Saturday, February 2, 2008

A Visit To Nevada's Area 51

Since I seem to be writing a lot lately about my visits to odd places in the desert, I guess I might as well recount my trips to Nevada's Area 51. It was one of my favorite day trips when I lived in Las Vegas. There is so much to love about the place: the stark beauty of the area, the surreal feeling of stopping at the heavily guarded boundary of a place that officially doesn't even exist, and the parade of the simply curious and somewhat deranged to it is a circus in and of itself. Area 51 is as American as apple pie.

Area 51 is not so much a specific place as it is a region. It is located northeast of Las Vegas and is reached by taking Interstate 15 east to U.S. Highway93. You then follow 93 north to the small town of Crystal Springs, where you then take Highway 375. The sign for Highway 375 lets you know what you're in for over the next several miles:

Highway 375 is an "open range" road, meaning cattle can (and do) wander around freely in the middle of the road. Cattle mutilations are a frequent occurrence here, although SUVs and trucks do the mutilating instead of UFOs. The open range warning signs have a UFO theme:

Ground zero for the Area 51 phenomenon is the small town of Rachel, located about 40 miles north of the intersection of Highways 93 and 375. The permanent population of Rachel seems to be about 100 people, and almost all structures are mobile homes. Signs like those below give you a clue what the main "industry" of Rachel is:

The Little Ale Inn is a must-see in Rachel; in fact, it's about the only thing to see in Rachel (the "Area 51 Research Center" pictured above is now closed). It offers the only food and drink in town, sells UFO-related souvenirs and other merchandise, and has plenty of right-wing paranoia on display over the bar (I took the third photo below on a visit back in 1999). What's not to love about the Little Ale Inn??

The "real" action concerning Area 51 actually takes place north and south of Rachel. A favorite spot for UFO watchers is the White (formerly "Black") Mailbox located about 11.5 miles south on Highway 375. This area is supposedly the best place to see UFOs as they rise, hover, and materialize/dematerialize over the mountains in the background; you haven't lived until you've encountered a busload of Japanese tourists waiting here around midnight! In truth, there are some spectacular and unusual lights to be seen here many nights----I've seen them myself-----but I think I was watching tests of the next generation of military aircraft and weapons systems instead of UFOs. But hey, believe whatever you want to believe. . . . .

No visit to Area 51 is complete without a trip to the border of the base that doesn't exist. The turn-off for the base is located five miles south of the White Mailbox----in other words, about 24.5 miles south of Rachel----and while the road is unmarked, it's unmistakable. It's well-graded and arrow-straight:

The Area 51 boundary lies almost 14 miles away. When you drive to it, you see only the warning signs below at the boundary. You don't even get to see the guardhouse, as it lies around a bend in the road and is out of sight, as is the rest of the base behind the hills you see in the distance. However, it's always fun to take a photo of a "Photography Of This Area Is Prohibited" sign, and there always seems to be a few German or Italian tourists around who are Deeply Serious about the meaning of it all and are just begging to have their chains jerked ("Excuse me, sir, but do you think George Bush is watching our movements right now?" "Oh, you bet your ass he is, Gunther!!").

Kidding aside, they are damn serious about security at the border. Anyone and everyone who crosses over the border is arrested and fined----currently about $600----when they are turned over to the local sheriff's department. While at the border, you're under continuous surveillance by the Area 51 security forces-----the so-called "Cammo Dudes"----who watch from hilltops from just inside the border, as shown in the photo below. I've checked these guys out with binoculars, and have noted them looking back through their binoculars. (I once waved at them, and they waved back----for real!) I've also observed them using a video camera on border visitors.

There's another approach to the Area 51 boundary that's far less known and visited even though it's closer to Rachel. This so-called "north gate" is reached by traveling about a mile and a half south of Rachel and then turning right on to the unmarked road below:

This road is wider than the other entrance road to Area 51, and is used by trucks carrying supplies into the site. After about 10 miles, you come to the boundary and the guardhouse below. Like the other Area 51 entrance, the guardhouse is actually inside the border and you have to stop short of it. As I related in my book Top Secret Tourism, this entrance seems to be more "sensitive" and the guards----and official traffic, judging from the "brushback" I got from a truck with U.S. government plates----seem a lot more "touchy" here than at the other entrance:

Area 51 is a place everyone should make time for on a visit to Las Vegas. It's a combination of the New Age goofiness of a place like Sedona, Arizona, the earnest, high-tech seriousness of NASA headquarters in Houston, and a pervasive feeling of bewilderment and alienation (no pun intended).