I’m standing in a crowd four-deep peering at the first exhibit in the International UFO Museum in Roswell, New Mexico. On the wall, an enlarged headline from the Roswell Daily Record reads, “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer.” Another panel attempts to debunk the Air Force’s subsequent explanation that a weather balloon, nothing more, crashed on a cattle ranch some 60 miles north of here on the stormy night of July 3, 1947. There’s a photo of Major Jesse Marcel, head intelligence officer at Roswell Army Airfield, posing with an extra-large sheet of tinfoil. Today is July 2, 2021. Tomorrow will be the 74th anniversary of the crash. Upwards of 10,000 other tourists, culled presumably from the 65 percent of Americans inclined to believe intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, are expected in town to celebrate Roswell’s 25th annual UFO Fest. New Mexico’s Covid restrictions ended yesterday. The Delta variant has not arrived yet. It’s been exactly one week since the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s preliminary report on “Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon” confirmed that those things we’ve all seen on video making right angle turns at 5000 mph are real, they’re not ours, and no one knows what they are. Of the 144 sightings considered, the report’s authors can explain just one. Without intending to, I’ve packed my curiosity into that mystery about as tightly as all of us are packed into this room. It’s not that I believe the Roswell account, exactly. But I do wonder what might be out there, on one of the 300 million habitable planets NASA estimates to exist.
At the moment, I’m hoping to talk with a real-life UFOlogist, at least six of whom are seated at conference tables in the museum’s center. I can see the nodding, black cowboy hat of “Alien Hunter” Derrel Sims, who is inviting anyone in earshot to his lecture titled “Defend Yourself or Not from Alien Abduction?” A few tables down sits Kathleen Marden, whose aunt and uncle Betty and Barney Hill lived through a well-publicized abduction experience in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I end up talking with Don Burleson, the head of the New Mexico chapter of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON). Burleson is 81, a retired math teacher. He tells me about MUFON’s longtime work to do what our national intelligence agencies have just done, or in Burleson’s opinion, pretended to do: to home in on the small percentage of strange sightings that seem to suggest visits from extraterrestrials. “We at MUFON have always been about hard evidence,” he says. Then he explains his decades spent making Freedom of Information Act requests, through which he claims to have tricked the CIA into confirming they killed Marilyn Monroe after JFK told her too much about jetless propulsion.
For the most part, I’m game to hear it. After a year spent stewing in the too-worldly doldrums of the pandemic—a year that included two semesters of teaching on Zoom where it seemed my students and I did nothing so much as marvel at our disconnection—I made hasty arrangements to stew for two days in the other-worldly. My planning process I attribute to a late-spring, post-vaccine fugue-state in which I needed to populate my calendar with events, to join crowds, and to ponder subjects besides the failings of our democracy, the precarity of my job, and the infection rate in my zip code. Like many others in this room I bet, I’d been longing to be abducted into something—a new story, or hope to stand-up a beleaguered psyche. I liked that Roswell is one right turn, plus 450 miles west on Route 380, from my home north of Dallas. Bottomless Lakes State Park, 15 miles east of the UFO Museum, had one remaining campsite when I made my reservation.
Eventually, after Burleson gives me the soft sell on his self-published books—one on Monroe’s death and one about Robert Oppenheimer’s supposed communications with ETs, I ask him about Roswell itself, a place he’s lived for 20 years. What’s this town like when not obsessed with flying saucers? I’d asked the same thing of two greeters sitting in a tent outside the visitor center. Not much, they’d said. One mentioned the “Hike and Spike” three-on-three football tournament that attracts participants from across the country. The other tidied a stack of “Roswell: We Believe” bumper stickers and said she mostly tried to research other places to visit for her own vacations. Burleson echoes this, but with a twist. “Yep, it’s not much beside aliens,” he says. “Which, when you think about it, is just about the most important event in all of human history.”
