2006 Dodge Sprinter - Area 51 Road Trip
Four Days And 2,000 Miles In Dodge's New Sprinter Van-No Top-Secret Clearance Required
Our mission, as we chose to accept it, was to take our spaceship-styled '07 Dodge Sprinter out into the heart of top-secret military activity, both past and present, as well as venture into the unknown world of the Extraterrestrial Highway located near Nevada's famous Area 51. Driven by a thirst for adventure, we packed up our ride with two Diesel Power staffers and three friends who lacked the common sense to turn us down.
Day 1Our crew of merry mischief-makers included Diesel Power Editor David Kennedy, Associate Editor Jason Sands, Jp Magazine Editor John "Center of Attention" Cappa, Diesel Power Web guru Jason Gonderman, and our secretive military tour guide, Warren Ellis, who mumbled something about being in "communications."
There are old-time rumors of Southern California hills shaking-not from earthquakes but from the testing of rocket engines-so our first stop was Rocketdyne, where we checked out the company's old testing facility (or at least got a look at the front gate). We also examined an awesome F-1 rocket engine, which at 20,000 pounds, seemed a little too heavy to power our Sprinter until we learned it made 1,522,000 pounds of thrust. For means of comparison, a 747 jet makes 232,000 pounds from all four engines. We want one.
Our third stop turned out to be the church that was featured in the movie Kill Bill: Vol. 2, which stumbled upon about 20 miles outside of Palmdale, California. We poked around for a while and tried to find Uma Thurman's footprints, but soon continued on.
Not far away from the church, we spotted Plant 42-which is right outside Lockheed's famous Skunk Works-and saw a couple of SR-71 Blackbirds on display. With a top speed of around Mach 3 (2,100 mph), an SR-71 still holds the coast-to-coast flight record of 68 minutes and 17 seconds. The SR-71s, however, were just a prelude to the main attraction of the day: China Lake, which is famous for its development of the Sidewinder missile and continues to be a test site for various planes and weapons. The entire crew was on explosive-device overload as we got tosee all sorts of awe-inspiring weapons, and Cappa got to fulfill his lifelong dream of hugging an atom bomb. All sorts of heat-seeking, air- and sea-launched missiles were on display along with a few unmanned drones that had us wondering if they could be the reason people often report seeing strange lights in the night sky.
Day 2We were venturing into the unknown, so we decided we should arm ourselves with only the essentials needed to survive, which turned out to be ice, water, drinks, food, magazines, a police scanner, two toy helicopters, and a box kite. After about an hour of fiddling with the scanner and crashing the helicopters into the van (not to mention Cappa's assertion that the van was big enough to fly the kite in), we entered Death Valley, where our troubles started. The Sprinter's outside temperature thermometer had registered an incredible 126 degrees F while the van was parked in the sun and had sent the Sprinter into some sort of limp mode.
After about 20 minutes of climbing hills in Third gear at 27 mph, we stopped to let the van cool off and to hike around a bit. Letting the van rest and the computer reset seemed to work because we were off to the races when we started up again. With our newfound diesel power restored, we found that the Sprinter handled pretty well by blasting around some 25-mph corners.
Turns out we weren't the only ones to have a hard time, as many different carmakers use Death Valley as a testbed because of the extreme temperatures and elevation changes. A Hummer H3 with its hood up was found by the side of the road, and we scrambled around hoping to see a new diesel under the hood. Nope. Plain, old gas. Darn.
Then we saw a fully camouflaged Mercedes, but our ears strained and didn't detect any diesel clatter. We climbed up out of Death Valley and set our sights on Beatty, Nevada (our stopping point for the night), when we circled around a building that David said "looked funny." Sure enough, there was a BMW X5 with a trailer behind it (who tows with an X5?), and as we turned the corner, we stumbled upon BMW's secret test base, full of about 20 different cars and SUVs, all in camo, or with funny-shaped body panels. We were too excited to check underneath for particulate filters to see if any were diesels, so instead, we all piled out of the van and ran around like little kids, snapping pictures and high-tailing it the heck out of there before we got caught.
As nightfall approached, we rolled into Tonopah, Nevada, had a couple of drinks, and practiced our low-light and nighttime photography in case we saw any UFOs or experimental planes in the sky. We were hopeful because Tonopah was the site where the F-117 stealth fighters were first flown.
During our drive out to an isolated area, we found out the Sprinter van would defuel at 81 mph and we could go for miles without seeing another set of headlights. After a few hours of taking weird, multiflash photographic images of the Sprinter and flying our toy helicopters around (which had little blinking lights), we decided that if anything was going to be mistaken for a UFO, it would probably be us. We headed for the hotel.
Day 3Our first stop of the day was the site of a 1-megaton underground atomic-bomb test known as Project Faultless. Occurring about 75 miles east of Tonopah, the explosion was a test to see if the region could support further testing of larger-yield bombs. It couldn't. The underground bomb, buried at 3,200 feet, shot debris 15 feet up in the air before caving in a 4,000-square-foot area about 10 feet. The real problem, though, was it caused several minor earthquakes and created fault lines that were about 2 miles long. We were all happy to be visiting something as awesome as an old nuclear test site, so we traversed about 20 miles of dirt roads to get to ground zero-a big cement and steel cap where the bomb was lowered into the earth. The signs that read "Petroleum impacted soil" had us worried because we assumed it meant, "This area is still a little radioactive." After tromping around for about an hour and checking out the still-visible fault lines, we made sure to empty the dirt out of our shoes before getting back intothe van.
