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This post is part of Geek Takeover Week 2014.

There are few offers sweeter to a traveler than, here’s a new car and an open road: go find the most interesting places you can. I was handed the keys to Ford’s 2015 Transit Connect minivan mutated unminivan in Las Vegas right after the 2014 Star Trek Convention, aiming to combine the best science plus fiction stops along the way to Chicago.

Turning On To The Extraterrestrial Highway

The official name of Nevada State Route 375, it was designated the Extraterrestrial Highway in 1996, about a 100 minute drive north of Las Vegas beginning in the ghost town of Crystal Springs.

nevada extraterrestrial highway

The (Now White) Black Mailbox

Those of you who’ve seen the 2013 movie Paul might recognize this sole landmark within a 65 kilometer (40 mile) radius in the Nevada desert. It’s actually the mailbox of ranchers Steve and Glenda Medlin who live kilometers away but its proximity to Area 51 draws has made it an unofficial campground for UFO watchers. The box remains locked and is white because the former black one wasn’t bulletproof. More unusual than alien however was the rain, approximately 7.1 millimeters (.28 inches) or about 2% of the Mojave Desert’s total annual rainfall that fell within an hour.

black mailbox nevada

Rachel, Nevada Population: 98

The only town along the Extraterrestrial Highway that has cleverly aligned itself pro-alien.

rachel nevada ufo bar

The Gates Of Area 51

The United States government officially acknowledged the existence of Area 51 in 2013, meaning they’ve probably moved the Roswell alien bodies somewhere a bit more secret. Although the signs imply otherwise, pictures of the back gate into the Area 51 are allowed; just be sure not to photograph any white vans that might be observing you. And don’t think of walking across the borders for a closer picture, in Rachel they warn that means a few hours of watching sand while held at gunpoint – for starters.

area 51 back gate

The Next Generation Of Solar Energy Technology In Delta, Utah

Meeting the head engineer on this project whose solar panels concentrate sunlight into electrical energy in a variety of ways (more technical details here) was a pleasure for my mechanical mind. From a distance these disks seemed almost abandoned, conversely, this might be the beginning of what solar power comes to look like around the world in the next decade.

utah delta solar delta utah solar power

Shoe Tree On The Outskirts Of Hinckley, Utah

On the outskirts of Delta and Hinckley, Utah is this tree whose origins are mysterious. But whoever threw the first shoe started a trend that hasn’t stopped over the past few years. It might not seem like anything interesting but when it’s the last roadside evidence of humanity you’ll see for 133 km (83 miles), a shoe tree sticks out.

shoe tree hinckley delta utah

Detouring Into The Wasatch Mountains In Alta, Utah

You’ll save around 60% off winter prices at ski resorts like the Alta Lodge in the summer which overlooks scenery that will enamor you with the state of Utah.

utah wasatch mountains

Lemonade For A Good Cause

On the way down after hiking at 2,700 meters (9,400 feet) above sea level, I recharged with some lemonade and cookies these kids were selling to help support children in need through the charity World Vision.

wasatch utah mountains lemonade stand

Driving The Dinosaur Freeway Near Morrison, Colorado

Construction on the Alameda Parkway through these Colorado mountains in 1937 uncovered a number of dinosaur fossils and footprints, originally noticed by some of the workers on the site. Dubbed the “Dinosaur Freeway,” 98 million years ago this was a major migration route for herbivores and the predators who ate them. Though I wouldn’t have known any of this without a tour of the ridge by the volunteers at Dinosaur Ridge. It’s worth the $5 donation just to find out the secret hidden in a flat layer of gray rock at the base of the ridge.

dinosaur ridge colorado tour

Carhenge In Alliance, Nebraska

The story of Carhenge is almost as interesting as the sight of cars sticking out of a Nebraska farm. The father of Jim Reinders, who studied Stonehenge while in England, passed away in 1982. Reinders’ father was a car enthusiast and (I’m assuming after several beers) he decided with 35 family members to create a memorial combining both father-son passions. Five years later, as agreed, the family members met to create Carhenge, which was designed in scale to Stonehenge. The land is maintained by the local group Friends of Carhenge who kindly let the Transit Connect be a part of it for an #unminivan moment.

carhenge nebraska

Kool-Aid Days

This annual festival in Hastings, Nebraska where Edward Perkins invented the drink powder in 1927 is the town’s biggest event. Oh, yeah the biggest celebrity of the weekend was not easy to get a hold of but it was harder for Kool-Aid Man to make the hashtag symbol, though not for lack of effort.

kool aid days hastings 2014

 The Center Of America Is In Lebanon

Somewhat ironically, according to the U.S. National Geodetic Survey (NGS) the geographic center of the lower 48 United States is located at this spot, right outside of Lebanon, Kansas. Stranger, is the tiny, empty chapel right next to it.

geographic center of united states lebanon kansas

The Future Birthplace Of Captain James Tiberius Kirk

In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the whale one) Captain Kirk says, “I’m from Iowa, I only work in outer space.” Since the exact town wasn’t specified, Steve Miller, a Riverside councilmen decided to hold a vote to make it this town, population 1,040. Unanimously passed in 1985, now the town holds annual Trekfest, the last weekend in every June. There’s a museum at this birthstone, placed on land Miller owns – to ensure it can’t be removed by Earth politics.

riverside iowa kirk birth stone riverside iowa trek kirk birth

The World’s Once Crookedest Street

At least at one time, according to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Snake Alley lost its winding record to Lombard Street in San Francisco when someone remembered it was there. The most memorable thing about the brick road designed by three Germans in 1894 was the biker in yellow who made three trips up it in the time I spent photographing Snake Alley.

unminivan moments ford blog

Final Stop Chicago

In the end I covered 14% the circumference of the Earth (at 41 degrees latitude) over 4512 km (2,804 miles), many of it stretches of highway you could pull over on and hear absolutely nothing. Several studies have shown that people living in higher population densities tend to be more withdrawn from strangers plus displaying more overall stress and feelings of aggression.

Some of that might explain why people were so welcoming everywhere I stopped – with little or no advanced warning – telling me where I should go locally or where to stay. On one stormy night in Nebraska, an innkeeper overbooked the only “vacant” hotel in town. The manager was mentally unable to sort out the situation but it was quickly resolved by the group of very drunk softball players staying there with a few room swaps.

When I pulled into America’s third largest city, Chicago, from Snake Alley after 44 hours 12 minutes behind the wheel through 7 states, it seemed more alien than anywhere I had been to since Las Vegas.