Just then, another pair of lights appeared: headlights from an approaching car. Karen was momentarily distracted. When she looked up again, the object was gone. Her friend told her it had disappeared straight up into the sky.
Karen remembers not being scared. As they drove away, she kept looking out the back window, hoping the thing would reappear. She wanted to see it again.
That’s how Karen, who still lives in Wisconsin and has worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 27 years, ended up in the Nevada desert last week, one of at least 2,000 people to show up for a gathering inspired by a viral Facebook event advertising a raid of Area 51, the secretive U.S. military base known among conspiracy theorists and in popular culture as the place the government stashed alien spacecraft. (The Pentagon has acknowledged funding UFO research in general, but the U.S. government has said that Area 51 was a secret testing ground for aircraft built by humans.)
The visitors had come to test boundaries. More than 2 million people had RSVP’d to the event, titled “Storm Area 51, they can’t stop all of us.” The meme spread from Facebook to Instagram, TikTok, Reddit, Discord and Twitter, morphing along the way. People joked about how they intended to “see them aliens.” The town of Rachel, Nev., which is near-ish to Area 51 but about 45 miles from the nearest gas station, braced for visitors.
It wasn’t totally clear how much of the whole thing was a joke — an Internet meme that got stuck somewhere in the delicate membrane that separates the online world, with its anime-inspired advice for how to sprint in a way that helps you dodge bullets (head forward, arms pointed straight back, it’s called “Naruto running”), and real life, where Area 51 is guarded by armed military officers who probably could stop as many people as they wanted to.
Who were these people, and why had they come? Some came for the memes. Some came because they love the paranormal or were bored or wanted to sell stuff or some combination of those things. There were teen boys hawking alien T-shirts for gas money. Retired couples in RVs. A middle-aged woman with her five Australian shepherd dogs that had nosed their way into her cooler during the drive and eaten the salami. Two men with a burger truck who said they had seen a UFO on their drive from Austin. A pair of “furries” (people who wear animal costumes) who spent the night in a wind-battered tent after losing track of their friends because of poor cell reception. A man in a space suit who said he had a million subscribers on YouTube. A dog in a tinfoil hat who said nothing. People in NASA T-shirts. People who insisted NASA was a “hoax.”
And Karen Peterson, the Wisconsin postal worker with blue-green hair and some unfinished business.
She was here to test another boundary, between the present and the past. It had been 35 years since her encounter on that country road, and she was ready to reconnect with what she saw and felt as an awestruck teenager. She belonged to Facebook groups for people who believed they’d seen UFOs, which is how she learned about the Area 51 “raid.” It happened to coincide with her 53rd birthday, so she had persuaded her best friend, Margaret LeMay, who goes by Marge, to fly to Las Vegas and then rent a minivan and drive to the desert.
Were they actually going to “storm” a heavily guarded military base? Would she find out anything more about that gigantic, soundless, blinking object that had appeared to her as a teenager?
How real was any of this?
Karen had come to see. But one thing remained the same, all these years later: She wasn’t scared.
Rachel, Nev., is not exactly a town. It's a smattering of homes connected by gravel and dirt roads. There's a church that has seen better days and a junkyard. Fewer than 100 people live there. It's not wealthy, but it is beautiful, surrounded by distant mountains and canyons. At night, you can see the Milky Way. During the day, you can browse the alien-themed merchandise at the Little A'Le'Inn, which sells food and cheap beer and tchotchkes to seekers who come to visit the other nearby attractions, which are perpetually closed: a pair of gates, about 40 miles apart, that mark the approaches to Area 51.
These were the gates that the more cavalier of the Alienstock attendees were apparently meant to “storm” in the early hours of Friday, Sept. 20. On Thursday, during the day, many of them went to scope out the back gate. Karen and Marge got a ride with a man who said he used to work at the base as a civilian.
It was obvious when they arrived that there would be no element of surprise. The scene at the back gate was merry, with law enforcement officers chatting with visitors and even helping to take pictures. A YouTuber interviewed Karen about her UFO story with a small smirk on his face. The man who gave Karen a ride chummed it up with the officers.
According to the original Facebook event, the raid was scheduled between 3 and 6 a.m. the next day, but details were scant. Much had changed since the first inklings of this oddball gathering had gone viral. The man who created the Facebook event, Matty Roberts, had disavowed the whole thing, worried about causing another Fyre Festival — the infamous 2017 gathering in the Bahamas that, due to a combination of social media hype and poor planning, had turned into a fiasco.
Unlike Fyre Fest, the people who came to the Nevada desert didn’t seem to expect much in the way of human comforts. Some seemed pleasantly surprised to find that there were porta-potties. Still, the prospect of any kind of coordinated overnight action at Area 51 faced organizational challenges. There was no clear leader, and Internet access in the desert was scarce. As night fell on Sept. 19, people huddled around the WiFi of the closed Little A’Le’Inn as if it were a campfire. Plans were hatched the old-fashioned way: by word of mouth among strangers who were trying to orient themselves to this new, smaller group that they now belonged to: the ones who had shown up.
