Everybody knows about the ‘secret’ air-base in central Nevada, Area 51. It hasn’t been secret for a long time, in fact Area 51 is so well-known that it’s become part of the UFO Folklore. But unless you’re some kind of super-secret, deep-back, military contractor, X-Files type who’s signed an ‘upon pain of death’ security oath/nondisclosure document, you have not been to Area 51. Any ‘normal person’ including ufologists, ancient-astronaut theorists, conspiracy-theorists or the general ‘paranormal tourist’ who says they’ve been to Area 51 hasn’t, they’ve actually been to Rachel, Nevada. Rachel is a tiny town-oasis located along highway 375, aka, ‘the extraterrestrial highway.’ It’s the nearest ‘town’ to Area 51. The hub of all human activity in Rachel is The Little A ‘Le Inn, a combo motel-restaurant-bar where the true believers gather. If you’ve watched any kind of UFO program on TV during the past two decades, you’ve probably seen some ‘expert’ standing in front of The Little A ‘Le Inn espousing some theory about ‘back-engineered’ alien spacecraft or captured alien pilots held at Area 51. These stories are garden-variety UFO folklore.
Nevada Highway 375, "The Extraterrestrial Highway"
It was the UFO folklore that motivated me to visit Rachel way back in 1996. You can read all about that adventure in my book, Photographic Memories in a chapter called ‘Wide Awake at Dreamland.’ Without repeating myself too much, that 1996 visit was interesting; I met some ‘true believers,’ and I visited the infamous ‘Black Mailbox’ when it was still actually black. In Rachel, aside from The Little A ‘Le Inn there was the Quick-Pik convenience store with a gas station and there was the bright yellow trailer that housed The Area 51 Research Center. In short, Rachel was the Mecca for Ufology, and it was kind of a Big Deal just to get there, it was off the beaten path.
I returned to Rachel a couple more times after 1996. I shot some background photographs that I used to create some UFO illustrations. Another time I went with a ‘UFO hunter’ and we spent the night scanning the skies with night vision equipment. We did our surveillance from ‘The Black Mailbox’ which by then had been painted white (fooling no one). Aside from Rachel and The Little A ‘Le Inn, the black (white) mailbox is one of only a few manmade objects in the otherwise desolate desert. It’s just a ‘UFO landmark’ twenty miles south of Rachel where UFO ‘enthusiasts’ meet. Insofar as penetrating the base, I was never fool enough to try and never felt the need to drive the dirt road from The Black Mailbox to the sign that says if you pass it deadly force is authorized for trespassers. There was no need for me to mess with the white SUV-driving ‘cammo dudes’ Area 51 security forces; they’d probably ID me from the highway anyway.
During the late 1990s there was a seriousness to the UFO folklore. You really could meet an ‘aviation expert’ at the bar at The Little A ‘Le Inn and the ‘ufologists’ and ‘researchers’ were actually collecting data. The people who went to Rachel, to the fringe of Area 51, meant to be there. They weren’t lookie-loo tourons screwing around.
Twenty years later, in 2016, I returned to Area 51, or Rachel more specifically, and things were a lot different.
My 2016 visit to Rachel was a side-trip and not my ultimate destination. I’d been photographing in east-central Nevada and was on my way to Las Vegas, so the excursion to Rachel was just for fun, and lunch at The Little A ‘Le Inn. Driving up the ‘extraterrestrial highway,’ 375, I wanted to shoot another photo of the infamous Black (or white) mailbox but didn’t see it. I wonder what happened to it? I’ll bet there’s someone at The Little A ‘Le Inn who knows.
Arriving at the sparkling metropolis that is Rachel, Nevada I first noticed that the ‘Area 51 Research Center’ was gone. The Quick-Pik was also gone along with the gas station, I suppose the few Rachel residents must have to drive forty miles to the nearest gas station now. The parking lot at The Little A ‘Le Inn was oddly full. When I’d been there before there was never more than a beat-up work truck and car or two in the parking lot. This day the parking lot was packed with cars, many of them rentals with Enterprise stickers on their back windows, and there were SUVs and minivans and, of course, beat-up work trucks. My entry into The Little A ‘Le Inn was as dramatic as it was twenty years ago. Upon opening the door of the restaurant the harsh desert light floods the interior of the dining room and everyone inside (and there were a lot of everyones this day) turns to the light to check out the new arrival. Hi, hello, yes it is about ten f-stops brighter outside, shade your eyes, let me stop-down the aperture by closing the door.
