A viral Facebook event raised new questions about otherworldly occurrences in the Nevada desert — here's how a government base became ground zero for alien enthusiasts

By Jordan Runtagh
January 13, 2020 11:05 AM
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Ninety miles northwest of the Las Vegas Strip, a dirt path veers off Highway 375 into the barren high desert. Called Groom Lake Road, it was unmarked on maps for decades. Even today there’s no sign, but most who make the turn at the base of Hancock Summit know exactly where they’re heading. The 14-mile stretch leads to the south gate of America’s worst-kept secret. It’s been referred to as Dream Land, Waterdown Strip, Paradise Ranch or simply “The Box,” but you probably know it as Area 51.

Groom Lake Road pierces the desert in a straight line that vanishes into the horizon. Wisps of white dust dot the trail ahead, ejecta clouds from cars too distant to be visible by the naked eye. Turn in any direction and you’ll see the same thing: brush, rocks and space — lots of it. The lack of water vapor in the air allows for almost surreal clarity of vision, but with no structures around for scale, judging distance is a challenge. Many hikers fall prey to this combination, setting off for a seemingly nearby ridge and never returning.

The approach to Area 51.
Jordan Runtagh

Will Tryon is here on this September afternoon to ensure this doesn’t happen to me. As the owner of the Las Vegas-based, GetYourGuide-affiliated Adventure Photo Tours, he’s spent nearly two decades bringing the curious to the border of Area 51. The installation’s remote location was chosen in part to attract minimal gawkers, but Tryon is charmed by the vast emptiness. “It has a captivating, lonely beauty to it,” he marvels as we kick up dust in his SUV, echoing Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s description of the moon: magnificent desolation.

Strange plants start to appear as we proceed down Groom Lake Road, and we pull over to take a closer look. Tryon tells me these are mutated Joshua Trees, stick straight at the base rather than the bush-like healthy variety. He says it’s a result of the atomic blasts that occurred at the Nevada Test Site, some 35 miles downwind, where at least 100 nuclear weapons were detonated between 1951 and 1962. “There was a lot of fallout that came through here” he says matter-of-factly. I look at my dust-covered shoes and wonder if they should be placed in a HAZMAT bag. Tryon senses my concern and assures me there’s nothing to worry about.

Mutated Joshua trees.
Jordan Runtagh

Finally we come to a “Road Closed” sign and a handful of orange pylons, guarded by half a dozen members of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s department. They’re a remarkably friendly bunch, considering the seriousness of their assignment, and we spend a few minutes chatting. Assuming this is as close as we’re going to get, I begin to head back to the car. “Wait!” a policeman calls after me, with a note of genuine concern in his voice. “Don’t you wanna see the gate!?” I’m informed that cars are off limits, but we’re free continue on foot.

The Sheriff’s squad is certainly more friendly than the men in the white 4×4 pickup truck staring down at us from atop a nearby ridge. These are the famous “camo dudes,” an elite security team tasked with guarding the base perimeter. They know you’re coming long before you get there. Even on public land, activity is closely monitored from observation points, motion-activated cameras and magnetic sensors buried along the roads, all of which track your location, direction and speed. When you arrive, the camo dudes are your welcome committee. Their mute presence is usually enough to deter any potential trespassers who make it this far, but their trucks come tricked out with long-range viewing devices, night-vision gear and encrypted radio just in case. Sometimes it’s necessary. In 2012, a BBC film crew was held at gunpoint and forced to lay on their stomach for three hours after they tried to sneak past the border at night.

The BBC got off comparatively easy in terms of camo dude justice. Former guard Fred Dunham told National Geographic that if anyone “demonstrated they were going to try to penetrate, [base management] gave me the all-clear to waste them.” It’s rare but fatalities have occurred, most recently in January 2019, when an unnamed man holding an unidentified “cylindrical object” was shot after an eight-mile car chase inside the restricted site. For years, signs lined the perimeter advising “use of deadly force authorized,” but the ominous warning has been left off the latest signage.

Security measures at the Area 51 perimeter. Note the white "camo dude" truck on the hilltop.
Adventure Photo Tours

The edge of Area 51 is plenty ominous on its own, without explicitly stated death threats. Presumably in light of the fatal incident in January, a yellow steel gate has been added to what had previously been an imaginary boundary demarcated by signs. It’s padlocked shut and covered in conventional stop signs and U.S. Air Force Installation placards warning against everything from drones and firearms to photography and trespassing. Barbed wire snakes up the hill on either side of the gate, and a remote-controlled FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) camera tower stands like a robotic sentry. Between the cameras, search lights, and ever-present camo dudes, I feel vaguely self-conscious and possibly under-dressed.

The newly-constructed gate at the Groom Lake Road entrance of Area 51.
Jordan Runtagh

“No red dots on your shirt,” Tryon jokes, “so far so good.” The military facility is some 20 miles beyond the gate, but obviously I’m not getting any closer than this. For all intents and purposes, I have just stormed Area 51.

•      •      •

I’m here because I was invited on Facebook by one Matty Roberts, a 21-year-old engineering student and vape shop employee from Bakersfield, California. Three months earlier, at 2 a.m. on June 27, he created an event on the social networking site: Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us. The date was set for Sept. 20, between 3 and 6 a.m. “We will all meet up at the Area 51 Alien Center tourist attraction and coordinate our entry,” the event description read. “If we Naruto run, we can move faster than their bullets. Lets [sic] see them aliens.”

It was purely a joke, the kind of thing one posts at 2 a.m. to amuse friends. But something about the mix of hilariously straight-faced stupidity, F—k The Man brashness, and squint-and-it-almost-works reductive logic formed the perfect storm of internet virality. On July 2, the event was shared to Reddit, the so-called “front page of the internet,” where it began racking up a huge response. Within days it had snowballed into international news. By August more than 2 million people had pledged to attend the event, with more than a million more saying they were “interested.” I may or may not have been one of them.

“Dude, I was super giddy when it first took off, because I had never made a post that had gone that far,” Roberts tells me. “And my page only had about 62 likes before the event actually took off. So when I saw that this thing reached over 10,000 people, three days into it, I got super excited. I was sending screenshots to my buddies. It was just pure excitement.”

Matty Roberts.
Ethan Miller/Getty

The Air Force was less than giddy about the whole thing. “The United States Air Force is aware of the Facebook post,” USAF. press officer Laura M. McAndrews told PEOPLE in a statement. “The Nevada Test and Training Range is an area where the Air Force tests and trains combat aircraft. As a matter of practice, we do not discuss specific security measures, but any attempt to illegally access military installations or military training areas is dangerous.” In other words, do not test the camo dudes.

The enormity of the situation became obvious to Roberts when the FBI showed up at his house one day, regrettably not in full Men in Black regalia. “They were dressed casual, just like you and me,” he says. “I had no idea that they were the FBI until they presented their badges. And even then, I was a little skeptical about it. I called the Sacramento office, just to verify that they were real agents, and they were. So I let them in, chatted with them for about 90 minutes, answered all their questions. They were concerned about me getting death threats. Mostly they were just trying to make sure that I’m not a terrorist.”

The USAF and the FBI made it clear what common sense had already indicated: no one would be getting anywhere near Area 51. But both Roberts and the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department were already preparing for the possibility of people not understanding — or caring — that it was all a joke. Even if a fraction of the two million (not counting the extra “interested” million-plus) made the trek, that still meant thousands stranded in a hostile environment, dangerously close to a top secret military base. The solution came in the form of a music festival, stocked with food and shelter to keep everyone safe, and far enough away from the base perimeter to ensure no one trespassed. Thus was born Alienstock, slated for Sept. 19 through Sept. 22.

