Take Me To Your Wallet: The Marketing of Aliens
Traveling the ET Highway During a gala dedication ceremony held in the tiny desert community of Rachel, Nevada on April 18, 1996, Nevada's State Route 375 was officially renamed the "Extraterrestrial Highway" by the state's governor, Bob Miller. In a scene described by the Death Valley Gateway Gazette as a "media frenzy," journalists from all over the world descended on the remote town's unassuming population (estimated to be anywhere from 30-100) to document what was being heralded as the world's first "intergalactic tourist attraction."An odd amalgamation of Nevada politics and Hollywood economics helped give birth to the ET Highway. Despite legislative approval, Governor Miller originally refused to back the renaming of SR 375, a perfectly functional two-lane thoroughfare running north from Warm Springs due south to Crystal Springs. Rachel lies just about halfway along the newly-named road's 100-mile length. The proposition stalled in the senate, where it was labeled "frivolous." After Miller received an inquiry about the measure from Twentieth Century Fox, however, he changed his mind and the bill was passed. Fox had taken a keen interest in the proposed ordinance because the studio wanted to use the highway's dedication ceremony to promote its forthcoming film, ID4 Independence Day. ID4, a modern-day remake of Orson Wells' alien invasion classic, War of the Worlds, features scenes involving a top-secret military base (identified in ET lore by several monikers, among them "Area 51," "Dreamland," or simply the base location, "Groom Lake") which rests about thirteen miles west of the ET Highway on Groom Lake Road.The enormous degree of scrutiny focused on this length of highway, one of the loneliest stretches of road in the continental United States, has remained fairly constant since May 1989, when a young physicist, Robert Lazar, made an astounding assertion to a Las Vegas TV reporter. Lazar, who claims to be a scientist with degrees in physics and electronics, alleges that he was an active participant in a top secret government project aimed at studying the propulsion systems of extraterrestrial aircraft. Lazar also claims to have seen nine flying saucers stored in camouflaged hangars near Papoose Lake, immediately south of Groom Lake, and that he was able to view one of the aircraft in flight. The "saucer storage location," which Lazar refers to as Area S-4, is flanked on the south and east by bombing ranges, on the west by the Nevada Test Site, and on the north by a high-security military base at Groom Lake. The entire area is surrounded by mountains -- and is one of the most vigorously-guarded military installations in the world.SPEED LIMIT WARP 7The citizens of Rachel appear to have adjusted well to the prodigious publicity thrust upon their community -- surprising, perhaps, since Fox unabashedly snubbed Rachelians at the highway dedication ceremony. The studio set up a huge VIP tent and denied access to all but movie stars, the media, and grandstanding politicians. Insult was added to injury when it became known that Fox ended up shooting not a single frame of ID4 in Nevada (the Groom Lake scenes were shot in Utah and California instead). But any initial bitterness Rachel residents may have felt abated soon after the Hollywood caravan rolled on, due in part, perhaps, to the subsequent appearance of sky-gazing tourists eager to spend money on extra-expensive extraterrestrial merchandise.Even the state of Nevada is poised to profit from the ET Highway. New signs erected to mark the road bear a copyright symbol and the words "1996 STATE OF NEVADA. All Rights Reserved." Some black and white speed signs posted along ET Highway read, "Speed Limit Warp 7." On July 1, the Nevada commission on tourism kicks off "The ET Experience," a promotional campaign complete with Eyes Only, the official Extraterrestrial Highway newsletter featuring travelers' accounts of their adventures on that road. A complete map/travel information/club membership package also is available from the state.Atari Corporation, too, is capitalizing on the area with the recent release of an Area 51 video game which, oddly enough, is completely devoid of aliens. The game requires players to navigate through a computer simulated Groom Lake base while shooting at pesky zombies, who try to thwart their advance. "Leave it to Hollywood to screw things up," laments Rachelian Dan Day. "They didn't do any research." Day hopes to open a UFO museum in Rachel at some point in the near future, but his more immediate plans is his web site through which Internet browsers will be able to purchase his ET goods. The site was timed to go on-line concurrently with the release of ID4, twenty-four hours before Independence Day.If Rachel can