The Barnes & Noble Review
Could the U.S. government or some other unknown entity be hiding captured alien spacecraft in the Nevada desert? What is being done at a secretive and mysterious site that costs American taxpayers billions of dollars per year? What work could be so sensitive that employees are threatened with jail and subjected to toxic chemicals, the very names of which are classified?
Area 51, Dreamland, Groom Lake, Paradise Ranch, Watertown Strip, the Box all refer to the notorious top-secret research installation that has inspired these odd questions. Built under the direction of the CIA in the 1950s, when its location qualified as the most remote and secure place in the continental United States, the base served as the original test site for the U-2 spy plane and the F-117 stealth fighter. This once obscure operating location a hundred miles north of Las Vegas the mere discussion of which can cost an employee a fine of $10,000 and ten years in jail has come to stand for all that is shadowy and nefarious about the military-industrial-intelligence complex. From alien spacecraft to mind-control technology, genetic experiments on kidnapped children to the diabolical invention of deadly diseases, the imaginative tales of Area 51 could pass for an "X-Files" script. Amid this atmosphere of hyperbole and hysteria, critically acclaimed journalist David Darlington set out to sift the truth from the illusions.
The result, Area 51: The Dreamland Chronicles, is an eye-opening and disturbing look at this infamous place. Darlington unfolds the history,legends,and characters involved with Area 51 and, with his trademark ability to fuse broad themes with local detail, weaves a weird tale of intrigue and outrage that speaks volumes about popular culture and American democracy at the end of the 20th century.
To the most provocative stories those alleging alien contact Darlington brings an unusual balance of skepticism and open-mindedness, weighing the odds by comparing accounts and assessing eyewitnesses. For every frantically spun yarn, there turns out to be one from a reliable source that will disarm even the most defensive reader. But Area 51 is about much more than merely bringing sci-fi to life; it's about the culture of paranoia that modern technology has bred and will continue to foster, about grand-scale government secrets that threaten the democratic ideal, about the ethics of military spending in times of peace, and about the limits of public knowledge and the limitlessness of the imagination.
David Darlington's Area
51: The Dreamland Chronicles gave me an
epiphany about the nature of extraterrestrial life
that I will share at the end of this review. But
first, know that Area 51 is a secret air base in the
Nevada desert about 100 miles northwest as the
crow flies (or saucer saucates) from Las Vegas.
Area 51 is where the government ostensibly tests
duplicated alien technology. There may also be
aliens themselves stashed there, critters
resembling the ambassador that stepped off the
mothership in Close Encounters (who, in turn,
was a dead ringer for one of the bodies found in
Roswell, N.M., so long ago).
Whatever is going on in Area 51, the governor of
Nevada recently renamed nearby Interstate 375
the "Extraterrestrial Highway." Darlington knows
about desert highways. His last book, The
Mojave, was a lively chronicle of that
Californian dry land where the author found a
UFO nut or two. Nevada, however, seems to be
filled with nothing but such folks (hereafter called
UFONs). Darlington's new book is primarily set
in the Mecca of UFONs, the Little A-Le-Inn
motel in Rachel, Nev. There, he recorded pages
of dialogue that sound like this: "The saucer that
Lazar worked on at S-4 boasted three gravity
amplifiers and a reactor. The latter, which was
about the size of a basketball, contained a small
particle accelerator, in which a chunk of 115 was
bombarded with protons."
In addition to dry techno-speak, one of the
UFONs has a poster of a saucer flying over the
words, "They're here." Ah! Just like Fox
Mulder's "I Want to Believe" poster on The
X-Files. In fact, Area 51 is the book Mulder
would write if he weren't a fictional FBI agent.
After all, Fox isn't a particularly wild guy. And
neither is Darlington. At no point do either one of
them pull a Hunter S. Thompson on us. Area
51 is no Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,
beginning: "We were under the saucers around
Papoose Lake when the drugs began to take
hold." But this complaint is only a matter of taste.
Darlington remains a fine Sunday-morning
magazine kind of writer. The only "druggy" prose
is spoken by the UFONs themselves.
