IN THE VALLEY OF FIRE, you can detect Black Ops impending arrival before you can actually detect their vehicles. It starts in the dead still of the summer night. No sounds. Nothing moves. Then gently in the West, the distant rustling of sagebrush begins. The rustling grows progressively louder and closer to the fixed observer. Said observer might wonder what disturbance is this that approaches. Within thirty seconds, just as the first vestiges of the breeze reach the skin, the distant roar of a 737's engines emerges from the same direction. The sagebrush all around the observer is now clearly agitated and swaying back and forth, the breeze on the skin growing progressively stronger.
Then you see the lights pop up from beneath the distant horizon, rising ever higher. The 737 is operated by Key Air, a defense contractor that works hand and hand with EEG (now URS Corporation.) What the observer can't see is that all the windows on the plane are blacked out, so no personnel on board can tell where they are going.
The jet soars by overhead, an incongruous cacophony of 20th Century bluster and industry dominating a landscape that has changed little in hundreds of thousands of years. It passes and gradually, the petroleum bellows of its exhaust shifts down the Doppler scale and begins to fade. There is no longer a steadily increasing breeze but a wake of mildly turgid air. Eventually the Black Ops plane, on its way to Dreamland or Papoose Lake up range disappears over the opposite horizon. The air stirs no longer and the only evidence left that something came by this place is the rustling sagebrush in the opposite distance.
Eventually that stops, leaving the stillness and dark; leaving the appearance that one is alone out on this playa. That appearance is an illusion.
Sometimes you have to ask permission to go to certain places in the universe. Humans assume an awful lot about their place in the cosmos. They get to thinking they can go anywhere or do anything they want. This is a mistake on the part of the humans.
The Valley of Fire in Southeastern Nevada is one such place. You won't read about the strange phenomena that occur in this particular valley on any of the official state park websites or Wikipedia. Don't get me wrong. The place is accessible. There are plenty of gorgeous trails to hike, history to explore and even campsites. It is an ancient home of the Anasazi (which should be a clue in itself.) Visitors are encouraged to make a stay of it; so long as they keep their excursions to the daytime, and stay in the campground by night.
The truth is our group had decided to come out to the Valley of Fire to look for UFO's. That's what we did in the late 80's and early '90's in Las Vegas. We were in search of a holy grail of extraterrestrial promise that seemed to be shimmering just outside our front doors. Neighbors told stories of their car's electrical systems dying and restarting randomly out in the deep dark desert. TV journalist George Knapp aired a series of interviews with former EEG defense contractor Bob Lazar who claimed the United States military was actively researching and testing anti-gravity drive vehicles in Area 51 on Nellis' Air Force Base's vast testing range south of the Great Basin. And every other week we were hearing or seeing someone's shaky videotape which showed odd looking balls, what some were even calling "foo fighters" zigzagging in the night AND day skies and the local homemade videos looked authentic, like they couldn't have been faked, and people you trusted swore it wasn't a hoax.
Our goal from the beginning was simple; a close encounter of the first kind. We wanted to see one of these crafts; experience them viscerally for ourselves so that we could make an "informed" decision about them.
By late 1991 though, it was getting to be a little silly around the infamous "black mailbox" off of Highway 375. The scene from "Independence Day" where caravans of redneck ne'er do wells haul their trailers and Winnebagos to the gates of Area 51 clearly had its roots in this scene. Here were Ross Perot supporters, Red invasion conspiracy propagators and well...hippies like us showing up to see something transcendent. And if you didn't see anything when you showed up or on a given evening, the regulars said you could always wait for "Old Faithful," a mysterious light that rose above the mountain line in a straight, vertical fashion, and then sank back down at 4 A.M every morning. There were rumors that it would occasionally make outrageous or aerodynamically "impossible" maneuvers that were worth staying up after Thursday night for.
Calmly watching over the whole spectacle were the Lincoln Counties' finest, sipping coffee and joking with the "tourists." It occurred to me that with the police monitoring the festivities, nothing transcendent would really be allowed to happen. It was looking to me like a gathering of idiots in the desert waiting to be wowed by a false god.
