AREA 51, Nevada, 1987 by Ruth Nolan, from a memoir about working in the Mojave Desert as a helicopter hotshot crew member in the BLM’s California Desert District…
Area 51, Nevada 1987 is published in LUMEN Issue 1
I’m on top of a mountain, somewhere in Nevada, but other than that, I have no idea where I am. Just that I’m the vicinity of Area 51, home to top secret U.S. military activities and, some say, inexplicable alien sightings and extra-terrestrial activities.
I’m the only woman on a crew of 12, based out of the Bureau of Land Management Apple Valley Fire Station in the Mojave Desert, a two hour drive east of Los Angeles, but there are only six of us up here tonight. We were flown in from tiny Caliente, Nevada, 180 miles northeast of Las Vegas, hours ago, as dusk was settling in across the sky, on the 212 Helicopter used for our initial attack flight crew. We are designated as a first responder crew throughout the desert Southwest, on-call 24-7 as a small, first responder crew when desert wildfires break out.
I have no idea what time it is, just that I’m shivering so hard, lying here on the rocky ground next to the rough fireline I cut earlier this evening with the guys on the crew, that I’ve woken up. I can hear a few of the others snoring, and it seems I’m the only one who’s awake.
This is one of my very first assignments. Lightning is the cause of this fire, and we’ve managed to keep it down to burning less than an acre by cutting down blazing Pinyon pine trees and clearing Juniper bushes away with chainsaws and Pulaskis. The Pulaski is a specialized two-headed steel tool with an axe on one side, and a grubbing instrument on the other, designed specifically for fighting wildland fires in terrain such as what we are seeing up here.
On the 30 minute flight here from Caliente, I looked down at the ground rushing beneath us, so that I could avoid getting airsick, and so I could convince myself that we weren’t heading too far from town, but there were no roads, no houses, no sign whatsoever of human life across the parched and moon-like desert landscape below us. Several times, our strapping crew boss, Mark “Buster” Hennessey, shouted over the through his flight helmet and the deafening noise of the helicopter, that the fire we were going to was in Area 51. By all appearances, it certainly appeared that we’ve dropped off the edge of civilization and entered a surreal sort of twilight zone, a sensation made all the more unsettling by how very dark it is out here now, how very quiet and still and lonely.
I look up, half-asleep, feeling stoned and dazed. Glass-cut stars beam down at me. There’s no light at all, except for a very faint smudge of light on the far away horizon, which I can detect when I lift my head off the ground. I realize that must be Las Vegas, and wish I were there, instead, tucked into a hotel room or playing roulette, sipping beer, with my boyfriend Zach.
And I remember Zack’s voice, thick with sarcasm, taunting me as I left the house a few days ago to go to work at the fire station, which isn’t far from our adobe desert cabin, where he lives with me. “You think you’re such hot shit, on a hotshot crew, don’t you?” I see his face, twisted in a smirk, hovering over me. “You’re only doing it because you want to fuck all the guys on the crew, aren’t you?” I blink hard, willing the image and sound of his angry voice away, but it’s hard to erase.
So I sit up, teeth chattering, pull the Velcro tabs at the wrists of my yellow fire-resistant Nomex shirt as tight as I can, then fold my arms close to my chest and lean forward, trying to pull myself into a little ball to gather warmth into myself. I have no idea what time it is, because I don’t have a watch. This is many years before cell phones are invented, and it’s doubtful I’d be able to get reception anyway in this extremely remote place.
It’s hard to believe how cold I am, remembering how hot I was just a few hours ago while cutting fireline, drenching the t-shirt beneath my Nomex shirt with sweat. That must be why I’m so chilled. My t-shirt never got a chance to dry off completely after the sun went down and the temperature, although it’s June and the day was hot, over 100 degrees, plummeted. I have no idea how cold it is up here on this desert peak, but it’s enough to make my teeth chatter so hard it feels like they’ll break apart. Being exhausted and feeling the soreness creeping into my shoulders and arms from the hours of brutal work I did earlier this evening doesn’t help.
