Nevada is so desolate that there isn’t even much of a highway between Reno in the north near Lake Tahoe, and Las Vegas, far to the south near the mammoth Hoover Dam. You drive mostly two-lane U.S. 95, amid low brown hills, scrub bushes, Joshua trees, and rattlesnakes along the 715 kilometers (445 miles) between the dusty western state’s two big gambling centers.
And if you’re really into scorpions and free-ranging cattle and more than 160 km without a drop of available gasoline, you can make part of the lonely journey on an even more remote — and spookier — alternate route to Vegas. Carol and I took it, and in three hours of meandering passed exactly four cars and one truck.
This is Nevada Route 375, a place so far out, metaphorically as well as physically, that the state itself calls it “The Extraterrestrial Highway.” When Nevada gave this long stretch of nothing that catchy name in 1996 — capitalizing on publicity surrounding the alien-invasion movie “Independence Day,” which involves a secret “Area 51” government installation nearby — it erected a marker at each end and at least one additional sign reading, “Speed Limit Warp 7.”
The Extraterrestrial Highway name had first been used informally in 1959, after a physicist, Robert Lazar, who claimed to have worked on “reverse engineering” of alien spacecraft at a “secret flying saucer base” in the valley through which State Route 375 runs, gave a memorable interview to a Las Vegas radio station.
Radio, and thus no pictures of these disassembled outer-spacecraft.
In the interview, recorded and later transcribed by Glenn Campbell, whom I’ll identify later, Lazar told the audience, matter-of-factly, “The craft have three gravity amplifiers on the bottom of ’em. What they do is, assuming that they’re in space — it’s just easier to get this across that way — they will focus the three gravity amplifiers on the point that they want to go to.
“Now, to give you an analogy, if you take a thin rubber sheet, say, lay it on a table and put thumb tacks in each corner. You take a big stone and set it on one end of the rubber sheet and say that that’s your UFO or that’s your spacecraft. You pick out a point that you want to go to, which could be anywhere on the rubber sheet, pinch that point with your fingers and pull that all the way up to the craft. That’s how it focuses and pulls that point actually to it.
“When you then shut off the gravity generators, the stone or your spacecraft follows that stretched rubber back to its point. There’s no linear travel through space. It actually bends space and time, and follows space as it retracts.”
That sounds pretty kooky. After all, no one could find any record of a Robert Lazar at any of the schools he claimed to have attended. But to people half a century ago, before anyone admitted there was anything but sand and salamanders and the remnants of the military’s atomic testing in the Nevada desert, this was juicy stuff.
The power of suggestion being strong in those days, I remember “seeing” a flying saucer myself. It was following our streetcar as my mother and I traveled into downtown Cleveland. Others pointed it out, too. Mother said it was only the moon.
No human that we know of has yet thrown a net over an alien and brought it in. But diehards still swear they see unidentified flying objects starting and stopping and darting in the night sky above the Extraterrestrial Highway. Every once in awhile, photographers still capture something shiny and metallic and saucer-like out there.
The Nevada Commission on Tourism itself reports that more UFOs are sighted near U.S. 375 each year than anywhere else on earth. Those folks wouldn’t exaggerate, right?
There really is an Area 51 installation, very near the Extraterrestrial Highway along the dry Lake Groom salt flat. The name comes from Central Intelligence Agency documents that refer to a secretive U.S. military base and airfield. It’s surrounded by the obligatory high, chain-link fence to this day.
The fence is studded with signs warning Carol (and everyone else) in no uncertain terms: “No Photography!”
And it adds, for good measure:
“Deadly Force is Authorized.” Gulp.
All we could see from the road were oddly shaped hills (bunkers?) and rows of lookalike huts and warehouses. We saw no jets — maybe they were stealth fighters and we missed them — no machine-gun nests, no snarly guards, no trucks hauling flying-saucer parts.
There is a single postal drop on the dirt road leading to Area 51. It’s known in those parts as the “black mailbox,” even though it’s now painted white. (Black boxes are more sinister.) It’s said that this is the spot where UFO-trackers gather at night to scan the sky for saucers. I’d be scanning for varmints in the brush.
