Travel

Getting alienated on Nevada’s Extraterrestrial Highway

Little green men: At the Little A’Le’Inn in Rachel, the gift store has a bit of a kitsch-all feel about it.
Little green men: At the Little A’Le’Inn in Rachel, the gift store has a bit of a kitsch-all feel about it. Sacramento Bee

I saw no Men in Black. I did see little green men, lots of them, all sizes and shapes. Some had hideously globular craniums and black-as-deep-space piercing eyeballs; others were skeletal and avuncular.

They were stuffed, of course. Either that, or molded in hard plastic. These “aliens” have alighted in this lonesome travelers outpost deep in the desert, on the outskirts of famously secret Area 51, not to conquer earthlings, but just to make them part with cash in exchange for cheesy souvenirs. The truth is out there, people, and it comes with a price tag. Today’s special: Alien Head Soap, $6.99, marked down from $7.99. Such a deal.

All conspiracy theorists need a home base, a place to congregate and commune while hashing out shadowy theories and regaling each other with chilling eyewitness accounts, and the Little A’Le’Inn motel, restaurant, bar and gift shop on Highway 375 — officially named and copyrighted the “Extraterrestrial Highway” by the state — serves that purpose quite nicely.

It’s a way station for seekers of truth carrying a heavy psychic load, those convinced that the government for decades has conducted super-secret missions revolving around alien technology and even harbored extraterrestrials on what by all rational accounts is just a regular Air Force base in the vast Mojave Desert. Little matter that, more than a year ago, the government finally released the full, unredacted documents revealing that Area 51 has been nothing more than an aerial testing ground, albeit clandestine, where aircraft such as U-2 spy planes, oddly shaped Mach 3 surveillance craft and F-22 Raptor stealth fighters were tested.

Hard-core UFO seekers are hardly convinced. Confront a true believer with the documents made available to the George Washington University’s national security archive through a Freedom of Information Act request, and they’ll dismiss it as a cover story and brand you hopelessly naive.

So come they still do, a steady trickle of traffic along the Extraterrestrial Highway that keeps a cottage industry alive. For believers, it’s a pilgrimage; for the congenitally skeptical, it’s said to be a kitschy good time.

It’s a tedious enough drive, hours from any significant population center, that you almost wish there were aliens around to just, you know, beam you up and drop you down in Rachel, the spiritual center of Area 51 activity.

Alas, you must cover the distance the old-fashioned way. There is a tour company in Las Vegas, four hours away, that buses you in for a pretty penny, but I was coming from the north through the heart of the High Desert and, thus, didn’t have that option.

You are mostly alone with your thoughts on the drive down. Forget trying to tune in NPR; you can’t even pick up an evangelical station. Static rules the airwaves, giving you the fleeting thought that, well, maybe the government is controlling transmission lines or something. All you see for miles and miles is chaparral, scrub grass and scattered cactuses.

The only break from the heat-wave shimmers arising from the broken-white-line asphalt are the occasional signs — “Watch Low Flying Aircraft” and “Open Range” — with bullet holes shot through.

Outside Rachel, you pass a green “Extraterrestrial Highway” sign, then come into a low-rise town of fewer than 100, where the Little A’Le’Inn dominates. It’s a series of white prefab buildings with five FEMA-trailer-like rooms in the back. The restaurant/bar/gift shop is the largest structure.

The sign reads “Earthlings Welcome,” with the obligatory bulbous-headed, almond-eyed alien. The longtime owner, Pat Travis, spared no expense, parking a rusted tow truck in the lot with a flying saucer hanging from the lift. Next to that is a plaque embedded in granite from the makers of the movie Paul, the 2011 science-fiction road comedy that was partially shot at the Little A’Le’Inn. That’s not the only time Rachel has gone Hollywood; it was featured in Independence Day as well.

I was surprised, but really not surprised, to find about 20 cars in the gravel parking lot. I hadn’t seen 20 cars on the road the previous two hours. With trepidation, I approached a woman pointing a camera at the flying saucer. Carrie from New Mexico (“no last names, I’m a carpenter with government clearance and don’t want to get it yanked”) was happy to talk.

“We came up here just to see it,” Carrie said. “It’s interesting. And I do believe there’s something to it.”

I asked how she convinces skeptics.

“I won’t even try to convince a skeptic,” she said. “I know people who have had (UFO) experiences that are fully credible. I’ve heard plenty of stories.”

Her friend (who apparently doesn’t have government clearance, because she gave her name as Carol Fowkes) piped up: “My mother thought she was being tracked. Not by FBI. Not by a Man in Black. She thought there was an implant, an alien implant, in her. She did. I don’t think there’s implants, but I do believe there’s something going on.”

Carrie: “There’ve been a lot of ex-military and current military people who’ve come out and talked about stuff that can’t be explained. A lot of pilots talk about it.”

I mentioned the confidential government documents that have been released.

“Sure, they (tested planes),” Carrie said. “But that’s not what all of it. It’s a good remote place to have (a) secret base.”

OK, so I’d met two true believers. Surely, the rest of the tourists milling about weren’t of the same ilk. But I spoke to five other folks who all espoused the “there’s something out there” dogma. Even an older gent from Vancouver, British Columbia, Richard Stansfeld, who looks like everyone’s friendly neighbor, was well versed in alien lore.