So my roommates Jeff and Dina and I began plotting different areas throughout the desert terrain of Nevada that might afford a much less contrived close encounter of the first kind. We tried sites along Highway 95 and out near Lake Mead before deciding to give the Valley of Fire a try, with our old Air Force buddy Ron in town.
We planned for an early spring evening to start our UFO watching excursion. The valley sits some sixty miles Northeast of Las Vegas and so we had to drive out Interstate 15 and then an access road to the park for a good hour. The idea was to arrive in time to catch the sunset over the red rock canyon that comprises the state park.
We decided to settle, at least for the sunset portion of the trip, at a road marker which overlooked a memorial in a wash for a retired Cavalryman who had perished of dehydration at the very spot in 1913. The memorial looked like a burial mound of sand with a large cross planted on top, and was located about 50 yards from the road side.
I wasn't too surprised when Jeff pulled out a joint but I hadn't guessed at the fireworks he had decided to pack along as well. After screwing our heads on with passable indoor weed, we spaced out into a beautiful sunset.
Though the indirect glare of the set sun hadn't yet taken the brilliant purple out of the mountain horizon, Jeff and Ron decided they needed to set bottle rockets off just then, sending loud percussive echoes through the near valley. I bogarted the last of the roach and lit a couple of sparklers and held them up against the dark sky to the east. I could see stars in the background and it occurred to me that there was a direct relationship between those distant and ancient furnaces and the spectacle of my concentrated gun powder putting on a miniature display. I imagined my sparklers were rocket exhaust that was carrying me up to the stars.
My reverie was quickly interrupted by Ron saying "hey man." I looked over. There was a devilish gleam in his eye.
"I brought a little extra something. Stick your tongue out like a good boy." I knew what this portended.
"We're not supposed to be dosing on every single excursion," I protested. "Yeah right," Ron burst out. "I come all the way out to visit from the Bay and we're not dosing?" I look for support from Jeff and Dina who sidle up with shit eating grins that won't leave their faces for the evening.
"We've already had ours," Jeff said coyly. "Take your vitamins Pablo," Dina chided.
We relocated from the memorial marker down to the seven sisters rock formation a mile down the road, where there are benches and natural seating in the rocks themselves, perfect for reclining. We were liquid blazing and staring at the sky within minutes of setting up our cooler.
Ron was antsy though. He wasn't particularly happy with our ritual of setting up a boom box and playing ambient space jams. He endured this for a bit, but he wanted to go exploring. Jeff and Dina made it clear they were peaking and not interested in any kind of physical motion. I didn't see so much as I felt Ron turning toward me with his plea.
"Whadda ya say Pablo? I need to stretch out and get some movement. Wanna go with me to the trail at Elephant Rock?"
I knew he wouldn't quit. His pattern would be to keep asking and keep annoying me to go on a walk with him until I gave in. I decided to go with it, even though the moon wasn't out yet.
We made our way back toward the Elephant Rock trailhead, on the other end of the park which would take us back past the memorial marker. The stars made their own brilliant light in an otherwise very dark sky. I pointed out to Ron as we walked that the silhouettes of the mountains in the distance looked like caricatures of Native Americans who were in repose, themselves forever staring at the sky.
"Like it's their resting grounds. They're on the ultimate trip, ha ha!" Part of Ron's charm was that he cracked himself up with such organic ease that one could feasibly believe in the authenticity of his goofiness.
"Holy shit, check out this rock wall," he said.
Who knows how long we spent locating various demonic faces in the sheer rock walls that rose on the side of the road. At some point our reverie was broken by the approach of a car from the direction we were walking in.
I saw a little wash off to the other side of the road. "Let's get out of sight," I hissed. We sprinted across the two lane blacktop and dropped down the other side of the wash. We watched the reflection of headlights pass over us on the slope above, and then soon we could see the taillights headed down in the direction we had left Jeff and Dina. The night and the stars washed back over us.
