RACHEL, Nev. â€” I was 90 minutes north of Las Vegas, driving from the vast Mojave into the even wider expanse of the Great Basin Desert, when I was pulled over for speeding. The cop asked me where I was going, but he already knew the answer: Rachel, Nevada, the tiny town near area Area 51 where more than a thousand memelords, YouTubers and extraterrestrial enthusiasts were gathering to celebrate alien lore.
As a jokey Facebook event, â€œStorm Area 51, They Canâ€™t Stop All of Usâ€ captured the imagination of the world, with millions of users pledging to invade the highly classified military base on September 20. It was harder to know what the real-life gathering in Rachel would look like. Just days earlier, event creator Matty Roberts disavowed it as â€œa possible humanitarian disaster,â€ urging people not to go.
80 kilometres from Rachel, the officer told me that police were patrolling the roads to make sure everyone was being safe. I asked how things looked closer to ground zero, and he said heâ€™d heard reports of a surge of humanity coming into the area. â€œThings are going to get a little weird out there,â€ he told me before letting me off with a warning.
It was my first hint at what to expect as I neared the U.S. militaryâ€™s worst-kept secret. By then, what had started as a gag on social media had become something much greater â€” a mass movement that police, local officials, and even the eventâ€™s creator seemed incapable of halting.
In the end, no one tried to take Area 51 by force. Instead, the spirit of Storm Area 51 itself was seized by a motley assortment of believers, seekers and enthusiastic teenagers who descended on a lonely stretch of desert to make their meme dreams real.
â€œThey canâ€™t stop all of usâ€
The Storm Area 51 movement was born in the early hours of June 27, when Roberts, a 20-year-old college student, first created the event page on Facebook. â€œWe will all meet up in Rural Nevada and coordinate our parties,â€ he wrote. â€œIf we naruto run, we can move faster than their bullets. Lets see them aliens.â€
That reference to the anime Naruto and the title characterâ€™s (extensively memed) running style was one of many obvious signs that the event was intended as a joke. Roberts has said he was partially inspired by â€œGo to Minnesota and steal their 11,842 Lakes,â€ a similarly prankish viral Facebook event, but over the course of two months, this one would blur the line between internet meme and reality.
It didnâ€™t become an international sensation overnight. Roberts said that when he woke up the next morning the event had a few likes. The next day, several more. It wasnâ€™t until he was driving to his job at a vape shop four days later that the deluge of notifications started flooding in.
Within a few weeks, 2 million people had RSVPed to the event that essentially invited people to invade military property, prompting a military response. In July, an Air Force spokesperson told the Washington Post that Area 51 â€œis an open training range for the U.S. Air Force, and we would discourage anyone from trying to come into the area where we train American armed forces,â€ adding that the Air Force â€œalways stands ready to protect America and its assets.â€
That warning didnâ€™t stop the joke event from evolving into a real one. Soon after the event went viral, 20-year-old college student Brock Daily, who has experience organising EDM events in Arkansas, pitched Roberts the idea of putting on an Alien-themed music festival, and in mid-August, the pair announced they were hosting Alienstock in Rachel. â€œThey canâ€™t stop us from gathering and celebrating aliens!â€ the Alienstock site read at the time. â€œThis event is taking place whether we set up or not â€” itâ€™s basically its own entity now.â€
The two college students had just over a month to plan a three-day event that was expected to draw thousands of people to a desert town with a population of 54 and no gas station or store. The only establishment in Rachel is the extraterrestrial tourist destination Little Aâ€™Leâ€™Inn, which was set to be the centre of the festivities. Connie West, the owner of the 10-room motel, obtained permits to hold the event and began procuring the necessary security, sanitation, and medical support.
Then, less than two weeks before the festival was scheduled to be held, Roberts and Daily called it off, blaming West in a statement on the website that said she did not share proof that the necessary provisions were in place.
