In the summer of 2003, I drove cross-country twice, once in late May (Oakland, California to Cambridge, Massachusetts) and once in early August (the return trip). On the second trip, the return to California, I had company; Matt was moving out to California, and we did the move in two cars filled mainly with his personal possessions. It took us six days to cover approximately 3500 miles, using small walkie-talkie radios to coordinate refueling stops and alert each other to good radio stations. We stayed mostly to large interstate highways, with one exception. On the fourth night of the trip, the night after Oklahoma City and the night before Flagstaff, we went to Roswell. How could we not? My previous cross-country trips had never gone this far south, and if a half-day detour could take us to the UFO capital of the world? Totally all in favor of it. (An early draft of the road-trip plan had involved a Star Trek tour of the United States, including Bozeman (first contact with Vulcans!), Broken Bow (first contact with Klingons!), Riverside (Kirk's hometown!), and Las Vegas (The Star Trek Experience!), but that plan proved unwieldy and inconvenient. We did eventually make it to the Star Trek Experience, but that was on a different trip, and besides, it's a story for another day.)
If I'm remembering correctly, we left the major interstate somewhere around Amarillo, took US Highway 60 through West Texas for a while. Oklahoma had been much greener than I'd expected, but West Texas was much bleaker. Part of that was the weather; the day we drove through, the sky was a washed-out grey-white, with some kind of haze that made objects further in the distance seem to fade into nothingness. Part of it was that I'm not used to that kind of unrelenting flatness stretching all the way to the horizon, broken up mainly by grain silos and the occasional small town. We'd be zooming down this two-lane highway through flat empty land, accompanied on the road by tractor trailers and pickups. The towns we passed looked a little grubby, but maybe that's not fair; you never see the best side of a place when you're passing through on a roadway, whether it's an interstate or a local.
My memory of the trip is that the scenery changed nearly as soon as we crossed the border into New Mexico. The haze lifted, the sun came out, the sky turned blue, the bleak flat farmland turned to rolling reddish hills dotted with desert plants. This can't possibly be true, that the shift was so sudden, but that's how I remember it. I remember New Mexico being beautiful from the moment I crossed the state line. The radio was touch and go, though. I'd picked up a college radio station around Amarillo that had stayed with me through most of West Texas, but it was gone by the time I hit New Mexico. I had some tapes in the car, but I generally choose to listen to the radio on trips like this, usually scanning through the AM band to see what talk radio has to offer. In New Mexico I spent a while listening to farm reports, but eventually came across what seemed to be a syndicated talk show, but not one that I'd previously heard of. On this particular day, as I headed towards Roswell, the host had chosen to open the phone lines to let people call in and tell him about their favorite conspiracy theories. Several people called in with the idea that the CIA had masterminded the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; one particularly angry caller wanted to talk about how the United Nations was using low-flying aircraft to disperse fertility-control agents over major American population centers, and that they were doing this with the cooperation of the federal government.
We arrived at our chosen hotel by late afternoon, settled into the room, and checked out the promotional material on the UFO Museum (full name: The International UFO Museum and Research Center). It's free admission, and open seven days a week, but only until 5p.m. After a whole day spent in the cars, we chose to walk the mile and a half from our hotel down to the museum. We learned a couple of things on the walk. First, it's really hot in New Mexico in early August, especially on city sidewalks with no big shady trees. Second, and more interestingly, Roswell is really not all about the aliens. They seemed to have a private military-academy high school, multiple art museums, a regional symphony orchestra, and a rich historical tradition that has nothing at all to do with UFOs or little green men. We, being philistines and tourists besides, were only there for the little green men, but we didn't see even a trace of them until we were within a block or two of our destination.
I want to say that the museum wasn't what I expected, but I'm not sure what I did expect. Something lurid, maybe? Whatever the International UFO Museum and Research Center is, it isn't lurid. It's practically academic. Lurid was lurking elsewhere in downtown Roswell—the blocks immediately surrounding the UFO Museum are full of small tacky gift shops full of alien bobbleheads, glow-in-the-dark alien goo, Mulder and Scully action figures, and alien-head shotglasses, all set in store interiors that made heavy use of blacklight and fake smoke. The non-alien-themed stores provided probably my favorite moment of the trip; thanks to a contest sponsored by the Roswell Chamber of Commerce, a lot of the shops in the commercial district had alien-themed window displays. The record store had aliens and astronauts tossing old vinyl LPs at each other, the quilting store had an old alien grandma in a rocking chair with a quilting frame, and an antiques store just had a border of brass-colored alien heads around the window's edge. And in the couple of blocks surrounding the UFO Museum, Roswell's gracious old-fashioned streetlights had alien heads painted on to the lamps.
It was a hot, dry day in Roswell, and on the walk back to the hotel I would have sworn there wasn't a cloud in the sky, but again, maybe I just don't remember. I remember walking the long stretch of sidewalk back down North Main Street towards our hotel, the sky a vivid blue, and stopping to get lemonade at a fast-food restaurant. The restaurant, one of the big franchises, had glass-fronted displays showcasing twenty or thirty years' worth of collectible kid's-meal toys, and the teenager who rang up our lemonades had sparkly rubber bands on her braces. I didn't think they did that anymore, rubber bands on the braces, but it's been a long time since I would really know.
We had dinner in the hotel restaurant, an enterprise usually doomed to failure. The waitress had trouble with our orders, both taking and delivering them, and the difficulty probably had something to do with the fight she was having with her husband. He was in the restaurant, following her in and out of the kitchen while they shouted at each other, but he'd hover near the door whenever she was at a customer table. That's a kind of courtesy, I suppose, not coming to the tables with her. A dog came to our table midway through the meal, something small and terrier-like, obviously someone's pet but no owner in sight. When he jumped up on my side of the booth I pushed him off; when he started barking at Matt, Matt asked a busboy for help, and the busboy silently scooped the dog up with one hand and carried him off to the other side of the room.
The restaurant had doors that opened on to a patio. Through the open doors we saw the sky turn dark well before sunset, clouds and a strong wind coming in. The rain came suddenly, huge sheets of water blowing in complicated patterns across the patio tiles, and the restaurant staff came running to close the doors before the inside carpet became soaked. An hour later, when we ventured out to pick up some ice cream from the store across the street, the rain had stopped but we had to splash our way through a flooded intersection, blinking red and yellow traffic lights reflecting off the ankle-deep water.