THE WEIRD WORLD OF NEW MEXICO
New Mexico is alive with conspiracy theories and strange stories, a place where aliens lurk and mountains aren’t all that they seem, writes Matt Bolton
THE badlands of New Mexico epitomise the stark beauty of the Wild West. Vast mountain ranges and mesas stand impassive in the desert haze. Gorges carved out by the Rio Grande River rip into the land like an open wound. Rows of aspen trees turn to a chemical yellow in the southwestern sun, spotlighting the rolling cattle and horse ranches.
And above it all, the infinite New Mexico sky, an almost physical presence pressing down upon the horizon like a paperweight.
The state of New Mexico has so much beauty that you can’t help but feel sorry for poor old Roswell, a small town in the south. The country around here is lacking almost all of the above.
In fact, the only thing that Roswell country has going for it aesthetically is flatness. Nowhere does flatness like Roswell. The desert here is a ruler-edge sheet of mute brown dirt, studded with the occasional spiky yucca tree, and goes on and on and on, much in the same interminable way as a pub bore.
But while Roswell might not have much, what it does have is out of this world. This town is the UFO capital of the US, perhaps the only place on Earth where aliens have actually landed. The story goes that, in 1947, a Roswell rancher named Mac Brazel came across a field of metallic debris. The metal was unlike any he had seen before; he could pick it up, scrunch it in his hand and watch it spring back to its original shape. That same day, a local undertaker received a call from a military base asking for a supply of child-sized caskets. Arriving at the hospital, he was met by a nurse who told him in a panic that she’d seen military doctors examining the bodies of child-sized grey aliens.
Immediately after the incident, the military released a press release confirming that there had been a UFO crash in the area. But a week later this was retracted, and another release was written, saying that the debris was simply that of a military weather balloon. It was too late. The legend of an alien landing in Roswell spread across the country, and then the world.
In 1991, a museum dedicated to the incident was opened and sparked an entire alien economy in the town. Roswell has dozens of alien souvenir shops and bars selling alien beer, all capitalising on the extraterrestrial economic stimulus. Even the streetlamps have alien eyes painted on.
Mark Briscoe is the library director of the UFO Museum and, unsurprisingly, has no doubt that aliens landed here. He believes that the military covered up evidence of the landing to prevent mass hysteria, but used information from the captured aliens to develop new technology.
‘‘ In the 20 years after Roswell, humans invented more new technology than we had done in the previous 200,’’ he says. ‘‘ The iPhone 5 is more powerful than the computer we used to land on the moon. Humans are smart, but we’re not that smart. We’ve definitely had help. Probably through reverse engineering from alien technology.’’
Despite Briscoe’s adamant stance, the museum is careful to leave all options on the table. One section even lists common ways by which fake photos of UFOs are made by photographing a lit lampshade reflected through a window, hanging a hat on a string and throwing a hub cap in the air.
Whatever the truth of the 1947 incident, there is undoubtedly something otherworldly about New Mexico. The vast space – it’s the fifthbiggest state in the US, with a population of only two million – lets the imagination run free. And the infinite emptiness of the brilliant sky above means that on the rare occasions when an object, such as a plane or a hot-air balloon, does pass through, the bright contrast lends it such a fierce intensity that it confuses the eye. After spending time here, you can easily understand why virtually everyone you speak to has a story about seeing a light or unidentified shape in the sky.
But not everyone puts it down to extraterrestrial activity; other explanations are easily at hand.
In the centre of the state, a four-hour drive from Roswell, lies an enormous segment of fenced-off flatland, almost devoid of population. This is the White Sands Missile Range, the perfect place for the US military to test their latest bombs, rockets and planes without fear of upsetting the neighbours.
Everything from V2 rockets, technology co-opted from the Germans after World War II and used for the first space shuttles, all the way to modern missile defence systems, has been tested here. Nearby lies Trinity, the site of the first atomic bomb trial in 1945. And New Mexico remains at the forefront of technology; Richard Branson is building his Spaceport America base here.
Unsurprisingly, with all these flying explosives zooming about, access to the missile range is restricted, save for one area: the White Sands National Monument. Here, a remarkable geological quirk has turned 712sq km of desert into a glistening, ice-white beach. Rolling dunes of white gypsum eroded from the surrounding mountains stretch out as far as the eye can see. It looks for all the world like Arctic tundra, and if it wasn’t for the desert sun beating down, you’d be excused for putting on an extra layer before leaving the car. Walking across these pristine dunes is a mind-blowing experience – you feel like Lawrence of Arabia discovering Antarctica. And White Sands is certainly consistent with New Mexico’s ET spirit: few landscapes would look so at home on an alien planet as this.
New Mexico’s military presence provides another take on the state’s UFO mysteries. Could the Roswell incident have been caused by the misfiring of some new-fangled military equipment? That’s certainly the view of Norio Hayakawa, a Japanese-American who has spent most of the past 35 years studying the history of UFO sightings.
