Alien visitors restore ghost town's spirits

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Rachel, Nevada - If ET does come home, says Governor Bob Miller, "I would like it to be in Nevada". He will preside this month at the opening of a 97-mile airstrip for flying saucers, a section of desolate desert road whose new name is the Extra Terrestrial Highway.

The talk at the Little A'le'Inn, the highway's roadside motel, is that ET has landed already. He may even be working alongside US engineers at the top secret US military installation on the other side of Bald Mountain, teaching them the ABCs of UFO propulsion.

"You all go search for UFOs now," says Sharon Singer, a researcher who investigates the wilder theories about the airbase, known as Area 51, giggling between Alien burgers washed down with Beam Me Up Scotty and Alien Secretion cocktails.

"You are in Rachel, and anything you want to think is for real." The former Highway 375 sweeps through Nevada's high desert, an unforgiving place in a state with the lowest rainfall in the country. The sun beats down by day and temperatures drop sharply at night, when the stars seem very close.

Residents of Rachel, population 100 and the highway's only hamlet, named for the only child ever born there, are often enlisted to retrieve stranded tourists with empty tanks. The sign leaving Rachel reads "Next Gas 110 miles". The route's highlights include ghost towns and abandoned mining camps, along with the 26-mile marker where a UFO watcher and his wife claim to have been abducted by an alien named Quaylar in 1983.

The campaign to rename the road followed a series of alleged UFO sightings in the early 1990s. It included demonstrations at the State Capitol by a local man named Merlin, convinced he had flown in from the planet Delmonicus. Governor Miller agreed to the measure to boost tourism. Locals are already doing a brisk trade in T-shirts, keyrings, and alien busts. Wednesday is considered the best viewing night, and while most locals say they've never seen UFOs, the visitorsseldom appear disappointed.

The Little A' Le' Inn was the plain old Rachel Bar and Grill until owner the Pat Travis, a grizzled Kentucky carpenter,had a flash of inspiration and began adding rooms. Now its walls are littered with UFO photographs.

Conversation, with guests from all over the US and as far away as Australia, revolves around one topic. In 1989 a self-described physicist, Bob Lazar, was interviewed on a Las Vegas television station. He claimed to have worked at a "flying saucer base" in the desert where the US military was studying stranded alien aircraft.

Mr Lazar picked a good location: the Groom Lake airbase, where the US government has developed and tested much of its most closely guarded aerospace technology. Rachel, 20 miles away, is the nearest civilian site. For years the bat-like F-117 Stealth bomber flitted through the mountains around Rachel, while it was still part of a "black" defence program whose very existence was denied by the US government. The secrecy fuelled the UFO stories.

Trespassers on land around the base are arrested instantly and usually fined several hundred dollars. It makes for an unusual type of tourism: driving to the edge of the restricted zone to read signs that warn the use of "deadly force" is authorised. Then it's back to the bar to swap more alien folklore. "The earth is but a grain of sand on a very large beach," intones owner Pat. "It doesn't make sense to think we're alone."

Tim Cornwell