Somewhere, as it sluices like a concrete river through the hard-baked, sun-bleached plain of the Nevada desert, there's a dust trail that leaves the highway and heads off apparently to nowhere. Or at least, that's what we've been told. As we shudder to a halt at the side of the road and wait for the dust to die down so we might see where the hell we are, we're beginning to wonder if it exists at all.
We're slowly cooking in a 1974 pickup that looks like it might have enjoyed a previous existence as something roadworthy. Our driver is also our guide. Randy 'Peanuts' Murphy has lived in this neighbourhood for over sixty years and - according to the people who recommended him to us - he knows this land like the back of his hand. When we heard about a secret complex, hidden somewhere in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Peanuts seemed like the perfect man to accompany us. Now, as we sit alongside the rank old coot 'somewhere' along the bleached white spine of the highway, we are starting to wonder if we've made the right decision.
"Thing is, the desert is a bitch," Peanuts tells us, with the confident, lazy drawl of a man accustomed to talking crap for the benefit of tourists. He's staring out through the dirt-blasted windshield, scanning what the distant heat haze allows him to see of the horizon. He's got a pensive look on his face, but we realise he's probably just concentrating on dislodging part of this morning's breakfast from beneath his false palate. "Yup," he continues, and flicks his hand in an indolent gesture as he rests it on the steering wheel, "she sure is a harsh and unforgiving mistress."
"Okay," we say.
"She's a cruel and wanton trickster," Peanuts elaborates. He jerks his head around and hurls a big gob of spit at the adjacent window. The window happens to be wound up, but he doesn't seem the slightest bit perturbed by the viscous globule of sputum as it slowly slides down the glass. "A sly old devil dog. A barbed wire boot for the unwary traveller. She's a rancid, petulant wheelbarrow of death for the moribund adventurer. Oh yes, sirree."
"Great," we say. "So, where are we?"
"We're lodged in the very heart of her evil bosom," Peanuts says unhelpfully. "Caught up in her web of fear. I've seen the desert kill a man - it sure ain't pretty."
"Fantastic," we say, becoming impatient now. "So what you're trying to tell us is ...?"
"Listen boys," Peanuts says, and he turns and fixes us with a cold, yellow-eyed glare. His lined, weather-beaten face seems as old as the desert, and each crease and wrinkle speaks of a lifetime of wisdom. Slightly more alarmingly, we notice that the gob on the window behind him has started to move upwards.
"Listen real good," he says again. "I've been living on this land all my life. Man and boy. In sickness and in health. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da. Don't you think if I'd could find my way about, I would have shipped out years ago?"
He makes a good point, and he knows it. Without the need to elaborate, he guns the engine and we're off again, in search of our mysterious isolated facility. Peanuts has never seen the place himself, but he knows many people who have.
"Most folks round here know about it," he tells us, and his voice could almost be described as portentous. "It's the place where they're making The Sandwich."
According to our source back in London, who claims to have seen the paperwork, somewhere out here is a top secret research facility dedicated to the design and construction of the world's greatest sandwich. Project Scooby - named in honour of the sandwich-loving cartoon dog - was initiated back in 1979 when the then President, Jimmy Carter, feeling a little peckish, turned to a couple of his aides who were sniffing around his Oval Office and said, 'Hey guys, if you're stuck for something to do, why don't you go fix me a bite to eat?"
And so Project Scooby was born. Originally funded wholly by the American Government, the project initially boasted a team of six government nutritionists and was housed in a small rented office above a dentist's in Philadelphia. From such humble beginnings the undertaking has grown to accommodate several international partners - both government bodies and private companies. The scope of the project has increased also. From rustling up a bite to eat for Jimmy Carter, the current aim of Project Scooby is to design the ultimate 'super sandwich'. A sandwich to be both feared and admired by people all over the planet. A sandwich that could, if properly handled, dominate the world. They've been working on it for over 20 years and now, if our information is correct, they might at last be nearing completion. One day soon, President Carter may finally get his lunch.
When the facility in Nevada first came into use is a matter for speculation. Peanuts Murphy seems to think that Project Scooby first came here in the mid-eighties.
"Oh sure, yes," he recalls. "The summer of 1984, I remember it like it was yesterday. Boy George, Phil Collins, Tears For Fears. All the kids were into the frilly shirts and the make up and the big hair. It was fucking gruesome. The Chorlton's boy was shot through the neck one night after being mistaken for a fruit. Still, better safe than sorry."
"And what about the Project Scooby people?" we prompt him.
"Oh no," he says. "They were far too straight-laced for any of that Spandau Ballet crap. One or two of them may have been a bit fruity, but they didn't let it show." Peanuts pauses to dislodge a couple of cockroaches from his ear. "There was a lot of construction traffic coming through town at that time. That's when we first began to get wind of something going off in the mountains. A lot of bigwigs about as well - military and scientific types. They used long words and frightened our womenfolk."
Peanuts stops the truck again and turns to us, a broad, gleaming grin cracking his gnarled face. "Well hey boys, whaddya know?" he says, and gestures over his shoulder. We look at the window behind him, slightly nonplussed. There's a long streak spreading upwards on the glass, marking the ungainly passage of his expended saliva, but no sign of the actual gob itself. We start to worry. It could be anywhere. Then we notice the real object of his triumph. Clearly visible, etched into the dry dust stretching across the desert to the distant mountains is a well-travelled dirt track.