As you can tell, Carol and I — like most other occasional tourists who find the place — made a lark of the day. We posed near the Extraterrestrial Highway sign, made alien-like noises, poked up our fingers as if they were antennae, and sprawled in the middle of the highway for photos. No earthling, except an earthbound cow or an antelope, was going to come along and move us. We’d have spotted a car way down the deserted road five minutes before it got there.
There are some old ghost towns — the vestiges of halfhearted gold-mining operations — down dusty spurs off Route 375. But pressed for time and nervous about the gas — and the lizards — we skipped them. What if aliens — or those ghosts — abducted us? It might be years before anyone found us out there.
At the bottom of the long, low Sand Spring Valley, about halfway down the Extraterrestrial Highway, lies the highway’s one and only civilian settlement: Rachel, Nevada, population 98. Lying entirely on the west side of the road, it’s a curious sight. There’s not a shack, not a wood fence, not a single stick in the ground on the east side.
That was strange. When we finally got there, I completely forgot to ask why that is.
Founded by an alfalfa farmer as a watering hole for the men working at Union Carbide’s tungsten mines nearby, and first called “Tempiute,” the settlement was renamed “Rachel” after the first baby born in the valley. When she was three, her family moved to another remote — and far greener — valley in the shadow of volcanic Mt. St. Helens in Washington State. There, according to the folks in Rachel, she died of respiratory failure when the mountain literally exploded and sent forth the continent’s largest-ever recorded ash plume in 1980.
The tungsten miners, a struggling mini-mart, something called the “Area 51 Research Center” in a trailer — what a place that must have been to hang out — and the only gas station on the whole E.T. Highway are gone.
“Whether or not you believe in UFOs, one thing is certain,” writes resident Glenn Campbell in his online “Short History of Rachel, Nevada.” “The UFO watchers are real and are sighted here with great frequency. Most of them go directly to the Little A’Le’Inn.”
A’Le’Inn. Get it?
It’s a tavern, burger joint, alien souvenir shop, and gathering place for conspiracy theorists, some of whom spend the night in the “clean motel rooms at very reasonable rates” out back. Guests are advised that “there is no TV reception, but you can pick free movies from the extensive video library at the Inn, including many documentaries about Area 51 and UFOs.”
We passed on the opportunity, and after Carol browsed for alien memorabilia and I devoured an Alien Burger — it was, to steal a line from the menu, “out of this world” — we headed off.
Although it would have been fun to wait until the dead of night to scan the starry skies for whatever was odd up there, when the waitress at the A’Le’Inn said she’d be taking off because she didn’t like to drive there after dark, we got the hint. Someone else could hunt aliens. We had no interest in running into one of those wandering cows on a road where a bar, a humble motel, and a few trailers at Rachel — and whatever glows at Area 51 — give off the only light for 100 kilometers.
As we were leaving the Extraterrestrial Highway where it merges with civilization at a little crossroads (with a gas station!) named Ash Springs, we got one last photographic “hit,” as Carol likes to call it. I’ll leave it to her image to the left to explain what I mean.
There would be no shortage of lights once we reached our destination in the Las Vegas Valley, far ahead. There’d be millions and millions of lights, pulsating from casinos and grand hotels. Vegas is an abnormal place, as opposed to the paranormal one we left behind.
By the way, if you, like me, never saw the movie, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” you’ll wonder to what the little title to this posting refers. Substituting my initials for the lost and lovable little alien’s in the movie, it refers to the device that E.T. cobbles together from scraps around his young friend Elliott’s house. Succeeding, he announces, “E.T. phone home!”
The line ranks 15th on the American Film Institute’s list of the most memorable movie quotes of all time. Since I can’t stand such references that don’t slake your curiosity by telling you what finished first, I’ll do so: It’s “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” spoken by Clark Gable in the U.S. Civil War classic, “Gone With the Wind.”
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Slake. To satisfy, especially as in quenching one’s thirst.
Tungsten. A grayish-white metal, mined for use in electrical filaments and acid formulas, as well as other industrial purposes. Also called “wolfram,” it carries the chemical symbol “W.”
Varmint. An undesirable critter, especially one that preys on livestock or otherwise makes a farmer or rancher’s life miserable.