The green oasis of Santa Fe steadily recedes in the rearview mirror as the car cruises south on Old Pecos Trail. It's 4 pm, Fourth of July, 90 degrees
Fahrenheit. Menacing storm clouds and swirling winds are already sweeping in and dissipating the smell of pancake batter and maple syrup still lingering over downtown from the morning's Pancakes on the Plaza.
Soon enough, the City Different disappears from view. Then the boutique ranches and fauxdobe estates of Eldorado. All that remains are the idle windmills, rusty barbed wire and low, undulating hills that comprise the bulk of New Mexico.
The radio signal fades in and out. A National Weather Service bulletin breaks through the static to deliver a severe thunderstorm warning. Lightning. Quarter-sized hailstones. Possible flash floods.
Then silence. Nothing but the wind steadily whipping the desert-and anything or anyone brave or foolish enough to live in it-into submission. But don't be easily fooled by the serenity. One quickly gets the sensation that this desert is full of mystery and deep, possibly dark, secrets.
If only the yucca could talk.
"The desert has always been a place where people go to get away from the conventions of the world," Mike Smith, 27-year-old Albuquerque proprietor of the My Strange New Mexico Web site, says. "There's just something in New Mexico, this kind of beautiful austerity, where anything can happen. It's this stark, almost surreal desert landscape that's a clean slate for the imagination."
Let's face it, New Mexico is a little strange.
Maybe it's all the radiation leftover from being the hatchery of atomic warfare. Maybe it's all that exposure to UV rays during our 300 days a year of sunshine. Maybe it's just something in the green chile. Whatever it is, it's here, from the Very Large Array near Socorro and (now defunct) Fridgehenge at the Santa Fe landfill to sightings of the Chupacabra in Las Vegas and the mysterious buzzing of the infamous Taos Hum.
And then there's Roswell.
All-American city. Great place to raise your kids. Home to the 2007 Amazing Roswell UFO Festival that took place July 5-8, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the most infamous alleged UFO encounter in modern history.
You know you're getting close when oil platforms-like Transwestern Pipeline, Yates Petroleum and United Drilling Inc.-begin dotting the landscape in advance of the first businesses for miles around
The sign at the entrance of the town reads "Welcome to Roswell: Dairy Capital of the Southwest." But the "Aliens Welcome" signs hanging outside Wal-Mart, McDonald's and Best Western tell the true story. Little Green Men have become Big Green Dollars in a city that, according to the latest available Census Bureau statistics, ranks fifth in the state in total population but 88th in per capita income.
It wasn't always that way. But, like Santa Fe grappling with its tourism appeal, Roswell is now a fertile ground for entrepreneurs fixated on the region's eccentricities. The sudden UFO gold rush has transformed the local economy and sparked intense infighting within the city for the spoils.
But that's a Roswell for July 5. On the Fourth of July, it's the same God-fearing, flag-waving Roswell it's always been. Even so, by 11 pm, most of the town has fallen asleep with the smell of spent fireworks still lingering in the air.
At least one light is still on inside the Best Western Sally Port Inn and Suites on Main Street. The television is showing a special preview-the 1996 movie
-of what tomorrow will bring as Will Smith taunts the alien he's just sucker-punched after the creature with the slimy dreadlocks has crashed its spacecraft in the desert.
"Welcome to Earth."
"Welcome to Roswell," Mayor Sam LaGrone chirps, "the greatest city in southeastern New Mexico, the greatest city in New Mexico and the greatest city in the United States!"
LaGrone could go further-greatest city in the solar system, galaxy, universe, etc.-but that would be overkill. After all, there's only so much UFO hyperbole one can fit into a two-minute speech. The ruddy-faced Roswell mayor does his best, proclaiming the 2007 Amazing Roswell UFO Festival to be one of the "most famous celebrations on the planet."
LaGrone is standing in front of approximately 100 people gathered in front of the city's convention center on the morning of July 5 to officially open the 2007 UFO Festival. He is flanked by a battalion of geriatrics wearing red jackets-the Chamber of Commerce Redcoats. They are holding up a sign for Eastern New Mexico Medical Center, one of the festival's sponsors.
Proclamations are made. A ribbon is cut. The festival's official mascot,
"Roz"-a green alien who looks more like a giant cricket in a jumpsuit and platform shoes-is introduced. Balloons are released. Let the games begin.
What a difference one alleged intergalactic fender bender can make.
