Mojave had been on R-Three’s bucket list for as long as he had been fascinated with aviation, which has been just about all his life. He knew this place as one of the rare graveyards for obsolete aircraft, well before it achieved status as a launching pad for civilian space endeavours.
Sure enough, there they were — aircraft of every description, and seemingly every era, all lined up in the dry, non-caustic desert environment, waiting for ravens of enterprise to slowly pick the usable body parts from their carcasses. It was a delight to behold, to be sure, but the allure of being in the nexus of civilian space enterprise — home to the Roton rotary rocket and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip One and Two — soon took centre stage for us.
In the course of time, we would make our way to the hangar where SpaceShip Two was being prepared for an upcoming test launch (a fatal crash would befall it that October). But before we had a chance to find our way there (through a labyrinth of streets, alleyways, and possible time tunnels), the world as we knew it began to dissolve around us.
Things took a turn toward the bizarre almost as soon as we arrived. For such an active facility, we seemed to be the only people around and had the strong, gusty wind that powered through the place been cold instead of hot, we could have been forgiven for believing we had landed in an Old West ghost town.
We spotted several parked cars, but no people to match up with them. Neither did any of the buildings appear to be open. Even the museum, advertised but its actual location in no way pointed out, had no entrance that we could find once we did locate the building.
We took lots of pictures — of mockups of SpaceShip One, of the Roton rotary rocket display, of plaques that commemorate accomplishments and memorialize lost test pilots, and also of empty public benches and seemingly unoccupied buildings. We worshiped at the base of the Roton rocket for a while, but the absence of people in this wind-buffeted place left us feeling exposed and increasingly uneasy.
We retreated to the relative security of the SUV and began to drive around. At one point we passed between buildings and wound up in an area of shabby loading docks. It looked like it should be active, but the large roll-up doors were all padlocked and also sported heavy chains. Nevertheless, multiple pickup trucks and cars occupied nearby parking spaces, giving the impression there might be inside, at work perhaps, but at least on the premises. Upon closer examination, however, the vehicles all appeared to be 1970s-era models and looked like they hadn’t been moved from those parking places in decades, either.
“Dude,” R-Three opined. “Is this a time warp?”
“Seventies, I’m guessing,” I heard myself surmise. My matter-of-fact tone sounded reflexive and remote, similar to the way it does when I’m dreaming.
We left at once, propelled by a sense of urgency that did not require vocalization.
We returned to the museum area again and agreed to give it another try, just in case. No luck. Suddenly we spotted a restaurant, nestled amid a cluster of buildings that include the museum, the old air traffic control tower and an administration building. It was the Voyager Restaurant, demarcated by a temporary vinyl sign, as though it were either under a new name or new ownership or both. It looked like it might be open. Pleased by this discovery, we nonetheless exchanged quizzical looks, the curiosity of our not having noticed the restaurant here earlier requiring no verbal affirmation either.
Due to the pressure of the wind, I had to pull hard on the door to get it open. But it did comply and we were quite happy to find the restaurant was, indeed, open.
We entered a small, wood-panel, nondescript foyer. Bundles of newspapers were stacked on the floor at the left, underneath a wood-frame open window, where we found a waitress punching in the numbers from a lunch check on an old-style till. Through an open door, directly in front of us, we regarded a few diners seated at tables, at various stages of the ordering-delivery-consumption process.
No one looked up to acknowledge our presence.
I decided to give the waitress at the till a moment to finish what she was doing before announcing our arrival. I made a mental note, while I was at it, of the curious fact that none of the diners, whose space we had just encroached upon, had reacted in any way to our presence either. (Primal instinct normally causes persons in feeding mode to stake out the movements of interlopers entering their space.)
Just then, a manager-type gentleman, entering from the dining area, joined the waitress in the behind-the-counter alcove. He exchanged a few words with her, pleasantly I noted, and then stepped around behind her to stand only a foot or two from where we waited. He was facing us, with only the wall beneath the window separating us.