The biggest event that Matty Roberts had organized up to this point was a rave back in Bakersfield, which had attracted about 350 people. Now he was working on a significantly larger scale with significantly less resources. The learning curve would be steep. The town of Rachel, Nevada, 27 miles south of Area 51, had been chosen as the de facto venue, given its status as the closest inhabited place. But its proximity is about the only thing it had going for it as a festival site. With a population of 54, Rachel boasts little more than the Little A’Le’Inn, a restaurant, bar, gift shop and 13-room motel that caters to particularly hearty UFO tourists. The nearest grocery store and gas station are more than 50 miles away, and the nearest hospital is all the way back in Las Vegas, a two-hour drive. Cell service is nearly non-existent. Emergency medical services are run purely on a volunteer basis. The town doesn’t even have a post office or a fire department, let alone the infrastructure to support thousands of inexperienced city dwellers expecting to party all weekend.

Rachel, Nevada. Population: 54.
Bridget Bennett/Getty Images

Roberts initially partnered up with the Little A’Le’Inn owner Connie West to act as an on-the-ground planner and coordinator, but most of Rachel’s inhabitants weren’t enthused. “The locals are not on board, nobody asked us, and we don’t appreciate anyone threatening to take over our town,” Joerg Arnu, a resident who runs the town’s website, told TIME in August. “I’ll do anything in my power to prevent this…[Rachel] is going to get destroyed.” West herself wasn’t without misgivings. “I’m just as terrified as they are,” she said of her neighbors. “I live here too, and I’m just doing my best.” In a bizarre twist, the tourism board for the nation of Belize took pity on Rachel’s citizens and offered them a free trip to their country in order to escape the chaos.

The Lincoln County Commission took a similarly dim view of the proceedings, but ultimately gave their conditional approval for Alienstock. Far from a vote of confidence, it was a case of begrudgingly bowing to the inevitable. “The county feels like if they didn’t approve the event, it doesn’t matter,” Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee told The Atlantic. “The people are coming anyway.” Lest anyone think they were gung-ho about the whole thing, they pre-signed a declaration of emergency just to be on the safe side.

To assist with planning, over half a dozen agencies at the local, state and federal level were called in, including the Las Vegas Police, the Nevada Department of Public Safety, and the state Highway Patrol. Sheriff Lee ordinarily has only 26 officers at his command to oversee the entire 10,000-square-mile county, but he’d enlisted 150 officers and 300 paramedics from across the state. A desert command post was assembled, complete with trailers, satellite phones and even cell boosters from Verizon. Four-thousand gallons of fuel were transported in for emergency response teams, and a plan was implemented for airlifting emergency medical cases. To cope with the disturbingly low toilet-to-person ratio, a venerable village of porta-potties was assembled.

The Alienstock command post on the outskirts of Rachel.
Bridget Bennett/Getty Images

The planning did little to allay the fears of Rachel’s natives. A message shared on the town’s website made it clear that “in the absence of law enforcement local landowners will step up to protect their property.” Even Roberts started to get cold feet, and on Sept. 9 — 10 days before Alienstock was set to kick off — he announced that he was pulling out. “Due to the lack of infrastructure, poor planning, risk management and blatant disregard for the safety of the expected 10,000+ AlienStock attendees, we decided to pull the plug on the festival,” Roberts and his team announced on their own AlienStock website. “We are not interested in, nor will we tolerate any involvement in a FYREFEST 2.0.” The following day he shared that he had signed on for a less-risky alternative, The Bud Light Area 51 Celebration, scheduled for Sept. 19 at the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center. “That was definitely the right decision,” Roberts tells me. “And I have no regrets there whatsoever.”

The move left a bad taste in the mouths of the Lincoln County dwellers who’d spent money and time on a scheme that had essentially been Roberts’ doing. The Little A’Le’Inn contingent was especially aggrieved, and Connie West quickly put out a statement pledging her intent to hold Alienstock on her 30-acre property at the Inn. Roberts responded with a cease-and-desist that claimed her event was “in absolutely no shape to proceed,” leading to an ugly back-and-forth in the press and the courts. West’s unshakable show-must-go-on attitude had less to do with a rabid passion for aliens and more to do with financial necessity. In tearful interviews she claimed that she’d paid thousands out of pocket for security and medical services, and already sold hundreds of spots for camping and parking. “No matter what it’s going to happen, there’s nothing I can do to stop it,” she told a reporter for KTNV News. (West ultimately filed a lawsuit against Roberts and his associates alleging, among other things, breach of agreement. The attorney for Roberts’ organization, Mitchell Bisson of Callister Law Group, disputes almost everything alleged in her complaint, and filed a countersuit of their own “for their blatant and continued infringement of the Alienstock trademark, as well as the many defamatory statements being made about my clients.” The cases are still pending.)

Roberts may also face heat from the Lincoln County District Attorney. “The county could be spending upwards of a quarter of a million dollars and that’s not including the salaries of all these 300-plus first responders that are coming here.” Sheriff Lee told Gizmodo prior to Alienstock. Though the D.A. has hinted they may pursue legal action against Facebook, Lee says he holds Roberts personally responsible for the logistical headaches. “Matty Roberts is the one that started this on Facebook … He’s already told people that this is quote-unquote ‘his event.’ He told some of the other event promoters that this was his event. And so I guess if it’s his event and he’s taken ownership of it, then we know where legal action should go toward. I’m not an attorney, but that is what Lincoln County district attorney is saying.” (As of December 2019, no such action has been taken.)

Despite the legal threats hanging over his head, Roberts was ecstatic when I spoke to him. It was the day after the successful Bud Light Area 51 Celebration, and he was still riding high. “It was absolutely freaking amazing. I had the time of my life out there,” he said. “The crowd just loved it, man. The alien theme was just perfect. And everybody was dressing up.” Roberts plans to take the show on the road on the road and develop an Area 51-themed musical production, akin to Warped Tour, Ozzfest and the Electric Daisy Carnival. “Honestly, at this point, man, I’m a professional partier,” he tells me. “I know there’s a lot of people that wished that they could have attended this party but couldn’t because of travel. So why not just take the whole show and travel with it?”

Surprisingly, Roberts doesn’t consider himself a hardcore alien truther. “I already knew about the mystery surrounding Area 51 and aliens. Just very basic stuff you get watching History Channel late at night. But after the thing took off, it’s been a really interesting rabbit hole to dive down. All the mystery, the stories, the tall tales —It’s cool. I think aliens are out there somewhere, but I don’t necessarily believe that they have visited us.”

Full disclosure: I did not personally attend The Bud Light Area 51 Celebration. In the parlance of the times, I want to see them aliens — or at least try as hard as humanly possible. I knew I had to go a hell of a lot farther than Downtown Vegas.

•      •      •

Area 51 is a minuscule portion of the Nevada Test and Training Range, the largest government-controlled land parcel in the United States. At 4,687 square miles, the NTTR is slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut and serves as the U.S. military’s top secret playground. By all accounts, Area 51 is where the really expensive toys are kept. In the grand tradition of government secrets, its location was officially a dark spot on the map for decades. The CIA didn’t acknowledge its existence until June 25, 2013, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted eight years earlier. The release included a summary of some early projects developed at the base, as well as a map of the area.

