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Storm Area 51: How we got here, where we’re going

RACHEL —A bored college student in Bakersfield, California, logs onto Facebook and creates an alien-themed event as a goof. Two weeks later and more than 400 miles away, a small Nevada town is thrown into turmoil. It’s a prime example of the butterfly effect, part of chaos theory, which Jeff Goldblum warned us about in “Jurassic Park.”

Neighbor was pitted against neighbor in this rural outpost so unpopulated that all its residents could gather in a freight elevator.

The owner of Rachel’s only commercial establishment was dragged into an event not knowing whether to expect a couple of dozen people to show up or the more than 2 million Facebook users who pledged to do just that. She could have lost that business, as well as her home.

How in this or any other world did we get here?

‘The perfect cocktail’

What began as a joke — “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us,” Matty Roberts posted June 27 — quickly spiraled out of hand.

Within three weeks, the Air Force issued a statement reminding the world that Area 51, the secretive site that’s been the focus of UFO enthusiasts for decades, is an active military base and is protected as such, and that “any attempt to illegally access the area is highly discouraged.”

On any given day, thousands of things hit the internet that are sillier or more noteworthy than the idea of overwhelming an Air Force installation in search of aliens. So why did this particular one dominate most of the summer?

“This event is the perfect cocktail, so to speak, of interest in aliens and alien encounters, government conspiracies, festivals and dance parties, and internet culture — all of it coming together,” said Michael Ian Borer, an associate professor of sociology at UNLV. “This wouldn’t happen without any of those four.”

It wasn’t long before the idea became “meme-ified,” he said, and it began to evolve as people made the idea of storming Area 51 their own.

“There’s things that are more important, and also things that are goofier,” Borer said. “Maybe this is the perfect blending of these two. Maybe it’s the middle ground between the goofy and the important.”

Bearing a burden

Roberts’ suggested meeting place for the Sept. 20 “raid” was in Amargosa Valley in Nye County. That didn’t keep media from around the world from knocking on the door of the roadside curiosity Little A’Le’Inn in Lincoln County or phoning its co-owner, Connie West, at all hours.

During those early days, West was contacted by several bands looking to play for whoever showed up.

After several locals, curious to watch the presumed circuslike atmosphere, asked what West was going to do for the event, she begrudgingly agreed to spring for a popcorn station.

By early August, Roberts and West reached an agreement: He and a production company would host a music and arts festival, dubbed Alienstock, on her land, and West would handle the camping and parking.

When that arrangement blew up Sept. 9, West put her home and business — which just entered its 32nd year — on the line to cover the debts the proposed festival already had incurred.

“Because it was happening near me, it was my responsibility to make sure that it was all paid for in the end,” she said Saturday. “It was terrifying. It is terrifying.”

Asked what she would have done differently, West said, “Reached out deeper into my community.”

“I didn’t mean to upset any one of them,” she added, with tears in her eyes. “That’s what hurts me more than anything. … I just want them to be proud of me.”

As for Rachel residents who complained they were inconvenienced when she and her family were the only ones profiting from the festival, West noted that some neighbors made money by using their land for parking, while others had merchandise stands set up on theirs.

“Everybody could have done what they wanted. This just wasn’t about me,” she said. “I love my community. I love everyone in this town. We don’t have to like each other all the time. Hell, I don’t like my kids some days. But I’ll always love ’em.”

‘We’ve been forcibly moved’

Rachel resident Bob Clabaugh spent most of his life wanting to be left alone.

He lived by Lake Tahoe in the 1960s until, he said, “It changed. I couldn’t stand it anymore.”

He moved to the outskirts of western Las Vegas — “You know, that didn’t last forever.”

So he packed up and headed for Pahrump thinking, “Nobody would ever go to Pahrump.” (Narrator: They did.)

In the late 1990s, when he was about to retire, Clabaugh purchased a 40-acre lot in Rachel. After 22 peaceful years, he began hearing reports that his tiny community could be invaded by anywhere from 50,000 to 1 million people. (It wasn’t. At its peak, approximately 3,000 people were on-site at any one time, according to Eric Holt, Lincoln County’s emergency manager.)

