A one-horse town near a military base in Nevada has attained a curious celebrity. Thousands of 'ufologists' are convinced that it is a global centre for alien activity. The road that passes through it has been officially renamed 'The Extraterrestrial Highway', and a thriving alien-based tourist industry has grown up. But some locals see the boom as a mixed blessing

Surrounded by flat, open scrubland and bordered by distant mountains, the so-called "town" of Rachel (population 100) is actually just a gas station, a bar - which is also a motel and cafe - and a few trailers parked along a small stretch of the seemingly endless Highway 375. It's a lonely spot. One can drive the 150 miles across the Nevada desert from Las Vegas and not see another living thing for hours. The relentless flatness of the landscape is broken only by a menacing group of triffid-like Joshua trees around one section of the road that look as if they had walked there. The only traffic is the occasional truck which, since the terrain is so level and the road so straight, manifests itself in the distance as a tiny cloud of dust about 10 minutes before it whizzes past. During the day, visibility is excellent, but at night, locals warn, you have to watch out for suicidal rabbits hurling themselves under your wheels, cows wandering on to the road and - some say - aliens.

Rachel first came to fame in March 1989, when an astrophysicist called Robert Lazar appeared on a local television news show claiming to have worked on captured alien flying saucers when he was employed at Area 51, a top-secret military base about 20 miles from the town. To some, this "testimony" came as confirmation of what they had long suspected: that the area was a magnet for unidentified flying objects. Since then, there have been so many reported sightings there that, in April, Nevada state Governor Bob Miller officially renamed Highway 375 the "Extraterrestrial Highway". The dedication ceremony - which was partly funded by the producers of this summer's blockbuster sci-fi movie, Independence Day - was a glamorous affair, attended by the film's stars, Jeff Goldblum and Brent Spinner, visiting ufologists, various state officials and a stray Elvis impersonator. But what might be a bit of fun for some is deadly serious for others, and it has divided the town. As one resident puts it: "Rachel was just a peaceful, quiet little place where we pretty much all got along. Now it's business against business, person against person, friend against friend."

The Bunting has been packed away and the celebrities are back home when I arrive in Rachel a few weeks later. It's early evening. A buzzard drifts lazily overhead. A road sign on the way into town is full of bullet holes - a clue to the fact that there's not much to do here. The only signs of life are a couple of teenagers kicking up the dust on a small motorbike, and a dog tied up outside one of the trailers. When I walk into the Little A-'le'-inn (known as the Rachel Bar & Grill until the aliens came to town), every single person in the bar turns to look, eventually returning to their conversations as I pay for my room - actually a trailer some 25ft from the main building. About seven young studs on a gambling spree, who have broken their journey from Las Vegas to Reno to top up their blood Budweiser levels (as well as their gas tanks, since this is the last gas stop for 110 miles), are flirting with two pretty barmaids. A few men are sitting at one of the Formica tables in the back; a couple of them are playing pool. In front of the bar a tall, older man in a baseball cap is pointing to the television riveted to the wall, drawing his companion's attention to a home video of what appears to be a wobbly, spinning, planet- like ball of fire. The atmosphere is strictly Wild West. A sign behind the bar states: "Security provided by Smith & Wesson and Joe", the bar's owner. Another thanks me for holding my breath while everyone else smokes. The shelf-full of alien paraphernalia - T-shirts, books, bug-eyed alien dolls - and the pictures of aliens and UFOs pinned to the rickety walls look oddly out of place.

Ufologists have been coming here for decades to check out claims of UFO sightings which, according to local town lore, have been made in the area for hundreds of years. One local, Marcus Pizzuti, says: "The theory is that aliens have been using some parts of our world as a base of operations for centuries. The native Americans called these mountains holy, because of all the light coming and going, long before there were aircraft to be misidentified." Some people think - in a version of reality straight out of The X-Files - that this is why the military chose this area for their air base; perhaps, Pizzuti thinks, in order "to protect and study, or capture, whatever is going on there".

An alternative interpretation, of course, is that the base came first, and that its presence could offer more mundane explanations for many allegedly paranormal phenomena. The space-age F-117 Stealth bomber was test-flown here for several years before it was unveiled, and many people attribute the strange sightings to secret test flights. But this does not convince those who believe that what they've seen defies terrestrial physics. "I don't know if I believe in UFOs or not but I think at this point, with all the things I've seen and the people I've talked to, there's got to be something out there that's not us," says Shelley Wadsworth, a middle- aged Rachel wife and mother who is employed full-time by a Las Vegas businessman to investigate UFO phenomena.

