Erin Carson/CNET

When the Area 51 'raid' went viral, one small town got turned upside down

Three thousand people showed up in Rachel, Nevada, to celebrate all things alien, and the locals had to deal with the very real side of an internet meme.

There's no science to making a good tin foil hat. 

Christopher Reid and Justin Wainscott are learning this as they craft the four rolls of Reynolds Wrap they brought from Reno into shiny, mind-control-proof caps for fellow Alienstock festival attendees.

"We're just doing our public service," Reid tells me, before wrapping a sheet of foil around his face, punching openings for his eyes and mouth. 

Their bin fills up with hats, and you can spot a growing number of folks wandering around the grounds, sporting what's arguably the latest in festival chic. 

Reid and Wainscott are just two of roughly 3,000 people who turned up in the rural Nevada town of Rachel from Sept. 19 through Sept. 22 to see what would happen when an internet meme became flesh in the remote desert.

Considering that 2 million people RSVP'd for a Facebook event gone viral -- to storm the gates of classified government site Area 51 to look for aliens -- 3,000 people might seem like a letdown. Tell that to the bewildered residents of Lincoln County and the small town of Rachel who watched the madness play out in real time, bracing themselves for untold amounts of crazy -- and a very real price tag. For the thousands of memes and viral moments that have sparked and sputtered in the short-term psyche of the internet, this one blazed its way into the real world with particular heat.


Justin Wainscott and Christopher Reid made tin foil hats.

Erin Carson/CNET

"I was looking for a place to get some land so I could have some privacy and seclusion," said 22-year resident Bob Clabaugh, who bought property almost immediately when he first arrived. On this cool Friday morning, quiet is the last thing he has. 

Still, the scene is far from chaotic. 

Folks wander around aimlessly or lounge at their makeshift campsites. Media swarms anyone who looks halfway interesting -- mostly anyone dressed like an alien. Law enforcement drives up and down the stretch of the so-called Extraterrestrial Highway along State Route 375, a road that sits directly in the middle of where this is all happening. 

It's sunny and dusty, and the vibe hangs in a little-known intersection between languid and bizarre. But Reid and Wainscott, in their last-minute decision to attend, figure it's going to be a good time, even if Alienstock is relatively restrained so far.  

"It seemed like it would be a lot of fun," Reid says, "and there was nothing going on today."

Playing with Fyre 

"Is this shit still going down or what," posts one Facebook user on the event page, days before Alienstock is set to take place. Attached is an image of a squinty SpongeBob SquarePants, the great communicator of Bikini Bottom. 

The fact that a whole 3,000 people show up at all, in hindsight, feels like a miracle. Those keeping watch at home have witnessed the "Storm Area 51" Facebook event twist and branch from joke raid to actual music festival. It became a local drama playing out in county commissioner meetings and an impending "humanitarian disaster" that prompted organizers Matty Roberts, Brock Daily and Frank DiMaggio to drop out. Planning for the event eventually fell on the shoulders of the last remaining organizer, Connie West, who owns the one restaurant, bar and motel in Rachel, called The Little A'Le'Inn.

Paul Booth, professor of media and cinema studies/digital communication and media arts at DePaul University in Chicago, says Storm Area 51 presented a swirl of conspiracy, governmental intrigue and internet-iness -- an apparently winning combo. 

Alienstock: Scenes from the ground of the Area 51 raid

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"Since the 2016 election, people have been much more interested in politics and government, and I think the whole 'Area 51, is the government covering up an alien presence?' fits into that in a weird way," he says.  

We're living in a post-Fyre Festival world. The failed luxury music festival captured social media's attention in 2017. The internet got to watch affluent millennials face sad cheese sandwiches and disaster relief tents, while everyone else stayed safe behind their phones and scrolled deeper and deeper into their schadenfreude. 

The internet has trained us to perch in anticipation of a fiasco. There's something irresistible about potentially watching a large group of people, stupid enough to go running at an armed military base.

"There's a kind of perverse pleasure people take in watching something big fail," Booth says. 

Plus, he notes, people love alien stuff. 