I said hello.
He acknowledged neither the greeting or our presence.
I verbally excused myself and announced us a second time. Neither of the two persons looked in our direction.
R-Three and I exchanged nonplussed glances. With a shrug, I stepped forward, filling the open door frame and taking a look around the restaurant seating area, wondering whether there was a hostess station, perhaps, where one should check in. There wasn’t. And not a single diner looked up in response to my advance.
“Weird,” R-Three muttered.
“Strange place,” I agreed.
Yet, neither of the comments was derisive in tone, as one might utter impatiently in response to seeing one’s patronage being undervalued by inattentive or dismissive staff. Instead, we both seemed to intuitively understand that what was occurring here was, indeed, strange.
I turned my attention back to the two staffers shuffling about behind the counter, who stood no more than three or four feet away from me at their apogee. I repeated the “ahem-excuse me,” kind of intro, and called out the begging question: whether arriving guests are to seat themselves.
Neither of them responded to me. Instead, they exchanged some still-pleasant banter between themselves before the waitress whirled and whisked herself out the far doorway, presumably to some destination table. The gentleman, still partly facing us and still wearing the remnants of the smile their exchange had left on his face, put his head down and began to busy himself.
It was then that my attention, cued by his movement to the corresponding location on my own side of the divider, noticed the newspapers stacked just below the window. They were dated for the next week!
I pointed out the anomaly to R-Three.
“This place is weird,” he pronounced. “Wanna bounce?”
“While we still can,” I shot back.
Chuckling uneasily, he turned and leaned against the door. It resisted.
“Not so sure how successful that will be,” he said, sardonically.
When he leaned into the portal in earnest, however, it gave way and we made our exit, out into the hot, driving wind.
We exchanged a few words of commentary on the way to the vehicle, each word given especial thrust so as to be heard above the wind and our struggle against it. All words were exclamations of the discordant experience, and bore a kind of giddy character, as though we were on the other side of a near miss of some kind.
As we were getting into the SUV, I noticed a gentleman making his way toward us, or at least heading toward the restaurant. He appeared to be middle-aged, clad in a windbreaker and a baseball cap — two articles of clothing quite out of step with 100+ F temperatures, to be sure — and leaned into the wind, one hand holding the cap to his head. A few degrees of temperature, a few decades and a few thousand miles removed from here, he could have been anyone I might have met on the road, dressed like this, at the end of June. To be honest, what I did next was a barely conscious decision to verify I really was here and not there (or someplace else).
R-Three was on the other side of the SUV already, in the process of climbing in. Grinning, I suggested to him that I should mention to the newcomer he might be entering the Twilight Zone. I promptly stepped away from the vehicle and into the gentleman’s path.
“Fine large day!” I shouted, large as life, and for the moment unaware that I had addressed him as though this meeting was occurring several decades and several thousand miles away from here.
He didn’t look in my direction at all, nor was there any change in his pace or trajectory. Breezing past me, he continued on toward the Voyager. I was more surprised that our elbows — at least — hadn’t collided in the hurried passing, I believe than by any notion of social snub implied by his having perhaps rebuffed my salutation.
“Didn’t say hello?” R-Three inquired when I got in the vehicle.
“As though I wasn’t there,” I replied, and instinctively reached for my iPhone to fire up the Camera app.
“If he even shows up in the picture,” R-Three chortled as my journalistic instinct kicked in and I clicked off a few rounds.
“Precisely,” I said, but had to admit later it was only upon his suggestion that the why of my actions came into focus in my consciousness at all.
Busy with getting the pictures, and then verifying that I had actually succeeded, I didn’t see the man enter the restaurant. R-Three’s attention had been diverted too, and he chuckled along with me when I wondered aloud whether the man had even bothered to use the door.
Increasingly spooked though we were by the multiplying weirdness of the place, we nevertheless poked around on the near-empty streets rather than hightailing it out of town right away. There were things we wished to see here, after all.