Karen and Marge made friends with two other members of that group, Dan Ray and Michael Creber. Dan was a handsome man who made great eye contact and was open to the possibility that the Earth is flat. He said he worked part of the year as the first mate on a private yacht, ferrying wealthy people down the Eastern Seaboard, and otherwise lived in a blue van, ferrying himself around the country. His business card said “American refugee.” Michael was a former Marine with an immaculate bright-blond mullet who said he had been researching UFOs for 20 years. His most important finding? “That they’re real.”
Michael had a theory about what drew a lot of people to the desert. It wasn’t just about manifesting Internet memes or freeing “them aliens.” It also had to do with a different kind of freedom, the kind humans allow themselves. “The real reason for this,” he said, grinning, “is people want to party.”
And so they did. Michael and Dan and Karen and Marge became neighbors. The group of new friends parked their vehicles close together so they could protect one another from the wrong kinds of weirdos. (You can’t be sure who might appear in the dark or whether they come in peace.) At night, they drank and laughed and shared ideas about the government and aliens and coverups and conspiracies.
On that night in 1984, Karen had told her parents about the two-story craft with pulsing lights. Her mom had laughed, but her father grew serious. He told her he believed her — that he, too, had seen a UFO once, in the 1950s, while he was a soldier stationed in Japan. He felt that he couldn’t tell anyone about it at the time.
She had felt the same way about her own encounter until about a decade ago. Now, in the desert, Karen felt as comfortable speaking about it as ever. Everybody wanted to hear her story.
Her father passed away in 2001. They hadn’t talked about her experience much after the night it happened, but it made her feel uniquely connected to him — something she didn’t take for granted as one of 11 children. Karen remembered telling her dad that what she’d experienced was a “once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
And she remembered his response: “Don’t bet on it.”
Early the next morning, while it was still dark, life-forms began to stir. Car lights blinked on. Whoops of laughter cut through the cold predawn air.
At the front gate, a pair of officers, one from the Nevada Department of Public Safety, the other from the Park Service, had spent the early hours greeting visitors as if they were trick-or-treaters. A few hundred feet away, on a hill, the headlights of an SUV pierced the dark. It belonged to the base’s official military security personnel, known among tourists as the “camo dudes,” who seemed to be monitoring things from afar.
The previous day, Karen had talked with young revelers about meeting at the front gate before dawn. She had meant to set her alarm for 2:30 a.m., but it didn’t take, and she overslept. She finally arrived at the front gate with Marge and Dan as the sun was beginning to rise. They were the 28th, 29th and 30th visitors of the morning, according to the officers.
Was this all there was to the raid? Had they missed it?
Yes and no. There had been a “raid” — if you could call it that — at the back gate, according to the officers. A group of maybe 50 people showed up at once. Parts of the scene would appear later online. One video showed a setting that resembled a tailgate. Mostly it was a lot of guys standing around and chuckling and chanting lewd memes about alien lust while good-natured officers patiently watched.
Another video featured two men and a woman in silver bodysuits. “We’re not here for photos. We’re here to rescue the aliens!” shouted one of the men, who was wearing blue face paint and sunglasses. The threesome lined up and Naruto-ran toward the gate, stopping short of the giant “Stop” sign. (The officers standing guard didn’t even bother to block their path.) Afterward, the woman twerked for the cameras.
At the front gate, as the dawn gathered behind them, Karen and Marge commemorated their own version of the Area 51 raid, taking photos to send to their children. Karen posed in an alien mask. Then she danced and laughed and cheered and shouted up to the camo dudes: “Free them aliens!” She yelled that it was her birthday and that she had come all the way from Wisconsin.
“We know what you’re hiding in there!” she shouted, joyously. “Come on, free them! Woo! We’re here to free the aliens!”
The camo dudes did not reply.
“I thought there would be so many people!” Karen said. “They’re missing out. They’re missing out.”
It was an odd little postcard of a scene: Two middle-aged ladies from the Midwest and their new friend, Dan the American Refugee. They were far from 1984, far from the Internet, far from “they can’t stop all of us” and the burlesque that had unfolded at the back gate. But they were close to something — an experience, a feeling. She would remember this.
“I’m so glad I came,” said Karen. “This a bucket-list place. I’m so happy I came. This is the best birthday a girl could ever have.”
She turned to taunt the camo dudes some more, then grew quieter for a moment.
“I just want to see aliens,” she said. “I want to see them again.”
But the gate wasn’t going to open. Marge and Dan turned to leave. Karen lingered. The Earth had completed another rotation, and the sun bathed the desert in orange light. As celestial events go it was as routine as they come, but it was still a wonder. Karen was feeling grateful.
“We wouldn’t have seen the sunrise,” she said, walking away from the gate, “if it wasn’t for the aliens.”