On this we can agree. The grandness of the imagined revelation corrodes one’s sense of its unlikeliness. ETs on the White House lawn might truly outdo the second coming of Jesus, but it’s the conspiracies pedaled by people like Burleson, actually, that pull me back to earth, where space aliens remain merely speculative. So how to fill that void? One answer presents itself as soon as I leave the museum, when I’m engulfed by a crowd of tourists donning antenna headbands, queued up to buy cellophane bags of Abduction Beef Jerky from a store also selling space alien bongs. Confronted with the mystery of the cosmos, you can buy a lot of schlocky stuff.
If conspiracy is part of the “warp and weft” of these times, as Hari Kunzru put it in his January Harper’s essay, “On Complexity,” then Roswell makes for a compelling place to visit. Whatever crash-landed near here 74 years ago has spawned a mythology that both predates and participates in the current moment. Take for instance the plywood cutout that I came across just beyond where a herculean ET holds up a Dunkin Donuts sign. The wood of the photo-prop is painted so that it resembles a flying saucer but also a vintage Oldsmobile, and the green ET in the driver’s seat looks a little like Ward Cleaver. The saucer’s license plate reads “Roswell ’47.”
As the photo-prop suggests, in contrast to the child sex-trafficking, reptilian time-jumpers currently imagined by some to control a clandestine global cabal, Roswell’s are a kinder, gentler alien. They are wayward travelers arrived to render the mysterious goofy, their cultural lineage informing ET, Alf, and I-Robot, more-so than Alien, The X-Files, and Q-Anon.
For the length of my visit, I found it refreshing to be unable largely to guess the politics of my fellow tourists simply by observing their status details. On the sidewalk, I meet Bernd Phoenix, a German national who’s lived in Santa Fe since the 1990s. He tells me he’d become a UFO believer in 1987 after seeing lights in the sky as he and some friends emerged from a sweat lodge near Frankfurt where they’d gathered for the Harmonic Convergence. The sight had given him an overwhelming sense of peace that he felt culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall. But then 9/11 happened, and he felt less sure the ETs were looking out for us. Phoenix tells me about his long history of activism against war and nuclear proliferation. He also believes every word of the Covid-conspiracy movie Plandemic and is surprised I don’t share his suspicions. It seems beside the point to ask him Trump or Biden, Fox News or MSNBC.
“What makes Roswell different is that we’ve got the hardware.” This is how another Don—Don Schmitt, director of the UFO Museum—begins the “All Things Roswell” panel discussion. There are about 150 of us, gathered in the UFO museum’s musty conference room. Sharing the dais with Schmitt is Frank Kimbler, assistant professor of earth science at New Mexico Military Institute, also in Roswell. For the audience Kimbler describes “exotic metals” in the form of small debris scavenged from the crash site. “Look, I can’t claim these are extraterrestrial materials, but metallurgically it’s some weird stuff, ok,” he says. “Some of it’s nothing. Ranch crap. Fence bits. But other fragments I’ve got seem aerospace related. And they’re of unknown origin.” He sighs, as if to toss off his scientist’s circumspection. “Alright, alright. It’s an extraterrestrial spacecraft. I have enough to prove that. I mean, I don’t have enough.” What he’s got are some bits of metal that a few labs have been unable to identify. In other words, in Roswell they’ve got the hardware and also they don’t.
The audience mostly ignores Kimbler’s “science.” The UAP report is what’s on everybody’s mind. A middle-aged guy in suspenders asks the panelists what they make of it, and they all dismiss it as a “nothing burger.” Its nine pages pale in comparison to the millions of top-secret documents they believe the government is hoarding. At best it’s a small acknowledgment. Probably it’s disinformation. Charles Halt, a retired Airforce colonel who became a UFO-truther in the 1980s after a sighting near the base where he was stationed, assures us “we won’t know anything until the string-pullers want us to.” And, we have to consider, Halt says, “who is actually running the government. Whether it’s ex-government officials, or something even scarier.”