"Roswell has grown through the blessings of the UFO phenomenon, sometimes kicking and screaming and hiding its head in shame," Julie Shuster, executive director of the International UFO Museum and Research Center, says. "But we now have one of the most recognizable names in the world. Everybody knows Roswell, New Mexico and you don't even have to put the 'New Mexico' on it."
If not for one fateful night 60 years ago, Roswell would only be known today as home to one of the world's largest mozzarella cheese factories (LePrino Foods), birthplace to two of the world's second largest cheese factories (John Denver and Demi Moore) and as the site of the New Mexico Military Institute.
Back in 1947, Roswell was a small, conservative town that relied on agriculture, petroleum and the military for its livelihood. The kind of place, Shuster says, where "if you got in trouble at school, your parents knew about it before you got home."
Now it's a slightly larger, still conservative town that still relies on agriculture and oil. It's still a place run by middle-aged good ol' boys with three-letter names like Sam (mayor), Art (city councilor) and Bob (assistant city manager). And it's still known for its Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF), even though the military installation (later dubbed Walker Air Force Base) closed 40 years ago.
You know the Cliff's Notes: An unidentified object crashed in a field in early July 1947. Military officials from nearby RAAF subsequently issued a press release stating that a "flying disc" had been recovered. The news broke in the July 8, 1947 Roswell Daily Record under the headline "RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch in Roswell Region."
That bombshell was quickly followed by an official dismissal of the initial report that said the recovered debris was from an errant weather balloon and not, in fact, a space ship. The episode was largely forgotten until around 1978 when "Ufologist" Stanton Friedman interviewed Maj. Jesse Marcel-a former Army intelligence officer stationed at RAAF-who alleged that the military had covered up the recovery of an alien spacecraft and crew.
In the nearly 30 years since Marcel's revelation, the mystery-and hysteria-surrounding what actually occurred in July 1947 has only heightened. But whatever the object was, the crash has become the biggest thing to ever happen (or not happen) in Roswell, a town of less than 50,000 people lodged in the barren southeastern corner pocket of the state.
Go figure. You
break down in the most inconvenient places.
To be sure, Roswell exists in its own galaxy far, far away from, well, pretty much everything. Even by the standards of space travel.
"We're 200 miles from anywhere," Marlin Wells, a Roswell city councilor, says. "Before, we were always just a rest stop for people on their way to Carlsbad Caverns. Now, we literally have people from all over the world coming here. This supposed UFO incident put Roswell on the map."
The supposed Roswell Incident is hardly the only mysterious occurrence to happen in New Mexico. To be sure, a state run by a politician (Gov. Bill Richardson) featured in the
Guinness Book of World Records
for his hand-shaking prowess is going to be a little eccentric.
Smith's My Strange New Mexico has been a clearinghouse of sorts for the oddities that prevail in the Land of Enchantment. Giant, flightless owls roaming the forests north of Santa Fe. A vortex atop a mesa near Raton that leads to hell. Living pterodactyls down south. Maps showing how New Mexico is somehow slipping into the Bermuda Triangle. Allegations that the moon landing was a hoax filmed in the Manzano Mountains east
"I have no shortage of material," Smith says. "I think people just really like fascinating stories and New Mexico has a ton of them."
But none has captured the global imagination or endured more scrutiny than the Roswell Incident. Roswell has lodged itself into the lexicon of popular culture through movies (
), television shows (
) and dozens of books.
the Roswell Incident," Smith says. "It's just such an epic event. If that actually happened, it's one of the coolest things ever. But even if it didn't happen, it's even more amazing that there have been dozens of books written about a weather balloon crash."
But many area residents hadn't even heard about the incident let alone thought to capitalize on it until the UFO Museum opened its doors in 1992. The museum, which now averages more than 12,000 visitors from 35 countries and all 50 states every month, quickly became popular and, in 1996, held the first UFO Festival. But it wasn't until the following year, the 50th anniversary of the Roswell Incident, that the festival floodgates opened, drawing nearly 50,000 people and effectively doubling the town's population in a single weekend.
Since then, UFO entrepreneurs-from the Cover-Up Café to the Roswell
Landing souvenir shop-have sprouted up along Main Street. The city launched a tongue-in-cheek advertising slogan ("Roswell: Visitors welcome"), installed lampposts with almond-shaped alien eyes and embraced, to some extent, what had previously been nothing more than a red-faced embarrassment. Not that everyone has converted into a true believer.
