Friday, 24 October 2014

Motorway to Roswell

Motorway to Roswell has always been one of my favourite songs by the Pixies. It serves as a great example of their ability to turn something weird and cranky into raw heartache of such power as to sidestep all possible objections, tapping directly into the seat of one's most basic emotional responses. It takes the folk myth of an alien spacecraft crashing at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and turns it into  a thing of crushing sadness without once acknowledging the potential for absurdity, specifically that no holiday ending inside a crate on some military base could be deemed a success. Maybe it is this very absurdity which invokes the profound pathos of the song, which in turn summarises the gulf between that which people wish to believe with such fervour, and that which is actually there.

For those who missed the four million docutainment specials on the increasingly dubiously named History Channel, the front page of the July 8th, 1947 edition of the Roswell Daily Record ran a story about the debris of a crashed alien saucer recovered from a ranch some thirty or forty miles north-west of the town it served. The next day, the same paper followed up the report with a retraction, claiming the wreckage had simply been the remains of a weather balloon; and so the mechanism of rumour, conspiracy, and implied cover-up went into overdrive, expanding the narrative to incorporate alien bodies whisked away to secret military locations.

My wife and I were heading north on Route 285, two lanes which could be considered the real Motorway to Roswell, at least aside from the fact of 285 being a highway rather than a motorway, and that motorway is in any case an English term which has little currency in the United States. Inevitably I couldn't get the song out of my head as we left the interstate at Fort Stockton heading for Roswell. It was our birthday, and this road trip was a present to ourselves. I use the plural rather than the royal we because my wife and I were both born on the 17th of September, albeit the 17th of September of different years, a coincidence which means that neither of us is ever likely to forget the other's birthday, and which additionally tends to support the thesis that astrology is all bollocks, should the thesis require such support.

This was the furthest west I had travelled and the longest journey I had ever made by car, a round trip of 1,200 miles, nine hours each way, roughly Land's End to John O'Groats and back in terms of the British Isles. I'd filled two vacuum flasks with iced tea and instant coffee respectively, packed coolers with the pasta salad and sandwiches I'd prepared - corned beef for myself and salami for my wife - and selected listening material for the trip - spoken word albums by Jello Biafra , Henry Rollins and David Sedaris plus some stand-up material from Lewis Black and Louis CK. It was to be an adventure. Travel is the closest I come to religious experience.

The hill country with which I have developed some familiarity over the last couple of years gradually gave way to the mesas of West Texas, a region of long, low hills with flat tops and steep sides spread across an expanse of semi-desert scrub. We were at the northern limit of the Trans-Pecos, itself representing the upper reaches of Mexico's Chihuahuan desert. I had seen this sort of land before, but only in films - mostly dusty westerns - and the experience of crossing it in person was so profoundly strange as to defy clear description - not quite like finding oneself on L. Frank Baum's yellow brick road but something in that general direction. The highway was busy in so much as we were rarely alone for any length of time, but still we had come some distance from the populated areas. In fact we had come so far as to have left the realms of ubiquitous billboards and associated signage for Buc-ee's or Whataburger or Geico or whoever, the gaudy visual kipple which clogs the automotive arteries of our urban sprawl. We were beyond advertising, although there was a downside in that we were screwed if we broke down out here, and it really was an out here in the true sense. The isolation was emphasised by our falling about a mile short of running out of gas before we came to the gas station at the Bakersfield turn. Bakersfield itself was nowhere to be seen. It could have been a small town, or the merest suggestion of one invoked only by its sign for all we could tell.

We stretched our legs and filled up on gas. I'm not sure quite when my vocabulary adapted to encompass these indigenous variants, but calling it a petrol station would have seemed wilful and eccentric given the environment, the verbal equivalent of a deerstalker; although I still switch between film and movie, depending on the context.

