RACHEL, Nev. -- The caravan cutting thru the Tikaboo Valley on a stormy afternoon seemed vaguely spooky as cars slowly pulled off at a local landmark. Spooky fits, too, since the passengers are mostly former spooks, denizens of the black world of classified programs.
They lunch and pose for snapshots at what was once known as the Black Mailbox. Ever since 1989 when Bob Lazar told his tales of seeing flying saucers from the spot, the mailbox has been sort of a shrine for UFO pilgrims. On this day, that means the Roadrunners.
"We've been waiting to do this a long time, they just wouldn't let us. Times have changed," said T.D. Barnes.
Further on up Highway 93, in the warm confines of the Little A'Le'Inn, Roadrunner stalwart T.D. Barnes tells the crowd that his members are happy to answer questions, tell stories, even sign autographs. On this day, they are celebrities, able to speak somewhat freely about their years at a base whose very existence the government would not confirm.
"For 30 years, we were unknown. No one knew we were out there," he said.
The former CIA radar specialist was one of the first of the Roadrunners allowed to speak publicly about what went on at Area 51. Barnes and other Roadrunners gave their first television interview to the I-Team more than five years ago. And since then, the CIA has authorized further releases about the classified programs and spy planes tested and flown at the off-limits Nevada facility.
Roadrunners spilled some beans in public presentations last week and have been displaying former secrets at each of their semi-annual reunions.
The CIA seal of approval for Roadrunner disclosure's is evident at the A'Le'Inn. The agency's official historian is present and the pool table has been converted into a CIA gift shop, selling all sorts of spy agency memorabilia.
Though the declassified programs haven't been operational for decades, some details will remain classified for who knows how long. The Roadrunners can talk about it, but only within limits.
"They know we are not exploiting the program or telling anything we shouldn't," said Barnes.
The irony of holding a Roadrunner gathering at a bar named for E.T.'s is not lost on the Groom Lake alumni. The stories told by Lazar two decades ago created a space alien merchandise boomlet in Rachel, Nevada, spurred the creation of the E.T. Highway and attracted tens of thousands of the curious to the desert.
"It's awesome to go back through the years and see how this snowball that started has never ended," said Little A'Le'Inn co-founder Pat Travis.
If you ask the Roadrunners about flying saucers at Area 51, they will laugh and dismiss it. The CIA historian says the agency encouraged such beliefs as a way to confuse adversaries -- that a lot of UFO sightings were really SR-71's or U-2's, even though neither of those planes look anything like a flying saucer. It makes you wonder about some objects photographed over the base.
"When they saw us and blamed it on aliens, we loved it. It wasn't us, it was them," said Barnes.
But if not for the E.T. stories and all the attention they focused on the once unknown base, chances are Barnes and the Roadrunners would never have been allowed to step forward and talk, within limits, about the vital work they did. Although this will be the final reunion of the Roadrunners, the huge cache of material they've acquired online will not fade away. A younger group of associate members will carry the torch.
"When I first came to Rachel, I never dreamed of an event like this. But we can now say these guys worked at Area 51, this is their story, and this is what they did," said Roadrunners' webmaster Joerg Arnu.
As a rule of thumb, when the CIA tells you something about secret programs, take it with a grain of salt. Barnes says he couldn't tell the truth to his own wife about what he did all those years at Groom Lake. So when the CIA says those weren't flying saucers, they were spy planes, one is reminded of the advice on a CIA coffee mug, "When confronted, admit nothing, deny everything, accuse someone else."