Friday, April 30, 1999 | 9:31 a.m.
RACHEL -- Could little green men really be out there?
Or the grayish creatures with bulbous heads and glowing, almond-curved eyes? And the saucers with blinking red and yellow lights that swoosh through the sky and hover over the sand for a moment before vanishing into thin air?
Pedal long enough down the two-lane Extraterrestrial Highway and you start hoping it could happen.
A tumbleweed might cross your tire's path bouncing in the breeze, or a dust devil whirling in the distance catch your eye. But little else moves in the vast expanse of scrub-dotted desert split by this narrow asphalt ribbon that leads believers to Rachel, population 60.
It looks just like those places in the movies where weird stuff happens. No one's around to be your witness or help fight off the aliens. One, maybe two cars an hour are all you see on the road. And the wind has that eery, thundering whistle when it rumbles through the valley.
This is where so many of the sightings have happened -- the odd lights, the mysterious crafts, the unexplained phenomena that have drawn by the thousands the world's many curious souls.
And it is in this tiny town of single- and double-wide trailers about 190 miles northwest of Las Vegas -- via Highway 93 to Highway 375 -- that nearly 100 bicyclists will begin arriving at tonight for this weekend's third annual "The 'X' Rides."
Organizers have set courses on well-paved roadways and are welcoming riders on road bikes, mountain bikes with road tires, tandems, hover crafts and saucer-shaped flying objects.
"Because," as "'X' Rides" organizer Curtis Fong says, borrowing the entrancingly mystical tone that "The X-Files" television show fiends crave, "the road is out there. ..."
"The 'X' Rides are part of the annual celebration commemorating Highway 375's official dedication as the "Extraterrestrial Highway" by the state and Twentieth Century Fox studio in April 1996.
The E.T., as they call it, passes the infamous Area 51 on the Nellis Air Force Bombing and Gunnery Range, and the Tonopah Test Range where legend has it that the government has secretly tested supersonic aircraft and even examined aliens.
"People come out to have fun and to be a part of the experience," says Fong of Lake Tahoe, a journalist, skier and bicycling enthusiast who puts on special events like "The 'X' Rides" through his TGFT (That Guy From Tahoe) Productions.
"It's a chance to get out there and just have an incredible weekend."
The Mail Box, one of the few and most famous landmarks out there, highlights the adventure built into Saturday night's "The 'X' Ride -- Into the Twilight Zone."
The 40-mile round-trip bike tour departs Rachel at 6:30 p.m., gradually climbing 700 feet out of the valley to Coyote Summit, which peaks at 5591 feet. Riders are required to have headlights and rear reflectors on their bikes.
Should the gods above promise a clear day, the lighting should make for a spectacular splash of color at sunset. Keep your gears in spin mode and the pedal's hardly an effort; the angled sedimentary grooves in the rugged mountains ahead of you will fade in minutes from an orangy-bronze cast to a deep grayish-purple as the sun drops behind your back.
Weather permitting, it'll be a moonlit ride. The lunar phase reaches its fullest point tonight, with enough illumination carrying over for tomorrow.
The occasional cow and steer are known to stop their roadside grazing to check out bikers, but will more than likely turn tail back into the maze of scrub and Joshua trees as you pass (which, overlooking social graces, doesn't seem so bad when you get a look at the size and edge of those horns).
Can't help but wonder about those cows.
Images of "Mars Attacks" come to mind, the thundering herd running with backs aflame.
Word has it that every so often, ranchers find their animals with precise, laser-like cuts on their hips and their entire ball joints removed. The reports have been bizarre enough to entice to Rachel the likes of Linda Moulton Howe, the foremost expert on cattle mutilations.
Howe's black and white glossy hangs with those of other celebrities -- like actor Dan Akroyd and talk show hosts Larry King and Montel Williams -- who've stopped in the Little A'Le'Inn, Rachel's only restaurant and seven-room motel.
Bikers staying overnight will fill every room at the Inn and surround the place with tents and RVs. The house speciality -- a $2.75 A'Le'Inn burger ($3 with cheese) -- is the hot ticket item; it's even been written up in Japanese travel magazines.
"Tour of the E.T. Highway -- to the Outer Limits" takes off Sunday from Rachel at 8 a.m., heading west along 375 and offering a challenging 1,100-foot climb over Queen City Summit (5,960 ft.) before gently dropping into a valley of awesome high desert scenery.
Fully-stocked rest stops will be set up along the way to offer 30-, 75- and 100-mile (traditional "Century" riding) turn-around points. Those gutsy enough to take a 120-mile journey will get out far enough to sneak in a hot-water dip in Warm Springs.
