A meme sent thousands into the desert, and they didn’t come back totally empty-handed.
Despite what I was promised by the meme that inspired the trip, I did not “see them aliens” in the middle of nowhere, Nevada.
“Storm Area 51” weekend was the IRL outgrowth of a viral Facebook joke that implored all interested parties to “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All Of Us” — but all I found were the offline remains of an online phenomenon. An ever-dwindling number of people who were committed enough to trek out into the Nevada desert, some 100 miles away from urbanity, spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday dithering around the near-empty towns of Rachel and Hiko.
It was unclear if anyone was really in charge. Little was planned. Zero aliens were in attendance. But, thankfully, no one tried to break into Area 51.
In the town of Rachel, what came to be known as Alien-Stock was designed as a festival for anyone who was so transfixed by a joke about raiding Area 51, they were willing to gather in the desert to celebrate it. But the event didn’t live up to dreams set forth by its creator, 21-year-old Bakersfield, California, native Matty Roberts, who had initially planned to turn his viral meme into a movement.
In July, Roberts had created a fake “Storm Area 51” event on Facebook, arbitrarily setting the date for September 20. After more than 2 million people RSVP’d (and the FBI showed up at his house to investigate), he tried to leverage his 15 minutes of internet fame. A gag about attacking a military facility in search of whatever the government might be hiding there rapidly snowballed into plans for a music-filled weekend of EDM DJs playing against a backdrop of alien imagery. Roberts spent the rest of the summer encouraging people to head out to Rachel, the town closest to Area 51, for live performances and a meeting of the meme minds. He called the event Alienstock.
Then drama ensued: Roberts bailed on his original plan less than two weeks ahead of time over “security concerns” due to the town’s lack of amenities. But the town of Rachel trudged forward with its own version of Alienstock — rechristened Alien-Stock, to avoid confusion and legal trouble — while Roberts converted his original vision into a more impersonal Thursday-night dance party in downtown Las Vegas. The jokes about finding aliens mostly manifested in overpriced alien T-shirts and some special-edition Bud Light, and little that spoke to the meme’s original spirit.
At one point, the Lincoln County sheriff’s department estimated that up to 30,000 people might travel to Rachel and Area 51 throughout the weekend; in the end, a spokesperson told Vox, about 6,000 people made it out. Visitors weren’t exactly met with open arms by Rachel’s 54 residents, who mostly wanted to be left alone. But to many who drove out in RVs and pitched tents, Alien-Stock was a successful experiment, a perfectly low-key way to send off the summer.
Ultimately, Alien-Stock came to function as so many spaces on the internet do, somewhere that people in a very narrow niche could convene and find community. To them, it didn’t matter if Alien-Stock was bereft of extraterrestrial life. Rachel, Nevada, would always be the place where a very particular combo of alien enthusiasts, anime fans, and meme lovers found each other.
Whether Alien-Stock was a success depends on whom you ask
The town of Rachel is one of the only stops on a 160-mile stretch of highway that has zero gas stations or rest stops. There are a few small homes and trailers, and a single prominent business, but for the most part, Rachel is a large swath of dirt, with a view of the Tikaboo Valley mountains in the distance. Alien-Stock hardly changed that scenery.
Entering Rachel at the start of Area 51 weekend, it was clear the event would not be a gigantic dance party in the desert.Scattered across the open expanse of fenced-in dust were people of all ages (mostly men, mostly white), many of whom had set up their own outdoor activities to keep themselves occupied.
Twenty-somethings threw hatchets at a haphazardly constructed wooden target. A group of friends played a game that resembled oversized beer pong, replacing the cups with garbage cans and the ping pong ball with a basketball. As for whether beer was involved, I didn’t notice any. But the beer of choice for the weekend, both at Roberts’s event in Vegas and at Alien-Stock in Rachel, was surely Bud Light’s limited-edition alien beer, first announced in July when the meme was at its height of popularity. It tasted exactly as I remember it tasting in college.
Attendees’ outfits ranged from simple alien-themed T-shirts, to full alien getups rendered in head-to-toe green spandex, to costumes from the anime series Naruto, which played a role in the original Storm Area 51 meme. Various groups of people clustered together under cover of some rare shade outside the Little A’Le’Inn, Rachel’s aforementioned single business and the named host of Alien-Stock. The only trees in Rachel, it seemed, surrounded this small hotel, owned by a woman named Connie West.
No one considered this very DIY weekend a success more than West, who became the de facto organizer of Alien-Stock after Roberts changed his plans.
“I’m proud of me,” West told a small group of news outlets, including Vox on the second day of the event. “I’ve never been to a festival in my life, and hell, I pulled it off.”
West was painted as both a victim and a villain in the run-up to Alien-Stock. Originally pitched as a weekend-long series of live performances hosted by Roberts with West’s cooperation, Roberts ultimately blamed West for his decision to avoid Rachel altogether and host a Bud Light-sponsored party in Vegas that bore the Alienstock name.
“We started realizing a lot more red flags, money mismanagement, things like that,” Roberts told Vox of his first in-person planning meeting with West. “And from there me and my partners, we collectively decided to take the Alienstock brand and just associate it elsewhere, because there wasn’t enough preparations that had been made so far to actually throw a party in that 11-day timeframe that we had.”
Roberts said he feared that Rachel would be overwhelmed by people who wanted to see a meme come to life. Residents did too, urging West and Roberts to call it off. The town’s website, run by a local named Joerg Arnu, was updated frequently with blunt warnings about how Rachel wouldn’t be able to handle the crowds, how West had no infrastructure in place, and how visitors would be disturbing the peace.
