The only landmark for about 40 miles on a barren stretch of highway is a mailbox battered by time and desert gusts. It's known as the Black Mailbox, though it's actually a faded white.
Over the years, hundreds of people have converged here in south-central Nevada to photograph the box -- the size of a small television, held up by a chipped metal pole. They camp next to it. They try to break into it. They debate its significance, or simply huddle by it for hours, staring into the night.
Some think the mailbox is linked to nearby Area 51, a military installation and purported hotbed of extraterrestrial activity. At the very least, they consider the box a prime magnet for flying saucers.
A few visitors have claimed they saw celestial oddities. But most enjoy even uneventful nights at the mailbox, about midway between the towns of Alamo and Rachel. Alien hunters here are surrounded by like-minded -- meaning open-minded -- company. In a place where the welcome sign to Rachel reads, Humans: 98, Aliens: ?, few roll their eyes at tales of spaceships, military conspiracies and extraterrestrials that abduct and impregnate tourists.
Tonight, Lester Arnold, a 59-year-old industrial mechanic, is in Rachel offering to show visitors Mailbox Road. He traveled from Declo, Idaho, for the annual UFO Friendship Conference Camp Out (sample lecture: "Teleportation and Esoteric Consciousness"). A few years ago at the mailbox, Arnold says, he saw a fireball-like object shoot over the mountains, stop and shrink until it vanished.
He meets Steve Crosby at a double-wide named the Little A'Le'Inn, a Rachel restaurant, bar and tourist stop. Crosby, 57, is debating whether the "Earthlings Always Welcome" T-shirt looks better in purple or black. He lives in Bedford, Texas, and hopes to spot his second spacecraft here (his first was a bluish oval that he says zipped over Atlanta).
The guys and three others caravan to the mailbox on the state-christened Extraterrestrial Highway, a two-lane road that tumbleweeds cross more frequently than cars. The cows grazing alongside it, conspiracy theorists whisper, are mounted with spy cameras. The men park near the mailbox and a bullet-dinged stop sign, and open their doors to silence.
The box is made of quarter-inch-thick bulletproof metal, and its door is clamped shut with a Master Lock. Its owner, say the black letters printed on its side, is STEVE MEDLIN, HC 61, BOX 80. Visitors have added bumper stickers and their own musings:
"Trust no one."
"I am the last alien."
"It's become this mecca," says a Las Vegas man who's admiring the weathered box. He wears a Johnnie Walker RVs ball cap and declines to give his name.
"That's probably the most photographed mailbox in the world," Arnold says, his gruff voice tinged with awe.
The owners of the mailbox, Steve and Glenda Medlin, moved in 1973 to a cattle ranch in Tikaboo Valley, about 80 miles north of Las Vegas. There was no talk of aliens, and no home mail delivery.
A few years later, a local tungsten quarry reopened. Some miners moved to a trailer park near the Medlins; it grew into the town of Rachel. Postal carriers began delivery, and the couple put up a common black rural mailbox about six miles from their home, near Highway 375.
In 1989, according to a history of Rachel, a man named Bob Lazar told a Las Vegas television station that he had worked with alien spacecraft at nearby Nellis Air Force Range. He and his buddies, Lazar claimed, also watched saucer test flights in Tikaboo Valley.
So many tourists soon descended on Rachel -- on the edge of the valley -- that the Rachel Bar & Grill was renamed the Little A'Le'Inn. People would down Alien Burgers and beer there before making their way to the mailbox, the only landmark in Tikaboo Valley. The mailbox acquired a cult-like following.
"For some reason, Tuesday nights was when they thought the aliens came out. Then it was Wednesdays," Glenda Medlin says with notable disdain. UFO tourists left messages in the mailbox for the aliens -- on business cards, napkins and notebook scraps. "They were waiting for the aliens to abduct them, and they were anxious to meet them. . . . We'd just shake our heads," says Medlin, who long ago stopped reading the notes. "It was so asinine."
Some people opened the couple's mail, hoping to intercept classified correspondence. Some camped at the mailbox -- for weeks. A few shot the mailbox, leaving holes in the Medlins' bills and junk mail. That was too much for the ranchers.
Medlin doesn't remember when her husband swapped the black mailbox for the larger white bulletproof one, but an online posting pegs the date as March 27, 1996. The next month, the state baptized Highway 375 as the Extraterrestrial Highway, making headlines internationally.
Steve Medlin attached a second box solely for the alien-seekers: It has a mail slot and is labeled ALIEN and DROP BOX; some people slide in dollar bills.
Despite years passing, the Black Mailbox remains an enigma, puzzled over on Internet message boards:
6/27/03: the farmer painted it white in hopes that people would stop being fascinated with this mysterious black mailbox in the middle of nowhere
5/3/05: Steve Medlin has a government contract to provide cattle for the space aliens to mutilate
2/25/08: Can anybody give me any info on the rancher. . . . I know his mailbox is famous and his cattle look strange. . . . I bet he has stories.
The sun disappears, and the surrounding Groom, Timpahute and Pahranagat mountains blacken. Stars peek through clouds. It's 52 degrees -- unseasonably cold for spring -- and Arnold and the other sky watchers are shivering through lined gloves and wool ponchos. They pace near the mailbox, one of the few things visible in the dark.
They clutch digital cameras and night-vision binoculars that tint everything green. They tilt back their heads, training their lenses on the sky. Someone clicks on a scanner, but it broadcasts only silence. Becky Spidell, 60, and her husband join the group, which passes time trading stories that, back home, are usually pooh-poohed.
"My mother was a UFO person. We had a big telescope in the living room," says Spidell, who runs a mobile home park in Phoenix. "I was so embarrassed -- I wouldn't bring friends over."
But three years ago, after seeing the Little A'Le'Inn on television, Spidell and her husband headed to Tikaboo Valley in early summer. She said that she peered out her car window and glimpsed three orange UFOs, followed by a giant saucer.
"We watched it for a little bit," she says, "and then it went over the mountain and it glowed for two or three minutes. It landed at Area 51." The Spidells have returned every year since.
"My youngest daughter thinks I'm nuts," she says. "I think this is the mother's curse."
Minutes pass; the sky watchers never lower their gazes.
Spidell: "It's a big sky, big universe."
Arnold: "It would be naive to think we're the only ones."
Spidell: "I'd like to know the games they're playing with us. The abductions and all."
They continue the UFO chatter.
"After I see one, I always check my clock," Spidell says.
"In case I've been abducted."
That way, she says, she could figure out afterward how long she'd been missing.
The others nod in understanding.
The pauses lengthen. Two hours crawl by. It's so dark now the mailbox seems like a mirage. There's a glow emanating from behind the mountains, but the group decides it's merely the Las Vegas Strip.
Crosby clutches a half-filled Coors, quietly surveying the night. A friend wanders off, and his flashlight occasionally blinks, jarring the group.
"We're not counting on seeing anything," Crosby finally says.
There's a light in the sky. A fast-moving light.
The group debates in hushed tones: Is it a shooting star? A spaceship?
They train their binoculars on it, hoping.
"Probably a commercial jet," someone concludes.
"Well," he says, "I can say I was here."
After Crosby's friend returns, the group disbands -- it's too frigid to camp until dawn. They start their cars and warm their fingers, the mailbox flickering in their headlights. They drive away, united in their certainty that the sky is hiding something.