The land rose higher still beyond the mesas as we approached the New Mexico state line. The desert levelled out to a plain, more conspicuously revealing its ancestry as a former ocean bed; but it wasn't desert as I had anticipated from those old westerns. Yucca, opuntia, creosote bushes, and other dry plants held to the sand for as far as the eye could see; with pump jacks nodding away in the distance, scattered and grazing like mechanical animals, drawing oil from reserves so near to the surface that the ground wouldn't have been able to support any larger rig. Strangest of all were intermittent fires seen in the distance burning off the excess of some kind of gas which industry apparently considers useless, at least according to something I'd heard on NPR a few days before. Possibly excepting that of Corpus Christi, the Trans-Pecos is probably the strangest, most alien landscape through which I have passed. From one horizon to its opposite, the only shade to be had for most of the day was inside our car; gas flares blazed orange in the blue depths of desert sky, and we were heading for a town in which an alien spaceship had crashed, according to the legend.

We had set out from San Antonio just before nine in the morning. We stopped for gas as mentioned, and our watches had wound back an hour as we crossed over into New Mexico. Around four in the afternoon by Mountain Time - or five by our Central Time - we came to Carlsbad, driving up into the hills north-west of the town to the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens. My wife had passed the place on previous occasions and had always intended to visit, and we both needed a break. Most startling as we stepped from the car was the temperature, cooler than anything we had known in Texas since probably about March; and with light spots of rain, it felt wonderful. Even better was that, presumably through being a Wednesday, we were the only people at the zoo aside from staff. It felt as though we had been granted access to someone's private garden, albeit someone's private garden with elk, bison, bears, mountain lions and other native creatures. Not for the first time I was struck by the peculiarity of finding myself surrounded by casually grown plants of species I have seen preserved and pampered as foreign royalty in the greenhouses at Kew in London.

The animals seemed happy. They all had plenty of room and were of course in their natural habitats but for the presence of fences. We stood watching the elk for a while, particularly the bull because he reminded us of one of our cats, namely Fluffy who is enormous and has yet to master the art of walking through an open door which has been left open only part of the way. In Fluffy the Elk we felt almost certain we had found someone with a similarly uncomplicated understanding of the world. No less imposing were the indigenous mountain lions, reminders of this being a country in which nature can still kill you - a thought I find oddly reassuring.

Our favourite animal was Lena the Javelina, as she was assonantally identified. The Javelina - the j is pronounced as an h - is a small, cute, fuzzy pig, or peccary, and isn't related to Eurasian pigs in any way according to most of the internet. Nevertheless, she looked a lot like a pig to us, and we stood watching her rooting around in the mud, softly oinking to herself. Peculiarly this encounter at last dislodged Motorway to Roswell from my internal turntable, replacing it with another track by the Pixies - Havalina, basically a song about a piggy, unusually gentle by Pixies standards and seemingly quite suited to Lena's character.

Duly refreshed, we got back on the road, heading north through Artesia, a town characterised by having its name as a prefix to just about everything printed on a sign or billboard within the city limits - Artesia Taxidermy, Artesia Savings Bank, Artesia Gifts and Novelties, Artesia Public Convenience and so on. Earlier we had listened to Lewis Black describe a Houston branch of Starbucks built directly across the street from another branch of Starbucks, which he rationalised as a development catering to the needs of the amnesiac community. It seemed like this might also account for Artesia's somewhat forceful product placement of its own name.

Beyond Artesia, we passed into Roswell itself and out the other side. We were high up, over a thousand meters above sea level and crossing a plateau at the crest of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range extending northwards from Mexico; and it felt as though we were high up. The geology had about it a Welsh quality with grassland plains crabbed with bushes resembling gorse which probably weren't; horizon lost to the mists of low cloud cover, and still with a pump jack labouring at the ground here and there or lonely gas flares burning away like fallen stars. It was not difficult to imagine how the strange and dubiously explicable might quite easily intrude upon this ghostly plain so near to the heavens, a borderland at the limit of our familiar world.

