New Mexico’s alien nation
The iconic geographical formation of Shiprock is steeped in local legend. (Justin Foulkes)
The badlands of New Mexico epitomise the raw, stark beauty of the Wild West. Vast mountain ranges and plateaued mesas stand impassive in the desert haze. Ragged 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 relentless southwestern sun, spotlighting the rolling ranches that are home to cattle and horses. 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 round here is lacking almost all of the above. In fact, the only thing that Roswell country has got 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 USA – 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 a number of child-sized grey aliens with huge saucer-like eyes.
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 But a week later this was retracted, and another release was written, saying that the debris was simply that of a military weather balloon.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 subsequently 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 in to order 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 Mark’s adamant stance, the museum is careful to leave all options on the table, which is a relief given the somewhat flaky nature of the evidence. One section even lists common ways by which fake photos of UFO s 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 fifth biggest 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.