the art of the $20 sandwich. It is customary in Vegas that when you would like an upgrade at check in you place a folded $20 bill between your credit card and ID. I had all three ready to go and was a bit nervous about attempting bribery. (http://thetwentydollartrick.com/)
Security then arrived, one guy in a 4×4. It soon became apparent he was not going to take out RV away. Believe it or not the MGM has 124 acres of land in Las Vegas right by the strip. So I was in for a drive following the security car. As all the luggage was out and time was short I made the quick and very wrong decision to let Emma check in while I took the RV to where ever it needed to go. As I pulled out of the MGM and onto Tropicana Avenue it dawned on me I had no spacial awareness without Emma next to me shouting out the distance to the next vehicle. I was on one of the busiest roads in Vegas in bumper to bumper traffic and no idea how close I was to side swiping everything in reach. The security car was not going fast. He was waiting enough for me but in my panicked state I was convinced I would lose him any moment. It wasn’t long before I got myself into a situation where I slammed on the brakes. I had a bus inside me that could not care less if I had enough space or not and there was a rather hard concrete barrier approaching on the driver’s side. Even now I could not tell you if I had enough room but I slammed on the brakes and came to a halt in the middle of Tropicana Avenue before slowly moving across behind the bus confident of space. Fortunately the last set of lights had turned red as I passed so there was minimal traffic behind me so nobody beeped.
We eventually went through a gate and into a large open space at the end of which I saw a small row of RVs. Knowing that we now had around 45 minutes to Penn & Teller, I pulled up and jumped out accidentally leaving my laptop and the majority of my camera equipment behind. I got in the 4×4 and the security guard introduced himself as Rick. He certainly looked the part of a non-government US security personnel: male, over 40, facial hair, slightly overweight, voice about 2 notches louder than it needed to be. To use a very English term to describe Rick, he was a ‘top bloke’. He took a genuine interest in what we were doing in Vegas, where we were going after Nevada and why we chose the MGM. He then proceeded to answer all my questions about the MGM and Vegas and went into great detail about things. Where we had parked the RV was the site of the old MGM theme park. Known as ‘MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park’ it was a foray into family entertainment, where the kids had something to do while the adults gambled. It ran for nearly 10 years from 1993 and shut inevitably due to not make enough cold hard cash. It was meant to be a smaller version of the large Californian theme parks like Universal studios. As a theme park aficionado there were a lot of things that I think were cool about this short lived park. There was a yellow brick road people could follow from the casino into the park. They also had a bumper cars going round the streets of Paris called ‘Parisian Taxis’. Anyone that has driven through Paris will understand why this is the most ingenious ride ever. Over time the hotel expanded its pool area, shops and condos which ate into the parks space most notably ruining the yellow brick road and making people walk a long way to get into the park.
When the park shut most of the area it took up was replaced by the three MGM Signature condos towers. The paved area behind it which was the parking lot for the theme park was where Bertha now partied with her RV friends. Possibly playing a few games of RV Blackjack at 5 wingnuts a hand.
I got back to the MGM Grand feeling enlightened from my chat with Rick and went to meet Emma praying the $20 sandwich had worked. Not only had it not worked, she didn’t even have $20 on her and for some reason the check in person looked very agitated.
“I, I asked for an upgrade but I didn’t have any money and then he wanted your ID because it was in your name and he didn’t care I had the booking number.”
I handed the ID over and embarrassingly asked if we could have a room with a view of the strip. What was I thinking, of course we weren’t going to have a view of the strip I’m lucky he didn’t give us the crappiest room in the hotel. Of course this led to a quiet but frustrated argument between Emma and me that this was our only chance of living like the guys from the Hangover and she had ballsed it up by not having a $20. I later apologised and explained that I had nearly flipped Bertha on a concrete wall and was hoping for good news on the room front.
We got to the 435th floor and walked half a mile to the room door, just as I was about to enter a voice hailed us. It was a young black girl in a tight dress.
