Area 51: Where Conspiracy Theories about Aliens Breed Like Rabbits


Gate to top secret Area 51 in southern Nevada.

The back gate to Area 51. Do you get the idea they don’t want you trespassing? (Photo taken by Peggy Mekemson)

When Peggy and I were planning our three-week foray into Nevada recently, we decided to include Area 51, that most secret of secret places.

And how secret is it, you ask?

Since we are talking about aliens, let me ask a probing question– or two. Do you believe that UFOs exist? Or even more to the point, have you ever seen one? Consider this: If they do exist and one actually crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, Area 51 is where the US Government would have it stored and tested. That’s how secret the facility is.

For decades, the government even refused to admit it existed. Top-secret clearance might get folks through the first gate, but not necessarily the second. Workers were flown in on Monday and flown home on Friday. They couldn’t tell anybody, not even their spouses, where they had been. No wonder the area became a legendary breeding ground for conspiracy theories about the government hiding things.The government was hiding things.

The U-2 spy plane was tested here, as was its more sophisticated sibling, the A-17, and almost every other secret airplane the US has developed since. When the US captured a Soviet Mig at the height of the Cold War, it was brought to Area 51 to check it capabilities. Top Gun pilots from the navy were brought in to fly against it. Think drones are new? The CIA was experimenting with them here in 1962. And I can’t begin to imagine what we don’t know about.

But what about UFOs, the mysterious flying saucers that seem to appear from time to time. There were several ‘sightings’ in Northern California and Southern Oregon earlier this year. Glowing objects flew across the sky in unison, stopped to hover, and then zipped off at lightning speed. Reports appeared on local TV shows. Flying saucer aficionados will swear they were the real things. Naysayers will argue vehemently that they weren’t. Neither Peggy nor I saw them. Darn.

I did see one once, however. Or at least I can’t think of what else it might have been. I was standing on my porch in Sacramento in 1969. A movement caught my attention and I looked up just in time to see a round, saucer-shaped, grey metallic object disappear into a cloud. As my jaw dropped and my rational mind shouted at me to toss the scotch, the object flew out the cloud in the opposite direction and accelerated away, disappearing in a matter of seconds.

Needless to say, I have been interested in UFOs ever since. Hundreds, if not thousands of other people have had similar experiences including both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan– not to mention several astronauts.

Area 51 is a mecca for UFO enthusiasts. The big story is that the remains from Roswell are housed here. But frequent sightings of UFOs are also reported in the region. A government explanation is that the experimental planes being tested are what people see. It seems plausible. A plane flying at 60,000 feet while traveling over 2000 MPH is pretty UFO-ish. There have even been correlations made between when the test flights have been held and UFOs spotted.

A good conspiracy theorist will be quick to point out, however, that the correlations have been made for some, but not all of the sightings. She might also argue that when the flights are made is when you would expect to see UFOs. The little green men with big eyes are checking us out. The experimental flights represent some of the world’s top technology, the gateways to space… the final frontier. And do the little green men really want us out among the stars?

A possible reason for not is right next-door– where America carried out the majority of her nuclear bomb testing. Over 100 above ground tests and 800 underground tests were performed between 1951 and 1992 when President Clinton finally shut down the operation. It makes you want to travel through the area with a Geiger counter as well as your binoculars and a camera– the latter to capture UFOs and the former to check out how much radiation your body is absorbing.

Monitoring for radiation downwind from the Nevada Atomic Test Site is serious business. Even today– years after the testing was halted. This station is found in Rachel but there are several more scattered throughout the region.

Monitoring for radiation downwind from the Nevada Atomic Test Site is serious business– even today, years after the testing was halted. This station is found in Rachel but there are several more scattered throughout the region. Regular reports are issued on how much radiation is found.

And where do I stand on Area 51? Amused. Okay, and I confess curious. The region makes me want to break out theme music from the 1962 Twilight Zone TV series: neenar-neenar, neenar-neenar, and do a UFO dance. Hey it works for rain, right? Maybe I could attract a flying saucer.