Wadsworth has been seeing UFOs since the Fifties, but the most frightening incident, she says, occurred in 1993, about five miles out of Rachel. "I noticed three lights bobbing in the air about 100 yards away, as if they were bobbing on water. There were three UFOS, each about 100ft across, and they had three huge globes of light underneath them. I pulled the car over to take a picture, and when I turned my lights out, all of their lights went out," she says. "When I turned my lights back on, all of theirs went back on - but by then they had moved about five miles to the south. That was the first time in my life that it occurred to me that if I could see them, they could see me. It took me about 30 minutes to make the 70 miles home."

Her fear rekindled the memory of another mysterious phenomenon, she says. Her family used to farm a million-acre ranch, 100 miles across the desert from Rachel. One morning, the cowboys came up to the farmhouse, badly shaken. "They told us that they were already packed and leaving because what they'd seen had scared them so badly," she says. It was a dead bull. "At first my dad thought it had been struck by lightning - until we saw everything that had been done to it."

Its sexual organs had been removed. There were perfectly round holes in all of the joints and in the ear and the lip. It had been drained of blood, and yet there were no bloodstains, either on its body or in the immediate vicinity. "We had an inspector come from Carson City and put a Geiger counter over it and it was radioactive. The coyotes wouldn't eat it." Cattle mutilation is a phenomenon that ufologists often link to UFO sightings. According to Wadsworth, theirs wasn't the only mutilation in the area. "There were a lot. I've been trying to get the sheriff to let me into his files because he's got a whole cabinet of it. But he's running for re-election and he's worried he'll lose face if people know he's been collecting this information."

Not that he'd be likely to lose any credibility with the electorate of Rachel itself. The opinions I heard expressed there ranged from the far side of open-minded to downright wacky, some might say mad. It's hard to find anyone who doesn't claim to have had some kind of paranormal experience. Even the beliefs of the self-confessed sceptics are more ambiguous and irrational than would normally be heard on the Clapham omnibus. Yet the wider interest that has followed from Robert Lazar's story, and from the renaming of the highway, has left a few locals feeling a little touchy. "Many of the people who give these testimonials cherish their credibility," says Marcus Pizzuti as we walk up the main road. The deathly silence all around us is punctured by the sonic boom of a military aircraft. "When someone comes in from outside and is interested enough to listen to their testimonial, then walks away and does a story that mudfaces the whole thing, it's not only disconcerting, it's insulting. We're not trying to prove the case for UFOs. We don't give a rat's ass whether anyone believes us or not."

Unfortunately, the publicity surrounding the renaming of the highway has brought a lot of "kooks" to the area. "And having all these crazy colourful people who are attracted to the subject contaminates it for those with a serious scientific interest," says Pizzuti. "If aliens do exist it would follow that they'd be more interested in the military base than cows and ranchers and drunks at the bar. It is absurd for us to suggest they would even think of landing on the highway just because we put a sign out next to it."

The point where absurdity begins for Ambassador Merlin II/Consulate Lady Seraphim Isis II (both names appear on his business card) is off most people's scale. He is, he claims, a "simultaneous being" who grew up thinking he was a human. "It was only about 10 years ago that I became aware that I was part of the body of Merlin at the same time as being a seraphim angel," says Merlin, who bears more than a passing resemblance to a youthful Timothy Leary and was one of the main campaigners for the renaming of the highway. He claims to have had contact with several aliens, including a humanoid political lobbyist he met while working on the highway campaign.

"He was actually a little bit taken by surprise when I assumed he was an extraterrestrial. Because rather than asking him, I just said, 'What star are you from?' because I could just sort of tell. He said, 'Well, I can't tell you.' But he didn't deny that he was an extraterrestrial."

Merlin first became aware of his mission in "the First Contact programme" after meeting Trad - a so-called Grey ("your usual alien"), about 4ft tall, with a thin body, long arms, bony fingers, and a large head with big insect-like eyes and grey skin. According to the alien lobbyist, there are over 700 travel agents in 35 star systems waiting to send intergalactic tourists.

Several Rachel residents are outraged at Ambassador Merlin's involvement with the renaming of the highway. Not all are sceptics. "Some people believe that Merlin is not an alien at all but that he is in fact a human with some profound personal problems," says Glenn Campbell, who gave up his job as a computer programmer in Boston and is now director of the Area 51 Research Center - a small business run out of a trailer. He wrote the witty and informative "Area 51" Viewers Guide and also has a large web site (http://www.ufomind.com), where he posts everything he can find about Area 51. Of all the people I meet in Rachel, Campbell (whose thin moustache and khaki shorts call to mind an English boy scout leader) is one of the most down-to-earth. "I've been back and forth on the UFO question," he says. "I've seen fantastic lights. Great glowing orbs that hovered in the sky. Great-looking UFOs - until I realised that they were military flares for illumination of the ground exercises."

