Area 51 is the most famous secret base in history, a bizarre contradiction in terms. Just over 80 miles north northwest from Las Vegas, the base sits inside the 4,687 square mile Nevada Test and Training Range. Operational since at least the early 1950s, Area 51 is also known as Dreamland, the Ranch, Watertown Strip, Homey Airport or Groom Lake. The location was chosen because the incredibly flat dry lake bed made for an excellent natural runway, and the surrounding mountain ranges would keep lookie-loos away. It was here that first the CIA and then the Air Force would conduct some of the most cutting edge, next generation aerospace research and testing.
[caption id=“attachment_13143” align=“aligncenter” width=“568” caption=“The gate!”]
In 1955 Area 51, then known as Site II, was the home of the U2 spy plane, which flew unprecedented missions over Russia until Gary Powers was shot down by Soviet missiles. Later the base serviced the A-12 Oxcart, a top secret spy plane that broke speed records which would be unknown until the project was declassified in the 21st century. The A-12 was the precursor to the famous SR-71 Blackbird (aka, the X-Men’s plane). Later the base was where the F-117 stealth fighter was tested. Experimental flights continue there to this day.
But it isn’t advanced terrestrial craft that has stirred up public interest in Area 51. It’s the legend that the base is where US forces reverse engineered UFOs - possibly the ones that crashed at Roswell - and have stashed away actual extraterrestrials. Whether they’re alive or dead depends on the story you’re being told, but most tales agree that the aliens are Greys, the type reported as being involved in abductions (see Communion).
[caption id=“attachment_13139” align=“aligncenter” width=“568” caption=“Zeta Reticulans modeling the fashions at The Little A'Le'Inn, outside of Area 51.”]
It’s easy to understand why Area 51 has that story attached to it. The aircraft that have been tested there have often been decades ahead of the mainstream, and unknowing civilians seeing these advanced craft in the sky would have no point of earthly reference. And you have to wonder if the black ops wizards who kept Area 51 secret for so many years weren’t seeding stories about reverse engineering of UFOs in order to cover up the real reverse engineering going on at the base, of captured Soviet aircraft like the MiG fighter. Or maybe it’s all true…
Standing in the desert outside on a warm night, looking up at fast moving lights dancing with each other in a star spattered sky it’s easy to believe you’re seeing alien craft. I don’t know if the planes were so high up that I couldn’t hear them over the deafening silence of the desert or if they’re just dead silent stealth ships, but the only reason I knew they were there was I could see their lights.
I was there during a Nellis Air Force Base Red Flag exercise, where pilots from around the world come to engage in realistic dogfighting combat scenarios. In the daytime we had been buzzed by a number of fighter planes, but at night it was quieter. Except for those lights in the sky. I was with Universal Pictures for a Paul press event, and I was staying in an RV parked outside the Little A’Le’Inn, the only business in Rachel, Nevada, and a mecca for UFO tourists.
There’s not much to really see at Area 51 anymore. You used to be able to climb some local mountains and get a look at the dry lake bed of Groom Lake (if you were into that kind of thing), but those peaks have since been consumed by the Nevada Test and Training Range, making them off limits. Visitors can go to that spooky front gate and pose in front of the menacing signage which warns you that the guards are authorized to use deadly force, but that’s about it. The only other tourist option is to visit Rachel, a weird town all on its own.
[caption id=“attachment_13138” align=“aligncenter” width=“568” caption=“If you're in Rachel, Nevada you have to go 100 miles for gas, but you can get burgers and Buds at the Little A'Le'Inn.”]
There are officially about 80 residents of Rachel, but the locals will tell you that there are less than 40 folks who live there year round. They’re a unique type of person who might be a little bit out of time; they’re the kind of people who left the Eastern cities to explore and colonize the Western expanses a century or two ago, but these days there are few expanses for them to explore. These are the people who are so serious about their desire for small government and individual freedom that they’ve happily set up their homestead in a barren desert 80 miles from the nearest gas station. They travel 100 miles to buy groceries, and if they want good, fresh produce they have to go all the way to Vegas. There’s no post office in Rachel, but UPS and Fed Ex does come by, making lives easier in the Amazon age.