be called a town, then your local strip mall can be called a city. This speck-of-a-community is comprised of two small commercial businesses and a smattering of mobile homes and trailers concentrated in a small, dirt/gravel lot along the ET Highway. The settlement's only paved roads are the ET Highway and a frontage road which parallels it. The community's children are bussed fifty miles each way to Alamo to attend school and residents usually do their shopping once a month in Las Vegas, 140 road miles away. Few people have lived in Rachel longer than ten years.Rachel's main attraction for visiting saucer hunters is a tiny restaurant/bar/motel called the Little A'Le'Inn (pronounced "Little Alien"). Whether or not its proprietors can justify claims of its being a window on alien visitation to this world, there is no disputing the fact that the place has been regularly visited by representatives of an industry often criticized for living in a world of its own -- the media. Originally operating as the Rachel Bar and Grill, the Little A'Le'Inn has been featured in numerous publications and television programs, including UFO Magazine, Business Week, Weekly World News, and Larry King Live. The establishment had changed hands several times prior to the UFO craze and perpetually teetered on the brink of failure. Following the broadcast of Lazar's dramatic saucer story, however, the restaurant's enterprising owners, Joe and Pat Travis, changed the grille's name and sought to position it as a mecca for UFO enthusiasts from all over the world. The inn's twice-yearly sponsorship of the "UFO Friendship Campout" takes place at nearby Black Mailbox and helps to stimulate the inn's sale of food and alien wares.THAT'S FUNNY, YOU DON'T LOOK ALIENVisitors to the Little A'Le'Inn are greeted by a friendly staff and four pale walls plastered with a medley of newspaper clippings and posters referencing unearthly phenomena. A small television suspended from the ceiling across the room offers patrons an indecipherable, flipping screen image and audio portions of the 1989 Las Vegas news broadcast. Among the items hung about the inn are a number of photographs which had been given to the Travises for display and/or sale by sources which include professional UFOlogists, wannabe UFOlogists, and tourists. One image, resembling a shining motorcycle headlight at night and identified as a UFO, can be purchased from the photographer by mail for $5, "Cash or money order only." The restaurant's own cachet of gift items includes an intergalactic smorgasbord of pins, pennants, patches, models, posters, video tapes, magazines, playing cards, stickers, books, shirts, hats, guitar picks and other related paraphernalia. A Testors model kit of Lazar's UFO (based on his description) can also be purchased at the inn for $25.Three flashing keno machines positioned along the restaurant's south wall, near the entrance, beckon patrons to test their luck while waiting for their "Alien Burger" to be served. Surprisingly, the Alien Burger, its ingredients consisting of the decidedly unexotic lettuce, tomato, onion, "special bun," and "special dressing," is the only item on the inn's menu which promotes the restaurant's intergalactic theme. Under the heading of "Welcome Earthlings to LITTLE A'LE'INN," all other menu items are identified in mundane and familiar terms.I ask our waitress if she had ever seen any ET-piloted craft in the area. "Not piloted," she answers. "Spirited." She then proceeds to launch into an account of how she and her boyfriend were driving along ET Highway late one night two years ago, when a light shaped like a Star of David emerged from the sky and began to follow them. They watched the light perform a variety of dramatic ascensions, descensions, loops, and circles for several hours before it disappeared over the horizon."It lit up the desert floor like daylight and didn't make any noise," she says with a matter-of-factness which seemed to indicate she had told the story many times before. "I used to not believe," says the server of Alien Burgers, "but after that, I completely changed my mind."RIVALS FOR ET'S HEART -- AND OTHER ORGANSA small, rickety bookcase leaning against the inn's west wall houses a number of publications, including a transcript of an interview with Lazar, and are available for patrons to peruse at their leisure. One item which is conspicuously absent from the inn's literary collection is Glenn Campbell's popular Area 51 Viewer's Guide. The guide, which brandishes a cover that announces in bold letters, "BANNED AT THE LITTLE A'LE'INN!," offers the first hint of a feud which has been thriving in Rachel over the last three years.According to Campbell's Viewer's Guide, after moving from the Boston area to Rachel in 1993, Campbell (he doesn't sing