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Tiny Rachel braces for ‘Storm Area 51’ throngs

Updated September 6, 2019 - 8:05 pm

RACHEL — Backed-up water was streaming from the men’s room into the diner and bar at the Little A’Le’Inn, co-owner Connie West recalls, so she did what she always does in that situation — at least whenever her son Cody Theising isn’t around. She rolled up her sleeves, went in and fixed the problem.

“When you’re out here, 150 miles away from plumbers, carpenters, anything,” West says, “you learn how to do it yourself.”

“Or,” Theising interjects, “you’re swimming in it.”

There’s little he, West and her niece Samantha Travis haven’t tackled while running the only business among this small assortment of homes thrust into the spotlight by the “Storm Area 51” phenomenon.

They’ve cut people out of wrecked cars and freed a biker after he ran through a barbed-wire fence.

The three of them make up 60 percent of Rachel’s volunteer fire department.

“You name the project that has to be done,” West says, “and I have had to learn how to do it.”

It’s really out there

Rachel’s gas station closed in 2006, and the nearest remaining one is 45 miles away in Ash Springs.

Pahranagat Valley, the closest school system, is a 50-mile bus ride to Alamo.

For an emergency room, you’re looking at a more than 80-mile drive to Caliente.

“We’re not in the middle of nowhere,” says West, 51. “We’re in the middle of on-your-way-to-and-from-somewhere.”

They typically drive their box truck with the Little A’Le’Inn logo on the side to Las Vegas once a week for groceries. Since business picked up in the wake of the Facebook goof urging people to “see them aliens,” that’s become a twice-weekly task.

The previous day, the restaurant was down to its final 12 hamburger buns — the Alien Burger being the featured dish on the limited menu — so West’s 76-year-old mother, Little A’Le’Inn co-owner Pat Travis, dropped what she was doing and made the 300-mile round-trip to Las Vegas for more.

Tight-knit town

“We’ve always been a small community that takes care of each other,” the 30-year-old Theising says.

He’s right on both counts.

West figures Rachel’s population currently sits at 56, roughly the size of an NFL roster. Counting the seasonal workers who help with the alfalfa fields, that number occasionally hits 70. You can find more people onstage during a Polyphonic Spree concert.

Each of the homes, mobile and otherwise, has an address, but there are no street signs by which to navigate. Locals do it by sight.

The area is so remote, electricity didn’t arrive until 1978 when the area, formerly known as Tempiute Village and Sand Springs, was rechristened Rachel.

That isolation can lead to squabbles among the residents, but it also brings them together in times of need.

“You have to go back to your, like, tribal instincts,” says Samantha Travis, 29. “You know you have to help people.”

Do it yourself

Mention that you had your car serviced before the drive to Rachel — almost all of which is on a two-lane highway with only a handful of amenities along the way — and Theising chuckles.

“See, that’s not a luxury we have out here. You learn how to do it yourself.”

And if you run out of the necessary parts, creativity takes the wheel.

“You got a couple pairs of pantyhose hanging around for belts when you need ’em,” West mentions as an automotive repair hack.

Another tip? Feminine pads and baby diapers work well as emergency wound coverage and tourniquets.

For more serious medical conditions, though, things can get dicey.

“You can tend to a wound. You can keep people calm, try to keep them warm,” West says. “If it’s a situation where you know the ambulance is gonna be an hour, your best bet is to throw somebody in the vehicle and (have) another person hold them down. Then you’re on your way, and the ambulance can meet us on the way. That’s all you can do. We have no EMTs. We have ‘first-aiders’ is what I like to call us.”

It’s somewhat surprising the family hasn’t figured out a way to perform minor surgeries, too.

“No,” Theising says. “But I can amputate something if needed.”

Military loyalty

Rachel is the nearest thing resembling a town to Area 51, the secretive Air Force installation, part of the larger Nevada Test and Training Range, that’s been a particular fascination among UFO enthusiasts for decades.

Whatever’s going on in there, it’s manned by members of our nation’s military, to which West and her family are fiercely loyal.

“That’s the sound of our freedom. We adore that,” she says, sitting at a picnic table in front of the Little A’Le’Inn as a jet passes overhead. “We don’t disrespect, nor would my mother and I allow anyone on our team to ever work for us and disrespect our military. Ever. They can go down the road.”

West loves her Air Force neighbors. Sometimes too much.

She had a tradition of boxing up Thanksgiving dinners, attaching a thank-you note and taking them to Area 51’s back gate a little more than 10 miles away.

In 2016, there had been a change of command at the base, West says. About 1:45 the morning after the holiday, the Lincoln County sheriff knocked on her door asking about a package left at the gate and demanding that she remove it immediately.

“What you don’t understand,” she says she was told, “is they wanted us to dispatch our bomb squad, which we do not have. And if you do not have it removed, you will be charged, because they’re going to dispatch them out of Nellis.”

She hasn’t repeated that custom since.

Crazier than ever

It’s the fascination with that type of secrecy and overreaction that helped turned the Little A’Le’Inn into an international tourist attraction long before the “Storm Area 51” nonsense.

“It’s exponentially crazier than it’s ever been, and I have a crazy life,” she says of this summer’s surge in phone calls and visitors. “I have every way and every walk of life that walks into this building on a daily basis.”

A Brazilian television crew turned up earlier this day, unannounced, hoping for a story. After being awakened from a nap, West begrudgingly agreed to an interview.

It isn’t just the members of the media with questions. The visitors drawn to this small curiosity 40 miles from anything tend to be inquisitive by nature. With so few distractions in Rachel, conversations can be like currency.

“The people that I’ve met here from all over the world and the connections I’ve made with people from all over the world, it’s amazing,” Travis says. “Like, it gives me life. It gives me purpose. And I love it.

“People ask why or how you can live in a place like this. That’s why.”

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

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