For a while, the discussion stalls here, with physical evidence that doesn’t amount to proof, and government cover-up so large anything can be imagined into it. But then someone asks, if extraterrestrials actually exist, do we even want to know? Soon we’re on the edge of thought, discussing lifeforms who would seem to possess their own inscrutable reasons for teasing us with their spacecraft. Burleson suggests maybe they’re Jane Goodall and we’re bonobos. We’re reminded of all the fish in the ocean to whom humans are not even a rumor. It may be we’re not ready to know. Schmitt asks us to remember Covid-19-induced toilet-paper hoarding while trying to imagine the calamity of irrefutable extraterrestrial contact. Kimbler says, “If you think Kim Kardashian broke the internet, what do you think space aliens would do?” Would it be a freedom-inducing revelation or another blow to human narcissism? Both? Neither? At any rate, markets would crash. Sovereignty would be called into question. Chaos would ensue.
Here, things take a funny turn. These UFOlogists who’ve spent an hour railing against government secrecy are now making excuses for it. This appears to be their schtick—a schtick they haven’t updated in light of the UAP report. What they have done is lead their audience into consideration of a very human paradox, one in which we scream into the void: We must know! And also, we can’t bear to know!
At this point it occurs to me that the UFO Festival is not so much about a galaxy-hopping lifeform that could zap us from existence in an instant—which, actually, would be a strange thing to celebrate. It is, instead, a celebration of being humans who can think about these things. It’s about imagining oneself as an engaged citizen of the universe, and, in turn, how small our problems would seem if viewed from 1000 lightyears’ distance.
At one point Schmitt suggests it might be that the extraterrestrials are more highly evolved humans who have mastered time travel, but he admits he has no idea of their intentions. This prompts a guy wearing a Yosemite t-shirt to stand and ask, “If they’re so advanced, don’t you think they’re most likely benevolent? I mean, it seems through history like we’re at least trying to move away from oppression. Maybe they’d be further along than us?” The panelists agree, it’s a possibility. Then the guy’s wife stands up. She’s wearing the same Yosemite shirt, and she’s quivering. “Don’t you think aliens are here for their own reasons?” she says. “As for me, I’m afraid it’s the scary option.”
By the end, the discussion becomes a support session for amateur researchers. Kimbler gives a version of a speech I give my first-year writing students, a speech co-opted also by anti-vaxxers new and old: “Get out there and do your own research,” he says. “Do it from multiple angles, from multiple sources, multiple locations.” Burleson adds, “The world of cover-up is as colorful as you can imagine.” Finally, Schmitt rallies us as righteous pursuers of the truth, saying, “If we’re wrong and it turns out this phenomenon doesn’t exist, it changes nothing. But if the skeptics are wrong, it changes everything. We have the most to gain. They have the most to lose.”
Social scientists who study UFO believers suggest that as we become further alienated from our labor and from each other, research into the paranormal offers itself as an every-person’s vocation in which one might create community around the search for greater meaning, the results of which include the cathartic effect of sticking it to the man by demonstrating how decrepit and self-serving the man’s version of reality really is. Space aliens become a salve against alienation. Susan Lepselter, an anthropologist who analyzes stories told in abduction communities, argues that in a supposed meritocracy, stories of the paranormal become a way to express “the hunch it’s not all your fault.” In total, Lepselter claims, these stories allow expression of the recognition that “you are indeed caught in a structural something that extends beyond your own choices.” Meanwhile, through repetition, the sense arises “that an inexplicable synchronicity underlies seemingly random coincidences.” The term for this is apophenia, which is the tendency to perceive meaningful patterns between unrelated things. We’re all prone to this—imagining, for instance, a secret design behind a randomized Spotify playlist. The UFOlogists have mastered it. For whatever other knowledge they’re dispensing, they’re leading a master class in apophenia. Basically, they’re enacting the advice I found most useful when I was a creative writing grad student 10 years ago. The advice comes from the experimental writer Harry Matthews, who claims in his essay, “For Prizewinners,” that “the writer creates the cup and allows the reader to fill it up,” or, in a more pertinent analogy: “The writer creates the night sky. The reader draws the constellations.”