"I believe in the money that it makes me," Jordan Stottern, a 22-year-old festival vendor selling scented candles shaped like alien heads, says. "The marketing aspect is the best part of it. But it can be frustrating when people expect our town to be like a movie or TV show. The first question everybody asks you is if you've ever seen any aliens. I just tell them 'Yeah, but they're all illegal.'"
The Roswell festival has certainly become a marketing monster. Among other things, this year's festival included guest speakers, costume contests, an Alien Motorcycle Rally, an Alien Disc Golf tournament, an Alien Chase 10K run, an air show, a skateboard exhibition and an Alien Encounter Haunted House.
Scores of vendors sell everything from "alien jerky" and "aura readings" to UFO key chains and "I Believe" bumper stickers inside the Roswell Convention Center.
In addition, there are celebrity appearances from the likes of actress Chase Masterson (
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
) and actor Dean Haglund ("Langly" from The
) and a concert headlined by Alan Parsons and War (Hey, even Martians have probably heard "Low Rider" a few hundred times by now).
"It's a wonderful thing from an economic development perspective," Wells says. "There are some people that are very serious about the UFO side of it and there are others that just say, 'Hey, this is filling our hotels and restaurants.' Either way, it's a lot of fun."
But not for everyone.
Julie Shuster is not your average true believer.
On the wall of her office inside the UFO Museum is a photo-which is placed alongside autographed pictures of Klingons, Klingon look-alike Larry King and Dee Wallace Stone (Elliott's mom in
)-of Shuster standing beside Lt. Walter Haut.
Haut, now deceased, was the former Army public relations officer who was ordered to write the initial press release claiming that the military had recovered a flying disc in 1947. Haut later went on to co-found the UFO Museum in 1991.
He was also Shuster's father. But despite the family ties, Shuster had never even heard about the crash until she read the 1980 book
The Roswell Incident
, one of the first major efforts to document the alleged alien crash and subsequent cover-up. Even then, she was unconvinced.
"I read it and I thought that my father had lost his ever-loving mind," Shuster says. "But then I read it again and I realized how valid this was. My father was a real person and he wasn't crazy. All the people involved were real, I knew most of them and they weren't crazy either."
Now her stance on the subject is definitive.
"The Roswell Incident happened," Shuster says flatly. "And it was not of this earth. Those were my father's words and I believe that very strongly."
Shuster isn't alone. As many as 50,000 of the curious and the convinced flocked to Roswell for the 2007 festival, the most since the 50th anniversary in 1997. Shuster and others find strength in the numbers.
"Some people think that if you bring up the possibility of UFOs that you're crazy and you run around with a tinfoil hat," Shuster says. "We want to have fun but we also take this very seriously and so do our speakers."
True, only two people were wearing tinfoil hats on opening day. But beneath the festival's giddy chaos there was controversy brewing as a result of the city and the UFO Museum having reached an impasse over the direction of this year's festival. In fact, there are now two festivals. One (the official 2007 Amazing Roswell UFO Festival) operated by the city and another (The 2007 Roswalien Experience operated by the UFO Museum.
"We brought the city to this dance," Shuster says. "There was no tourism industry in Roswell before the museum. But when we saw who they were bringing in this year we just couldn't be affiliated with it. They're making a circus out of it and we have credibility that we refuse to jeopardize."
In previous years, there was at least tacit collaboration between the two entities but the schism between city government and the UFO museum was unapparent to most outside visitors. Then again, the difference between the two festivals is largely negligible to the casual observer.
That is, other than the fact that the titles of the city festival's lectures ("UFOs & The Murder of Marilyn Monroe," "The Latest in Alien Implant Surgery" and "Reptilian Overlords, Military Abductions, Masonry, Mind Control and The New World Order") are a tad more sensational than the fare at the Roswalien Experience ("Forensic Methods for Collecting Evidence of Alien Abduction," "Crop Circles and Fractal Alien Geometry" and "Alien Implants-The Fact, The Mistaken & The Fiction").
Guy Malone, director of the city's UFO Festival, acknowledges that the 2007 Amazing Roswell UFO Festival was formatted to boost tourism as much as possible while aiming to quell complaints from previous years that there wasn't enough to do in Roswell.
"Our position has always been the more the merrier," Malone says. "We wanted to make sure that everything going on in Roswell got promoted in a big way. Anything that might be of potential interest to potential tourists we wanted to endorse and make happen."
