Area 51, Dreamland, Groom Lake, Paradise Ranch, Watertown Strip, the Box: all refer to the top-secret research installation, located a hundred miles north of Las Vegas, which, for many, has come to stand for all that is shadowy and nefarious about the military-industrial-intelligence complex. Built under the direction of the CIA in the 1950s, the base served as the original test site for the U-2 spy plane and F-117 stealth fighter jet. In more recent years, Area 51 has spurred public interest from its role in the government's $30 billion "Black Budget," from legal claims of worker illness due to toxic burning, and from sensational charges about captured alien spacecraft. It has also given birth to a feisty guerrilla subculture bent on exploding the secrecy surrounding this mysterious spot. David Darlington unfolds the history, legs, and characters involved with Area 51, weaving a weird tale of intrigue and outrage and UFOs that speaks volumes about popular culture and American democracy at the of the twentieth century.
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About the Author
David Darlington is the critically acclaimed author of The Mojave (1996, 0-8050-5594-0), In Condor Country, and Angel's Visits. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
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The Dreamland Chronicles
By David Darlington
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PROLOGUE: Millennial Nightmares,
ONE: Freedom Ridge,
TWO: Paradise Ranch,
FOUR: The Interceptors,
FIVE: Their Elders,
SIX: The Other Hand,
SEVEN: A Higher Form of Hungarian,
EIGHT: Loose Fur Rising,
NINE: The Tour de Luxor,
TEN: Agent X,
ELEVEN: The Extraterrestrial Highway,
EPILOGUE: Matters of Ethics and Principle,
Also by David Darlington,
On Wednesday, December 10th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed David Darlington to discuss AREA 51.
Moderator: Welcome, David Darlington! Thanks for joining us tonight. Is this your first online chat?
David Darlington: Well, it's nice to be here. No, I've never done this before.
Scott Carr from The Flying Saucer Gazette: Having reported the death of Psychospy in THE DREAMLAND CHRONICLES, how do you feel about his recent rebirth? What do you think of the "new" Desert Rat?
David Darlington: As far as I know there has only been one, and specifically it was a review of a book or a story. It would be nice if Glenn Campbell would go back to his freewheeling style of the Desert Rat. I think that the Desert Rat is so entertaining that it can only benefit readers if Glenn decides to keep going.
Foo Bar from The Land of Id: What was it about this area in Nevada that made it so appropriate for 51?
David Darlington: If you mean for the base itself -- in the time it was built (in '55), it was considered the most secure part of the continental U.S. It's right next to the Nevada test site where the government has tested nuclear bombs since 1950. At first they thought that was a bad reason to put it there, but then they decided that the security was so valuable that it was a good idea after all.
Barbara from Tempe: What is the significance of the number 51?
David Darlington: That number was picked randomly; the test site is divided into separate areas, so I think they just picked a number so it would seem as if it were part of the test site. Although, from my experience, people who are into numerology can come up with some significant reasons for the number 51. I know that the Tour de France bike race has been won by the number 51 more than by any other.
Dave Snyder from Chicago: After all of your research, do you believe that extraterrestrials exist here on Earth?
David Darlington: I always hate this question! I remain an agnostic on the question of extraterrestrial life; there's no proof either for or against it. There's an expression that's been circulating recently to the effect that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But there are a lot of things you could say that about. One thing you can say about Area 51 is that aside from the UFO questions, the story of the base and the characters that surround it is a fascinating topic, and essentially the real topic of my book is the paranoid mentality bred by the cold war.
Grace from S.L.C.: Hi, David. Did you see the movie "Independence Day"? If so, did you find it at all plausible?
David Darlington: Yes, I did see it. I felt obligated to see it. The portrayal of Area 51 was only remotely connected to the reality of Area 51. The idea that there's an underground lab for working on recovered alien spacecraft certainly seems feasible from the point of view of the base's high security. But the portrayal of this lab was rather fanciful, and the spacecraft itself bore no resemblance to the craft described by Bob Lazar, who is the premier spreader of rumors about flying saucers at Area 51. Certainly the occupants of the spacecraft in the movie are much more reptilian and monstrous than any that even the tall tales depict.
Melissa Shipp from Delaware: What was your reaction to new television programs like "The X-Files" -- and what do you think of their strong following and avid fans?
David Darlington: I am an avid fan of "The X-Files." They do a great job of depicting some of the most paranoid conspiracy fantasies that are in circulation, and they enjoy the great luxury of not having to prove any of it. One of my theories is that since the end of the cold war, the American populus still seems to require some sort of outside threat to justify the continuing secrecy and vast expenditures that were once reserved for the Soviets. Hence, a great upsurge of interest in the idea of alien visitation.
Kyara Bushnell from Columbus, OH: I just have one basic question: How does the government benefit by keeping Area 51 secret from the public?
David Darlington: When you enjoy the privilege of operating completely in the black with regard to public or congressional oversight, you have a lot of freedom to do whatever you want. Unfortunately, this has been seen to result in wastage of billions of tax dollars, and if you believe the anonymous workers who recently filed suit against the government for health injuries due to burning toxic waste at Area 51, then you can see how a secret base is able to operate outside the law and the rules of the Constitution.
