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