Afterwards, the decoding continues. I walk with a teen and his grandmother who are analyzing Schmitt’s body language, which they found aggressive and ulterior. They’ve noted, as I did, his unexpected morphing into a state-secrets apologist. “What’s he really saying?” says the teen.
“He’s not telling everything. That’s for sure,” says the grandmother.
Back at my campsite, the college kids across from me are trying but failing to respect quiet hours. They’ve drunk too many beers and are having too much fun. They’re not playing music or anything, but the Chihuahuan desert offers nothing to block the noise. It’s midnight and the whole campground can hear their every word. Every so often one will point a flashlight at the sky and exclaim, “UFO!” to which a chorus of voices will ask, “Where? Where?” before bursting into laughter. I spend a moment wishing someone would ask them to pipe down, then consider briefly whether that person should be me, but by the time I’m in my tent, their noise is pleasant accompaniment to the empty night. I fall asleep to the sound of their reunion.
If what the UFOlogists are partly demonstrating is a manner of creative storytelling whose plot-structure helps participants grapple with their real or perceived downward trajectory within American society, then it stands to reason that Roswell’s attempts to monetize tourists’ enthusiasm would chafe at times against the gift economy of conspiracy-theory and paranormal research. This chafing is evident the next morning when I view pictures of the festival’s “Abduction Parade” looking paltry and sad on Facebook. There are some kids with glowsticks, a ragtag drum corps, a couple of lawnmower trailers made into balloon-covered floats.
Several commenters have taken issue with In Depth Events, the Texas firm hired by the City of Roswell to, in the words of In Depth’s co-founder Robert Chapman, “unlock the pent-up economy.” In pursuit of this goal, In Depth Events sold, for $50 each, the opportunity to “Get Abducted.” In this case, abduction meant the chance to don a blue t-shirt and be herded onto a moderately decorated school bus where abductees were not able to see much of anything from the bus’s small, tinted windows. They’d bought, in effect, the privilege to miss the parade while also being the center of it.
After cancelling the 2020 festival, the City of Roswell was determined to make the 2021 festival bigger and more lucrative than ever, in sometimes confounding ways. Leaving the “All Things Roswell” panel, I learned from a Houston couple that this was the first year the city hadn’t closed a portion of Main Street, which had previously allowed the festival to fill the town square with vendors in tents on sidewalks. The decision owed to the city’s desire to expand the festival’s footprint, and was partly Covid-related. City officials doubted the state would approve the closure of Main Street for fear of people congregating too closely. In protest, the Main Street businesses organized their own concurrent “Alien Fest” on the town square, while the official UFO Festival took place six blocks north at the convention center. In essence, out of the desire to have the UFO Festival be, in Chapman’s words, “the first destination festival back from the pandemic’s cancellations,” Roswell ended up with competing festivals: the city’s UFO Festival, whose website was ufofestival.com and Main Street’s Alien Fest, whose website was ufofestivalroswell.com. Add to those the UFO Museum’s “UFOlogist Invasion,” and the city had three mostly unaffiliated events happening on top of each other, with big-draw events such as the Abduction Parade and the “All Things Roswell” panel scheduled at the same time. The shame of it was, by not allowing shops to set up tents on a pedestrian thoroughfare, stores were forced to lure as many mask-less tourists as possible inside their buildings. As one shopkeeper told me, “They took the festival from Main Street and gave it to Texas.”
On my way into town Saturday, I notice that even the streetlights lining Main St. have alien eyes painted onto them. Some are cracked and clouded. They are garish in the midday sun, especially in contrast to the striking, green-painted dome of the Chaves County Courthouse on the town square. There’s a cheapness involved in a place devoting itself to all-aliens-all-the-time. The teens cruising in nitro-boosted Hondas seem over it. I sympathize. It becomes easy to see the whole festival through a lens of post-pandemic, money-grubbing anomie while I squint into the brightness.
Near the town square I speak with Ashlie Davenport, from San Antonio, who’d attended several UFO fests. She tells me she comes for the people-watching and to celebrate “the idea that we don’t know everything.” Where else can you celebrate that? she wonders. But she isn’t sure the sentiment is shared by other attendees. She says, “Years ago I came here thinking I’d find my people. And you don’t. What you find is that everybody’s right until proven wrong.”
