Groom Lake, Dreamland, Paradise Ranch, Homey Airport, Watertown, Home Base. The 4,600 square mile high desert mystery most people call Area 51 sure has a lot of names but no publically acknowledged identity. I’m pretty sure that if I were ever elected president my first order of business would involve a trip inside, but due to my lack of political aspirations (and also a good portion of my Facebook activity during college) that will never happen. The good news is that if you, like me, want to get up close and personal with the government’s biggest secret, you can drive under 100 miles from Las Vegas and hope for the best. On a very cold day, that’s just what I did.
Area 51 had always been in the back of my mind but it really peaked my interest when I was working in Death Valley National Park. One night I met a man who casually mentioned that he had worked there for a while and had since retired. I asked him what he could tell me and he said that even though he hadn’t been employed there in over a decade, he was sworn to a lifetime of secrecy. His wife, standing next to him, nodded and said that she still had no idea what his job at Area 51 had been.
Though the CIA did acknowledge Area 51 for the first time in 2013, that doesn’t change the fact that no one really knows what goes on there. It’s likely a place where the Air Force tests experimental weapons and aircraft, which makes sense considering the fact that the air space above it is off limits to civilian and non-approved military planes. The only planes that actually do fly in and out of Area 51 belong to the mysterious unmarked fleet of aircraft known as Janet Airlines. The planes actually fly out of McCarran in Las Vegas and the name is said to stand for “Just Another Non-Existent Terminal.” Rumor has it that if you are a passenger on one and you’re headed to Area 51 for the first time (Job interview, I guess?) you aren’t allowed to look out the window. If you did you would maybe catch a glimpse of the camouflaged, disappearing airstrip or maybe even the entrance to the officially not a real thing underground transcontinental railroad.
Side note: If you’re never on board Janet Airlines, you can always hike up Tikaboo Peak, the nearest mountain you can legally climb in the vicinity. I’m saving that one for another trip.
Of course, you can’t mention Area 51 at a roadside bar in Nevada without some crazy guy going on about aliens. The conspiracy theories-and there area lot-claim that Area 51 is being used to store crashed alien spacecraft, take meetings with aliens and develop weather control, time travel and teleportation. In 1989 a former employee named Bob Lazar claimed to have worked in Area 51’s ultra classified Sector 4 where he supposedly saw alien spacecraft like, all the time. In 1996, another former employee named Bruce Burgess claimed to have worked with an extraterrestrial being named J-Rod (kind of a frat boy name for an alien). His former colleague Dan Burisch claimed the same.
On my trip to Area 51, I unfortunately did not meet anyone with the same loose lips as these ex-employees (who are probably never, ever getting job references), nor did I meet J-Rod. I did however, after a long, snowy drive down the appropriately and hilariously named Extraterrestrial Highway, meet the kind people who run the Little A’Le’Inn in the tiny, tiny town of Rachel. It’s a great place to grab a burger, a t-shirt and look at walls and walls lined with photos of UFO activity. Best of all, you can get directions to the border of Area 51.
After acquiring said directions, I drove down an unmarked dirt road for a few miles alongside pronghorn antelope. The high desert is really beautiful, but spooky. Supposedly there are motion sensors all along the border of Area 51 that can detect human scent. When I reached the entrance, I was greeted by a sign telling me not to be there. There was no mention of the authorized use of deadly force, but I promise you it is authorized and perhaps responsible for the rumors of people who have crossed into Area 51 only to never be heard from again. I’m not quite as brazen as the film crew who crossed the border a few years ago and found themselves face down in the dirt at gunpoint, but I also hadn’t driven hours for nothing, so I got out and looked around. Seemingly out of nowhere, two white Jeeps appeared, barreling towards me. These, I knew, were the so-called “cammo dudes,” a contracted non-military security force tasked with guarding Area 51. And they were coming for me fast. I got in my car and sped away. It was exhilarating.
And so it went: A long, ominous drive to the barren government mystery followed by a short chase and then another long drive home. It’s unlikely that I or anyone else will ever really know what happens at Area 51. The conspiracy theories are many and the facts are few. Honestly, I think that’s part of the fun.