â€œWe are officially disconnecting from Connie West, Rachel NV and AlienStocks affiliation with them,â€ the announcement read. â€œIn short, the relationship has ended permanently, and AlienStock will be moving to a safe, clean secure area in Downtown Las Vegas as an alternative. We are not interested in, nor will we tolerate any involvement in a FYREFEST 2.0. We foresee a possible humanitarian disaster in the works, and we canâ€™t participate in any capacity at this point.â€
Robertsâ€™ lawyers also sent West a cease-and-desist letter ordering her to stop using the name â€œAlienstock,â€ but she pushed forward, turning the website she had been operating to take payments for parking and camping â€” alienstockparking.com â€” into the â€œofficialâ€ site for the Alienstock festival in Rachel. This set the stage for two dueling Alienstocks, a â€œsafeâ€ one sanctioned by the eventâ€™s creator and a renegade festival that seemed truer to his original vision, which, after inspiring millions, he could no longer control.
I wanted to experience them both.
â€œWe got a shitload of Bud Lightâ€
When I arrived at the Downtown Las Vegas Events Centre for the official Alienstock, I was greeted by a sign reading, â€œStorm Area 51 Matty Roberts Autograph Session.â€ A few feet away, Roberts was standing between two Men in Black by a merch table and taking photos with a couple fans.
Ads for Bud Light were everywhere. The brand had fully embraced the Storm Area 51 phenomenon, releasing commemorative cans featured an alien flashing a peace sign. â€œGreetings space travellers,â€ read the can printed in black and neon green. â€œEarthlings enjoy the crisp taste and smooth drinkability of this light-bodied lager and we think youâ€™ll be pleased, too. Take us to your leaderâ€¦ for drinks.â€
Anheuser-Busch seemed eager to attach itself to an official party that didnâ€™t come with the baggage of actual proximity to Area 51. â€œThey were piggybacking on the whole Area 51 thing on their own,â€ said Frank DiMaggio, a Las Vegas event planner, who joined Roberts late in the Alienstock planning process and claimed he was instrumental in pushing Robertsâ€™ focus away from Rachel. â€œWe didnâ€™t know anything about it until we moved the venue to downtown Las Vegas and they became sponsors. Matty got a national brand to change their label for him, which is amazing. Itâ€™s a movement.â€
The event was pure Vegas: back-to-back DJ sets, pulsating lights, free carnival rides including a 12.19m wide spinning flying saucer, and a green pool. The air in the outdoor venue was thick with the scent of fake fog and candy-flavored vape.
â€œThanks for coming to my party. My name is Matty and I love you guys,â€ Roberts said to the crowd between DJ sets. â€œWe got a shitload of Bud Light.â€
Later I saw him standing in a VIP lounge overlooking the crowd.
â€œWe just want to take this global,â€ Roberts told me. â€œWe want to bring Alienstock to every corner of the world. Let people just gather and celebrate the mysteries of the skies and party.â€
DiMaggio and Roberts told me theyâ€™ve been fielding requests from venues â€œfrom Hawaii to New Yorkâ€ and will be announcing the next Alienstock event soon.
Roberts said he wasnâ€™t sure if heâ€™d continue his current academic path. â€œThis has changed my life dramatically. Three months ago I was a full-time petroleum engineering student and now I am basically professional party host,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s exciting that something I did garnered this much attention from the entire world. Iâ€™m loving everything thatâ€™s come my way so far.â€
â€œIt seems like there can be a lot of money in memes,â€ I said.
â€œThatâ€™s a fact right there!â€ Roberts replied.
I asked if he has any advice for people (like me) who were still planning on going to Rachel.
â€œGood luck,â€ he said. â€œPrepare for the worst.â€
â€œStupid-arse people online â€” theyâ€™re my peopleâ€
The next morning, as I approached the Little Aâ€™Leâ€™Inn, I pulled over at the iconic â€œWelcome To Rachelâ€ sign (which cannot confirm or deny the townâ€™s alien population) and was greeted by a man wearing an inflatable alien suit and another in an orange NASA jumpsuit flying a drone in the field. The friendly couple was a refreshing sight after a night spent in a crowded venue with Vegas ravers.