“Any of us up here knew nothing about this,” Clabaugh recalled, “except all of a sudden, somebody said, ‘Have you seen this website?’ — which, in the beginning, said, ‘We’re coming to Rachel, taking over the town. We’re doing this. We’re doing that.’ And we said, ‘What? What the hell’s going on here?’ ”

Not knowing what to expect, and fearing the worst, he and several of his neighbors — “several” being a relative term in a town of 50-60 people — began posting “No Trespassing” signs every 200 feet and installing high-powered lights on their property.

“We never had that,” said Clabaugh, 76. “Rachel, we used to be pretty dark at night. Now it’s kind of lit up. … We’ve been forcibly moved from a rural area to more of a residential area.”

Unexpected help

Javy Morales and Brandon Misciagna drove in from Sacramento, California.

The friends, who work at the same grocery store, planned their vacation around Alienstock. After spending a couple of days in Las Vegas, they arrived in Rachel on Tuesday.

By Thursday morning when nothing much had happened, they contemplated leaving. Instead, after filling up on biscuits and gravy at the Little A’Le’Inn, they went looking to volunteer.

“We were just going to chill and relax most of the day,” said Misciagna, 21. “We didn’t wanna drink or anything at the moment. So we decided to just help out.”

Later that day, when someone came to relieve them after a full eight-hour shift of helping get the early arrivals parked, Morales, 22, was ready for more. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” he said, before correcting himself. “I’m going to go ask if I can help more, actually.”

By 9 a.m. Friday, Morales was out in the sun working on the Wi-Fi. Twelve hours later, he was hauling trash barrels across the festival grounds.

Despite his seemingly endless shifts, Morales said he accomplished most of what he wanted at Alienstock.

“Yeah. I wanted to witness some idiots do stuff at the (Area 51) gate. That’s what I was expecting,” he said. “We didn’t get to see most of it, but we heard about it, and we were kinda there. I got to the gate. I can say I was there.”

‘A community happened’

“It’s beautiful,” West said of acts of volunteerism like theirs. “My heart is just so full of love and appreciation for everything everyone’s done. Because I did not pull this off by myself. It was everyone.”

That sort of DIY spirit hung over Alienstock — new friends helping each other as best they could — as attendees largely were able to get whatever they wanted out of the festival.

A couple of hundred kids bounced around in front of the festival’s EDM stage into the early hours of Saturday. Others sat around campfires and bonded with people they’d just met. Conservatives and liberals were able to have conversations with each other without voices being raised.

Far from the violent mobs some had predicted, by Saturday evening, only six arrests had been reported, all for incidents involving the gates at Area 51.

West was inspired by how well attendees got along.

“A community happened,” she said.

Down the road

It could take months or even years to wade through the ramifications of Roberts’ Facebook post.

He and West have engaged lawyers. Lincoln County took $250,000 out of a land use act to pay for costs related to the event, and county officials have said what they don’t recoup from the state, they’ll seek in legal action against Roberts, his associates and Facebook.

“I’ve had a roller coaster of emotions. Up and down, up and down, up and down. I’m at my highest right now,” West said Saturday afternoon.

Some of that was the residual buzz of the Friday night drive she took with her mother, Little A’Le’Inn co-founder Pat Travis, around the 30-acre perimeter and through the festival grounds for Travis’ first good look at what had unfolded.

“Just the words that she used, because my mom’s not a real wordy person,” West recalled. “She went into depth, and it was something I’ll always remember. I’ll always remember driving my mama around here and the awe on both of our faces.”

Once the last attendees clear out and West can finally, fully exhale for the first time since July, she knows exactly what she’ll do.

“I’m takin’ my team, and we’re closin’, and we’re gettin’ the hell outta here. We’re gonna go have one hell of a bonfire. We’re gonna go swimmin’. We’re gonna have food over an open pit.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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