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'Extraterrestrial Highway' a curiosity magnet
Nevada Highway 375 was officially renamed the "Extraterrestrial Highway" in 1996. (Celeste Calvitto, Special to the Journal)

I concur with the notion that we, as inhabitants of planet Earth, would be arrogant to think we're the only intelligent (insert your own definition of "intelligent") beings in the universe.

I'm not convinced, though, that we've been "visited" by anybody - or anything - from "out there."

But people who do believe in close encounters have found a mecca along the desolate, 100-mile Nevada State Route 375, officially renamed "The Extraterrestrial Highway" in 1996 by the state legislature. The dedication ceremony included sneak peeks of the sci-fi flick "Independence Day" and was attended by studio reps and film stars.

The Extraterrestrial Highway abuts the mysterious "Area 51," a portion of the Nellis Air Force Range in southern Nevada. The government has acknowledged over the years that military aircraft testing is taking place at this desert site. But the remoteness of the area, combined with peculiar lights that are sometimes seen in the night sky, lead curiosity-seekers - especially UFO enthusiasts - to travel the road. Some of them believe the military is harboring crashed UFOs - and aliens - at Area 51. And the more fanatical folks believe that NASA faked moon landings there.

Well, I don't believe any of it. Call me skeptical - or unimaginative. But as someone who lives for road trips - especially way off the beaten path - I wanted to go there. I had read Internet postings by people who ventured off the Extraterrestrial Highway onto a desert trail called Groom Lake Road. It leads to a valley at the edge of the base, where there are signs that warn, in essence, that you could be shot if you go any farther.

To be honest, I just wanted to see what the big deal was. Any excuse for a road trip, after all.

So I headed toward the Extraterrestrial Highway from Ely, Nev., about 150 miles north of the highway, where I was staying. (Las Vegas is 140 miles to the south, if you prefer that. I don't.) But first, I stopped at the Ely office of the Nevada Highway Patrol for a chat.

It happens that Lt. Mike Cowley used to patrol the Extraterrestrial Highway some years back, long before it was renamed. "They were very secretive," he said. "And yes, I saw some strange lights, but it's military hardware they are testing. You expect stuff to come flying over. That's my twist on what's going on there."

Cowley confirmed that the borders of the base are closely watched, recalling a personal experience when he was hunting at night.

"Two military officers drove up. The headlights cost me my coyote," he said regretfully.

"So, I guess it didn't help that you're a law enforcement officer?" I asked.

"They don't care who you are," Cowley replied with a chuckle. "But they were always pleasant to me," he added.

When asked about anecdotes he might have about the people he encountered while patrolling the Extraterrestrial Highway, Cowley took the tactful approach. "There were all sorts of individuals," he said simply. His colleague, Trooper Dave Stauffacher, said lawbreakers have creative excuses.

"I've stopped people going 90 who said they saw a UFO," Stauffacher said.

What about Groom Lake Road? Cowley noted that there are motion detectors along the dirt-and-gravel road as you drive toward the base boundary. He suggested that I stop in Rachel, population 98, about halfway along the Extraterrestrial Highway, and get directions from Pat Travis. She is the proprietor of a bar and tiny motel called the Little A'Le'Inn, an information center of sorts for UFO seekers. That's pretty much all there is in Rachel.

So I left Ely and headed south on State Route 318. I made sure I had enough gas - there's absolutely nothing for more than 100 miles to the junction with the Extraterrestrial Highway, then it's another 50 or so miles to Rachel. A cell phone is useless for most of the drive, and I encountered only one other vehicle while driving Route 318. (As far as I am concerned, this is not a bad thing. It's just fair warning.) You can buy gas in Rachel - at $2.49 a gallon. At least that's what it was last summer when I made the trip.

Pat Travis' cluttered bar-cafe has a wall full of photos of purported UFO sightings and shelves packed with souvenirs. For 16 years, she has been talking with travelers who stop in Rachel.

I asked her how to get to Groom Lake Road.

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"For 35 cents, this will keep you out of trouble," Pat said, handing me a photocopied pamphlet. There was a map, a reminder to heed the terse signs at the base boundary and a warning about surveillance cameras and people watching from military vehicles as you approach.

I backtracked about 20 miles along the Extraterrestrial Highway. The directions said to turn off the highway at a black mailbox (now a white mailbox) that's in the middle of nowhere but is a well-known landmark for people who have sought out Groom Lake Road. (By the way, Groom Lake is a dry lake bed.) After a couple of miles, you pass a mound of dirt and a water tank, then follow the dusty ribbon of desert road for about eight miles toward the hills on the horizon and the boundary of the base.

That's where the famous signs are. "Use of deadly force authorized," one of them warned. I didn't notice surveillance cameras or vehicles, but that doesn't mean they weren't there.

I got out of the car and took some photos of the signs. You can't see much beyond them - the hills block the view of the road past that point.

The whole thing was a bit anticlimactic; there might have been more intrigue if I had attempted it at night. But I have to admit, it was eerie being in such a remote place, surrounded by silence, confronted with such grim warnings. I somehow understood the anticipation felt by people who are drawn to Groom Lake Road and why they wonder what goes on beyond those signs.

Then I remembered something Lt. Cowley had said back in Ely when he talked about the official explanation of military testing at the base.

"I take their word for it," he said.

And so do I.

On the Web: Click on Nevada Tourism.

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