Recollections from the Great Basin Desert
Of course we’re looking for aliens. We came here to crisscross a Utah marbled by salt flats and extruded basalt rising out of the scrub brush to seek out military facilities that conceal otherworldly spacecraft and the preserved bodies of shape-shifting aliens. Is it that obvious? I bet you think our GPS is a detector for cosmic radiation. You might even think that we’re out here looking for wreckage in the open desert as proof for the masses. We could have told you we were rock hounds unearthing fossils from the Triassic Period, or that we were conducting tests for future wind turbines, or that we were filming a documentary about the historical mining culture of the region. We might have even told you the truth; about how we are working for an etymologist on a multi-state study on the effect of treating invasive juniper. You wouldn’t like to hear that, probably, so we can talk about other invaders just as easily. After another long day of collecting global positional data for thousands of waypoints, the fact that you believe we’re chasing aliens lends itself for a moment of the dramatic, and Euell and I can readily take up the routine.
I lever the cap off the bottle of Budweiser the man from opposite our campsite offers me, noticing how he surveys our Jeep; taking in the roof rack slack with the weight of double-stacked tires, the tool kit, propane tank and fuel jerry, the assorted coolers and other odds and ends. In a way it looks like the perfect vehicle for chasing aliens, I realize. Euell returns the bottle opener to the man and wipes the glass mouth with the hem of his shirt.
“You out here doing some hunting of your own?” Euell asks, taking a drink.
“Wish I could say I was,” he says, shaking his head. “Sad to say it’s been a few years now.”
“No kidding,” I say, setting the bottle down on the hood as Euell opens the door to pull the canvas laptop bag from the rear compartment. I notice how the man bends at the waist to openly peruse the contents of the interior with curiosity.
“Got the family up here from Bakersfield to visit the grandparents in Salt Lake,” he says. “Figured we’d hold over here for a week or so to do some fishing.”
“It’s not a bad place,” Euell remarks, as the three of us move beneath the campsite shelter. He sets the case down on the wood- plank tabletop and faces the man. A single yellow axial cable for the satellite antenna falls out on the table when he pulls the laptop free, and the man is clearly intrigued by the bevy of electronic equipment, and says so.
“Ain’t trying hard to hide it,” he remarks. “Hell, you look just like alien hunters. I told the missus I had you figured out after you first came by,” he says. “All this gear, it seems pretty clear now. Where you coming from today?” he asks.
“We travel the whole Basin in fact. Coming out of Stansbury a few days ago we passed by that new weapons depot at Dugway,” Euell explains. “Lots of activity up that way these days.” The man nods understandingly, pushing his glasses back up into his salt and pepper hair that is pulled back in a loose ponytail. Euell looks at me, and I wonder for a moment if I can continue to suppress my laughter any longer. It is incredulous to me that the man has remained so steadfast in his belief that the two of us are indeed of his faction of alien hunters. Instead I stifle the urge to laugh by taking another drink from the bottle.
“I spect you boys know all about how Skull Valley is the replacement location for the new Area 51,” he says. I nod, slightly to appease him, and look over at the trailer jacked up and plugged into the campsite port from where the man had originally appeared.
“News to us,” I admit.
“You boys ever make it over to Groom Lake or Roswell?” “Can’t say that we have,” Euell says.
“Think you’d fine it real nice over in Roswell. The actual crash site is closer to Corona. You’ll find yourself a nice spot up the highway to eat at too. I can’t think of the name now, but they sell sandwiches and a fine piece of apple cobbler,” he says. “Well, figure I need to get back to the missus and see if we can cook up some grub,” he says, with a smile.
“Come on by later,” Euell says.
“Nice meeting you boys. Dammed if I don’t wish I could be your age again. The missus ain’t going to let me chase aliens no more with the little ones around. Leaves it up to boys like you to get the job done, I suppose,” he says.
“Thanks for the beers,” I tell him. He nods and shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans, turning to walk across the road to where a woman is pulling a bag of briquettes from beneath the trailer chassis. They have a pretty decent set up, and for a moment I’m jealous of their relative comfort as I look over to my Thermarest laid out across the gravel, marking where I will pitch my three- season tent. Well, not that jealous.
