LONESOME HIGHWAY TO ANOTHER WORLD?
By STEPHEN REGENOLD
A moment before the sonic boom hit his trailer, Joerg Arnu’s UHF radio scanner crackled to life. “Cylon 1, got you on radar,” said a voice just barely perceptible through the static.
And then — badamm-booom! — the whole trailer shook in a shockwave, and Mr. Arnu jumped, a big plexiglass window reverberating as a jet streaked overhead and through the sky.
“That was probably an F-16,” Mr. Arnu said, peering out the window and squinting into the sun. A telephoto lens sat on a countertop nearby.
“They’re testing a new weapon lately, and a laser system to shoot down missiles,” he said.
From his trailer in the town of Rachel, Nev., Mr. Arnu is less than 10 miles from an unmarked military boundary, beyond which the top-secret Air Force base known as Area 51 sits on a dry salt flat guarded by big arid mountains and bleak desert on all sides.
To the east, tracking past Rachel in two asphalt lanes, Nevada State Route 375 bisects a wide basin, coursing northbound before disappearing into a haze of nothingness beyond.
This is Alien Country, where more U.F.O.’s are sighted each year than at any other place on the planet, at least according to Larry Friedman of the Nevada Commission on Tourism.
A sign outside Rachel declares Nevada State Route 375 to be the Extraterrestrial Highway, the name given to the road in 1996. Renaming the road, the tourism commission had hoped at the time, would draw travelers to the austere and remote reaches of south-central Nevada, where old atomic bomb test sites, secret Defense Department airstrips and huge, sequestered tracts of military land create a marketable mystique.
Oh, and don’t forget the flying saucers.
“People now come all the way from Japan to see what this place is about,” Mr. Friedman said.
Indeed, on a recent Wednesday afternoon, after a two-hour drive up from Las Vegas through the utter emptiness of Lincoln County, the first tourist I met on the Extraterrestrial Highway was from Yamaguchi Prefecture in southwest Japan.
“We came for an alien souvenir,” said Shihgo Miyamoto, 29, who was holding his wife, Yoko, both shivering in the high-desert wind. I took their picture under an official Nevada Department of Transportation Extraterrestrial Highway sign, a sprawl of trailer homes in the background.
“So cold, so empty,” said Mr. Miyamoto, looking to the desert beyond his rental car.
SOUTH-CENTRAL Nevada is, by and large, a vast wasteland, scrubby and unpopulated, dotted with dry lakes, streaked with tan rocky peaks, ravines and wide alluvial plains. Government land is ubiquitous. Cattle guards rumble under tires on the barren highways, which cut through sand and open range. To drive the Extraterrestrial Highway — a route that snakes northwest for 98 empty miles, intersecting no other major roads — is to drive one of the most desolate stretches of pavement in the country. Gasoline is unavailable for its entire length. R.V.’s cannot hook up in Rachel, the only town on the road.
According to the Nevada Department of Transportation, an average of about 200 cars drive some portion of the Extraterrestrial Highway every day, making it one of the state’s least traveled routes.
On my midday drive up the highway in February, I saw only six other vehicles.
Coming north from the town of Alamo, where I stayed overnight in a cabin, the Extraterrestrial Highway began as an innocuous flat road through scrubby highlands. A mile or so in, a large silver Quonset hut announced itself as the New Alien Research Center, but its driveway was gated, so I drove on by.
The road bobbed through a Martian landscape, red valleys raked with lines, flat expanses of gravel and dead shrubs, all ringed by hulking mountains of stratified stone.
A hawk hung high in the air. Joshua trees reached for the sun, their bristled bunches aglow, seemingly illuminated from within.
But soon I forgot about the nature and started looking for U.F.O.’s. A sign warned of low-flying aircraft. Contrails streaked the blue yonder ahead.
In Rachel, 40 minutes into the drive, I stopped at the Little A’Le’Inn (pronounced Little Alien), a bar and restaurant, which sells extraterrestrial-themed mixed drinks alongside self-published books like “The Area 51 & S-4 Handbook.” Its walls were covered with sun-faded photographs featuring aliens, glowing orbs and obelisks zooming through clouds.