As for the aliens, they're dull as dishwater. Which
is my epiphany. Aliens don't care about culture --
they've never visited the Louvre or hung out
backstage at a Stones concert. Aliens have never
abducted anyone interesting, like rude NBA
coaches. Worse, aliens have no sense of humor
or mischief. If I came from outer space, I'd land
on the White House lawn and demand that
President Clinton reveal his crooked penis.
Instead, aliens hang around with career military
personnel in the desert, which is to say aliens
have as much personality as turtles. Now, let me
make it clear, this is my take on ETs. Darlington
himself reveals little of his. Neither is he
judgmental about the kooks he investigates. Not
even when one of them reveals that those missing
children on the side of milk cartons are all organ
donors to alien research. It did dawn on me while
I was reading his fun -- but not fun enough --
book that Darlington could be an alien abductee
himself. If he is, I hope he gets picked up again.
This time by the same saucer that abducted
Hunter S. Thompson so long ago. -- Salon
Although dozens of books have been written about the infamous Roswell, New Mexico, and "Area 51," north of Las Vegas, Nevada, both supposed sites of extraterrestrial biological entities (EBEs), most of these books rely on indirect evidence and questionable witnesses, and the present work is no exception. Darlington (The Mojave, LJ 4/1/96) conducted a series of interviews and direct observations of the now tourist-infested Area 51 site. Unfortunately, he uncovered no new evidence or credible testimony to finally prove the existence of EBEs. Darlington follows the trials and tribulations of Bob Lazar and Glenn Campbell (not the singer)characters with dubious backgrounds who attempt to spread their beliefs in UFOs. Unless readers are interested in the life of an amateur UFO investigator or trailer life, they will likely find nothing new or even entertaining here.Mark E. Ellis, Albany State Univ., Ga.
From the Publisher
"This witty yet disturbing book reminds us that citizens in a free society still have the power to challenge the secret activities of government."--Steven Aftergood, The Federation of American Scientists
Catch this page-turner before those damn CIA goons seize all the copies."--Maxim magazine
Read an Excerpt
The Dreamland Chronicles
By David Darlington
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 1997 David Darlington
All rights reserved.
One day in October 1993, I left my home in northern California and drove east through the Great Central Valley, through the burnished Gold Rush foothills, past the polished granite of Yosemite, over the vertiginous Sierra Nevada crest, past the blue expanse of Mono Lake and streaked cinder slopes of its adjoining craters, through the forests that give way to sagebrush west of Benton Hot Springs, below cloud-capped Boundary Peak in the bristlecone-dotted White Mountains, and into that vast and vacant territory, that wide-open alternation of elevation and depression, that enormous interior drainage bowl of dry-lake-dotted desert — that congenitally uncontrolled kingdom which despite being composed almost wholly of federal land and a vociferously patriotic American populace hardly seems part of the United States, realm of the piñon pine and juniper, scourge of gamblers and forty-niners, home to untamed mustangs, unreined brothels, and unbridled atomic bombs: the fastest-growing state in the Union, the Silver State, that sovereign state of mind called Nevada.
The welcome sign to Tonopah High School said HOME OF THE MUCKERS. East of town along U.S. Highway 6 was the missile-flanked entrance to the Tonopah Test Range, from which squadrons of stealth fighters embarked for the Persian Gulf in 1990. The most common road sign contained the black silhouette of a prancing bull within the customary yellow diamond, underscored by the words OPEN RANGE. Wild horses gamboled on the plains; fighter jets carved the sky with contrails; mountains sucked streaks out of the clouds to pummel the darkened earth with storms. In places where rain had recently fallen, the surface of the two-lane blacktop steamed in the sun. Rainbows shimmered above shining mesas. The air was redolent of sage.