“Jesus,” I say as soon as the man is out of earshot. “Thought he was being sarcastic at first; but alien hunters?”
“No shit,” Euell says. “Looks like we pulled it off though. Least it was a nice change-up from our regular cowboy routine.”
“We come across all kinds,” I say, running my hand over my three-week beard. I look forward to a shower tonight, and one with hot water no less. Even alien hunters need to get out of the field every once and a while.
I move to sit next to the fire pit and finish the beer, glancing back at the opposite campsite as I hear children laughing beyond the trailer. For a moment I wonder if the man is allowed the courtesy to still regale them with his stories of when he was an alien hunter; back when he might have snuck up over the ridge above Groom Lake to watch black planes lift off in the night, or perhaps hiked out with tour groups to visit pitted impact craters. Stories that once must have been exciting, but then likely turned to the typical. I suspect that he had come over to talk with us as a way to rekindle that departed oral tradition once more. And to be honest,
out of anyone this man might have been fortunate enough to come across during his travels, we surely looked the most like we were chasing something that had fallen from the stars.
In the west, a group of teenagers ramp a pair of jet-skis onto a low-slung trailer at the dock. The heat that plagued the entire region the last time we had come through to the nearby Greenville Bench plot is a distant memory, and the air is now pleasantly still and warm. The narrow valley where the road winds on toward Minersville cuts through fields tended by irrigation and then stands of elm along the banks of the Beaver River. It is looks stranger now that I imagine alien hunters roaming the landscape. Alien hunters like that man, and now like me.
If there were any truth to the matter, I have a feeling that aliens would have surely selected Utah as a destination. This landscape, marred by ancient lacustrine plains and geologic heights, boasts a strange enough habitat for coachwhip snakes, sagebrush lizards, scorpions and cacti that blossom rakish pink; a landscape where wind unearths ancient civilizations and where spindles of glass mark the lesions of lightning strikes. If there was anywhere that mimicked a faraway planet, the Great Basin is that place. At least this man was inclined to think so, and I wonder briefly if his thinking might actually be born out of something other than curiosity and imagination.
In the Cold War era, when the military defense complex began to fabricate stealth technology and atomic warheads in the
open and untamed American West, it would seem likely that such
conspiracies of secret alien crash sites and of visitations from those
alien worlds would originate within this same landscape. The
very literary and cinematic canons of the American West did as much to promote this notion than not. Alien-inspired writing or film, which were largely based on reports of the massing of secret government sites in the region, provided fodder for alien hunters and conspiracists alike. Even today the American West retains this lore with a certain degree of normalcy. When strange contrails mark the open sky, or when trailers bearing military cargo wheel down the interstate only to pull off into what appears to be trackless government land, it makes sense that alien hunters would not be far behind with their spotting scopes and maps. For that matter, it makes sense that it would not have been long before Euell and I crossed paths with one of them.
At the Jeep I unload the dry cooler and return to the table. Euell is staking out his tent as I remove a bag of button mushrooms and a half of an onion and replay the exchange with the man in my head.
“Least he was nicer than those engineers in Austin,” Euell says, joining me. “They were real assholes.”
“Kind of like us in a way,” I say. “We laid it on pretty thick.”
“I suppose,” he admits, as I situate the cutting board atop the cooler. “I bet he wanted us to be alien hunters more than not though.”
“You kinda look like one anyway,” I tell him, returning to the Jeep.
“Go ahead and bring the handheld,” Euell says. I nod and lift the Trimble device from the ballistic plastic case. Goddamn alien hunters indeed. I had enough odds and ends to worry about as it was: from plotting coordinates and marking waypoints on my map quadrants, to crossing fence-lines to search for misplaced corner posts, to dealing with the faulty reception from the Russian satellites ringing the Southern Hemisphere. Okay, so we essentially did look like a pair of alien hunters. All we needed were some laser blasters and more expensive sunglasses.
