RACHEL, Nevada — For hundreds of people who believe, it was Area 51 or bust. And bust it largely turned out to be.
Despite all the viral hype on Facebook, there was no storming of the highly secretive Area 51 facility on Friday. And all the supposed alien life-forms that hundreds of thousands of people on social media vowed to free remained secret.
But wearing tinfoil hats, Naruto headbands, and alien antennae, people from across the US still found their people in the small, remote town of Rachel, Nevada.
The event was originally billed as “Storm Area 51,” a Facebook joke that quickly attracted millions of followers. However, after warnings of little to no infrastructure, it was canceled, with the original organizers saying they feared a “possible humanitarian disaster” akin to the infamous Fyre Festival.
Still, diehards couldn’t stay away, and on Friday, about a hundred of them approached the entry gates of the secretive military base and came face-to-face with armed military guards and officers ready to grab anyone who stepped even an inch onto the property.
That’s when nearly everyone decided they had gone far enough.
Just one woman was briefly detained when she stretched her foot under the barrier for the gate. Another man was arrested when, according to witnesses, he urinated on the gate while intoxicated.
Instead of rushing through the gates, visitors joked with guards on the outskirts of the base. They pleaded for “just one little alien” to be released — to no avail.
The crowd then broke out in a chant of “Clap them cheeks! Clap them cheeks!”
Even police, armed and wearing bulletproof vests, joked with the crowd.
From there, the gathering turned into a sort of festival of like-minded believers.
“It was history,” Jeffrey Gonzalez, a self-styled investigator of the paranormal, told BuzzFeed News. “The ‘Storming Area 51’ was part of history.”
Most people didn’t really expect to rush the military base, dozens of visitors told BuzzFeed News. Not even the ones who had driven for days to be there were willing to take the risk.
“I thought, ‘That’s not going to happen,’” Gonzalez said. “You’re not going to get shot and killed.”
Only a fraction of the crowd that was expected made it to Rachel by Friday afternoon, at one point amassing about 300 curious onlookers.
For most, that was enough. Although some still got their Naruto runs in.
Shortly after Matty Roberts, a 21-year-old gamer, created the Facebook event “Storm Area 51, The Can’t Stop All Of Us,” he realized he had hundreds of thousands of people eager to take part.
It didn’t matter whether you were a believer. The ridiculousness of the event sparked the imaginations of meme makers and UFO conspiracists alike, and more than 2 million people on Facebook at one point promised to Naruto run through the gates.
“All the memes were going around and I just love road trips,” Sheila O’Neill of Los Angeles said. “If I didn’t come here, I’d just be refreshing the news all day trying to find out what's going on.”
The idea of millions descending on the town of 50 residents had worried local officials, who declared an emergency and quickly arranged for more than 350 first responders to help with crowd control. Even the Air Force issued a statement warning people not to trespass onto the base.
But most had no plans of running into the facility, they just wanted to be among the weird.
Sean Parker, 43, drove four days from Pennsylvania to arrive Friday morning. He was there for the bands that were set to play in a makeshift dirt venue that was hastily assembled by the owner of the Little A’Le’Inn, the only business in town.
He had no plans of raiding the base — sort of.
“It depends how much drink I get in me,” he said. “I alway wanted to cross the country anyway, hang out in the desert. This thing could turn out big, who knows.”
For most, it was the crowd itself that lured them to the desert. People like Justin Wainscott, who unrolled a large sheet of aluminum, wrapped it around a bowl, and fashioned a good old tinfoil hat for a stranger.
“It provides mind control protection so the aliens can’t get inside your mind,” he said, adding after a brief pause, “and whatever the government does as well.”
It’s a free service, he said.
For others, the venue provided an opportunity.
Dozens of vendors selling everything from water bottles, food, posters, antennae, and frisbees set up shop, ready to cash in on the influx of tourists.
“We’re hustling, making money on the grind,” Ben Schroeder, who set up a table with his best friend Ali Alshehri said.
The two skipped a job fair at University of Arizona to sell posters and Area 51 T-shirts.
“Look, I don't believe in aliens,” Alshehri, who was dressed in a ballooning solid green costume and wearing alien antennae, told BuzzFeed News. “All I believe is we have a bunch of privileged kids who are going to the middle of the desert and they don’t have food, water, or anything.”
People wandered around the dusty grounds seeking each other out, sharing stories of their trips, or what they saw near the gates of Area 51.
On a wooden stage, bands played.
Cameron Frazier and his friends planned to stay the night after driving all the way from Fort Worth, Texas. They didn’t plan on raiding the facility, but were curious about “what’s out there.”
“I don’t know about them having real aliens, but the flying saucers, there may be something there," he said.
His friend, Ruben Ayala, laughed and nodded in agreement. Just look at the evidence, he said.
"They wouldn't have the damn SWAT team down the street there if there wasn't something."