It’s an unexpectedly poignant moment, standing and sweating on the corner of Main and 2nd St. Afterwards, I wander the square through a profusion of people donning alien eye sunglasses (two for $10), and eventually through a throng of bros wearing inflatable costumes that make it appear they are being dragged off by puffy, green kidnappers, the sight of which makes me wonder if the latent wish is to be a space alien—or to be invaded by them?
Both are wishes for escape. In the first, aliens are a future us, advanced enough to ditch our busted planet, which of course is in the works already. This summer, NASA’s Mars rover flew its own drone above the surface of the red planet, and in the weeks after UFO Fest, Jeff Bezos launched his penis-shaped rocket from another patch of Chihuahuan desert up into the thermosphere, returning wild with the idea of off-earthing production. It’s not hard at all to imagine ourselves, or our billionaires at least, as the strange visitors encountered by a distant civilization.
The desire to be overtaken is equally undeniable. This strain of thought is evident in the offhanded comment I hear over and over, one that gets an old Porno for Pyros song stuck in my head for much of the day: “We’ll make great pets.” Joking as it is, I file this notion under the heading “The Anxiety of the Conquerors,” a fantasy of experiencing the suffering imposed on Native people and enslaved Africans. Far be it from us to pay reparations or return stolen lands, but perhaps we might assuage our guilt by imagining our own comeuppance. At any rate, it seems downright dissociative to find so many people hoping to welcome space invaders at the same time my home state, Texas, is crowd-funding Trump’s unfinished border wall and had—like other Southern states— recently passed a law restricting classroom discussion of critical race theory.
Midway through the second day, I begin to wonder if the alien-themed kitsch ever rises into camp. That is, does the celebratory silliness ever cross over into a knowing performance that destabilizes the status quo? I can’t say that it does. I do, however, find the fashion choices on display speaking to our collective neuroses. On the town square, I see a few “Green Lives Matter” t-shirts and another that reads, “The Future is Green”—both featuring the same, cartoon alien mug. Both subsume two of our biggest failings, that of racial justice and stewardship of the environment, but do they subsume it into a farce that recognizes the powerlessness of the individual to affect broad change, or into a myopic, reactionary politics that can only sneer at the hope for such change? Essentially, is a Green Lives Matter t-shirt funny in a way that a Blue Lives Matter t-shirt is not, or are their messages almost synonymous? I can’t decide.
So, I focus instead on the concerns the goofy attire elides: sublimated anxiety about handing over superpower-status to China and about sharing resources in a non-majority white United States. Even in this desert town that interstates have missed and whose little airport still doubles as a military base, it struck me as odd that within a diverse crowd of white, Latinx, and a handful of Black families, I couldn’t remember seeing a single Asian-American visitor. Beyond making me wonder about the impact of anti-Asian violence that has spiked since the pandemic, it made me consider the figure of the common space-alien itself, with its upturned eyes, pinpoint nostrils, and muscle-less body—how closely that tracks to racist, Asian caricature.
In its entirety, the tableau on the town square lent gravity to the coincidence that the 1947 crash-landing took place the day before we celebrate American independence. I found it ironic that for 25 years a growing number of Americans have spent their Fourth of July commemorating an event that, if the legend were true, would upend every idea about what it means to be an American, and that while doing so, those same tourists and their UFOlogist tour-guides would wonder frequently, in a fetishized sense, what-all the Navajo might still disclose to their colonial displacers about “star-people.” Once I’d seen enough tinfoil dresses and green face-paint, the whole festival could seem a dance done on the hotbed of historical guilt and fear of the future.
Beside an installation of a crashed saucer on the courthouse lawn, I watch a dad with his little girl, their figures cutting about the same outline as me and my daughter. They both wear patriotic t-shirts. The dad’s reads “USA ALL DAY.” The girl’s depicts a billowing flag, on top of which is written, “America,” and beneath, in curly cursive: “believe in yourself.”