That afternoon, we were heading toward the bread and butter of our trip: Rachel, Nevada, home of the Extraterrestrial Highway and Area 51.
We started searching channels on the scanner in earnest, and Cappa volunteered to put on the alien-detecting hat for our trip into the desert metropolis that is Rachel (population 98). We were comforted to see the main restaurant in the area (called the Little Aleinn) had a 24-valve Cummins parked out front. If there were aliens, at least one of the first modes of transportation they would see would be diesel-powered. We stopped and had lunch there, and while Cappa was distracted with an electric fly swatter, Jason Sands asked the tough questions: "Where is the best spot to see aliens?" We also got a glimpse of the Little Aleinn's secret Area 51 room, where photographic evidence of unidentified crafts litter the walls. By the time we were done with our Alien Burgers, we had high hopes of seeing something unusual as we headed toward Area 51's main gate.
The main gate is actually a dirt road that appears to lead toward the middle of nowhere. The only way we knew we were on the right track was our trusty Area 51 guide. A few miles down the dirt road, we actually saw the Area 51 bus-the vehicle that takes workers into the compound-so we knew we were getting close (and proceeded cautiously). A few miles farther down, the dirt road narrowed into a sort of pass, wherethere were hills on either side and the road wound through. As we came closer, we started seeing signs that read "Photography of this area prohibited" and "Use of deadly force authorized." We had the feeling we had hit the end of the line and soon spotted surveillance cameras on top of one hill and an unmarked truck on top of another. We made the wise move and turned around before any more attention was drawn to the large van with three antennas mounted on top of it. We had another way in mind.
We read in the tour book we had acquired from the Little Aleinn that there was a back way to get a glimpse of Area 51, but it required 22 hard miles of off-road driving and a four-wheel-drive vehicle. No problem. Undaunted, we set off along the back road through mountains and canyons in our two-wheel-drive Sprinter. To make matters worse, a hard rainstorm had hit a day or two before, and the road had been washed out. Surprisingly, the Sprinter handled the rocks and mud better than most new pickups. After about 19 miles of twists, turns, brush, and sand, we reached an impasse-a spot where the road was washed out almost completely-and there was a huge hole in the road about 4 feet deep. At first, we thought we could fill in the hole and continue on, but then we realized the trail only got worse. Guess they weren't kidding about having four-wheel drive. With 19 miles completed, that left a good 3 miles to hike up to the hill we could see Area 51 from, then it would be about another 90-minute hike to the top. Miles from civilization, we made the only decision we could and started to pack for our hike to the top.
In the middle of nowhere, where there were no people and just a few jackrabbits for company, our troop set off up into the uncharted lands around Area 51. The fact that it was night made it even more intense, and more than one person made the "they'd never find our bodies" remark. The road got worse and worse the farther we proceeded until it was nothing more than a wide hiking trail. Jason Gonderman, who said, "I'm not dying on this mountain," had a tough job carrying food, water, cameras, and other miscellaneous equipment because he was the only one with a backpack. About two miles in, with the trail up the hill nowhere in sight, both Jasons called it quits because a) we didn't know where we were going and b) our sanity was questionable for being there in the first place. So the group split up, with Jason Gonderman and Jason Sands heading back to the van while Warren, David, and Cappa continued on.
A little before midnight, David, Cappa, and Warren arrived back at the Sprinter in one piece and told their story. "It wasn't that far to the hill," they said, indicating it was about 20 minutes past where the group had split up. The hill, however, was almost straight up, and they had to crawl on their hands and knees to keep their balance and had to rest about every 50 feet.
Finally, Cappa, who was the mountain biker of the group, said he would scramble up to the top to see if it was worth seeing. "It was amazing! No wait, I'm lying," Cappa said. Everyone asked what Area 51 looked like, to which he replied, "You know, I was expecting it to look a lot cooler. It just looked like a huge Wal-Mart parking lot from about 20 miles away. You could see a lot of lights, but that was about it." To drive the point home, he also added, "I probably won't even make fun of you guys later for not making it to the top."
Not only that, but no one saw any strange sights in the overcast sky-military, UFO, or otherwise. All there was left to do was pack up the van and start the blurry-eyed drive back to our hotel.
Day 4This was probably the most uneventful day of all because it was the drive back home. We headed back toward Las Vegas (which is only about 100 miles from Area 51) and stopped briefly at the Boomtown Casino to shoot some wooden cowboys with laser-tag guns. After we had our urge to shoot stuff satisfied, we continued back to Los Angeles, where seeing one car every hour suddenly turned into seeing one car every minute, and finally turned into regular L.A. traffic.
Although we didn't get any top-secret info on aircraft or photographic proof of aliens on our Area 51 trip, our jobs writing at our desks seemed a little less exciting than they used to after three days of rocket engines, camouflaged vehicles, radioactive test sites, and exploring the unknown. To us, our Sprinter van Area 51 trip was a success, and that's all that matters.