The Little A' Le' Inn - Earthlings Welcome!
Holy crap! The place was packed! Every table was full! There was a lot of activity for an out-of-the-way restaurant. I headed straight to the ‘gift shop corner’ and picked out a few must-have souvenirs. My souvenir shopping was restrained and I spent about eighty percent less than I had last time! While paying for my UFO trinkets the lady at the cash register asked if I was staying for lunch to which I replied, “yes.” She asked if I wouldn’t mind sitting at the counter since the restaurant was full; I slid over to the counter and she slid over and immediately took my order.
“Alien-burger with secretion (cheese), a soda and chips, please.”
The Little A' Le' Inn restaurant & gift shop
I surreptitiously shot a few photos of the restaurant and patrons with my little mirrorless camera and checked out the other diners. All tourists. There were a few gringos like me but we were outnumbered by Japanese, Mexicans and Australians. I was trying to read a sign by the door when one of the Australians thought I was staring at him and struck up a conversation, every other sentence ending in ‘aye mate.’ He was enjoying his ‘adventure tour’ and looking forward to his next tour-stop at the ‘black mailbox.’
“And what’s the deal with the black mailbox?” I asked the waitress. “I’ve seen it before but I missed it on the drive up.”
“It’s gone.” She said.
“Gone? Really?” I was surprised. “It’s probably the most famous mailbox in the world, definitely the most photographed.”
“The rancher painted it white many years ago.” She went on.
“I know that, but it didn’t fool anybody.”
“Yeah.” She laughed. “It’s the only mailbox within twenty miles, so if it’s black or white, ya gotta figure it’s probably the one. Now it’s a shrine to the old mailbox.”
“Uh, a shrine?”
“Yeah.” She continued. “People were stealing the old mailbox. They’d either dig it up including the concrete it was set in, or they’d show up with portable cutting torches and just cut the pole at the ground and steal the whole darn thing! The rancher finally gave up and stuck a fake mailbox in its place.”
“Wow!” I said, thinking the real mailbox is probably enshrined in some UFO-geek’s basement. “I guess the rancher has to drive to town to get his mail now?”
“Ya know, I have no idea.” She laughed. “His ranch is right on the edge of Area 51, he probably gets his mail delivered by drone!”
“I’ll keep my eye open for a ‘mailbox shrine’ twenty miles down the road.” I said and finished my (pretty darned good) alien-burger.
I paid the tab, left a healthy tip, and went outside to shoot a few phots of the signage and stuff. This didn’t even merit shooting with a ‘real camera’ so I shot a few selfies with my phone and posted them on Facebook just to make my Mulder and Scully wannabe friends jealous. There was such a line of selfie-shooters at The Little A ‘Le Inn sign I actually had to wait to take my picture! It was becoming apparent to me that Rachel and The Little A ‘Le Inn was no longer a Mecca for true believers, but rather, a destination for UFO tourists who really knew very little about the actual UFO phenomena. They just want to visit ‘Area 51’ and get their picture taken outside The Little A ‘Le Inn.
Actually, it’s kind of sad.
Waiting my turn to shoot a selfie by the sign
I walked across the bright and hot parking lot back to my black car, started it up, and found my best friend, Max, which is the air-conditioning highest setting, and headed back southward the way I’d come. I noted the odometer reading because in plus-twenty miles I should see that mailbox ‘shrine.’
Sure enough, almost exactly twenty miles south of Rachel, on the west side of the extraterrestrial highway I found the ‘shrine to the Black Mailbox.’ Oh, now this has gone from sad to pathetic…
In cop-parlance, I ‘exited the vehicle’ with camera in hand to examine… what the heck, I’m not quite sure. There was a rinky-dink little mailbox that looked more like a children’s toy posted atop a bent and twisted pole. It was surrounded by rocks, organized by…. someone. On the rock were arrangements, ‘offerings’ of coins and pictures and a handwritten note that said ‘I want to believe.’ Seemingly the whole ‘shrine area’ was treated as if it were some mystical spot, a place of UFO-worship, and a place of reverence.
