Roswell, New Mexico - Aliens + UFOs + the 90s
Roswell, New Mexico is smaller than you might think. Or maybe it is just as small as you would think. It stands as the fifth largest city in New Mexico with a population of approximately 56,000 earthlings. My fiancé and I rolled into town around 10 p.m. after driving about two hours north from Guadalupe National Park after spending about eight hours of hiking up Guadalupe Peak, the highest natural point in Texas. After two days of camping, the food supply I packed had diminished. Our inflatable air mattresses had seen better days. And after the morning hike up the mountain under the unforgiving Texas sun, we decided upon our descent that the short drive to Roswell would be well worth it not only for some kitschy alien lore but also for a bed and a hot shower.
As you roll into town you begin to spot an assortment of little green men—statues roughly about four feet in height—that stand sentry in front of local businesses and chain hotels. There’s a billboard for Galaxy Sushi, a restaurant we discovered tucked away in a strip mall not far from a Sam’s Club, that claims their sushi is “out of this world.” There’s the UFO shaped McDonald’s and the Arby’s with extraterrestrials painted on its domed front window with the banner that reads: ALIENS WELCOME. As we drove down Main Street looking for the Best Western we conferred from a quick internet search had affordable rates and yet the modest level of luxury our bodies craved, we drove past novelty shops with names like Area 51, The Landing, and Alien Zone. All sporting faded signs that promised UFO & ALIEN STUFF inside. In between the shops nestled a Subway, a small wine shoppe, art and antique galleries, and a corner store called Ancients of Days which sold rocks, fossils, and Christian supplies.
It was dated, a little rundown and kitschy, but even in my physically exhausted state I was giddy with excitement. This unexpected little road trip had brought us to the epicenter of possibility—of unworldly, of the paranormal, the supernatural, the celestial and the unexplained. Speculative phenomena that I spend a lot of time thinking about, writing about.
As many know, Roswell, New Mexico garnered its fame from what is known as the 1947 Roswell Incident. When a local rancher claims to have found the wreckage of an alien spacecraft, which housed several extraterrestrial occupants, just outside the city. The government claimed the wreckage was a crashed weather balloon as an alleged cover-up for a top-secret project that involved flying high-altitude balloons equipped with microphones. The microphones' primary purpose was to detect long-distance sound waves produced by Soviet atomic bomb tests. This project, Operation Mogul, was not fully divulged to the public until the 1990s. Until then, however, prospered a decades long fascination with the possibility or, for some, absolute proof that we were not alone and that our government wanted to hide this Truth from us.
As a child of the 90s, I grew up in the years of an alien pop culture resurgence—Coneheads, The X-Files, Independence Day, Mars Attacks!, Men in Black, Starship Troopers, and this list is by no means exhaustive. Numerous Star Trek films along with Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace hit theaters to the delight of lifelong fans, newbies, and intergalactic enthusiasts of all stripes. The bulbous great heads of aliens adorned t-shirts, pocket folders, back packs, choker chains, temporary (sometimes real) tattoos. They were doodled on notebooks, inked on the wide leg of Jnco’s, adhesive stickers slapped on the underside of skateboards.
Remember Travis Birkenstock? The adorable stoner from Clueless who confesses to quirky Tai that he wants to white out the underside of his board and concentrate on one decorative statement…like Marvin the Martian? Then he and Tai instantly bond because, GET OUT OF TOWN, she can do [re: draw] Marvin the Martian!? *Swoon*
Martians, aliens, spacemen; they were everywhere. If it wasn’t exactly the little green man, it was a likeness or varying degrees of interpretation of the extraterrestrial. The performance art trio, The Blue Man Group, released their first album, Audio, in 1999 and introduced the world to the cerulean shade of otherworldly oddity. Marilyn Manson tantalized and terrified with his various alien-esque looks.
Founding member and solo guitarist of TOOL Adam Jones, who also served as the animator, set designer, and director of the band’s music videos, created eerie, celestial cinematic accompaniments to the band’s songs. TOOL’s videos always enticed me. They were visually frightening and not of this world all while portraying the lyrics’ often equally startling apocalyptic and bleak narratives. The animated alien-like characters in the videos were always lumbering around in lanky frames with elongated limbs and sunken eyes leading one to ponder abnormal possibilities and the Truth.
In the 90s, the millennium was upon us. As 1999 loomed closer and closer, many fretted over the Y2K Bug—the possibility of a loss of control over our growing technology. As the fear went, our computers were programmed to automatically assume that the date that began with 19 was 1969 or 1979 or 1989 and when the computer had to switch from 1999 to 2000 many believed that computers would be confused and shut down completely.
In other words, many thought all hell would break lose. Banks, airports, traffic lights, anything run by computers (essentially everything, even in the 90s) would cease to work.
Doomsday, big time.
Of course, nothing happened and the whole ordeal was quickly forgotten but at the time the fear was palpable. Even the most levelheaded sometimes cocked their head to the side and glared off into nothingness while pondering a faint what if?
If it wasn’t machinery threatening to malfunction and/or take over as our technological advances and dependency flourished then it was always the old adage of our government lying to us, covering up conspiracies, and concealing the truth from the population; which was definitely not a hard pill to swallow in the midst of the Clinton Impeachment.
Yes, Roswell’s little green men made a lot of sense in the 90s. Arguably every decade has its technological and celestial anxieties, galactic films, alien musicians, and government scandals but in the 90s this cosmic fasciation gathered more fuel when the United States Secretary of the Air Force re-launched an internal investigation into the 1947 Roswell Incident and finally disclosed the “true” nature of the aforementioned Project Mogul. In the late 90s, Roswell was, yet again, all over the news.
All of this weighed heavy on my mind the next day when we awoke from revitalizing chambers of the Best Western and headed back down Main Street to the International UFO Museum and Research Center. For five bucks a visitor, you can enter the large warehouse that used to serve as the town movie theater and pursue the catacombs of industrial-sized pegboard ornamented with photos, newspaper clippings, timelines, eyewitness accounts, and replica shards of the fallen spacecraft. There’s a small room in which you can sit and watch a brief documentary and there are several mise en scènes of aliens and UFOs scattered about, props reminiscent of those found at any large seasonal Halloween department store.
The museum was hokey but fun. Although most of the displays looked to be nothing more than a particular narrative or witness testimony typed up, mimeographed, and framed, I was surprisingly impressed by the breadth, organization, and chronicled flow of the informational gallery. Despite whether or not you enter a believer or skeptic, you definitely leave having learned something. It is educational.
Let it be said now that I believe there is other life out there. Other universes. Other worlds. It may not be the worlds or life forms depicted in pop culture but there is something. I like holding the possibility. I’m attracted to the peripheral. Unlike many, I find comfort in not knowing. I like questions more than answers. I revel in the multitude of narratives for possibilities. I like the comfort of considering—of pondering the conditional what if.
Roswell may be a small dusty town with a few tacky souvenir shops in the middle of a growing commercial sprawl of restaurants, big-box retailers, and expanding sub-divisions but underneath the surface-level normalcy and the kitsch it is so much more. What this small town of 56,000 earthlings and controversial history provides is a place—a moment to consider our place in the universe. Even those firm in their denial of alien existence can, for a brief second, ponder the power of the cosmos, the power of story, and the power of collective loneliness. Not aliens but something bigger than that. Something bigger than themselves.
Do you believe?