Turning thirty-one is a dirty punishment for living. Too young to know what the hell is going on; too old to pretend you do. I was celebrating my thirty-first birthday in Roswell, New Mexico- the spiritual motherland of the X-files and Coast to Coast AM.
I wasn’t sure why I’d chosen Roswell to to take my first steps into seniority, but it definitely wasn’t curiosity. After two decades of filling my own head with stories of alien abductions and government coverups, I already knew what I’d find there: little green bumper stickers and ash trays at bargain-basement prices. I was an Adult, dag-blast-it!
But sometimes the mountain calls the Prophet, and all that.
It was 4:30 PM on Valentine’s Day. My wife and I had just left the world-famous International UFO Museum and Research Center, and Main Street was strangely calm. Here and there, a few families could be seen taking photos. On the other side of the street, a cadet from the nearby New Mexico Military Institute, wearing his dress uniform and clutching a dozen roses, charged along at full clip with a determined focus that only a sex-starved soldier-to-be can carry.
Come July, the street where traffic was lazing along will become packed with thousands of tourists from all over, here to see the UFO Festival. Brightly-colored costumes will choke the road and the smells of street food will fill the air. A trail of alien footprints would be hard to spot in the midst of such revelry, but on this clear winter day, they stood out conspicuously.
I was itching to get over there and investigate, but I was trying to play it cool. “Why don’t we cross over here?” I asked my wife.
“Are you crazy?” She fired a look at me. Was she suspicious? Could she tell that her husband had become one of those madmen we all hear about?
“I am not getting a jay walking ticket in a strange town.”
In answer, two police cruisers drove by in succession.
I breathed with relief at dodging the close call, and followed her to the next intersection. I pushed the crosswalk button with mounting anxiety, when she grabbed my arm and pointed in the opposite direction.
Down a side street, between a Mexican bakery and a UFO gift shop was a small yerberia, Venus Herbs & Healing.
Yerberias are supply shops for practitioners of Santeria. They usually carry prayer candles, essential oils, idols, and wholesale herbs by the ounce. Unlike your upscale new age shops, there usually isn’t much pageantry involved. No fairy posters or overpriced blank spell books, just occult pragmatism from people who take magic for granted. The kind of place where a bat heart will cost you eighty-nine cents, but a can of coke will cost a buck fifty.
We went inside while a group of bikers at the tattoo parlor a few doors down openly stared at us. It was fairly small, and the sound of a TV could be heard coming from behind a closed curtain next to the cash register. Along the walls were shelves filled with glass jars containing dried herbs. Frankincense, palo azul, lavender.
An older Hispanic woman came out from behind the curtain and greeted us warmly. There was no indication that she shared the neighbors surprise at seeing a white couple in a spell shop.
I began looking through their fixed candle inventory while my wife chatted her up. “Pretty bouquet,” she said, admiring a gargantuan bouquet that was in a vase on the counter.
The woman brightened noticeably. “Those are from my granddaughter. For my birthday.”
I looked up. “Oh, hey. It’s my birthday, too.”
She winked at me conspiratorially.
I went back to the candles while pondering this synchronicity, and my wife asked for an ounce of ruda. The woman took down the jar and peered into it disapprovingly. “You’ll have to give me a second, mija . I have to pick through these stems to find some flowers for you.”
Later, in front of the bakery next door, I finally noticed what was missing. “They didn’t have any aliens,” I said to my wife.
See, the Roswellians have a propensity to use cutesy images of little green men dressed up in kitschy costumes as decoration. There weren’t too many places you can look without seeing one. It was a practice that would have given me hives a decade ago, but was somehow charming the hell out of me.
She laughed and pointed across the street at an empty parking lot. On the wall was a huge mural, depicting the famous E.T. scene. Elliot’s finger touched the alien’s.
We headed back to Main Street, and I began attempting to steer our path back toward the footprints, but my wife already had plans. She grabbed me by the arm and yanked me into a nearby store, Ancient of Days. I may have groaned audibly.