In fact it’s nothing more than a wide spot on a desolate highway were one lonely rancher couldn’t even keep a rural mailbox from being stolen! This is really sad. All this means so much to those who know so little.
Then a white SUV pulled up next to my car. Well probe my ass and call me an abductee, I thought, it’s the Area 51 ‘cammo dude’ security forces! But no, it wasn’t security, it was worse, they were ‘UFO Tourists.’
Extensive photography of the "mailbox shrine"
The black mailbox 'expert' (and tour bus driver)
A group of tourists (including the Australians) got out of the white SUV, cameras in hand, and began extensive photography of the ‘mailbox shrine.’ The SUV driver/tour-guide lectured the group, in low and serious tones, about the ‘history’ of the black mailbox, telling them essentially the same thing the waitress at The Little A ‘Le Inn had told me a half-hour earlier. Someone made an ‘offering’ at the mailbox shrine and then the group piled back into the SUV. There was a big ‘Sightseeing Adventures’ sticker on the side of the SUV so I asked the driver if he had a brochure. He happily gave me a brochure (obviously hoping I’d become another tour-sucker in the future) and then he and his ‘UFO sightseers’ were off in a cloud of dust to take a picture of the sign on the border of the no longer secret base.
Another 'offering' left at the black mailbox
The dust settled and I found myself standing in the hot sun, alone by the shrine, reading the ‘Sightseeing Adventures’ brochure.
The ‘Sightseeing Adventures’ brochure advertised all sorts of daily tours out of Las Vegas. Most were the typical ‘Vegas day-trip’ fare; Hoover Dam, Colorado River, Valley of Fire State Park, the Grand Canyon and, Area 51 – Top Secret Military Facility. Seriously? Twenty years ago, after doing a minimal amount of research, UFO ‘enthusiasts’ would just gas up the car in Vegas and head north to Rachel for their own personal ‘UFO adventure.’ Now they’re running tours out of Vegas! For two-hundred bucks a person! Again, seriously? Hmm, what does a $200 tour get you? According to the brochure: A trip to the Vegas airport to see the unmarked planes that fly employees to Area 51. You get to see this through a chain-link fence (been there). There’s a stop at the ‘Extraterrestrial Highway’ sign (seen that). You also get lunch at The Little A ‘Le Inn, and a visit to ‘The Black Mailbox’ (shot that). Two hundred bucks for this? Oh, that includes the lunch and ‘bottled water and snacks.’ At least you get to ride in a ‘luxury 4x4 with other, like-minded UFO tourists.
This has all become commercialized in the cheesiest way!
If there’s a way to make a buck on something, people will find it. Driving into Las Vegas from ‘Area 51’ a couple of notions popped into my tiny mind. First is that the current state of ‘UFO folklore’ is stale, there’s not a lot of new things going on. A lack of ‘newness’ is what leads things like ‘the black mailbox’ and The Little A ‘Le Inn to mainstream commercialization. There’s nothing remotely ‘secret’ about a tour-bus destination! UFO culture has been normalized (although the giggle-factor remains high).
My other observation comes back around to photography, and it’s what I’ll call the ‘Selfie-Factor.’ It seemed the most important thing on the minds of the ‘UFO tourists’ were getting their pictures taken in front of the ‘famous UFO sites’ like the mailbox shrine and The Little A ‘Le Inn. It’s as if they signed on for a no-risk ‘adventure,’ got on the bus, and shot pictures of themselves to prove to their friends back home that they’d personally ‘been to the UFO promised land.’
Yeah, well, I did the same darned thing myself this time; I shot a selfie in front of The Little A ‘Le Inn sign, so I’m no better than the ‘UFO tourists’ except I did it for only fifty bucks. Fifteen dollars for a half-tank of gas, another fifteen for lunch and twenty bucks on souvenirs I really don’t need. I’ll take the $150 I saved and put it towards a ‘UFO adventure’ to another UFO hot-spot, Dulce, New Mexico. What? You haven’t heard about the alien base at Dulce? Don’t worry, you will; it won’t be long before someone starts running tours there too, you know, so tourists can shoot selfies in front of a sign.