A Search on Forbidden Ground
If you’re hunting for signs of travelers lost in uncharted space, what better place to look than the land of flying saucers?
That’s where anthropologist Jerry Freeman of Pearblossom found himself when he set off to follow the trail of the Lost ‘49ers--the wagon train that ended up in the desert instead of the gold fields when it made a wrong turn about 150 years ago.
It was a stubborn guide that sent the wagon train crawling through the empty desert on a journey that ended in tragedy and gave Death Valley its name.
It was a stubborn government, however, that sent Freeman creeping through the same cactus-studded terrain, now better known as the Air Force’s supersecret Area 51, north of Las Vegas.
When officials refused to escort the 55-year-old Freeman onto their isolated Nevada test range to hunt for remnants of the ill-fated pioneer expedition, he set out on his own secret expedition.
He didn’t see any UFOs on his weeklong hike into the research and test center, Freeman says. But Area 51’s high-tech guards didn’t see him, either.
Famous for swooping down on sightseers who venture too close to Area 51, the security force is known as a no-nonsense crew that reportedly uses hidden ground sensors and infrared viewing devices to look for intruders. Roving armed guards in four-wheel-drive vehicles and helicopters also patrol the center.
“I feel if they’d caught me in there they’d have lit me up like a Roman candle,” said Freeman, a Cal State Long Beach cultural anthropology graduate who works as an Antelope Valley teacher.
Although the government is tight-lipped about what goes on there, the site 100 miles north of Las Vegas is thought by some aviation buffs to be a testing ground for Stealth aircraft. More fanciful lore, most recently bolstered by the movie “Independence Day,” suggests that the government studies captured flying saucers in special labs that are hidden beneath the area’s dry lake beds.
Freeman maintains that he was looking for evidence of the Lost ‘49ers, not of space aliens, when he stuffed a backpack full of food and water canteens last April 27 and sneaked into the Nevada test range.
The story of the Lost ‘49ers is one of the saddest chapters of the California Gold Rush.
The pioneers were traveling with a group of about 100 wagons headed west to the Mother Lode in late 1849. Remembering the misfortunes of the Donner party that had been trapped two years earlier by snow in the Sierra Nevada, the wagon train decided to bypass the mountains by heading south.
Near what is now Cedar City, Utah, the wagon train’s guide came across a map that showed what appeared to be a shortcut through the mountains. Hoping to save time, the group turned west once more.
More than half the wagons backtracked after a few miles when their owners realized that mountains were ahead. The 27 others kept following the bogus map and soon found themselves lost.
What resulted was a seven-week ordeal that ended up costing the Lost ‘49ers their wagons full of possessions, their oxen and, in the case of at least four of them, their lives. Nine others were never found.
Their 330-mile trek sent them meandering through some of this country’s most rugged and arid land. One group was stranded in a waterless area that they named Death Valley in honor of a companion who died there.
Survivors of the wagon train regrouped in February 1850 near what is now the Santa Clarita Valley’s Magic Mountain before continuing on to the gold country.
Two years ago, Freeman and a small group of amateur historians and archeology buffs retraced the route of the Lost ‘49ers and located six of the seven trail markers that the pioneers had carved on rocks and then carefully noted in a wagon train journal.
But government officials blocked their entry onto the Nevada test grounds. The Air Force turned down repeated requests to escort Freeman--blindfolded if necessary--to the seventh rock inscription. The Pentagon even rejected an appeal on his behalf from Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita).
Freeman said he started his unauthorized 100-mile round-trip hike from an isolated side of the Department of Energy’s nuclear test site, skirting craters left from atomic bomb blasts before entering the forbidden Air Force land.
Once there, he hiked to Nye Canyon and Papoose Lake--two sites mentioned in the wagon train journal. The canyon is where the 1849 inscription was carved in rock; the dry lake bed is where pioneers pitched camp the last time before splitting up and sending one group to its Death Valley doom.
In his handwritten journal, Freeman records how he avoided detection by traveling at night and ducking behind clumps of cactus when guards appeared. He describes a large “city” of buildings illuminated at night by pulsating lights (an old nuclear device assembly area, it later turned out), strange vibrations in the ground and a mysterious ship that rests on the desert sand (a remnant of the days of atmospheric testing, authorities said).
He also discovered what seemed to be a lighted doorway that appeared and disappeared in the darkness of distant Papoose Lake--thought by conspiracy buffs to be the site of an underground hangar where scientists have tried to reverse-engineer a crashed flying saucer.
Freeman said he managed to reach Nye Canyon but didn’t find the inscription. By the time he got there, he was out of water and had only a few hours of daylight to search before making a moonlit dash back to a Department of Energy water pipe to refill his canteens.
By that time, a thirsty and weakened Freeman had done what the Lost ‘49ers had done: jettisoned all nonessential gear to lighten his load. Left behind were binoculars, clothing, a butane stove and a cellular phone that he had used to make coded calls to family and friends to report his hike’s progress, he said.
Several months after his unauthorized trek, a Las Vegas newspaper published portions of Freeman’s journal detailing his trip. That caused jaws to drop in government offices.
“It disappointed us and hurt our feelings,” said Capt. Lee Bloom, a spokesman for Nellis Air Force Base, where Area 51 is located. “We don’t have a lot of trespassing.”
Freeman says he only photographed geographic features on his hike, no classified subjects. He recently screened an edited, eight-minute video of his trip to an impressed audience at the Adventurers’ Club of Los Angeles.
Freeman plans to write a book about his trek. And he’s convinced that he came within a few hundred yards of the ‘49ers’ inscription.
“Another couple of quarts of water, another couple of hours,” he said, “and I’d have found it.”
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.