The official history of Area 51 begins in the early 1950s, as the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union grew disconcertingly warm. The arms race had escalated beyond the point of reason, with both sides matching the other’s capacity to destroy the planet several times over using thermonuclear weapons. Locked in a stalemate of mutually assured destruction, espionage took on a higher premium than military muscle. By April 1955, the CIA and Lockheed’s Advanced Development Division (nicknamed “Skunk Works”) were hard at work developing the U-2, a high-flying strategic reconnaissance aircraft. Due to the extreme secrecy of the program, traditional facilities were deemed unsuitable. Project director Richard M. Bissell Jr., special assistant to CIA director Allen Dulles, ordered a search for a new test site. Groom Lake fit the bill perfectly. Sparsely populated and enveloped by mountains, the smooth, hard-packed clay of the dry lakebed made for a perfect natural landing field. Skunk Works chief Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson initially named the facility to “Paradise Ranch” — an overly optimistic moniker designed “to lure workers to the program.” In contrast to the ultra-pricy aircraft, the site’s rudimentary accommodations amounted to little more than a few trailer homes and temporary shelters for workshops.

In late 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower signed Executive 10633 Order to restrict the airspace above the base. In December 2013, President Barack Obama became the first president to utter the phrase “Area 51” publicly. What occurred at Groom Lake during that 58-year period is, to put it mildly, hazy. The development of the U-2 was declassified in 1998, as was the development of the A-12 Oxcart spy plane in 2007. SR-71 Blackbird supersonic reconnaissance jets, as well as stealth fighters like the F-1117A and the B-2 were all tested at the site. In addition to building their own technology, technicians at Area 51 also studied and reverse engineered a number of captured Soviet aircraft, notably the MiG-17 and MiG-21. But from the late ‘60s onward, almost nothing is known about the Groom Lake programs. To this day, they remain classified.

The Area 51 facility lies adjacent to the dry bed of Groom Lake.
DigitalGlobe via Getty

The clandestine nature of the projects provoked a bizarre feud between the CIA and NASA in 1974, when astronauts aboard the Skylab space station accidentally photographed portions of Groom Lake while capturing images of the Earth. “There were specific instructions not to do this,” reads an irate memo sent to CIA director William Colby by an unknown State Department official that April. The message clarified that Groom Lake — with the name redacted — “was the only location which had such an instruction,” effectively marking the spot as the most sensitive place on the planet. Though Colby was wasn’t overly concerned (“What really does it reveal? If exposed, don’t we just say classified USAF work is done there?” he scrawled in the margins) the incident sparked a minor firestorm that spread across the Pentagon, the USAF and the Justice Department.

These days the authorities have grown more lenient with their imaging restrictions. Representatives for Maxar Technologies, an agency that provides satellite photos used on Google Maps, confirmed to me that their pictures of Area 51 are indeed the real deal. They reveal the immense development since the early “Paradise Ranch” days, including an impressive array of hangers and runways. But it’s not all business; a baseball diamond, tennis courts and a jogging track are also visible from the photos. According to former staffers, the base also featured (at one time or another) a small movie theater, bowling alley, gymnasium and a bar.

The top secret baseball diamond and tennis courts of Area 51.
Google Maps

While there are many high-security government facilities in the U.S., none can match Area 51’s otherworldly mythology. According to journalist Annie Jacobsen, a longtime a national security reporter, Pulitzer-prize finalist and author of Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, the steady stream of experimental aircraft originating from the Groom Lake site is the simplest explanation for the now-legendary reports of UFO sightings in the area. “In the mid-1950s, civilian aircraft flew between 10,000 and 25,000 feet,” she says in a phone interview. “Quite low, right? So, imagine being a civilian, looking up and seeing an object flying at 70,000 feet in the air.” These sightings usually took place in the evening, when the setting sun reflected off the craft’s silver wings, creating the effect of a fiery bolt moving across darkened the sky. “Not only that, the U-2 had this massive wingspan that made it look like a flying cross. What could a civilian possibly think, other than that is an unidentified flying object? Which it actually was: It had not yet been identified.”

One could assume that Area 51’s unshakable place in popular consciousness relies on decades of apocrypha that have morphed and expanded in the collective imagination. But the truth is even stranger: Area 51’s reputation as the government’s secret alien store can be traced to one man, a physicist named Bob Lazar. For good or ill, everything we know — or at least think we know — about the base is largely because of him.

•      •      •

Just after 5 p.m. on May 15, 1989, Eyewitness News on the Las Vegas station KLAS-TV aired a live interview with investigative reporter George Knapp and an anonymous man who identified himself only as “Dennis.” His face obscured by shadows, the story he recounted in his boyish tenor was extraordinary. He claimed to have been an employee of a secret government facility near Groom Lake where alien technology was being reverse engineered. “There’s actually nine flying saucers, flying discs, that are out there of extra-terrestrial origin,” he said on camera. “And they’re being test flown and basically just analyzed. Some of them are 100 percent intact and operate perfectly, the other ones are being taken apart.” The man insisted that the machinery couldn’t have originated on Earth. “Totally impossible. The propulsion system is a gravity propulsion system, the power source is an anti-matter reactor. This technology doesn’t exist at all.” He believed that keeping this information top secret was a “crime against the American people” and “a crime against the scientific community,” but his altruism came with a price. “I’ve been threatened with being charged with espionage,” he claimed. “I’ve had my life threatened by them [and] my wife’s life threatened by them.”

That November, KLAS-TV broadcast a second interview with the man, this time unmasked and using his own name: Bob Lazar. The 30-year-old Floridian repeated his story in even greater detail and alleged that the threats on his life were escalating. “I had my back tire shot out on my car as I was getting on the freeway,” he claimed. “The only reason you’re getting this on tape is insurance.”

Lazar’s interviews broke network viewership records and his story quickly spread across the globe. It marked the first time that the vow of silence surrounding Area 51 had been publicly broken. “I think that Bob Lazar absolutely deserves credit for being the origin point of the public fascination with Area 51,” Jacobsen says. “Before that, it was a very elite place within the secret government agencies that worked there. There were very high-profile programs going on there, so it was well known within the community, but certainly not outside the community of people with top secret clearances who’d been invited there. Bob Lazar changed all that with these interviews.”

Whether or not his story could be believed is another matter entirely. Lazar claimed that he was hired to work at Groom Lake in December 1988 by government contractor EG&G, thanks in part to his acquaintance with Dr. Edward Teller, the renowned physicist known as the father of the hydrogen bomb. According to Lazar, his first day on the job began at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas, where he boarded a private flight to the Area 51 base. Upon disembarking, he was bused about 40 minutes south to a location called S4, a complex of nine hangers built into the mountains surrounding Papoose Lake and camouflaged with paint and sandy material. Once there, Lazar says he applied for “Majestic Level” security clearance, which he defines as 22 levels above Q-Level, the highest civilian clearance. As part of the application process, he claims to have signed documents that waived his Constitutional rights and allowed his home phone to be monitored. Then, he says, things got really weird.

As part of his onboarding, he says he was placed into a small conference room and given upwards of 120 briefings to read through, “essentially a brief synopsis on some of the projects that were going on there.” The documents purportedly told him that the craft he was to examine originated from Zeta Reticuli, a binary star system located approximately 39.3 light-years from Earth. “I was completely shocked, I couldn’t believe it,” he said on Eyewitness News. “It was a science dream.” The briefings also allegedly contained what appeared to be autopsy photographs of an alien. “A bust shot essentially, of head, shoulders and chest…The chest was cut open in ‘T’ fashion and one single organ was removed,” he said in a 1997 interview with the SyFy Channel. “This was totally unrelated to anything I was doing, but from that photograph it looked like you see in UFO lore as the typical grey [men].”

