A postcard from the Extraterrestrial Highway

On a lonely stretch of desert road near Area 51, alien conspiracies have spawned a cutesy form of tourism

First published in the Financial Times, October 2018. Photography (for this piece) by Myles Pritchard (with some modelling by yours truly)

On plastic chairs outside the Little A’Le’Inn guesthouse in tiny Rachel, Nevada, chef Kenneth Langley is talking about more than his “world famous” alien burger.

Instead, as we gaze past a model of a flying saucer, with its multicoloured lights blinking beneath the night sky, he is telling me about the strange things he’s witnessed up there over the years: planes doing 90-degree turns at high speed; tiny craft that “look like something from Close Encounters of the Third Kind”; and a “large mother ship, hovering in the mountains”.

Another night, he claims he saw three or four planes circling: “They were dissected by a single beam of white light, and suddenly they all disappeared, leaving little flickers of electrical discharge.”

Similar stories aren’t in short supply along the Extraterrestrial Highway, a lonely 98-mile stretch of desert road that was once simply the Nevada State Route 375, starting at Crystal Springs, a ghost town a few hours’ drive north of Las Vegas. Earlier that day, I had visited the Alien Research Center in Crystal Springs, an alien-themed gift shop in a curved corrugated iron shed, marked by a three-storey-tall metal alien out front.

Malcolm Harris, whose ufologist brother George built the place in 2001, had shown me a pin-sharp photograph on the office computer of a long, almost perfectly rectangular cloud, which he’d shot in February 2014. “I was looking at geese when that just appeared out of nowhere,” he’d said. “It must have been a thousand feet long, and completely silent.”

For many observers, these curious sightings are linked to the nearby Area 51, the US Air Force base whose prime purpose is thought to be the development of “black projects”, from weapons systems to experimental aircraft (stealth aircraft such as the F-117 Nighthawk were developed here). As for the belief that the base harbours aliens and studies UFOs, the US government revealed last December it had a $22m programme — thought to be based at Area 51 — to collect and analyse “anomalous aerospace threats”.

Certainly, there is a foreboding aspect to this swath of Nevadan nothingness, a vast area where America carried out almost a thousand nuclear tests between 1951 and 1992. Signs around Area 51’s perimeter warn that deadly force may be used against trespassers.

Signs around Area 51’s perimeter warn that deadly force may be used against trespassers.

Ironically perhaps, all of this has spawned a cutesy form of tourism, largely based around flying saucers and bug-eyed aliens. In 1996, in the wake of Independence Day, the movie that was partly set in Rachel and at Area 51, Nevada’s tourism commission renamed the SR375 as the Extraterrestrial Highway, installing alien-themed signs along the road, and redrawing Rachel’s town sign in Comic Sans.

This is the kind of tourism you’ll find at the Little A’Le’Inn. The temple to extraterrestrial ephemera isn’t just the main attraction along the highway, but the only real business in Rachel, a collection of trailer park homes with a 54-strong population made up largely of cattle ranchers.

Cheery owner Pat Travis Laudenklos has run the inn since 1988, when she and her late husband Joe moved up from Las Vegas to take over the roadside Rachel Bar and Grill. Mainly because they often had to put up drivers who had hit cows on the highway, they soon added a couple of mobile homes for guests.

In 1991, on the advice of a regular patron, they decided to rebrand it all as the Little A’Le’Inn, adding the “Earthlings welcome” sign and the child-sized model alien outside the restaurant, while devoting a corner of the restaurant to extraterrestrial tchotchkes, from alien mugs to mouse mats and gumball machines.

“We’ve seen our share of things in the sky,” says Pat, who now runs the place with her daughter Connie. “But the aliens here are really just a bit of fun. Rachel is a peaceful place, where everyone knows everyone, and where we treat guests like family.”

Chef Ken, whom I meet after devouring one of his alien burgers, is something of an anomaly. He comes from a wealthy industrialist family, and claims he was once “the hottest chef in Atlanta”, before a Native American Zuni shaman advised him to move to Rachel in 2007.

After half an hour or so outside the inn, I follow his car a few miles up the road to his immaculate bungalow, with its baby grand piano, where he feeds me Woodford Reserve and tall tales: about the CIA, the cloaking technology behind disappearing aircraft, and the supposed collection of aliens at Area 51. As we look out into the black night, he says: “They can see us, and they hear everything.” It’s hard to know to whom he’s referring.

They can see us, and they hear everything.

After midnight, I stumble back to my trailer-park room at the Little A’Le’Inn, past the still-blinking UFO and the sludge-green alien, who now seems faintly mocking. I feel small and ignorant, and unsure of the boundaries between truth and fiction. Maybe this is a suitable reaction to the Extraterrestrial Highway.

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