Yet West insisted that the event would continue when asked by the Associated Press one week before Alien-Stock was scheduled to begin. “I’m still doing the festival with the ‘Alienstock’ name on it,” she said. “I’ll just worry about the legalities later.”
A cease-and-desist letter came soon thereafter, with Roberts demanding that West stop using the Alienstock name, and West pressing onward with the hyphenated Alien-Stock. (West also countered with a legal notice of her own, alleging that Roberts pulled out of the event unlawfully, though she later told media she had “nothing but love” for him.)
Perhaps that’s why it took multiple attempts to track her down during Alien-Stock weekend itself, as she apparently spent Friday driving circles around town in her beige Volkswagen Beetle. I saw this Beetle a handful of times throughout the weekend, always parked in different spots; I never did catch Connie at the wheel. “Where is Connie?” I asked an event volunteer.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of her for three months.” The volunteer said she worked for West at the Little A’Le’Inn, but as soon as the Storm Area 51 meme went viral and the idea for Alienstock materialized, West had become hard to reach — leaving Rachel and its residents in the dark about what to expect.
This apparent evasiveness played into my early impression — and Roberts’s — that the woman left with Alien-Stock in her lap was less beleaguered than conniving, skirting anyone wanting to discuss concerns that it would end up a chaotic bust. Thankfully, those concerns were not realized; things at Area 51 itself remained peaceful, and in Rachel, everyone seemed too exhausted by the heat or gently appreciative of the afternoon’s live music to be belligerent.
Not that there was much music anyway. On Friday afternoon, a band called Wily Savage played for a small crowd on what was otherwise a stage that held nothing but a turntable and laptop. An unnamed DJ played slightly dusty radio hits like Skrillex and Justin Bieber’s “What Do U Mean,” while a slight crowd stood and bopped their heads. Though 20 bands had reportedly signed on to perform, only one actually showed up.
The majority of the attendees seemed to be members of the press, which probably contributed to the lack of rowdiness. Vloggers from Peru and journalists from Germany were covering the event alongside US-based outlets like Vox, and our takeaways were similar. The lead-up to Alien-Stock was more interesting and eventful than Alien-Stock itself.
Alien-Stock was an expensive experiment that didn’t live up to the hype, but it wasn’t a total disaster
The weeks of broken partnerships, widespread skepticism that Alien-Stock would even happen, and low attendance didn’t faze the event’s organizer. To the Little A’Le’Inn’s Connie West, Alien-Stock was an unqualified success.
“It’s been a great learning experience,” West said when she finally spoke to a group of reporters on Saturday. “I’m grateful for the rollercoaster of emotions that I’ve gone through, because without them, we wouldn’t be standing here now.
“But what makes this special and a success is the smiles that people are leaving with the memories that they have and the friendships that they’ve made. That’s what matters.”
It’s hard to completely agree with that sentiment, however, when taking into account the amount of money that local law enforcement spent on Alien-Stock in anticipation of a much larger, more boisterous crowd. Lincoln County police officers and highway patrol seemed to outnumber actual attendees in the range of two-to-one, patrolling the perimeter of Rachel with little to do. Meanwhile, the police who manned the Area 51 gate 10 miles out from Rachel seemed even more bored, but they were as cordial as I’ve ever seen a cop be.
Which is good, certainly — no one got hurt at Alien-Stock, no property was damaged. But Sheriff Kerry Lee did tell Vox before the weekend that the estimated costs to Lincoln County, Nevada, could climb as high as $300,000.
“We’re looking at roughly, between fire, EMS, and law enforcement, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 people working this event,” Lee told Vox the week before Alien-Stock, adding, “Just my small department alone, I’m looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000 just in overtime costs. That’s not including the other law enforcement departments, another 100-plus officers that are coming in from the state on mutual aid.”
“When you add all those costs,” he continued, “I think the cost of just the feeding of those 300 first responders was somewhere in the excess of $150,000.”
Despite a smaller number of visitors than expected, “the costs stayed the same, as the officers were already in place even though the turnout was smaller than anticipated,” Lee told Vox afterward.
That’s not a small sum, and Rachel did not stand to make any of it back: Alien-Stock was a free event, and vendors who set up shop for the weekend hardly seemed to be moving their wares.
I saw people peruse tables where both visitors and locals were hawking $20 shirts that said “Storm Area 51” or “Alienstock” on them, but rarely pick them up. And that alien beer? The people selling it didn’t seem to charge less than $10 for a measly can they brought into town with them from Vegas.
But the low turnout and high costs to the county didn’t seem to phase West, who is already thinking about Alien-Stock 2020.
“My mom already told me I was [doing it again],” West said. It was a strange statement, one that drew laughs amid some skeptical eyebrow raising. West is no party planner, despite her pride in Alien-Stock and positive outlook. She seems like someone seeking approval and direction — not unlike many of the people who made it out to Rachel, wanting to have fun with a meme without much a game plan in mind.
So to West, the weekend was worth it. And compared to something like the 2017 debacle that was Fyre Festival, which imploded after social media influencers paid high prices to stay in ritzy, $12,000 tents that didn’t exist and listen to bands that never appeared, Alien-Stock was a relative success.
It did not live up to the surreal heights hinted at by millions of RSVPs to a joke event on a Facebook page devoted to memes. All the media attention throughout the summer failed to translate into equivalent real-life interest. But there was still fun to be had, whether it was basking in the desert’s solitude and warmth, or meeting friendly people who were wowed that any event came together based on nothing but a meme. And the meme itself remains a fond memory — no one can take away how much fun people had online with it, even if Alien-Stock itself wasn’t the phenomenon that Roberts predicted it would be.