The bartender was polishing a glass, standing near a man slumped over a drink, when I approached to inquire about area attractions. “You should talk to Pam,” the bartender said, pointing to a woman standing near the door.
And so I was introduced to Pam Kinsey, the first of several residents I met eager to talk about Rachel, and Area 51, and government sensors hidden in sand, and glowing dots hovering on high.
But Ms. Kinsey, 42, who has lived in the area for almost two decades, is not herself an ardent alien believer.
“We have a military base next door that can explain a lot of the lasers and other weird things,” she said.
Ms. Kinsey said that only a couple of Rachel’s 75 or so residents talk about seeing saucers and little green men. The tourists — whom she confirmed come from all over the world — are often the only extraterrestrial seekers found in Rachel.
“There are conventions held in town, and the alien people like to come here and congregate,” she said.
(On Memorial Day weekend, May 25 to 27, the Little A’Le’Inn will play host to its sixth annual U.F.O. Friendship Campout, which includes seminars, book signings and nightly sky watches led by a “certified U.F.O. Investigator.”)
DeWayne Davis, a 72-year-old retired Air Force engineer who came to the Little A’Le’Inn for dinner, said he has seen saucers in the area, including a glowing craft that hovered at high altitude before tracing a rectangular pattern in the night sky.
“It was at 55,000 feet or higher,” he said. “And it emitted an orange sodium-vapor color, not the xenon glow you’d usually see.”
Mr. Davis, who said he worked at a military installation in Roswell, N.M., during the mid-’50s, moved to central Nevada in 1997 for the clean air, the solitude and the scenery. He now lives in a trailer a couple of blocks off the Extraterrestrial Highway. The frequent sonic booms of test planes breaking the sound barrier overhead are music to his ears, he said.
Outside the Little A’Le’Inn, I walked a few dusty blocks to take in the sights around town, including an ad hoc air-traffic control tower draped in camouflage netting.
Jets streaked overhead, silent at high altitude, blazing west toward a setting sun.
Before leaving the area, I drove out of town a mile to find Mr. Arnu, a 45-year-old software developer from Las Vegas who keeps a trailer parked on some land he purchased in 2003 as a retreat from the city. Mr. Arnu, a native of Germany who runs www.dreamlandresort.com, a popular Web site on Area 51, said that he files a Freedom of Information Act petition each year to procure dates and times of major military testing periods. “That’s when all the action happens,” he said.
My visit to the area coincided with Red Flag, the name Mr. Arnu gave a period in mid-February when military exercises out of nearby Nellis Air Force Base send a proliferation of jets into the air.
“Earlier today, I saw British Tornados, American F-22s and an Australian F-111,” said Mr. Arnu, who hikes the hills around town to photograph supersonic planes. He lives for the simulated dogfights that take place in the air above the Extraterrestrial Highway.
Like most local people I met, Mr. Arnu thinks the Nevada Commission on Tourism’s fixation with aliens is a bit silly.
“I’m a plane-spotter,” he said. “I have no real belief in the alien stuff.”
Driving alone later that night, the Extraterrestrial Highway a dark winding lane in my headlights, I wasn’t sure what to think. On a mountain pass 20 minutes from town, I parked my car and shut off the engine, an inky abyss closing in from all sides.
Stars packed the deep velour above, hundreds of thousands of humming and twinkling little jewels. A blinking red dot dipped behind a mountain in the distance.
I waited, searching the sky.
But nothing moved, nothing came, and I started to get cold. My red dot was just a jet, probably descending to a landing in Las Vegas 100 miles to the south.
The desert wind howled in a valley below. It was black and cold. On the Extraterrestrial Highway, I was all alone.
Note: He is talking about the "inky blackness" of the desert. Several years ago my daughter and I had been to Rachel where we talked to Bill Hamilton and his wife, plus Tim Beckley from New York City. When we left we started northwest in the "inky blackness". She was driving and looking at the stars for anything unusual. This is free range area for cattle! Well all of a sudden "an inky black" cow was right in the middle of the highway! She almost hit it because she was so busy looking upwards! Scared us both. After that she kept her eyes on the road and I was still shaking!