Sunday, Sept. 7, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
The people here love to drink booze, shoot guns and ride dirt bikes. They can do them all simultaneously without risking arrest as they come and go from the A’Le’Inn, the only bar and the lone business within 50 miles of this desert outpost.
The census says 98 people live in Rachel, 150 hard miles north of Las Vegas. The locals can count only about 65 residents, an eclectic cast of characters sharing live-and-let-live values.
There’s Connie West, whose family has owned the double-wide trailer that is the A’Le’Inn for 20 years. It’s more than a bar. It’s a diner, motel, gift shop and the social center of the community.
There’s Sandra Hockenberry, the barkeeper, and her boyfriend, J.D. Smalls, who provides the firewood for the town. There are Ken Langley and Glenn Nelson, retired guys from Georgia who traveled in a motor home across the country before deciding five weeks ago to claim Rachel as their home. Everybody has welcomed Ken and Glenn.
Jay Keller is the quiet handyman who drinks Dr Pepper and kisses girls’ hands in in a courtly manner. Steve Medlin owns a 900-square-mile ranch and stops in to pick up a six-pack of Bud Light. Cody Theising is the teenage waiter, Connie’s son and the heir to the inn.
Shaggy-haired Bob Clabaugh, a retired commercial pilot, moved here a decade ago to escape Las Vegas, and spends his days sipping Michelob and chatting.
They all choose to live here for about the same reason. They have rejected conventional lifestyles for this libertarian’s paradise, a place free of judgments and outside intrusions except for the stream of tourists hoping to spot a UFO.
The closest store is in Alamo, 50 miles east on the Extraterrestrial Highway back to U.S. 93. That’s where you finally reach the nearest school, the nearest cop and the nearest gas station, which is attached to a small grocery store. If you really want to shop, its back to Las Vegas or 150 miles to Mesquite.
There is no cell phone coverage and no cable TV in Rachel.
It doesn’t get much quieter or much more desolate than Rachel.
It’s here that somebody wants to build a 2,000-bed prison.
• • •
On Thursday many of the residents of Rachel will meet at the A’Le’Inn to caravan 110 miles to Pioche, the Lincoln County seat, to try to stare down the proposal to put a prison four miles from their community center.
The prison lights alone will ruin the gorgeous sunsets and stargazing available where there isn’t a man-made light taller than a front porch within 100 miles.
The man who wants to build the prison on 1,000 acres here also wants to build a housing tract next to it called Lincoln County Estates. Over the years there’s been talk about building a solar plant and an old folks’ home on the land, but those turned out to be just rumors.
But the prison talk is real and the Lincoln County Planning Commission is being asked by the developer to grant a special use permit allowing a medium-security prison.
• • •
Rachel is the epicenter of conspiracy theories and UFO sightings because of its proximity to the secrecy-shrouded Area 51, a government testing facility.
This bizarre slice of American pop culture provides the town’s economic foundation, such as it is.
A handmade welcome sign greets earthlings and aliens entering Rachel. The Inn, its walls decorated with grainy photos of alleged spaceships, sells all types of souvenirs featuring oval-headed green creatures.
Twenty miles east of town, Steve Medlin keeps the notorious black mailbox, which is actually white, where you can leave a letter for your friends from outer space. It is dimpled from gunfire.
The nearby stop sign has also been fired upon, as has every road sign on the Extraterrestrial Highway, the 98-mile stretch of two-lane Route 375 that cuts through Rachel.
After a few drinks the locals offer stories about lost time and the appearance of orbs.
Ken Langley is ready for another Jim Beam and ginger ale. He takes his glass behind the bar and pours himself a drink, pausing to mark the notebook that rests atop the beer cooler.
To earn the privilege of pouring your own drinks at the Inn one need only be willing to help out when needed. Ken pitches in behind the bar on busy days. He’ll settle up his tab one of these days. A lot of Rachel operates on the honor system.
• • •
One-acre parcels are available at Lincoln County Estates for $16,500. Snickering locals will sell you a spot a lot cheaper if you’re just looking for a place to park your trailer.
The developer’s Web site bills the estates as “free from the stressful world of urban living,” pitching a rural lifestyle that “will be preserved forever” and “never fall into the hands of urban developers.”
The man who wants to build the prison and the adjacent homes is Jim Toreson, the owner of Toreson Industries Inc.
He is the most hated man at the A’Le’Inn, where people are so friendly and trusting they greet even reporters with a hug.
Toreson claims he lives most of the time near Rachel, although the locals can’t recall his ever stepping into the Inn. They know he drives a Honda with California tags.
Toreson says he was shocked by the backlash against his plan. He says creating jobs with the prison, and providing residential home sites, will feed off one another and all around help Rachel.
“We are very poor in Rachel,” he says, speaking from a cell phone with a California area code. “We don’t have a gas station. We need economic development. There’s no way I’m going to do harm to the area. It would do more harm to me than everyone else.”
• • •
There are positives to building a private prison in Lincoln County. Or at least one positive.
Lincoln County can use the money. How much the prison would generate in property taxes hasn’t been determined, but anything would help.
The county is bigger than Massachusetts and has a population of only 4,165. Only 2 percent of the land in the county is privately owned and one-third of that gets agricultural exemptions.
Toreson’s plan is to build the prison, find a company to operate it, and then for the state, whose prisons are crowded, to pay to house overflow inmates in Rachel. California has private prisons; Nevada does not.
Clint Wertz, the county planning director, has recommended that the Planning Commission approve the prison. Whatever it decides, the losing side is sure to appeal to the Lincoln County Commission.
The prison would be filled with short-timers. “They are not violent offenders,” Toreson says. “It’s like Martha Stewart when she went to jail.”
The people of Rachel aren’t Martha Stewart fans.
“All these years our children have been so safe, riding bikes and four-wheelers,” says Kay Day, the widow of D.C. Day, one of the founders of the town. “Now, if some idiot escapes, how safe are they going to be?”
Worse than the prison would be everything that comes with it. The traffic on the jackrabbit-carcass-littered highway and the light polluting the night sky. The absolute worst would be the law enforcement that might come to town with some regularity as the population expands. They might even start making residents register their guns.
Plus, nobody wants a prison in his neighborhood.
“It will just ruin our whole way of life,” says Connie West.
“We wouldn’t care if it was some kind of work that people could feel good about,” says resident Bob Clabaugh. “If it was a plant building solar panels or doing something good it would be one thing. But what kind of people want to stand there watching prisoners go from one place to the other?”
• • •
In a few hours the Milky Way will be floating against a pitch-black sky. At the A’Le’Inn, friends are finishing their last beers before heading home for dinner. They’re talking about how everyone minds his own business and helps out when needed. Nobody asks too many questions. It’s nobody’s business who took the dozens of shots at Toreson’s Lincoln County Estates billboard. Nor is it anybody’s business who burned the thing down.
If he’s allowed, and without the support of the residents of Rachel, Toreson may forever change the face of this vast and empty desert.
“I’m sure his grandkids’ kids are set for life,” says Sandra Hockenberry, the bartender. “That money doesn’t matter to us. We have a different level of value.”