Newspaper: Sun Newspapers.
LAS VEGAS, Nev.
In May 1989, former government physicist Bob Lazar told reporter George Knapp on KLAS-TV in Las Vegas that the U.S. military had nine alien discs at a top-secret air base in Groom Lake, Nevada -- known as Area 51 for its grid map location. "Area 51'' has become synonymous with the alleged government conspiracy to cover up UFOs, as well as being popularized on TV shows such as The X-Files. The controversy hasn't escaped the attention of the State of Nevada, which is now promoting Highway 375 as the "E.T. Highway." Although Lazar's credibility is uncertain, rumours continue to swirl about the mysterious base in the Nevada desert, where it is believed the U.S. air force tests its most secret aircraft. Sun Media Newspapers scribe Dave Makichuk toured the ET Highway to find out if the truth is really out there.
It's noon and the temperature is 30 degrees as we pull out of Las Vegas in a Ford Explorer. The tank is full, we have plenty of bottled spring water and the Area 51 Viewer's Guide all the essential elements for a bit of desert adventure, or a chance meeting with benevolent aliens. We pass Nellis Air Force Base on our right, as we head east on Interstate 15. An A-10 Warthog is on final approach.
Perhaps it's returning from the Nellis range, a 14,166-square-kilometre restricted area of uninhabited mountainous desert northwest of Vegas. The region encompasses the air force gunnery range, the Nevada Test Site and Area 51 -- the most secret military base in U.S. history.
This place is so hush-hush that for years the air force flatly denied its existence. Even now, the Pentagon refers to it as "the operating location near Groom Dry Lake." It doesn't even appear on a map. Twenty minutes out of Vegas and we hit the junction of Highway 93, where we turn north into a vast desert landscape. Almost immediately one is struck by the raw beauty and desolateness of the Mojave, characterized by jagged peaks dotted with Joshua trees, yucca plants and desert sage. But after an hour driving, things change drastically as we approach the lush, green meadow land of the Pahranagat valley.
You wouldn't have wanted to be driving through here on the evening of May 19, 1953, when the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission set off a nuclear blast three times greater than Hiroshima. Called "Shot Harry," it was the ninth in a series of 11 open-air tests at the Nevada Test Site that signalled the U.S rush to develop a hydrogen bomb.
Ranchers in the valley adjusted to seeing gigantic mushroom clouds rise up out of the desert they could count their cattle in the flash. Although the shockwave would sometimes break windows or crack foundations, the government told them there was nothing to worry about.
But Shot Harry, which earned the nickname "Dirty Harry," brought a radioactive dust cloud into the Pahranagat Valley that sent radiation monitors off the dial. Many unsuspecting ranchers and their stock were exposed to high levels of radiation and suffered the irreversible consequences.
Victims of Shot Harry finally won compensation from Congress in 1990.
Today, the cottonwoods stand tall, the sun is bright and the Pahranagat mountain range to the west guides us north to a small town called Alamo, on the northern edge of the Wildlife Refuge about 145 kilometres from Vegas. The people at the gas station are friendly, serving up a hearty bowl of hot chili, fresh bread and a tall glass of real ice tea.
In the station's small gift shop, we spot the first indication of anything extraterrestrial. An alien driver's licence for $3, and an assortment of ET related souvenirs and stickers. Pushing onward, we drive another 20 kilometres to the junction of Nevada 375, the official start of the "ET Highway,"a 158-kilometre stretch of two-lane that connects U.S. highways 6 and 93.
It's there we notice something odd -- several parked cars, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We would find out later that these are owned by workers at Groom Lake -- a pickup point for an early morning shuttle bus. The first "ET Highway" sign is nestled amongst some cottonwood trees en route to Hancock summit and the first glimpses of the Tikaboo Valley.
The summit affords one of the best views of the restricted airspace above Groom Lake. But it is the innocuous gravel road that heads west over the mountains that catches our attention. This is the infamous Groom Lake road that leads to America's most secret installation.
"Warning, Restricted Area" and "Use of deadly force authorized" are but a couple of signs posted along this route. And, if you cross two small orange cones placed on either side of the road, you'll be immediately arrested by camouflaged gun-toting security guards, who've earned the monicker "Cammo Dudes."