I feared a bottleneck of traffic and chaos at the entrance, but I was able to easily pull off to the side of the road and set up camp. There were hundreds of cars, tents, campers, and RVs, but it seemed that the organisers had planned for thousands more, so everyone was spread out. People were mingling about, dressed up in otherworldly attire and alien costumes, donning tinfoil hats and shirts expressing their intention to storm Area 51.
I approached a man dressed as Naruto who I spotted running around with his arms behind him, and I asked why he was there.
â€œMemes. Weâ€™re here to raid Area 51. See aliens. Clap the cheeks. Thatâ€™s all weâ€™re here for,â€ Schon Crawley from Albuquerque, New Mexico, told me. â€œMemes â€” that is about it, thatâ€™s the only reason weâ€™re out here. Stupid-arse people online â€” theyâ€™re my people. Where Iâ€™m from, all my friends consider me the resident meme god. So itâ€™s my obligation to be out here for them.â€
Crawley said he believed Alienstock was the modern-day Woodstock, born of memes rather than peace and love. â€œThe fact that it started from a joke and created this big ole actual festival. Itâ€™s a lot bigger that I thought it was going to be,â€ Crawley told me. â€œThe millennial generation â€” we have no idea what the fuck weâ€™re doing, so this is where we end up. It started when Harambe got shot and it snowballed into raiding a government compound.â€
Crawley thought the festival lost momentum when the original Storm Area 51 meme god backed out. â€œI feel that it would be better perceived if [Roberts] had stuck with it rather than dropping out,â€ he said. â€œTaking the money and running I guess is what he did. Kind of a bitch move.â€
Many others at Rachelâ€™s Alienstock expressed disappointment in Roberts. â€œI think it was really mean. I think heâ€™s really confused and doesnâ€™t really know whatâ€™s good,â€ said Prymrr (pronounced â€œpremierâ€), a 13-year-old rapper, dancer, and YouTuber who performed at Rachel.
Prymrr met Roberts when she interviewed him for her YouTube channel. It was right around the time he announced he was going to turn Storm Area 51 into a music festival. â€œAnd so my mum was like, ok, well, I should perform there.â€ Prymrr told me. â€œIâ€™d seen a bunch of memes and stupid little videos on TikTok and Instagram. And going to this event is just super cool.â€
When I met Prymrr, her mum, Lisa LoBasso, was at a nearby RV selling wifi, trying to upload her daughterâ€™s latest YouTube video, and telling someone on the phone that between this Alienstock and the Las Vegas Alienstock, this event won. There were so many members of the press and filmmakers here, LoBasso explained, this one will be remembered like Woodstock. LoBasso told me that no matter how big Prymrr gets, her daughter will be back to Rachelâ€™s Alienstock every year.
While LoBasso seemed invested in the legacy of Alienstock, her daughter was more interested in the moment. â€œI do believe in aliens and I thought this would be really cool because I like going to festivals. Also I really wanted to get pictures for Instagram,â€ she told me.
Prymrr was one of many YouTubers I saw producing content, including Unicole Unicron, a self-described â€œpop star cult leaderâ€ who believes she is an alien consciousness born in a human body. After she founded her spiritual community, Unicult, she said realised she came from the Arcturus star system. She connects with her followers through her â€œcam churchâ€ services livestreamed on YouTube.
I met Unicole Unicron right before she led a meditation to communicate with aliens. â€œWeâ€™re here to talk about disclosure â€” to say, â€˜The government is lying.â€™ We all know it and we want to see the aliens,â€ she told me. â€œWe believe the government is lying about it because they donâ€™t want the systems to crumble. And a lot of these alien species are very benevolent and theyâ€™re here to help and the information that these aliens have would crumble the detrimental systems at hand.â€
As the leader of a group that exists largely online, Unicole Unicron seemed attuned to the potential power of Storm Area 51.
â€œThis is a call. Itâ€™s almost a cry. But I wouldnâ€™t use that word because this is born out of humour. Itâ€™s born out of memes,â€ Unicole Unicron told me. â€œSo we have this really lighthearted energy that sustained it up until this point, and I really love that idea that memes and humour are actually creating sustainable change. Protests and anger are good and important but theyâ€™re exhausting everyone involved and I think we are learning here that we can actually create change through laughter.â€
â€œI was part of history last nightâ€
Of course, not every attendee was in Rachel because of the memes. There were plenty of paranormal researchers and alien aficionados who arrived with optimism about the renewed interest in what the military could be hiding within the secretive site.