Elsewhere in the briefing, Lazar claims to have read that extraterrestrial beings had resided at S4 until a violent altercation that occurred in 1979. “Allegedly there was some sort of information exchange going on where there were actual live aliens at the facility,” he told the SyFy Channel. One day, security guards with sidearms attempted to enter the quarters where these creatures were being held. “If they were to enter the area the bullets would have detonated,” Lazar explained. “And supposedly one of the creatures tried to stop the security personnel from entering and a fight ensued.” The security guards, he says, were all killed. “They died of head wounds, and that’s all I heard of that story.”

He also claims that his own predecessor on Project Galileo met an untimely end. “I was told that I was hired to replace one of a couple [of] people that were killed while working on one of the reactors from one of the craft … They cut open one of the reactors and the device exploded, killing both of them. Apparently the detonation from the explosion was fairly large. It would have rivaled a small tactical nuke.” According to Lazar, the incident was passed off as unannounced nuclear test.

Lazar says he worked at S4 sporadically, studying power and propulsion of the crafts, between December 1988 and April 1989. It wasn’t until his third visit that he saw one of the discs with his own eyes. He estimated the vehicle, which he dubbed “The Sport Model,” to be approximately 50-feet in diameter and made of a metallic substance. Cold to the touch, “it had no seams; it was as if it was injection molded from one giant die.” Initially assuming this was merely another government prototype, he entered the disc and noticed that the seats were distressingly small, more suited to a 6-year-old child.

Lazar claims to have witnessed only one close range test flight, which took place inside the hanger at S4 just before sundown. “It was a low performance test,” he told SyFy. “The craft lifted off the ground, virtually noiseless other than a small corona discharge at the bottom of the craft indicating the presence of high voltage. That dissipated at about 30 feet and it stood there completely silently. It moved over to the left, to the right, and sat back down. That was the entire test. However, that was an extremely impressive test…This was quite a scientific feat to lift something completely silently, under control, and perform a maneuver like that.”

The craft’s movement fascinated Lazar, as it appeared to defy basic rules of physics. Vehicles like rockets and airplanes rely on a force expelled from the rear to propel them forward. This is Newton’s third law of motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Lazar claims the disc was a reaction-less craft, relying instead on a system of three separate gravity amplifiers and emitters in front to create a “distortion” in which space actually bends. He likens the effect to placing a bowling ball in the center of a mattress and then pressing down with a fist, causing the ball to roll towards the indentation. The craft, says Lazar, behaved in the same manner, falling forward into infinity. “It’s technology that doesn’t exist yet,” he told Eyewitness News. “Science doesn’t even know what gravity is, much less how to produce it or control it. And here is a machine that is producing it and controlling it and using it for propulsion.” The gravity amplifiers, he says, were powered by an anti-matter reactor, which ran on a substance called Element 115. At the time, no such element existed on the planet. “The thing they [his superiors] were most interested in was duplicating the reactor without using this Element 115, which is, of course, impossible.”

Lazar has frequently denied having a close encounter with an extra-terrestrial, but he does recall one notable incident. Passing a door in a hallway, he says he looked in and noticed two men in white lab coats “looking down and talking to something small with long arms.” Before he could get a better look, he was ordered to keep his head down and continue down the hall. He would never claim that what he saw was an alien (“I think those guys had a doll in a small chair,” he insisted in 2018) but he did say that employees at S4 had a nickname for non-human colleagues: “The Kids.”

By the spring of 1989, Lazar apparently began to buckle under the weight of the colossal secret he carried. Claiming to know the schedule of the test flights, he invited his wife and a handful of friends to come see for themselves. For three consecutive Wednesdays, Lazar led a small group of intimates to a vantage point in Tikaboo Valley, on the edge of Area 51, where they observed and filmed the strange lights that danced across the sky over Groom Mountain. On the third of these nights, April 5, their private viewing party was interrupted by security guards and Lazar was questioned by the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department. The following day he was ordered to Indian Springs Air Force Base, where he was summarily fired from EG&G. He was supposedly told that he would be arrested for espionage if he was ever set foot in the vicinity of Groom Lake again. For weeks Lazar became convinced that authorities were tailing him. His paranoia intensified after he says his tire was shot out on the highway.

In the midst of all this, he appeared on Knapp’s show. Upon arriving home after the broadcast, he says he received a phone call from his former Groom Lake supervisor. “Bob, do you have any idea what we’re going to do to you now?” the man asked. Then the line went dead.

•      •      •

Writing a journalistically balanced article on Area 51 in general, and Bob Lazar in particular, poses a challenge because — surprise! — government organizations and reputable public figures aren’t anxious to go on record about a base that, until recently, never officially existed. Over the last three decades, Lazar himself has kept a fairly low profile, claiming his reputation as “the UFO guy” has made him all but unemployable in the scientific community. Rather than parlay his notoriety into the lucrative paranormal lecture circuit, guaranteeing him a spot as a talking head on documentaries and TV specials in perpetuity, he makes a living selling scientific equipment and supplies in a small shop outside of Lansing, Michigan.

Lazar has granted only a handful of substantial interviews, which, according to him, often provoked unsettling consequences. In the wake of the KLAS-TV broadcast, he says unknown persons repeatedly broke into his car and home. Nothing was stolen, but moved furniture, open doors and windows and other minor disturbances made it clear that someone had been inside. Not long after, he received an invitation to appear on a Japanese television program. The night he purchased his flight, he says his phone rang. An unfamiliar voice assured him that he would never return from Japan alive. The trip was abruptly canceled. He says his scientific supply business has been raided by the FBI twice — most recently the day after discussing Element 115 with filmmaker Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell for his 2018 documentary, Bob Lazar: Area 51 & Flying Saucers.

Bob Lazar at a Los Angeles screening of Jeremy Corbell's documentary on his life, December 2018.
Jerod Harris/Getty Images

These incidents are admittedly based only on the claims of Lazar himself and a handful of supporters, but his lengthy 2019 interview on Joe Rogan’s podcast yielded a hefty dose of readily verifiable chaos. The episode caught the ear of Matty Roberts, inspiring him to make his famous Facebook invite. The resulting frenzy was enough to make the taciturn Lazar speak out against the Storm Area 51 phenomenon on Instagram. (Yes, he has an Instagram.) “I do understand it was started as a joke by someone, but there are a number of people who are actually planning on showing up,” he wrote in July, weeks after the invite went viral. “This is a misguided idea. Area 51 is a classified research base. There are no aliens or alien technology located there. The only place there was ever any alien technology was at Site S4, south of Area 51 proper. That was 30 years ago. S4 may have moved decades ago or it’s possible it’s no longer being used for the project. I do not support this ‘movement.’ The last time someone tried to get into Area 51 he was shot. This is not the way to go about trying to get more information. What is good, is the interest in the subject – the science and technology. That is what would immediately change the world we live in.”

Given his high-profile appearances on Rogan’s podcast and in Corbell’s documentary, plus the publication of a memoir, Dream Land, it seemed like Lazar was embracing the spotlight at last. I thought perhaps he might be willing to speak with me, at least to publicize his book and expand on his thoughts concerning “Storm Area 51.” I thought wrong. His initial response to my email was cordial, but the correspondence quickly ceased. Perhaps he was busy preparing for a cross-country move, which he’d mentioned in his reply. Maybe he feared the fallout that seemed to accompany any media he does. Maybe he does have something to hide. Maybe he’s just tired and wants to move on.

