My first experience with extraterrestrials occurred one boring summer in the mid-1960s with my friend Tommy Hamilton. We were 12 or 13 and had built ourselves a cabin of sorts, deep within the Pine Barrens of central New Jersey.
And I mean deep. No beaten trails for us. Each trip meant forging a swamp, crossing a small stream or two, and pushing through a thick tangle of annoying undergrowth, all the while swatting at ufo-size mosquitoes. One day we planned our first overnight camp-out. And that’s when it happened.
Sometime during that moonless night, after we’d both fallen into a junk-food-satiated sleep, we were awakened by a harsh, blazing white light that filled our little room. The ensuing conversation went something like this:
Tommy, you jerk, turn off your flashlight!
That’s not my flashlight, you idiot. Turn off the lantern.
We didn’t bring a lantern, you dope!
Oh, ----. (Expletive deleted.)
Oh, ----. (Expletive deleted.)
Moments later the light disappeared, we were plunged back into darkness, and we were able to move our frozen bodies. To this day, we don’t know what it was. We were, after all, way out in the woods, far from any road or trail. It was late at night. And, oddest of all, there were no sounds of anyone who might have been lurking. No rustle of undergrowth, no sucking sound of shoe being pulled out of muck. Talking about it later, we both realized that besides the light, it was this eerie absence of sound that had made us afraid. Very, very afraid.
My second experience with extraterrestrials took place one night early last summer in Lincoln County, Nevada. It was dark. Very, very dark. I was alone, standing in the center of a two-rut dirt road, having driven my rented four-wheel drive some ten miles off State Highway 375. Surrounding me in this stretch of high desert, roughly a two-and-a-half- hour drive north of Las Vegas, was--nothing. No people. No buildings. No lights. No sound. Not the distant hum of traffic, a barking dog, or the buzz of an insect. Nada. Just a desolate expanse of sagebrush, here at the southern terminus of the Great Basin desert. I walked forward from the car and stood, flashlight off, wanting to savor this natural sensory deprivation while gazing up at a sky chockablock with stars, satellites, planets, and shooting meteors. Besides, I figured if there was an extraterrestrial out and about, what better way, like standing under a tree during a lightning storm, to attract attention than to be loitering in its ’hood in utter isolation.
For make no mistake, this is bona fide stomping ground for otherworldly entities. Aliens, that is. Short gray whatevers, shaped like a teardrop, with big, big eyes. Forget Roswell, New Mexico. If you want extraterrestrials; if you want inexplicable lights in the sky that stop on a dime, reverse course, and accelerate vertically; if you want a potential Beam me up, Scotty abduction experience, then, my friends, Highway 375 is the place to be.
Sightings of flying saucers have become so commonplace here that last February the state of Nevada officially designated this 98-mile two- lane stretch of concrete the Extraterrestrial Highway, complete with road signs depicting the little fellows and their zippy craft. The restaurant and bar in the only town along this stretch--Rachel, population 100--has renamed itself the Little A’Le’Inn.
What gives the locale a touch of legitimacy is its proximity to the world’s best known top secret Air Force base. Known variously as Area 51, Groom Lake, and Dreamland, it is adjacent to a former atomic bomb test site and within the Nellis Air Force Base bombing and gunnery range. Area 51 is located beside, and includes part of, Groom Dry Lake, which lies on the other side of the Groom Mountains from Rachel. Until about two years ago, the Air Force stubbornly refused to acknowledge the base’s existence, even though it’s been seen and photographed by a steady stream of journalists and ufo seekers who came to Rachel, beat a path southwest across the local Tikaboo Valley, then climbed the Groom Mountains to find a vantage point.
For decades Area 51 has been thought to be the nation’s hiding place for top secret aircraft projects such as Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 spy plane, the SR-71, and the F-117A Stealth Fighter, all of which were reportedly flight-tested here. That’s long been the draw for the military hardware and technology geek crowd. Other projects allegedly include the supersonic spy plane dubbed Aurora, which was rumored to be powered by exploding cryogenic methane, and at least two other stealth airplanes, supposedly under development, that fly autonomously. These planes are said to include a fuselage coating nicknamed smart skin. Triggered by a 24- volt electric charge, smart skin is supposed to reduce the amplitude of any radar reflections that detect it. Further, the coating can change color, to blend into the sky if seen from the ground, or blend into Earth if seen from above by other aircraft.