That afternoon, the one place I find explicit connection between the imagined migration of extraterrestrials and the actual migration of humans is when I wander into Roswell’s Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art, for the air-conditioning as much as anything. Inside, I stumble into a room where a stop-motion video titled “In the Woods” is playing. The piece belongs to Wang Chen, a 24-year-old, queer, Chinese artist, who had been Anderson’s Artist-in-Residence for the bulk of the pandemic. Backed by a propulsive drumbeat, the eight-minute video unfolds like a surrealist dream. Strange beings sneak up on one another and then retreat. Some dance together; some murder each other. A large creature in the center watches, seeming alternately to condone and to grieve the proceedings. Ultimately, the piece creates what immediately strikes me as an ineffable backdrop to the rest of the festival as it interrogates the drama and the terror of civilizations bumping together. In a nearby gallery, Brendan Fehr and Majandra Delfino, stars of the television show Roswell that ran from ‘99-’01 on the WB are holding a marginally attended meet-and-greet, leaving me to view “In the Woods” twice through, alone.
Still leery of crowds, Wang Chen didn’t attend the UFO Festival. When I follow-up with them afterwards, they tell me “In the Woods” is both their “most straight-forward” as well as their “most layered” production, less about identity and more about “the fear of no future.” Serendipitously, Chen had mostly completed the piece before arriving in Roswell. When I asked about their impressions of UFO enthusiasts in general, they noted how space aliens are often figured as an unknown curiosity, while human foreigners are presented as fearful competition. “There are aliens in my piece, too,” Chen said. “They’re the scared little ones. In some ways, they are aliens from outer space. In some ways, they are alien like me.”
In the middle of his Saturday evening presentation entitled “UFOs: What has been and what is to come?” Whitley Strieber tells the story of his own abduction experience, which became the subject of his 1987 bestseller Communion. After ET’s had loaded him onto a saucer hovering above a field near his house, where he fought them “like a wild ape,” Strieber describes months in which he felt he was having a mental break. During this time, he tried to convince his wife to leave him rather than explain his insanity. Eventually, in a counseling session, his psychologist said, “Whitley, it sounds like you’re describing being taken aboard a UFO” at which point he began to face what he’d experienced. Soon after that, he told his wife Anne, “Honey, I’m afraid I was kidnapped into a flying saucer by little men.” And she, relieved by his honesty, said, “Oh, thank god.”
Strieber, who presents himself as a UFO-researcher turned New-Age spiritualist, tells this story while projected onto a movie screen via Zoom because American Airlines cancelled his flight into Roswell, and instead flew him home to California. His presentation has so far been scattered and it’s clear he’s working on little sleep. He’s assembled a hasty slideshow and the slides are out of order. Until the anecdote about his abduction, the room had been filled with the feeling that we were about to see a nice-seeming old man punch his computer screen. Instead, he takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes, clearly moved by the retelling. The audience is also moved. Whether or not you accept the details, the story we’ve just heard is one in which a wife’s acceptance helps her husband put his life back together. For Strieber it’s a life in which he claims to enjoy continual contact with extraterrestrials and an ongoing conversation with Anne, who died in 2015 and whose portrait hangs on the wall behind him.
I want to interpret Strieber’s description of his continual contact with extraterrestrials, and, in some ways the whole of the UFO Festival, in this light. I want to see enthusiasm for UFOs as suggesting the contours not just of our fears, but also of a story we long for, one that stems outward from the love of those closest to us and shapes our other dealings as well. This is something like the antithesis of the market economy, which, as Lewis Hyde discusses in The Gift, is based on curtailing relationships in order to encourage the speedy flow of capital. Conversely, amateur research into extraterrestrials is about expanding relationships, both with the subject matter one attempts to recover and to parse, and with like-minded collaborators. In Strieber’s telling, his wife’s acceptance not only saved their marriage, it also allowed him to come into a new understanding of existence. As such he constructs himself in a way Lepselter observes is common to “uncanny storytellers,” i.e. “like a [poet] in the Platonian sense,” not so much in ownership of special knowledge, but “possessed by the muse.”