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Each new interview subjects Lazar to a fresh round of scrutiny by inhabitants of what his intimates call “UFO World.” These amateur sleuths and so-called experts have expressed their all-caps opinion on him via primitive message boards since the dawn of the Internet. They get personal, often dredging up his 1990 guilty plea for felony pandering. (He claimed he was helping “modernize” a legal brothel by doing computer work.)

The skepticism, even among the most ardent alien believers, is justified. To borrow a phrase from Carl Sagan, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and Lazar freely admits he has little back up his story. Many have challenged his claims, accusing him of being everything from a liar and an opportunistic charlatan to a government patsy. Some cite inconsistencies in his story, while others point to elements of his life that appear blatantly false.

The late Stanton T. Friedman, a nuclear physicist and bulwark of the UFO community, was vocal about the numerous discrepancies he says he found in Lazar’s background. Representatives from MIT and CalTech reportedly told Friedman that they had no record of Lazar, despite his insistence that he had received master’s degrees from both. Both Friedman and George Knapp also came up empty-handed when they sought proof of Lazar’s tenure at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Meson facility, where he claimed to have worked on sensitive defense-related projects in the early ‘80s prior to his time at Area 51. Further complicating matters is the discovery of a 1982 Los Alamos National Lab phone book. Though Lazar’s name is included, it appears to indicate that he was employed through Kirk-Mayer, a smaller contractor who supplied support staff like data entry personnel, machinists and electronic technicians to Los Alamos. Knapp’s attempt to procure records from Kirk-Mayer proved fruitless. Aside from a 1989 W-2 for $958.11 made out to Lazar from the United States Department of Naval Intelligence, there’s not much of a paper trail.

Interestingly, a front-page article published in the Los Alamos Monitor on June 17, 1982  — concerning a jet engine Lazar installed in his Honda — describes him a physicist at Meson, and some evidence suggests that he was familiar with the place. In preparation for the 1989 KLAS-TV broadcast, Knapp says Lazar offered to take him on a brief “tour” of the Los Alamos facility. In the foreword he wrote for Dream Land, Knapp claims Lazar waved to a security guard and was allowed to enter the high security compound unchecked, despite having not worked there in years. He then, “walked us through multiple buildings, said hello to several employees, took us on a thorough tour that culminated at the humongous particle accelerator in the Meson facility.” Decades later, documentary director Jeremy Corbell also spoke to a former Los Alamos physicist who claims to remember attending project briefings with Lazar.

At present, barring an unparalleled leak of classified information, Bob Lazar’s background is essentially unprovable. This is either because he’s as good at deceit as he is at storytelling, or because unknown agencies have taken steps to rewrite history. This is not without precedent. After all, only about a third of the government’s estimated $50 billion annual “black budget” is reportedly dedicated to developing new projects. The rest goes towards keeping secrets secret. Though Annie Jacobsen declines to comment on Lazar’s case specifically, she admits that “the Defense Department is great at hiding things.” She relays the story of Frank Murray, a CIA test pilot at Groom Lake who flew A-12 Oxcart espionage missions. “Frank Murray shared with me a document that shows that in the mid-‘60s, on a certain day, he was at the Pentagon working for General so-and-so. But Frank Murray never set foot in the Pentagon. He was flying the Oxcart over secret places around the world. But according to the Defense Department, Frank Murray was at the Pentagon.”

It’s worth noting that elements of Lazar’s story would ultimately be corroborated, though with some important qualifiers. For example:

  • The Existence of S4: Knapp, who has staked much of his professional reputation on Lazar’s veracity, says the existence of S4 had never been reported until Lazar came forward, and claims in the foreword to Dream Land that a spokesperson for Nellis Air Force Base confirmed its existence to him.
  • The Background Investigator: Both Knapp and Corbell, who also has a vested interest in proving Lazar’s story, each say they tracked down a man named Mike Thigpen, whom Lazar recalls visiting his Las Vegas home as part of his security clearance background check. Thigpen reportedly remembered Lazar.
  • The Hand Scanner: Lazar has spoken of a biometric security system at S4 that scanned employees hands and identified them by the unique length of their finger bones. In his documentary, Corbell presents Lazar with a recently declassified photo of the same model, which Lazar says he hasn’t seen since his days at S4. The moment is framed as one of vindication for Lazar, but in reality the machine, called an IDentimat 2000, had been advertised since the early ‘70s, and was even featured in Steven Spielberg’s alien-centric 1977 blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
  • Element 115: In 2003, a team of Russian and American scientists synthesized four isotopes of Element 115, called “Moscovium,” through the use of a European particle accelerator. At a glance the announcement appeared to disprove Lazar’s central claim that Element 115 could not be recreated on this planet. But the short half-life of this extremely heavy and radioactive substance means that it exists for barely half a second. To accumulate the pounds equal to what Lazar saw would require a stable version of the element, which is heretofore unknown. Whether this isotope exists elsewhere in the galaxy, or Lazar is simply wrong, is up for debate.
  • The ‘Tic-Tac’ UFO: In December 2017, the New York Times published a bombshell expose that confirmed the existence of the Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP) to study UFO reports. The article includes footage from a puzzling incident that occurred in November 2004 off the coast of California, when several F-18 jets from the USS Nimitz carrier strike group crossed paths with an unidentified craft. Commander David Fravor, who was in the air that day and captured the craft on film, described “seeing an object that looked like a 40-foot-long white Tic Tac that performed remarkable maneuvers” that appeared to defy the laws of physics. The craft on film behaves very much like the one Lazar says he saw at S4. “No question in my mind, that’s the way the craft operated,” Lazar said upon seeing the clip. “It’s the exact same propulsion system.” Fravor, for one, believes the craft he saw was “not from this world.”

Perhaps the strongest piece of circumstantial evidence to bolster Lazar’s claim is the fact that he knew exactly when and where to observe the night test out in Tikaboo Valley — not just once but three times in a row. But what caused those mysterious lights in the sky cannot be known for certain. They could have been terrestrial-based experimental government aircraft, as confusing to Lazar and his friends as the high-flying U2s would have been to civilian observers in the 1950s. Some have speculated that they were flashes from particle beams utilized as part of a radar spoofing project. Or they were exactly what Lazar was told they were: spacecraft from Zeta Reticuli.

Annie Jacobsen, who spoke to scores of scientists, engineers, pilots and other employees of Area 51 for her in-depth history of the base, tells me that no first-hand account ever mentioned aliens or their technology. “I have no information to suggest, and no one’s ever stated to me, that anything at Area 51 is out of this world,” she says. “Of all the people I have interviewed, I have never had a single person say that to me. As a historian and a storyteller, I don’t discount what other people say. But those are not my sources.”

The debate surrounding Lazar’s claims is too often broken down into the simple binary of “truth” and “lies.” However, Lazar himself admits that there’s a third category: He’s telling the truth, but it was a truth that intelligence services wanted him to believe. He’s said that everything he saw could have been a test to determine his suitability for working on highly classified projects. “They could do all kinds of background checks, but the surest way to see if I was capable of keeping information confidential was to provide me with a story and see if I kept it to myself,” he writes in Dream Land.

Top secret programs operate on a “Need to Know” basis. It seems unusual that a scientist hired for a very specific technical purpose would be given 120 briefings filled with details of alien anatomy, interplanetary relations, and the grisly backstory of his predecessor. Fascinating, yes, but not exactly crucial to the task at hand. What’s more, by his own admission, Lazar hadn’t even received his Majestic clearance yet. Perhaps his experience was indeed an elaborate test — one that he clearly failed.