As I turned south on Nevada 375 at Warm Springs — an unpeopled intersection with a collection of cottonwoods and an abandoned pool of hot water — I entered the fallout zone: the swath of the West that took the brunt of atmospheric testing in the 1950s, when nuclear bombs were detonated only if the wind was blowing this way. As I topped plutonium-tinged Queen City Summit and crossed the line between Nye and Lincoln counties, ahead and below in the gathering dusk, adjacent to an unnamed playa, I could see the scattered trailer homes that comprise the town of Rachel: population 100, elevation 4970 feet, established approximately 1978. Within the enormity of Sand Springs Valley, it looked like some research compound on a distant planet.
Luckily, the red-white-and-blue sign in front of the Little A-Le-Inn said EARTHLINGS WELCOME. I pulled into the parking lot and went inside the building, which was actually a double-wide house trailer. The only people in the room were a stout, pretty, dark-haired barmaid and a guy in a baseball hat who was playing the slot machine. The jukebox had a few recent pop tunes augmenting its staple diet of Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, and Randy Travis. The walls were decorated with pictures of fighter planes from nearby Nellis Air Force Range, little gray aliens with big dark eyes, and local terrestrial luminaries: the science buff Bob Lazar, the pilot John Lear, the TV reporter George Knapp, the radio host Anthony Hilder, the funeral director Norio Hayakawa, and the self-proclaimed "world's foremost UFO researcher" Sean David Morton, who was shown meditating beneath a pyramid. T-shirts, bumper stickers, and U.S. Geological Survey maps of the area were for sale. On one wall was a six-foot panoramic photo of the secret base at Area 51, located twenty-five miles to the south. There was also an extensive library containing books and magazines and a stack of binders: UFO Papers and Reports, the International UFO Reporter, Skeptics UFO Newsletter, MUFON Local Chapters, Bob Lazar Paranet Printouts, Black Mailbox Magazine Articles, Newsletters and Press Releases, Roswell and General Reference, Crop Circles, Black Budget Aircraft, UFO Intelligence and International UFO Library. Most of this was the property of one Glenn Campbell (not the noted pop-country troubadour, who spells his name with only one N).
I asked the guy in the baseball cap if he'd ever been near the secret base. He said that one night when he was drunk, he'd crossed the boundary and been caught by the guards, but they decided to let him go. He showed me a copy of a form he'd signed admitting that what he'd done was illegal and subject to a five-hundred-dollar fine.
I went back outside and drove half a mile down the road to another trailer whose sign said AREA 51 RESEARCH CENTER. The yard was filled with cacti, cattle skulls, a miniature windmill, a pair of plastic "Smokey Sam" rockets, and a piece of airplane fuselage bearing the letters AF 51. A camper was parked in the driveway, and a bald, mustachioed man in his thirties was out in front. This was Glenn Campbell, whose voice betrayed northeastern roots when he said, "Welcome to Rachel."
I had phoned Campbell ahead of time to tell him I was coming. I had never met him, but knew him as the author of the Area 51 Viewer's Guide — a collection of information about the base and region, beginning with "Commonly Asked Questions" ("What is the best time to look for flying saucers?" — "What will happen if I intrude into the restricted zone?") and continuing with advice to visitors, a mile-by-mile guide to points along Highway 375, and meditations on everything from local government to extraterrestrial intelligence.
I had learned about Area 51 at a cocktail party a few months earlier. At the time, I was working on a book about the Mojave Desert; one of its chapters concerned a structure in California called the Integratron, which had served as a focal point for the UFO craze of the 1950s. When I mentioned this at the party, a woman asked if I knew about Rachel and the Little A-Le-Inn. I soon learned that the town, the bar, and the base had been featured on A Current Affair, in the Los Angeles Times, even in Business Week ("Little Gray Men Made My Eyes Turn Red"). Within the next few months, the subject would also find its way into the New York Times Magazine and onto the cover of Popular Science, and within a couple of years would be investigated on Sixty Minutes, portrayed in the movie Independence Day, and chosen as the location for a three-hour UFO special on Larry King Live. There wasn't much consistency to these dispatches, some of which focused on flying saucers while some didn't mention UFOs at all, choosing instead to dwell on issues involving government secrecy. But there seemed to be something here for everybody, all piqued by the allure (in the words of the New York Times) of a "base so secret that it doesn't exist."
