Signs of Intelligent Life, Part I: The Extraterrestrial Highway

March 6, 2015—It was the sweetest thing my GPS has ever said to me: “Turn right onto the Extraterrestrial Highway.”

This was a big one for me. A childhood of reading stories about close encounters, UFO sightings, alien abductions. Picking up John Keel books because they had cool covers. Reading Whitley Strieber’s Communion because, well, probably the same reason. Watching reenactment shows on TV late at night. Then seeing all that interest manifest in the X-Files Decade. I wanted to believe, but in the end belief was irrelevant. I loved the stories, and the mythology that was being accreted implant by implant, anal probe by anal probe.

Since then, I’ve had my own alien experiences. Like the Exeter UFO Festival. And getting private access to the Betty and Barney Hill archive. But finally, finally, I made it to Area 51—or as close as legally possible to that famous, top-secret military base that sits in the Nevada desert content with being an oxymoron and a plot point in every story about visitors from beyond the stars.

But to get there, I had to take the Extraterrestrial Highway. Cue disco music.

The Extraterrestrial Highway is a stretch of about 100 miles of road northwest of Las Vegas. Its maiden name is State Route 375, but it was renamed back in, well, the X-Files Decade. It connects US Route 6 to the north and US Route 93 to the south. It also skirts a section of secluded desert that is home to a group of Air Force facilities, including Area 51. You can turn the disco music off now.

They say there have been strange sightings in the sky along the highway, which makes sense as it parallels an Air Force base, but as we were driving it in the daytime, the only fire in the sky we saw was the desert sun. Due to where we coming from (a clown-themed motel, to be honest), we entered from the northern end. There isn’t a lot at that end. Just desert, rocky outcroppings, and a few signs warning of low-flying aircraft and cattle crossing that offer the opportunity for UFO and cattle mutilation jokes, respectively, if you’re the type to jump on obvious joke openings. Like me, apparently.

But then we hit Rachel. Poor girl.

Rachel’s a tiny, tiny town right in the middle of the Extraterrestrial Highway. I mean it’s like 3.75 buildings small. But it does the best with what it has—and what it has is aliens. The welcome sign for Rachel features the silhouette of a flying saucer and, at the bottom, the line, “Population: Humans Yes, Aliens ?” It’s a cool sign, but it’s overshadowed by a more official-looking one just beyond, a reflective green highway marker that dubs the road, “The Extraterrestrial Highway.” Ostensibly, anyway. The sign is almost completely covered with stickers from passersby who wanted it known to fellow travelers that they are not alone in the universe. An identical sign also covered in stickers is further down the road on the other side of Rachel.

But then you come to the real UFO hotspot in town: The Little A’Le’Inn, a motel/restaurant/bar/gift shop that’s been around since, well, just a couple of years prior to the X-Files Decade. A mock-up of the place was actually featured in Season 6 of The X-Files ("Dreamland," part 2, where Michael McKean plays an MIB who switches bodies with Mulder just outside of Area 51). Gloriously, the real Little A’Le’Inn doesn’t look like it’s been updated since its inception.

Out front is a sign that says “Earthlings Welcome” and features a classic grey with glinty eyes. Beside it is a metal flying saucer hoisted on the hook of an old tow truck. There was also a large antenna-like apparatus that I at first thought was part of the theme-dressing, but which turned out to be stranger than that. According to a placard affixed to it, the contraption was a Community Environmental Monitoring Program station. Apparently, they’re set up at various points in the area to monitor weather and radiation levels. And the reason why you don’t have one on your street is because you’re not neighbors with the Nevada Test Site, where they tested nuclear bombs back in the day and, these days, still blow things up. I’m telling you, this place, man.

But of all the strangeness surrounding this humble little building covered with alien murals, the strangest has to be the Independence Day time capsule. And if the italics didn’t tip you off, I’m talking Independence Day in the Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum sense, not in the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson one

The time capsule was buried in 1996, the same year the road it was on became The Extraterrestrial Highway and the same year the movie came out. It’s marked by a cement column topped by what would have been the movie hashtag had it come out a decade later: ID4. A bronze plaque on it tells this story:

On the eighteenth day of April, A.D. 1996,

Twentieth Century Fox hereby dedicates this time capsule and beacon for visitors from distant stars, to the State of Nevada and the “Extraterrestrial Highway.”

This time capsule will serve as a beacon, to be opened in the year A.D. 2050, by which time interplanetary travelers shall be regular guests of our planet Earth.

Governor Bob Miller of the State of Nevada

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

The film makers and cast of INDEPENDENCE DAY

Now that’s a marketing stunt. I can’t find anywhere online exactly what the contents of the time capsule are, but I assume it’s full of Independence Day action figures. Also Will Smith’s cigar and Brent Spiner’s wig.

See? The Little A’Le’Inn is quite the sci-fi beacon for such an unassuming place out in the middle of nowhere. Even if the whole restaurant was an empty set, it would have been a worthwhile stop. But then we stepped inside. Hesitantly.

Oh, you’ve walked into one of these places before. Accidentally. The kind of joint where neither atmosphere nor food is a priority. Merely existence. Basic tables and chairs were spread across a tiled floor. A cosmically painted bar stretched along one wall was shaded by a furry roof of dollar bills. About half a dozen people were inside.

And it was covered in UFOeana and alien merchandise like the stuff just bred there.

We grabbed a table, ordered up some hot dogs and chips, and kind of pieced together a world where this existed and the events in our lives that led us to it.

The staff was very friendly, and a women named Pat, whom I would later discover was the owner, scuttled about, greeting people, scolding me for letting my infant shove a straw in her mouth, and graciously giving my five-year-old free reign of the place. I, of course, followed suit.

There was every type of alien-themed merchandise on its shelves, from wine to Christmas stockings to giant signs for rolling out on your roof that said, “Pick Me!” Just kidding on that last. Patent pending. But there were also general alien decorations, including topographical maps of the area, UFO photography, amateur paintings of aliens. That type of thing. Basically, it was decorated like my bedroom when I was 12. Perfectly, in other words.

One bit that seemed to stick out, probably for being bright yellow but also for seeming to be a few decades newer than everything else around it, was an autographed poster and a couple of autographed stills, all from the 2011 movie Paul, where Simon Peg and Nick Frost pick up an alien in their RV while touring extraterrestrial-sites on their way to San Diego Comic Con. They filmed a scene right in the restaurant and right at that bar. Again, crazy place.

And also great place to drop by. The entire Extraterrestrial Highway would be a let-down without it. No doubt. But as much as I would’ve liked to hang out there or even stay the night, we still had one thing on our itinerary. After I walked up to the counter to pay our bill, I asked Pat, “So how do I get to Area 51?”

Continue to Signs of Intelligent Life, Part II, where we play chicken with Area 51.