We left San Antonio just before dawn, chasing darkness into the west while the sun rose behind us. Alex, my sister-in-law, as well as her husband Zach, along with myself and my wife Sara, had packed ourselves into the Ford Explorer with four days worth of our earthly belongings.
Our destination was a small town, hours away by car through desert and plain, modest in scale but made miraculous by history and folklore. This would be our second visit in three years to the legendary sun-baked city of Roswell, New Mexico.
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The drive was uneventful. The weather was clear, save scattered rain showers and the occasional gust. Traffic was light, and we made short work of the long stretches of highway which connect the scattered communities of West Texas. Zach drove most of the way and graciously allowed the rest of us to doze through the remaining hours of the early April morning. There’s not much on the way to Roswell to indicate that one is approaching the proverbial Mecca of American UFO history. Tatum, New Mexico sits just over the border of Texas and boasts a few depictions of flying saucers along its main road. A weathered mural with the caption “Saddles to Satellites” features a cowboy riding a horse towards a radio tower in the distance. I was unable to ascertain the history of the piece, but its proximity and thematic relationship to Roswell gave us pause.
Beyond this, most of what leads up to Roswell is desert, desert, and additional desert, until at last one of the cleverly placed “Welcome to Roswell” signs appears on the horizon.
As you pull into Roswell for the first time you may have certain expectations. Crowds of paranormal enthusiasts lining up for photo opportunities. Art representing UFOs, aliens, and they’re like. Buildings are cleverly branded to take advantage of the city’s storied past. And to an extent, this is what you’ll find. Main Street in particular is adorned with UFO themed businesses of every sort – an ice cream parlor, martial arts dojo, hair stylist, and numerous gift shops. The street lamps which run the length of the road are adorned with black eyes, giving them the look of extraterrestrial archetypes.
The crowds consist of a few dozen people scattered between the museum and the world-famous on-theme McDonalds, which sports recently installed (within the last year and a half) sculptures of archetypal alien greys in various poses.
The crown jewel of the attractions in Roswell is undoubtedly the International UFO Museum and Research Center. For the negligible cost of $5, one can wander the museum’s interior to your heart’s content, and that includes re-entry until the end of the day. What awaits never fails to delight. Statues and paintings and dioramas of aliens, flying saucers, and then some. Mannequins dressed as Men in Black overseeing another mannequin dressed as a nurse performing surgery on an alien grey. A life size statue of Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still. An animatronic UFO surrounded by yet more alien greys that spins lights up and sprays smoke in all directions (this particular diorama was used in the filming of a History Channel documentary about Roswell). The list of cool things to see and take pictures standing in front of in the museum goes on, and presently a new exhibit is under construction (and under wraps).
Zach, one of my travel companions, is a real estate broker, and my own day job is real estate adjacent. This prompted a protracted conversation about the potential for Roswell to flourish economically during the current wave of mainstream interest in the paranormal, and we speculated over what companies might benefit from investing in Roswell to that end, what sorts of television programming may result from it and just how much money might be necessary to give Roswell’s economy a shot in the arm. Selfishly, I just wanted there to be more things to take pictures in front of.
Back on the road and miles out of town, we passed a sign indicating the turn off for Corona, New Mexico. Corona is the actual location of the “Roswell Crash,” a fact I enthusiastically pointed out to the rest of my travel group, who were all asleep at the time.
We made a brief stopover in Albuquerque for dinner. We indulged in some much needed rest outside of the car and stretched our legs as the sun began to set. Then we loaded up and headed north.
Las Vegas is a worldwide destination for many, many reasons. You can drink, you can gamble, you can smoke (and otherwise consume various forms of) marijuana 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can make many decisions in a very short amount of time, and most of them will result in one going broke. You can be photographed with street performers ranging from every genre and brand imaginable, from Vegas cliches to well known characters and many more besides. My interest in the desert haven of self indulgence lay primarily outside the casinos and dispensaries, and my traveling companions were kind enough to indulge me. We descended into the valley at roughly 3 AM and proceeded to the nearest 24 hour Denny’s to recharge. The service was acceptable, and the food was perfect after driving through the night. Staying awake until breakfast produces a special sort of hunger, and Denny’s has a knack for sating it.
On May 15th of 1989, Bob Lazar gave his groundbreaking interview to George Knapp via the CBS affiliate KLAS 8 in no other city than Las Vegas. Perhaps the first interview of its kind, Bob’s stark revelations concerning the alleged presence of alien technology in the hands of the government and only a few hours from Las Vegas sparked an ongoing inquiry which continues to this day. At roughly 4:30 AM I drove slowly down a narrow alleyway up to the current location of the KLAS 8 headquarters and took a few blurry pictures of the station name on the side of the building.
Nellis Airforce Base is interwoven throughout UFO mythology. The alleged residence of the Tall Whites and the stage for the book Millennial Hospitality by Charles James Hall. Purported connections to the Roswell incident, and of course, the operating base overseeing the secretive military facility widely known as Area 51. Being an air force base, Nellis is not open to the public, paranormal enthusiasts included.
