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October 23, 2014

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Area 51 declassification could lead to sightings of … tourists

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The New York Times / Isaac Brekken

Alien dummies model t-shirts for sale along with other extraterrestrial-themed souvenirs at the Little A’Le’Inn, located nine miles up the road from the military testing base known as Area 51, in Rachel, Nev., Aug. 20, 2013. Last week, the CIA released a classified report officially confirming the existence of the military testing base famously rumored to have researched UFOs and alien life, though residents of the area have long known about it.

Area 51

Alien dummies model t-shirts for sale along with other extraterrestrial-themed souvenirs at the Little A'Le'Inn, located nine miles up the road from the military testing base known as Area 51, in Rachel, Nev., Aug. 20, 2013. Last week, the CIA released a classified report officially confirming the existence of the military testing base famously rumored to have researched UFOs and alien life, though residents of the area have long known about it. Launch slideshow »

The Little A’Le’Inn has been an unlikely tourist destination in the Mojave Desert for nearly 25 years, selling souvenirs — from green alien coffee cups to E.T. Highway T-shirts — dedicated to the notion that we are not alone. Understandably.

Nine miles up a nearby dirt road is the top-secret military installation known as Area 51, whose murky provenance fueled decades of speculation about extraterrestrial aliens and kept the UFO-hunting tourists coming.

Or rather, the top-secret military installation not known as Area 51 — at least until recently, when the CIA released a classified report on the history of the U-2 spy plane, which officially acknowledged what everyone here has long known: There is a secret military testing base at Groom Lake called Area 51. It is 150 miles north by car from Las Vegas, in a vast expanse of utterly empty scabland, desert and mountain, and signs reading “No gas station next 150 miles.”

The report, released after eight years of prodding by a George Washington University archivist researching the history of the U-2, made no mention of colonies of alien life, suggesting that the secret base was dedicated to the relatively more mundane task of testing spy planes.

But no matter. Even this little bit of validation was welcome in Rachel, which claimed a population of 57 as of a recent Tuesday, and where the tourists have not been coming at quite the pace they once did. Movies and television shows that once fed an international fixation with aliens secreted at Area 51 — from “The X Files” to movies like “Independence Day” and “Paul” — are, with the passage of time and the inevitable rise of new subjects of national interest, not quite as gripping as they once were.

“We have a guest book, but it’s gone by the wayside. Shelby, do you know where our guest book has disappeared to?” Pat Travis, 70, the owner of the Little A’Le’Inn, asked a waitress behind the bar.

“It’s really strange to not have it out for all of our customers to sign,” Travis said with a sigh. “Would you bring it to me?”

Travis — who recounted being woken up one night by a bright light shot from a UFO that came through the center of the back door — said she expects the CIA acknowledgement to bring a rush of customers through her doors.

They will want to know how to find Area 51 and how to spot a UFO in the pitch-black night skies here, and they will shop from the shelves lined with green alien shot glasses, coffee cups and guitar picks and even Area 51 Wine (produced for the inn by a winery in Northern California).

“Every time there is another story out, people come out,” she said. “They want to know how to get to that area, where it is. The more there is, the more you talk about it, the more it goes on and on.”

Rachel was fairly deserted the other day, save for a family from Seattle on a drive from Las Vegas to Yosemite that made a UFO detour at the urging of their 16-year-old, Hank Reavis. His arms full of Area 51 T-shirts as his father reached for his wallet, Hank said he wanted to see for himself the place featured in movies like “Paul.”

Asked whether they would visit Area 51 itself, Hank’s father, Gil, a retired logger, answered “Yes.” Hank corrected him.

“We won’t get in there, Dad,” he said.

That observation was confirmed after a 9-mile drive up Back Gate Road to a back entrance of the base. Or at least, one assumes it was the back entrance to the base, given the six WARNING! signs prohibiting picture-taking or going beyond the two guard gates with flashing red lights.

“If you pass the gate, they can shoot you, I think,” said Niklas Gartler, 17, of Vienna, who came here with his uncle from Los Angeles.

Well maybe not shoot; the signs promise six months in prison for trespassers. The greater threat, in truth, might be the rattlesnakes that infest the roads and trails here during the hot summer months.

The report, “The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and Oxcart Programs, 1954-1974,” was released, albeit in a redacted form, at the request of Jeffrey T. Richelson, a senior fellow with the National Security Archive at George Washington University. “There certainly was — as you would expect — no discussion of little green men here,” Richelson said. “This is a history of the U-2. The only overlap is the discussion of the U-2 flights and UFO sightings, the fact that you had these high-flying aircraft in the air being the cause of some of the sightings.”

Richelson said he was not looking for information on Area 51. “That was sort of a bonus,” he said.

People here do not seem to take themselves too seriously. The prevailing attitude is reflected in the name of the restaurant, the Little A’Le’Inn (say it aloud). It sits right off Extraterrestrial Highway, as they call state Route 375. There is an “Earthlings welcome” sign above the parking lot.

But everyone seems assured that aliens are here, that UFOs are dancing through the desert skies, and that the government has never been straight about what it was up to.

“I never had any doubt,” said Pam Kinsey, a housekeeper here. “I watch the lights every morning. I get up at 4:30 to send my kid to school. I know they are there.”

Hank’s mother, Sally, said she was keeping an open mind.

“But how can we be the only ones?” she asked. “I’ll tell you this: They certainly picked a beautiful state to come to. They couldn’t have done much better than Nevada.”

Howard Baral, a Los Angeles entertainment accountant and Niklas’ uncle, said he had made the trip out here — it is a three-hour drive from Las Vegas — to make his nephew happy.

“Since he was a little kid, he has always been enthralled with alien lore and Area 51,” Baral said. “His dream was to visit it. It wasn’t my first choice.”

That said, Baral said he was inclined to believe that there were aliens out there. “It’s the middle of nowhere,” he said. “What’s the Air Force doing in the middle of nowhere?”

Annie Jacobson, author of a book on the history of the area, said she doubted that the acknowledgment would dampen interest in what lies behind the fences.

“It will only make people more curious, ask more questions,” she said.

All of which is why Travis thinks it is time to get that guest book on display at the entrance of her little box of a restaurant.

“You are going to find people coming in here from different country, different places,” she said, thumbing through pages of signatures from the past. “This needs to get back out. We need to get our little table out.”

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