Of course, as a kid I couldn't get enough of the flying saucer literature, and The Roswell Incident by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore came as a revelation, mainly because its subject seemed just that little bit more substantial than the contents of all those other cranky, repetitive tomes bulging with tales of some bloke who knew this other bloke who said he saw something which had definitely struck him as a little rum, with endless blurred photographs to prove something or other up to a poorly quantified point. What if it's all true? I asked myself, as did quite a few other people, if the History Channel is any indication.

Growing up in a completely different country to me, my wife's interest seems not to have been quite so obsessive as mine; but she phrased it very well now as we drove along, suggesting our shared juvenile fascination with flying saucers represented a longing for a world in which magic had not been entirely banished to the realm of fiction. Thankfully we both grew up, in the process developing the intelligence to appreciate that there really is magic in the world, but none of it requiring the ludicrous qualification of constituting the truth they don't want you to know...

After about another hour and our second stop at a gas station, the road began its descent, winding down into mountains and valleys of conifers and babbling streams even more substantially Welsh in character than the plateau we had crossed, at least excepting the preponderance of log cabin architecture of distinctly Alpine flavour. To further compound the lazy comparisons, with the sun now low on the horizon, it felt as though we were driving into an Albert Bierstadt painting, or would have done had my parents not picked north Wales as a holiday destination with quite such frequency when I was a child.

Arriving in Ruidoso, we found a hotel, cleansed ourselves of automotive cheese and general travel glaze, and headed straight back out in search of food, a quest which briefly intersected with the forces of justice. The blue and red lights flashed in the rear view mirror as we peered out into the darkness hoping to find the turning for an eating place called the Texas Club. It couldn't be anything to do with us.

My wife cursed and slowed the car from crawl to a dead stop.

'What did we do?'

'I have no idea.' She wound down the window.

What appeared to be a twelve-year old boy dressed as a cop leaned in and began to detail our crime. He had blonde hair and pimples. He had a big nose and sticky out ears and his voice droned without any obvious display of confidence or excessive education.

We both sat absolutely still in our seats, and I tried to recall any positive story I had heard about the police here in the United States. I couldn't think of one, my sources being persons such as Ice T, Henry Rollins and Jello Biafra. Technically this was my first brush with the law in its American form, my impression of which has thus far been thin, and is hopefully wrong in being based upon the apparent contrast with the police in England. The thing is that whilst the English police forces may undoubtedly harbour a few wrong 'uns, I always had the impression that their recruitment at least involved a selection process followed by some sort of training, even in the case of those evil fuckers who didn't seem to think the murder of Stephen Lawrence constituted a crime; but here, I sometimes get the impression that police recruitment is based on whether you know how to hold a gun and fancy having a go. Hopefully I'm wrong.

The twelve-year old boy told us that we had a broken tail light, and that we had failed to come to a complete stop prior to executing a right turn. The first of these we knew as my wife had paid to have said tail light fixed mere months before, apparently to no avail. The second sounded like some crap which this funny little man had invented there and then. He gave us our tickets and told us to drive safely.

It was bullshit, of course. We drove back to confirm that, as we suspected, the location at which we had transgressed was not the sort of turn at which anyone with a brain would draw to a complete stop. There was no stop sign, aside from anything. We had been pulled over almost immediately after taking a right simply because the twelve-year old boy saw our out of state licence plates and correctly reasoned that we would be reluctant to drive all the way back here in two weeks time when the opportunity arose to dispute the charge. It would be cheaper and easier to pay the $150 - another night of successful fund raising for the city, and junior would no doubt be better able to meet whatever quotas his job obliged him to meet. He was a cop with a gun and we were a long way from home, so he probably could have given us a ticket for conspiracy to form sarcastic thoughts whilst driving had he felt like it. Similar bullshit fund raising traffic violations have been handed out to others we know who have crossed the New Mexico state line from Texas. We weren't the first.

On a holiday,
So many miles looking for a place to stay,
Near some friendly star,
He found this mote, and now we wonder where we are,
How could this, so great,
Turn so shitty? He ended up in army crates,
And photographs in files...