a lick in case you're wondering) befriended the Travises, rented a camper behind the inn from them and began to research the area's curious phenomena. It was a symbiotic relationship: Campbell's Viewer's Guide and the Travis' business each helped promote the other and both turned a profit. The camaraderie evaporated after seven months, however, following accusations from the Travises that Campbell was trying to take over their business."The last straw came when he hooked a fax machine up to our phone without even asking," Pat Travis says. After the Travises evicted Campbell from their property, he moved into a small trailer several hundred feet away from the inn and established the Area 51 Research Center. From this space and via mail order, Campbell sells much of the same ET merchandise found at the inn, effectively putting himself in direct competition with his former hosts. Campbell's latest 112-page Viewer's Guide brings his conflict with the Travises into print, offering details of what Campbell claims are Joe Travis's excessive drinking habits, his cruel treatment of animals, the couple's bootlegging of merchandise and their paucity of mental prowess among other assertions. Campbell writes, "The Travis's [sic] are simple folk who do not understand marketing or diplomacy and have no comprehension of any of the intellectual graces." Even the guide's footnote entries are used to denigrate Joe Travis.Campbell also asserts that the Travises, in addition to circulating rumors that he is operating in Rachel as an agent of the government, have brought his sexual preference into question through public suggestions that he manifests a perverted interest in children and animals."I wish the whole thing would just end," Pat Travis says of the feud. "It's all so silly, really."THE ROSWELL NEXUSAlthough it lies approximately 900 miles east of Groom Lake and has about 48,000 residents, the city of Roswell, New Mexico, is linked to Rachel by one of the most-repeated and fantastic tales in UFO folklore.In brief, adherents of the Roswell UFO story allege the following: On July 2, 1947, a flying disk crashed in the desert near Corona, 75 miles northwest of Roswell, during a particularly violent evening thunderstorm. The next day, a rancher by the name of William "Mac" Brazel found strange debris scattered across the desert and notified the local sheriff of his discovery. On July 6, the Roswell Army Air Field (the closest military base to the site) was apprised of Brazel's find and an officer dispatched to investigate the scene. The debris field was subsequently cordoned off by military authorities, who quickly collected and transported some of the wreckage to a Fort Worth, Texas AAF and Washington, DC. On the 8th of July, a press release was issued by the Roswell AAF stating that the army had recovered the remains of a crashed flying saucer. Three hours after the original press release was distributed to the media, the Air Force changed its tone to indicate that they had recovered a weather balloon, not a flying saucer. Meanwhile, the search of the debris field was widened several miles, resulting in the discovery of the crashed saucer and the bodies of three to five small humanoid beings, one of which was still alive. It was determined that the craft had skipped across the desert floor (resulting in the debris field) before coming to rest in a gully. The saucer was delivered to Wright Field (subsequently renamed Wright Patterson Air Force Base) in Dayton, Ohio, before ultimately finding its way to Area 51 where, according to Lazar, scientists like him are attempting to duplicate the technology responsible for propelling the craft.The Roswell incident has been the subject of numerous books, films and articles attempting to explain and/or purporting to reveal what actually crashed in the desert outside of Corona on July 2, 1947. Meanwhile, the Air Force as well as several other independent writers and journalists have sought to thoroughly debunk the crashed saucer theory.The citizens of Roswell, initially embarrassed to be associated with a story which is frequently met with ridicule and scorn, have now not only come to terms with the history of their past, but have sought to embrace and capitalize on it."More and more people are selling stuff now," said one resident about the local cottage industry in ET goods and services. Even the Roswell Daily Record sells coffee mugs with the paper's original crash headline and accompanying text from their July 1947 edition. And the town's mayor has been lobbying producers of the comedic alien TV show Third Rock From the Sun to tie the city into one of the sit-com's episodes.As with Rachel, a steady stream of tourists pours into Roswell to take part in a strange kind of cosmic convergence wherein the present