Hayakawa lives in the state’s largest city, Albuquerque, which manages to combine Route 66-style roadside motel culture, modern university life and a Spanish-built Old Town that looks like something straight of a John Wayne movie. Hayakawa argues that the US government exploited the American public’s propensity for conspiracy theories and fuelled rumours of an alien crash to cover up what they were really doing in New Mexico.
‘‘ UFO just means ‘ unidentified flying object’,’’ he says. ‘‘ UFOs and aliens are two completely separate things. I think that the association of UFOs with aliens is a brilliant strategy by the government in order to create a ‘ laughter curtain’, so that people think you’re a crackpot for talking about places like Area 51 (a supposed alien base in Nevada). Which is all very convenient, because it means no one asks questions about what’s really going on.’’
Albuquerque has its own version of Area 51, the Manzano Mountains in the centre of yet another military base. Hayakawa drives me there, pointing out the electric fences that surround it. He explains that the main mountain is actually hollowed out, Thunderbirds-style, to store nuclear weaponry and airborne technology.
Hayakawa believes that the US military was once developing new flying machines here that were crescent-shaped, and from a distance would look like flying saucers.
‘‘ It could have been one of those that crashed at Roswell,’’ he says. ‘‘ They didn’t want anyone to find out what they were up to, so encouraged the alien rumours.’’
The idea of an alien conspiracy is thus a conspiracy itself. And so the plot thickens. But maybe those searching for extraterrestrials in Roswell are looking in the wrong place.
Perhaps they should start at Taos, a small but lively northern town that has become a haven for New-Age spiritualists, hippies and artists. Here lives a group of people certain that they are not from this planet.
The road from Albuquerque to Taos runs through Santa Fe, the oldest state capital in the US. It is New Mexico’s cultural centre, a beautiful city packed with art galleries and studios. Its high altitude, sharp light and mountains have provided artistic inspiration for thousands of painters and sculptors ever since GeorgiaO’Keeffe, one of America’s most revered painters, moved to the area in 1949. The town is built almost entirely with adobe – desert clay mixed with straw, sticks and water – and the buildings are lowlying, with rounded corners.
1 Two hours’ drive from Albuquerque are the huge radio telescopes of the Very Large Array (nrao.edu). Stay in the town of Truth or Consequences, in the plush Sierra Grande Lodge and Spa. It uses the hot springs that run underneath the town to heat its pools (from $92; sierragrandelodge.com). 2 The ice-white desert landscapes of the White Sands National Monument are a fantastic place to go wandering. Star-gazing and picnicking are popular pastimes and, if you tire of them, buy a plastic sledge from the visitor centre and go whizzing down the dunes (from $3; nps.gov). 3 No trip to Roswell is complete without a visit to the UFO Museum and Research Centre, which tells the story of the 1947 alien landing ($5; roswellufomuseum.com). Follow it up with a taste of Alien Ale or Galactic Vino at the Pecos Flavors Winery (from $6; pecosflavorswinery.com). 4 Santa Fe is just more than three hours north of Roswell. The pick of the roadside inns here is the Santa Fe Sage Inn; it’s a cut above your average motel, with Native American tapestries in the rooms, a fine breakfast, a heated outdoor pool and a great location (from $70; santafesageinn.com). 5 The GeorgiaO’Keeffe Museum is set in one of Santa Fe’s trademark adobe buildings, with a wide collection of the New Mexico-based artist’s works, including the seminal Black Iris series, and her iconic depictions of large flowers and vast landscapes (from $14; okeeffemuseum.org). 6 There are plenty of eating options in Santa Fe but the Cowgirl BBQ takes some beating: excellent steaks and chilli-laden burritos, a great range of beer – including some from local microbreweries – and a real Western ‘‘ yeeha!’’ atmosphere (mains from $18.50; cowgirlsantafe.com). 7 The centre of social life in Taos (as well as the best place to stay) is the Taos Inn, a Western-style inn dating back to the 1800s that combines cosy cottage-like rooms with the crazy Adobe Bar, which hosts live music and enthusiastic dancing from the locals (from $100; taosinn.com). 8 The ancient adobe architecture of Taos Pueblo is a 10-minute drive from Taos town centre. Many of the ground- floor houses have been turned into small shops selling Native American pottery, jewellery and traditional foods, such as bluecorn fry bread (entry $11; taospueblo.com). 9 Farmington is a friendly town in the northwest, and a great base for visiting Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, another ancestral home of the Pueblo people. Stay at the lovely Casa Blanca Inn, a series of comfortable cottages surrounding a quiet courtyard (from $123; 4cornersbandb.com).
OUT OF THIS WORLD: (clockwise from above) The New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe; newspaper headlines at the UFO Museum in Roswell; a display at the museum; the White Sands Missile Range Museum; Shiprock rises eerily over the landscape; and traditional Native American pottery.