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Area 51 research center reopens, museum ready soon

A galvanized metal giant with the other-worldly noggin welcomes all peaceful beings from throughout the universe to the Alien Research Center, but mostly he’s expecting those traveling by automobile on state Route 375, also known as the Extraterrestrial Highway.

This is the heart of Nevada’s celebrated and strange UFO country, where all roads lead to the sacred ground of the locked gates of Area 51.

Legend has it that the aliens who crashed at Roswell, N.M., chill out at the world’s best-known Top Secret location. (Although, come to think of it, Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum had unfettered access to the base in the blockbuster “Independence Day.”)

The aliens’ damaged spacecraft is up on blocks and being studied by the finest U.S. scientists there. And, well, it turns out the CIA and military also are developing high-flying and hard-to-detect spy planes there.

Business is picking up again at the research center thanks to a feature on this stretch of the solar system that appeared in a recent edition of The New York Times. Whether we’ve been visited by life from other planets is debatable, but one thing that’s assured is commerce increases any time life along the Extraterrestrial Highway is depicted in a major newspaper or magazine.

Whichever version of the facts you choose, if you find yourself driving toward Rachel, the diminutive desert mecca for the UFO obsessed and home of the Little A’Le’Inn, you’ll first have to pass the Alien Research Center with its Quonset hut architecture, free museum under construction, and dandy souvenir and candy and nut shop.

But speaking of nuts, people thought Las Vegas businessman George Harris was certifiable more than a decade ago when he came up with the idea of the research center, which displays documents on Area 51, Roswell and other items of particular interest to those who are fascinated with the galaxy’s vast possibilities.

Studying UFOs and the government’s secretive military machinations has been his passion for many years. Harris earns his living as the proprietor of the popular Mundo upscale Mexican restaurant in downtown Las Vegas. In his spare time he markets the Alien tequila brand, so the UFO imagery is rarely far from his thoughts.

Although the recession forced him to padlock the research center for a year, he’s back open and putting the finishing touches on the museum. And although commerce is part of the business equation, he’s fascinated by people’s stories about their own UFO experiences, including a number of those who claim to have been abducted by beings from other planets.

“A lot of people see things,” Harris says. “They’ve seen things since the early ’50s. A large contingent began to see stuff after the Roswell crash, and people from all over the world started seeing things.”

Whether it’s government aircraft or something interstellar, Harris doesn’t know. But that’s part of the intrigue, isn’t it?

After years of observing the human behavior surrounding the UFO phenomenon, Harris concludes, “I think people naturally want to believe in a higher power. I think people naturally want to believe in God. I think people naturally want to believe in aliens. They’re always hunting for answers to their ultimate questions.”

The question on Harris’ mind these days is whether he can finally get his museum open to the public while the surge in interested generated from the Times piece lingers.

“It generates a lot of business,” he says of the coverage. “It generates conversation. And it generates credibility. Now, all of a sudden a major news outlet is saying, ‘Hey, what’s going on up there?’ ”

He hopes tourists are asking the same thing.

Alien visitation is great and all, but in Nevada’s UFO country it’s human visitation that pays the light bills.

Nevada Native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Reach him at 702-383-0295 or at jsmith@reviewjournal.com

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