His primary interest now is in "the fight for greater government accountability at Area 51", and, to this end, he has led several mini- expeditions to local viewing points from which one can see the base at a distance of about 25 miles. All approaches to it are heavily guarded. The closest one can get before being stopped is 15 miles, along the dirt road that leads to Groom Lake, but from here the base is hidden behind low mountains. "The fact that the government could keep UFOs there, even if there aren't any - is kind of disturbing," he says. So far, so sane. "But don't laugh off that the government has alien craft. My scenario is that there were crashes and these led to contact between the aliens and the government, which has a programme to work with the alien hardware. This information comes from former workers there who I know and trust," says Campbell. (A call to the Pentagon produces a roar of laughter on this score: "We're not harbouring extraterrestrials anywhere in the country," says a spokesman.)

On the day of the dedication, Campbell formed a small protest group -- to the annoyance of Pat and Joe Travis, who own The Little A-'le'-Inn, where Campbell lived until, he claims, they had "a falling- out". He is now officially banned from there, which may explain another of his objections to the renaming of the highway - that it "primarily promotes a single local business, the Little A-'le'-Inn, and the extreme right-wing views of its proprietors". Certainly, the interest has had commercial consequences. Outside the inn, a sign proclaims: "Earthlings Welcome", and business has never been better. "I've had someone make a statement that it's just for the money," Pat exclaims. "Well, let me be the first to say, I don't work 14 hours a day, nine days a week, to not make money. We took on a failing business, and we have now succeeded for eight years. It's wonderful. I have people come from all over the world because of the UFOs." And yet, as Campbell will testify, Rachel's transition from sleepy little town to UFO media magnet has not been without its upsets.

To be banned from the only bar in town is pretty severe punishment in a place like Rachel. The most exciting thing I saw there was a mini-twister whirlwind of dust whipping across the dirt road in front of the Inn. Otherwise there is absolutely nothing to do except eat (Alien burgers), drink (Beam Me Up Scotties - bourbon, Scotch and 7-Up), listen for rattlesnakes in the silence of the surrounding desert and chew the fat with locals and visiting ufologists in the bar. Oh, and get as close as possible to the military base without being arrested by the guards in camouflage (so-called "cammo-dudes") who patrol the area round it in white Cherokee jeeps.

Ben, a twentysomething chef who heard about Rachel on the Internet last year, has come all the way from Perth, Australia, to do just that. "I want to do whatever I can to antagonise the cammo-dudes so I can take films of them just to show back home," he says. He and two other friends in Perth have a house full of computers and monitoring gadgets. "We investigate anything paranormal," he says. He plans to spend the evening looking at the skies with binoculars by the "Black Mailbox" - a vantage point about 20 miles out of town from which many UFO sightings have been made, usually, for some reason, on Wednesday nights.

Chuck Clark is an amateur astronomer and author of The Area 51 S4 Handbook. He has been interested in ufology since 1957, when, aged 11, he believes he saw UFOs in broad daylight. "We thought they were just military jets until two F84 jets arrived to try to intercept them, and then we could see that their diameter was only about one metre and we realised that they were silent." Last February he had his most spectacular sighting. "I thought it was a parachute flare at first, descending over by the ridge. But it hovered about 20ft above the ground and then suddenly the thing shot to my right - parallel. It went 4.8 miles in 1.8 seconds and it stopped on a dime. That wasn't a flare! I got the binoculars on it and it suddenly vanished," he says. "At that speed there should have been a sonic boom but there wasn't." He believes that the base is at least aware of UFO activity. "These craft are obviously here with our permission, because this is some of the most restricted airspace in the world, and there's been no attempt made to shoot them down or anything." But he is dubious about claims of alien abductions - especially, he says, when the abductee claims to have been given some message that's going to benefit mankind. "Well, the wacko flag goes up then," says the 49-year-old, who spends most evenings flashing his car lights at the cammo-dudes for an hour or two before heading into the desert for the rest of the night to watch for UFOs.

Back at the Little A-'le'-Inn, it's an ordinary afternoon. Two French tourists are looking at the alien books for sale. Chuck Clark is talking on the phone to a TV station that called to ask him about aliens. Two out-of-towners have just left to go and harass the cammo-dudes. Ben from Perth is being advised on the best binoculars for spying on the base, and a few people at the bar are pondering the big questions in life: why are we here? What are we? Where are we going? "Perhaps aliens produced us. Some of them are claiming this, but I wouldn't trust a government official or an alien if they said it to me," says Pizzuti, who moved to Rachel from Los Angeles to get away from the stress of city life. "I was racing everywhere and getting speeding tickets. It takes a toll on your nerves and your health. I love it here. Rachel gives you the quietness to think," he adds, improbably, "and to clear your mind." !

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