Rants from the Hill: The aliens that make Nevada home

Military history, conspiracy theories and the landscape itself make Nevada ground zero for the bizarre and otherworldly.

 

Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

Our eight-year-old daughter, Caroline, has a knack for inventing characters, which she animates with distinctive traits, attitudes, accents, and even signature catch phrases. Among at least a half dozen others there’s a crotchety old lady named “Grandma Chuck,” a nameless, bloviating Scotsman (complete with a thick brogue), and Guido, a pizza impresario whose Sicilian, Jersey-inflected catchphrase is “If it ain’t my pie, fuggidabawdit!” Lately, though, Caroline has come up with an entirely new persona, this one a space alien who, in an irony clear enough to grownups, is named “Norm.”

Norm is far from the norm in every way. He has a wonderful, modulating, guttural voice, as if his vocal chords were pitched to perform in a very different gravitational field than the one here on earth. Norm can answer any question you might have about his home planet, and his replies are so amusing that Caroline’s big sister, Hannah, keeps the questions coming. What does Norm like to eat? Earwax, belly button lint, and toenail clippings, though here on earth he must occasionally resort to pine cones. What does he like best about Nevada? The ground is firm rather than spongy, as on his home planet, and is thus much better for hiking. Although the black sky and purple sun surrounding that planet are “quite lovely,” he prefers the azure skies and yellow sun we enjoy here in the Great Basin. What is his greatest frustration with living in Nevada? He hasn’t yet found a cowboy hat that will fit his enormous, bulbous alien noggin. Norm is also a bit of a rascal, often using his professed ignorance of human ways to excuse his poor table manners, failure to finish his homework, or unwillingness to make his bed. I confess that it is difficult to lay down the law when I’m laughing at the same time.

Once Norm joined our family I was reminded of the most prominent alien from my own youth, the waddling, endearing little creature from Steven Spielberg’s 1982 blockbuster ET. My wife Eryn and I decided that we’d screen this pop gem for the girls, just to see what Norm’s reaction might be. In watching ET again I was reminded of the film’s power to elicit our sympathy with the little alien. ET is a creature who is lost, who wants to find his home, who feels isolated, misunderstood, uncertain, and insecure. That is to say, he’s just like us—or, at least, like those of us who happen to be in middle school. We empathize with ET because he feels alienated, a term that speaks both to his condition and to our own. Equally important, his appearance in the enchanted woods that survive along the edge of a homogenous subdivision reinforces what every kid knows: there is magic just beyond the asphalt fringes of the adult world. Hannah and Caroline love the film, and when it has reached its happy ending I ask Norm what he thinks of it. “I know ET,” he replies. “He visited my planet one time. His real name is Earl.”

The author’s daughters meet ET for the first time.
Michael Branch

Caroline, along with Spielberg, might be forgiven for her fascination with creatures from outer space. After all, American popular culture has long been obsessed with aliens, which have provided reliable fodder for novels, movies, comics, video games, and bad TV shows. Occasionally we are terrified by these aliens, as in Orson Welles’s famous 1938 radio performance of The War of the Worlds, or the profitable Roland Emmerich flick Independence Day (1996) sixty years later. Sometimes we love these otherworldly beings, as in the old Robin Williams TV sitcom Mork and Mindy, or in the Spielberg classic that my daughters so enjoyed. Aliens seem to be with us always, a durable staple of our entertainment culture and also an important part of our imaginative landscape. The other day I noticed something that redoubled my certainty about the centrality of the alien in our daily lives: it turns out that my phone has an alien-head emoji, right there next to the similarly iconic happy face. An alien emoji. Too late to turn back now, earthlings!

Here in Nevada our obsession with aliens is everywhere evident. Our state leads the nation in UFO sightings, extraterrestrial abduction conspiracy theories, and alien spacecraft recovery and cover-up narratives. Perhaps this is because we Nevadans aren’t the least bit afraid of bizarre, creepy, insanely otherworldly stuff—as anyone who has visited Las Vegas can attest. Nope, we roll out the red carpet for aliens here. We welcome them much as we do other odd tourists, high-rollers visiting from out of town, looking for the kind of good time they can’t get back in their home galaxy. It is in fact a Nevada tradition to name things in honor of this most interesting of the many strange visitors we receive. Nevada State Route 375 has been officially designated “The Extraterrestrial Highway,” and that lonely road goes through the little desert town of Rachel (UFO capitol of the world), where I’d recommend that you stop for a cold one at the Little A’Le’Inn. (After all, the hand-painted sign out front proclaims that “Earthlings Welcome!”) Our state even boasts an intergalactically-themed brothel, the Alien Cathouse, located an hour north of Vegas on Highway 95. Here patrons may select from any number of themed rooms, including the “Holodeck” and . . . wait for it . . . the “Alien Abduction Probing Room.” If this artifact of cultural bricolage doesn’t strike you as proof positive that aliens have invaded our collective fantasy life, then just try to push this one out of your mind and instead focus on ET.