That attitude chagrined Shuster and several guest speakers who signed on for the festival. But that still didn't stop Dennis Balthaser-a Roswell resident, certified Mutual UFO Network field investigator and a member of the city's festival planning committee-from speaking at city-sponsored lectures.
"As a serious researcher, I have a little bit of a problem with the carnival atmosphere," Balthaser says. "But at the same time, I understand the city's desire to generate revenue from the Roswell Incident. It's just unfortunate that the community did not come together 100 percent this year."
Shuster makes no apologies for drawing a line in the sand and points out that several high-profile lecturers on the UFO phenomenon-such as Stanton Friedman, Dr. Bruce Maccabee and Freddy Silva-opted to speak at museum events rather than engage in the more commercial atmosphere eight blocks away.
"You just have to accept that sort of thing as part of humans being," Silva, considered one of the world's foremost crop circle experts, says. "People who want to discover the truth will come here. People who just want to have a good time will go elsewhere."
Simply put, the difference in the two festivals can be seen as the difference between casual spectators and serious UFO devotees. It can also be seen as a fight between religious and secular perspectives on the phenomenon. Malone-a Nashville native who bears a resemblance to Superman's nemesis Lex Luthor-is an avowed Christian (as is Balthaser) who runs an organization called Alien Resistance HQ with the intent of interpreting UFO research through biblical teachings. Nevertheless, he insists the city's festival was intended to attract all comers.
"We went out of our way to get people from all over the country that have the most credible, documented UFO evidence," Malone says. "People's minds are being blown and I know that people will walk away with an understanding that there really is a whole lot more to the UFO phenomenon than the government or the press has ever let out."
Shuster's primary everyday opposition within Roswell are church groups that protest the studying of UFOs absent of God is borderline heresy, if not idolatry. Shuster simply sighs when the subject is brought up.
"We don't see the wind blow but we see the effects of it," Shuster says. "People believe in all types of superior beings and have they ever seen them? No, but they still believe in them. So why are UFOs and aliens any different?"
But in a field where tenuous research and elaborate hoaxes are common,
Smith says it can be easy for devotees to get blinded by the light.
"I would love for all the stuff that I write about to be true," Smith says. "I would love for the giant owls to be out there, for all these portals to other worlds to exist, for there to be escaped aliens in trailer parks, all that stuff. But I think a lot of people look at this stuff with such a desperate wishing for it to be true that they ignore a lot of facts."
It's harder to ignore the sincerity of believers with personal connections like Shuster and Jesse Marcel Jr.-the son of Major Jesse Marcel, the former intelligence officer who first alleged a cover-up-an author and speaker at the
Roswalien Experience. For Marcel, analyzing the incident has been a lifelong blessing and curse.
"In a way, I almost wish that I never heard of Roswell and in other ways I'm glad to be a part of it," Marcel says. "I've known that we are not alone, that there are other planetary systems out there since 1947. I'd just soon not have all the public attention but if that's what it takes to get the story out than I'm willing to do that.
"It's like they say in
," Marcel continues. "The truth is out there."
The truth, for now, will have to wait.
At least until Chase Masterson can collect her thoughts. Or a thought, any thought. The former
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
actress is used to being scrutinized by the pocket-protector set. Still, the buxom sci-fi pin-up is having trouble consolidating the Roswell UFO experience as she sits in a vendor's booth hawking autographs while wearing little more than a heavy tan and a smile.
"It's been very…interesting," Masterson manages. "I guess the difference is that the people here are more fans of science fact and people at [
] conventions are more fans of science fiction. The parallel is that in both groups people are attracted to the realm of possibility."
Including Masterson herself, who says she's witnessed a mixture of "truth and fabrication" at the UFO festival but nonetheless believes that "something happened here in 1947 that is really compelling." The former First Lady of Ferenginar isn't alone in her belief that we're…not alone.
"I would think that the universe is so large that it would be improbable, statistically, to not have other life out there," Dean Haglund says. "It would be arrogant of us to think we're the only ones."
Haglund isn't just pulling a Mulder. The former member of
supporting cast is a bit of a science buff, having minored in exothermal dynamics at Simon Fraser University in his native Canada. Which explains his invention-the "Chill Pak" used to speed up laptops by cooling them down-that he peddles at the festival, alongside autographed photos and copies of his comic book,
The Lone Gunmen
. But during his time on the sci-fi circuit, Haglund says he's had time to quiz Ufologists on their research.
