Area 51: Perplexing, Weird, but a Nice Place to Visit
by Skylaire Alfvegren
Nevada must be most absurd state in the union, based entirely on illusion and illicit activities. Businessmen stroll the boulevard, cocktail in hand, prostitutes hanging on their arms and diapered chimpanzees blowing jacuzzi bubbles in their hotel rooms. And that’s just what goes on with the public. 75% of Nevada is controlled by one government agency or another. Imagine what kind of fun they have with their expense accounts.
Only after civilian groups lobbied for disclosure did the Air Force admit their most top-secret base, nestled up against Nevada’s dry Groom Lake bed between Nellis AFB and the Nevada Test Site, even existed. Originally named after CIA director Allen Dulles’ birthplace of Watertown, New York, the Groom Lake facility is home to the longest runway in the world, where the secret U-2 spy plane was tested back in the 50s and where the stealth bomber was brought out on practice runs before years before it was flashed on network news.
Rumors that Area 51 (as the site is referred to in official documents) is a storage space for crashed UFOs, where alien technology is “back-engineered” and applied to military aircraft, circulated for decades, but it wasn’t until a man named Bob Lazar claimed to have tinkered with alien spacecraft on Las Vegas television in 1989 that Area 51 became a mandatory stop for every amateur ufologist worth his Mutual UFO Network membership.
Almost everyone I’ve spoken to who’s visited the area swears, in wide-eyed wonder, to have experienced something, from harassment by local sheriffs to being chased for miles by a squadron of blue-gray orbs.
I decided now was the time to investigate, so I packed my boyfriend Jon in the car and headed for Las Vegas, where dozens of engineers, pilots and secret agents are rumored to be picked up by private shuttle from the airport for work at the base. From there, we began the two hour drive to Rachel, which lies 15 miles from Area 51 off Interstate 375.
Rechristened the Extraterrestrial Highway in 1996, the 375 is desolate–aside from the occasional lead-footed trucker, the only life you’re likely to encounter are cattle owned by Steve Medlin, whose family has owned acreage around the base since the 60s. His is the only ranch left in the area since the Air Force began seizing land around Groom Lake in 1986. Since then, over three million acres have been wrestled away from the Bureau of Land Management and private citizens in the name of “national security.”
15 miles south of Rachel, we turned onto Groom Lake Road, one of two semi-maintained dirt roads that ring the mountains around the base. After eight miles of dust and bumps, we could make out two security agents watching us from the guard shack up ahead. After parking the car, I could overhear them debating whether or not to confiscate the binoculars I was hiding in my jacket. The crystal blue sky was empty and it was quiet, except for the football game on in the shack. I watched two wild jackrabbits nibble at an apple on the ground, and one guard cracked a joke about “secret agent bunnies.”
I wasn’t terribly impressed. I wanted a taste of danger, and here I was being made fun of by a couple of thick-necked Wackenhut security guards. I decided to get back in the car and backtrack onto a narrow dirt path that traveled closer to the mountains. Apart from the Groom mountains that blocks your view of the actual base, the Nevada desert is as flat as an eleven year old girl. But you don’t need to see the base itself to witness the weird goings-on in the area–the real show is in the sky.
After another eight miles of precarious terrain, I could make out the orange poles that mark the restricted boundary in the distance. There are no fences to keep you out, but the poles are topped with motion-sensing metal globes, that, along with the security tower on the base, can follow the movements of someone picking their nose 20 miles away. But there were no signs of life, even as I came upon a sign that screamed, “Use of Deadly Force Authorized.” I decided to jump out and snap a picture.
Seemingly from nowhere, two white, unmarked Jeeps appeared in a cloud of dust and parked about 50 feet behind us–just enough distance to be intimidating. I decided not to tempt fate. Simply crossing the boundary guarantees you a $600 trespassing ticket, as well as the confiscation of any binoculars, cameras, or recording devices. The Jeeps aren’t a myth; they remained firmly parked until I was well on my way back to Rachel.
It was barely dusk, but already biting cold as we pulled up to the handmade sign for the L’il A Le Inn, about the only place to get a burger, a bed or a beer along the godforsaken 375. Along with the Area 51 Research Center (erected by a computer programmer from Boston a few years ago), it put Rachel, a minuscule eruption of trailers and desert rats, on the map, and plays host to UFO enthusiasts from all over the world.
