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 Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - Front Page -

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).

Pic­tures: Justin Foulkes

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.

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