Shelves lined the walls of the shop, displaying geodes, fool’s gold, arrowhead fakes, crystals, and all sorts of rocks and fossils. In the center of the floor was a glass display case. Inside was a nearly complete fossilized skeleton of a Psittacosaurus.
A twenty-something with a mop of rambunctious curls was manning the register. He smiled and introduced himself as Brian. I probably grunted or muttered something in return. All I could think about were those footprints and the Story of the Year waiting at the end of their trail. Rocks were no match.
But my wife was drooling and sighing like an epilepsy victim. She stood in front of a bright purple stone, eyes bugging out. “That’s an amethyst. They’re very beautiful,” said Brian. He had that comfortingly naïve countenance you only find in a small town. He told us about the stone, but I was already tuning him out while I studied its price tag.
I started wandering around the store while he continued to speak her, wondering if buying a little cheap something-or-other would get us back on the street quicker. Next to the register was a basket of what looked like chunks of clear, misshapen beach glass. They were a dollar a piece, and I started sifting through them.
“What are these?” I asked.
He came over with a crooked grin. “There’s a good story to go along with those. They’re pieces of fulgurite. It’s what happens when lightening strikes sand. It turns into these glass tubes, right? Well, this piece was made when lightening struck a ditch filled with beer bottles. They all kind of fused into this huge chunk.
“There had been a three-car pile-up, and this guy had crashed through the front window. Like, half his car was in the store. It was crazy. I don’t think he was even drunk, or anything.
“Anyway, he rolled right through that fulgurite, and smashed it to pieces.” He motioned toward the basket of glass chunks. “That’s all we have left.”
I laughed. “Oh, I’ve seen some crazy stuff in here. Just yesterday, this guy brought in a pebble to sell. Said it was given to his grandfather by some African shaman, and it had magical powers and everything. It was just some rock he picked up off the ground.”
While he told me his story, three grimy street kids came in, carrying camping gear on their backs, and smelling like they hadn’t showered in weeks. Brian excused himself and welcomed them with the same warmth he had shown us.
One of them, a skinny girl in a stained camisole with no bra and dreadlocks, asked him where all the alien stuff was. In her arms, a little puppy squirmed, yawned, and went back to napping.
Brian, apparently unfazed by the smell and their obvious lack of funds, took them to the window and started pointing out all of the most popular UFO gift shops excitedly. While he did, an older man slunked into the store through a backdoor and sighed heavily before making his way to the cash register. I could only assume that this was the owner.
Brian sent the street kids on their way and turned to the owner. “Happy birthday, man.”
Another birthday boy. Odd. I almost said something about it to him, but I could tell his wasn’t going so well, so I just made eye contact with my wife and nodded toward the door. On the way out, Brian waved and told us to come visit, anytime.
We left by the backdoor, which plopped us out on 2nd Street and right in the middle of those beautiful and mysterious footprints. “How cute!” my wife said, “Look at those.” I feigned surprise and squatted down for a better view.
They appeared to have been stenciled onto the sidewalk. I couldn’t be sure without a sterile lab environment, but they seemed to have been made of neon green paint. I got the distinct impression that they weren’t extraterrestrial.
I followed the line with my eyes. It ended at the doorstep of the Roswell Space Center, which promised to be the mother of all UFO gift shops. Outside the door was a wooden sculpture of a little green man, carved in the style of an old-fashioned cigar store Indian. Surrounding the door were signs for tee shirts, memorabilia, and something called the “Space Walk.”
We went in and found a husky man with bulging blue eyes and a thinning crew cut watching a sitcom on a small TV behind the counter. His tee shirt showed Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, but with an alien’s head that fit a size too small (a condition shared by all the shirts sold here which the wary traveler should be aware of). He introduced himself as Pat and told us that the owners had stepped out for a moment and left him in charge. “I don’t really work here, but I’m here all the time, so…”
I pretended to believe him, but I’d already read about this place online, and every review had mentioned the wacky guy at the cash register named Pat Jennings.
(I still can’t figure out why he said that. Like most of my conversation with Pat, I got the distinct feeling that I was missing a crucial inside joke. He epitomized an attitude that I’d found in almost every person I’d spoken to in Roswell: a kind of tongue-in-cheek patronization. The same kind of attitude you see when a chuckling, winking adult tries to convince a child that Santa’s real. It didn’t seem mean-spirited in any way, but I still felt like the butt-end of a joke I didn’t get.)