The Little A'Le'Inn, Rachel, Nevada
Flickr user Airwolfhound

We Nevadans also have a legitimate reason to be cozy with this kind of fantasy, because we’ve had more UFOs in our skies than has any other state. Of course the term UFO, which began to see use during the heyday of the Cold War, simply means “unidentified flying object.” Since its establishment as a top-secret military base back in 1954, Area 51 has produced about as many UFOs as has Hollywood. In response to a Freedom of Information Act filing, in 2013 the CIA for the first time acknowledged the existence of this remote, inaccessible, and heavily guarded detachment of Edwards Air Force Base. What they do not reveal, but is generally accepted, is that well before they were made public a number of remarkable experimental aircraft—including the U2, A-12, SR-71 Blackbird, and F117-A—have been tested here. If we Nevadans have seen our share of little green men, we’ve also seen more than our share of unidentifiable, unimaginably futuristic aircraft and hovercraft, the sorts of machines you would expect to see on a theater screen, rather than streaking weirdly across the desert sky.

Of course it is more than just extravagantly expensive aerial weaponry that sustains our imagination of alien visitors; it is also the landscape itself. The Great Basin Desert is so remote, isolated, and uninhabited, so open, barren, and wild, that out here anything seems possible. To a human mode of perception evolved to appreciate shelter, cover, forage, and water, this is in fact an alien landscape, one that we visit much as we might visit the broken, desolate surface of a distant planet. In a landscape that makes us feel like extraterrestrial tourists, perhaps the idea of other strange visitations appears more plausible.

A HAVE BLUE, one of the aircraft that helped spawn Area 51 alien rumors.
San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive

The myth of the extraterrestrial visitor is central to our cultural imagination in this part of the desert West. It occurs to me that another of the most durable myths in this landscape is that of the cowboy. Perhaps some of you are unfortunate enough to have been subjected to the abysmal 2011 “science-fiction western” movie Cowboys and Aliens. Even Harrison Ford couldn’t save this bomb, which detonates stinkage for an interminable 118 minutes in the most convoluted and ludicrous plot ever to ooze out of the southern California dream factory. The movie had everything going for it: not just Ford, but also Ron Howard as a producer, Spielberg as an executive producer, and a budget of $163 million (maybe we should instead have used the money to build an experimental aircraft?). Nevertheless, Cowboys and Aliens is the worst genre mashup in cinema history, not only unsuccessfully force-fitting the conventions of sci-fi and western, but also gratuitously tossing in a few resurrected nude corpses and, God help us all, an Apache medicine man.

But if Cowboys and Aliens is an epic fail that has unjustly stolen from me two precious hours I’ll never recover, I can’t help feeling that somehow this terrible picture was on the right track. After all, cowboys and aliens are among the most celebrated, mythologized, and iconic figures in the American West. They seem to belong in this landscape, even when we aren’t sure if we do. Both figures come from afar, across the wide open spaces, and both seem dauntingly independent and self-reliant. Both depend upon their trusty steed: one an Appaloosa or Pinto, the other a whirling silver disk or darting interstellar trapezoid. Both are packing serious weapons and are defined by their ability to use them, for what is a flesh-dissolving laser if not a simple upgrade of a Walker Colt revolver? Both figures are powerful and dangerous, and yet somehow also enticingly mysterious and charismatic. They ramble from town to town, galaxy to galaxy, knocking back a little red-eye, harvesting a few human organs, just trying to get the lay of a new land. Part of their mystique is that neither sticks around for long, invariably galloping or whizzing off to the horizon, or beyond it.

Of course the main thing cowboys and aliens have in common is that both come seeking new frontiers—frontiers of knowledge, experience, or power. Both represent a myth of movement, domination, and possession. In effect, the cowboy and the alien both come to the American West as colonizers. Perhaps we love the cowboy because he represents our successful colonization of this region; perhaps we fear the alien becomes he instead represents a terrifying desire to colonize us. The cowboy embodies a utopian myth of unlimited freedom, the alien a dystopian myth of inescapable captivity. Who better, then, to fight off the invading aliens than cowboys, they who were the vanguard of the last wave of invading aliens?

I really don’t mind having a daughter who is a space alien. Many Nevadans apparently believe that extraterrestrials have already hybridized with normal humans—just like the cowboys did—so perhaps that spaceship has already sailed in any case. But out here in this vast desert landscape, so bright with uncertainty, one thing is definite. I’ll be taking Norm to our favorite tack and boot shop to have him custom-sized for that buckaroo Stetson.

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