“They say they secretly trucked the Roswell (scene of a purported UFO crash in 1947) remains to Area 51,” he said. “Of course, Hollywood Hollywoodized it a little bit. But I think there’s something you and me don’t know about. That’s why they shoot you when you go near (Area 51). They hire these ‘Camo Dude’ guys and if you cross the line, they shoot you. They got remote control cameras that track ya’. If it’s just an Air Force base, why do that?”

Stansfeld was speaking about the next stop for alien-oriented tourists, the long dusty road, marked only by the now-famous Black Mailbox, that goes for 13 miles before reaching pavement and signs warning of arrest and “use of deadly force permitted.” Before I took off for that leg of the journey, I chatted up one last couple, Kristian and Rebecca Topping, of West London, posing for snapshots by the sign.

“I don’t really buy into the UFO side of it,” Kristian said in his erudite British accent. “I’m an aviation enthusiast, and I like the history of the Groom Lake base and the aircraft they tested there. You know, they were technically unidentified flying objects, because they were unidentified (to the public), that’s all.”

Still, the couple liked the cheekiness of making stops along the Extraterrestrial Highway, which is why they made the day trip from Las Vegas.

“We drove down that dirt road and we were a little bit naughty,” he said. “You can drive up to the signs and then some security guys meet you in a truck. If you look up on a hill, some guys step out of the truck to meet you. You probably shouldn’t hang around too long.”

Those, apparently, are the “Camo Dudes” in white trucks of which Stansfeld spoke. A quick Internet search gives you directions to the road leading to Area 51. They all say to look for the Black Mailbox about 20 miles south of Rachel, then turn right on the largest of several dirt roads.

So I headed back down the road, only to be stopped about 15 miles down by Nevada Department of Transportation workers pouring tar on the asphalt. After a long wait, a “pilot car” guided motorists along a five-mile stretch where it’s just one lane, but the caravan proceeded right past where the dirt-road turnoff was supposed to be.

Was this some government conspiracy to prevent the public from accessing Area 51?

The thing was, I hadn’t seen the notorious mailbox. Perhaps I hadn’t gone far enough. But in another 10 miles, I’d almost reached the end of the Extraterrestrial Highway. I caught sight of the giant metallic alien in front of the tourist trap called the Alien Research Center. Eventually, I passed the highway sign. I’d come to the end of the road and wasn’t near Area 51.

Desperate, I pulled into a business called ET Fresh Jerky. A local worker, Tressa Sweet, 23, explained that a rancher once had a mailbox that people thought was where alien mail came from. People would cover it with stickers and he would replace it. Eventually he took it down and got his mail elsewhere.

Sweet was happy to point me to the correct dirt road for the journey to the Area 51 border, adding, “You know it’s just an Air Force base, right?”

I made the turnoff, right before the end of the highway construction, and slowly made my way over the bumpy dirt road.

A white 4x4 truck blew past me and, before the dust could fully clear, I was at the fence with the warning signs ($1,000 fine, six months imprisonment, photography prohibited) and the paved road beyond the threshold. I looked to my right, up a bluff, where a white truck was parked. I heeded the Englishman’s advice and didn’t linger long. Besides, I wanted to get back to Rachel and ogle the Little A’Le’Inn’s swag and sample its “World Famous Alien Burger.”

The late lunch crowd had yet to thin, so I had to bob and weave around people to take a gander at the alien items for sale — everything from a baby’s alien bib to an alien head lamp to T-shirts, oh-so-many T-shirts. The back wall, on laminated poster board, featured clippings and photographic “evidence” of alien and UFO sightings. One depicted flying saucer looked an awful lot like a Toyota Prius. Each photo had a typed caption, such as “Kathleen Ford, January 18, 1995: This invisible bell-shaped object started showing up on my film …”

Equal parts spooked and weary, I bellied up to the bar, where they sell Alien Stout, a craft beer from New Mexico. The bartender-slash-hotel clerk Mark Singer, a no-nonsense, taciturn type, took my order. I asked him what he thought of all this Area 51 alien hoo-haw. A smile broke across his face.

“I’ll tell you the best theory I’ve heard in here,” he said. “OK, so, back in ancient times, before Christ, (aliens) were coming down to Earth and helping us out, helping us build the Pyramids and stuff. We all had the same creator, which is God, and He sent his son down here to try to straighten out the human race — not the alien race — and we killed him (Jesus). And so the aliens said, you people are (messed) up. Enough of this. And they left.

“Isn’t that a great story?”

I then asked, “But you don’t believe, do you?”

“Yes,” he said, looking me dead in the eye. “Yes, I do believe there’s other life out there.”

AREA 51 ATTRACTIONS

The Little A’Le’Inn: 9631 Old Mill St, Rachel; littlealeinn.com; 775-729-2515. Rooms start at $35 (closed for remodeling Dec. 14-26).

Area 51 Boundary Line/Nellis Air Force Base: From Highway 375, between mile marker 35 and 34, turn west on a dirt road and drive 13.8 miles. Stop at a gate next to no trespassing signs and notice white jeeps on a hill to your right.

Alien Research Center: 100 Highway 375 (west of Highway 318), Hiko; 775-725-3750.

Area 51 Alien Travel Center and The Alien Cathouse: 2711 E. Highway 95, Amargosa Valley; 775-372-1500.

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