“Ok sorry to bother you but I need your help. I think this dress looks fine but my friends don’t think I should wear it.”
We both looked her up and down and hummed. We had 30 minutes to Penn & Teller and I was not Gok Wan.
“Well I like it…..”
I then did my best impressed at knowing what I was on about while Emma agreed. This pleased the girl and she threw open her room door and declared her friends know nothing about fashion and these two strangers said she looked fabulous. We swiped our room key and piled into our room. Of course we couldn’t see the strip. We were looking at druggies, a car park and the McCarran airport. Fortunately with some help from my Uncle Gary and Aunt Lorraine we had managed to buy a spa suite for two nights. Not getting an upgrade and not being facing the strip was forgotten. The bathroom has a Jacuzzi and was nearly as big as the flat we had just moved out of. It had 2 sofas in it and a bed that you melted into when laying on it. There was another knock at the door. Bugger. The girl again.
“So I got three dresses to choose from what do you think of this one?” Again we both hummed and looked her up and down.
“It’s nice, but I prefer the first dress.” Emma nodded
“Ok ok ok let me get the third dress wait there.”
“Ok.” I shut the door and Emma piped up. “This is bollocks, do we have to do this can’t we just pretend to not be here?”
“Well we need to go out soon anyway let’s just get sorted and go.”
We sorted our clothes out and got changed into something a bit more presentable and looked up somewhere to eat, while drinking the free bottle of water.
“Where did you get that water from?”
“The tray over there!” Points to tray of clearly not free items.
“That’s a $7 bottle of water.”
While taking in the knowledge that every mouthful was about 50 cents the door was rattled again.
“Ok this is the final one and I think I like this the best.” Willing her to go away we agreed.
“Oh yes this is much better love the colour.”
She then invited us into her room to party but we assured her we had a show and would LOVE to do it but we really had to go. We promised to party when we got back but had no intention of doing so. She was already quite drunk and I was already tired after driving over 800 miles in two days. My tolerance for people goes down in situations like this, I know, I’m miserable. We left the room with only 20 minutes until Penn & Teller. No time for food or a drink we went to get a cab. There wasn’t much of a queue and a constant stream of taxis hailed by valets earning their tips.
Penn & Teller
We made it to the Rio with five minutes to spare. Mission accomplished, we had got from Death Valley to Vegas in time for the show, something we had been told could not be done. That is when we realised it was a ten minute walk to the actual show which was nowhere near the casino entrance. Hungry, thirsty and hustling we burst through the doors just as they came on stage. We stood there waiting for the introductions to finish and were pointed to our seats. Right by the aisle 4 rows back from the front. Get in!!!
If you are unsure of who they are I implore you to watch these two videos:
For the first trick they got a member of the audience out, took his phone, threw it in a bucket and hoisted it up high in front of everyone. Later without touching the bucket the phone ended up inside a fish packed in ice in a sealed box under a seat in the crowd. THAT is the sort of show Penn & Teller put on. PHENOMINAL. Now I’m not going to tell you their tricks because that ruins the fun even though I don’t know how they did it. The show flew by and time and time again I was left mumbling expletives about how they did things. That was until they needed another audience member. The premise was that Teller has a card trick that always fools Penn because he is too busy presenting the trick to see what Teller does. So they needed someone to pose as Penn so he could watch the trick in progress. Now for those who don’t know what Penn looks like he is a big dude. He is around 6ft7; he has a beard, glasses and is slightly overweight (sorry Penn!) As I was sitting by the aisle he spotted me quickly and as he came off stage I knew I was in trouble. He immediately came to me and hoisted me up. I was going to be Penn Jillette.
He walked me up to the stage asking my name and where I was from. They then explained the trick to me and what I was to do. I was a bit shocked. I looked out to the crowd and could see nothing. There were 1500 people out there all starting at me and I was blinded by the light. They put a wig on me to imitate his hair and I was given a copy of his signature glasses. I already had the facial hair going on. I felt something go in my pocket, immediately I thought I was being prepped or setup, I turned to see teller smiling slightly as he put a battery pack in my pocket. Penn then put a bulky headset with a microphone on me and I realised I was just being paranoid. He spoke into a standalone microphone:
“Luke, can you hear me through the headphones?” I nodded.
