The black mailbox was white. Or more precisely it was a black mailbox locked inside a white wooden outer box, a mystery locked inside an enigma, a fitting symbol. Amongst all the graffiti, stenciled in large black letters, was the name Medlin. He still lived here. He still collected his mail there at the end of this remote dirt road in the middle of the Nevada desert just a few miles outside the perimeter of Area 51.
But Steve Medlin, the ranch owner whose property adjoins Area 51 and whose grazing cattle are the only living creatures permitted to cross the perimeter without authorization, without fear of being shot, is not the one who made the black mailbox famous, not the one who drew the curious and cuckoo here from all over the world to see what could be seen by standing at the end of this remote desert road. That fell to an erstwhile physicist by the name of Bob Lazar.
On the wall of Little“A” Le Inn, a dusty diner in the tiny town of Rachel, Nevada, population 54, a photograph of Bob Lazar standing before a blackboard filled with equations is mixed in with dozens of pictures of UFO’s snapped by residents and visitors. The Little “A” Lee Inn is the unofficial tourist center for the UFO crowd that makes pilgrimages here, visions of the X-Files dancing in their heads, eager to discover the truth about what the government is hiding behind the restricted perimeter of Area 51.
Like all good American tourist traps the Little “A” Lee Inn celebrates what visitors prize about the area but with a slightly jaded, tongue-in-cheek air that lets you know they don’t take themselves too seriously. The sign outside the door says, “Earthlings Welcome” and the interior is a crazy mélange of alien dummies, souvenir T-shirts, movie posters, books and videos on the subject of extraterrestrials. Here you can tuck into an Alien Burger and quaff a beer while chatting with the friendly staff about the best viewing points for peeping into the restricted area, and the precise meaning of “deadly force”.
What’s Going on at Area 51?
These days Tikaboo Peak is generally considered to be the best viewpoint to peek into Area 51 although it is 26 miles away and requires a high-powered telescope to see anything on the ground there. Yet that doesn’t keep people from camping out and writing breathless reports about rotating balls of light and menacing visits from the camou dudes, the base security guards tasked with keeping the tourists away.
Closer viewpoints were once available at Freedom Ridge and Whitesides Mountain but the government expanded the perimeter to make them inaccessible, presumably to discourage prying.
The fact that the government has something mysterious going on at Area 51 is beyond dispute. The question of what it is is what makes the place such an irresistible draw.
All kinds of theories abound. As a visitor to Area 51 you can take your choice. My daughter Cambelle who joined me on this trip prefers the theory of crashed extraterrestrials, a version of things backed up by Bob Lazar, the former MIT physicist, who claims to have worked on alien spacecraft at Area 51 in 1989, the same year Cambelle was born.
According to Lazar, the government is trying to reverse engineer alien spacecraft, picking apart the wreckage of crashed UFO’s including the famous one that supposedly crashed near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. Lazar has been quietly adamant about what he has seen inside the restricted area and offers as proof sightings of alien spacecraft criss-crossing the sky, easily viewed from the end of the dirt road next to Steve Medlin’s black mailbox.
As Cambelle and I stood next to the black mailbox some weird things were definitely going on. The sky above was traced with contrails, but no planes were visible. Out of the silence of the desert came the low rumbling boom of jets shattering the sound barrier, but no jets could be seen. Spooky, yes, but all of this makes perfect sense if you subscribe to a different, less sensational theory of what is going on at Area 51.
It is thought by some that Area 51 is an outgrowth of the Skunk Works. “Skunk Works” is an official alias for Lockheed Martin’s Advance Development Programs, which is tasked with building experimental aircraft for the CIA and the US Air Force. During the Cold War it built the U2 spy plane and the SR-71 Blackbird and tested them in the Nevada desert.
These planes were designed for stealth. In other words, they were designed not to be seen. Back in the fifties and sixties that meant not being picked up by radar. But that was half a century ago now. Today, the meaning has evolved. It’s not implausible to think that today’s stealth aircraft are designed not to be seen at all.
Standing by the black mailbox, looking up at the empty sky the evidence was right before my eyes – or wasn’t, I should say, which was all the proof I needed.
The Alien Research Center
At Area 51 not seeing is believing. The number of things you cannot see outnumber the things you can, which makes it all the more fascinating. In addition to not being able to see Area 51 from the summit of Tikaboo Peak, you cannot see it on your GPS. I found it sort of fun to move my cursor down Groom Lake Road toward Area 51 until the details dissolved into gray. I showed Belle and she had fun doing it too.
Another thing we did not see was the inside of the Alien Research Center at Hiko, Nevada. It’s a Quonset hut with a two story metal alien standing outside. The windows are papered over with posters so you cannot peek in. It’s closed and, as far as I can tell from my research, it has always been closed. Apparently no one has ever gone inside, which is sort of mysterious.
