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How Area 51 Works

Living in the Shadow of Area 51
Pat and Joe Travis, owners of the Little A'Le'Inn, posed in front of their motel in Rachel, Nev., in 1996.
Pat and Joe Travis, owners of the Little A'Le'Inn, posed in front of their motel in Rachel, Nev., in 1996.
James Aylott/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You might think that living close to a place like Area 51 could make you a little strange. A visit to Rachel, Nev., might just change your suspicion to certainty. The town is populated by 54 people (according to the 2010 census), most of whom have a strong sense of independence and more than a touch of eccentricity.

According to former Rachel resident Glenn Campbell, Rachel's documented history began on March 22, 1978, at 5:45 p.m. Not many towns can narrow down their origins so precisely. Campbell points out that on that date, power companies first supplied the Sand Springs Valley with electricity. Before this momentous occasion, only a few hardy farmers and a mining company occupied the valley [source: Campbell and Grover].

In the 1970s, small numbers of people with a pioneering spirit and desire to live their lives free of interference began to settle the valley. One of those families was the Joneses, who became famous in their small community upon the birth of Rachel Jones, the first child born in the valley. The loose community felt the name Sand Springs lacked distinction and Rachel's birth marked an important event in the town's history. So they named the town Rachel. The Joneses didn't stick around much longer, and sadly, Rachel passed away from a respiratory ailment at the age of 3 [source: Campbell and Grover].

There's very little to see in Rachel, but it does feature a motel and bar called the Little A'Le'Inn (get it?), a Baptist church and a senior center and thrift store.

Rachel is home to several interesting characters, many of whom have pet theories about Area 51. A few work for the Air Force, though that's about as much information as you'll get from them. Pat and Joe Travis run the Little A'Le'Inn and have made a business out of selling T-shirts and alien-themed souvenirs. Still, most of the people in Rachel will tell you they don't think the UFOs are anything other than flares, UAVs or military aircraft on training missions.

Glenn Campbell established the Area 51 Research Center. He would often go to a lookout spot he named Freedom Ridge where he could legally view the facility from several miles away. Campbell wrote a newsletter called the Desert Rat, keeping people up-to-date on activities at the base. He campaigned against what he considered to be excessive government secrecy, arguing that the government was creating an environment of mistrust with the public. He also created a Web site that linked to dozens of news stories and timelines about the base. Although he no longer updates the site, it's still available for you to explore. Campbell has since moved on from his focus on the secret base and no longer lives in Rachel.

The residents of Rachel seem to treat interest in their community with bemused patience. To them, sonic booms in the middle of the night and bright light shows are all normal, everyday events. Just about everyone in the valley has had to replace a window cracked by a sonic boom or held a piece of airplane wreckage (Area 51's history includes several spectacular crashes).

In the next section, we'll look at a timeline for Area 51 from its founding to the present.