In the midst of a busy summer, we managed to get away for a short three-day vacation. We didn’t realize at the time what a diverse range of experiences we were in store for in that short time span that would take us from beyond the stars to deep beneath the Earth’s surface.
The New Mexico cities of Carlsbad and Roswell are just a quick hour-and-a-half drive from each other, but they managed to create quite the journey. Roswell, being a three-hour drive from our home, seemed a fun destination that wouldn’t take too much car-trip time, but still seemed far enough away to feel like an actual getaway. Plus, as long as I’ve lived in the area and heard about the infamous “crash site,” I’ve never ventured to see the place myself.
Well, this year, we decided to get our Mulder and Scully sensibilities together and make this quirky little trip just for the sake of enjoying one of the weirder chapters of American history… or folklore.
Although our destination was a look at extraterrestrial pop culture, our trip took us through the town of Alamogordo, home to the New Mexico Museum of Space History and International Space Hall of Fame. The museum not only educates visitors in the history, science, and technology of space, it shows the State of New Mexico’s significant role in the development of the United States Space Program. There are plenty of interactive exhibits to keep busy hands as entertained as busy minds, including astronaut dress-up areas, a shuttle landing game (don’t ask how we did on that), and a platform to feel the vibrations created from different modes of space travel.
Our favorite, however, was the outside exhibits at the John P. Stapp Air & Space Park, which was named for the aeromedical pioneer. It features several full-sized artifacts celebrating the milestones in space exploration. Most impressive was the 86-foot Little Joe II rocket, which tested the Apollo Launch Escape System. Outside also has the final resting place of “Ham the Astrochimp,” the first primate to visit space.
There is no charge to visit the outside exhibits, but there is a separate charge for both the museum and IMAX. A package for both the museum and theater is also offered.
Take a look at Rick’s 360-degree panoramic view of the “Space Park” and the museum’s beautiful exterior on round.me.
The route from Alamogordo to Roswell includes its share of interesting stopping points, including the burial place of another four-legged icon, Smokey Bear, and the well-preserved historic community of Lincoln, the focal point of the infamous Lincoln County Wars for western history buffs.
Then, we hit Roswell!
For those unfamiliar with the “Roswell Incident,” an unidentified flying object crashed in a ranch near Roswell in July of 1947. Long story short, several details turned up, including three small “child-size” decomposing bodies, revealing it may have been an alien spacecraft. In true X-Files form, the government stepped in to say it was actually some experimental Air Force aircraft, and therein lays the continuing controversy. What was it?
What it was was the start of a thriving tourism industry, the now go-to look for aliens (almond eyes, large head, spindly limbs), and the spark that lit the imagination of everyone from stargazers to science-fiction writers.
Nearly 60 years later, that incident provoked a worldwide following of believers and skeptics, comic books, cartoons, novels, documentaries, motion pictures, and television series. It has also brought in millions of visitors and a substantial amount of tourism-based profits to local merchants.
My brother told me when we first mentioned visiting, “if you really want to believe, don’t look too close.” He had great point there. However, we learned fast it isn’t so much about believing whether the incident is true or not, it’s about celebrating the search of the unknown beyond the stars.
The best place to decide for yourself is the International UFO Museum and Research Center. The museum has information on the Roswell Incident, as well as other UFO sightings and history, with photos, documents, artifacts and artwork, and even a sightings log to add your own close encounter to alien lore.
The center’s alien-landing diorama was the most photographed scene, but it really was the museum’s visitors who made it fun. One grandmother was entertaining her grandson with stories of her own recollections of the event. She had a “perfectly normal nurse friend” who was witness to the autopsy, so she said. There was also a group of visitors wearing homemade aluminum foil hats, and having a ball. One even looked like those stylish swan take-out designs they use in fancy restaurants. The whole experience was a blast, and worth the $5 admission ($2 for kids).
This is one city that has embraced its biggest tourist draw. Roswell aliens are represented everywhere, and in some of the most creative ways, ranging from delightfully kitschy storefronts to beautifully rendered works of art. Main Street alone, in the vicinity of the UFO Museum, is lined with gift shops, cafes, book stores, arcades, and other businesses taking advantage of the little fluorescent green men (who we learned weren’t really green, but who cares), with murals and window paintings of alien mariachi, ninjas, jazz musicians, and, of course, stoners. There were wooden aliens, inflatable aliens, and alien-faced street lamps. Even the McDonald’s is shaped like a flying saucer.
One shop which embodied this roadside attraction image best, was the Alien Zone and Area 51. The front part of the store housed a typical black-light gift shop, but for a nominal fee, you can visit its “Area 51,”which is filled with alien-centric photo areas, including a mock-up of a flying saucer crash landing.