I was in the Nevada town of Tonopah doing my research on Area 51 and the Extra Terrestrial Highway when I discovered the tiny community of Rachel and its sole motel: the Little A’le’Inn. Boy did I get excited. Rachel backs up to Area 51. We could stay at the A’le’Inn. I called and made reservations. The next morning, Peggy and I were up early and on the road.

Peggy and I always stay at the Tonopah Station motel in Tonopah. You are invited to roll dice for a free room. I also like the bear.

Peggy and I always stay at the Tonopah Station motel in Tonopah. You are invited to roll dice for a free room. We also like the bear.

Business card for Little A'le'Inn in Rachel Nevada.

Since we were headed for Area 51, we decided it was important to stay where Earthlings were welcome.

Driving the back roads of Nevada is a lonely occupation. Thirty minutes or more can pass between meeting cars. I like it. We headed east out of Tonopah on Highway 6, passed by the Tonopah Test Range and climbed over Warm Springs Summit, which brought us to Highway 375, the Extraterrestrial Highway. The highway received its designation in 1996 when the Nevada Tourism Commission thought it might serve to draw tourists to this remote part of Nevada.

Tonopah Test Range in Southern Nevada.

The vast openness and minimal population of the deserts of Southern Nevada make it an ideal location for testing everything from airplanes to rockets.

ET Highway in Southern Nevada.

It isn’t unusual to travel 20-30 minutes along the ET Highway and not meet another car. There is no need to worry about rush hour traffic.

In fact we saw more cattle than we saw cars– and we didn't see many cattle. Open Range, BTW, means no fences and public land. It does not mean Free Range as Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who runs his cattle on BLM land and refuses to pay a grazing fee would have you believe. It's our taxes that pay to feed Bundy's cattle.

In fact we saw more cattle than we saw cars– and we didn’t see many cattle. Open Range means no fences and public land. It does not mean Free Range as Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who runs his cattle on BLM land and refuses to pay grazing fees would have you believe. It’s our taxes that help feed Bundy’s cattle.

Southern Nevada Steer.

BTW: I thought this cow looked a little alien. Hmm. Or is it just a bum steer?

The ET designation definitely caught the attention of Twentieth Century Fox. The media giant used the highway’s renaming as a promotion for its movie, Independence Day, which revolves around an alien invasion of the world, features Area 51 prominently, and came out in 1996. It’s one of Peggy’s favorite movies, which means I see it a lot, every July Fourth to be exact.

Twentieth Century Fox placed this Independence Day movie memorial in front of the Little A'le'Inn. Numerous sci-fi movies, TV series and books about aliens have included Area 51– including Indiana Jones.

Twentieth Century Fox placed this Independence Day movie memorial in front of the Little A’le’Inn. Numerous sci-fi movies, TV series and books about aliens have included Area 51– including Indiana Jones.

Rachel is located about halfway along the 98-mile road. One sticker-covered sign outside of town proclaimed we were on the Extraterrestrial Highway. Another welcomed us to Rachel and announced that the community is made up of humans and possibly aliens. You can’t miss the A’le’Inn. A tow truck carrying a flying saucer is parked out front.

Extraterrestrial Highway sign in Southern Nevada.

So many stickers are posted on the ET Highway sign, it is difficult to read. I figure it’s a toss-up between free advertising and people saying “I was here.”

The welcome sign to Rachel, Nevada.

The welcome sign to Rachel, Nevada.

Tow truck and 'flying saucer' in Rachel, Nevada.

The Little A’le’Inn has a tow truck carrying a broken down ‘flying saucer’ out front. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Advertising sign on the side of the Little A'le'Inn in Rachel, Nevada.

The Little A’le’Inn is not subtle in drawing attention to its Area 51 connection. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Self parking sign at the Little A'le'Inn in Rachel, Nevada.

Self parking sign.

We walked into the bar/restaurant/motel office. It was crammed full of ET memorabilia and souvenirs. The ceiling of the bar was covered with dollar bills hanging down in rows. An older woman, looking a touch crusty, was perched on a bar stool while a younger woman stood behind the bar. I mentioned we had a reservation. “But do you have a name,” the bar stool occupant demanded. I gave it, our reservation was found in a card box, and the bartender/waitress was directed to show us to our room. She strolled across the restaurant, opened the back door and pointed to a blue and white trailer about 100 yards away.