Dust troll 

To say the town of Rachel is small is an understatement. Situated roughly 148 miles north of Las Vegas, it's home to about 50 people, a number of whom live there part-time. There's no gas station, there are no street lights and the town's only store went out of business years ago. That, coupled with unreliable cell service, led to much consternation from residents in the runup to Alienstock. Exactly how sane is it to bring a horde of people into the middle of the desert without adequate infrastructure? 

Pat Jordan remembers the first time he saw Rachel. The now-retired pilot had been spending a lot of time in Las Vegas for work and the place was getting to him.

"I got sick of being in Vegas, with the slot machines and all the tourists, so I jumped in the car one day with no map and headed out and just went exploring," Jordan tells me. 

He moved to Rachel two years later, in 1998, eventually becoming a resident. Jordan's got 40 acres and a backyard that looks like a postcard from the desert. There's a reason folks move to a place like this, he says, even if it means having to keep a spare 20 gallons of gas on hand, just in case.

"You either get it or you don't get it, and the ones who get it end up staying," he says. 

Jordan and other residents like Clabaugh and Joerg Arnu spent the late summer preparing for -- well, they weren't sure what. They found out about the Area 51 event through news stories, just like everybody else.

The original language on the promotional materials used words like "engulfing" and "taking over" the town, troubling folks like Arnu, Jordan and Clabaugh.

Originally, Arnu and others lobbied county commissioners to close the highway to prevent the event from happening, or at least block off the five residential roads -- to no avail. Lincoln County issued the final event permit on Sept. 3. Meanwhile, Lincoln and several neighboring counties declared states of emergency. Up until the end, Arnu posted on Rachel's website, telling people to stay away. 


Pat Jordan and Bob Clabaugh live in Rachel. 

Erin Carson/CNET

On Friday, I meet up with Jordan and Clabaugh by a small cluster of residents' mailboxes, just barely out of the festival fray. They show me around the residential section of Rachel, set not too far back from where everything is happening. It's a mix of mobile and non-mobile homes backed by acres and acres of open desert vistas bordered by distant mountains. Bales of alfalfa sit stacked up on one farm. Somewhere even farther back in the open expanse is Area 51, where a small group ventured earlier Friday for a mock raid. Instead of overtaking the base, they chatted with guards and took pictures. 

We ride past the Rachel Baptist Church in Clabaugh's white Jeep Grand Cherokee. He and Jordan tell me about some of the folks who live in Rachel, and what parcels of land belonged to whom when. Neighbors sitting outside wave. We pass one house that's put up hand-painted signs that say "Go Home" and "No Alienstock." Clabaugh points out the "No Trespassing" signs he's had to put up along the fence of his property, every 200 feet or so, in compliance with Nevada state law. 

For any resident who invested in signs, additional fencing and floodlights, that was money they hadn't planned on spending. Jordan notes that Lincoln County isn't a wealthy place and there's a big question surrounding the $250,000 the county budgeted to deal with Alienstock. 

"This money is no joke," said Cory Lytle, director of planning and building, as reported by the Las Vegas Review Journal in September. "We're on a shoestring budget."

A day and a half in, residents' fears about an unruly destructive crowd haven't come to fruition. The music is loud, the increased traffic is kicking up dust, but so far no unhinged festival-goer has wandered back to pillage and plunder.

Sill, Jordan and Clabaugh say, it's going to be nice when it's over. 

Community in the desert

A week before Alienstock, when Roberts, Daily and DiMaggio pulled out, they made a statement citing "lack of infrastructure, poor planning, risk management and blatant disregard for the safety of the expected 10,000+ AlienStock attendees." They said they could foresee Fyre Festival 2.0 brewing.

The Rachel event didn't get anywhere near disaster levels (unless you ask the two cows who collided with vehicles over the weekend).


Margaret LeMay and Karen Peterson came from Wisconsin.

Erin Carson/CNET

"It is what it started out as -- a joke," says Analisa, who has arrived with friends Kim and Aaron from Sacramento, California, to witness what's unlikely to be a defining cultural moment. "No one was expecting Coachella."

