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The truth is out there…on Nevada’s Extraterrestrial Highway.
Photo: Charlie Johnston (Above: Extraterrestrial Highway; Middle: Little A'Le'Inn)
If I didn’t know the famous moniker of the highway I was turning onto it would be just another change of direction like any other turn on any other highway on any other road trip. But this is different. This isn’t just Highway 375, this is the Extraterrestrial Highway. A giddy excitement falls over me as I venture down the desolate byway, the obscure promise of “Low Flying Aircraft” on a road sign pulling my attention skyward…
This 98-mile stretch of asphalt, which connects Highways 6 and 93 in central Nevada, has gained fame over the last few decades due to its proximity to the Nevada Test Site and infamous, secrecy-shrouded Area 51. Hundreds of sightings of unidentified flying objects—presumably from the base—have piqued the world’s curiosity and made the area a beacon to enthusiasts of aliens, UFOs, and all things unexplained. At the center of all the fascination is the town of Rachel and the Little A’Le’Inn.
Pat Travis Laundenklos and her late husband, Joe Travis, opened the restaurant, motel, gift shop, and bar 20 years ago and named it for the “little green men” two years later to embrace the lore that already surrounded the area. Pat now runs the establishment with her husband, Bill Laundenklos. Most days Pat can be found in the restaurant, cup of coffee in hand, chatting with curious visitors. Or, there’s the legendary characters like Merlin, who often wore alien attire and claimed to be from another planet.
As I come in out of the hot, dusty July wind she immediately welcomes me with a genuinely friendly attitude that I find permeates the town of less than 100. After devouring my Alien Burger (don’t worry, it’s all beef) I start to peruse the gift shop racks. Alien head mugs and lamps, Area 51 dirt, novelty license plates, official alien abduction certificates—I’ve hit souvenir gold. I resist the urge to buy one of everything and select a shot glass for my brother and an ashtray for my friend, an admittedly backward step in my ongoing effort to get him to quit.
Now that I’ve satiated my hunger for and memorabilia, I turn my attention to the wall of UFO photos. The back wall of the restaurant is covered with more than 100 amateur photos of grainy, out-of-focus blobs and lights in the sky. I am drawn to a couple photos and postcards of ominous warning signs and security trucks with dark tinted windows. Pat’s grandson, Cody, explains that these are photos of the gates into Area 51. He has my attention. There are three gates into the base within close proximity to Rachel—the main gate, about 35 miles south, the back gate, 10 miles west, and the cedar gate, 25 miles northwest—and as long as you don’t cross the boundary, you can visit all of them.
“The black mailbox” (it used to be black, but it’s now white and more accurately described as two graffiti-splattered steel safes on a post), 20 miles south of Rachel, is the access point to the main gate. About 15 miles along a well-traveled dirt track is the boundary of Area 51. As I drive toward the gate an unsettling feeling that I am not alone falls over me. Suddenly a reflection on a low hill catches my eye—it’s moving slowly toward me from about three miles away. My hopes of a UFO sighting are abruptly dashed by the realization that it, like me, is traveling on the ground. As I continue in its direction it stops atop a hill and I realize what it is—Area 51 security.
In a couple minutes I reach the warning signs symbolizing the end of the road, no more than 500 yards from the security truck and close enough that I can see its driver and passenger with the use of my Nikon’s 135mm zoom lens. I throw them a wave. Nothing. I back my truck into the space between the signs for a “risky” photo and offer another wave. Still nothing. Rumor has it that the guards are former Delta Force and Navy Seals, and our interaction confirms this in my mind. A stop at the back gate yields similar results, though it’s much more guarded, with roadblocks, floodlights, and guard stands. An interesting and more easily reached attraction is the time capsule outside the Little A’Le’Inn, placed there by producers of the movie Independence Day and set to be opened in 2050.
When I return to the Little A’Le’Inn for dinner, three Dutch tourists are well into their series of E.T. Highway questions. Although the bartender, Michele Miller, must repeat the same lines dozens of times any given week, she politely and enthusiastically gives the young men the directions they seek: “20 miles down the highway you’ll see a big white box on the right—turn and follow that road to the stop sign then turn right again. You can’t miss it.” They collect their bags of souvenirs and smile at me as they leave. I smile back and settle into my Saucer Burger (it’s not on the menu but will undoubtedly gain similar fame as its world-famous cousin, the Alien Burger) as half a dozen locals filter through the door. They pull me into their various conversations, and before I know it we’re all laughing and carrying on like old friends.
Even after a few cocktails I fail to see any UFOs, but that doesn’t mean I’ve given up hope. Maybe it’s the mystery of Area 51, the idea that I, too, may eventually have a close encounter. Or maybe it’s the warmth and hospitality of the people, but something tells me I’m not finished with the E.T. Highway.
Video: The Extraterrestrial Highway footage was taken in April 2010.