"I told you we'd find it," Peanuts says, then he swings the wheel around sharply and we dive off the highway. We rattle down a small bank and then, all of a sudden, we're bouncing across the uneven track, shaken this way and that as the truck crunches up the rocks in its path.
This is the real desert now. We've left the comfort and convenience of metalled roads and are thundering across bare naked earth. It's a wild, desolate place, and Peanut's earlier mental utterances come back to us. We begin to see that the desert really could kill a man. Kill him, bury him and stand laughing over his unmarked grave. This is home only to the very hardiest of men, and the fiercest most tenacious of God's creatures. In the distance we can see herds of long-toothed sand pigs, foraging amongst the dry earth for prairie oysters and buffalo worms. Above us we hear the cries of the circling mountain ducks. They follow in our wake, like seagulls following a trawler.
The trail seems to go on forever, snaking this way and that as it heads towards the distant mountains, but those mountains never seem to get any closer. It's as if they're running away from us as fast as we run towards them. After a while, doubt begins to sink in. Perhaps we're following the wrong trail? Perhaps this track leads nowhere? Or perhaps it leads to some completely different secret research facility - perhaps one investigating UFOs or stealth weaponry...?Sandwiches Through the Ages
Of course, although Project Scooby has never been officially been recognised it has still attracted its fair share of attention from both the media and certain outspoken individuals. Amongst them are a large number of nutritionists, sandwichologists and bun specialists who have been most critical of the attempt. Such a 'super sandwich' could not possibly exist, they claim. Nobody has yet baked a loaf with the tensile strength to take the strain. And whilst the adhesive properties of many industrial strength margarines are impressive, there isn't a single brand that would be able to maintain structural cohesion in the event of crust slippage or wheat germ decay.
Perhaps then, this is just some wild goose chase? Perhaps Project Scooby is just a pipe dream, a modern-day fairy story - unfeasible, untenable, impossible? Just as we begin to think we've made a terrible mistake, we pass an empty tanker of mayonnaise coming in the opposite direction, and we are reassured that we must be on the right path.
The Nevada facility first came to our attention when we heard a report from amateur pilot Christian Pyle. Pyle was out one morning, practising three-point turns in his private plane, when he passed over some kind of industrial complex hidden in the mountains. On first glimpsing it, he noted what appeared to be a large central warehouse or hangar, surrounded by a network of smaller buildings. Banking sharply, he flew over the site again. This time he clearly saw a giant vat marked with the words 'French Mustard', and also several large fields of cress.
Since then, a number of more detailed reports have reached us from people who have been able to slip through the tight security cordon that surrounds the site. We have learned that the large hangar that Pyle saw from the air is where the sandwich - officially titled Scoob 1 - is being constructed. It currently measures over thirty feet high, but new levels are being added all the time. A complicated network of pipes constantly feeds barbecue sauce to the sandwich, pumped directly from a highly classified supply facility off the Pacific coast. This is the very lifeblood of the project, without which Scoob 1 would simply whither and die.
Project Scooby, as you might expect, requires an uninterrupted influx of ingredients. As well as a steady stream of trucks and tankers visiting the site, they also receive daily parachute drops of gherkins. Witnesses have testified to the huge stockpiles of sandwich components that are stored at the facility, including giant mile-long salamis, row upon row of huge Edam 'boulders' and an artificial lake of salad cream, on which employees can go water-skiing during their time off. There is also, apparently, a hidden 'chilli cavern', which is highly restricted and can only be accessed in times of dire emergency - and then only when the employee is wearing a full radiation suit.
It's no mean feat, transporting all these supplies and all this equipment to such a remote spot. But there may be a very good reason why this location was chosen. Not only is it away from the prying eyes of rival sandwich constructors, but there is also rumoured to be large deposits of naturally occurring pepperoni in these mountains. And a careful study of maps dating back some hundred years or more reveals that at the beginning of the twentieth century, prospectors discovered rich seams of Chinese Chicken.
As we draw ever closer, we can almost smell the pickles. The track sweeps in a broad arc around the foothills. The desert rises up around us as the mountains begin to grow. For the first time we see a tantalising glimpse of the facility - in the distance, nestling between far away outcrops we spot the top of a crane, a radio mast and the occasional spurt from one of the ketchup geysers. Our sense of excitement builds as we anticipate the buzz of activity that lies ahead of us - engineers turning cucumbers on lathes, riveting tomatoes or smelting onions.
But our hearts sink when we start to see the warning signs at the side of the track. "NO VISITORS", "AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY", "TRESPASSERS WILL BE CLAMPED" and "NO PICNICS". Then we come to the checkpoint. Peanuts slows the truck to a halt as an armed guard steps forward.
And our journey is at an end. No amount of blagging, pleading, bribery or coercion will persuade the young sentry to let us pass. With little other choice, we turn the truck around and head on back.Anatomy of a Masterpiece
Night is falling in the desert as we begin our tired, bone-shaking journey back to the highway. We hear the distant calls of the Lumbago wolves, howling in agony. We're told that packs of Beatles come out at dusk to feed on the herds of Monkees and the occasional Herman's Hermit, but we see no sign of them. Perhaps we're too lost in regret to notice them. To have come all this way and to be turned back at the last moment is crushing. To know that we will never get to see teams of welders working on great sheets of ham, or watch lumberjacks felling giant stalks in the forest of celery is a disappointment we can hardly bear.
Ah well, we've always got next year's trip to look forward to. We're off to Indonesia to check out the worlds biggest chicken tikka masala.
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