With such avant-garde human technology, security here remains tight. About a year and a half ago the Air Force appropriated an additional 4,000 acres surrounding the base to cut off access to the two most popular high points for viewing--Freedom Ridge and White Sides; unmarked four- wheel-drive vehicles driven by armed and reportedly humorless guards dressed in camouflage fatigues patrol the area. The boundary is marked by signs that include the phrase, use of deadly force authorized. Though no one’s been shot so far, cross it, ufoers say, and you are arrested and slapped with a $600 fine. The boundary includes hidden cameras and magnetic trip sensors for vehicles. Unmarked Blackhawk helicopters roam the hills, looking for oglers. If they find some, critics say, they hover low, sandblasting the poor devils with the wash of their rotors.
The UFO angle kicked in to high gear in 1989, when a purported physicist named Robert Lazar appeared at a Las Vegas television station, claiming he had worked briefly at a base, even more hush-hush than Area 51, that’s located, he said, just south of Groom Lake near Papoose Dry Lake. Lazar called the base S4 and said it consisted of a number of underground hangars that contained nine extraterrestrial saucers. The disks, he said, crashed in the southwestern United States sometime in the late 1940s and early 1950s; they were recovered, along with, yes, several aliens and bundled off to Nevada. (According to another source, a separate government panel was formed to guarantee secrecy. It was headed by--who else?--then Vice President Richard Nixon. I swear I’m not making this up.) For some 40- plus years now, said Lazar, Uncle Sam has been scratching his collective head trying to figure out how these babies work. His job, Lazar said, had been to kick the tires and reverse engineer the gizmos--that is, take one apart to see how it worked--and according to him, it wasn’t powered by unleaded fuel. Instead, he claimed, it had something to do with an antimatter reactor combined with gravity amplification, with a little element 115 thrown in, perhaps as fuel. Go figure.
Lazar is a suspect character: his educational credentials don’t pan out (purged, he claims, by the government in an effort to attack his credibility), and he was arrested once in Las Vegas for pandering. He no longer talks to the media (unless the price is right), and he spends his time lately conducting illegal fireworks displays in the Nevada desert.
All the same, the publicity generated by Lazar’s revelations caught the pointy ears of ufo devotees, who began to visit Rachel; it also caught the ear of Nevada state assemblyman Roy Neighbors, who made the obligatory trek up the Groom Mountains to see the nonexistent base, led by former Rachel resident Glenn Campbell. A onetime computer programmer and ufo aficionado from Boston, Campbell came to Rachel in 1993 to track Area 51’s goings-on. He now publishes a Viewer’s Guide for tourists, maintains an Internet Web site, and publishes a drolly written newsletter, the Groom Lake Desert Rat. Campbell says he came up with the idea for the et Highway and expresses mild annoyance that Nevada stole it without giving him credit. (Of course, some credit for the highway’s new name must also go to a, uh, person who calls himself Ambassador Merlyn Merlin II from the planet Draconis, who lobbied strongly on its behalf.)
Campbell lobbied, too, but against the et Highway name. His positions on matters ufo have not universally been appreciated by local Rachelers; one night, he says, he was kicked out of a Little A’Le’Inn trailer by an allegedly gun-toting proprietor. He relocated to a trailer down the street, where he still maintains his Area 51 Research Center, but he now lives in Las Vegas. Cabin fever, he says, explaining the move.
Campbell felt the state simply hadn’t done its homework on the highway or the area. You get people out here from all over the country, and they have no idea what desert extremes are like, he says. You can get lost, you can get stuck on a dirt road and not have water, you can die out here. Too many ufoers have no common sense about such things.
Neither did a certain dumb journalist who drove his rental car ten miles down an isolated dirt road only to get stuck and have to spend an hour extricating himself from soft sand. And who that very evening, lesson not learned, drove alone down another isolated dirt road in search of an et experience, only to come face-to-face with a large, black, silent blob the size of a Buick heading slowly his way. I could just make out its silhouette from the light given off by the innumerable stars as I retreated faster than you can say expletive deleted.
As I fumbled for my flashlight, once again, I was afraid. Very, very afraid. Then I noticed the blob had turned left and was slowing moving away. When I finally turned on my flashlight, I saw that it was one of the greatest dangers, according to Campbell, that humans are exposed to in this area--a cow. Big, black, domesticated bovines roam free in the unfenced ranges of Nevada. Sometimes they roam across the et Highway. Sometimes they lie down on the et Highway, where they interface with local traffic, to the detriment of both cow and car.
Scurrying back to the Little A’Le’Inn for dinner, I met a pleasant waitress in her sixties named Mary, who asked me where I was from.
Los Angeles, I replied.
Oh, she said, have you heard of me?
I told her no, and she then explained that she was living in L.A. when she got the calling and arranged for a busload of believers to come to Rachel. It made the local L.A. news.
I asked what she meant by calling.
When I got the word from him.
Him? Oh, do you mean Bob Lazar?
Yes. Yellow Fruit.
Yellow Fruit. It’s his code name. Here she leaned closer. He’s one of them, you know.
One of . . . Really?