He asked where we were from, and then motioned dramatically to an ominous looking doorway tucked between two racks of tee-shirts. “Have you come to see the Space Walk?” he asked in mock seriousness.
“I absolutely came to see the Space Walk.”
He looked over his shoulder and, after deciding it was safe enough, began to tell us how the owners of the shop, Larry and Sharon Welz, began building the Space Walk in 2006, and have continued to add to it ever since. Larry is an artist who was involved in the underground comics scene in San Francisco in the 60’s.
One thing Pat wanted us to watch out for was the exhibit on I Love Lucy. “In 1953, an episode was broadcast into space, and right away, a bunch of UFOs showed up.” An interesting story that I’ve yet to find any corroboration on.
The Space Walk was only a couple bucks. Before removing the rope blocking the door, Pat looked me straight in the eye. “Be ready. This’ll change your life forever.”
And boy howdy! He wasn’t kidding.
Our senses were immediately assaulted by the craziest black light disco freak out art I’ve ever seen. The Walk was maybe twenty feet in all, but within that space, we were confronted with scenes of the Roswell crash, the atomic bomb, the aforementioned Lucy event, and scenes of futuristic cities as seen from the bridge of an alien craft. All of it in neon colors under a black light, bringing on what felt suspiciously like an acid flashback.
By the time we exited through a curtain in the back, only a few minutes later, we were short of breath, giddy… and absolutely willing to believe anything that came out of Pat’s mouth.
“All of the shirts were designed by local artists. Myself, included. Hoo hee hee.” He had an endearing habit of giggling after each of his statements.
I was checking out a shirt with a print showing a close-up of an alien skull, lying in the desert. Behind it were cacti and tumbleweeds.
“That one’s based off of an actual photograph.” He winked. “Of course, the military seized the original. Hoo hoo hoo.”
I picked out a clone of the shirt Pat was wearing and a reprint of the famous July 8, 1947 issue of the Roswell Daily Record, which carried the story of the saucer crash.
At the cash register, the credit card reader was acting up, and while he fiddled with it, Pat began telling us about the cell phone towers popping up all over Roswell. “They’re everywhere. You can see two of ’em from right on the corner, over there. I think it’s got something to do with that big laser.”
“Oh, sure. I was at the demonstration a few years ago. The beam was ten feet wide. They shot it straight up in the air. They’re all very hush-hush about it, but I used to be in the service, so I got connections. Hoo hoo hee.”
“Wait. So, you’re saying there’s some big laser around here, and they’re putting up a bunch of cell phone towers?”
“Well, that’s what they say they are, but I know for a fact that they’re getting ready for a return visit.”
Once we’d gotten our receipt, my wife asked if she could take Pat’s picture. “Oh, hold on,” he said, reaching into his pocket. “I never let anyone take my picture without my ears on.”
He stuck two rubber Spock ears over his real ones and gave us the traditional Vulcan hand sign for peace.
We were leaving for Carlsbad Caverns early in the morning, but I was having trouble sleeping. I had decided to kill some time by screwing around on the internet. Just for kicks, I googled “cell phone towers in Roswell, NM.”
What the shit?
A gaggle of explanations came to mind. Maybe there was such a thing as unregistered towers. Or maybe there was some law in place limiting the number of towers allowed that wasn’t observed here. Maybe…
While I was reading, the soft whupwhupwhup of an approaching helicopter got louder and louder, until it sounded like it was right over our room. I threw on some pants and ran outside, where the sound was almost deafening. Bright lights were flooding the lawn on the other side of the building.
But I suddenly remembered the helipad at the hospital behind our motel. Most likely, it was the emergency copter, returning from a freeway accident.
I could have easily taken a few more steps, just enough to see around the corner and confirm that there was no black helicopter. No government agents in suits and sunglasses.
But I just went back inside, closed the laptop, and went back to bed.
All photos by J. Rodriguez Grisham