It occurred to me that the name “Alien Research Center” might not refer to a place to research aliens, but rather a place for aliens to research us. Farfetched? Not if you buy into the most outlandish theories about Area 51.
The story goes that they have bodies in there, alien bodies. The seminal story about UFO’s is the Roswell story, and in that story not only did a UFO crash in the New Mexican desert but alien bodies were recovered. The government took the bodies to Area 51 and autopsied them. (Look, if you can believe they’ve been reverse engineering alien spacecraft, you can believe they’re reverse engineering aliens.) But it gets better.
The aliens, miffed about being experimented on by humans, attacked and took over the base. In this telling the aliens are running Area 51 and the humans are enslaved by them. Some even go as far as to speculate that the entire US government is being run by aliens from Area 51, which would explain Mitch McConnell. It would also explain why the Alien Research Center is closed to human beings.
The Back Gates
Another thing we did not see was Area 51 itself, although we got as close as we dared. We took the dirt road off Hwy 375 between miles markers 11 and 12 and traveled west eight miles till we were within site of the back gates. We got within 50 feet and took some pictures. Any closer and we risked arrest or worst. Signs around the perimeter warn of the use of deadly force. Rumor has it that if you get within 20 feet you are immediately taken into custody and shunted off to (A.) a government detention facility to be questioned; (B.) an offshore rendition site to be tortured; or (C.) an underground operating theater to be dissected by aliens. We didn’t want to find out.
Besides, there was one more thing we wanted to not see in the Nevada desert, evidence of a nuclear explosion.
I always find it interesting that people go to such lengths to construct elaborate conspiracy theories when the truth in many cases is just as intriguing. Our government’s experimentation with thermonuclear weapons in the twentieth century is just as appalling as anything you can dream up about aliens, and the evidence can be found by taking a leisurely drive deep into the Nevada desert about 130 miles north of Area 51.
130 miles might seem like a long way if you’re in Rhode Island, but in the Nevada desert where the distances between gas stations are routinely more than 100 miles and the roads are utterly devoid of traffic, it’s not so far. In less time than it takes me to commute home at night in Chicago, Belle and I hotfooted it up to the Project Faultless Site where in 1968 the Department of Energy tried a little experiment.
By that year the megaton yield of nuclear weapons had grown so large it became impractical to test them above ground. The fallout from a bomb the size of the one to be tested would drift over Las Vegas or Salt Lake City and kill everyone in it.
So they decided to test it underground. Nothing unique in that; they had tested nuclear weapons underground before, but the size of the bomb in Project Faultless was huge, 1.0 megatons, about 67 times the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
They drilled a steel pipe with a diameter of 7.4 feet 3,2oo feet into the ground, held their breaths, and dropped the bomb.
You Want Creepy?
The affect of the blast was so devastating it caused the ground to collapse 9 feet for a radius of five miles. Fault lines like those caused by an earthquake fissured the earth. A huge cylindrical underground cavity was formed and filled up with radioactive rubble.
The DOE was so shocked by what they’d done they cancelled the entire project and sealed the area off.
Today, close to 50 years later, the area is considered clean enough to visit, although you are cautioned against picking up any rocks, which may still be radioactive. You can approach the steel pipe, which is plugged with concrete and stands 9 feet above the ground. It boggles the mind to think that in 1967 the ground was up at the rim of the pipe and what caused it to fall was not an act of God, but an act of man.
You want creepy? As I stood beside the pipe, the sky behind me was filled with long ragged streaks of mysterious contrails, put there by invisible aircraft. A couple of hundred yards to my left, behind a security fence, the earth was cracked like a spidered windshield, and out of it seeped deadly vapors. Or so I imagined.
I didn’t really see the cracks. I didn’t want to. The thought was unsettling enough, and I didn’t need aliens to spice it up. What’s more, we were in the middle of the Nevada desert, 17 miles from the nearest highway, 100 miles from the nearest town, where a flat tire or a mechanical breakdown could spell doom.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said to Belle and she agreed.
I was sort of creeped out. At that moment a conspiracy theory was the last thing I needed to heighten the drama.
The Not Knowing
Still it’s fun to speculate about aliens. For some they are a proxy for God. If you lack faith in a deity, aliens are another way of hoping something more powerful than us can save us from our folly. For others they are deeply frightening, testimony to the possibility that no matter how advanced we become something out there can still destroy us on a whim. In this sense they are a proxy for nature, I suppose.
In either case, they derive their power from their mystery. It’s the not knowing that blows them up so large in our imaginations.
In the same way, Area 51 derives its power. The secrecy around it feeds wild speculation. What is hidden from us grows ever more elaborate.
Area 51 is fascinating even though there’s not much to see there. The coolest thing about it is how the absence of solid evidence lends greater emotional force to the most mundane of objects, like a mailbox at the end of a dirt road, contrails in the sky, or a blank spot on a map.
I’ve never had so much fun looking at nothing.
Driving Tour Map of the Area 51 Sites
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