The Mail Box, which riders pass out and back on Saturday night's ride, is about 12 miles east of Rachel. It's little more than a locked white metal box the size of a microwave oven atop a round white post, the name Steve Medlin on the side for the ranch owner who uses it to get his daily mail.
But for years, it's been a saucer seeker's landmark.
It was the one visual marker they could tell each other to meet at, the only reference point on the remote desert road, according to Rachel lore. It also sits at the mouth of the seven-mile forked dirt path to Area 51.
"There have been a lot of sightings out there by the Mail Box," said Don Emory, 27, an Oregon man whose see-America journey stopped in Rachel two years ago. "There's about two or three sightings a week. People usually say they saw lights coming out of the distance. Occasionally somebody comes out and says they saw a disk-shaped object."
Emory these days helps out at the Area 51 Research Center, a sunflower yellow single-wide trailer wallpapered with military and topographical maps of the Nellis base, pictures of spy planes, books on everything from space ships to "Historic Haunted America" and cryptozoology, and alien trinkets galore -- even a gummy-looking gray body jarred in green liquid.
The set-up serves as a workshop for Glen Campbell, the local expert on the area's unexplained sights and sounds.
All types have stopped into the research center -- grandmas and grandpas, tourists from every corner of the earth, retired Area 51 workers, even short-haired survivors of the Heaven's Gate cult, of which 39 members committed suicide in March 1997 believing a spaceship would take them to the afterlife.
Curiously, the two women who told Emory of being abducted and examined aboard spaceships have seemed "like average, down-to-earth people." Unlike the middle-aged man who shows up dressed like Captain Kirk and calls himself Merlin the Ambassador of Draconus every time there's an event in town. He talks to aliens, Emory says, through a hand-held plastic devise.
Emory listens, admittedly with half a heart. It's highly probable in his mind that life exists elsewhere in the universe, but not in the sense of little green men.
"Mathematics goes against us being the only ones in the universe," Emory said. "If they are several thousand or billions of years ahead of us, they've conquered space just like we've conquered the seas and planetary travel. Life may not even be carbon-based, it may be ammonia-based and then you're dealing with something that we may not even recognize as being alive. It may be some kind of evolutionary thing. ... It could be a floating, spiked ball."
So what has Emory seen? Probably military spy planes, he says. Strange lights zipping around doing maneuvers way beyond conventional aircraft.
"Ninety-degree turns, coming across the sky and then totally stopping and then completing voyages on into Groom Lake," Emory said. "I've never heard any sounds or seen any aliens, though."
Denise Silnes didn't hear any sounds either the night she saw it.
It was Thanksgiving night about 12 years ago, and she was at the wheel with her mother and two brothers in the car.
Now, this wasn't anywhere near Nellis. In fact it was clear across the country in Minnetonka, Minn. But what she saw was enough to freeze her in terror.
It was dark that night, and the triangular shape was even darker. Her family screamed for her to pull off the road so they could get a better look at it, hovering above a field about 100 feet up.
"It was bigger than a semi truck, and there were lights on each corner," Silnes said. "It didn't make any noise. It just hung there."
She yelled at her brothers to stay in the car and, after a few seconds, she sped off.
"My mom was convinced (the aliens) were studying our highway system," Silness said. "We went back there the next day, but there was nothing -- no marks in the ground or anything. No one believed us when we told them. My mom stopped talking about it. Back then, they thought you were nuts. Now people know."
Silnes and her husband, Eric, were out from Minnesota this week visiting her childhood school chum Laura Bloom, now living in Boulder City with husband Dave Bloom. Each year the couples spend a day traveling somewhere together; this visit, Death Valley was the destination by way of the E.T. Highway and Highway 6 -- the "Loneliest Highway."
"We want to be lonely today," Laura says, then smiles. "Lonely, except for the UFOs ..."
The Aurora, a high-speed reconnaissance aircraft the military is known to be working on, has a triangular shape, Emory says. Its loud, throbbing roar, though, isn't consistent with what Silnes saw.
Emory pulls from a shelf a book with drawings of other experimental triangular- shaped jets, like the tactical Batwing Stealth spy plane and the "Hyper X."
"The military perpetuated all of this," Emory said. "They put a shield over all the 'black budget' stuff on all these bases, so people start believing anything. That's not to say that the whole thing is completely bogus. It could be that someone has visited us and maybe even traded some kind of technology with us. But then again, it could be totally psychological ... Anything's possible. It's a big, crazy universe we live in, but it's not all black and white like you were taught in school. There are a lot of unexplained things out there."