I place the device atop the picnic table beside Euell and begin thinly slicing the Walla Walla sweet onion with the knife. Firing up the Coleman two-burner stove I wait until the pan is hot before adding the oil and onions. Euell has plugged the device into the field laptop and is downloading the data I had collected at the Onaqui juniper sites the two previous days, as I remove the beef from the cooler.
“Heads up,” Euell says, as he nods toward the trailer. “Alien hunter at our six.”
“You all want some shrimp?” the man asks, as he appears holding three skewers. “The missus made plenty.” I look at Euell and then back at the plump shrimp coated in butter and scored by the grill.
“Can’t see why not,” I say, lowering the heat and covering the pan with a plate. The shrimp tastes like garlic, and when I am finished I flick the translucent tail into the fire.
“I was thinking bout your search,” he says, pointing with his own skewer at the laptop. “Mind me asking what kind of equipment that is?” he asks.
“This here syncs our computer to a satellite receiver that we carry with us out in the field,” Euell explains, honestly.
“No kidding,” I say.
“Jesus, that’s cool,” he says.
I set the skewer aside and resume stirring the onions and meat with the spatula, adjusting the flame as Euell details our data- collecting process. Eating another shrimp, I consider our guest. In a way there was something telling about how he has played out the quintessential American exchange; that the notion of sharing food, history and conversation had come before his suspicions of who we were and what we were doing out here in the Great Basin. He had even shared a secret of his own life, of chasing after aliens, showing that he was akin to us in a way so different than with the others he had surely met on his travels. I realize I feel ashamed that we have prolonged the lie, unwilling to even reciprocate in this tradition. The shrimp begins to taste bland, and I swallow quickly because I suddenly feel repentant.
“Well, I wish you both the best,” the man says, prodding the coals with his skewer.
“Appreciate the food,” Euell says.
“Thanks,” I tell him, meaning it as he waves and crosses back to the trailer.
“The shrimp was pretty good,” Euell says.
“The beer was better,” I say, looking at him. “Man, did we fuck him over with this whole story.”
“Maybe,” he says. “I bet it’s what he wanted to hear all along,” he tells me, walking out from beneath the shelter. “Probably made his day even.”
“Maybe,” I ration.
“We were alien hunters even before we got out of the truck,” he says. “Just like him, we all want to think that others believe in what we believe, no matter how crazy it is.”
I nod slowly before stepping around the fire ring to where I can watch the light fracture over the surface of the reservoir. Maybe Euell is right; maybe our willingness to humor the man and his story explains how alien hunting endures. Maybe that is what the man sought all along. Maybe he knows that as long as people like us are out there in the desert, that one day we will find something alien. Maybe he knows we will tell this story, and in doing so, prolong the questioning we all have about the cosmos. Maybe he just wants to believe that we were like him. It didn’t matter, I realize, because we were alien hunters to him. Maybe it was just that I want to find a reason that made our deception less hurtful. After a long while I walk back and unfold the ground cloth and begin to set up my tent.
Dog-earring the page in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I wipe my glasses with the sleeve of my fleece as the iPod shuffles forward. I adjust the ear buds and lean back against the pillow bent beneath my arm, feeling the cool air wafting into the tent through the open door. After a while I dim my headlamp, and then shut it off completely and stow the iPod. I can now hear the sound of the wind over the reservoir and the shifting of leaves beyond the tent. I lie on my back and stare up from the unzipped opening, allowing my eyes to adjust to the pale light from the campsite. One by one the hard points of stars began to show in the otherwise uniform wheel of darkness. In the northwest, where the slope is a smooth pure black, the braid of the Milky Way is more distinct. I edge the corner of the pillow closer to the opening so I can gain a wider vantage. I often enjoy these moments before I zip up the tent, to roll over and let the labors of the day revolve into dreamscapes and mindless sleep. I then notice in the hazy field of stars a single persistent flare of light traversing the sky: a distant satellite. I watch it for a moment, thinking about the uncharted reaches above, and then the thoughts of alien worlds fade as I reach down to grasp the zipper, drawing it up.
James Stolen is currently an MFA Candidate at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He has work previously published in Bellevue Literary Review and Shenandoah, and work forthcoming at Sierra Nevada Review.