They don’t speak to or interact with you until you break the rules; in fact, they often cover their faces as they pass oncoming cars. Their function, for the most part, seems to be to act so scary that you don’t consider breaking the rules. When I visited last fall to do some reporting for a UFO culture book, the tactics worked.

The police here for Storm Area 51, though, were friendly—jovial even. They encouraged people to go up to the gates—perhaps in a “nothing to see here, ma’am” kind of way—and seemed mostly curious about what would happen. Plus, this early in the week, they probably outnumbered the visitors. A meaningless digital RSVP, it turns out, isn’t just a problem for your dinner party. It’s a problem for secret-base raids, too.

On Thursday morning, a few people meandered around the Little A’Le’Inn, the only business in Rachel, Nevada—not just an inn but a bar, restaurant, and alien-themed souvenir shop—the base for an event formerly known as Alienstock and now, after befalling some misfortune, called A’le’Inn Stock. With not many people onsite, I headed to Area 51’s back gate instead, a 20-ish-minute drive from Rachel, in search of the crowd.

Dust rolls out from behind my car like a wave rip-curling. It’s so dry out here that any guards could see cars coming for miles and miles before they arrived, evidence of their progress showing up like tiny, turbulent tornadoes. And indeed, the officer is ready for me when I arrive. He was called in from Lake Tahoe, he says, greeting me and a man from Ohio, who pulls up with a “LET’S SEE THEM ALIENS” sign. He asks if I would take his picture. “PHOTOGRAPHY OF THIS AREA IS PROHIBITED” blares a red sign right behind him.

“Can I take a picture?” I ask the officer.

“Sure, go ahead,” he says.

Later in the day, I go to the other gate, where there’s now a roadblock maybe a quarter-mile before the gate itself. Lincoln County police mill around, thumbs in belt loops and vest hems. The car can’t go any farther, they say, but I’m welcome to walk right up to the gate, with its cyclops cameras and razor wire. As I press on, the officer begins to walk and chat with me, and another officer follows behind us. It’s a low-key version of escorting, one that makes it seem like they just enjoy my company, keeping the mood light. They’re not going to stop anybody from storming the gate, they say. That’s for the people on the inside.

LEARN MORE

The WIRED Guide to Aliens

By Thursday evening, the crowds have begun to arrive, though not in droves. Yes, the A’le’Inn has rows of RVs parked in dusty squares. Yes, camps constellate the Bureau of Land Management acres throughout the valley, cases of Bud Light’s special-edition green-man cans stashed in coolers and camper refrigerators and Camry trunks. Pulling up, I see people in true tin-foil hats, a guy mooning a camera with his alien boxers, and two young women in skin-sucking green suits. But up by the stage, where a band begins to play before the scheduled time (a miracle), the number of people counts in the dozens. Behind them sprawls an enormous dust parking lot, empty except for some twentysomethings practicing “Naruto running” beneath the floodlights, off-leash dogs uneasy with the bass levels, and people coming and going from the PortaPotties that probably outnumber the permanent residents of Rachel.

Photograph: Sarah Scoles
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