Okay, so it could have been worse. We gritted our teeth, found the restaurant, and ate our steak. My wife had told me that Ruidoso had a sizeable indigenous population. Their presence was manifest in the nearby Inn of the Mountain Gods resort and casino, and through a local artist who had furnished the restaurant walls with prints communicating Native American spirituality as a series of attractive women who, apparently surprised to have been discovered in a state of undress, push their large breasts together in supplication to some Amerind Goddess of Knockers and Gentleman's Interest Publishing. The pictures were oddly depressing, a weird conflation of Thomas Kinkade and Hustler, but the steak was great.

We slept well and began the next morning with the sort of breakfast you tend to find served in hotels of the kind we had chosen, the kind which serves breakfast on a paper plate with a plastic fork -  not unwelcome but there's a reason why it's free. I ate sausage patties and inappropriately robust scrambled egg whilst my wife enjoyed the entertainment provided by our fellow free food enthusiasts. Twin brothers were seated at the table behind us, one vocally expressing his hatred of motorcyclists and whichever loud, smelly machines they rode in on - a great many of which we had noticed in the parking lot as we arrived the night before, exotic and elaborate trikes and weird looking custom jobs of a kind favoured by people with travel plans ranging much further than the next town.

'You with the bikers?' the twin would ask each time someone new came into the breakfast room, before reiterating his hostility as each reply came back a no. 'I'd like to see someone step outside and push a few of those damn things over. See how they like that.'

His brother ate in silence and another guest came in.

'You with the bikers?'

This time there was a nod of the head.'Yes I am.'

The twin began to explain how much he loved bikes, how greatly he admired those who had taken to the open road.

We too took to the open road, reversing the route which had brought us here, back up through the mountains and valleys to the ghostly high plateau with its pump jacks and gas flares, and this time we stopped in Roswell.

As you might expect, the city hasn't been too shy about cashing in on its reputation. We parked opposite a row of stores, each with a huddle of enthusiastically painted lime green aliens adorning the frontage, the bubble-headed kind with the dark, slanted eyes popularised by Whitley Strieber's Communion, amongst other things. The aliens painted on the window of the bakery smiled and held out cakes for our consideration. They wore chefs' aprons and promised that their bread was out of this world, meaning I suppose that it was good. In Ruidoso we had passed a few places selling tree trunks carved into the shape of bears or other animals, or even the hokey figures of Native American warriors, totems which could be purchased and set up in one's garden or at the front of the home as either a mascot or a sentry. Here in Roswell the tree trunks were carved so as to resemble aliens, freakishly tall, average, or short and resembling dwarves, but all that same bright green.

In its time, Roswell has also been a typically average science-fiction television series in which pouting airbrushed teenagers descended from the aliens who may or may not have crash landed here serve as a cock-obvious metaphor for how awkward and alienated teenagers can feel, even the conspicuously styled, good looking ones who know how to use hair gel. It was Twilight without the humour, and somehow managed to make it to a third series. Thankfully all the hair gel and pouting in the world was not enough to dislodge the folk myth version of alien visitors from the hearts of Roswell's people, and the incident - whatever it was - receives its most thorough celebration at the city's International UFO Museum & Research Center.

For all its relative glamour, the problem with Roswell as an historical event is that what materials can be legitimately displayed in the glass cases of a museum are fairly limited without stretching the point, although it has to be said that the organisers have generally done a good job regardless of whether or not you're buying it. So we have all the relevant newspaper cuttings of the time, maps, photographs, and even a vintage Bakelite telephone presumably to illustrate the sort of device by which startled ranchers might have communicated their bewilderment. The newspaper articles describe debris from a crash of some sort, and so we also have examples of how that debris may have appeared. Unfortunately, as often seems to be the case with this sort of thing, what evidence there is tends to be either anecdotal or open to interpretation, and whilst it may be true that a government cover up would account for this lack of evidence, such a possibility doesn't really leave us any the wiser.

