News that Joe Kruchowski had sold his bait shop and was moving to Area 51 didn't take me by surprise, though I was unnerved when I learned he wouldn't be traveling in his '76 AMC Pacer.
Instead, he will trek more conventionally, in a motor home, behind which, on a trailer, will follow his Nissan Juke NISMO RS, a rocket on wheels.
Area 51, as you will recall, is in Nevada, and Joe and his wife, Kelly, have purchased a gold mine there.
As career changes go, this is a whopper, from peddling fatheads and shiners to crushing rocks. But then, as Barry Andrew Hay, front man of Golden Earring, croons in "Radar Love,'' day or night, the newsman sings his same song.
So, who's to say in these wacky times that whopper-like life changes aren't warranted.
Baitwise, Joe has been the man since he bought Northwoods Bait and Tackle in 1993. The shop is perched hard by Hwy. 53 in Cook, a northern Minnesota burg that is home to slightly more than 500 residents. Joe might peddle more rainbow chubs than anyone in the state, and anglers vectoring north from Chicago, Kansas City and Des Moines, as well as the Twin Cities, are drawn to his shop like sinners to an altar, eager especially now in midsummer to swap creditworthy plastic or cold cash for nightcrawlers, leeches and, especially, insights into where-they're-biting.
Kelly, in many ways Joe's spiritual adviser, also will soon be an Area 51 resident. The two were in the Nevada desert last winter and on Joe's days off from flipping burgers at the Little A'Le'Inn (more on this later) in Rachel, Nev., he and Kelly enjoyed watching America's Top Guns dogfight high overhead with their counterparts from allied nations worldwide. And when the red-white-and-blue, contrail-trailing F-15s, F-22s and F-35s ignited their afterburners, Joe and Kelly knew well that window-shattering sonic booms would quickly follow, and they covered their ears.
Our soon-to-be Minnesota expats first met when they were 10 years old and Kelly had traveled from her southern California home to Chisholm, not far from Cook, where Joe lived, to visit her grandmother. They met again in their teens. But they didn't become a couple until about six years ago, when Kelly walked through the door of Northwoods Bait and Tackle and, as Joe puts it, "We both knew we would be in love forever."
Iron Range-bred and born, Joe will be leaving the only home he has ever known when he and Kelly head west. He has forgotten more about bait than most people know, and for many winters, piling through deep snow, he trapped bobcat, fox, fisher, marten and coyotes, and one time fashioned a bed spread from 20 beaver pelts he had fleshed, spread and dried before sewing them together.
Yet like the thousands of people worldwide who are drawn each year to Area 51, or at least its perimeter, Joe for many years had the secret government base on his bucket list. Maybe the government is in fact stashing ET and a bunch of his (her? their?) extraterrestrial buddies at the installation. Or maybe not. Either way, in Rachel, Nev., population 48, any speculation that occurs on the topic is uttered at the aforementioned Little A'Le'Inn, the only business in town — and one that, as its sign says, welcomes earthlings.
Notably, in addition to being a restaurant, the Little A'Le'Inn is a bar, or at least part of it is. A white line on its floor separates the area where food alone is the attraction from the adjoining expanse where booze also can be swigged. Entry to the latter is limited to patrons 21 years of age and older, though given that 10 hours or more can pass before a sheriff's deputy can reach Rachel, the chance that any underage, line-crossing scoundrel will be pinched is slim.
"Kelly and I hit it off real good with the owner of the Little A'Le'Inn,'' Joe said. "So last winter I cooked there a few days a week. I had gone to chef school in the early 1980s, so I was qualified. It was mostly burgers and fries, short-order stuff."
Aside from the Little A'Le'Inn, Rachel lacks most amenities, a gas station for one — the nearest is 65 miles away. Also, the closest hospital is 100 miles down the road, and if you need to get there quickly, you (or someone) will be driving, not carted by air ambulance, because, except for America's best and fastest, Area 51 is a no-fly zone.
"Though there's not much in Rachel, it's unbelievable who comes there and to Area 51 every year from all over the world," Kelly said.
All of which is preface to the news, teased earlier, that Joe and Kelly have purchased a gold mine not far from Rachel, specifically a pile of mine rubble raised decades ago that measures two blocks long by a half-block wide by 130 feet tall.
"The rocks were dug up before the technology existed to crush it and extract the gold, silver, platinum and other precious minerals from it," Joe said. "In September, when we head back to Nevada, I'll cook at the Little A'Le'Inn a few days a week, and Kelly and I and a few friends will mine gold the other days."
To help finance the move, when Joe and Kelly departed Area 51 this past spring to return to Cook in their motorhome, they loaded their Nissan Juke NISMO RS onto a trailer, filled it with 3,000 pounds of rocks from their pile and hooked the trailer to the motorhome. So much weight was in the Nissan, Joe said, that the car's doors bowed.
"We're selling the rocks in Cook out of a store next to the bait shop," Joe said. "Rock collectors buy them, and some people want to crush them and potentially make a ring or other piece of jewelry from the gold they find."
And sensible, in its way, for these wacky times.
Go get 'em, Joe and Kelly.