In the middle of the Nevadan desert, outside a secretive US military airstrip, I found the worlds strangest social media convention.
Dozens of young, good-looking, often costumed people were running around filming each other with semi-professional video rigs. They were YouTube and Instagram stars or, more often, aspiring stars here to storm Area 51 for the benefit of their followers and free the aliens held captive within. Or at least film themselves talking about it.
Joining them was a ragged army of hundreds of stoners, UFO buffs, punk bands, rubberneckers, European tourists, people with way too much time on their hands, and meme-lords in Pepe the Frog costumes all here because of the Internet, the ironic and the earnest alike, for a party at the end of the earth.
Three months earlier, on 20 June 2019, the podcaster Joe Rogan released an interview with Bob Lazar. Lazar is a cult figure in UFO circles; he claims to have studied flying saucers at Area 51, the classified air force base in Nevada where the US government is rumored by some to make secret contact with extraterrestrial beings.
Rogans millions of listeners heard the interview.
One of those listeners was Matty Roberts, a college student, anime enthusiast and video gamer in Bakersfield, California. Inspired by the Rogan podcast, Roberts created a joke Facebook event: Storm Area 51, They Cant Stop All of Us. According to the plan, people would meet in Rachel, Nevada the closest town to Area 51 in the early morning of 20 September, then swarm the defenses and see for themselves if the government was hiding aliens.
Things snowballed. Within hours, the page had thousands of RSVPs. Within days it had more than a million. The air force warned that things would end badly for anyone attempting a raid. The FBI paid the hapless Matty Roberts a house call.
So he came up with a brilliant pivot: why not channel this momentum into a Burning Man-style music festival in the desert? He joined forces with Connie West, the operator of Rachels sole inn and restaurant, to plan what they called Alienstock.
Then came the first schism. Scornful of the internet interlopers, the Alien Research Center in nearby Hiko, Nevada, decided to host its own Area 51 event the same weekend for serious ufologists.
Roberts and West pressed on. But the town of Rachel (population: 54) lacked the infrastructure to handle thousands of conspiracy theorists and gawkers descending on rural Nevada. The local authorities feared potential calamity: people dying of dehydration in the desert, angry landowners, madmen with guns.
Things snowballed. Within hours, the page had thousands of RSVPs. Within days it had more than a million.
On 10 September, nine days before the event, Roberts backed out. He wanted no involvement in a Fyre Fest 2.0, he told the media. He accused West of being insufficiently prepared for the coming flood. Budweiser offered to sponsor a free, alternative Alienstock event in a safe, clean venue in downtown Las Vegas. Roberts urged people to go there instead.
West refused to cancel the concert in the desert. Shed already sunk thousands of dollars of her own money into the event, she told reporters as she held back tears. Alienstock would happen, she said, whether anyone liked it or not.
Now there were three rival events all happening on the same weekend one in Las Vegas, another in Rachel and a third in Hiko. No one had any idea how many people were coming.
I came equipped with a duffel bag of Hawaiian shirts and a case of vape cartridges, which I hoped to use as currency in the event of civilizational collapse in the desert.
But the desert would wait. The Area 51 Celebration in downtown Las Vegas did not get off to a promising start. When I arrived, shortly after 7pm, the outdoor venue heavily bedecked with glowing neon alien signage was mostly empty except for cops and local newscasters. A DJ blasted dubstep to a bare dancefloor. The venue even had a swimming pool, bathed in green light and watched by a bored-looking lifeguard.
I feared it might be a long night. I ordered a whiskey-and-water; the bartender filled a plastic stadium cup to the brim.
Then people started trickling in. Everyone was wearing their best alien-themed rave attire: one woman wore a shiny, and discomfitingly rubbery, head-to-toe alien costume. Another had a Rick-and-Morty-patterned dress. Three men tore up the dancefloor in matching alien-motif onesies. Someone carried a sign that said GREEN LIVES MATTER.
I talked to two people whod driven six hours from Tucson, Arizona, on a whim to attend. One was wearing a Flat Earth Society T-shirt, though he said it was ironic.