“Can you say something for me?” I shook my head.
For some reason I thought I was Teller and couldn’t speak. Don’t ask me why but I thought he was trying to trick me and make fun of me. He was just checking everything worked. I then realised my mistake and relaxed. Being relaxed doesn’t mean I was cool though. I turned to the crowd and let out a quiet:
“Hi everyone!” Followed by a weak wave.
“Ok can you do an American accent?”
I couldn’t, he laughed and encouraged me to put some welly into it. Eventually I came out with:
“Hi I’m Penn Jillette and this is my partner Teller”
It was the most ridiculous, drunk redneck, over the top poor excuse for an accent since Brad Pitt tried Italian in Inglorious Basterds. This gained a laugh from the crowd and Penn went on with some filler about the trick. While he did this a voice came over the headphones informing me that he was a producer and I was to repeat everything he said. I started presenting the trick not really understanding what was going on just repeating the words. Teller had me pick a card it was the queen of hearts and I kept it close to my chest and did not show anyone. To be completely honest I don’t remember much else of the trick except Teller got into a glass box with fans underneath. A curtain was then raised around the box. There was no way in or out except for out the top. I turned to the crowd and then said something like:
“As if by magic….” I turned back towards the box.
The curtain had dropped and Teller was no longer in the box, it was Penn, with a dancing girl dressed as the queen of hearts, with dozens of cards all the queen of hearts fluttering around them. I stopped mid-sentence, and actually stumbled backwards. If they didn’t cut my mic off I think I might have even broadcast a stunned “Holy shit!”.
The girl in the queen of hearts out looked at me with raised eyebrows with a look asking if I had seen anything. I just shook my head in wonder and she winked at and turned to smile at the crowd. I repeat. Phenomenal! I was ushered back to my seat where there was a sheepish Emma.
“I just got in trouble for trying to take a photo. When they walked away I tried again and got told off again. They said next time I take one they’ll throw me out.”
I laughed and gave her a hug, she got a seriously blurry photo but you can tell it’s me on stage in a headset and wig. Emma hates confrontation and for her to try twice to get a photo after being told off for the first time was more than I could have ever asked.
The dancing girl is far from it. Her name is Georgie and she is their assistant. She gets involved in a lot of the illusions and is the centre piece to an unexpectedly brutal illusion involving blood and guts. This sent a girl in the front row running out covering her mouth which made it even more impressive. When the show was over I was asked by a number of audience members if I was a plant. I could understand their wonderment before I had been pulled up on stage I had shared my doubts with Emma that the two people used in tricks before me of being plants in the audience.
Once outside they posed for loads of photos with fans but we were too tired and hungry to get a photo. With hindsight I wished we had stopped for a chat and a photo but there was dinner waiting for us. We walked through the casino to one of the Rios many places to munch and I ordered meatloaf. I had never eaten meatloaf before and as we were due to see the real Meatloaf the following night it was a fitting tribute. Emma raved about the tricks and we tried our hardest to work it out. I think we have the phone in the fish trick worked out and maybe one other. But the rest leave us as clueless as the next person.
Back at the MGM watered and feed we hit the casino for the first time. Emma’s favourite game is video roulette. She is too scared to play real roulette so video it was. I put $20 in the machine and immediately did not grasp how it worked. Intending to put $2 on black I managed to put the full $20 on. Of course it came up red and I had blown my video roulette budget in one spin. We played a few slots before falling in love with the Ghostbuster slot. We walked away with more than we put in and headed to bed.
I had been practising my blackjack technique before Vegas and was eager to try and win us a new house but that would wait. Emma was the walking dead and I was randomly dribbling. We crept along the hallway past the party girls room and like a ninja slipped into our room. We would conquer the casinos tomorrow.