Talking Travel with Harry Helms

Today, Gadling got a chance to sit down and Talk Travel with Harry Helms, author of Top Secret Tourism: “Your Travel Guide to Germ Warfare Laboratories, Clandestine Aircraft Bases and Other Places in the United States You’re Not Supposed to Know About.”

Here is the unseen America of government facilities and installations protected by a wall of secrecy, deception, and misinformation. It includes huge, isolated areas (some larger than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island), along with innocuous office buildings located in the middle of major cities. This “other America” has an enormous impact on your life, but you probably have little idea of its extent, scope, and power.

As per usual, we have a few copies of the book to give away, so stick around after the interview to find out how you can get your hands on one.

Hi Harry, thanks so much for chatting with us. How did you get started traveling? Was it something you grew up with?

I was fortunate to have parents who enjoyed traveling, especially my father. He was the sort of guy who was always curious about what was over the horizon and wanted to see it for himself. He also enjoyed visiting obscure, out-of-the-way places, and that rubbed off on me. While I would never turn down the opportunity to visit someplace like Paris, I most look forward to visiting places most people have never heard off.

In your book, you travel around the country
and visit “top-secret America.” What kinds of places are these?

These are places that have come into being since World War II, and include government weapons testing and research facilities, bases used to test still-secret aircraft designs, relocation facilities for government VIPs and military officers in case of nuclear war, facilities used for espionage training and communications intercepts—in other words, the sort of places to government would rather you know nothing about!

How did you get interested investigating places you were told to avoid?

This started back when I got interested in visiting ghost towns and Native American rock art sites in southern California, Nevada, and Arizona and started finding these fenced-off areas, complete with warning signs and sometimes security patrols, in the middle of nowhere. I especially remember trying to locate a rock art site near China Lake in the southern California desert; I took an unmarked, poorly-graded dirt road I thought led to the site and instead came to a guardhouse manned by armed guards. Most of these places would not be marked on U.S. Geological Survey or Bureau of Land Management maps, and that got wondering what was going on inside those areas. To find out information about these sites, I had to do digging into such arcane documents as environmental impact statements, aeronautical maps and charts, lawsuit depositions, etc. It was like putting together a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, and I’m still trying to fit a lot of pieces!

Is there any sort of physical or legal danger involved in visiting any of the sites in your book?

Unless you do something really stupid like willfully trespass into a restricted area, you’re in no danger of being shot at or apprehended by security forces. However, visitors to some sites may be hassled by security forces and the local police, and they make ask you to turn off any video or photos you’ve made of the area. As I advise in my book, the best thing to do in such situations is to comply with their orders and then discuss things with an attorney when you get home.

Many of the sites I discuss in my book are located in very remote sections of the American west, and you may be over 100 miles from the nearest gas station or medical care. Your car should be in good working order with a spare tire, and a first aid kit, water, food, and other emergency supplies would be a good idea before visiting such isolated sites.

There’s a certain appeal to discovery, whether you’re plodding through a dense, untouched rain forest, or sneaking around secret government facilities — do you recommend the average Joe go out and discover their own “top-secret” locations? If so, what are some things to keep in mind to stay safe and out of jail?

One of the best tools I’ve found to discovering top secret locations is aeronautical maps and navigational guides. If you see an area that is off-limits to all air traffic, military and civilian, on a 24/7 basis, that’s a very good clue that something interesting and top secret is going on in that area. As always, the key to staying safe, both physically and legally, is to obey all warning signs and avoid trespassing into such areas. That can be hard to do; for example, the boundary at some facilities may be marked only by orange posts spaced 100 feet apart. If you’re not absolutely sure of where the boundary is, don’t push your luck!

Nevada Test Site seen from Google Maps

What’s your favorite top-secret location featured in the book?

Oh, that’s easy—the Nevada Test Site, located about 65 miles north of Las Vegas.

Why there?

One reason is that it’s such an outrageous place—-it’s where 126 aboveground and over 800 underground nuclear bomb tests were conducted between 1951 and 1992. It’s the most heavily nuked piece of real estate on the planet, and has huge blast craters resembling those on the moon, networks of underground tunnels, and replicas of suburban housing developments so the effects of atomic bomb blasts could be studied. While they no longer test nuclear weapons there, they do admit they conduct open-air tests of hazardous materials—-supposedly to study the effects on accidental spills and chemical weapons—and, according to a 2001 report in the New York Times, conduct germ warfare tests there. So the location of the Nevada Test Site isn’t a secret, but exactly what’s going on in there is still shrouded in deep secrecy.

The other crazy thing about the Nevada Test Site is that they offer monthly tours from Las Vegas. They bus you up there, you can’t take any photographs, video camera and binoculars are forbidden, and you’re not allowed to even make sketches of what you see. But you do get to see the inside of the facility and several of the buildings, nuclear test sites and craters, etc. It’s just wild to see such a combination of great secrecy and comparative openness.

The first place that comes to the reader’s mind, no doubt, is Area 51. What did you find there? What can someone expect to see if they follow your lead?

As I describe in my book, there are two access roads leading you to the Area 51 boundary, and they’re both located north and south on Rachel, NV, along Highway 375. If you go there hoping to see space aliens and crashed UFOs, you’re going to be disappointed—-all you can see are warning signs, security guards, and, from the north entrance to Area 51, a guardhouse. The security guards will be watching you from their vehicles parked just inside the Area 51 boundary. I’ve looked at their vehicles through binoculars and have seen them looking back at me through their binoculars, I’ve waved at them, and they’ve waved back. So the security guards there can be friendly so long as you stay outside the border.

At night you will see all sorts of moving lights in the airspace above Area 51. I don’t think these are UFOs, but instead are likely military aircraft, including some still classified secret.

Have you ever found yourself in hot water for accidentally crossing a line, or going where you weren’t supposed to?

Fortunately, I’ve never been arrested but did accidentally wander about a mile inside the Nevada Test Site back in the late 1990s. I came to a dirt road with an open gate, drove down the road, and it wasn’t until I had traveled about a mile that I noticed signs telling me I had entered the site. I turned around and got out, and then noticed “no trespassing” signs on the other side of the gate. However, security has been greatly increased at such sites since the 9/11 attacks and the chances of such accidental entries is much lower these days.

Have you ever been surprised by the lack of security at what is supposed to be a top-secret facility?

Not just shocked, but horrified! For example, there are some nuclear test sites which on public and which can be freely accessed by anyone—-they’re totally unguarded. Radioactive materials could be retrieved from such sites and used to make a “dirty bomb,” for example. But, as I said before, security at most sites has been greatly increased since 9/11.

Is there a top-secret location you tried and tried to gain access to — but just couldn’t? Or perhaps a place so top-secret you chose to avoid all together?

There’s never been a place I couldn’t get close to, but I have heard rumors about several places that I couldn’t confirm. If I couldn’t verify that a place existed, I left it out of my book. While I didn’t avoid any place, there are some sites, like Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, that gave me the creeps. You’re out in the middle of nowhere, so isolated your cell phone doesn’t work and you can only pick up a couple of radio stations, and me and a couple of security guards were the only people within 50 miles. It’s tough to keep your imagination from running away from you in such a situation!

Thanks so much for your time, Harry!

It was my pleasure, and be sure to obey all the warning signs if you visit any of the places I describe in my book!

As promised, we have copies of the book to give away to two lucky Gadling readers! Just leave a comment below and our magical system will automatically select three random winners — but make sure you use a valid email address, as we’ll have to contact you to get your mailing address. For official rules, please click here. Comments and contest will close one week from today, June 27 at 8:00 PM.