When Eric brought up the possibility of moving to Albuquerque, New Mexico, seven years ago, I immediately thought of UFO sightings along lonesome highways running across rocky deserts. I blame The X-Files, which I watched faithfully and breathlessly every week. Once the move became definite, I promised family and friends that Eric and I would visit Roswell as soon as we could and lavish alien memorabilia on everyone for the holidays. Instead, he and I moved and New Mexico became home. Aliens and UFOs faded from mind, except for when I cracked open a bottle of Roswell Alien Amber Ale.
This month, I finally headed south and visited Roswell, New Mexico—site of the famous UFO/weather balloon crash of 1947. My road-trip companion was my father, the person from whom I inherited my love of souvenirs and postcards. Upon entering Roswell, we first located the visitor's center, counting ourselves lucky to find a parking spot in the shade, as temperatures neared 100 degrees. The center, a friendly-looking cottage on the edge of downtown, forced me to confront my email addiction. "They have free internet terminals!" I said to my dad the moment we walked in the door. I sprinted over to one, signed the visitor's log, and checked my three email addresses, hands shaking as if I had been out of touch with modern life for days, as opposed to a little over three hours.
I caught up on my three hours of messages, then sent a note to my online writing group: "In Roswell. Being abducted by aliens. Please help!" Within thirty seconds, I received a reply: "Do not let them probe you up the butt." My important business taken care of, I joined my dad at the information desk.
The two women behind the desk were friendly and helpful. Yes, the Alien Museum was just up the road and would we like a brochure or a map? One said she had only been to the museum once, years ago, and the other admitted she had never been in it at all. It reminded me of the strange part of being a tourist. You go somewhere, ogle the sites, and buy silly hats and key chains. Meanwhile, other people actually live in the place and are getting tired of being asked about UFOs all the time.
Our shaded parking spot was so good, we decided to walk the three blocks to the museum. We ambled, the appropriate pace for midday desert heat, and admired the shops. One quilt store had a handmade alien-head quilt. It was, quite honestly, stunning. A store, which I think was a camera shop, filled its display window with a diorama of aliens, spaceships, and grey cliffs. Finally, we reached the gift shops. They were everywhere, surrounding the UFO museum for a block on either side. Eerily, they and the street were almost entirely deserted—like a ghost town in a Western, only with UFO key chains instead of gunfighters.
This had more to do with our timing than with what Roswell is like most of the time, I suspect. The annual UFO festival had ended the day before. All weekend Roswell had been filled with people attending the alien parade, going to concerts, watching fireworks, and buying doodads covered with little green guys. Had we been there the day before, the street would have been packed. Had we been there a month from now, the street might have been similarly empty (only tourists and people whose jobs require it walk around outside in the middle of a desert summer at high noon) but most of the gift shops wouldn't have been open. At least half of them looked like seasonal affairs, thrown up to take advantage of the festival crowds. As we browsed through the shops, I felt a bit like a ghost myself—a tourist from UFO festivals past. Maybe that feeling was why my silly mood faded and was replaced with something more subdued. I didn't enjoy the knickknacks as much as I'd expected. There was, for instance, an offensive T-shirt whose lettering said "Illegal Alien" below a picture of a green alien wearing a sombrero and sporting a large mustache.
One thing that hadn't occurred to me, though it should have, is that people take this alien stuff seriously. I stood in the lobby of the International UFO Museum and Research Center, reading the festival posters, and realized the festival wasn't all about parades, music, and minor celebrities. There was, for example, a workshop about memory retrieval and an "Abduction Panel." I decided not to go into the museum itself. I had wanted to go in to giggle but suddenly that seemed rude. When I read the museum's brochure and learned that the research library was staffed with people expert in talking to the public about their abduction experiences and repressed memories, the feeling grew stronger.
I like reading science fiction and I'll watch almost any space opera which appears on television. I'm also a skeptic. I don't think there is an ounce of truth to any of the reports of UFO sightings and alien abductions. Still, I read that phrase "repressed memories" and I felt uncomfortable. If I thought I had been abducted and examined by aliens, I'd like there to be at least one place I could go where nobody would laugh at me. So, I didn't pay the museum's entry fee and I didn't go in to giggle at the exhibits.
I went into the gift shop instead, which did make my moral qualms seem silly. The museum itself sells all the lighthearted alien T-shirts, bumper stickers, shot glasses, and paperweights a person could want. I bought a blue baseball cap with an embroidered flying saucer for Eric (which he has barely taken off since I gave it to him three days ago) and I still regret not getting one or two of the alien-themed Christmas ornaments. If a baseball cap that fit my beach-ball-sized skull existed, you had better believe I'd be wearing a blue embroidered cap of my own right now, too.
After shopping, my dad and I decided to find some lunch. One restaurant boasted an all-you-can-eat New Mexican buffet. We peeked inside. It was open. It was lunch time. There was not a single person sitting at any of the tables. We decided this was a bad sign. Instead of going in, we walked back towards the car, figuring the visitor's center could point us somewhere more popular. I still felt like a ghost drifting through a ghost town —- the pavement hot and bright, the whole world bleached out, no other people or cars moving down the street. Right before the visitor's center, I spotted a Mexican restaurant. We poked our heads inside and found what felt like the entire town of Roswell. Almost every table was filled with families or coworkers, talking animatedly and eating what looked like fantastic food.
A waitress took us to a booth and left a basket of chips and salsa. By the time we ordered, a crowd had formed in the foyer of people waiting for a table. My father had the carne adovada. I had the chile rellenos. By the time we finished, the ghostly feeling had long vanished. I felt alive and in full color and the town of Roswell seemed like it too. Roswell was a real, living place which, frankly, had little to do with UFOs and little green men.
Still, I might go back next year and attend the festival's concerts and its alien parade. It will give me a chance to pick up that UFO Christmas bell.