But lately there's been another mystery among locals: Why did the Nevada Department of Transportation remove hundreds of little containers, gripping the Extraterrestrial Highway, that were a magnet for thousands who participate in a hobby known as geocaching?
In the process, it seems, the NDOT has single-handedly shut down one of the only robust sources of tourism to come to these parts since the crushing recession began.
"I had a friend who works for NDOT who came in here, and I ask him, 'What's up? Why? Why did y'all encourage this to happen?' " said Connie West, owner of the 10-room Little A'Le'Inn, which has seen more than 100 bookings canceled since last month. "I was upset. Besides the UFO community, the geocachers are the largest community I've ever encountered. It's huge."
Geocaching is a pastime in which people learn the GPS coordinates of small boxes or containers and then go to those spots to write their names on the log and sometimes take and leave a small item of insignificant value.
There are more than 1 million caches scattered around the world, and last year some Las Vegas-based hobbyists placed more than 1,000 of them along the 90-mile stretch of Nevada State Route 375, about 150 miles north of Las Vegas. Such a concentration is known as a "power cache" because it gives people the opportunity to find large numbers of them at a stretch and increase a player's rating on the websites where geocachers convene and exchange information.
After the power cache was laid along the ET Highway, West was suddenly besieged by reservations from hobbyists from as far away as Australia and Russia, who were planning to fly to Las Vegas and drive up. She and her mother, who opened the motel and restaurant in 1988, had been considering closing for the winter and laying off workers because the economy had become so sour. But they decided instead to remain open as cachers started showing up by the carload.
Then, almost as abruptly, they stopped coming. In March, NDOT employees went out and picked up hundreds of the caches, most of which were plastic film containers. State officials also contacted the folks behind the placing of the caches to tell them to let hobbyists know that the highway was no longer home to a power cache.
NDOT spokeswoman Michelle Booth said the department did so after receiving complaints from motorists and its own maintenance crews that geocachers were stopping dangerously along the side of the road to access caches. Many of the items were placed on guardrails and mile markers, she said, and some were in areas where heavy snowfall makes driving hazardous anyway.
After an incident where a snowplow nearly collided with a stopped car full of cachers, the NDOT decided to take action.
"We're out there plowing, and they couldn't see anything, so they had to brake suddenly," Booth said. "It put our worker in danger. ... Our supervisor got complaints from truckers and travelers that cars were pulled over. Think of an 18-wheeler full of materials going down the hill and then seeing a car there. It's hard to brake."
Some residents and truckers supported the NDOT's decision because they, too, have encountered similarly challenging traffic situations. On geocache message boards, the sentiments seem divided. Many oppose the idea of power caching because they insist the purpose of the hobby is not to rack up points but to combine their love of outdoors adventure with their love of technology.
"Since I started geocaching in 2000, I found quite a few places that way that I had not otherwise known about, but 'power caching?' " said Joerg H. Arnu, who lives in the Rachel area. "When did Geocaching become all about numbers? I don't get that."
Still, the power-cachers were good business for folks like West, and word spread quickly that the ET Highway was no longer geocache-friendly. Among those who altered plans was teacher Ed Yohn of Lancaster, Pa., who flew to Las Vegas with four buddies with plans to stay at the Little A'Le'Inn for at least one night. After learning the ET Highway caches were gone, the group went caching along Route 66 near Barstow, Calif., as well as in stretches in Utah and Arizona.
"None of our meals were in Nevada," Yohn, 45, told AOL News. "We originally planned to do the E.T. and stay around Las Vegas. Instead, we took off to other states."
It all infuriates West, who first learned of the problem when a group of geocachers from Ireland came to the inn to complain that the caches weren't out there.
Booth insisted that NDOT did not intend to shut down all geocaching but felt the items need to be placed away from the road and not on or near public signage.
"We support geocaching, we're OK with it," Booth said. "We want them to start it up again. We don't want them to go away. We just don't want them to put them in the blind spots."
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