Social life in the town, such as it is, centers on the Little A’Le’Inn. One part tourist trap, one part greasy spoon, one part public house, the Little A’Le’Inn has been Rachel’s bar since about 1976, when it was called The Watering Hole (and before Rachel was called Rachel. The town was so named in 1977 when the first local baby, Rachel Jones, was born. Rachel died three years later. There’s a metaphor for the harscrabble town in this). In 1988 Joe and Pat bought the establishment, then called The Rachel Bar & Grill, and in 1990 they renamed it The Little A’Le’Inn, taking advantage of the town’s newfound fame. Bob Lazar, a physicist who claimed to work at Area 51 facility S-4 and to have been inside of alien spacecraft and seen aliens with his own eyes, went public in 1989. He talked about how he took friends to a mountain range just outside of Rachel to watch captured saucers launch, and from that day forward Rachel became the center of Nevada UFO tourism.
The Little A’Le’Inn is a single room establishment with a few tables set up around a pool table. There’s a counter where you can eat as well, and talk with the endlessly friendly Pat, all the while eyeing the extraordinarily hard right, borderline hate-speech political stickers that adorn the beverage coolers. The food is good, standard American greasy spoon stuff, just given some UFO flair - they call it the Alien Burger, for instance. The walls are lined with UFO photos, alien dummies and more cheap tchotchkes than you could shake a Zeta Reticulan at. You can overpay for Area 51 shirts, caps, stickers, books, alien banks, alien cookie jars, alien posters and alien dishes. Over the counter are patches from hundreds of military missions and units, as well as police and peace keepers across the world. Taped to the ceiling are dollar bills, with the home towns of tourists scrawled in black marker. The patches are way cooler.
[caption id=“attachment_13142” align=“aligncenter” width=“568” caption=“Some of the colorful stickers. Note 'Return Public Lands to Public Hands' - before the 70s, Rachel was actually public land. Now it's private. “]
[caption id=“attachment_13141” align=“aligncenter” width=“568” caption=“Yes, that does say 'A Fag In Every Pup Tent'”]
[caption id=“attachment_13140” align=“aligncenter” width=“568” caption=“Guns! Clinton! More guns!”]
It’s not unusual to be sitting inside the Little A’Le’Inn and have the walls shake from an overhead sonic boom. The locals take it in stride, barely seeming to notice. Someone at the bar told me Rachel was the sonic boom capitol of the world, and sonic booms are nothing compared to the dozen or so actual crashes they’ve had in and around town.
The real tourist attraction in Rachel - to me, anyway - is the locals. The Little A’Le’Inn, being the only real gathering place in town, draws all the locals. And while these are people who have moved away from civilization for privacy and peace they’re human beings just like the rest of us, and they get a fearsome loneliness. They love striking up conversations with strangers - or mercilessly hitting on women, as our group discovered.
Universal had brought about two dozen people total to the Little A’Le’Inn, which was probably the biggest influx of outsiders for years, maybe since Fox had placed the ID4 time capsule outside of the place in the 90s. Most of the town seemed to turn out to take a look at us, and a couple of the local eligible bachelors decided to try their luck. One fellow, who commuted a few hundred miles to an oil drilling job weekly, stood outside as cars parked and asked the arriving womenif they were single as soon as they had stepped out. Just simply asked ‘Are you single?’ It was the kind of direct approach required when you’re not sure the next time you’ll see another woman.
[caption id=“attachment_13144” align=“aligncenter” width=“568” caption=“ID4: Never Forget”]
The locals were varying degrees of weird. Many of them seemed to just be loners and cowboys, taciturn but friendly enough folks. Some, like the oil worker, were desperately lonely and endlessly awkward. Others were just plain bizarre. One toothless fellow tried to get into every picture taken at the bar, while another guy freely told his strange, mystical traveler life story to anyone who would listen. I was surprised that he was the only New Age type - I expected more of a Sedona vibe. The best patron was a woman in her fifties, with a pierced tongue and ill-fitting false teeth, wearing a mesh tank top that exposed far too much of her sun-toughened bosom, talking about her six ex-husbands. Each of whom was now dead. At one point she stuck her tongue in the ear of Silas Lesnick, Coming Soon’s reporter.