Yes. He’s an alien who has assumed a human form. He has a plan, begun in 1989, to allow the media to learn about the aliens. They want to get people used to the idea gradually.
Ah, I see. Um, are they coming?
In just about another three years. Don’t worry, they’re peaceful. They want to help us.
Stories like these are common in Rachel. Later that night I drove down to the black mailbox, a rancher’s mailbox on 375 and a focal point for ufoers. It is the most famous ufo sighting location; Campbell describes it as sort of religious. According to the Groom Lake Desert Rat, ufoers William Hamilton and his wife were abducted and later returned by an alien named Quaylar (no apparent relation to Ambassador Merlin II) in 1993 near the black mailbox. More than likely, Quaylar did the same thing to the Hamiltons that the other gray guys do to their abductees: they strip the humans naked, then remove sperm or egg cells, presumably for ongoing study into the biological functioning of humans. That or they’re horny. (Sure, aliens can travel billions of light-years from galaxies far, far away using light-speed technology. Sure, they remain undetected for decades. But it seems they can’t quite get a handle on the whole dna thing.) The mailbox, says Campbell, is where buses full of Japanese tourists will stop.
When I arrived, two tourists were there from New York. They’d been making the West Coast circuit of New Age sites. They were fresh from Sedona, Arizona, and had come to see saucers. There was also a jittery fellow who kept pacing and muttering to himself, Gotta see ufos, gotta see ufos. . . . And there was Chuck, a local astronomer who had set up his telescope and was showing people views of Jupiter and its moons. He, too, was a believer, and claimed to have seen inexplicable lights over the hills near Area 51. He believes aliens live on Earth, but in a parallel dimension. Through their ability to warp the space-time continuum, they are able to move in and out of our universe. Hell, this piece of empty desert could be the middle of their New York. Chuck, there’s a woman named Mary up the road I want you to meet.
It’s hard for me to poke fun at these people, says Glenn Campbell, because for most of them it’s like a religious belief. I can’t tell you how often people have come here for a visit and seen ufos. But I lived in Rachel two years and never saw anything I couldn’t explain.
It’s not a mystery why people believe in ufos; basically, we’re dopes about science. A survey published in 1996 by the National Science Foundation of what people know about basic science and engineering proved it. According to the survey, fewer than half who were questioned knew that the Earth orbits the sun once a year. (Half. One out of two.) Only 9 percent knew what a molecule was. And (memo to Marcia Clark) only 21 percent could explain what dna was.
Campbell says he’s seen the oddball lights, but all of them were associated with military activities, such as the war games that commonly take place over Nellis Air Force Base. Numerous flares are dropped, for example, and often military aircraft engage in unusual maneuvers.
How likely is it that something from out there is down here? Unlikely is my guess. For one thing, how likely is it that the government could keep such a thing secret all these years? Just ask Bill Clinton. Further, notes Frank Drake, an astrophysicist who is president of the seti (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute--now privately funded since its federal support was withdrawn in 1993--in the course of our seti work, when meeting with nasa and the president’s science advisers, we’ve never had a hint that they knew something on this subject that they were keeping to themselves. They showed no understanding and basically asked naive questions.
Ironically, nasa is now gearing up for another initiative, called Origins, to search for life on other planets. The agency is designing an array of lightweight telescopes that would be linked together in space by astronauts, then sent to a point as far from the sun as Jupiter. The entire configuration could be the length of a football field and would use infrared sensors to detect the radiated heat of planets orbiting around other stars.
But why bother? If they just wait another couple of years, the aliens may come to them. Campbell, for one, is keeping an open mind. He cites another source, code-named Jarod, a retired engineer who says he worked on building a prototype of the Area 51 flying saucers. Unlike Yellow Fruit’s, Jarod’s credentials check out, says Campbell. Jarod is slowly revealing what he knows with permission from his boss, to introduce the idea of aliens among us gradually.
Jarod has seen an alien at Area 51. He even talked to it once. He speaks, says Jarod, in a dialect similar to Hungarian. That’s right. Hungarian. Why? asks Campbell. Do they have a fondness for goulash, or perhaps an urge to speak to Zsa Zsa? Campbell noted, in an issue of his Groom Lake Desert Rat, That’s the stupidest thing we’ve ever heard! But he then postulated another Tricky Dick-like conspiracy link: He remarked that a number of top scientists were born in Hungary, including Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb, and John von Neumann, who helped develop quantum theory. And, says Campbell, Teller likes his close friends to call him e.t. after the movie alien of the same name.
Hmm. Sorry, but me? I’m not buying this. Not yet, anyway. Tie in Amelia Earhart and Jimmy Hoffa, though, and I’ll be signing up for those Hungarian-as-a-second-language classes real soon.