Rocks and Mythology in Rachel, Nevada
Notes from Nevada desert outpost, where UFOlogistcs converge to talk about their theories on Area 51.
North into the Nevada desert from Las Vegas for a hundred fifty miles or so. No trees, no towns, no humans or a goddamned bit of greenery to speak of. You call this straight road miserable, but you haven't yet been to Rachel, pop. 100, whose only claim to fame is that it is the closest town to Area 51, America's famously secret experimental military installation.
I pulled over a slim hill and saw Rachel sparkling by the light of the moon,
a dozen mobile homes and some trash sticking out of the dirt.
Yes, area 51 is top secret, but words like 'top secret' give it a false sense of mystery - Area 51 is a dusty set of hangars at the bottom of a dry lake bed. A place so remote from anything at all that the air force chose it to test stealth aircraft and missile technology. Three F-117's flew over my truck just yesterday. They are very cool, and of course, very of this world.
I stopped in at the Little A'Le'Inn. I wanted a beer, but I got the universe. The décor - pro-extraterrestrial, pro-gun, anti-Hillary. The Little A'Le'Inn has become a mecca for those who believe, but you wouldn't have guessed by the looks of the slouched drinkers at the bar. Bill was talking to Howard, "How long you been truckin'?" he asked.
"Since nineteen forty-eight."
"Nineteen forty-eight? You are a good man, Howard. What, Freightliner?"
"A Dodge man?"
"All my life. I move cars, boats, trailers, trucks."
"That's my specialty."
Bill patted Howard on the back, a little too hard maybe. Howard was old.
Bob, who was listening in, said that he liked trucks. Bob was reverse engineered from a human. Bald, aging and with a skeletal head and a long sun-bleached goatee, Bob had seemed to have been drinking since morning. His long, inaudible drawls meant he had reached a state of drunken equilibrium - no highs, no lows anymore, just fuzziness and squint-eyed smiles.
I took a seat at the corner table, a quiet place to read. I had no idea that eventually the entire bar would be seated at my table, telling their story. Maybe I appeared the most unusual person here - glasses, a buttoned shirt, or was it the book?
"I'm an aerial photographer," Bill said. "I come here every year. Beautiful country. Born and raised in New Jersey. But I really belong here. I'm a western guy at heart." He added in a Jersey accent, "my Stetson is from Montana."
"What are you shooting out here?"
"Well, you get these combat exercises going on this time of the year. They're flying all over the place. Army, Navy, Air Force. Too bad none of that's going on, because they're all deployed right now."
"How do you do it?"
"There's these roads that head toward (Groom Lake), there are a couple places left where you can go and get a decent view of Area 51...I mostly get shots of F14's, F15's, that sort of thing. I have this Nikon. F1.4 and one-eight-thousandths of a second. All I need is for the moon to shine and I can get a picture."
"What have you seen, what have you shot?"
"I started coming out in 1992. You go out on the public section of Groom Lake Road during the combat exercises. The planes see your trail of dust and you're like the automatic target. So they all descend on you and you've been 'a kill' about a hundred times. That's when you shoot back. They're playing with you because you're the only interesting thing out there."
"What's the best thing you've shot?" I asked.
"Well, it's really what I saw. Back in 1992, when I started getting interested in the Groom Lake stories, I came out and watched from Tikaboo Peak. I saw these black-winged craft flying at night. I didn't get the shot, but I told everybody about it back in Jersey. Nobody believed me. We all know that they're declassified F-117's now. You gotta learn to only tell people what they want to believe."
That was my cue. I'd heard it before. The UFO crowd approaches their beliefs much like somebody with an unusual religious belief - shy when faced with potential mockery, but explosively chatty when faced with an ounce of interest. I said that I thought the government was coming up with a way to make everybody the middle child.
A few minutes later, Bill was explaining, "it was a mile wide. I just saw it for a second. It was amazing, the way it hovered there for a second before disappearing over the mountains."
Bob was listening. He said that he liked science fiction movies. "I really like Forbidden Planet."
Two middle-aged brothers from Las Vegas walked through the door and took
a seat at my table. Pat, who was serving coffee, asked if they wanted
the regular. "No," said the younger. "Got any blueberry
"Just one left for you."
"I'll take the cherry," said the older.
I asked them what they were doing in Rachel.
"Minding our own business."
"No hunting for us. We bought a place out here."
"Get away from Vegas," the older one said, already digging into his Little Ale'inn cherry pie.
"Speaking of hunting," he added, addressing the entire table, "why are there dead coyotes hung up everywhere?"
"I think its to attract the coyotes," Bill said, "to snare 'em."
Bob added slowly, "No, that's how you mark your territory. You string up them coy-otes on your fence posts, keeps them away. One gets too close, you kill'im. You hang him on your fence. The coyote smell his own death. He knows not to come after your dogs or your chickens."
What I found most peculiar about the patrons of the Little A'Le'Inn was
their common appreciation for Southern Nevada. "Most gorgeous country
in America," Bill had said. Passing through, here for the aliens,
or just here to live, the miserable Nevada Desert emptiness seems to compel,
if not unite an eclectic crowd of loners.
Rachel has none of the usual attractions of Nevada. Its attraction is road sign kitsch. The posted speed limit is Warp 7. Rachel is now a major tourist destination. But the strangely compelling emptiness - the long, upward curving scrub-flats, the distant ranges are passed up by regular visitors to the Southwest.
Back in 1996, the Governor of Nevada changed the name of Nevada's route 375 - which curves with broad berth around Area 51, to 'the Extraterrestrial Highway.' It was good business, he reckoned, considering he promoted the affair in tandem with the opening of a movie about flying saucers attacking the Earth and killing billions of people.
