In the grey light of the Nevada dawn, in a parking lot beside a tiny rural courthouse, a small group of people board a white bus with tinted windows.At about 10 minutes to seven, the bus pulls out of the lot onto the main road and speeds past the sign that reads “Extraterrestrial Highway”.It passes the Alien Research Centre gift shop, with its giant metal alien statue, and ET Fresh Jerky, a food stop with outer space murals.Finally it slips onto an unmarked dirt track and into the hills, passing through a hidden security checkpoint to deliver its passengers to another day’s work at Area 51. Despite its near-mythical status among UFO obsessives, Area 51 – properly known as Groom Lake – is a real place, and to the people living in the small towns and farming valleys nearby, its brooding, secretive presence is just a normal part of life.Now, though, they are scrambling to prepare for a massive influx of outsiders drawn to the area by a viral Facebook event, set for Sept 21, which calls on attendees to “storm Area 51” and “see them aliens”.The event’s creator has admitted he was joking, and most of the 1.9 million who have signed up are probably joking too. But even a fraction of that number would utterly overwhelm towns such as Rachel, a tiny community of 54 lying just off the road leading to Groom Lake’s “back gate”.“It’s been two weeks of insanity, pure insanity,” says Connie West, owner of Rachel’s UFO-themed hotel, the Little A’Le’Inn. All her rooms for the weekend of the 20th are taken and the phone is still ringing off the hook. “I’ve had no sleep. I have no voice. I would like to shake the hand of the young man who made this happen and created this monster, and also would really like to punch him as hard as I could.”Something is being covered up here. If it was nothing they would just come out and tell you there was nothing
It is unlikely that the CIA anticipated anything like this when it chose Groom Lake in 1955 to be the test bed for its U2 spy plane program. Today it is just one facility in the a vast forbidden kingdom called the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), a US military reservation the size of Yorkshire containing everything from drone bases to botanical experiments.Some parts of the NTTR are quite open, but Area 51 is not one of them: it is off limits even to most NTTR workers, and is guarded by infrared cameras, buried motion sensors and private security guards in grey pickup trucks known to locals as the “camo guys”.It has its own airline: a fleet of classified planes known as “Janets” which ferry an estimated 1,000 workers every day to and from a private terminal at Las Vegas McCarran Airport.As the proving ground for generations of advanced US aircraft (including the F-117 stealth fighter), and with appearances in films such as Independence Day, Area 51 has always been of interest to UFO devotees. Until recently it attracted a steady stream of the curious, to whom the people of the Extraterrestrial Highway were only too happy to cater.On June 21, however, a physicist named Bob Lazar, who has been claiming for decades to have worked on a crashed alien space craft near Groom Lake, went on the popular Joe Rogan podcast. That piqued the interest of 20-year-old student Matty Roberts, who thought it would be funny to suggest an invasion. The event quickly escaped his control, which is when Connie’s ordeal began.Already the Facebook event is drawing extra visitors. “I think everything Bob Lazar says is true,” says Andrew Cudlipp, a young sound engineer from Seattle who is scouting the area to set up his own music festival in September.
A tourist photographs a convenience store named the Area 51 Alien Center is seen along U.S. highway 95 on July 21, 2019 in Amargosa Valley, Nevada.
David Becker/Getty Images
“I wholeheartedly believe,” says Laura Campos, a mural artist from San Francisco, who believes aliens are probably responsible for many recent technological advances.“Something is being covered up here,” says Phil Hartley, a lecturer in electrical engineering from Bo’Ness, Scotland, who strongly believes that “ancient aliens” influenced humanity’s past. “If it was nothing they would just come out and tell you there was nothing.”Perhaps, come September, we will find out. More likely is that a tiny fraction of attendees will turn up, get cold feet and hang around without crossing into the NTTR. Linda Looney, who works at the Alien Research Center gift shop, says she is hiring extra security to control the crowds, fielding inquiries from food truck companies, and preparing to be open 24 hours a day.Anyone actually trying to enter Area 51 will face stiff resistance. The camo guys are authorized to use deadly force; only in January, a man was killed trying to cross the line near the town of Mercury, at the opposite end of the NTTR from Groom Lake.Most dangerous might be the NTTR’s natural defences: high mountains, baking heat and miles of jagged terrain to cross. “This is a very rough, tough desert,” says Roberta Park, a retired schoolteacher. “It’s not a good place to get stranded or run out of gas.”An ill-prepared raid could become a humanitarian disaster without the military ever intervening.