R-Three knows military aircraft, so we delighted in locating the skeletons of some Vietnam-era birds. We took lots of photos of them, and even of the present-day Orbital aircraft docked casually at modern jetways. The array of commercial jetliners, here either for repair, storage or ultimate disassembly, was impressive, even at a disappointing distance from the nearest access point. And the prize of locating the Virgin Galactic hangar made trawling through forlorn streets well worth the effort at any rate.
The hangar was located at the far end of a long, narrow roadway that sported warning signs about various and sundry ways rubberneckers could run afoul of local laws and bylaws. A security vehicle, with amber lights flashing, seemed to be staking out ground in the distance around just about every corner we had turned, but once onto the scent of Virgin Galactic’s hangar, we were willing to risk any penalties the authorities might levy for relative malfeasance.
We met only one vehicle: a carload of exiting workers, or perhaps outlaws like us, on our way into the area. I had my arm out the window and, nodded neighbourly-like and waved to the driver of the car that was creeping toward us. The gesture of goodwill went for naught, however, for no one looked our way.
There were no escape routes running off this road, especially once we passed where it narrowed to the point of being barely passable, so we knew we would have to own up to any infraction we might commit. We noticed this with mirth, given the warning signs and the omnipresence of the security vehicle and all. And wouldn’t you know it? Taking photos in this area was one of the offences conspicuously posted, where the road ended at the two hangars.
I took lots and lots of pictures of R-Three against this forbidden backdrop, for posterity sake. It’s what we were doing when I noticed the security vehicle, amber lights flashing, heading with purpose in our direction. We piled hurriedly back into the SUV, though speed would be of little value to us here: the security vehicle occupied most of the barely passable road.
We headed back out, but surrender was my only plan of action. We weren’t really concerned for our personal safety just then, but about other things: we had some pretty expensive photography gear onboard, and it would have been heartbreaking to see it confiscated by an overzealous security officer. So as the distance between vehicles closed to mere feet I slowed and pulled off onto the shoulder, then turned through my open window to offer the saddest mea culpa expression my face could manufacture on short notice.
It was a pointless gesture. The security vehicle, with two uniformed officers occupying the front seats, sauntered on past us with no one as much as looking in our direction. Astonished, my head snapped around so I could look into R-Three’s face. His expression was one of incredulity, and shortly after that, bewilderment. It was followed soon after by uncertainty.
I don’t know how it described itself on my face, but that feeling had dawned full upon my conscious mind. It was like experiencing the unnavigable commotion of the car wreck, hearing the ear-splitting crack of feet-thick ice and the ensuing monstrous roar of enraged waters, and the emptiness of a missed foothold midway up a granite wall — all waiting for you, fully described and enumerated in a region of space I expect would resemble the lip of a black hole’s event horizon. The person experiencing this can’t tell if the constituent events are happening now or then, whether all events are occurring concurrently at the same moment or are stretched out individually over vast expanses of time. The only thing you expect you’re certain of is this: You shouldn’t have survived the unsurvivable — no one should — and perhaps no one ever did.
It is a feeling of displacement more so than fear, but it never fully leaves. It resurfaces from time to time in an intense uncertainty, where you soberly countenance the possibility that you actually hadn’t escaped after all; that everything you think you’ve experienced since might be nothing more than a dying brain’s wrap-up of lived projections, and might have taken mere seconds or minutes, not years, to play out. Where the proverbial “other shoe” you’ve been expecting all along to drop might be, in reality, the inevitable manifestation of awareness confirming this.
What could be more scientific than this?
“Go,” R-Three urged, though his tone was flat and lifeless.
I pulled back onto the road and eased into a reasonably gentle acceleration. We took the first available left and, surprisingly, found we were almost at the main road that led to the highway. I gunned her onto State Route 14, and we hurtled northward toward the draw of Death Valley.
We found the act of pressing on, of expecting to arrive at a planned and desired destination, grounded us. No matter which side of the life-death divide we might be occupying, we agreed, heading toward a particular point of light was what was important.