As I pieced it together over time, the outline of the overall story went like this: Area 51 was located next door to the Nevada Test Site, where the government had experimented with nuclear bombs since 1951. Although it has never appeared on aviation charts or U.S. Geological Survey maps, a base was built in the mid-fifties alongside Groom Lake, a remote playa ringed by parched mountains, for the U-2 spyplane. After Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, the place continued to serve as the test site for Black Budget (secretly funded) intelligence and defense projects, including the A-12 and SR-71 Blackbirds, the F-117 Stealth fighter, and a rumored hypersonic spyplane called the Aurora. For decades it was known to insiders as Watertown Strip or the Ranch, to aircraft buffs and military pilots as Dreamland or the Box — the latter names referring respectively to the call sign of its control tower and its off-limits status on aeronautical maps. Even Nellis fighter pilots taking part in "Red Flag" war games were grounded and interrogated if they overflew the restricted airspace. The base had also reportedly been used for Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) research and NASA and commando training, which, combined with the Nellis aeronautical activity, sometimes rendered the local night skies a virtual fireworks display of flashing and streaming lights. Unmarked 737 flights from Las Vegas (one hundred miles to the south) and Palmdale, California (location of the "Skunk Works," headquarters for Lockheed Advanced Development Projects), dispensed a daily workforce of between one and two thousand employees, who were required to sign security oaths prohibiting them from even mentioning the place, violation subject to ten years in jail and a fine of ten thousand dollars.
In 1984, without the required approval of Congress, the Air Force seized control of 89,000 acres of public land around the base to prevent people from coming near it. This inspired a series of hearings in Washington, D.C., during which the Air Force representative, John Rittenhouse, told the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Lands and National Parks, Representative John Seiberling of Ohio, that he could explain the reasons for the withdrawal only in a closed briefing. When Rittenhouse said that the decision to take the land had been made at a higher level than his, Sieberling responded that "there is no higher level than the laws of the United States" — signifying, in the minds of some, that Area 51 was outside the control of the U.S. government and, by extension, the American people. The controversy was exacerbated by the Air Force's ongoing refusal to acknowledge the existence of any military facility in the area.
The intrigue escalated to a new and different level in 1989, when an obscure Las Vegas technician named Bob Lazar appeared on a local television news show and claimed that, on the recommendation of Edward Teller, the so-called father of the hydrogen bomb and chief proponent of SDI ("Star Wars") defense technology, he had been hired to work at Area 51. Lazar said that when he reported to the base, he was taken in a bus with blacked-out windows to another, smaller playa called Papoose Lake ("S-4" in alleged classified parlance), where he learned that his task was to research the propulsion systems of recovered alien spacecraft. With disarming lucidity, Lazar delivered a detailed recital of a fantastic story, touching off a frenzy in the UFO subculture. Seekers from around the world soon began making pilgrimages to Rachel, where they gathered at a black mailbox in the desert south of town, near the spot on Highway 375 where Lazar said he'd taken his friends to watch flight tests of the spacecraft on Wednesday nights — a misstep that supposedly led to his severance from the program. Quick on the uptake, the Rachel Bar and Grill expeditiously renamed itself the Little A-Le-Inn, declaring its candidacy as Mecca to UFO believers.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., a class-action suit was filed alleging that Area 51 employees had sustained long-term health damage from toxic materials illegally burned in open pits at the base. Claiming that any disclosures about classified activities would jeopardize national security, the government declined to address the charges, adding yet more acetylene to the inferno.
Unfortunately for the Air Force, its 1984 land withdrawal had neglected a promontory called White Sides Mountain, an unobstructed viewpoint just outside the border of Area 51. Photos of hangars, runways, and towers at the "nonexistent" base soon began appearing in magazines as curious hikers and correspondents converged on the peak. A private enterprise called Secret Saucer Base Expeditions even offered guided tours, promising disclosure of previously withheld government information on extraterrestrials. Whenever people were at large in the area, operations at the base had to be delayed or canceled, playing havoc with operations. Hence, in 1993, the Air Force filed a new application for four thousand more restricted acres, citing the need "to ensure the public safety and the safe and secure operation of activities in the Nellis Air Force Range Complex."