Behind us we heard a sudden rustling, what sounded like a gust of wind. Ron and I whirled to look behind us and saw a few sagebrush sitting on a desert meadow, and nothing else.
"You hear something," I asked Ron.
This time we saw the turbulence, a gust of wind that suddenly kicked up from the vicinity of one sage brush plant, and blew over to another sage brush plant and...
"Did you see that?" I asked.
We scrambled back up to the road. Once there we looked cautiously back out toward the meadow.
"What the hell?" Ron exhaled heavily.
"Um I don't know, I guess...maybe that was just a random gust of wind?"
"What random gust of wind? Do you feel any wind now?"
"And you're actually trying to tell me that was a random gust of wind?"
"Okay fuck that, I just want to get to the trailhead," Ron tells me.
"That's cool," I say. It feels more proactive, possibly even safer, if we keep moving.
We continued on out of that wash, up and over two more rises before descending down into the wash where the memorial is located. Immediately we noticed a difference in the atmosphere. This valley wash was hotter, and there was real noise emanating from this area. The buzzing of crickets created a palpable vibration, as if we could actually touch the shimmering air. The stars seemed brighter and closer. There simply seemed to be more life in the middle of this quiet nighttime desert.
Ron simply said "whoa." We continued forward, down the gentle slope into the wash, and then started back up the other side. Elephant Rock would be another half mile beyond the crest in front of us. I caught sight of the memorial marker to our right and had what I thought in that moment was a great idea.
"Hey Ron, you wanna hike out to the grave site? It's just right out there."
Just as Ron turns his head to look and think about it, a noise like no other we have heard in this lifetime, before or since, comes roaring at us from the exact spot of the grave marker. How can I describe this? If there were a large pit in the ground that led directly to Hell, the wind from that pit would sound like this roar; hollow, cold and black. Every little tiny hair on our skin was standing at attention.
We both stared out toward the grave marker. There was definitely an amorphous shape moving out there, but it was too dark. As soon as I thought I could fix my eyes on it there would be some sort of movement that would mess up my focus.
Ron tried to speak. "Okay, well if we just stay on the road and keep going where we wanna go..."
And then the roar again; louder; close, as if a pterodactyl's voice were resonating through a wormhole with a feedback echo. Something horrible wanted us gone and it was tending to that business.
"Let's get the fuck out of here!" Ron yelled and I wasn't in a place to disagree. We set a brisk pace about face and there was this feeling like we shouldn't run. As if running would make it worse, like most prey. While the sound of our fear and breath and footfalls filled our ears, we kept listening for anything approaching more closely. But as we left the wash, the fear began to noticeably abate. The "vibe" of the wash stayed in the wash.
We were over halfway back to the seven sisters area before I felt comfortable speaking again. "How do we explain this to Jeff and Dina without them thinking we're total acid heads?"
"I dunno," he muttered, "let's just get back first."
"Do you think that was just some kind of wild animal?"
Ron was quiet for a long time as we kept trudging. And finally he said
"No. No fuckin' way."
Jeff and Dina were excited when we got back. "Dude, you have to check this out!" Jeff practically yelled. It occurred to me for a moment to tell him to be quiet, though I would not have normally done this. "We discovered the Doppler effect!"
Jeff and Dina pointed out that the Valley of Fire lay directly in the path of the Nellis AFB flight line, and so a discernible pattern of ecological turbulence with tell tale signifiers could be discerned by...well, the discernible. Ron and I engaged them, and were actually genuinely impressed with their discovery. But he and I kept looking at each and shaking our heads too.
We were going to have to tell them. And when we did, they said "oh man, it must have just been a wild animal or something." But I swear to you reader, that to this day, there is no animal that sounds like what we heard out there that night. It was the sound of Death come back to life and telling us to mind our own business. The human animal knows that sound when it reaches them. And it is a defining moment when it does.
But the fact was neither Ron nor I could argue with Jeff and Dina. They had reason and some fucked up form of objectivity, from not having been there, on their side. Ron and I were just a couple of scared trippers. So we let it go, to get on with the night.