“Oh, and by the way, you will be sharing the trailer and its bathroom with another family tonight.”

Dollars were stuck above the bar at the Little A'le'Inn.

Dollars were stuck above the bar at the Little A’le’Inn. Each one includes names of visitors to the restaurant/motel.

An alien at the Little A'le'Inn in Rachel, Nevada.

The restaurant was filled with souvenirs and memorabilia relating to UFOs and aliens.

A view of our motel 'room' from the Little A'le'Inn restaurant. Peggy is standing in front of the trailer.

A view of our motel ‘room’ from the Little A’le’Inn restaurant. Peggy is standing in front of the trailer.

With some trepidation about who our ‘neighbors’ might be, we drove over to check out our accommodations and unpack. The neighbors weren’t there yet so we did a walk-through. An old style kitchen gave way to a living room with comfortable furniture,  bright red curtains and an old, non-working TV. Our small bedroom contained an even smaller bed. We’d have a cozy night. The joint bathroom was next. Two more bedrooms finished off the trailer. Apparently the kitchen and living room were also common property. We’d be one big happy family.

Motel room at Little A'le'Inn in Rachel, Nevada.

Our living room complete with red curtains and a TV that didn’t work.

We had just unpacked when a car drove up to the back door. I soon heard keys rattling but apparently the lock didn’t want to cooperate. I walked over to the door and opened it, and met (drum roll please)… aliens. I kid you not. The Hibberts were from England. And they were delightful. Within 30 minutes we were sitting around the living room, drinking wine and swapping tales.

Roy, Brian, and Lynne Hibbert from Bolton, England.

Roy, Ryan, and Lynne Hibbert from Bolton, England.

Roy travelled the world for the software giant Citrix. On his off time he travelled more but he also delivered medicine in Africa by motorcycle. Lynne was a Sister at a hospital in Bolton, where they lived near Liverpool. I was still getting my head around Lynne being a nun and having a family when she explained that Sisters in English hospitals are what we call nurses in the US. Apparently, she was a jack-of-all-trades, assisting in everything from open-heart surgery to baby delivery. You’d want to keep your operations straight. Their son, Ryan, was a student, presently studying Russian as he prepared for a road trip to Russia. He already spoke French.

“How did you choose this remote corner of the earth to visit?” Peggy asked with a leading question. Peggy’s good at leading questions; she’d make a great detective.

“It was the movie Paul,” Roy explained. “It was filmed here.” We looked blank. “You haven’t seen Paul?” he asked, his voice dripping in disbelief. The family jumped in to enlighten us.

We found the movie a few nights later when we were channel surfing on our TV at the Hilton Grand in Las Vegas. I would describe Paul as an R-rated ET. He’s got the same look, but his language is a lot more colorful than “ET call home.” Besides being peppered with swear words and probing jokes, the movie pokes fun at religion and has references to numerous sci-fi movies ranging from Star Wars, to Men in Black, to Close Encounters. Sci-fi movie buffs must love it. There is even a cameo voice appearance by Steven Spielberg. Peggy and I found the movie quite funny, but we do recommend reviewing it before sharing with children.

Our discussion with the Hibberts continued over dinner at the restaurant. A movie poster signed by Paul and the cast of the film overlooked out table. We learned from our waitress that the movie wasn’t actually filmed on location, much to the dismay of the motel’s owners. A replica of the A’le’Inn was recreated in New Mexico. Roy was even more dismayed. He’d come a long ways to see the original setting.

Poster for the movie Paul hanging on the wall of the A'le'Inn in Rachel, Nevada.

A poster from the movie Paul hung on the wall above us. Cast members had signed the poster, including Paul who proclaimed his love.