meets both past and future. Every year, the city hosts a three-day UFO festival which features guest lecturers, a costume contest, planetarium shows, concerts, a 10K run known as the "Alien Chase," and a non-motorized spacecraft contest titled the "Crash and Burn Expo." Last year, the city officially designated July as "UFO Awareness Month" and announced plans to make the observance an annual event.VELCRO AND OTHER UNWORLDLY PHENOMENARoswell is also home to two separate (and competitive) UFO museums: the UFO Enigma Museum and the International UFO Museum and Research Center. Enigma, located outside of town near the RAAF (renamed Walker Air Force Base in August of 1947), is housed in a small, single-story building which bears a significantly closer resemblance to a storefront than to the Smithsonian Institute. John Price, the museum's executive director, emphasizes that he had started the operation several years before the International museum opened. The competition resulted when his former partner and other backers wanted to put Enigma in the center of town. When Price resisted the idea of relocating, the International Museum was created."They got their ideas from us," Price said.The Enigma Museum's $1 admission fee gets you into to the building's back rooms, feature displays of press clippings, drawings, posters, models, and other ET paraphernalia. In the video viewing room, chairs are arranged facing an elevated TV set on which patrons can view regularly scheduled showings of a 70-minute video about the Roswell mystery. In the back of the viewing room is the museum's centerpiece: an "Award Winning Display" featuring a re-creation of what the crash scene might have looked like immediately following the saucer's touchdown. The exhibit includes a crudely-fashioned, silver flying saucer model set in front of a painted desert backdrop. Flashing saucer lights and several puppet-like alien bodies positioned about the disc complete the scene.A small flyer posted by the cash register announces that tours of the UFO crash site, located on a section of a large desert ranch, can be scheduled by making reservations for either of the daily 9 a.m. or 1 p.m. showings. Ralph Heik, Enigma's RAAF historian, explains that tours of the site were initially operated by the International museum -- without the knowledge of the ranch's owner. After the rancher discovered the museum's lucrative operation, he relieved the museum of the trouble of arranging the tours. He also relieved them of the income. Visitors now pay the rancher $15 a pop for the privilege of visiting the purported UFO crash site. $35 gets you a crash site t- shirt, a crash site tour ticket, poster, and an actual rock from the area. None of which comes as much solace to the former operators of the tour."There's really not much to see out there," Heik confides regarding the much-ballyhooed crash site.Located in the heart of downtown Roswell, the International Museum's exterior is distinguished by a flying saucer model positioned at a simulated crash angle just above the entryway. Like the Enigma Museum, International is a storefront operation. Here, however, a grandmotherly volunteer sits behind an office desk and greets visitors as they enter. With the exception of one recently-hired full-time employee, the museum is staffed entirely by 25-35 volunteers, most of them senior citizens who appear to delight in their roles as host to the popular UFO archive. These volunteers speak of ETs with a fair amount of passion. One of them, speaking with a certain air of authority, gave me to understand that "the aliens view us as a very violent planet and they don't want to have anything to do with us." She offered additional enlightenment concerning the true derivation of Velcro, which, the gray-haired museum volunteer assured me, is actually an alien technology commonly found on ET flight suits (for the record, it should be noted that some less creative sources attribute Velcro's invention to a Frenchman).While the museum's main gallery houses much of the same material found at the Enigma museum -- pictures, articles, drawings, etc. -- International creams the competition with a classier and better-stocked gift shop. It is here is that the real action takes place, as buyers clutching alien merchandise queue patiently here to dole out large sums of cash for ET paraphernalia. Among the more ghastly items included for sale in this bizarre bazaar is a controversial alien autopsy video. The video, which suddenly surfaced in late 1995 after a half-century of quiescence, has aired several times on the Fox TV Network. Its black and white film footage purportedly shows an actual autopsy of one of the aliens found at the Corona crash site.A small room adjacent to the main gallery supports an enclosed exhibit