Thursday, August 15, 2013

From Tucumcari, NM to Holbrook, AZ: A Saucerful of Secrets

Ever since I first saw Close Encounters Of The Third Kind something has bugged me about the whole UFO thing. Why is it that most supposed alien encounters occur at night and in profoundly underpopulated places?

© Simon Poulter 2013
Surely if extra-terrestrials had the technological ability to travel the vast distances of space, they wouldn't spend their time here hovering over farmland where the only likelihood of contact is with someone named Bubba.

No, they'd be above Times Square, or the Champs-Élysées, or Shanghai, trying to figure out what all those scurrying creatures and flashing bright lights were all about. However, 66 years ago something is believed to have happened in rural New Mexico, which until recently, was one of the main reasons tourists came to this huge, hot and thinly populated state. 

In July 1947, almost two years after the end of World War Two, America was trying to get back to normal again. Despite the economy growing again, the country wasn't entirely settled.

During the summer of 1947 there had been a flurry of sightings of so-called 'Unidentified Flying Objects', "disks" flying through the sky. Some were happy to believe that these were nothing more than experimental aircraft, captured from the Germans and being put through their paces over less populated parts of the US where no one would see them. Post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki, south-western states like Nevada and New Mexico were also becoming important development locations for the American nuclear weapons program. The defeat of Nazism had only, it appeared, given way to the Communist threat. Defence secrecy remained of paramount importance.

© Simon Poulter 2013
In the first week of July, a big thunderstorm over southern New Mexico sent rancher W. "Mack" Brazel out to check his sheep on a farm some 100 miles northwest of Roswell.

He came across what appeared to be metal debris scattered over a wide area. On closer inspection, he was baffled by the unusual properties of the debris. Then he came across a long and shallow trench that had been gouged into the earth.

Showing the debris to a neighbour, who thought he might have in his hand the wreckage of an alien spacecraft - which I'm sure would be everyone's first reaction... - Brazel was advised to inform the county sheriff as, that summer, there had been a number of UFO reports in the United States.

After informing the sheriff, a report of the incident was passed on to an intelligence officer based at the military airbase in Roswell. And thus began a story that soon became the subject of conspiracy theories and counter theories, allegations of cover-ups, of alien autopsies, and, of all the grainy, out-of-focus and possibly faked photographic claims of UFOs over America, the closest we've ever come to the possibility of ET using earth as a convenience stop.

In the spirit of that supposed 1947 visit by little grey men, I have taken a day off from Route 66 and have driven south to see Roswell for myself. I am told not to expect too much, and to be honest, not too much is what I found. The drive from Tucumcari takes almost three hours and is entirely cross-country. In the space of three hours I probably saw no more than 20 vehicles coming in the opposite direction. Rural New Mexico really does have nothing to offer the tourist, whether they arrive by car or flying saucer.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Roswell itself is the largest town in southern New Mexico. It's a bustling community, with the town's UFO-related tourism industry putting money into the local economy that it might otherwise struggle to earn.

As you arrive, you notice little green men everywhere, though thankfully just gimmicks attached to motels and fast food outlets to remind you of what the town is famous for.

Inside the "International UFO Museum & Research Center"the whole Roswell Incident saga is played out, with all sorts of exhibits telling the story of the original find, the official response to it, and the theories about what really did happen, along with a broader collection of items about the history of the UFO phenomenon.

There is a sense of tongues being firmly in cheeks about the whole place, but if it brings people almost 100 miles out of their way to see it, hats off to Roswell for making a buck.

This, then, neatly brings me to the other thing about New Mexico: Breaking Bad. Until it appeared in 2008, the closest thing Albuquerque came to international recognition was being mentioned in Prefab Sprout's The King Of Rock'n'Roll ("Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque!"), and hosting the International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. But now, thanks to the exploits of high school chemistry teacher-turned crystal-meth kingpin Walt White, tourists are flocking to the city in their droves.

Breaking Bad has joined The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men on the list of greatest TV shows ever, the sort of series people will close the curtains for and lock themselves indoors to spend entire weekends working their way through DVD box sets.

And quite rightly too: while mainstream Hollywood focuses on pumping out superhero franchise after superhero franchise, television has been getting on with gathering together the best writing and the most original storytelling. Breaking Bad is firmly in that camp.

Like The Sopranos and The Wire, it is, however, baffling as a tourist boost. The location of Satriale's Pork Store or the Western District of Baltimore are hardly high on the bucket list of world wonders. Albuquerque - where Breaking Bad has been filmed in its entirety - is in the same camp, but has become an unwitting star.

It is, says Bryan Cranston, who plays White, "a sound, solid place that not many people have related to. They’ve seen Los Angeles, they’ve seen New York, but that haven’t really seen Albuquerque and New Mexico."

"People want to come here and see the actual locations where the filming is taking place," Dale Lockett of the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau recently told International Business Times. Despite the city being "less than thrilled" by Breaking Bad's premise of drug dealing and all the unpleasantness that comes with it, the city is now recognising that there are tourist dollars to be made. IBT reports that tourism in New Mexico has been growing over the last three years, with Breaking Bad cited as a major reason.

Thus, you can now take part in guided tours of the show's filming locations, including the White family home and the burrito restaurant Twisters, which provides the real location for Los Pollos Hermanos. Troublingly, you can also find a donut store selling 'Blue Sky Donuts', named after Walt White's bespoke drug, and a brand of bath salts called - wait for it - Bathing Bad.

Route 66, just to return to the premise of my trip, runs straight through Albuquerque, though it's debatable which is the better draw for tourists. Some of the filming locations for Breaking Bad are somewhat more salubrious.

At the point 66 becomes Albuquerque's Central Avenue, you drive for a good mile past endless RV dealerships. This, for those who know Breaking Bad, is highly ironic, given the pivotal plot role Walt White and Jesse Pinkman's RV plays in the series.

© Simon Poulter 2013
For almost 18 miles, Central Avenue/US 66 takes you past more RV dealers, tyre shops, low-end motels and a large number of society's rejects baking in the intense heat.

Eventually you drive through the district of Nob Hill, a once depressed area that has been revitalised by residents, local businesses and community organisations, with restaurants, art and culture on offer.

66 then continues, past the vast University of New Mexico campus, and into the Old Town of Albuquerque, where Route 66-themed diners and burger joints start to appear again.

The run through Albuquerque may not have been the most photogenic, or aesthetically rewarding, but there is a clear effort by the city to merchandise its importance as a key waypoint in the Root 66's journey west.

New Mexico doesn't have the same going for it as neighbouring Arizona, with the Grand Canyon being the daddy of all tourist attractions, quite frankly, anywhere, and what I've seen of it has been mostly semi-desert scrub. But you can see how the journey on Route 66 keeps evolving.

Out of Chicago and into Illinois it was lush, green farmland; Missouri - thick green forests; Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas - vast open prairies. In New Mexico, the scenery becomes more jagged, dryer and less hospitable, and as Route 66 enters Arizona, and you notice signs at rest stops warning the traveller to be on the look out for poisonous snakes and scorpions, it's clear that the long but final leg of the journey through the high desert to California is about to begin.

© Simon Poulter 2013

Tomorrow: Raising Arizona

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