I spied Matty Roberts in the center of a swirling mass of people, holding court. He was wearing a Slayer hat and black T-shirt; his long, dark hair flowed majestically down his back. He looked like a heavy metal-listening, Mountain Dew-drinking samurai lord, surrounded by courtiers and supplicants. I fought my way over.
He was in high spirits. Im absolutely amazed at how things turned out, and its incredible, he told me as he signed autographs. I opened my mouth to ask a follow-up question but he was swallowed up again by the crowd.
By around 9pm, there were a couple hundred people jerking spasmodically to dubstep.
A woman who introduced herself as Shereel (C-H-E-R-Y-L) said she was happy to be at the rave but disappointed she couldnt make the event in the desert.
This is the first time since Roswell that people like us are all coming together, she said. Even if nothing happens, we tried.
The DJ interrupted his set to thank Matty Roberts and give a special shout-out to Bob Lazar. The crowd cheered.
A warm wind was whipping through the arena. As the wind buffeted us and the rave lights flickered overhead, you could almost believe a UFO really was about to descend.
The next morning I got in my rental car and headed north.
The outskirts of Las Vegas casinos, strip clubs, endless billboards for personal injury lawyers dropped away rapidly. Now there was just desert in every direction, stunning in its vastness and austere beauty. Mountains towered over the highway, surrounded by hilly plains of cacti and scrub.
Soon most human settlement was gone. There was nothing alongside the highway no strip malls, no fast food joints, and, I noticed, worryingly few gas stations. I had at least two hours of driving ahead, though I knew I was going in the right direction: every vehicle I saw was a police car, an RV or a news satellite van.
As I drove I listened to rightwing talk radio, then Top 40, then country, then a Bible discussion call-in show, then some Spanish-language stations, then static. A talk station interviewed the mother of a police officer killed by an undocumented immigrant. Sean Hannity made fun of the climate strike, and every talkshow discussed the New York Times recent, partly retracted accusation against Brett Kavanaugh. It was, they pointed out, yet another sign of bias in the liberal media.
Soon most human settlement was gone. There wasnt even anything alongside the highway.
The first gas station was bustling with people buying water and jerry cans of gas. In the parking lot there was a camper van marked AREA 51 HERE WE COME.
Finally, two hours north of Las Vegas, I saw the exit for State Route 375 also known, since its formal renaming in 1996, as Extraterrestrial Highway.
The US government owns thousands of square miles of land in northern Nevada. The area is big enough, and empty enough, to detonate a nuclear bomb which the government has, on hundreds of occasions.
The Groom Lake airfield Area 51 is part of a massive complex of military installations. Their activities are classified and the skies above are restricted air space. Little is known about what goes on there, though the air force tests experimental stealth aircraft, which may account for some UFO sightings.
Of course, military pilots are themselves known to report seeing what they refer to as unexplained aerial phenomena. (Even the New York Times has reported on it.)
In the 2000s, Congress established an advanced aviation threat identification program to study the problem. The program wasnt classified, but it operated with the knowledge of an extremely limited number of officials, according to Politico. The then Nevada senator Harry Reid helped secure the funding.
Thats the end of the history lesson. The reader is free to investigate further and come to their own conclusions.
On the way to Rachel, I stopped at the rival festival at the Alien Research Center in Hiko. It was heavy on souvenir sellers, though there were some hardcore ufologists. A group called the Mutual UFO Network (Mufon) gave me a pamphlet offering certification to be a field investigator.
If anything, the ufologists were more the exception than the rule. I had expected most Area 51 Stormers to be conspiracy theorists, 4chan types, or people on the fringe political spectrum, but a lot probably most were normies on a lark, or foreigners in search of peak Americana.
Two young men one Swiss German, the other Japanese told me they were friends whod met at an English as a second language program in New York. A group of Britons told me theyd been taking a road trip up the west coast, heard about the Area 51 business, and decided to take a detour.
