What started as a meme Facebook event transformed into a mass internet movement, followed by real-world events that defined a generation. Or almost did.

The raid was considered a bust — less than 100 people showed both Friday and Saturday morning, and the police made few arrests. Many who followed the memes are confused. Why didn’t more people go to Area 51 and “see them aliens?”

Let’s trace back to where it all began. 

The Facebook event, “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us,” was started by Matty Roberts on his meme-posting account. What was initially meant for his small community of followers reached a nationwide interest with 2 million “Going” and a million “Interested.” 

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Roberts’ 4 a.m. post in June began a mass internet movement, and even sparked a few actual events. To prevent any violence, Roberts paired with Little A’Le’Inn motel owner Connie West to create Alienstock, a huge party promising music, food and costumes. Event organizer and alien enthusiast Keith Wright created his own festival, Area 51 Basecamp, for those who were serious about the alien conspiracy movement. Bud Light hopped on the train with its Storm Area 51 pregame event, showcasing their limited-edition alien-themed beer.

Everything was set in place for that fateful weekend, starting on Friday, Sept. 20 at 3 a.m. But as time ticked closer to the date, it all began to fall apart.

Fearing a “Fyre Fest 2.0,” Roberts cancelled Alienstock. Area 51 Basecamp ended early due to a low turn-out. The confusion and military warnings caused many to pull out of mass storming plans. While Roberts did end up co-hosting Bud Light’s party, any plan to actually raid the base crumbled back to viral obscurity. 

So, with most events canceled, who were the few that made it to the gate?

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My friend Joey and I go on one big trip every year, and we decided to make this viral movement our destination. We left early Thursday morning with only a backpack and drawstring, and after biding time in Vegas’ art district and casinos, we made our way through the remaining Area 51-inspired events. 

Our first stop: Bud Light’s Alienstock. Walking in, we were welcomed by a sea of alien-themed costumes and pounding EDM. 

“There’s a lot of aliens, a lot of earthlings, a lot of fun and a lot of EDM,” Andrew Ross said, a bartender at the event.

Some rocked tinfoil hats and orange body suits while others wore antennas and multicolored tights. Two friends donned inflatable alien suits, and another pair spray painted themselves green and sported adult diapers.

Most in the outer circle were talking in groups, standing near the tented bars and food trucks. Those closer to the stage danced and jammed to a set of DJ’s and EDM artists, the green and blue and red lights flickering across the crowd. In the center stood a large alien spacecraft that hovered over a locked Bud Light Cooler, brimming with new lager saved for freed aliens. 

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While thousands came to Bud Light’s festival, most claimed that they would not make the journey to Rachel, Hiko or the Amaragos Valley for other events.

“If I was brave enough to drive into the desert, I would, but I thought this was all that was left,” Denver native Lily Ramos said, donning a set of pink wings and glitter pants.

Ramos only touched on the courage needed to get to the locations. At 1 a.m. the terrain was no longer desert — we drove through the black void of unlit sand, our phones and headlights the only aids in our journey. With no Wi-Fi and no town within reach, anything could go wrong. But it was breathtaking. It felt like our car floated into space, swimming among the stars and planets and fellow beings of unparalleled space.

Joey and I landed in Amaragos Valley, south of Area 51, Rachel and Hiko. But it’s Roberts’ original meeting point — the Area 51 Alien Center. 

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Almost 100 miles from the city, there’s not much. There are two buildings that house a gift shop, a cafe, a gas station and even a brothel. A row of cop cars lined the gas pumps, their drivers conversing lightly with the small crowd but keeping a sharp eye for the suspicious. There were maybe 30 people there at one point, and most were teens. When it was clear there wouldn’t be a raid, we occupied the gift shop to keep warm, exchanging our stories and reasons for being there.

Some, like high schoolers Lily Wellos and Claire Cornelius of Malibu, were driven by pure curiosity and convenience of location.

“The first day I saw the memes I decided I was going, I just needed to be part of it,” Cornelius said. “I like being able to say ‘yes, I was there for that.’”

Many ex-raiders had come from California and Texas, driving through miles of treacherous dark to see what would become of Roberts’ post. A core reason, however, was to say that they were there. Two members of the Funk Bros YouTube team and an independent documentary group came in search of content to show viewers what they wished they could’ve seen. 

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Brad Clift, a Pulitzer Prize finalist working on the documentary, commented on another important reason for the crowd’s demographics.

“I think people, especially teens, want lives that are fully lived, and part of that is seeking adventure. This is fun and it’s interesting and it has the opportunity for us to be ahead of the curve,” Clift said.

In the end, there was no raid. All events were canceled or ended early, as with the case of the original Alienstock and Area 51 Basecamp. Less than 100 people showed both early Friday and Saturday morning, and only a few were arrested. The internet community was baffled by the low turnout, and media stories are still running almost a month later. Regardless, the raid was a joke to even the most extreme alien enthusiasts, and the cancellations only hammered in its fictional status. But a few curious souls persisted. 

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The Alien Center group decided to go even further, right up to the gate. Our cars followed one after another out of the complex, a caravan of travelers in the dead of night. Although we were met by a line of police cars and men with machine guns, we had made it to the location and shared in the excitement of controversy. We were too intimidated by the military to go any further, so we turned back and headed next to our own home bases. 

We may not have seen any aliens, but we had shared in a unique, out of this world experience. We took a risk, and now we can tell our stories, those of Area 51 and the desert sun that guided us home.