By Dale O’Dell
Everybody knows about the “secret” airbase in central Nevada, Area 51. It hasn’t been secret for a long time, though. In fact, Area 51 is so well-known that it’s become part of the UFO folklore. But unless you’re a super secret, deep black 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 — ufologists, ancient astronaut theorists, conspiracy theorists and paranormal tourists — who says they’ve been to Area 51 hasn’t; they’ve actually been to Rachel, Nevada. Rachel is an oasis located along Nevada’s Route 375, the Extraterrestrial Highway. It’s the nearest town to Area 51. The hub of human activity is the Little A’Le’Inn, a combo motel-restaurant-bar where true believers gather. If you’ve watched a UFO program during the past two decades, you’ve probably seen some “expert” standing in front of the Little A’Le’Inn Inn espousing some theory about back-engineered alien spacecraft or captured alien pilots held at Area 51.
It was the UFO folklore that motivated me to visit Rachel back in 1996. You can read all about that adventure in my book “Photographic Memories” in a chapter called “Wide Awake at Dreamland.” That visit was interesting. I met some true believers and 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 a bright yellow trailer that housed the Area 51 Research Center. 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. Once, I shot some background photographs for UFO illustrations. Another time, I went with a UFO hunter and scanned 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 vanishingly few man-made objects in the desolate desert. It’s just a UFO landmark 20 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. During the late 1990s, there was a seriousness to UFO folklore. You could meet an aviation expert at the Little A’Le’Inn and 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 tour-ons screwing around.
In 2016, 20 years later, I returned and things were a lot different. I’d been photographing in east-central Nevada and was on my way to Las Vegas, so the excursion was just for fun and lunch at the Little A’Le’Inn. Driving up the Extraterrestrial Highway, I wanted to shoot another photo of the infamous Black (or White?) Mailbox but didn’t see it. What happened to it? I thought. I’ll bet there’s someone at the Little A’Le’Inn who knows.
Arriving at the sparkling metropolis that is Rachel, I noticed that the Area 51 Research Center was gone. The Quick Pik was also gone along with the gas station. I suppose Rachel residents must have to drive 40 miles to the nearest gas station now. The Little A’Le’Inn’s parking lot was oddly full. When I’d been there before there was never more than a beat-up work truck and car or two. That day, the parking lot was packed. My entry was as dramatic as it was 20 years ago. Upon opening the door, harsh desert light flooded the dining room and everyone inside (and there were a lot of everyones that day) turned to check out the new arrival. Hi, hello, yes it’s about 10 F-stops brighter outside, shade your eyes, let me stop-down the aperture by closing the door.
Holy crap — the place was packed! Every table was full. I headed straight to the gift shop and picked out a few must-have souvenirs. While paying for my UFO trinkets the lady at the cash register asked if I was staying for lunch, which I was. She asked if I wouldn’t mind sitting at the counter since the restaurant was full. I slid over to the counter and she immediately took my order.
“Alien-burger with secretion (cheese), a soda and chips, please.”
I surreptitiously shot a few photos of the restaurant and patrons with my little mirror-less 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,” looking forward to the next stop: the Black Mailbox.
“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 20 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 20 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 for a few photos of the signage. This didn’t 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 that Rachel was no longer a Mecca for true believers but, rather, a tourist destination. They just wanted to visit “Area 51” and get their picture taken outside the Little A’Le’Inn. It’s kind of sad.
I walked across the bright, hot parking lot back to my car and found my best friend, MAX — the air-conditioning’s highest setting — and headed back southward. Sure enough, almost exactly 20 miles south of Rachel, on the west side of the Extraterrestrial Highway I found the shrine to the Black Mailbox. In cop-parlance, I “exited the vehicle” camera in hand to examine … what the heck, I’m not quite sure. There was a rinky-dink mailbox that looked like a children’s toy posted atop a bent, twisted pole. It was surrounded by rocks on which were “offerings” of coins and pictures and a handwritten note that said, “I want to believe.” It was as if this were some mystical spot, a place of UFO worship, a place of reverence. In fact, it’s just a wide spot on a desolate highway where a lonely rancher couldn’t even keep a rural mailbox from being stolen. This was 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 camo dude security forces! But no, it wasn’t security, it was worse: UFO Tourists.
A group of tourists (including the Australians) got out, cameras in hand, and began extensive photography of the shrine. The SUV driver/tour-guide lectured the group in low, serious tones about the history of the Black Mailbox. Someone made an offering and then the group piled back into the SUV. There was a big “Sightseeing Adventures” sticker on the side of the vehicle, so I asked the driver for a brochure. He happily obliged and then they were off in a cloud of dust to take a picture of the sign on the border of the base. The dust settled and I found myself standing in the hot sun alone by the shrine reading about “Sightseeing Adventures.”
The brochure advertised all sorts of daily tours out of Las Vegas. Most were the typical day-trip fare: Hoover Dam, Colorado River, Valley of Fire State Park, the Grand Canyon, and Area 51 – Top Secret Military Facility. Seriously?! Some 20 years ago, after doing a minimal amount of research, UFO enthusiasts would gas up in Vegas and head north to Rachel for their own personal UFO adventure. Now they’re running tours out of Vegas. For $200 a person! 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 4×4 with like-minded UFO tourists. This had all been commercialized in the cheesiest way possible.
If there’s a way to make a buck on something, someone’ll do it. Driving into Las Vegas from “Area 51,” a couple of notions popped into my tiny mind. First was that the current state of UFO folklore is stale. A lack of “newness” is what steers things like the Black Mailbox and the Little A’Le’Inn into 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 came back around to photography, and it’s what I’ll call the “Selfie Factor.” It seemed the most important thing to UFO tourists was getting their picture taken in front of famous UFO sites. 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 $50. Fifteen dollars for a half-tank of gas, another $15 for lunch, and 20 bucks on souvenirs I really didn’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 the sign.
See more of Dale O’Dell’s photography and digital art at DalePhoto.Com.