Late at night the locals got the truck from the volunteer fire department and began doing drunken donuts in the dust behind the A’Le’Inn. They blared the siren and climbed on top of the vehicle, kicking up clouds and hooting and hollering. One of the locals threw up on the floor of the restaurant. For once us big city journalists weren’t the worst behaved. It was great.
At one point everyone gathered around a bonfire. It gets cold in the desert, and we were there in the pre-spring March. Clumsy attempts were made at S’mores, and beer was drank and stories swapped. Eventually I felt the call of the desert… and nature. I wandered away from the fire to piss behind a big pile of dirt, and then I began wandering farther out into the darkness. The goal was to see stars, as many of them as I could, and there’s no better place to do it than in the thin-aired darkness of the high desert. I never quite got far enough away from the bonfire or the Little A’Le’Inn - the flying saucer perched outside the restaurant glowed bright behind me - but I did see incredible starscapes. And those lights, the dancing lights of the planes in the sky.
Back at the campfire some friends got worried about me. I hadn’t told anyone where I was going, and had just sort of quietly wandered off. One of them asked a local what they should do. “Leave him,” they were told. “The mountain lions probably already have him.”
They left me.
The next day we traveled out to that gate from the first paragraph of this story. The idea was to go up and film ourselves in front of Area 51 (or the outlying surroundings anyway) and intro the video interviews we had done with Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Greg Mottola. We were warned that it was unclear whether we would actually be allowed to do this, and that there would be security forces on us like hawks.
There are two security huts about twenty five feet back from the gate, and the windows are mirrored. You’re not supposed to ever see the guys sitting inside, watching you. Maybe running your face through a facial recognizer program. At one point Silas pointed out to me that you could see guards, dressed military casual and sporting aviators, reflected in the windows of the second hut. As soon as he said this to me the heads darted out of the reflections - is the front gate mic’ed? Had they heard us talking? It seems kind of likely.
After we had been there a little while - and after I had examined the broken glass in the middle of the road - a white SUV slowly came up from the direction of the highway. I’m not sure where he was coming from, or what he was exactly doing, but he coasted to a stop about 100 feet away and sat there, idling in the middle of the road. “Don’t take any pictures!” I was warned by one of the camera men, and everybody tried to not really look at the ominous vehicle.
[caption id=“attachment_13137” align=“aligncenter” width=“568” caption=“I took a picture of the SUV anyway.”]
About five minutes passed, with people still doing their on-camera business, and then the white SUV slowly drove forward. We all moved out of the way and he drove through the gate, and then into the unknowable distance.
That would have been enough interaction with the world of black ops to make me happy, but there was still more to come. As we stood around outside the gate, poking through the brush outside of Area 51 (someone found the remains of a campfire with a circa 1970s pop top Pepsi can about two feet from the road), fighter jets came roaring overhead. And suddenly the ground shook as they blew past the sound barrier - three rattling explosions in a row. They were flying high above, leaving white contrail streaks in the thin blue sky. Then another jet, flying much lower, flew right over our heads. I swear he tipped his wings at us. Or the guard house. Whichever.
As we were getting ready to head back to Rachel and then to Las Vegas for flights home, two more aircraft thundered above us. These were Predator drones, the unmanned aircraft that have been tearing up an awful lot of shit in the Middle East. The two UAVs banked and swerved, engaged in a dogfight, with one close on the tail of the other. It was incredible to watch these remote controlled death machines maneuvering just overhead. They looked sort of like big winged penii, complete with heads.
If you head to Area 51 to do some sightseeing don’t expect too much. You can find out the dates of Red and Green Flag exercises at Nellis, which will surely spice up your visit, but otherwise you’re going to the desert for the vibe. It feels weird and mysterious out there. And Rachel is, of course, completely worth visiting all on its own.
[caption id=“attachment_13145” align=“aligncenter” width=“568” caption=“Jet fighter contrails against a daylight Moon.”]
Be aware: the Little A’Le’Inn does have overnight facilities, but they’re small rooms in trailers. When we were there the rooms were occupied by Las Vegas police, who came to the desert to ride their off-road vehicles in an irresponsible manner. They’re apparently regulars and I so badly wanted to hop a hill on their ATVs. It looked like amazing fun.
When you do go out to Area 51, pay attention. Be aware. And as always… keep watching the skies.
Map to Rachel, Nevada. The big great area due south is Area 51.