San Francisco Examiner
Sunday, May 26, 1996
Page A2

UFO gimmick polarizes Nevada town

Extraterrestrial Highway brings tourists - some locals make money, some regret changes

Gordon Dillow

RACHEL, Nev. - A lot of folks in this dot-on-a-map town say it used to be a pretty nice place to live - until the aliens came.

Not that life in this tiny high-desert community of about 100 people was ever exactly luxurious. A dusty, windblown collection of mobile homes and old pickups and tumbleweeds whistling across dirt yards, Rachel is 50 sunbaked, desolate miles away from the nearest school, the nearest cop or the nearest anything else.

But if the people in Rachel were far from the rest of the world, they were always close to one another.

The aliens changed all that. Now some folks in this town 110 miles northwest of Las Vegas are looking at each other with anger and resentment and even a little fear.

Rachel, you see, is the unofficial capital city of Nevada's newly designated Extraterrestrial Highway, a promotional scheme hatched by state officials to lure tourists to this tourist-poor area by hyping Highway 375's reputation for frequent space-alien sightings.

But while some people in Rachel are busily counting up the tourist dollars, others worry that their quiet little town is being overwhelmed by what they call "kooks" - people who want to see spaceships, people who think they've been abducted by aliens, and even people who want to be. "We have a lot of people who come here looking to be abducted," says La Rae Fletcher, 63, a waitress at the town's only cafe. "They want to be taken up in a spaceship."

As far as Fletcher is concerned, if somebody thinks they can come to Rachel and book a warp-speed trip to Venus or Alpha Centauri or wherever, well, that's their business. After all, she herself has seen some strange things in the sky - including an oblong-shaped thing with little portholes that she says she spotted just a few months ago.

But it's all just a little too much for some Rachel residents.

"I think we're getting a lot of lowlifes around here," says Rita Potter, 67, a 10-year resident and a firm nonbeliever in aliens and UFOs and all that stuff. "Everybody locks their doors now; that's something we never had to do before."

"The alien thing has really divided the town," laments Harold Singer, 34, a truck mechanic and longtime Rachel resident who recently came back to town after a long absence - and who, to his amazement, found himself in the middle of an internecine battle over aliens. "Now when I go see friends I haven't seen for a few years, I never know if I'm gonna get a handshake or a shotgun pointed in my face."

Boiled down to its essence, it's that same old battle of development vs. the status quo that so often wracks communities as they battle over proposed housing projects or malls or theme parks.

Except here the struggle is over aliens from outer space - and aliens from places like California.

Now, because of the aliens, people here are worrying about traffic, strangers, the potential for crime - in short, everything people came way out here to get away from in the first place.

Rachel landed in this alien controversy by virtue of being the only cluster of human existence on the entire 98-mile length of Highway 375, which skirts Nellis Air Force Base and the mysterious, heavily guarded Area 51, the U.S. government's top-secret aircraft test site.

It's a place where strange lights from secret aircraft are an almost nightly occurrence.

The test site has been here since the late 1940s, but Rachel is a more recent arrival. It was founded in the 1970s by D.C. Day, who came out from Tennessee to start an alfalfa farm.

There was a time when about 200 people lived in Rachel, back when Union Carbide was still operating a tungsten mine a few miles north. But the mine closed and the town started to wither.

Then came the rumors about aliens.

It all started ...

It started in earnest in 1989, when a man who claimed to be a former government physicist announced that he had been hired to work on an extraterrestrial spacecraft the U.S. government was keeping at a site near Area 51. That, along with regular news reports about strange goings-on in the desert sky, was enough to bring a steady stream of hard-core UFO buffs to Highway 375.

The idea to rename the highway started, strangely enough, in the Orange County suburb of Los Angeles. A couple of years back, a North Las Vegas electrician and state assemblyman named Bob Price was visiting his daughter in Newport Beach when he saw a Larry King TV show about Area 51 and the aliens who supposedly infested Highway 375.

"A light came on in my head," says Price, 59 - a light that Price cheerfully admits spelled out "Tourism!"

Price went home and introduced a bill in the legislature to rename the road the Extraterrestrial Highway. It sailed through the Assembly, but cooler - or crankier - heads in the Senate scotched the idea, calling it "frivolous."

Then Gov. Bob Miller and the Nevada Commission on Tourism got into the act, and the highway was renamed without legislative action. This month, amid howling 40 mph winds, the governor and various other dignitaries and movie stars - the stars, including actor Jeff Goldblum, were there to promote an upcoming Twentieth Century Fox movie about aliens - rode out to Rachel on buses to formally dedicate the new signs.

Unfortunately for Rachel residents, most locals were excluded from the dedication ceremony, which has left a lot of people sore at the governor.

All that aside, if tourism is the goal, it's working.

"I can remember when if we had two cars a day pass by here, we figured we were seeing a lot of traffic," says Fletcher, who has lived here since 1976 - which is to say, since two years before the town had electricity or telephones or even a name. "Now we're seeing 50 or 75 a day."

Who's making money

The primary economic beneficiaries of the whole alien thing are Joe and Pat Travis, owners of the Little A"Le'Inn - pronounced "alien" - bar-cafe-motel. The Travises moved to Rachel in 1988 and bought the town's only cafe, the Rachel Bar & Grill, which already had gone through 10 owners, none of whom was able to make a living with it. Then the Travises had an idea.

"This UFO thing had come up, and I told my wife that every business needs a gimmick," recalls Joe, a bearded 57-year-old former carpenter who said he has had a seemingly extraterrestrial experience in the bar - a strange light that penetrated a steel door. "So we kicked some names around and came up with the Little A"Le'Inn."

The Little A"Le'Inn is ground zero for the Rachel alien craze.

Through the bar's doors come an increasingly steady stream of tourists and UFO buffs and would-be alien abductees from all over the nation and the world.

Senior citizens

A couple of hundred yards from the Little A"Le'Inn, at the Rachel senior citizen's center, questions about aliens and alien-seekers prompt some serious eye-rolling.

"We're a lot more leery than we used to be," says Edith Grover, 76, a silver-haired, graceful woman who has lived here for 16 years.

"Have I seen an alien?" says Lois Messier, 60, who moved here with her late husband 14 years ago. "Sure! I was married to one!"

The ladies all laugh.

The senior citizens' center folks are reluctant to specifically criticize their neighbors to an outsider.

Some folks think the alien craze is only going to get bigger - especially after the aliens make a fully public appearance, as some people expect.