This place is big. So big you’ll be checking your map after you lose your cell signal to see if you’re lost. And you’re probably lost. It’s also empty. So empty, this vast space leaves a lot of room for two things; air combat training and your imagination.
This is the outskirts of the Nellis Test and Training Range, a complex of remote desert training areas nearly the size of Kuwait. The NTTR complex sits inside another vast, empty natural wasteland of Nevada comprised of mainly government land. Altogether they occupy a large percentage of the entire state. Deep inside these vast, concentric rings of distance and security is the place most people call “Area 51”.
You don’t just walk up to a fence or gate at the Nellis Test and Training Range. Just getting to the gigantic perimeter of the complex means crossing more vast terrain on foot after the long desert roads give out. It’s no wonder the “Storm Area 51” movement never even got close to Area 51, if such a place still exists.
Misty, the friendly, well-informed girl at the Alien Research Center at US 93 and 375 in Hiko, Nevada told me, “We’re a hundred miles from everything”. The Alien Research Center is a tidy, quirky gift shop inside a big Quonset hut presided over by a massive, two-story metal alien sculpture. The shop sells Area 51 and alien themed coffee mugs, t-shirts, books and anything you can imagine related to the lore surrounding Area 51.
The little town of Hiko has a population of about 200 people according to Misty. When I asked her about the “Storm Area 51” movement, she told me, “At first we were all very scared. The thought of 30-40,000 people coming here. We didn’t have the infrastructure for that- at all. Gas, food, water…”
You remember the “Storm Area 51” phenomenon started by an innocuous Facebook post from a guy named Matty Roberts on June 27, 2019. It exploded into a media phenomenon. But the reality of the “Storm Area 51” event was far less sensational according to Misty, who is behind the counter from me at The Alien Research Center as I make a stack of Area 51 souvenirs next to her cash register.
“Actually, it turned out amazing. It really did. It went off without a hitch. The way that everybody handled it was awesome.” When I asked Misty how many people they had during the event, she told me, “On and off all weekend, right around 5000. Most of them camped out back here”.
We’re back in the car after doing our research at the Alien Research Center, and dropping over a hundred bucks on alien schwag. If I know you, you’re probably getting an Area 51 refrigerator magnet for Christmas this year.
One of the things people forget to mention about this area is how majestically, sprawlingly beautiful it is. It’s not eerie or creepy. In fact, the massive expanse surrounding Area 51 is oddly restful and serene. Until the explosions come.
“They’ve been bombin’ the hell outta somethin’ up there lately, that’s for sure!” one truck driver told me on the eastern perimeter of the government land that surrounds the NTTR. Misty at the Alien Research Center also reported a lot of explosions or sonic booms during the previous month. “The whole building rattles” she said. “Happens a few times a day, one after another”.
But it’s quiet out here now, driving directly into an orange and silver, softly dusty sunset across rolling desert hills on a westerly road that doesn’t have a name or number on MapQuest. People have taken to calling it, “The Extraterrestrial Highway”. This is the way to Rachel, Nevada and our next stop on this assignment, the famous Little A’Le’Inn.
It’s also the way to the infamous Black Mail Box.
The Black Mail box is legendary in alien lore. The mailbox- there’s actually two mail boxes- belong to a local rancher named Steve Medlin according to stories. There are two mailboxes because, since the whole alien hoopla started, people have taken to putting weird offerings inside the main Black Mail Box, presumably for… aliens. The original Black Mail Box was stolen some time ago, replaced temporarily by a large blue one, then more recently with this one, another big black one, which is covered with stickers and graffiti from alien and paranormal fans. Both mailboxes sit exactly at the intersection of nowhere and nothing. They’re just next to the unnamed highway. The only thing between Hiko and Rachel on the Extraterrestrial Highway.
In 1989, an alleged former Area 51 employee named Bob Lazar claimed that he could show people alien space craft in flight over Area 51 if they met him at the Black Mailbox. Lazar’s outlandish claims about being an employee at Area 51, and MIT graduate and an advanced scientist have since been disproven. But the Black Mailbox is actually real. If you care to drive a few hours, you can see it.
Your best bet for finding the Little A’Le’Inn, since the roads aren’t labeled, is by its GPS coordinates, N37° 38.801’, W115° 44.760’.
While the Alien Research Center, about two hours back in Hiko, looked very new and felt like a polished little retail store, the Little A’Le’Inn feels more like a set for a 1950’s sci-fi movie about giant radioactive ants (search the 1954 film “THEM!”). This is what I expected when we set out to visit Area 51.
The buildings of the Little A’Le’Inn and the partially lighted sign on a wheeled trailer look more than a bit tired. Two large dogs skirt the dusty edge of darkness in the parking lot outside the Little A’Le’Inn. It seemed like the sun set the instant we pulled in the parking lot here.
When you walk in the slamming, spring-loaded door you notice the regulars sit mostly at the bar to your right. Two big guys in flannel with beards are sitting at a table. One is editing UFO photos on a laptop. The place is brightly lit but old and homey, like your Grandmother’s place. The food smells good. They have homemade pie.
We order sandwiches and coffee. It’s a long drive to anywhere from here, and it is ink black in the desert outside now, so I hope the coffee is strong. We’re well over three hours outside Las Vegas so it’s going to be a long drive back.
When we ask the waitress at the Little A’Le’Inn about the “Storm Area 51” event she tells us, “Well, it was mostly a pain”. We immediately get the idea that the Little A’Le’Inn had been here long before the Alien Research Center and, although they sold some alien, Area 51 and UFO souvenirs, they were actually just a roadside diner before the whole “Storm Area 51” craze started. While the girls back in Hiko at The Alien Research Center were clever entrepreneurs who leveraged the “Storm Area 51” craze to their benefit, the good folk here at the Little A’Le’Inn just wanted to serve sandwiches, darn good homemade pies and entertain the locals at the bar.
There are some pretty interesting UFO photos on the walls in the Little A’Le’Inn, and I shoot a few photos of those before we leave.
Back outside in the pitch black it takes more than a moment for my eyes to adjust to the utter darkness of this place at night. Before we left the Little A’Le’Inn they warned us about the cattle roaming across the road. “The cows are black. You’ll never see them until it’s too late.” There’s a photo of a devastated sedan that had a nighttime run-in with one of the black cows crossing the road scotch-taped to the wall next to the door as a reminder. Sure enough, minutes after we leave the Little A’Le’Inn our high beams pick up a group of black cows standing placidly in the road.
On the way back to Las Vegas it’s remarkable to take in the vast, black emptiness of this place. And it’s easy to see how so many people can use a little imagination to fill a lot of space in this massive expanse of dark, desert sky.
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