featuring a faux alien used in the filming of the movie Roswell. A glass wall separates spectators from the display, which presents the alien lying prone on a hospital gurney and being administered to by a mannequin dressed in surgeon's garments. For $2.50, visitors can insert themselves into the scene and have a staff member snap a Polaroid of the spectacle. While we both gawk at the display, a middle-aged woman approaches me and points to the tiny alien figure lying on the stretcher."Is that real?" she asks in a thick Swedish accent. I assure her that the creature was, in fact, fake. "Oh," the woman said before turning and slowly walking away, evidently embarrassed by her question as well as disappointed by my response.One of the museum's most recent acquisitions is a piece of metal which is identified as having been appropriated from the Corona crash site by a member of the military's cleanup crew in 1947. The piece, which measures about 3.5" long and 2.5" wide at its base, comes to a point and is shaped like an arrowhead. Alas, the object itself has been deemed too valuable to be publicly displayed, so only its photo is on view. The actual metal shard from beyond is under 24-hour guard at the presumably impregnable Roswell City Jail. Preliminary analysis has determined that it is comprised of almost pure silver and copper."The silver and the copper don't tarnish," said one of the museum's attendants. More extensive testing of the object is planned. More extensive marketing of it is assured.WHOSE TRUTH?The Fox network's hit television show The X Files features two FBI agents, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, who investigate strange and supernatural phenomena. Each X Files episode begins with text assuring viewers that "The Truth is Out There." It is in search of this "truth" that many people journey to the ET Highway.Rachel and Roswell residents, though, do not claim to present the definitive truth about UFOs. They offer only story-telling apparatus and speculation about what might have been, and what might be. Perhaps the truth lies in that odd piece of metal being held in the Roswell City Jail. Perhaps not. The truth for now is that the only tangible ET materials available to visitors are entirely of this world and located in the gift shop.SIDEBAR #1A SKY FULL OF STRANGE LIGHTS AT BLACK MAILBOXOne of the most popular spots for saucer-seekers is located just off ET Highway, at mile marker LN 295. Marked only by a rancher's padlocked black iron mailbox, the location is one of the closest to Grooms Lake from which people may legally observe the skies above the area. It is not uncommon to see ET enthusiasts gathered here, straining their necks while patiently surveying the heavens as if expecting any moment to receive a message from someone or something.After driving approximately 20 miles south from Rachel and down the gravel path which has become known as Black Mailbox Road, two friends and I pulled off onto the dusty desert terrain, set up our lawn chairs facing Groom Lake to the southwest, and settled in for some serious ET gazing. It was 10 p.m., clear visibility. The moon lay hidden behind a range of mountains but an extraordinary density of stars perforated the dark velvet sky with their effulgence.Suddenly, coming from the direction of Grooms Lake, a bright orange light appears on a path perpendicular to the ground and accelerates into the upper atmosphere before suddenly extinguishing after approximately three seconds. Then, five extremely bright, white lights appear in the northern sky. They emerge in a straight, floating line stretching across the horizon, as though someone had turned on an immense track-light bar, with each light switching on individually and in sequence, left to right. After all the lights achieve simultaneous illumination, they also die out together after about 15 seconds. In the east, two orange lights traverse the sky at speeds none of us had ever before witnessed. The lights cut off intermittently, then re-appeared in another section of the sky. We would detect no sound and the objects appeared to climb to fantastic altitudes.Fascinating? You bet. Entertaining? Of course. Alien craft? No way. Even a "pro-ET" source such as Glen Campbell's Area 512 Viewer's Guide offers cogent, terrestrial explanations for our sightings. The orange lights? Two advanced military craft with indicators on the nose cones. These would be turned off when going into stealth mode, and the flight pattern of the lights we observed did in fact suggest Top Gun mock engagement maneuvers. The floating bright lights? According to Campbell's book, these are probably parachute flares. Dropped from an airplane, flares hang in the air for several seconds and briefly provide illumination of target areas before burning out.