- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2007

RACHEL, Nev.

It would be logical for this town to consider sisterhoodwith Loch Ness, Scotland, home to a putative aquatic monster whose reported “sightings” have fired up imaginations for decades.

Rachel, population about 100, also has a lake, a mystery at the bottom of it and the business savvy to turn it into a lucrative enterprise.

Groom Lake, about 25 miles southwest of here, has not held any water since probably the last ice age, but even an attempt to sneak a peak from one of the surrounding mountaintops will bring out the authorities.

Pat Travis has seen many a truth seeker ending up in handcuffs. “Remember, if even as much as your toe gets inside the restricted area, they’ll grab you, and you’ll end up paying a $600 fine,” Mrs. Travis said.

She is the owner of Little A’Le’Inn, Rachel’s only restaurant, bar and motel, which is booming with curious visitors.

Mrs. Travis tells the story about a man who set off a major security alert as he stretched his hand across the boundary to grab a rock as a souvenir. Sirens blared, she recalls, searchlights pierced the dark and black helicopters swooped down from out of nowhere to nab the intruder.

Bone-dry Groom Lake and its immediate surroundings are known as Area 51, the U.S. government’s single most closely guarded facility. It is so secret that Pentagon officials are not authorized even to acknowledge its existence.

It is protected by somber-looking camouflage-clad men who careen around the ridges in sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks, backed up by a network of cameras, motion sensors and listening devices.

For local residents, what could be better for business than a good secret next door?

A dusty gravel road runs through a picturesque Joshua tree grove, then veers to the right before revealing a slew of red-and-white warnings not to proceed any further.

The camouflage men are parked on the hill above — engine running, ready to pounce.

The truth is out there, but always out of reach.

There are no confirmed facts, only theories, some of which seem more plausible than others.

The least outlandish argues that Area 51 is a supersecret testing facility for the nation’s newest military jets. The F-117 stealth bomber, U-2 and SR-71 “Blackbird” spy planes, some say, were among them.

Another theory postulates that it is an intelligence center where Air Force specialists examine aircraft stolen by U.S. spies.

And then there is the UFO crowd.

They recall a story about an alien spacecraft going down outside Roswell, N.M., in 1947. The government said at the time that it was an experimental weather balloon. UFO theorists say the military captured two alien pilots from that craft and took them to Area 51 for debriefing.

According to the rumor mill, these aliens have helped the government establish a secret relationship with their planet. Alien spacecraft are now regularly landing on an airstrip at the bottom of Groom Lake, bringing in alien engineers to help the military build its own flying saucers. All of this is just behind a ridge maybe 10 miles from the stop signs.

The theory got a boost in 1989, when Las Vegas resident Bob Lazar, who identified himself as a former Area 51 employee, claimed in a television interview to have seen an alien spacecraft and nine other flying saucers parked at the facility.

All the major TV networks sent their best correspondents, with CNN’s Larry King holding court for a day.

Armed with binoculars and telescopes, UFO buffs took up positions around Rachel to watch the night sky for any signs of saucers.

Accessible ridges around the restricted area became prime haunts. Tour companies in Las Vegas began offering trips to “the real home of the X-Files” for about $200 per person.

“It’s a fairly popular destination to this very day,” said Richard Rancilio, owner of Grand Canyon Tour Co. “We take people in a van to the Little A’Le’Inn in Rachel and the warning signs three or four times a week.”

Flipping “Alien Burgers” in her restaurant’s kitchen, Mrs. Travis awaits a new batch of wild-eyed visitors.

In 1996, the Nevada state government named Route 375, which connects Rachel to the outside world, the Extraterrestrial Highway. It helped increase sales of Area 51 T-shirts, coffee mugs, ashtrays and bottle openers.

Visitors also can buy, at a fair price, an unauthorized history of Area 51, videocassettes with UFO stories and even a map showing directions to the entrance.

“The aliens? They could be right here, in this town. I’ve seen at least two of them,” Mrs. Travis said. “What else am I supposed to think when a complete stranger walks in a few years ago and knows that my grandson was in a car accident?”

According to another theory, Groom Lake could be housing a whole alien colony.

Steve Medlin, a rancher whose property adjoins Area 51, has installed a separate mailbox for the aliens in case the Empire decides to communicate.

Who knows? One day they may take a new saucer for a spin and drop by for a cup of coffee. Or maybe the unshaven guy with a droopy mustache nursing a beer at Little A’Le’Inn is really from a galaxy far, far away.

As long as they pay in dollars, they are all welcome.

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