One of them was Nathan Hendrickson, a semi-retired attorney from Muskogee, Oklahoma, who runs a medicinal marijuana grow farm called Conservatory 51. â€œAre there aliens over that hill? I donâ€™t know,â€ he told me. â€œBut I know that our pilots are seeing a lot of weird stuff in the sky.â€
Hendrickson said he has been visiting Rachel and Area 51 regularly for the last couple years and is excited to see so many new people experiencing it this week. â€œNow they can feel what I feel,â€ he said.
I asked him if he had any interest in storming Area 51 to see the aliens. â€œYou want to see aliens?â€ he said, before taking a drag of his cigarette. â€œLook around, brother. The aliens are right here. I see aliens every time I look in the mirror.â€
Many attendees, however, did want to have a close encounter with Area 51. Around 3 a.m. on Friday morning, the first batch of â€œstormersâ€ approached the back gate of the military compound, and were greeted by several members of law enforcement who were friendly and accommodating. One person was detained and another was reportedly arrested for public urination, but the scene was not the disaster predicted. Some officers even joked with the visitors.
â€œIt was history. This was the first of its kind as far as storming Area 51,â€ said Jeffrey Gonzalez, a paranormal investigator who was in the first wave, â€œWe stormed it. Well….â€ Gonzalez then shrugged, acknowledging it wasnâ€™t an actual storm since they didnâ€™t make it through the gate, but said proudly, â€œI was part of history last night.â€
After that first â€œstorm,â€ word spread that authorities were allowing people to visit, and a steady stream of cars started trickling out to the gate. I heard that by late Saturday there was a consistent gathering of people at the entrance, taking photos and talking to the guards. It became the festival rite of passage. â€œHave you stormed it yet?â€ people would ask, eager to hear what it was like or share their experience.
By Friday night, music filled every corner of the festival. Performers were playing in three different areas across the main field and a DJ was spinning in an RV that was casting a light show across another field. There, a few people stood seemingly high out of their gourds, entranced by the designs the lasers were tracing in the dirt.
I bounced around between acts for a while before feeling an urge to do my own late-night storm of Area 51. I followed the vague directions another attendee gave me: turn on that dirt road, take a left at the stop sign and take that dirt road for about 24km until you see the lights.
On the way out the festival, I passed a house with a sign reading â€œGO HOME. NO ALIENSTOCK,â€ and ten minutes later I worried I was going the wrong way and might end up somewhere I shouldnâ€™t be. But then I spotted lights and pressed on through clouds of dust.
A pair of floodlights beamed in the distance, like a pair of glowing eyes. I parked and approached two police officers who had blocked the road with their cars. They told me I could keep going, and I walked the last hundred yards to Area 51’s back gate, where I found a gaggle of stormers talking to the guards and taking photos.
On the surface, this seemed like an olive branch: they let the weirdos have some fun. More likely this was a strategic move â€” to neutralise any efforts trespass by allowing people to take staged â€œstormâ€ photos. If so, it was effective. But it was still a heady experience, taking a lonely drive deep into the darkness and coming upon the high holy site of conspiracy theorists and UFO researchers, like the end of a paranormal pilgrimage.
I made it to Area 51 and didn’t get shot pic.twitter.com/rEoDrI9RHL
— Jennings Brown (@tjenningsbrown) September 21, 2019
It wasnâ€™t the promise of seeing aliens that made my visit to Area 51 so enchanting. Here, on a desolate road by one of the most mythologized places on Earth, the cops and oddballs had come together to share this strange moment.
It remains to be seen whether Alienstock will become an international party brand, another annual music festival, or something entirely different in the future. But last weekend, the Area 51 stormers successfully brought the internet into the real world by committing to an idea that was silly, mostly harmless, and too weird to die.