The trio is part of a smattering of folks curious about Alienstock, strolling around the festival area Friday morning. It's a large, dusty space with a small, pod-like wooden-framed stage on one end, a row of 70-plus multicolored portable toilets to the side, and a handful of vendors in the back. Waves of dust and dirt launch themselves at your face. 

Thiery Sparks, from Killeen, Texas, spent a $25 Academy Sports gift card on supplies to camp out for the weekend. He'd been following the memes and even hit up the Bud Light-sponsored public party in Las Vegas on Thursday night (complete with alien-themed cans of beer) that Roberts got involved with post-split.

"I had the weekend free, so I figured, why the heck not?" he says.

To be sure, not everyone camped out was there purely for shiggles. Some were seeking community. 

Margaret LeMay and Karen Peterson arrived on Tuesday, also from Wisconsin, and from behind sunglasses with hologram lenses featuring aliens, Peterson said people wouldn't be out here if they didn't believe there was life somewhere in the universe. 

Jim Ghiglieri, a Reno-area resident, handed out shirts, stickers and frisbees to promote his UFO and UAP website. 

"These are my people," he said, turning a chicken thigh on his brand-new tabletop grill.

After the invasion

As it turns out, Alienstock more or less capped out in size and excitement on Friday. Sparks, who I'd spoken with on site, tells me from his home in Killeen -- nearly 1,400 miles away -- that he headed home early. 

"It looked like people were starting to clear out," he says over the phone. "I wasn't going to spend another nine hours lazing around in the desert waiting for another night."


Thiery Sparks enjoyed the views but probably won't be back next year. 

Erin Carson/CNET

All those desert views, the sunrises and sunsets, were Sparks' favorite part. Still, he probably won't be heading to the next Alienstock, if there is one. He thinks that'll be true for many of the 3,000 whose curiosity brought them out to Rachel.

"Next year I don't think they're going to be able to get near as much interest," he says.  

Sunday night, Rachel resident Jordan went to bed uttering a big sigh of relief. By Tuesday, everyone had left. The main indicators anything happened were scattered litter, several drums of trash filled to the brim, and yellow police caution tape wound around some telephone wires. 

That and a whole lot of dust. In preparing the festival area, organizers leveled a swath of land, pulling up the desert grass that usually holds down the dirt.

Beyond dust and debris, Lincoln County will have cleanup of the monetary variety to contend with.

Eric Holt, Lincoln County Emergency manager, told Las Vegas news station KVVU that the total bill for the county is $200,000 to bring in about 300 officers as well as the supplies to support them. County commissioners are dipping into the Land Act Fund (money ranchers pay to have their cows graze on Bureau of Land Management land) as well as an emergency fund to shore things up. And having declared a state of emergency earlier in the summer, Lincoln County is hoping to get some of the money reimbursed by the state. 

Connie West, the bar and restaurant owner at ground zero for Alienstock, told another Las Vegas news station that she took a loan on her business and mortgaged her home to pay for portable toilets, security, water and lighting. Just days after the event, she filed a complaint in a Nevada district court against Roberts, DiMaggio and Daily saying that their statement that Alienstock had been canceled hurt attendance. She also said she was out about $40,000. And even before the event happened, reports said Lincoln County might seek restitution from Roberts and Daily, and maybe even Facebook.  


One alien escaped, apparently. 

Erin Carson/CNET

West's attorney declined to comment. Neither the Lincoln County district attorney, nor attorneys for Roberts, Daily and DiMaggio, immediately responded to a request for comment. 

Whether Alienstock comes to Rachel in 2020 remains to be seen. Jordan doesn't want another round. Clabaugh wouldn't mind, if attendance stayed small and costs were paid up front by the organizers. They're not alone in their apprehension about what might happen next year. 

"I think an annual event would be a bad idea," County Commissioner Jared Brackenbury told station KSNV on Monday.

When I talk to Clabaugh on Monday after the event, he tells me he doesn't even have a Facebook account. Even if the power of a meme fizzled on its way from the digital to the desert, it still managed to reach him and the others in Rachel. 

"They all packed up and left, and Rachel is back to normal, except for people's feelings about this thing, and a little bit of fear that it might occur in the future," Jordan says, "but I'm going on with my daily business and everybody else is too." 

At least, until the next meme blows into town.