This time, watchdogs were waiting. Citizen Alert, an antinuclear organization in Reno and Las Vegas that had protested the earlier closure, and an ad-hoc group called the Rural Alliance for Military Accountability lobbied actively against the new withdrawal. Proponents of the neo-Sagebrush Rebellion, which holds that the federal government has no legal claim to Western lands, declared the proposal unconstitutional. Lincoln County — 99 percent of which is public property and whose commissioners hadn't initially been notified of the plan — registered a formal protest. And citizen Glenn Campbell, lured by the legends, moved from his home in Boston to Rachel, where, operating from a corner table in the Little A-Le-Inn, he set up the Secrecy Oversight Council and White Sides Defense Committee, both of which consisted entirely of he, himself, and him.
In the forays along the border that culminated in his Viewer's Guide, Campbell succeeded in becoming a good-sized thorn in the side of the government. He furnished visitors with directions to the border and counseled them about their rights if they were challenged. He tied ribbons around Joshua trees to mark the route up White Sides Mountain; when those were removed, he spray-painted arrows on the rocks, and when those were eradicated, he replaced them with larger, more numerous ones. He dismantled motion sensors on public land along the Groom Lake access road ("a buffer zone for the buffer zone," he charged) and published the arrival and departure times for the flights that shuttled workers to the base, as well as the radio frequencies used by the Groom Lake air control tower, the security guards, and the Lincoln County sheriff. In short, he pushed the jurisdiction of the government as far as he could within the limits of the law and framework of the Constitution.
Most irksome of all to authorities, Campbell discovered an even better vantage point than White Sides Mountain: a ridgeline only a dozen miles from Groom Lake, with a bleacher-seat view of the base. In October 1993, he announced that he would lead a campout on this legal overlook, which he had christened Freedom Ridge. I had driven to Rachel in order to take part.
* * *
Inside the Area 51 Research Center, shelves and cartons overflowed with files: "Freedom of Information Act," "UFO Catalogs," "Las Vegas Newspaper Articles," "Nevada Test Site & Nellis AFB." In one corner was a copy machine, in another a computer. A poster display of "Modern Warplanes" adorned one wall, while a model army helicopter rested on a table. (At least once, Campbell had been sought out and sandblasted by an unmarked Blackhawk on White Sides Mountain.) Affixed to the refrigerator was the "Rachel phone book": a single sheet of paper containing thirty or forty names and numbers. The place had the atmosphere of a bunker or bivouac. In a back room, Campbell cleared a space for himself to sleep. Perusing the accommodations, I asked what had motivated him to move from Boston to a trailer in Rachel.
"I regard myself as an irritant," he explained. "I'm a lobbyist for openness. The military's job is to protect national security, which to them means not to let the enemy in on what you're doing. I agree that you can't let a Saddam Hussein know what you have, but wherever there are secrets, there are going to be abuses. The military is always pushing for more secrecy and more land; they could probably make a case that they need all of Nevada and the rest of the western states if we let them get away with it. But somebody has to push from the other direction. Fate has given me that job."
As we departed the trailer to have dinner, I noticed that Campbell left his door unlocked. We went back up the road to the A-Le-Inn, which in observance of Nevada custom serves a low-priced buffet on weekends. Accordingly, the place was now packed with Rachel residents, many of whom were reputedly employed at the "Test Site," a catch-all term for the conglomerate comprised of Nellis, Area 51, and the A-bomb center itself — a total region as large as Switzerland.
As Campbell and I sat down, an elderly man paused alongside us on his way to the bar. Shielding the contents from the view of others in the room, he opened his wallet to show Glenn an ID card from Wackenhut. This was the high-level CIA-affiliated security firm rumored to supply the guards who patrol the base's border.
Excerpted from Area 51 by David Darlington. Copyright © 1997 David Darlington. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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