It's not the Twilight Zone, it's Nevada UFOs: Journey down the Extra Terrestrial Highway to discover life beyond the stars. Or maybe just grab a beer at the Little A'Le'Inn.

September 01, 1996|By Pat Craig | Pat Craig,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

In the desert darkness, the night sky is alive with zillions of stars, cosmic punctuation marks that resemble bears and drinking dippers.

And sometimes, late at night in the darkness north of Mercury, Nev., when you are sitting on the hood of a rented Pontiac, enjoying a Diet Pepsi and staring into the sky, the stars move.

Sometimes, on the quiet desert floor on the cusp of a secret government test site, you could swear the moving stars were something else; something like flying saucers, maybe, or visitors from another planet.

"People come out from cities, where they can't see the stars like they can in the pristine skies of the desert," says Glenn Campbell, maven of all that is secret and mysterious in the southern Nevada desert. "So they come out here, wanting to see UFOs, and they notice a lot of shooting stars, and planes and flares. You know, they can be whatever you want them to be."

So, are they shooting stars, or the armored pods from some alien mother ship?

Asking that is about the same as asking which joint on the Las Vegas Strip has the best $3.99 prime rib. It doesn't really matter. When it comes to chasing aliens on the southern Nevada desert, suspension of disbelief is the key to everything. Las Vegas was ** built on it, the Extra Terrestrial Highway is paved with it, and, if you saw "Independence Day," you not only suspended it, but you also had to completely abandon it to enjoy the show.

So, leave your suspicion and logic at the curb, buddy, and get into the Pontiac. We're gonna get taken for a ride.

We're headed for Area 51, or as close as you can get to the patch of desert the government currently treats the way it used to treat mainland China -- a place that doesn't exist.

If you paid attention during "Independence Day," you already know Area 51 is where the government keeps captured aliens and spaceships. And, depending on whom you talk to along Nevada Highway 375, the Extra Terrestrial Highway, Area 51 is either a secret saucer test site or the place where the Air Force's top guns test domestically produced aircraft.

The UFO angle was forged in 1989 when a man named Robert Lazar went on television and claimed he had worked on some captured alien flying saucers to determine how they used Element 115, a super-heavy substance not found on Earth, in their propulsion system. He worked near Area 51.

Skeptic changed mind

"At first, when I came out here, I was perfectly willing to be the skeptic and debunk everything out there," says Campbell, 36, relaxing in his Las Vegas apartment squeezed between the casinos and McCarran Airport, where Area 51 workers are allegedly ferried to and from their jobs in unmarked jetliners. "But now, I've come to admire what a good job the government has done to keep the whole thing a secret."

Campbell, who is making his living selling UFO information and his own writings on the territory surrounding the government's secret site, seems of two minds when it comes to cosmic critters and government secrecy. On the one hand, he feels the government is being almost tauntingly unaccountable by keeping the area so tightly secured; on the other, he knows if the government turned the place into a kind of Happy Alien Village theme park, he'd be out of work.

"All they would really have to do is invite some reporters in there for lunch, say, 'OK, here it is. Yes, we do a lot of secret work here and we can't talk about it.' That would be it, end of story," he says.

Instead, the government commandeered two hills where people could hike up and see the air base at Groom Dry Lake. And, the entire area is patrolled by "camouflage dudes," men in fatigues who drive around in unmarked jeeps and chase off visitors who have ventured too close to the restricted area.

Knowing a public relations coup when it flies past them, the state of Nevada officially renamed its Highway 375 the Extra Terrestrial Highway last spring.

Some legislators had tried to do it a couple of times before, but were laughed down by a more sober element who thought the whole idea was stupid. This time, however, the renaming came just as the release of "Independence Day" loomed.

"The Fox movie company essentially purchased the highway [by lobbying for the renaming]," says Campbell. "They would have bought Area 51 if they could, but they couldn't, so they bought the highway instead."

Suddenly, what had been the domain of the UFOgnoscenti became public property. And everybody, rather than just those with friends in high places, became privy to the road lore. They knew that on Wednesday nights, if you went to the black mailbox and thought loving thoughts, the UFOs would come out and dance. They knew all you had to do was look skyward and the world of flying saucers would unfold before your eyes.

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