“My dad was in the air force when I was younger but my military ID expired in 2006” did not suffice as an acceptable security clearance.
We pulled awkwardly over on the side of the road, dodging early morning traffic, and snapped a less than professional picture of the entrance sign. From here it was a quick stop at a gas station. Area 51 awaited and was a three to four hour drive northwest. After filling the tank of the Ford Explorer (gas is expensive in Nevada, and even before the recent spike in gas prices it required just over $73.00), we drove once more into the desert.
The journey from Las Vegas to Area 51 is a rolling gallery of highways running through deep valleys surrounded by infinite colonnades of green splashed mountains. Vast stretches of rocky near nothing, accented by groves of Joshua Trees, private dirt roads leading into the infinite hills and, at one point, a golf course. It is desert in the most authentic sense, with bits of civilization scattered far apart across the vast frontier.
A few marquee locations were high on our list. The Extraterrestrial Highway sign (of which there are multiple) was our first stop. Shortly after, we parked on the dusty corner of Mailbox Road and Extraterrestrial Highway. I jumped out of the driver’s side door, complained loudly of the cold and wind, and jumped back into the car. Several minutes later I re-emerged, three layers warmer and no less the complainer. Put simply, it was cold.
Likening myself to a video game protagonist completing a sacred quest, I proudly deposited a copy of issue #12 of Paranormality Magazine into the Black Mailbox. The idea struck me shortly after my 18th consecutive hour without sleep, and in the intervening miles, it became something of an obsession. Whether it sits there to this day or has been absconded with by another like minded pilgrim, I would be most excited to learn. If anyone knows whether or not the magazine is still there, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
From here it was back into the vehicle, and after several minutes of shivering and additional complaining, back onto Extraterrestrial Highway. Towards the last vestige of civilization before one reaches Area 51 – Rachel, Nevada.
A small town (population: roughly 50) made almost entirely of modular and mobile buildings. There is a gas station – which has apparently been inoperable for some time – and the world famous Little A’Le’Inn. Equal parts motel, gift shop, and restaurant, the A’Le’Inn has the honor of being one of the only destinations along Extraterrestrial Highway which is a must-visit for the UFO enthusiast. The locals, numbering a dozen or more were gathered in the wide dining room of the restaurant when we entered. They seemed to regard us with a kind apathy – accustomed to random visitors to their small town, and neither put off nor excited by the prospect. There were some smiles and nods of greeting from people whose names we never learned, and the lone visible caretaker of the A’Le’Inn welcomed us with a wave.
There is a wall of autographs to the left of the entrance. Bob Lazar, George Knapp, and many others have graced the A’Le’Inn with their signatures. I was both surprised and glad to find Garret Wang (Ensign Kim of Star Trek Voyager) among them.
Amidst the racks and rows of merchandise – T shirts, hoodies, keychains, mugs, koozies, and so on – my wife Sara located an author-signed copy of the Area 51 & S4 Handbook by Chuck Clark (2019 Edition). The book is crammed with information. Pictures of sensors, barbed wire fences, patrol vehicles – helicopters and land craft – laying out the known security measures surrounding Area 51. A wealth of maps, one of which shows the exact route from the A’Le’Inn to the “Back Gate” was of particular interest. Once more protagonists in our own video game, we’d found the final map leading to our ultimate destination. Now equipped with the Handbook and with our spirits thoroughly renewed (the clean and comfortable bathrooms of the A’Le’Inn didn’t hurt) we forged once more into the desert.
The drive towards The Back Gate runs parallel to Rachel off of the main highway. It is an old, sometimes paved, usually dirt, winding back route seemingly designed to confuse the uninitiated. It is not set up for tourists, and no billboards or UFO shaped displays are present to guide the intrepid explorer. I’ll be honest – after 20 some odd hours on the road, my perception of time was somewhat skewed. The ten miles from Rachel to the notorious Back Gate seemed both endless and abbreviated, and while pondering the abstract nature of the human perception of time, I caught a glimpse of a fence on the horizon.
A long and straight road leads to a chain link fence topped by barbed wire and flanked with cement barricades. A single story guard house on the right hand side, a few storage containers, and signs warning against the use of drones, photography, and trespassing. The Back Gate.
Interestingly enough, no military or government personnel were in sight. No one approached us as I parked the Explorer with its side facing the gate. No helicopters appeared over the hills, no armed men in ghillie suits materialized out of the desert and no experimental military craft fired energy weapons at us from on high. I am not so naïve enough as to believe that we were unobserved, but at the very least our presence seemed to warrant a passive, “wait and see” response. People make this drive often enough that there are blogs devoted to guiding one along the way. But there was still a sense of deep isolation, of near-trespassing, and of a pilgrimage being completed after hours on the open road.
Half delirious for lack of sleep and full of a giddy sense of accomplishment, we watched ghostly clouds roll over freshly snow-capped mountains beyond the outer bounds of Dreamland.
A tremendous thank you to Alex and Zach and Sara for allowing me to hijack a considerable portion of Alex’s birthday trip to Vegas in pursuit of visiting alien-themed locations. It wouldn’t have been possible without you.