This was a common theme: Well, Id been thinking about taking a road trip anyway, sooo
When my car turned the last switchback into the valley toward Area 51, the car radio, theretofore static, suddenly started blasting Smetanas M Vlast in eerie, crystal-perfect sound. The aliens, it seemed, were classical music buffs.
Rachel came into view a tiny, one-horse town besieged by cars and tents and camper vans. Including the cops, EMTs, festival organizers, and so on, there looked to be a couple thousand people not the two million who had RSVPd to the Facebook event, nor the 30,000 the sheriff feared, but more than I thought would follow through.
Contrary to the wild warnings about a Fyre festival 2.0, things appeared mostly under control. Festival marshals waved me along to an assigned lot.
My neighbors at the parking lot-slash-campsite were a punk band called Foreign Life Form. They werent part of the planned music lineup, one Life Form explained as he ate Chef Boyardee room-temperature from a can, but when they heard about Alienstock, it seemed like fate. They were trying to find the concert organizer to get added to the billing. To help seal the deal theyd painted their faces and arms green.
My other neighbor, an erudite, joint-smoking history podcaster from Oregon, wore a T-shirt that said Take me to your dealer. He and his son had had the shirts custom-made; the Life Forms were disappointed they couldnt buy some.
Getting to the actual entrance to Area 51 took another 20 minutes of driving on an unmarked, unpaved road. Clouds of chalk billowed behind the cars coming and going.
At the end of the road was a drab military checkpoint flanked by concertina wire and threatening signs. The sign prohibiting photography was clearly a dead letter.
Rotating shifts of law enforcement officers of every variety sheriffs deputies, state troopers, game wardens, park rangers kept a watchful eye on everything. They seemed relaxed, though, and looked like they were having as good a time as the ostensible Stormers. After all, this was an excuse for them to hang out at Area 51, too.
(To my knowledge, no one actually raided Area 51, besides the two Dutch YouTubers who had tried to sneak through the perimeter two weeks earlier and ended up in jail instead.)
In addition to YouTube vloggers and Instagram influencers, there were more than a few actual journalists. Watching them scurry around diligently with tape recorders reminded me that I needed to find a Quirky Character who could give On-Scene Color. A talkative UFO buff would be ideal but the other journalists had already claimed most of the good ones.
I couldnt avoid noticing a pair of men in huge, papier-mache Pepe the Frog heads. The vloggers loved them, and the Pepes enjoyed mugging for the cameras. My God, a girl said, theyre adorable.
Under their frog heads, the Pepes were two young Latino guys from California. When I asked them what they thought of the frogs association with the alt-right, one seemed confused. The other nodded in recognition but claimed he just thought the symbol was fun.
He said, Its all about the
Memes, finished the other. They both laughed.
I asked if it wasnt weird for them, as Latinos, to embrace a symbol affiliated with white nationalists.
Yeah, I mean, theyre a little, like, extreme for me sometimes, one said. But sometimes you feel like theyre right about some stuff.
I said, Like what?
Like clown world.
Like the idea that were all living in a world of clowns, he clarified.
Tendrils of fog hung over Alienstock. The temperature was dropping fast and the sun was low and pink in the sky. The sunset was sublime but I had a long drive to my motel ahead and a sick feeling that I should have left half an hour ago.
I bade farewell to the history podcaster. He reminded me that the area was open grazing land. Watch out for the steer, he said. They go right out into the road.
The next morning I debated whether to squeeze in another trip out to Alienstock and couldnt quite find the willpower. It was time to get back to civilization, I decided. Or at least Las Vegas.
I stopped at the gas station in Alamo, near Rachel. The town felt hungover, and it still had a day to go. Most of the locals seemed unsure quite how to feel about the whole thing. It was a boon to the local economy, yes, but also a financial disaster for the county government. There were rumors that the district attorney was planning to sue Connie West, or Matty Roberts, or even Facebook.
Most, though, just seemed excited at the idea that their corner of the world might become something bigger than a gas stop on the way elsewhere.
Everyone vowed that next year, theyd be ready.
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