They travel in unmarked, white Jeep Cherokees. Trespassers can face a maximum fine of $5,000 and a possible jail term. There are no exceptions. Technically, and legally, the land surrounding the restricted zone is run by the Bureau of Land Management. That means you can camp anywhere, as long as you are outside the Restricted Zone.
But that doesn't mean you won't be hassled. A New York Times writer was once pinned to the ground by a Black Hawk helicopter for being in an area deemed inappropriate. Visitors have had backpacks searched and film confiscated. Others claim to have been held at gunpoint.
All in all, it's a nasty business and not worth being arrested, detained or deported. And, should you think you can sneak in, think again. The area is ringed with cameras and motion detectors. Continuing our descent into the Tikaboo valley, we pass the infamous "Black Mailbox," which is essentially a common ordinary black mailbox.
"Believers" say many UFOs have been sighted from this spot -- the only real landmark in the area. In the Area 51 Viewer's Guide, author Glenn Campbell doubts any of these sightings are more than flares associated with night manoeuvres on the Nellis range, or aircraft lights. As for the mailbox, it belongs to rancher Steve Medlin, who owns the grazing rights around Area 51. Locals say Medlin had to sign an official secrecy document, like the workers at the base.
Continuing on Highway 375, near milepost 26, we come to another infamous site; parking area S. A prominent ufologist and his wife claim they were abducted by an alien named Quaylar while watching the skies here in March 1993. There appear to be no aliens hanging around on this particular day. Quaylar must have better things to do.
Highway 375 climbs out of the Tikaboo valley as quickly as it enters, heading straight up the Timpahute mountain range to Coyote summit. Beyond that lies the Sand Spring Valley and the town of Rachel, population about 100. The latter, now a UFO "mecca" of sorts because of its proximity to Area 51, is a collection of trailers, a gas station, the UFO Research Centre, the Little A'Le'Inn, a government radiation monitoring station and a sleeping dog or two, probably half coyote.
Inside the Research Centre we meet Donald Emery, a young man from Oregon who stopped in to earn some money painting, and ended up getting hired to run the centre. He tells us the founder of the facility, Area 51 author Campbell, now resides in Las Vegas where he runs a UFO Web site.
The Research Centre is packed with books, posters, magazines, stickers, maps, videos, cups, T-shirts, the now-famous Area 51 military patch (a big hit with the base workers -- they don't have one), the Area 51 Viewer's Guide, and everything else related to UFOs.
Tacked on the wall is the only real evidence that Area 51 exists -- a poster from a Russian satellite photo of the Groom Lake facility where 800 to 1,000 people are said to be employed. Emery tells us they've lengthened the runway, possibly making it the longest in the world.
The best vantage point of Area 51 is no longer reachable, Emery informs us. Dubbed Freedom Ridge, it was annexed by the government a few years ago.
I ask our local expert the proverbial question -- has he seen anything? "Yes," he says, "some strange lights, one that zoomed in, stopped over the valley, then took off again." There was a bit of excitement in town recently, he recalls. An F-16 on a training mission flamed out near the town. Fortunately the pilot managed to relight and disaster was averted.
Emery offers us advice on where to go if we want to approach the base restricted zone -- we decline the offer.
Snapping up a few souvenirs, we decide to wander over to the Little A'Le'Inn. Inside, there is a pool table that's seen better days, a wall covered with UFO photos supposedly taken from the Black Mailbox site -- most are bright blobs -- and in the corner, a collection of alien souvenirs and T-shirts. In the Viewer's Guide, Campbell rates the Inn as the best place in town, being that it's the only place in town. He also recommends the Alien Burger.
At the bar, the mood is jovial. The topic of conversation is mostly political Clinton is guilty, Nixon was innocent, and of course the right-wing conspiracy theories swirl about including one real dandy that involved the UN massing troops in Canada to attack the U.S. Basically, things are going great until someone at the bar asks us "our opinion." Promptly paying our bill, we explain we never discuss politics or religion, and beat a hasty retreat for the great beyond.
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