On this Saturday, most of the town appeared to be drinking beer from cans at the restaurant’s counter. It felt like we had just walked into that episode of the Twilight Zone at the diner full of three-eyed mutants. UFO snapshots taken everywhere from Florida to Belize share wall space with anti-Clinton posters, pro-gun sloganeering and charmingly inept acrylic portraits of various extraterrestrial beings. Conversations revolved around hunting trips, truck repair, and the weather. One of the locals, Dave, eyes me up and down with a lop-sided grin. “I’ve seen you around before,” he says, before I inform him this is my first visit to Rachel. He didn’t want to get into specifics, but told me he “sees weird stuff all the time.” The other guys at the bar nodded solemnly.
I wondered if our government was really in cahoots with aliens as a plunked down three bills for our room. Imagine one of those trailers used as temporary offices at construction sites. Now cut it in thirds, hang up a bunch of fuzzy UFO photos and plop a bathroom in the middle. Viola! After converting the bathtub into a beer cooler, Jon and I sat down to watch a handful of UFO videos provided by the manager. Did the skies above Rachel play host to alien engineering? I wasn’t sure.
We decided to head back out after midnight, but not before donning serious cold weather gear. The trickle of highway traffic, however minuscule, was somehow reassuring as we made our way to mile marker 29. It was inky black in every direction, except for the sea of stars and what appeared to be a CHP car flashing red, white and blue miles down the highway.
The landscape makes you feel like you’ve been transported to the moon. Dark, ominous, flat, and silent, covered in Dalisque Yucca trees, everything starts to feel suspicious–like you’re under surveillance. We had 14 miles to cover before we’d reach the perimeter again, on paths that aren’t so much roads as they are trails where an industrial-strength Weedwacker has been applied.
I felt a knot form in my stomach as I left the tarmac, spinning dirt until coming up upon Steve Medlin’s infamous black mailbox–which was painted white in 1996, apparently to throw everybody off. (These government types are slippery, no?). I could barely make out the saucer-themed graffiti on the mailbox.
I took a deep breath in the name of journalistic objectivity. Even if we did see something weird out here, it’s not like it’s going to beam us up or anything, right? Because it seemed as though the collection of lights I thought was a patrol car was now moving silently across the sky. And it was no longer flashing the colors of the flag, but pulsating green and yellow. Through binoculars it seemed as though the yellow light was orbiting two green orbs, like an electron around an atom. I stopped the car. I could make out a car in the distance, but where was it headed?
Maybe Project Red Light wasn’t a rumor–maybe the Air Force was test flying craft whose force fields make them appear to be “breathing” at Area 51. Whatever was now hanging suspended in the sky looked a lot like the so-called “plasma crafts” that began buzzing Mexico in the early 90s. Jon and I got out of the car. Maybe the atmosphere was playing tricks on us, but there was an amber-rimmed disc banking above the highway. It dipped and swayed and convinced Jon and I to get back in the car and drive back to the L’il A Le Inn.
Over coffee the next morning, the guy running the L’il A Le Inn told us it must’ve been a slow night. “It’s busy all summer long out here,” he said, referring to both the lightshow and the number of people that stay at the Inn to watch. “We get plenty of pilots in here, too. They’re friendly, but of course they can’t talk about anything.”
Our last stop was the Area 51 Research Center, a trailer set up a stone’s throw from the Inn. Snapshots of bizarre-looking aircraft are for sale, along with maps and histories of the secret Air Force projects tested on the base. Donald Emory, the aviation buff who runs the center, barely batted an eyelash as I recounted our tale from the previous evening. “Come back January 23rd,” he said. “That’s Red Flag Day, when planes from all over the world come to compete in exercises.”
My head was spinning. Hundreds of people come out here every year to witness the weird goings-on in the sky. But the issue and the numbers are still small enough that the government can brush aside Area 51 as the product of UFO kookery.
Maybe I’ll sign up for Steve Medlin’s cattle round-up in the Spring. I’d have to take an oath of secrecy, but I’d get to poke around on restricted land for weeks, trading tales with ranch hands, getting closer to the secrets of Area 51 than the lights I saw this weekend took me. Until then, I’ll wear my L’il A Le Inn souvenir t-shirt and wonder what the heck I saw out there in the desert.