It’s important to remember that intelligence organizations are employed by extremely smart individuals, with resources that laypeople can only dream about. Though obviously not infallible, such groups are unlikely to make mistakes on the level of, say, trusting classified information with someone likely to discuss it on television mere months later. They would also presumably not allow a group of people to hang out on the perimeter of some of the most heavily monitored land on the planet to gawp at top secret tests — not just once, but on three separate occasions. Could Lazar’s experience have been staged for him by intelligence services, knowing full well he’d feel compelled to go public, as part of a disinformation campaign designed to protect matters of national security?

It’s certainly possible that Lazar was hired as a contractor to perform low-level tasks at highly secure facilities and pieced together odd fragments of insider knowledge to weave a tale of pure fantasy, though to what aim remains unclear. He hasn’t exactly cashed in on his notoriety in the way that he easily could. As far as he’s concerned, the experience at Area 51 ruined his life. “I can make up a better lie, but I have no motivation to lie. This hasn’t helped me out,” he insists in Corbell’s documentary, and to all appearances that’s true. “It’s probably changed every aspect [of my life] for the most part negatively… At this point in my life, I’d probably lean towards not saying anything.”

While some have painted him as a hero alongside whistle-blowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, Lazar has routinely rejected these characterizations, saying that was merely acting on self-preservation rather than a desire to expose secrets. It’s a choice that appears to haunt him to this day. “I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work at the forefront of science, and I pissed it away,” he writes in Dream Land. “Sure, there are the ethical implications of what was going on out there, but at heart, I’m a scientist. I seek knowledge and understanding. All that’s been left in the wake of my time at S4 is other people’s doubts and uncertainties.”

There are many questions surrounding Bob Lazar and his ties with Area 51, but one thing is certain. Without him, Highway 375 probably wouldn’t have been renamed the Extraterrestrial Highway, the town of Rachel probably wouldn’t be a tourist hub, the film Independence Day would probably have been about fireworks or something, and I wouldn’t be driving a hundred miles from Las Vegas into the middle of the desert.

•      •      •

My journey begins at the very un-Vegas hour of 8 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21. Will Tryon, the avuncular and endlessly quotable owner of Adventure Photo Tours, picks me up outside the Union Plaza Hotel at the end of Fremont Street, driving a white SUV not unlike the vehicles preferred by camo dudes. He’s joined by his friend and fellow UFO buff Lesley, who will act as our photographer for the expedition. They initially planned to leave their Area 51 attire at home in an attempt to go incognito, but quickly realized they’d be the only ones not dressed up in their alien finery. Tryon’s shirt says “I Got Abducted at Area 51,” while Lesley’s is emblazoned with a crossed-out hazardous material symbol and the phrase “Not Infected.” Topping off the ensemble is a souvenir S4 clearance badge, presumably just like Bob Lazar once had. I consider running back to my room to change, but we don’t want to be late for the storming.

I’m curious how one becomes the go-to guide for America’s most legendary secret site. Raised in Orillia, Ontario, Tryon made a living in the ‘70s as a folk singer in the style of hometown hero Gordon Lightfoot. (To this day he can still sing a formidable version of “Tequila Sunrise” when the need arises.) After coming to the States in the early ’80s, Tryon spent decades running a manufacturing company in Florida, producing aluminum parts for clients that included a NASA rocket scientist. After years of vacationing in the desert with his wife, they dreamed up their new profession while cruising the expanse of U.S. Route 50 — the so-called “Loneliest Road in America” — on their two-wheelers. “It was twilight, beautiful. I’m looking at my wife and she’s looking at me and I said, ‘Obviously our hearts are in the West. Let’s sell the company and move out here.’ And we just did. Popped an ad in the paper and away we went. I don’t regret it a bit.”

For close to 20 years, they’ve led Vegas tourists out of the casino and into the wildest sites the West Coast has to offer. Area 51 is just one of the jaunts on the menu. Through their affiliation with GetYourGuide, they’ve sent untold numbers of tourists on day trips to the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Zion National Park, Hoover Damn, and even Los Angeles, ferrying their charges in a fleet of cars, limos, jet boats and helicopters. But despite the variety of options, the Area 51 tour has become their signature trek. “I wanted something that was just a little off the wall and different,” Tryon says of it’s genesis. “So I came out and investigated. I said, ‘Yeah, let’s give this a shot.’ It’s been a fun tour for us for all this time.”

I wonder aloud if the Area 51 trip attracts a slightly offbeat crowd; a hint of the tin-foil hat, perhaps, or maybe even folks who believe they’ve been abducted and want to reconnect with their extraterrestrial hosts. I’m disappointed to hear that this is not usually the case. “Most of the people who do the Area 51 tour are highly educated, scientifically minded individuals that say, ‘Let’s see. I’m looking up there at all these stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Many of them have planets circling them, and many of those stars aren’t stars — there are other galaxies outside of our galaxy. Let’s run the math on that. It’s mathematically impossible that there isn’t other life. Not only other life but lots of it.’”

My host is resolute in his belief that Area 51 houses interplanetary spacecrafts, and even has his own UFO encounter that he might share with you if you’re nice. “Do they have aliens at Area 51? Yes, I believe they do. Are they reverse engineering a spaceship there? Yes, I believe they are. There’s been too many stories, deathbed stories by people that were in the know.” He cites an episode of Ancient Aliens centered around alleged end-of-life confessionals. “These old guys, they’re ex-military, said yes, they’ve seen the spaceship. Yes, they’ve seen the alien bodies. Why would a person discredit their entire honorable life by lying just before they die? It doesn’t make any sense.” I ask his thoughts on Bob Lazar, whom Tryon says he met a few times at the Lil Ale’Inn: “Lazar was dangerously ahead of his time talking about stuff that he shouldn’t be talking about and putting himself at great risk of disappearing,” he says. “It’s spooky stuff.”

Tyron halted all Area 51 tours for the weekend for safety reasons due to the influx of people expected for the Alienstock/Raid/Storm festivities. Our trip today is technically off the clock, and I get the district impression that we’re driving into the center of a hurricane. Strapped to a rack on the back of the SUV is a five-gallon gas canister. It’s metal — so chosen, he says, in case potential rioters try to stab it and syphon out the valuable fuel. He may have been joking but I begin to grow slightly concerned, as I had poorly prepared for any dystopian eventualities. My backpack looks like something packed by a 9-year-old attempting to run away: box of granola bars, peach iced tea, gummy bears and numerous bottles of seltzer. We stop at a gas station on the outskirts of the city to obtain what Tyron calls “Adventure Food,” which looks suspiciously like Twizzlers, and I take the opportunity to load up on water, cash and batteries, plus energy bars and scratch tickets to use as currency in case society breaks down and we revert back to a barter economy.

The service station is generally a sleepy outpost for sleepy truckers, but today it has the look of a beach bound subway platform on a sunny June Saturday. The aisles are crammed with revelers in neon Wayfarers and the occasional alien antenna headband, loading up on sunblock and Oreos. Outside, cars weighed down with gear bear handmade signs, mostly variations on old standards: “Will Stop for Aliens” and “Area 51 or Bust.” Las Vegas as a whole seems to be getting into the festivities. Upon hearing I was a journalist, every Uber driver and cabbie excitedly asked me if I was here to “see the aliens.” Billboards lining the highway out to the desert made jokey references to the festival. “Want to Storm Area 51? You’re Going to Need a Lawyer,” read one, accompanied by the phone number of a local firm. Another teases a local nightclub, Area 15.