"They present very convincing, well-researched arguments," Haglund says. "For instance, the US military does not deploy hundreds or thousands of soldiers for weather balloon crashes-maybe you call a 1-800 number and a few scientists come and pick it up-so that right there suggests it was something else."
The crowd that flocks to events like the UFO festival are, predictably, also something else. Indeed, you could throw a deflated weather balloon inside the Roswell Convention Center and hit five people who've had some sort of close encounter.
"I've had a lot of what I call 'woo-woos' come by my table," Balthaser says. "The thing about doing this research is that you can't really ignore anything. I get 150 to 200 e-mails every day and I have to go through most of them to see what they are but, suffice it to say, my delete button gets a good workout every morning."
Some claim to have been abducted. Others claim to have witnessed abductions. Some even claim to be aliens themselves.
"You run into some really off-the-wall people," Marcel says. "But that's okay. It's a big tent and everyone can fit underneath it."
Including Janice Hale-Hobby, a poet and teacher from El Paso. She was born in Kansas but lived around the country as the daughter of an Air Force recruiter. She says her family has extensive government experience, including a sister who works at US Space Command, a brother who builds government satellites and a nephew who works for NASA.
"I've had three encounters of my own," Hale-Hobby says. "One was in Florida in the '70s. Light flooded my bedroom at night and I went to the window and looked out. I saw this circular craft hovering above two houses and a yard. The next thing I knew I woke up in my bed in the morning."
Hale-Hobby also says she's seen spacecraft in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., and a mysterious black triangular craft near Fort Bliss, Texas.
While she finds kindred spirits at festivals such as the one in Roswell and through her reading of UFO literature, Hale-Hobby says she approaches the subject with a certain degree of trepidation.
"It's important to have an open mind but you have to watch how open it is," Hale-Hobby says. "As Buddha used to say, 'Believe in nothing.'"
But she still believes in something. Namely, the Roswell Incident.
"I believe it happened, I really do," Hale-Hobby says. "I take it very seriously. I know that the government covers things up and I met some of the old gentleman who were involved before they died and that just legitimized everything for me."
Numerous people have even relocated to Roswell-including Balthaser and Malone-just to study the phenomenon. Smith says it's not unlike writers and artists flocking to Santa Fe because of DH Lawrence and Georgia O'Keeffe.
"The people that move somewhere because a spaceship crashed there are going to be a little eccentric," Smith says. "But I'm all for attracting strange people as long as they're harmless. Think of all the other really horrible stuff that we could have a reputation for. We could be the Accounting State and attract a lot of accountants. That's fine, but it wouldn't make us any more interesting."
And while planning for the future may lead to further contention between the city and the UFO Museum-the museum is planning a new $25 million facility and the city is considering building a UFO-themed amusement park-visitors to this year's festival(s) appeared to have the best of both (if not more) worlds.
"It's fantastic," Joel Lutenberg, a 37-year-old computer technician from Manhattan, says. "In some respects, it's a typical convention. But there are other things here that add to the flavor. And just the fact that it's Roswell, which is so well known, just adds to the appeal."
Lutenberg-who wore a T-shirt that read "My other ride is a [space ship]" to the festival's opening day-took three planes (Newark to Minneapolis to Albuquerque to Roswell) just to get here. But even an avid science fiction fan (and veteran of various
conventions) like Lutenberg isn't easily convinced.
"Essentially the jury is still out for me," Lutenberg says. "I certainly am not the type of person who would rule out the possibility of UFOs but, at the same time, I'd want more physical evidence to be convinced that there's life on other planets."
Steve McLaughlin needs no convincing. The 49-year-old from Indianapolis says he's confident that the Roswell Incident was of "alien origin." He's read one book on UFOs and attended one previous convention (the Ozark UFO Conference in Arkansas earlier this year) but he's still getting used to the idea of the UFO culture that has emerged in the 60 years since.
"I'm kind of new to all of this," McLaughlin says. "At least as far as attending these kind of events. But I've had other experiences with this sort of thing…I've had contacts since I was 8 years old."
"Abductions," McLaughlin clarifies, matter-of-factly. "To me, it was always like a curse. It's only been the last 10 years or so that I've been able to embrace it and turn it into more of a blessing. But I still don't really fit in with the average UFO person. I mean, some of the people that come to these things are kind of strange."