We parted from our new friends the next morning. They were headed back to Las Vegas (via Santa Barbara) and we were headed out to the back gate of Area 51. Fortunately, the A’le’Inn had a 25-cent map. There are no marked roads. In fact our GPS didn’t show a road. It did show, however, that we were rapidly approaching somewhere we definitely shouldn’t be. In case there was any doubt, numerous signs at the gate made it abundantly clear: Keep Out. Having satisfied our curiosity we took a few photos and headed back for the Extraterrestrial Highway. We had a final stop to make: the Black Mailbox.

Map showing Rachel, Area 51, and roads. We followed the road next to Rachel that led to the back gate. The main part of Area 51 is located at Groom Lake, located just below the Area 51 name.

Map showing Rachel, Area 51, and roads. We followed the road next to Rachel that led to the back gate. The main part of Area 51 is located at dry Groom Lake, found just below the Area 51 name.

The unmarked, unpaved road into the back Gate of Area 51.

The unmarked, unpaved road into the back Gate of Area 51. Groom Lake is located behind the mountains on the left.

GPS view of Area 51 in Southern Nevada.

What our GPS showed. According to it, we were off-road heading somewhere we had no business being.

Back gate to Area 51 near Rachel, Nevada.

We slowed down as we approached the back gate to Area 51. I was driving and Peggy was snapping photos. A close up of the gate with its warning signs kicks off this blog.

The Black Mailbox is the only sign you will find marking the front entrance to Area 51. Flying saucer fans claim it is one of the best places in America to see UFOs. They gather around it at night and scan the skies. Actually, the mailbox belongs to a local rancher and is now painted white; or it is if you can see through the graffiti and stickers.

The Black Mailbox noting the entrance to Area 51 on the ET Highway in southern Nevada.

The infamous Black (white) Mailbox with its numerous stickers and graffiti. Its location is shown on the map I posted above.

We were taking photos of the mailbox when a car screeched to a stop across the highway and a guy jumped out. He dashed into the desert. My first thought was, wow, that guy really has to go. But he ran back to his car, jumped in and took off like a hundred mad aliens were on his tail. “What the heck?” we wondered. And then it struck me. He was involved in the sport of geocaching where you find hidden treasures along the road. Apparently it is quite popular on the Extraterrestrial Highway. I took a picture of the area. It was time to leave the lonely desert and head for the bright lights of Las Vegas, where many more treasures are lost than found. But back to my original questions: 1) Do you believe in flying saucers? 2) Have you ever seen one?

Geocache site on the Extraterrestrial Highway.

The man ran past the Joshua Trees and into the desert. I believe a geocache is located to the right of the tree under the white rock.

The Extraterrestrial Highway of Southern Nevada.

I selected this as my last photo of the Extraterrestrial Highway because I love the way it mystically disappears into the distant mountains, appropriately symbolic of the highway and Area 51.

A Cow Elk Woos Me

Where I was going backpacking in Cliff Dwellings National Monument was something of a mystery to me. I didn’t have a clue.

My pack was loaded with a week’s worth of food and six topographic maps, more than enough to let me wander wherever I wanted and hopefully avoid getting lost. I started off up the West Fork of the Gila River but soon came across a trail jogging out of the canyon to the right.

“Looks good to me,” I thought to myself and started climbing. I was determined that wherever I went for the week would be based on random decisions. So much of my wilderness experience had involved leading groups or scouting out potential routes for organized trips that the sense of abandon felt delicious.

Consequently, years later, it isn’t exactly clear to me where I went. I was more than happy to hike 4 to 5 miles in one direction and then 6 or 7 in another. The only thing I tried to avoid was backtracking. I do remember wandering through Woodland Park and Lilly Park as well as climbing in and out of several canyons.

I had brought along two science fiction books for evening and early morning entertainment. Southern New Mexico is UFO Country. I was also carrying my usual field ID book and one serious read, Aldo Leopold’s “Sand Country Almanac.”

Leopold had been responsible for the creation of the Gila Wilderness in 1924, making it the first specifically designated wilderness area in the United States, and, I might add, the world. People who love wild country and understand its intrinsic value owe a great debt to the man for his vision. I had read the book before but reading it again in the Gila Wilderness added a special significance.