One unfortunate consequence of the raid is that the Bureau of Land Management has closed off one of Tryon’s favorite stops on his tour, the six-foot tall ancient petroglyphs at Delmar Dry Lake. Thought to have been made by primitive humans more than 10,000 years ago, some of the designs look eerily like the familiar little green men. Tryon is irate. Still, we press onward, leaving Las Vegas and most signs of modern civilization in the rear-view mirror.

It’s a pretty drive out towards Groom Lake, past springs, cottonwoods and the occasional snowy mountain peak, but it’s one that the estimated 2,000 people who work at Area 51 rarely see. Most credentialed employees report to a secure terminal at the Northwest corner Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport. This is the not-so-secret headquarters of the so-called JANET Airlines, the government’s private shuttle service flying nonstop to Area 51, Tonopah Test Range, and other nearby facilities. Codenamed “Gold Coast Terminal,” the structure is hidden in plain sight, easily observable from various vantage points at McCarran and numerous hotel rooms on the Strip. It’s home to a fleet of Boeing 737-600s formerly in service with Air China. These are currently owned by the U.S. Air Force, and operated by a nebulous technical and management support firm called AECOM. The craft are unmarked save for a civilian N-number registration and a red stripe running the length of the fuselage. “JANET” is just a nickname derived from the flight’s callsign, and no one in the public sector is sure where the name actually came from. Locals with a sense of humor theorized it stands for “Just Another None Existent Airline,” whereas others have come up with a more practical moniker: “Joint Air Network for Employee Transportation.” Some claim it has no meaning whatsoever, and merely was named after a former Groom Lake commander’s wife. It remains one of the smaller, less-compelling mysteries of Area 51.

A JANET Airlines 737 takes off from McCarran International Airport in full view of the Las Vegas Strip.
Wikimedia

Though the 25-minute trip is probably just like any other bland commuter flight, it’s significantly shorter than the multi-hour drive. After a while there’s not much else to for me to do other than count the phenomenal number of police cruisers heading the opposite direction away from Rachel. Clearly there wasn’t much action, and now dozens of cops are returning to headquarters. “Those are all Metro cars! Was anybody watching Las Vegas?” Tryon exclaims. “If you wanted to rob a bank, this would have been the day to do it.” Preliminary news reports indicated that the turnout for the desert festival had been much less than anticipated, with only a few thousand descending on the town like an alien-loving, social media savvy plague. In a twist we probably should have seen coming, millions of people accepted an event invitation on Facebook and then never showed up. “They made such a stink about this,” says Tryon. “’Don’t come, don’t come. You’re going to end up in prison or dead if you try and storm Area 51!’ They scared the life out of a lot of these kids.”

They also may have been spooked by an event that happened two weeks earlier, when a pair of Dutch YouTubers stepped over the base border and were promptly arrested. Or perhaps they were warned off by the tweet shared by the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS) soon after the festivities kicked off — an image of a B-2 stealth bomber alongside a caption that read: “The last thing #Millennials will see if they attempt the #area51raid today.” The organization later apologized for the photo shared from their account, but the effect was certainly unnerving.

Whatever the case, outbound traffic was practically non-existent as we made our way from Las Vegas to our first destination: the Alien Research Center in the small desert town of Hiko. Despite the lofty name, the facility is little more than a Quonset hut guarded by a massive metallic alien statue towering dozens of feet into the blue sky. Ordinarily a gift shop, it’s presently the site of Storm Area 51 Basecamp, an Alienstock spinoff event that had hosted a set by DJ Paul Oakenfield the night before. Attendance seems to be decent for today’s festivities, but then I realize nearly everyone I see is wearing branded T-shirts. One enthusiastic gang from a national sandwich chain labors to assemble a tent outside of their mobile kitchen trailer, while another unloads cases of special edition light beer, “brewed for the universe.” If human beings ever manage to make contact with other lifeforms, I’m secure in the knowledge that we’ll be able to market the hell out of the moment.

Storm Area 51 Basecamp at the Alien Research Center in Hiko, Nevada.
Jordan Runtagh

Everyone I see appears to be there on official business, and I begin to feel like a party guest who arrived too early. Unable to spot any revelers, I approach a group of sound techs wrapping cables by an abandoned stage. “Are you coming or going?” I ask.

“Going,” one replies.

“Why?” I ask. They remain silent. I think I know the answer, but I press on. “Too hot? Bands not show up? Lack of turn out?”

“Probably lack of turn out,” the man mutters reluctantly before retreating towards his car. I’d arrived just in time for the event to be canceled. A crowd of a least 5,000 had been expected the night before, but just a fraction of that had come. “We put on a safe event for the people that showed up,” organizer Keith Wright said later that day. “But we had to make the decision today because it costs tens of thousands of dollars to staff each day. It was a gamble financially [and] we lost.”

With nothing left to see, Tryon peels out of the parking lot and points us towards the main event.

•      •      •

Rachel, Nevada. Blink and you’ll miss it, goes the old joke. The desert settlement has a pretty good sense of humor about itself. A sign, almost completely obscured by colorful stickers, offers a playful greeting as you cross the border. “Welcome to Rachel,” it reads in aggressively informal Comic Sans. “Population Humans: Yes. Aliens: ?” UFO enthusiasts first arrived en masse in the wake of Bob Lazar’s testimony, but tourism really exploded following the promotional blitz for 1996’s Independence Day, which had been partially shot here. Stars Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman and Brent Spiner, along with assorted Twentieth Century Fox studio brass, journeyed to the town that April as Governor Bob Miller declared the 98-mile two-lane stretch of State Route 375 the “Extraterrestrial Highway.” In honor of the occasion, a time capsule was buried nearby, not far from the Lil Ale’Inn Restaurant, Bar and Motel.

The establishment is difficult to miss when you pull into town. In addition to being the only commercial space in any direction for a considerable number of miles, there’s a vintage tow-truck parked out front, carrying a full-sized — and apparently broken down — flying saucer. Upon our arrival, we find a man in an alien mask helpfully gesticulating in the middle of the road. It’s unclear whether he’s associated with the festival or merely a pro bono weirdo, but we follow his lead to a parking spot.

The mood is festive and friendly, though quaint, like a tailgate party at a suburban high school football game. Legs dangle from popped hatchbacks, voices laugh from inside small tents, and a few people doze in sleeping bags spread on the dry soil, undisturbed by incoming cars and the dull thump of indeterminate techno songs in the distance. A crowd of a few hundred mill around the Lil Ale’Inn entrance, happy but bemused in the early afternoon sun. Many brandish cameras, selfie-sticks, microphones and other recording devices. The ratio of journalists to festival attendees is high, perhaps two to one. This could very well be the most well-documented festival in history. The three-month lead-up to Alienstock gave news outlets plenty of time to savor every apparent misstep on the road the big day, and ample opportunity to plot out a coverage strategy.

Adventure Photo Touts

But anyone expecting a Fyre Fest redux would be immediately disappointed. Safety and order pervaded thanks to the efforts of the state and local authorities — not to mention the Lil Ale’Inn management, on whose land we’d gathered. The brush behind the main structure had been bulldozed flat and lined with a truly awe-inspiring wall of porta-potties. Festival-goers were freaky in a socially acceptable way, somewhere between Coachella and Burning Man, with a surplus of Grateful Dead shirts and neon spandex onesies.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Plastic picnic tables served as makeshift concession stands, where enterprising individuals sold Twinkies, Pop Tarts, protein bars and more food stuffs bought in bulk from Costco. Other booths displayed nourishment of the mind, offering self-produced books and documentaries on supernatural phenomena, usually for free. A small bar operated out of the back of a semi truck, and another tent sold water without a price. “Make Me an Offer I Can’t Refuse” dared the sign.

