Rachel, Nevada, isn’t the kind of place you’d expect to run into a film crew. It’s small and isolated, and when too many cars drive through the desert, dust hovers above the road.
And yet on Sept. 11, when resident Joerg Arnu looked up from his computer and out the window of his home, he saw a Jeep and a handful of guys pointing cameras at his house from just outside his gate.
Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee could only confirm that things got “heated.” Arnu and these guys, who were camped out across the highway, had a few run-ins over the course of the weekend.
The 58-year-old Arnu, who’s lived in Rachel for over two decades and runs its unofficial website, doesn’t know who they were or what they wanted, beyond asking him for an interview at one point. Here’s what Arnu does know: Last year a meme rolled into town, and he’s still dealing with the repercussions.
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“I feel vulnerable,” he says, adding, “If a year and a half ago, anybody would have told me that this madness is going to descend on Rachel, I would have said that would be crazy. That’s never going to happen.”
He’s talking about the “Storm Area 51” raid, or Alienstock. And not just Alienstock, but the subsequent year spent fighting to keep it from making a return.
It started as a joke event on Facebook. The goal: Meet up in the nearby town of Rachel, then “Naruto run” toward the world-famous Area 51 military base to “see them aliens.”
Two million people RSVP’d.
It was funny and headline-worthy, and it garnered worldwide media coverage, but county officials had no idea who was joking and who was literally en route, tinfoil hat in hand, to Rachel, a town with little infrastructure and questionable cell service. In response, Lincoln County made a $250,000 bet and prepared for the worst, declaring a state of emergency and using funds to pay for law enforcement and medical personnel. In the end only 3,000 people turned up.
KTNV Las Vegas called it a “bust in the dust.”
All things considered, it was fine. There were a few arrests. No one died. (Except for a local cow, hit by a car. RIP.)
And though there was no ransacking or looting of Rachel’s homes, when everyone left, there was trash to pick up, stubborn clouds of disturbed dust over the highway and the specter of having to do it all over again in 2020.
The Golden Commode Fund
A quarter of a million dollars is a lot of money. Especially for a county like Lincoln. Last year, the director of planning and building described the county’s budget as “shoestring.”
And it is. Despite being a physically big county, Lincoln is relatively small. It’s largely made up of federal land, the chair of the board of commissioners, Varlin Higbee, tells me over the phone. According to census data, the population is about 5,183, spread out over 10,633 square miles. Per capita income is $25,304.
So, Higbee says, not much of a tax base.
To compensate, Lincoln County, like similar counties in the state (and throughout the country), receives federal money every year as part of the Payment in Lieu of Taxes law, money the government gives counties to make up for the fact that they can’t claim property taxes on federal land.
According to the Department of the Interior’s Fiscal Year 2020 Payments in Lieu of Taxes National Summary report, Lincoln county got a bit north of $950,000.
This is money that helps pay for things like roads and schools. (Higbee says the towns in Lincoln mostly don’t have sidewalks or gutters and are “lucky to have paved streets.”) It’s also what Lincoln County used to pay for staffing for the Alienstock invasion, and what it’ll use to plug the hole.
The money that helped cover Alienstock was supposed to go toward renovating the county’s courthouse to make it compliant with the American Disabilities Act. Lincoln needs about $1.5 million (half of which could be matched, thanks to grants) to do things like add more bathrooms — at the moment there’s only one bathroom downstairs and one upstairs.
“If you’re in a wheelchair, you’re in trouble,” Higbee says. The money Lincoln officials try to set aside for the renovations, they’ve taken to calling the Golden Commode Fund.
They want to build simple things like a counter. Currently the county’s courthouse doesn’t have one. And at a time when public places like courthouses are making accommodations to satisfy social distancing rules, Higbee says they don’t really have the money to do that either.
Initially, Lincoln County hoped to get back the funds it spent on Alienstock. That was the thinking behind declaring a state of emergency: reimbursement. Locals like Arnu didn’t agree with the logic, and apparently neither does Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak.
At a December meeting of the Board of Examiners, Sisolak faulted the commissioners for approving the event in the first place.
“I don’t know how this was an emergency when you gave an approval despite our concerns regarding this issue, and then expect the taxpayers of the state to basically bail out your county commission’s approval,” the governor said, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal.
Sisolak’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The money hasn’t been the only issue. Arnu and fellow residents Pat Jordan and Bob Clabaugh have spent the last year attending county commissioners meetings, driving roughly 200 miles roundtrip when they’re not showing up virtually. Arnu keeps up a website called No Alienstock, which makes the case for keeping the event out of Rachel in the future.
“I didn’t move out here to stay in that kind of life and be part of politics and business,” says Jordan, a retiree. “I’m done with that crap.”
A looming invasion
For 2020, at least, Rachel is off the hook.
At a board of commissioners meeting in May, Alienstock organizer Connie West said two sponsors had dropped out and she wouldn’t be able to pay for the event, according to minutes from the meeting. West’s bar and motel The Little A’Le’Inn was ground zero for the event in 2019. She’d teamed up with the event’s creator, and after a parting of ways shortly before Alienstock was supposed to happen, was left trying to pull everything off on her own.
She did, however, want to give it a go again in 2021.
West didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Days before the one-year anniversary of the event, Lee, the sheriff, tells me this area has always attracted some amount of attention. After all, it sits on the so-called Extraterrestrial Highway.
But whether there’s ever another Alienstock remains to be seen. West is still tied up in litigation with creator Matty Roberts about rights to use the name. Lee tends to think there are bound to be some die-hards in the future who’ll come out, even to a smaller event.
“Maybe when we’re post-COVID, it certainly could be bigger again,” he says, “I don’t wish that, but I think it could be.” He is certain that if he’s got to get additional officers to help out his already understaffed department, Lincoln County won’t be paying for it.
For 2019 attendee Thiery Sparks, going to the event — while a nice opportunity to hang out in the desert and see some stars — wasn’t exactly life-changing. He says he doesn’t think about it much unless one of his friends mentions it and he has to explain to someone that he actually went.
“It’s not surprising to me that a meme from 2019 did not survive 2020,” Sparks says.
As for the locals, how much life has changed, exactly, varies depending on who you ask.
Both Jordan and Clabaugh feel reasonably sure Alienstock in Rachel is done. Hamstrung by the pandemic and divorced from its viral hype from 2019, the event, as they see it, doesn’t have much of a future. And as Clabaugh points out, Rachel still doesn’t have the kind of infrastructure that could support the growth of the event into something like Burning Man.
“It just doesn’t have the potential to make anybody lots of money, and that’s going to be the motivating thing,” he says.
Arnu is still bracing for the worst.
“We didn’t ask for this, it came upon us, and we tried to deal with it the best way we could,” he said.
Rachel hasn’t been overrun this year, to be sure, but it’s still wearing the effects of that one strange weekend when the internet came to town. It takes a meme longer to die in the real world than online. Long after everyone went home, Alienstock has been like a cloud of dust over the Extraterrestrial Highway, and it refuses to settle.
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