Over a beer at the Little A’Le’Inn bar in tiny Rachel, Nevada, Frank Karl, a retiree from upstate New York, tells me he’s an open-minded kind of guy with a skeptical bent thrown in for good measure.
“I, for one, do believe that there’s intelligence outside the Earth in the universe. What form it takes or where it’s at, I don’t really know. But I’m certainly willing to learn,” says Karl.
Karl, along with some 30 others, has ventured out onto the Extraterrestrial Highway—or Route 375—to this isolated hamlet 150 miles northwest of Las Vegas for a Memorial Day weekend UFO Friendship Conference Camp Out.
Driving up to Rachel through rain squalls, I anticipate finding a festival-like event filled with alien-costumed fanatics. Rachel is, after all, a hot spot pilgrimage site for UFO enthusiasts. It’s located a scant 25 miles as the crow flies from the fabled and restricted Area 51, where UFOs are allegedly stored by the U.S. government. The Little A’Le’Inn itself is a homey bar/restaurant that happily and earnestly trades upon the kitschy extraterrestrial aura, from shelves of little green men-emblazoned tchotchkes to a quite tasty Alien Burger.
But, arriving in Rachel, I soon find my preconceptions were based on visions of large-scale sci-fi conventions held in Las Vegas and other cities. Instead, I find a quite serious enclave of searchers looking for what they consider hidden or concealed knowledge on topics ranging from alien abductions to time travel.
Not a single costume is to be found. Not even a pair of faux alien antennae on a headband. And no goofy collection of Trekkies or X-Files junkies.
Paying $150 for two days of lectures and Q&A sessions with leading UFO experts makes this conference a serious affair for attendees. And considering the limited amenities Rachel offers—there’s no gas station, and only seven motel rooms available—being die-hard is a necessity. Many attendees shelter themselves for the weekend in RVs. I spend a windy night in a tent in a dirt parking lot across from the Little A’Le’Inn. This is no sunny Memorial Day weekend frolic.
On Saturday evening after the first day of lectures, the attendees decamp from the old Rachel senior center, where the talks are held, for a buffet dinner at the Little A’Le’Inn, the social and administrative hub of the event. The three guest speakers set up tables where they proffer their books and DVDs for sale. As I watch, conference-goers gather around these stations for purchasing opportunities and intense, ardent conversations with experts in the field.
Regardless of all the UFO content in the mainstream media these days, I get the feeling that this collegiality and comradeship is not generally found in everyday, common society by true believers.
Little A’Le’Inn bartender Connie West affirms my feelings.
“For the UFO people, it’s very important. They’re able to have an open forum and speak their mind about whatever it is they choose to believe in without people mocking or gawking,” says West.
From what I gather wandering about, attendees generally seem to fall in the “retired” age bracket. So it’s not surprising that this is no collection of corporate employees running amok on an expense account-fueled junket. Aside from a few beers and glasses of wine sent across the bar into the dining area, it’s a pretty sedate scene.
As bartender West and fellow Little A’Le’Inn cohort Tracy Maida mix up complimentary shots of Alien Blood—a chartreuse blend of orange juice, vodka and Blue Curacao liqueur—for more party-minded, non-convention-attending bar guests, I speak with an attendee from Topock, Arizona. He’s not too keen on sharing his name, but he’s more than affable when divulging a litany of conspiracy theories ranging from the Philadelphia Experiment to secret underground bases to weather-control technology.
I ask him about a recent news item.
“What do you think about the Pope saying extraterrestrial intelligence is possible?”
Let’s just say that when you bring up the concept of the Vatican in this atmosphere, you can end up in Trilateral Commission and Rothschild-banking-world-hegemony territory pronto. But, again, the gentleman offers up his opinions in a friendly manner. I get the distinct impression he thinks I am a dupe for my lack of belief, though.
Dinner time over, the crappy weather and low cloud cover put the kibosh on a group sky-watching event planned by conference organizer Ike Bishop. We would have scanned the horizon for exotic aircraft (human-created or other) emanating from Area 51. Nonetheless, a few small bands of attendees drive out separately into the moody clime and find observation spots along the Extraterrestrial Highway. (As I overheard a bit earlier, one duo had gotten stuck Friday night during a similar outing on a nearby dry lake bed. They commiserated on UFOlogy themes quite happily until dawn—and an exit—appeared.)
On a rainy Sunday morning, the attendees reassemble in the Rachel senior center for more presentations from the featured speakers. I attend a segment with Las Vegas-based UFO expert Ralph Ring on his claims of riding in human-built flying saucers in the late ’50s. I had actually seen Ring featured on the History Channel’s UFO Hunters show a few weeks earlier. Not following the whole UFO genre with more than a general interest, I am struck with the marquee speaker bona fides.
Later at lunch, organizer Bishop explains to me why the Rachel UFO conference is such a compact affair, rather than my preconceived notions of fantasy and science-fiction festival hullabaloo.
“These conferences I put on are small. We keep them informal,” says Bishop. “We do that because people are able to interact with the speakers, who are the ones who have actually had the experiences firsthand.
“It gives us a chance to be a little closer to the truth,” he adds.
As for my beliefs on the whole extraterrestrial subject before and after attending the UFO conference? I’m in line with my over-a-beer chat buddy Frank Karl and the Pope. What really opens my perspective after a weekend in Rachel, though, is the lengths people will travel to meet with like-minded fellows or just satisfy curiosity.
To wit: As I leave the conference, I speak with an early 30s-ish couple (easily the youngest conference-goers) who made their way from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to the event to make up for a honeymoon they couldn’t afford seven years prior. They flew to McCarran, rented a minivan, drove up never having visited Rachel and slept in said vehicle for the conference weekend.
Now that’s out-of-this world dedication.