A wrong turn at Area 51, the top-secret military base near Rachel, led this Harley traveler on an unexpected detour.


Every summer I seek escape from the pressures and populace of New York City by heading out to the desert Southwest on my Harley. I make the trip alone, completely free to set my own schedule and alter my itinerary.

Last summer I took my ninth such desert sojourn. It turned out to lead to an unexpectedly hair-raising detour.

For several months I had researched the remote and highly secret U.S. Air Force Base known as Area 51, located 90 miles north of Las Vegas. Also known as Groom Lake and Dreamland-and until recently so cloaked in secrecy that its funding never appeared as an item in the Congressional budget-this base is said to be the government’s highest- security testing area for experimental military aircraft.

There is another dimension to Groom Lake: It is reputed to be the only site of hands-on government research into UFOs. Some people believe that remains of alien spacecraft (and perhaps the remains of aliens themselves) are stored and studied in a clandestine concrete structure at the south end of the base (a situation explored in the recent movie Independence Day). This mystery piqued my interest, and I decided to investigate aboard my Heritage Special.

It was mid-July and nearly 105 degrees as I headed out of Las Vegas toward Rachel, an outpost on the recently named Extraterrestrial Highway (State Route 375) with a nicely maintained trailer park, small restaurant, and general store-the only evidence of civilization within many miles. I arrived in Rachel a little dusty but refreshed and eager to press on. After checking into my room (the northern half of trailer No. 4), I washed up, made sure I had film and plenty of water, and was back on the bike in 30 minutes. Using topographic maps, I would try roads that offered the best legal approach to Groom Lake.

Body motorized, I shot through the desert landscape, free and flying. Riding is like that for most of us. But in the desert, these feelings are intensified. The openness, the brightness, and the heat all seem to magnify one’s sense of flight.

Suddenly, the skyline changed. In an instant it was dark. I looked quickly both ways. Nothing. And then I saw it. The horizon-the entire horizon-had been obliterated by the awesome blackness of a B-1 Stealth jet bomber. I screeched to a full emergency stop, grabbed the camera, and started snap- ping, but the plane was gone. A distant dot in the bright-blue sky was the only reminder of the metallic mass that had covered the sky only seconds earlier.

Awestruck, I pressed on toward Dreamland. The journey’s final leg—a long dirt-and-gravel road—ended after 13-1/2 miles. I saw several signs, none of them suggesting a warm welcome. “This Is A Restricted Military Installation Entry Strictly Prohibited.” “WARNING WARNING-Absolutely No Trespassing.” “No Photography Allowed-Subject To Search and Confiscation.” My personal favorite was the rather direct admonishment, “DO NOT ENTER-Use of Deadly Force Authorized.”

True, I was curious, but I wasn’t insane. I turned the bike back in search of the one traversable path that, based on my research, seemed to be a legal approach to the base’s perimeter. The road began as fairly hard dirt, passable even for a Harley (which is not noted for its dune-hopping capabilities), but the road soon became much sandier. Still, I hoped to catch at least a glimpse of this mysterious facility I was wrong. My research had not been extensive enough. The perimeter markers, which I had been so careful to follow, were no longer reliable. Unwittingly, I had crossed into a restricted area.

I was not destined to see Dreamland. Instead, I was confronted with a real-life nightmare.

Darting from behind two hills on either side of me, three white Jeep Cherokees emerged with the frightening suddenness of a Stealth bomber. Kicking up sand, the vehicles surrounded the Harley Two camouflaged authority figures shot out of each vehicle, and one leveled a Colt pistol at me.

“Drop to your knees,” he commanded. “Put both hands behind your head.” I tried to find solid ground for the bike, but it went down in the sand. I followed, dropping to my knees in con- fused compliance. This was not the day I had planned.

After more than three hours of background checks, searches of me and the bike, lots of questions, and, of course, more questions, I was issued a summons. This was no traffic ticket—this was a criminal offense, and I subsequently would be required to make an appearance in court in Alamo (unless I elected to plead guilty-not an option as far as I was concerned).

With a sheriff’s deputy as my escort, I was finally allowed to remount the sand-covered bike. As I retraced my path back to the motel, the road I had traveled so excitedly just a few hours ago now seemed much longer.

Later that night, sitting in the Little A ‘Le’ Inn, which serves as Rachel’s bar, restaurant, and motel office, I recounted my experiences to anyone who would listen. One of the locals quietly said that a man sitting alone at a table actually was an employee at the bas—and a Harley rider.

Armed with our apparent common interest in motorcycles, I approached him, hoping to learn, at least second- hand, more about this mysterious government facility that I might never get to see. We chatted briefly about our Harleys and riding in the desert. Maybe my bike would help me get closer to Dreamland.

“50, I understand you work over at the base,” I said as casually as I could. “What do you do over there?”

There was no question-his expression changed. The mood had changed, too. Whatever comradery I had man- aged to establish was now past. “You know,” he said, almost robotically, “you know, I could tell you.” (Really? Fantastic! Maybe I had misread his reaction after all.) “But if I told you,” he continued calmly, “I’d have to kill you.”

It had been a long day. I was ready for it to end. But not permanently. Clearly it was time for me to go to bed.

I had discovered twice in the same day that there are barriers, both physical and personal, that even a motorcycle cannot traverse. Maybe next summer I’ll visit more accessible federal property- like the Grand Canyon.

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