I’m scared. I wish I had a blanket, but out here, that’s a ridiculous thought. Each of us only has what we can carry on our backs, including as much water as we can clip onto our belts in one-quart plastic bottles issued by the BLM, a headlamp that fastens onto our plastic yellow hard hats, and, of course, our tools, which weigh a considerable amount. I’m using my mandatory fire shelter, folded and bundled into a pack the size of two boxes of brown sugar – our only defense against a fire blow up and to be used only in emergencies, at the direction of our crew boss – as a sort of pillow.
I’m thinking of unpacking my fire shelter, also known as a “shake n’ bake” for obvious reasons, to wrap myself in to get warm, but I’m too well-trained to do that – we’ve been repeatedly told that opening a fire shelter without permission is actually grounds for a felony charge. I’m cold, but I am too scared to defy authority.
I look to my right, and see one of my crew-mates, Josh McKinney, curled in an uncomfortable position, his hand under his head. He’s shivering, too, but it looks like he’s still asleep. He’s only about five feet away from me. I slowly crawl towards him, getting as close as I dare without touching him, hoping to generate a mutual body heat, but not wanting him to think I’m being suggestive. Soon, although I’m embarrassed, and hope he doesn’t wake up and get angry at me, or think I want to have sex with him, I’m curled up behind him, in a spoon position, and I begin to feel a little bit warmer, and not so alone.
Down the fireline, Buster snores loudly, not a care in the world, and getting deep rest. He’s a big, blonde, rough guy, 6’4,” with a pregnant, petite blonde wife at home, and he yells at all of us a lot. He seems to yell even more at me, and sometimes his tone is snide or downright cruel.
“You were scared to get out of the helicopter tonight, weren’t you, Ruth?” Buster had sneered in front of the rest of the crew as we’d devoured our awful, dehydrated chicken casserole dinners out of our military-issue, plastic green MRE (meal-ready-to-eat) pouches. “I saw you hesitate to jump out. I know this is a lot for a girl like you. Maybe you shouldn’t be out here, you think?” I’d ignored him, and smiled politely, smoldering inside, and thinking of all the things I wanted to say to him, but was too insecure, and frightened, to voice.
I tell myself firmly to forget about it, and try instead to concentrate on staying warm, on trying not to guzzle the little bit of water I have left in my canteen, even though I’m thirsty, and on trying to feel less like breaking down and sobbing. I feel like hugging Josh, maybe waking him up and telling him how cold and scared I am, and seeing if he can help me, but I don’t. Josh is one of the nicest guys on the crew, and he’s 24 years old, like me, and he’s cute, and I want him to respect me.
I’m glad he’s next to me, especially when I start remembering, like I always do, on my many sleepless nights during the past seven years, the baby I gave away when I was 17. Her face seems especially clear tonight, layered across the Milky Way, and, through my exhausted and spacey daze, I look into her eyes, which blink back at me, and I search for some indication of who she is in her newborn awakening. I wonder hazily where she is tonight, and hope she is sound asleep, and safe in her little bed.
I remember what it felt like to hold her in my arms before the social worker took her away, three days old, and hear my father’s voice, telling me I’d soon forget about her and get on with my life, and that I was saving our family from being ruined by the shame of my disgraceful behaviors. I haven’t talked to my parents in over a year, and they don’t even know where I am tonight. They don’t know I’m working on the fire crew.
I know I should try to sleep. We’re supposed to start working again as soon as it starts to get light, and mop up any remaining embers or flare-ups in the charred area that’s already burned, and make sure the fire is entirely out, and that will probably be soon. I hear a gentle crackling noise, and open my eyes. The fire is still smoldering and just a few feet away from my face, I see a small flame leap up, stoked by the light wind, then settle down, and disappear. It sounds like a soothing lullaby.
I have no idea when we are getting out here, no idea when Helicopter 554 will return.