Jordan Runtagh
Jordan Runtagh

A humble wooden stage stood in the middle of the expansive site, all but ignored by the sparse crowd. We were clearly too early for the music, though one overworked hype-man wandered around, assuring everyone individually that his band would be on shortly. In the meantime, an iPhone had been plugged into the PA, playing a song that seemed to consist solely of a disembodied robotic voice intoning, “You blocked me on Facebook, now you’re going to die.” The occasional dust devil would drift through the site, completing the post-apocalyptic rave aesthetic.

The Main Stage at Alienstock.
Jordan Runtagh

In a nod to Matty Roberts’ original Facebook event, Naruto Run races were held to kill time before the concert. The technique was borrowed from Japanese manga character Naruto Uzumaki, who runs with his head down and arms stretched behind him. Separated into an adult and a children’s division, the ad hoc event instantly became Alienstock’s equivalent of the Super Bowl. One of several documentary crews immediately approached the young girl who triumphed in the children’s race and filmed a lengthy interview. Her friends watched dispassionately nearby, waiting to move on. I couldn’t help but ask why a bunch of tweens made this extremely involved trek. “Just to say we’ve been here,” one tells me. “Who knows if this’ll happen next year. Besides, my sister is really an alien.”

The Nartuo Race Semi-Finals, adult human division.
Jordan Runtagh

I ask if Alienstock was everything they dreamed it would be.

“It wasn’t as big as I thought,” she says. “We met a cult leader, though. That was pretty cool.”

I think I know the one she’s talking about. “Was it the guy with the t-shirt that said ‘Let’s Start a Cult’?” I ask — a logical guess.

“No…I want to meet him now!”

“So there’s another one? What’s the cult?”

“It combines magic and technology or something. It was pretty interesting. They’re giving away DVDs.”

I take a beat to ponder how to respond. Ultimately I go with an all-purpose “cool.”

“Yeah. They’re very open about being a cult.”

Downtown Rachel during Alienstock.
BRIDGET BENNETT/AFP via Getty Images

As much as I’d love to say and hear the music — or join a cult — I’ve got a schedule to keep, and soon Tryon, Leslie and I head back towards the parking lot. On our way, I recognize our hostess, Lil Ale’Inn co-proprietor Connie West, beaming as she addressed a handful of press. “I’m proud of me,” she said. “I’ve never been to a festival in my life, and hell, I pulled it off. It’s been a great learning experience. I’m grateful for the rollercoaster of emotions that I’ve gone through, because without them, we wouldn’t be standing here now. But what makes this special and a success is the smiles that people are leaving with the memories that they have and the friendships that they’ve made. That’s what matters.”

•      •      •

Our final stop of the day is a lone mailbox at the edge of a dirt road just off the Extraterrestrial Highway, about 12 miles from the gate of Area 51. It belongs to Steve Medlin, a cattle rancher who moved to the Tikaboo Valley in 1973. He enjoyed a fairly peaceful life for 16 years, until Bob Lazar gave his infamous interviews on KLAS-TV. So began the flow of curious alien-seekers streaming into the desert, all hoping to catch a glimpse of a UFO test flight just over the ridge at Groom Lake. Medlin’s mailbox, located miles away from his actual home, became a convenient meeting place for these night watches — the sole landmark in the otherwise featureless terrain.

The region’s mysterious reputation transferred to the humble postal drop, and “the Black Mailbox” has become Mecca for ET enthusiasts. Many pitch tents and hold all-night vigils, hoping to see what Bob Lazar and Co. claim to have witnessed 30 years earlier. “It’s as dark as the inside of a cow here at night,” Tryon says. “If there’s no moon, it’s black and the stars are so bright, it’s like there’s a net of little light bulbs above you. You feel like you can take a handful of stars right out of the sky.” Lesley has another term for stargazing: seeing the dust. “It just looks like glowing dust, or sand out there, wall to wall,” he says.

For years, the Black Mailbox wasn’t black. When some overzealous visitors began stealing, and even shooting, his mailbox, Medlin had it encased in white bulletproof metal to prevent further vandalism. Though he’s not a true believer himself, he had the good humor to add a second, smaller mailbox labeled “ALIENS,” to receive the many letters addressed to Area 51’s alleged guests. When that failed to deter destructive UFO pilgrims, the long-suffering rancher removed his box completely. These days the spot is marked by a prop, no longer fit to receive U.S. mail. But at least it’s black again.

The Black Mailbox.
Jordan Runtagh

The box predictably attracted a larger crowd than usual this weekend. While some left notes and offerings, other fans took a more direct approach and scrawled messages directly on the mailbox itself. I watch a man painstakingly write a poem to his wife on the exterior. When I approach the box to admire his handiwork, I notice another freshly scribbled line: “If you remember Alienstock, you weren’t there.”

•      •      •

In all, an estimated 3,000 made the trip to the desert, nearly a thousand times less than number who responded to the event on Facebook, and one hundred less times than the festival’s namesake, Woodstock. A hundred or so “stormed” (read: stood near) the gate, while the rest partied out in Rachel. They came in peace. The Lincoln County Sheriff reported only seven arrests for misdemeanor charges — mostly trespassing, but one Canadian guy was busted for indecent exposure after peeing near the Area 51 gate. The handful of injuries were also relatively minor: dehydration, a drug-related freak-out, and two vehicle vs. cow fender-benders.

Revelers storm the gates at Area 51.
BRIDGET BENNETT/AFP via Getty Images

The good behavior was not enough to convince Rachel locals to make Alienstock an annual thing. On the town’s website, a campaign to prevent a 2020 redux of the festival has gained traction. In a lengthy list of grievances, residents claimed traffic and litter caused “significant damage to the desert vegetation and environment” and cited numerous safety concerns. “In addition, we were blasted with absolutely horrible music from amateur bands until the early morning hours,” they added. “We like Rachel the way it is. If we wanted party central, we would have chosen to retire in Las Vegas.” However, they might have some company soon, festival or no festival. “I already have two rooms booked for next year,” Connie West told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in the days following the event. “They said they’re coming even if nothing is going to happen. But it will be a do-it-yourself thing again next year, just more organized.”

I came to the desert in hopes of witnessing otherworldly forces, and I found it in the almost supernatural pull that Area 51 has on people. “Area 51 is kind of the Shangri-La of conspiracy theories because people are constantly hitching certain wagons onto it. Like, ‘Oh, this explains X, Y and Z from the past,’” Annie Jacobsen says. “But it also makes us think, ‘What if there really were alien beings there? What if there really was intelligent life from another galaxy that came to visit us?’ How can that not be interesting?” The tantalizing questions raised by the Area 51’s very existence speaks to the innate curiosity in all of us. Thinking about aliens makes us more human.

And now to address the big question: Did I see a UFO? The answer, sadly, is no. I personally saw nothing that would suggest the existence of aliens. I say that with great reluctance. True or false, the tale of Bob Lazar and Area 51 offers hope and a funny sort of inspiration to so many. I’m reminded of words from another (much better) journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, who made a freewheeling trip into the Nevada desert nearly five decades before me. “Myths and legends die hard in America,” he wrote. “We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. Weird heroes and mold-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ‘the rat race’ is not yet final.”

I’m also reminded of words from a sign that hangs over a bank of slot machines at my Fremont Street hotel: “You never know…”

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