I declared a layover day so I could savor it all at once. I was camped on a small stream located in a minor canyon and hadn’t seen a soul for four days. It was the perfect setting for getting lost in a book.

Some time in the early afternoon, a loud “Woooeee” shattered the silence.

“Big Bird,” I thought to myself. “Big Bird on steroids.” Aldo Leopold would have been up in a flash to discover the source. Of course he would have had his rifle with him. He was quite the hunter.

As usual, my only weapon was a dull three-inch pocketknife. Still, the mountain man in me demanded I get off my lazy tail and go exploring. I grabbed my binoculars and climbed out of the canyon. I was greeted by a broad, flat expanse of Ponderosa Pines but no Big Bird. “Woooeee,” I heard receding into the distance.  I put on my stalking cap and begin to sneak through the forest.

“Woooeee!” Big Bird shouted behind me. I whirled around only to catch a glimpse of something disappearing behind a bush. Big Bird it wasn’t. Nor was it the ghost of Geronimo. It looked suspiciously like a cow elk that had morphed from stalkee to stalker. I wasn’t sure that I liked my new role but decided to play along.

“Woooeee,” I called out and jumped behind a Ponderosa.

“Woooeee,” I heard a delayed three minutes later. I stepped into the open to discover that my female companion had come out from behind her bush and was staring intently at my tree.

“Woooeee,” I shouted at her as she once again disappeared. We had a game. A cow elk was wooing me.

Years earlier I had discovered that much of the higher animal kingdom is quite curious about humans that don’t act like humans. I once had a similar experience to my elk chat with a coyote on the American River Parkway in Sacramento.

First I would hide and then he would hide. Finally, out of frustration, the coyote plopped down in the middle of the trail, raised its head, and began howling. I plopped down in the trail as well, raised my head and joined him. We had quite the discussion.

The elk and I continued our game for about 15 minutes when I changed the rules. I sat down in plain sight with my back against the tree. Instead of hiding she stood watching me for several minutes. I could tell the wheels were grinding away in her mind.

Suddenly she charged. I didn’t move from my seat but my adrenalin cranked up several notches. She was all of 10 feet away when she slammed on her brakes, lowered her head, stared me in the eye, and woooeeed again.

Half fascinated and half frightened, I didn’t budge. Several hundred pounds of frustrated female were looming over me. I had zero doubt that she could kick the stuffing out of me. She held my gaze, snorted in disgust, shook her head and trotted off.

Whatever conversation we had been having was over. I breathed a sigh of relief and returned to camp. My first chore was to get out my guidebook. Female elks, it noted, can become rather aggressive and dangerous in the spring when they have calves. I’d been both ignorant and lucky.

After dinner I went for my evening walk following an animal path that ambled along beside the creek. I heard a snort and looked up. Five elk were standing on the canyon rim staring down at me.

The old girl had recruited some buddies to check out the weird human.  Unfortunately, this time I knew enough to be worried. I was an intruder in their territory, a possible threat to their precious babies.

My worry level turned to panic when all five came charging down the canyon wall. One moose had been scary; now I had a whole damn thundering herd. Running was out of the question. “Think, Curtis,” went dashing through my brain.

The only thing I could dredge up was something I had fantasized I might do if charged by a grizzly bear in the wilds of Alaska. I started jumping up and down, scratching my armpits and screaming ooh, ooh, ooh! It worked for great apes, why not me.

For the second time that day, I heard the screeching of elk brakes. This time there was no standing and staring, however. The herd turned as one and charged back over the canyon rim, disappearing into the night. Somewhat satisfied with myself, I returned to camp and the security of my tent.

I wandered around for another two days, keeping an eye out for UFO’s, steering clear of cow elks and visiting sites where this or that pioneer had been killed by Apaches. The pioneers also did a pretty good job of killing off each other, not to mention the Indians. With my food running low, I finally ceased my wandering ways and hiked back to the National Monument.

I was ready for my next adventure, this time in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming.

(Next blog: There’s a beaver standing on my tent!)