Are we alone in the universe? Time to visit Area 51 in a car that’s half smoke machine, half tank
“It was a flying saucer, silver and it was sitting hovering over a telephone pole. If my brother was alive today he would tell you the same story. I totally believe it. You really think this is all that exists? You’re very shallow-minded.”
After barely an hour on the Extraterrestrial Highway we’re hearing, unequivocally, that otherworldly beings are out here too. It’s just hard to take it seriously when Pam, the lady telling us her story, is doing so from behind a grotesque alien mask.
“We were playing hide and go seek in my grandma’s back yard, and however long it takes a 10-year-old to count to 100… that’s how long I saw it. There were four white globes in a diamond shape, and they all shot off in sequence. That was in 1974. And I remember wearing shorts.”
Words: Stephen Dobie // Photography: Rowan Horncastle
Nevada State Route 375 (NV 375) runs through desert for 100 miles (161km), a couple of hours north of Las Vegas. The vast nothingness either side of the arrow-straight road is tangible. Except… it’s not. There’s life out there, you just can’t see it.
Namely Area 51, more prosaically a US military base that tests experimental aircraft, with an aggressively protected perimeter fence greeting anyone who ventures too far from the main highway. Stray further into the wilderness and you’ll have a hostile rendezvous with armed, camouflaged gentlemen (known as ‘camos’) in unmarked pickups; attempt to send a drone out for a better glimpse at what’s going on and it’ll bump into an invisible barrier in the sky.
Yet for all the secrecy and hostility, the state wants people to come here. NV 375 was renamed the Extraterrestrial Highway in the Nineties to capitalise on how many UFO sightings take place in the area, making a small tourist industry out of those who believe, or those who wish to cast a cynical eye on believers. Rowan and I fall into a camp somewhere in the middle.
We’ve come to get a better grasp of what goes on here, with the help of locals like Pam. On the off-chance we do find other lifeforms – and they’ve not come in peace – we’ve armed ourselves with a fairly special vehicle. The Rezvani Tank is a luxury 4x4 that plonks hip-hop-video styling on top of a Jeep Wrangler chassis.
Its designer wanted it to fill the hole left by the Hummer, to look more rough ’n’ tumble than the Escalades, Range Rovers and Bentaygas crowding the market. Job done, I’d say. It’s a punchily proportioned vehicle, one that should give us more than a semblance of protection whether we happen to meet camos or actual aliens.
Not least because this is the Military Edition. It’s bulletproof, bombproof and has a night-vision system, so you can feel safely cocooned inside as you look for life after dark. You can even electrify the doorhandles. Should you need to forge a getaway, there’s a 500bhp 6.4-litre V8 up front and a box of tacks and a smokescreen to deploy at the rear, so you can blind and disable your assailants like it’s an R-rated episode of Wacky Races. The latter, it must be said, is heroically funny to use.
It attracts a lot of attention out here, even among those who swear they’ve seen actual alien craft. Linda Looney – yep, really – greets it with glee at the Alien Research Centre, a tourist-aimed shop at the road’s eastern starting point in Crystal Springs. She plays her part to perfection.
“This highway is known for thousands of sightings,” she confirms.
“As far as little green men, I don’t know about little green men. But lights. Lots of lights. We had people that were parked out here overnight and one man said he saw a disc hovering out over those mountains for 20 minutes, and then tschooow, all of a sudden it just takes off. About a half hour later it came back and hovered out there again. That was probably a year and a half ago.
“One guy across from Rachel out there saw about three orbs in the sky. Jets came from Area 51 and the orbs dispersed. The jets went, and the orbs just came back again. They did that for a coupla hours, back and forth.”
We wager – as we suspect most of sound mind would – that all these odd objects and lights in the sky might have more than a little to do with the experimental aircraft tested nearby. The Global Hawk drone is just one outlandish-looking device developed in these parts, one that could easily send your brain into a scramble if you glimpsed it with no prior expectation of what goes on here.
“Living here, we see all kinds of aircraft, and I can sit out on my deck at home and see the lights from them. But I’ve also been out in the desert with a friend, taking pictures of the stars and when I look back up, this thing goes tssch tssch tssch (she draws a triangle shape) and just disappears. I’ve asked Air Force guys, ‘Do we have anything that can move that fast and sharp?’ and they’ve said no.”