In short form, the legend has it that the remains of a flying saucer were recovered by the air force from a ranch seventy-five miles north-west of Roswell; and then the story was retracted because it turned out to be a weather balloon; and then this was viewed as a cover up intended to conceal the weather balloon having been a flying saucer after all; except that the weather balloon story was a cover up to conceal the wreckage having originated in some more secretive government effort to monitor Soviet bomb tests at long range; and then somewhere in there we have the bodies supposedly recovered from the crash site, and so on and so forth. All that can really be said is that something crashed, and something was found, and some people were more than a little freaked out by the whole thing. There seems to be an FBI memo declassified more recently and implying that yes, there were saucers and there were bodies although Roswell itself is not explicitly identified:

An investigator for the Air Forces stated that three so-called flying saucers had been recovered in New Mexico. They were described as being circular in shape with raised centers, approximately 50 feet in diameter. Each one was occupied by three bodies of human shape but only 3 feet tall, dressed in metallic cloth of very fine texture. Each body was bandaged in a manner similar to the blackout suits used by speed flyers and test pilots.

It nevertheless remains difficult to commit to anything stronger than who knows? My own view is that it almost certainly wasn't a flying saucer piloted by extraterrestrials, but as folk myths go it's still a thumping good story. You sort of want it to be true on some level.

Once we're done with the crash, the International UFO Museum & Research Center makes time with displays relating a more general history of UFOlogy and the almost inevitable diorama depicting an alien autopsy. This will probably sound peculiar given the subject but I'm not sure this aspect didn't cheapen the enterprise a little, reducing it all to Spielbergian spectacle; but I guess that's what the punters want and I suppose I'm probably overthinking this one.

For all that the UFO Museum may be viewed as a series of displays insisting on the existence of Santa Claus, only one aspect really bothered me, and this was a carved reproduction of the lid of the sarcophagus of K'inich Janaab' Pakal, seventh century ruler of Palenque in Mexico. The design on the lid was identified as depicting  an ancient space traveller by professional tosspot Erich von Däniken who claimed that the designs surrounding the carved figure of the dead king looked a bit like a spaceship. Five minutes spent familiarising oneself with Maya iconography at a rudimentary level should be enough to convince anyone with a working brain that it really isn't a spaceship. Those flames Erich saw belching from the rear of the craft as it soared into the heavens weren't flames but simply the stylised rendering of the jaws of the Mayan version of the Mexican Earth Monster, as can be seen on myriad other stone carvings, none of which have been mistaken for anachronistic rocketry. Of course ancient astronaut theorists tend to find their early spacemen in the iconography of cultures of which their audience will be otherwise ignorant, without any legitimately established knowledge to get in the way of a very specific understanding. It's the reverse of the cinematic caveman transposed to Washington DC who announces that the Lincoln Memorial represents a powerful God to whom one might justifiably offer sacrifices in return for a higher agricultural yield.

This will probably make me sound hopelessly cranky but I'm tired of seeing poor old Pakal trundled out again and again by ignorant fuckers seeking that truth which has been for so long hidden and yet who can't spare five minutes to do a bit of basic homework. I'm tired of it because it's disrespectful, and makes it difficult for me to maintain positive thoughts regarding the presence of intelligent life on this planet, never mind anywhere else.

A little further along from the reproduction of the lid of Pakal's sarcophagus was a painting showing how the dead king's spacecraft would have looked had he chosen to race it along a beach like a sort of flying dune buggy. I couldn't quite tell if the artist was sincere or extremely sarcastic. In any case I preferred the other paintings arranged in a line along the same wall, slightly clumsy but earnest depictions of saucers and their pilots by persons who had probably not bothered with art college but nevertheless really believed in their work. It was all a bit mad, but there was at least a kind of truth in there somewhere.

So that was Roswell, at least excepting a pleasant but largely uneventful excursion to the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. We came, we looked around, and then we started heading for the motorway, hopefully a little wiser than before.


I should probably mention that Dave Hirons, my former art tutor, had made and written about this same trip a year or so before me. His account can be read here. I guess I had forgotten about the photograph when staging my own unintentional tribute.

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