Some of these little setups look a little worse for wear, but it isn’t due to lack of business. We had to share the space with at least two other groups taking their pictures with alien bartenders, giant bugs, and little alien grill masters. It was amazingly cheesy, not to mention the fact that the real Area 51 is actually located in Nevada. However, these photos were some of our favorite, most personalized souvenirs of the entire trip.
The lady who worked the counter said you can’t even get near the place on July 4th weekend, when the UFO Festival takes place. She said thousands of people flock to the city for parades, lectures, book signings, alien cosplay contests, and everything in between. We were glad we visited on a non-festival week.
The alien crash may be the city’s most noticeable marketing point, but Roswell was also home to another pioneer in space history: Robert H Goddard. Goddard, who felt as early as 1919 that it was possible to construct rockets for space travel, experimented with gasoline and liquid oxygen fuels, eventually launching his first liquid propellant rocket in 1926 in Massachusetts. It was the ideal year-round climate of New Mexico that drew him to Roswell, and in his 12 years living there, he conducted 56 rocket flights, 17 of which reached altitudes of more than 1,000 feet. Pretty impressive, considering many of these took place in the 1930s.
The Roswell Museum and Art Center, a free museum, includes a recreation of Goddard’s workshop as it was circa 1936. Set in the middle of a pristine art museum with white, sterile walls, you can walk into this dusty-looking workshop, lined with walls of tools and rockets in progress. From the musty smells to the muted light and vintage calendar on the wall, this little detailed trip back in time to the height of Goddard’s innovation was so thorough, I felt like I was back in my grandfather’s tool shed or dad’s garage. It took a lot of self-control not to cross under the barrier ropes, grab a wrench off the wall, and start tinkering with one of the random rocket parts laid out on one of the work benches.
Aliens may or may not have landed in Roswell, but Goddard reached the stars from there.
The next day, we came down from the stars to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Monument, 700 feet below the Earth’s surface. The caverns are actually located outside of Carlsbad in a tiny town known as White City, about a 27-mile drive.
Everything about these caverns impresses me. The formations are gorgeous and varied, and the walkway is well laid out to not only cover the most sights, but to blend with the landscape.
There is an option to take the elevator down to the “Big Room,” an 8.2-acre cavern you could plausibly fit six football fields in, if you were so inclined. However, if you are physically able, the natural entrance down to this room is the best way to go. There’s something both eerie and beautiful about twisting down the descending switchbacks from daylight to darkness, past the black abyss where the bats sleep away their summer days, and into a world where the temperature never changes. Once way from the entrance, only strategically-placed lights help guide the way. There are additional tours of other cavern areas available, as there have so far been 119 caves discovered. However, the main room is impressive on its own, with its the Bottomless Pit and Giant Dome.
It is a pretty good-sized walk, as the natural entrance trail is around 750-feet-long, with another mile around the perimeter of the Big Room. Get there early in the day, bring water (only water, as no other food or drink is permitted in the caverns), and be prepared to take a few breaks if traveling with younger kids.
One of the holdovers from the cavern’s mid-century days is the remnants of its lunch room. You can purchase a sandwich, pick up a souvenir, and mail a postcard from the bottom of the cavern. Yes, there are bathroom facilities in that location as well.
This is one of the most fascinating and surreal natural wonders around. It also has one thing in common with Roswell: visitors from all parts of the globe. This was probably the site everyone in the family got the most out of, and since it is part of the National Park Service, a Junior Ranger program is available for kids to earn a site-specific patch or junior badge after completing age-appropriate content in an easy workbook.
Since we were there during the “Bat Season,” we stuck around for the evening bat flight. This occurs at dusk each evening from around mid-May through October, when the summering Mexican (also called Brazilian) Free-tailed Bats descend from the cave’s natural entrance for an evening of feeding and revelry.
This is a free program, even if you haven’t visited the caverns, and it is just amazing. After the park ranger gave us a laundry list of rules for not disturbing the bats, she entertained questions until the light sun was almost set, and the cave swallows, who swoop around the cave entrance most of the day, almost instantly disappeared. Then, very quietly, wave upon wave of bats began to pour out and fly overhead, some so close you could feel them brush past. If you’re not squeamish about bats, this is an awesome experience. Unfortunately, there are no cameras or any electronic devices allowed, so you’ll have to see this peaceful spectacle for yourself. Early risers can also see them return to the cave at dawn. We did not, since we headed back home that night.
We may have only been away from home for three days, but we returned with heads filled with knowledge, 800 pictures on the old digital camera, some very tired feet, one little green hand-carved wooden alien tiki statue, some new insights in the world and universe around us (not to mention beneath us), and most importantly, some great laughs and memories.
As for the Roswell incident, the validity of the UFO crash is still a matter of opinion, but the adventure and fun is 100 percent legit.