With the exception of a McDonald’s billboard boasting to be the “Unofficial crash sight,” Roswell is not unlike any dusty south central New Mexico town. On it’s perimeter, a smattering of suburbs and trailer parks. Moving towards its center, friendly people work in locally owned businesses. What makes this otherwise authentically preserved Main Street unique is its homage to the green-skinned extra terrestrial visitors that may or may not have graced this town with their presence on July 8th, 1947.
While I entered the town a skeptic, by the end of the trip I saw a UFO of my own. Flying in the sky.
Nearly half of the storefronts on this two-block stretch lure in curious visitors and locals alike with images and statues of UFOs and aliens, each boasting to be the UFO headquarters or the Official UFO store or some other claim of UFO proprietorship.
At the town’s center in an old movie theater once known as the Plains Theater is The UFO Museum and Research Center. The museum is designed for both the curious and the serious believers, offering a multitude of articles and exhibits covering the not only the crash in 1947 but also discussing numerous incidents of UFO activity across the globe.
A blend of doubt, confusion and wonder wash over me as I read letters written to the museum from people claiming to have been abducted.
Though the exhibits go to great lengths to reinforce the belief that UFOs do exist, no exhibit is more convincing than the Palenque Astronaut. This Mayan artifact dates back to roughly 400-500AD and its carvings tell the tale of an astronaut sitting in control of his spaceship, worshipped by adoring Mayans.
In addition to the museum exhibits, there is an expansive library that offers a variety of books on UFOs and aliens. The fee to get into the museum is a manageable five dollars.
I make a quick visit to the gift shop where I resist the urge to purchase a Roswell baseball jersey but still manage to drop a mint on alien golf balls, bobbleheads, and sunglasses. Hungry and certain that there must be someplace in town the sells Alien Burgers or Area 51 fries, I ask for a good place to eat.
“There’s a McDonald’s down the road,” says the lady working in the gift shop. Reading my disappointment, she continues. “They got a UFO out front. You can eat in there too, if you want.”
“You mean I can eat in the UFO?” I ask.
“If you want,” she confirms.
While not typically a fan of the Ronnie Mac Shack, the thought of eating inside a UFO is somehow appealing and with that, I’m off for a quarter pounder. While the museum wasn’t The Getty and I dine on processed, over-salted fast food, I do leave knowing enough about UFOs that when I look at the sky, I’m a bit more curious about what is out there.
My drive takes me over the beautiful conifer mountaintop made famous by Billy the Kid, settling into the small town of Alamogordo. My temporary reprieve from the otherworldly comes to an abrupt and unexpected halt as I pass a fifty-foot pistachio nut on the side of the road.
The pistachio statue sits in front of McGinn’s Country Store as a memorial to the store’s founder, Tim McGinn. Now run by Mr. McGinn’s son Tim McGinn Jr., the Country Store is as much a tourist destination as it is a place of commerce.
In addition to a wide variety of pistachio products, including its world famous pistachio brittle, the store also sells wine made from grapes grown on the premise.
McGinn’s boasts 12,500 pistachio trees and 7400 vines to make its wines. The store is entirely self-contained with 17 employees doing everything from picking the nuts to making the wines.
Visitors can sample a variety of flavored pistachios including lemon lime, cinnamon and habanero. If they are feeling more festive they can participate in free daily wine tastings. I still have a long drive to White Sands National Monument, so I turn down the wine but take advantage of the wide samplings of the nuts that made McGinn’s famous. Tim tells me that I would be remiss if I weren’t also to try the Atomic Hot Chili Pistachio Brittle.
I try it and true to the alien infused landscape around me, it is out of this world.
My last stop is White Sands National Monument located not far from The White Sands Missile Range where the first nuclear bomb was tested. Part of the National Parks system, White Sands National Monument, located just outside of Las Cruces, is a National Monument like none other. The park consists entirely of eerily white sand dunes made up of sand called gypsum.
Just beyond the park’s entrance, plants manage to successfully thrive, though sparingly so, but as I drive deeper into the park, almost all life seems to end in exchange for miles and miles of pure white sand. At a glance, the dunes give the appearance of snow. Though I am there in winter, in the summer, it gets up to 110 degrees, quickly melting any illusion that you might be in the skiing country.
The park is a popular spot for campers, horseback riders and hikers. Visitors can rent sleds in the visitor’s center and ride down the often quite high dunes. So soft is the powdery sand that the more adventurous can simply tuck into a ball and roll down the hill head over tail.
Though most crowded in the summer, in the winter the park is silent, spare the occasional whipping of the wind or the cries of coyotes playing in the desert beyond the perimeters of the park. It is breathtaking and unlike anything I have ever seen. I take a walk down one of the park’s four trails and feel like I am in another world. With no trees or rivers to use as landmarks, to wander off the trail for only a moment would be like getting lost on the moon.
As I continue to walk, I note that while the park is the most unique place I’ve ever been, the further into it I go, the more it all looks the same. Yet in the parks seemingly eternal uniformity, each step feels completely new. While it lacks the wildlife of Yellowstone or the vistas of the Grand Canyon, the rolling alabaster of White Sands is nothing short of spectacular and like everything in south central New Mexico, otherworldly.
White gypsum sand of White Sands National Monument
At an impossible speed, along the empty desert stretch of Highway 70, I make my way home. I have the New Mexican highway to myself and I take advantage. The pinks and blues of the southern sunset streak like a pastel aurora across the desert sky casting an otherworldly light on the mountain ranges that encapsulate the otherwise sparse, arid land.
The stillness is as liberating as the land’s history is intriguing and terrifying.
More than sixty years ago, this still countryside was disrupted as the energy inside the nucleus of a radioactive atom was released and nuclear bombs made their fledgling appearance on the planet. As I pass a coyote loafing hungrily alongside the road, I can’t help but wonder if he has some kind of mutated genes and as a result, is a super coyote.
While it is easy to dismiss the impossibility of an alien encounter, were you to be on the streets of New York or the comfort of your own living room, with the least bit of imagination in this neck of the woods, one can imagine a silver, spherical object emerging from the void of dusk and extracting a lone driver like me into it’s nefarious belly for an uncomfortable session of metallic probing and scientific study.
This is why when I noticed something silver, oblong, and peculiar hovering against the backdrop of the celestial New Mexican sunrise, my heart skipped a beat.
While I know that Hollman Air Force Base is near by, I can’t help but stop to look at the strange dirigible. While fairly certain it is man made, I ask myself the following questions.
Does it fly? Yes.
Is it an object? Again, yes.
And is it readily identifiable? It is not.
By that calculation, as I cruise through the New Mexican desert outside of Roswell, I can attest that I did in fact see an unidentified flying object more commonly known as a UFO.
Satisfied, I take a bite of Atomic Chili Pistachio Brittle and fly home.