"Insanity runs rampant here," Sharon tells me with a sassy smirk, the kind small-town waitresses develop after years of pouring coffee for bikers, truckers and other highway bandits making a pit stop off the interstate.
But Sharon's greasy spoon—the infamous Little A 'Le' Inn of Rachel, Nevada—plays host to characters more colorful than your standard highway travellers. Scrubby and beyond desolate, Rachel sits about 150 miles north of Las Vegas off Interstate 375. Rechristened the "Extraterrestrial Highway" in 1996 in an effort to lure tourists to this real-life twilight zone, the permanent population, inhabiting helter-skelter trailer encampments and a half-dozen homes, has yet to exceed 100. And residents like it that way.
The population roughly doubled this past weekend, when "truth seekers" from as far afield as New York, Florida and Iowa gathered for the annual Memorial Day UFO/Friendship Campout, which Boise, Idaho, resident Ike Bishop has been organizing since 2002.
In 1955, Groom Dry Lake was chosen as a test site for Lockheed's super-secret U-2 spy plane. First dubbed "The Ranch," and then Watertown (named after former CIA director Allen Dulles' New York hometown), the Atomic Energy Commission later renamed the secret aircraft testing facility Area 51.
An entire mythology has grown up around Area 51 (also known as Dreamland, the airspace code name for the site), a 6-by-10 mile "operating location" adjacent to the Nellis Test Range and overseen by the U.S. Air Force. Its runway, the longest on Earth, has been the testing ground for spy planes like the U-2, SR71 and B-2 Stealth Bomber.
Rumors that the "secret" base was used as a storage space for crashed UFOs, and where alien technology has been "back-engineered" and applied to military aircraft circulated for years before Las Vegan Bob Lazar made the claim on local television that he tinkered with alien spacecraft at Papoose Lake, a dry lake bed located south of the Groom Lake facility. Lazar referred to the location as S4. Area 51, hidden behind a range of impenetrable mountains, lies some 25 miles south of Rachel.
Bishop lived in Las Vegas for 29 years, where he worked as a private investigator. He left in 1989, the same year Lazar's claims began luring the curious out to the Little A 'Le' Inn. "A lot of interesting things are going on out here," Bishop says. "I'm using my background as a private investigator to see if I can help uncover some of the facts, some of the truth, about what's going on."
Some 70 attendees filed into the Rachel Senior Center to take in lectures with titles like "The ABCs of ETs" and "Scrutinizing Roswell, Area 51, Underground Bases and Pyramids." But the highlight of Bishop's conference is the nightly "skywatch." After dusk, those gathered bundle up against the chilly desert wind and point their binoculars in the direction of the mysterious base.
"I have spent a lot of time in the past in the desert, watching what goes on, and I do know that if you want to see anything, you can't go out during these events expecting to see the latest and greatest," remarked Rachel resident Bill Whiffen. "You need to spend a lot of nights in a row, waiting them out, with binoculars and cameras and a lot of patience. And you've got to stay up all night, because I've had sightings ranging from dusk to 4 a.m."
"It's crazy here from the end of April until the end of November," says my waitress. Rachel plays host to a number of non-Area 51-related events every year. It's a pit stop for The Great Race (featuring vintage cars motoring from Philadelphia to San Rafael, California) and well as the TSCO "Vegas to Reno," the longest off-road race in the United States.
But Rachel's biggest bang, sky-wise, occurs during Red Flag training exercises, when pilots from all over the world come to participate in mock combat training within the Nellis complex. Held over a period of weeks, aviation buffs and UFO enthusiasts alike converge on Rachel to watch the show. "If you have a scanner with the proper channels, you can often hear a voice saying 'That over there—doesn't exist' in reference to Area 51," Whiffen says. (The next Red Flag events are scheduled for August 5th to September 2nd).
"My interest piqued down here when I came for a Red Flag exercise two years ago and got a glimpse of the black triangle," Bishop tells me. (Impossibly gigantic, black triangle-shaped craft were first reported over European skies, and gradually made their way west—they have been reported over the skies of Southern Nevada since the 1990s.) "It was a HUGE craft. We saw it three nights in a row and got it on video. It had no sound, and the craft itself was about a half-mile across. I used the mountain peaks that it came through as reference points.
"I don't believe—knowing what I know about black projects—that we have that kind of technology," Bishop continues. "Our technology has expanded so greatly and so rapidly over the past 20, 30 years, but I don't think its expanded fast enough to encompass the technology that the black triangle has. But I've seen it; I've seen it operate, I've seen it turn sideways, and I watched it float for over 45 minutes, which is a long time for a sighting."
"American military technology is 50 years ahead at any given time," says Whiffen. "I've been telling people for 10 years that what I've seen out here is going to be common aircraft a few decades from now."
There are two opposing camps who make Rachel a destination: they intersected on Memorial Day weekend, as Area 51 celebrated its Golden Anniversary. Dozens of campers came out for the one-time Dreamland Resort event, celebrating terrestrial technology and good old-fashioned American know-how.
German-born Joerg Arnu, a clean-cut computer programmer based in Las Vegas, runs Dreamlandresort.com, the premier website for those interested in the militaristic side of Area 51. "Our group is not interested in UFO stories. We feel that we have more than enough real evidence that whatever goes on at Area 51 has nothing to do with ETs, but is in fact R&D for new defense systems, mostly aircraft and anti-aircraft related," Arnu says. "Due to the nature of tests out there, it is only natural that occasionally some tourists or locals catch a glimpse of a test flight or a new top-secret jet, and begin to talk about it. What better way to hide the real deal than to muddy the waters with stories about UFOs and alien autopsies at Area 51."
"My main interest is to bring like minds together," Bishop says, as he stacks folding chairs into the Rachel Senior Center. "I don't really hang my hat on any particular thing unless I'm able to prove it. I'm from Missouri—I've got to see it to believe it. And my scientific background makes me want to prove these things. My position is that I'm merely looking for the truth. I just returned from the boundary line [of the base], and the security is so strong, and so aggressive, they're protecting something. And what ever it is, they're protecting it very aggressively. I'd like to know what that is."