Jebb McAfee drove down the narrow desert road as far as he could and parked near some other cars alongside the scrub brush. In front of him and his two friends was a barricade, a stop sign and a dream.
The three had traveled all the way from Florida to get here: The back entrance to the top-secret military base Area 51.
Caleb Lower said they hadn’t slept in 24 hours. It was the big moment, though, and they weren’t going to screw it up.
“Hey, we need the sword,” McAfee said.
Lower opened the door and produced a small plastic saber. McAfee waved it a few times and nodded.
“Do I need to be dressed like an alien?” Dajah Potter asked.
“Only if you feel like it,” McAfee replied.
Potter did feel like it. She slid a green mask over her face to match her tight bodysuit.
The trio strode past the barrier toward the entrance a few hundred yards away. Police vehicles came into view. So did cameras on top of tall poles that watched them right back. An armed man in military fatigues — along with a German shepherd — stood behind a red-and-white gate arm.
Barbed wire extended into the desert. Signs warned people not to enter.
McAfee and his friends stopped. It was all they had hoped it would be.
“We’ve seen pictures, but this is amazing,” he said. “We’re here.”
They weren’t alone, either.
Hundreds of people began arriving at the gate Friday. They came in tinfoil hats and orange jumpsuits. One guy arrived in his pajamas holding a bottle of liquor. They posed for pictures. Many sprinted the last 100 yards before stopping at the gate.
Their adventure had been inspired by perhaps the most unlikely Internet phenomenon of the summer.
At 2 a.m. on June 27, a 21-year-old Bakersfield college student named Matty Roberts was bored and decided to create a Facebook event: “Storm Area 51: They Can’t Stop All of Us.”
It was his idea of a joke — one Roberts said he believed so absurd, nobody would ever take it seriously. How wrong he was.
By July, his Facebook event, scheduled for Friday, had gone viral. By August, more than 2 million people had said they were going to storm Area 51, longtime fodder for conspiracy theories about aliens and UFOs. The town of Rachel, population 58, was suddenly faced with an existential crisis: What if they all show up? An alien invasion might have been easier to handle.
The town — led by the Little A’Le’Inn — gamely tried to prepare. Located in a vast bowl of Nevada high desert, it is so remote that there isn’t gas within an hour. No grocery stores, either. Just vast expanses of land where dust devils can be seen spinning for a few minutes before vanishing as if they were never there.
Roberts tried to dissuade people from rushing the military base by offering them an alternative: “Alienstock,” a music festival that would be a cross between Burning Man, Woodstock and Comicon.
Lincoln County, population 5,000, approved permits and geared up for the unknown. The Air Force was ready, too, with public statements warning people to stay away from the base.
But after Roberts and the owners of the inn had a falling-out, he moved Alienstock to downtown Las Vegas. It was held Thursday night, and according to a promoter drew 10,000 people.
Pat Travis, the owner of the inn, pushed ahead with her own concert festival, a three-day event she called A’Le’Inn-Stock.
Another event Friday in Hiko, about 45 minutes from Rachel, was expected to draw a few thousand to the Alien Research Center for a series of talks by UFO experts and people who say they have seen them.
As people began arriving in Rachel on Thursday, Travis stood behind the inn bar, selling cans of beer and doing interviews for television and YouTube channels.
Travis has owned the inn for more than three decades. It’s a series of blue-and-white buildings whose rooms sold out almost immediately after Roberts’ Internet joke went viral.
“I hope everyone has fun and that nobody storms the gates,” she said.
By Thursday night, a few hundred people had begun pitching tents on the dirt field east of the inn. One of the performers, a 13-year-old rapper named Prymrr, said she had planned to sing her song “Gamblin’” and debut a few new songs from her forthcoming album.
“I think this has the chance to be a cool event for many years down the road,” said her mother, Lisa LoBasso. “It’s definitely the most unusual event we’ve been a part of.”
The live music began in the evening. In the early hours of Friday morning, some attendees began to venture out to the gates of Area 51. Police said a crowd of about 75 showed up around 3 a.m.
Kevin Aquino and his 18-year-old son, Haven, walked to the gate and videoed themselves running away from it in the forward-leaning style used by an anime ninja named Naruto Uzumaki to increase speed and outpace security. Aquino said law enforcement was “really cool” about it all.
“As long as you don’t cross the barrier, they were fine,” he said in front of his car, with the words “Raid Area 51” painted in green on the back window. He said nobody tried to cross the gate.
Not far down the dirt road, two women sat on a purple couch and a round chair separated by a wood coffee table adorned with flowers. Underneath them was an area rug. Cassie Cazessus explained they wanted to come but didn’t have any camping gear.
“We just brought the living room with us,” she said.
They listened to Rascal Flatts as people walked by in tinfoil hats handcrafted by Christopher Reid and Justin Wainscott, who said they had brought 750 square-feet of foil. Some hats featured horns, and one was a full-faced alien mask.
Not everything was free, however.
T-shirts were being sold to commemorate the nonevent-event. Food trucks dotted the concert area. Some stopped in Hiko and nearby Alamo to pick up Bud Light, which had made special green cans for Alienstock.
Travis said she wouldn’t be opposed to making the festival an annual event, though she said the current one has taken a financial toll as they’ve sprung for port-potties, security and insurance. Lincoln County has also been concerned about the cost of increased law enforcement and possible cleanup efforts. The district attorney has said he is considering a lawsuit against Roberts and Facebook.
But that wasn’t on the minds of the people attending the Rachel event over the weekend.
Jacob Dowdle, a 23-year-old who arrived with his dad at the back gate Friday, wore a UFO around his waist — made by hand with wall insulation and plaster. “I still think there will be some idiots who try and storm the gate,” he said. “I came hoping to see a few get tackled.”
His father, 54-year-old Jared Dowdle, stood next to a few Nevada State Police officers and adjusted his tinfoil hat. He watched his son — along with Jacob’s brother — sell doughnuts for $2 a bag and pose for pictures with strangers.
He promised it wouldn’t get crazier than that: “I’m the voice of reason.”