ALAMO, Nev. — The first time Vern Holaday heard people talk about trying to storm Area 51, he was sitting around a campfire with about a dozen UFO enthusiasts outside the motel he owns in Alamo.
It was the fall of 2009, and the 15-room Alamo Inn was hosting an annual UFO conference. As it usually did, the conversation turned from alien life forms to conspiracy theories about Area 51 — the secretive military facility about 35 miles west of Alamo.
That night, a man from Idaho, who worked on motorcycles for a living, suggested to the others around the campfire that they could rush the facility on motorcycles, believing the military guards wouldn’t be able to stop them that way, Holaday recalled.
“All I thought was, ‘Here we go again,’” Holaday said, chuckling. As of this week, his motel, about 90 miles north of Las Vegas, had only two vacant rooms left for the days of the event.
Tourism drawn by talk of extraterrestrial activities has been a part of the economy for decades in the small towns that dot the valleys near Area 51. The boom began around 1989, when Bob Lazar, a self-described engineer, claimed to a Las Vegas television station that he worked on extraterrestrial aircraft that were housed at Area 51. Since then, business owners and residents have welcomed tourists hoping to get a peek at the military facility or spot a UFO in the sky.
But the Facebook event has ramped up buzz to levels residents have never witnessed, with motel and campground owners receiving scores of calls a day. If the event brings the masses it’s promised, many in the area are excited for the potential extra business. Some, though, are also concerned about the lack of infrastructure to accommodate the crowds that could attend.
“This is the most overwhelmed I’ve ever felt in my entire life,” said Connie West, who co-owns a motel, bar and restaurant called Little A’Le’Inn with her mother in Rachel, a tiny town about 50 miles from Alamo. Since the end of June, her business has been inundated with calls about everything from room bookings to bands that want to play on her property during the event. Like Holaday, she’s heard the conspiracy theorists talk of invading Area 51 for years, but nothing of this magnitude. “It’s a frenzy,” she said.
The Little A’Le’Inn is the only business in Rachel, a close-knit desert community of about 70 people that spans about 3 miles on the Extraterrestrial Highway. (Formerly known as State Route 375, the highway was renamed by the Nevada Tourism Board in 1996.)
Last weekend, West, 51, and a handful of locals sat in rocking chairs and at picnic tables under the shade of a silver maple tree, discussing preparations for Sept. 20.
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
West has been calling food and alcohol vendors — the motel hosts the only bar for about 100 miles in any direction — to make sure she’s stocked up. She’s been ordering more T-shirts, mugs and other novelty items for the gift shop inside the restaurant. The motel also rents out campsites, and West is in the process of clearing more land to make room for patrons attending the event.
“There’s not a way or walk of life that hasn’t come through those doors in the last 31 years,” West said of the conspiracy theorists, UFO believers and astronomy buffs she’s hosted. “All are welcome.”
Still, West said she was concerned about people getting hurt or arrested trying to make their way to Area 51. Some have speculated that local law enforcement will shut down roads leading to the military facility to prevent anyone from getting close. Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee said he could not discuss the details, but that the agency was prepared.
Nellis Air Force Base said in a statement that “any attempt to illegally access the area is highly discouraged.”
“Who knows what’s going to happen,” West said. “It could happen and be great for business or it could be a financial disaster.”
Michael Shepherd, 44, a Rachel resident, is concerned about the trash that the influx of visitors could leave behind.
“This is our little part of the desert,” Shepherd, who works on an alfalfa farm, said. “We want people to respect it.”
About 40 miles south of the Little A’Le’Inn is the Alien Research Center, a novelty shop that has become a popular spot for tourists driving down the Extraterrestrial Highway. The shop carries everything from alien-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers to “Star Wars” collectibles. Misty Ingram, 38, who has worked at the shop for about a year, said she hasn’t been able to keep T-shirts on the rack in the last few weeks.
The best-selling item recently: black T-shirts with red and white lettering that reads, “Area 51, Groom Lake Research Facility S-4, WARNING, restricted area, use of deadly force authorized.” The shirts are meant to imitate the signage at the guarded gates around the facility that tourists trek to see each year.
“I think it’s ridiculous that anyone thinks they are going to get into Area 51,” Ingram said.
She believes the event will morph into more of a makeshift festival than a raid. The shop’s phone has been ringing with vendors ranging from bakeries to tattoo artists asking if they can set up in the store’s parking lot in September.
Ingram, a mother of three who has lived in Alamo for 12 years, said she’s excited for the business, but is concerned about safety, noise and traffic jams on the two-lane highways that connect the valleys in Lincoln County.
“Most of us live all the way out here for a reason,” Ingram said. “It’s to get away from things like this.”
Holaday grew up in Alamo, a ranching and agricultural community of about 1,000 residents, where neighbors pull their cars over to stop and chat when they see each other. The town is so close to the Nevada Test and Training Range that many locals have a story about a military jet flying so low, it felt as if it were hovering just above their head. They are used to sonic booms from speeding aircraft rattling their windows.
Holaday’s father, who did some cattle ranching, was also a maintenance worker at Area 51. Growing up, it was understood that his father did not discuss the details of what he saw while working at the military facility.
About 12 years ago, Holaday learned that the Alamo Inn was for sale. He decided to return from New Jersey, where he’d been living for work, to buy it and raise his two children in his hometown.
Soon afterward, a group began hosting a UFO conference there. For five or six years, the group held panels at a nearby senior center and then returned to the Alamo Inn in the evening. They barbecued and then sat around a campfire talking shop.
Holaday often joined them, giving little credence to the theories, but still amused and fascinated.
“They said a lot of strange things,” he said, “but honestly, I also learned a lot from them, too, about looking at the stars.”
One night, after putting out the campfire, Holaday drove with the group down the Extraterrestrial Highway into Tikaboo Valley to a single black mailbox in a dusty lot on the side of the road. Holaday said the mailbox belonged to a local rancher, but somehow over the years truth stretched into conspiracies and many came to believe it was a spot where aliens communicated with humans. (The original mailbox has since been replaced, but on a recent visit it was still stuffed with hand-scrawled notes, including one that read, “Dear Aliens, please take Donald Trump.”)
While the trip to the mailbox wasn’t the pilgrimage for Holaday that it was for the UFO enthusiasts, he did have a new experience sitting still and staring at the stars for hours that night, as he waited with the others for aliens to appear.
“You know, it’s like you’ve lived here your whole life,” he said. “But you’ve never looked up.”
Anita Hassan is a national investigative reporter for NBC News, based in Las Vegas.