“‘Glenn Leasher was a hot rod buddy of mine,’ Arthur (Arfons) explained. ‘The kind of guy you run into maybe once a year but you get to like. Seeing that junk out there bothered me, it sure as hell did.’” — “Enemy in Speedland,” Sports Illustrated, 1965.
At 5:30 am the phone in your motel rooms rings like a rubber band to the temples. You wake up in Wendover, a town that Craig Breedlove compared to the Western motion picture facades on the old 20th Century Fox lot in Culver City nearly forty years ago, and the one detail that makes that metaphor still applicable is the brackish coffee you are swilling out of a styrofoam cup as half of the motel’s free continental breakfast. Whatever it was that the prop man brewed for Randolph Scott and John Wayne to imbibe out of tin cups around the camp fire scenes, it couldn’t be any worse than this stuff, you say to yourself.
You motor out of this border town to the Salt Flats and then stop when it appears you can see forever. You are no longer on the set of a western. You are not even sure if you are on the same planet anymore. If you had ever landed on the moon, you would know it is a space with an infinite horizon, rife with possibility.
It is futuristic and it is a page out of the past. And it is surreal, although it is difficult to determine which is more other-wordly, the topography or the machinery.
As the rising sun exaggerates the curvature of the horizon, you are struck by the eerie silence of the dawn, a sonic void interrupted by the sporadic tumult of preparation for the day’s record runs, the raising of canopies, the spinning of generators and the sizzling of bacon.
Your nose is tickled by the smells of pork and jet fuel, a vaporous stimulant that is much more inspiring than the motel’s coffee.
You see a ghost.
It is January and frigid. The Salt Flats are under water. I am looking for the jet car known as Infinity which had crashed out here in 1962.
The remnants of the car had been left on the Salt Flats for three years as a rather macabre reminder of how high the stakes were pushed in the Land Speed Record Wars.
The local Highway Department had collected the remains of Infinity and had fenced it off in a surplus yard in the vicinity of Wendover, behind the casinos.
I am in the State Line Casino, a building divided between the two states of Utah and Nevada and their respective mores, with its coffee shop in Utah and the one armed bandits in Nevada.
On the off chance that this obelisk is still intact and not deconstructed and reconstructed into somebody’s swing set, I start perusing the maze of boneyards that lurk behind the casinos, like metallic spider webs…
There is junk everywhere. It is a galaxy of metallurgical refuse, a dormant constellation that resembles nothing if not dark matter, whose gravity is sucking the carnage off the interstate and out of the skies into its lair. While looking amongst the flotsam and jetsam, debris and carnage, I stumble across some abandoned army barracks, a couple of airplane hangars and an airstrip.
The barracks appear empty and have been abandoned for decades. It is desolate, decrepit and rather eerie.
But like space itself, the barracks are not empty. There are some hot rodder-types squatting in the abandoned barracks, not unlike how the Manson Family had commandeered the miners’ cabins up in the Panamint Range in California. The squatters are of the Two Lane Blacktop variety (drag racers with unkempt hair and angular, wiry physiques), with their muscle cars lurking outside. One of the hot rods is a souped-up, jacked-up ‘71 Plymouth Charger — a proper muscle car — and the other is a mid-70s Ford Maverick (!), also hopped up and with a metallic silver paint job, lettered with the moniker “AREA 51.” A ratty curtain accordions open and shut and I get the vibe that these folks are very protective of their lodging and their race cars.
Next, the barracks’ shutters open. These youngish, thin, blotchy-skinned hot rodding waifs demand to know what I’m doing with my camera around the AREA 51 Maverick. They have a gun. They look angry and territorial. I explain that I was just taking pictures of their bitchin’ hot rods. They seem flattered. They put the gun down.
Backing up after taking these snapshots, I run across a naked, solitary plaque on a fencepost. It is a feeble attempt at demarcation of the buildings which housed the Enola Gay and Bockscar bombers and their crews during training missions in WW II. Yes, Wendover is where the Army Air Corp staged its operations during Operation Downfall, the mission which led to the splitting of uranium and plutonium atoms in residential areas of Japan.
I have stumbled into Ground Zero. I have stumbled into the singularity. Its name: Wendover aka “Skull Valley Airport,” according to the paint barely etched into the wooden sides of the hangar, near the threshold.
The hangar hasn’t seen any paint in 40 or 50 years, its coats eviscerated by an extremely unforgiving climate which is either a convection oven or a refrigerator. The air is thick with sodium.
As I step back to frame up the hangar in a disposable camera, I inadvertently back onto the starting line of a drag strip. It is a continuation of the old tarmac. It curves and is ultimately perpendicular to the airstrip and the threshold of the hangar.
This air field has somehow degenerated into the most lo-fi drag strip I had ever set foot on. Wendover Raceway. Home track of the AREA 51 Maverick.
I continue to look for the remnants of Infinity in the junk yards. It is completely deserted except for all of the abandoned hardware lying around.
“Fuck you, Carl! Fuck you!” I hear this off in the distance, and I migrate towards the source of the commotion. There is a Delta 88 up on blocks, but the interior is salvageable as a desert rat is scavenging through it, probably looking for a radio knob for his grocery getter.
“Fuck you, Carl! Fuck you!”
I don’t know if he is aware of my presence — I doubt it as he is pretty into what he was doing.
“My name is not Carl.”
He keeps doing his deal. I just clam up at that point and wait for him to finish his business. He is the one connection to the ruins of the boneyard, where bombers were launched to drop enough munitions to force the end of WW II. He seems to know the inventory of the boneyard. He is my tether to Infinity.
When he was done rooting around and emerges out of the Delta 88, I notice he is a short guy in a green pants from the working man section of Sears. Gas station attendants’ shirt, hiking boots, green baseball cap, full beard.
“How’s it goin’?”
“I’m looking for something called Infinity.”
“Aren’t we all?”