Jesse from Minneapolis: What fact about Area 51 freaked you out the most?
David Darlington: The idea that if you were to cross the boundary or even be taken across the boundary without any witnesses, you could disappear permanantly, since no law enforcement or other agency is authorized to go in and look for you.
Becca from Deerfield, MA: I was an American Studies major in college, and I focused on the '50s, the McCarthy era, and the paranoia that you described. Now that there is no longer a cold war or an iron curtain, do you think that the resurgence of interest in areas like 51 and in UFOs and extraterrestrials is the result of the American people needing to feel unified against a common enemy?
David Darlington: Yes. As I said before, that is what I believe. I also believe that this is a result of the cold war and the culture of secrecy bred by the last half century of paranoia, which has had the result of making American citizens distrust their own government. Along with the cold war itself, the running subject of my book is democracy from the level of rural Lincoln County, Nevada, all the way up to Congress, the Pentagon, and the President, who recently exempted Area 51 from complying with environmental law. (I also was an American Studies major in college, and I feel that Area 51 is a great study in American culture.)
MW from God knows where: When a great deal of the public know of Area 51, why does the government still try to cover it up?
David Darlington: For that same reason of maintaining the privilege and freedom to operate without rules in total secrecy. Although at this point you'd think they would see that it begs the question of exactly what they're trying to hide; when even the funds are kept hidden from Congress and taxpayers, it violates the clear demands of the U.S. Constitution.
George from Louisville: What has actually been developed at Area 51? Stealth technology...what else?
David Darlington: It was built for the U2 Spy Plane in 1955, and after the U2 it was the secret testing and development site for the A-12 Blackbird Spy Plane. Among other secret projects, one theory advanced by two of the characters in the book is that when the U2 was shot down over Soviet Russia in 1960, it was sabotaged or allowed by the U.S. in order to create the necessity for continuing to develop the A-12, which was already underway.
Dr. Blue from Salt Lake City: Is Area 51 still active with UFO aircraft? Some have suggested that they have moved some of the UFOs to Utah. Close to Green River, Utah, I believe. What have you heard?
David Darlington: The suggestion in Popular Mechanics Magazine was not that UFOs were moved but that the secret aircraft operations of Area 51 were moved to Green River, Utah, and Michael Army Airfield. But this is false. The Green River location is empty and vacant, and Area 51 is still quite active at its location near Groom Dry Lake in Nevada.
Kevin from Canada: Are there any locations remaining that have not yet been cordoned off by the authorities -- where parts of the base are still visible to the human eye?
David Darlington: Yes, a mountain called Peekaboo, south of the town of Rachel, is a good viewpoint about 25 miles away. It's pretty far, but you can still at least see that the base exists. A good guide to these places is the Area 51 viewers guide by Glenn Campbell; see his Web site: www.ufomind.com.
Jim from San Jacinto: David, what are your views on the Lazar story? Do you believe him? How do you feel about Lazar's friend Gene Huff? In reading your book, I sense some hostility there.
David Darlington: [Laughs] Bob Lazar is a curious and fascinating individual. His story is amazing in its content and detail, but his background seems to cast doubt on his credibility, and the physics of his claims of UFO propulsion don't hold up. As for Gene Huff, it's interesting that Lazar would allow such an offensive person to function as his spokesman.
Scott Carr from The Flying Saucer Gazette: What is your prediction for the future of all the interesting characters in your book -- the Travises, Merlyn II, Glenn Campbell-- now that the Area 51 saga seems to have peaked and leveled off?
David Darlington: Glenn Campbell seems to be settling down into domestic life, and it will be interesting to see what he does next. He's a very talented writer but seems to function most comfortably in the libertarian context of the Internet. Tom Mahood is now a graduate student in physics and is actually working on a project that, if it pans out, could result in major advances in propulsion. As for the Travises and Ambassador Merlyn, they were essentially given life by the intrigue surrounding Area 51, and one assumes that their notoriety will continue only as long as Area 51 continues to intrigue the worldwide population.
M. Swake from Chicago: Do you think with all the public attention on Area 51, with both books and movies speculating on it, that the government has closed it down or moved it to another location?
David Darlington: No, see the preceding question and answer. It's not inconceivable that there are even more secret sites than Area 51 that the public hasn't found out about. One of my sources was told by an Air Force officer to "look to the north."
Robert B. from Columbia: Will you have a follow-up to this book, or are you working on something else now? I am anxious, having read this work, to read more of your writing.
David Darlington: Thank you. My previous book, THE MOJAVE, is just out in paperback and was what led me originally to the topic of Area 51. Area 51 is such an engrossing subject that I'm currently at a loss for what to tackle next -- DREAMLAND covers so many stimulating areas of human and nonhuman endeavor. In the meantime, everyone should tell their local Barnes & Noble store to move AREA 51: THE DREAMLAND CHRONICLES out of New Age and Occult and into New Nonfiction, where people might actually be able to see it.
Moderator: Thanks for answering all of our queries here tonight, Mr. Darlington. I've no doubt you've inspired much thinking! Best of luck and happy holidays.
David Darlington: It's great to see so many thoughtful questions and interest in this subject. Thanks to everyone for paying attention, and all I can say about the book is: The truth is in here!