The folks from Rachel don't spend a lot of time talking about the UFO's, except, perhaps, when outsiders ask them, or they are thinking up a new tourist UFO scheme. Besides the recent attention, not much has ever happened in Rachel, Nevada. Until July 12, 1986, that is, when a smooth, metallic flying craft came blaring from the heavens.
It wasn't quite an alien that crash-landed in Rachel, but close enough. Leif was a Norwegian F-16 pilot, and he crashed just between the trailer park and the playground while on a training mission with the U.S. Air Force.
When he recovered, Leif wrote a letter to the community of Rachel. He explained the Norwegian Air Force patches he mailed to them as a thank-you for their generosity, "On both [of these patches] you can see the relationship to the Vikings. Norway is famous for the Vikings who ravaged for some centuries ago. And again, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year."
Leif was born in Saltnes, a town a few miles from the larger port town of Stavanger. In old Norwegian, a Saltnes refers to a rock jutting out into the fjord which the Norwegians used to dry salt.
Saltnes is a lush, green, steep-valleyed village hundreds of miles outside of Oslo. Back when people dried salt on the fjord-bank, Scandinavians believed in little people who lived in the woods. The Norwegians called these people trolls. And like all other mythological little people, trolls were not all good - they were deceitful and ate children.
Norwegians aren't the only ones who made up stories about little people in the woods. The Irish had their own dwarves from beyond the pale. We call them Leprechauns. In Scotland, there were the pixies and tommyknockers, mischevious short people whom you wanted to keep on your good side.
In Russia and Poland, Slavic people believed in a people so small, they could hide under the cover of grass. These 'krasnoludki' secretly helped with house chores, but if they were offended by your mockery of them, they would play pranks and piss in your milk. Worse, they would commit themselves to evil-doings around your homestead.
The Cherokees believed in three groups of mischevious wrong-doers who reach as high as your knees. The worst of these, the rock people, would steal your children if you disturbed them.
The Dwende are taller than rock people, about half as tall as a Filipino, which means they really are quite small. They live in a mound of dirt in the jungles of the Philippines, and if you get too close to their jungly dirt mounds, they'll kill you.
They aren't too far off from the Menehune people, tiny Hawaiian elves - mischievous and rarely seen forest dwellers who avoid sight by building giant caves and ditches at night.
Everywhere there are mythological little people from our various cultural pasts. Humans have common sets of fears and imaginations - like a rabbit born with an instinctual fear of fangs. We come up with answers for our unknown fears and mysteries. In an age where forests are no longer the unknown, and simple mythologies no longer work, our minds pull together the most plausible fears for our time. Little gray people represent every fear of the secular, suburban American - space, conspiracy, technology, dominance over the untouchable West. The dark wood no longer encapsulates our fears, especially in a land of diagrammed suburbs and vast, empty spaces.
Some popular polls say that sixty-five percent of Americans believe that their government is covering up evidence of aliens. And they are quite familiar with the stories that still emanate from Roswell, New Mexico...of little people with gray skin and big, black eyes, long fingers adept at punching instructions into computers, or of a captured extraterrestrial craft hidden in an Area 51 hangar and a dozen white-coats taking it for test drives in the secrecy of night.
There is a lot of tension between UFOlogists and the regular old scientist. UFOlogy may be crackpot science - a mix of faith and scattered logic that makes the genuine search for life in space - a much more interesting field - seem silly to those who can't distinguish the two. It's rigorous scrutiny versus face value, but is UFOlogy harmful?
Judging by the nature of Little Ale'inn patrons, I gathered not. I pointed out to them that Leif wasn't the first to come blaring into Rachel from the heavens.
There is a stretch of land near Rachel which is known to be a layer of sea sediment. What's strange about the sediment is that fossils of deepwater fish and shallow-water mollusks were found to be mixed together. That would be strange, since shallow and deepwater animals wouldn't ordinarily mix. Scientists believe this to be the result of another visitor to Rachel. This one however, came from space, blaring from the heavens 375 million years ago. It hit the sea which filled the Great Basin at the time, throwing the fish, the fossils and everything deepwater onto the shoreline.
Today, dried by the Rockies' barrier, Southern Nevada forms a southern border for the Great Basin - a hydrological and biospheric term for a giant swath of land that has no outlet for water. What was once a set of seas and inland lakes, became a desert - a vast desert of bold mountains.
In other parts of North America, - the growth of woods, the erosion, the intricate valleys - make for confusing geology. But Southern Nevada is young mountains, all facing north-south. On a map, the mountains look like stalled semi's on a northbound freeway. Almost no erosion; they just stick out from a flat sea of scrub.
most of the mountains in North America also face north and south, these
are different. Friction between Atlantic and Pacific tectonic plates pushed
the other American mountains upward, like a carpet being pushed against
a wall. But these Nevada mountains are the scars of stretching between
those plates - like the indentations made when you stretch a piece of
That all of this was once a muddy sea-bottom has yielded cathedrals of sediment where there are no mountains, like the great Panaca formation seventy-five miles from here. The Panaca is a loose scar of mud so cursed by time and water that it has formed towers, pinnacles and peaks of dried sediment. The sharp erosion has produced such narrow troughs that it has formed winding cave-like passages - dark, cool, with a distinct hue of blue. Rather out of this world, if not moonlike. Like the strange formations in Red Rock Canyon, west of Las Vegas, or the odd elephantine structures of the Valley of Fire along Lake Mead, all of Southern Nevada seems an appropriate place for the imagination.