I listen for an hour or so before heading back to my off-site camp to set an alarm for 1:30 am—so I can see if anyone will, in fact, try to storm Area 51. When I get to my spot, a few miles away from town, the rumbling of military jets throttles the sky. I look ahead of the sound, where the fast-traveling craft would be. And there I see two triangular-looking somethings, flying close together and high up. I wave.
This, of course, is what visits to Area 51 are traditionally about. It is the isolation, the quiet, and the darkness that brought the military here in the first place. It is the lack of everything that makes it an appealing secret spot. It is the experience of that environment that feels meaningful and transgressive, historically.
It’s different now. To visit when speakers drown out aerospace-y sounds, when stage lights blind you to the aircraft that might be hovering above, when there are so many eyes that the Air Force would be crazy to test anything actually advanced—it kind of makes a trip to Area 51 not very much like a trip to Area 51.
When my alarm goes off in the middle of the night, I can see headlights on Back Gate Road. Hovering low over the higher ground in the distance, they look vaguely UFO-like. Still, when I approach the gate—where there’s now a roadblock—the number of cars parked there is underwhelming. Dudes in a giant Dodge Ram truck are playing extremely loud electronica that seems to be the same 30-second loop over and over.
“If BLM comes up here they’re going to be extremely upset,” an officer says to them through a loudspeaker. They do not change their volume.
I get out of the car and stand hesitantly in the middle of the road, unsure if it’s just our cars that aren’t allowed close to the entrance, or if we ourselves are breaking the rules. The officer sees me and speaks again into his mic. “You can go up to the gate,” he says to me but for all to hear. “You can jump it, but I’d highly advise against it.”
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I give a thumbs up and approach the gate, where I am surrounded mostly by people a decade or more younger than me. The number of video cameras and video-taking phones they hold nearly outnumbers them. A kid wanders around wearing a white sweatshirt with a YouTube logo on the front and the words CREATOR CREATOR CREATOR CREATOR CREATOR in a column on the back.
“That’s Macklemore,” jokes a police officer, as a young guy narrating into a lens walks our way, wearing a too-big fur coat and patterned joggers. Journalists film the YouTubers filming themselves. The police stand to the side, some taking pictures too.
Trying to get out of everyone’s shots takes more evasive effort than it might to get past the actual Area 51 gates. There is much more capturing of experience than experience.
At 3 am, the appointed time for the raid, a Bluetooth speaker starts playing The Final Countdown. The creators take footage of each other posing like they’re about to sprint for it. One person Naruto-runs parallel to the gate. Their lenses stare into one another, their gazes meta.
“Do it for the meme!” someone yells from the back.
“Do it for the Vine!” shouts someone else. “I was told if you go in, they’ll bring back Vine,” he adds, a little more quietly.
UFOs, their purported alien pilots, and the secrets shrouding both have always reflected the culture that birthed them. Anthropologists sometimes call them some version of a “mirror,” in which we look out to space and see ourselves. They probably didn’t mean for the creators to take it quite so literally.
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