Conspiracy theories say there are remains of crashed alien spacecraft. Or even working UFOs the secret service take on test flights
Does Linda believe? “I would not say no.” Would she like to actually meet someone (or something)? “Who’s to say I haven’t already? A lady visited here, she was saying they’re already here among us. There aren’t that many, there’s only like a thousand on the planet, and she said they don’t look typically like you and I, their skin is paler and they’re usually very tall or very short. They fit in amongst us humans, they just look a little different.” Without a moment’s hesitation, I glance at Rowan. He’s quite tall…
Not wanting to pose an awkward question, I hop back into the Rezvani, nearly pulling my arm out of its socket with a hurried grab of the 140kg armoured door. With the Tank’s transmission in rear-drive mode, I spin it round rather childishly in Linda’s gravel car park and she mockingly wags her finger. It’ll do yobbish stuff well, not least because of the V8 bellow that accompanies any slight prod of throttle, but this Military Edition has far too high a centre of gravity to give it any appetite for corners. Good job this highway doesn’t appear to have a single one.
Indeed, this is proof an adventure doesn’t need a conventionally interesting road or a conventionally sporting car. Beneath the Tank’s aggressive face is a deeply likeable vehicle, one that takes a 4x4 and spends $200,000 or so developing it to the nth degree of its natural abilities, not attempting to cancel them out and act the role of something else, like a similarly priced Lamborghini Urus.
While the Extraterrestrial Highway’s been so named for 22 years – and the hotels and shops that occasionally spring up in the wilderness are older still – there’s been extra focus on the area in recent years. Trump’s government has led to new policies on what’s sent into space and – more obtusely – an increased schtum about what’s kept in the large hangars that reside in Nevada, which conspiracy theories have long declared contain the remains of crashed alien spacecraft. Or even working UFOs the secret service take on test flights, depending on who you listen to. The intense arming of the guards you’ll stumble across if your journey goes awry only adds fuel to the fire.
Not wanting to go wrong, we recruit a local to guide us to the back gate of Area 51, just as the sun’s setting and the sky’s turning dark. “Remember Roadhouse, with Patrick Swayze? My mom named me after him,” says Dalton, 25. Until recently, he was the youngest of 60 inhabitants in Rachel, the only town that pockmarks NV 375 on a map.
“As soon as I saw that truck pull up I went ‘Ahhh! It’s a wet dream on wheels!’ I’ve got a 429 Cobra Jet running top fuel back home; my grandpa worked at Ford since he was little.” Safe to say Dalton loves the Tank.
He’s only been in Rachel for seven months, but is fully embracing its culture by gleefully taking visitors to the gate. He’s surprisingly tentative about what lives in the skies above his home town, though.
“Working at the bar, there’s one story I’ve heard consistently from travellers, and it’s the same story every time. They’ll be coming into town along the highway and in the last 30-mile (48km) stretch they’ll see three red lights, keeping pace with them as they’re going. About 10 miles (16km) out of town they go whoosh and take off, but they stay in formation the whole time. I’ve had that from Australians, from Brits, from Irishmen… I’ve heard it from so many people it’s not even funny. But it’s the only consistent story.”
Eyes peeled for red lights, we turn right from the Highway, and travel 10 miles (16km) down a rough and ready dirt track until we arrive at the gate, clothed in darkness save for two searingly bright spotlights.
The guards aren’t visible, but they’re aware of our presence. “I guarantee they already knew we were coming by the time we turned off the main road,” says Dalton.
“Don’t touch the gate, don’t try to cross it, don’t set your camera on it… I’ve been stupid enough, I’ve gone under it trying to show off to some girl. It’s like ‘No, honey, they ain’t gonna shoot me! Look, no bullet holes on me!’” Either it’s a tall tale, or the frequency of his visits mean the camos don’t feel the need to worry too much about his mischief. He’s been fun company, but as he departs for the local bonfire (naturally), his guard has clearly dropped after some time around us and the Tank.
“I’m a sceptic ’til I see it. If you do any research on the whole alien thing, the Fermi paradox is one thing I’m fairly stuck on. It’s basically stating that since our universe is expanding as much as it is, any sentient race that could have been making its way here, the amount of time from when it left its home planet to get here, versus now, is continually getting longer. ’Cos the universe is forever expanding outwards.
“I may be a hillbilly but I have a decent grasp of physics. There’s got to be other intelligent races out there. If you look at us from an outside perspective we’re basically still animals. We can’t even have peace with our goddamn selves, why the f**k would another race want to come here as well? ‘No, they’re separated off into factions, until they become one unified thing they can f**k off.’”
It’s the sanest thing I’ve heard all day. As he leaves us, muddled in thought, the guards signal we’re still under watch by pulsing the security lights before switching them off entirely, leaving us dwarfed by the starriest sky we’ve ever seen and the Tank suddenly resembling a landed UFO ready to abduct dithering bystanders.
As we get lost trying to identify constellations, we’re startled by the same whooshing noise every NV 375 resident has so far tried to impersonate, as four bright orange circles pierce the sky. My head says it’s the afterburners of two fighter jets, out on night-time exercises from Area 51. But my heart? It’s no longer quite so sure.