You can get bogged down in the details about the little grey men with whom he claims to keep in touch, or you can look at the story’s underlying structure and syntax—how even in the telling we’ve just heard, beamed across cyberspace and delivered by a crackling soundsystem, it bonds us to Strieber, so that we’re all kind of like Anne for a moment and it truly doesn’t matter whether we believe his account or not.
For the last part of his talk, Strieber shows a few grainy videos as “indisputable evidence” that the military not only knows about extraterrestrials, but is actively engaged in defensive maneuvers to repel them. He rails against our government that can only view the unexplainable through the lens of a “threat assessment.” To him, disbelief in UFOs is a “cultural problem,” and the government’s secrecy has kept “our best minds” in both the sciences and the humanities from having a crack at it. He asks, “How different would the world’s mythologies read if we could decode previous civilizations’ depictions of other-worldly contacts?” For instance: “How might our view of the Irish’s ‘wee folk’ change?”
The question causes me to have the mirror-opposite thought: That our captivation with UFOs and extraterrestrials equates to a shared, contemporary folklore. Viewed as such, it would seem to keep alive a sense of what we might be, and how we might understand ourselves outside our current economy and outside our current politics. To accessorize one’s body in honor of a speculative, other-worldly intelligence is to imply as much. It is to participate however obliquely in a vision of what we might learn and who we might become if we can move beyond these strictures. As such, it is both dangerous and wrong to allow the far-right proprietors of Q-Anon and Trumpism to co-opt and exploit Americans’ penchant for this kind of questing imagination. Whitley Strieber might be just the crackpot we need right now.
I stick around for the “Abduction Panel,” but the room has grown stale and the people are restless. Outside, Saturday night is in full swing. The same pickup is roaring up and down Main Street. There’s a guy behind me trying to flirt with a woman in a Star Trek dress. The couple beside me have colds and are coughing into their hands. The discussion starts and we’re asked to believe Derrel Sims’ tale of receiving a nasal implant, and then to scoff with him at a little girl’s abduction account because she couldn’t describe the aliens’ feet. Another panelist asks the audience if any of us personally viewed Obama’s birth certificate, by which he means to suggest the enormity of the government’s lies.
“They’re not even telling us their abduction stories,” a woman in front of me complains.
When people begin to leave I join the exodus.
The security guard at the door is watching a bedroom scene from a telenovela on her tablet. Outside, kids on shiny lowrider bikes with balloon aliens attached to the back are yelling at hotrods they like. I watch them execute a stunt where they wait at a crosswalk for the light to turn and then roll out in a slow line blocking traffic. On the square, Latter-Day Saints evangelists are taking down a wooden, astronaut photo prop. Five five-year-olds are dancing to a Prince song blasted from an empty stage. The Public Prayer Request tent is empty, save for the young preacher holding hands with his girlfriend. Mrs. Roswell, wearing a silver dress and her beauty queen sash, is barefoot and breaking down a large tripod in front of an Emergency Services van.
The festival is winding down. All along it has had the feeling of a party you throw but are too exhausted to enjoy. The information booth is full of collapsed boxes. Inside the Civic Center, a couple hundred people watch Chevel Shepherd, 2018 winner of The Voice and a New Mexico native, perform her country songs. Some are in chairs they brought themselves. Most are standing and grumbling that you had to buy a VIP ticket for the privilege of bringing your own chair—another of In Depth Events’ innovations. Outside: No line at the mechanical bull. No line at the anti-gravity ride. Even the police are packing up. A guy dressed as a Sith Lord is the only other person in the nearly empty lot where I’m parked. He thwacks his plastic swords on his plastic leg-guards as he dissipates into the night.
The last stop on my itinerary is a night hike at Bottomless Lakes State Park.
30 minutes after leaving Roswell, I’m handed a red-light flashlight and seated with 25 other guests who’ve paid $15 to walk in the dark. We’re staging in a CCC-built beach pavilion that fronts the shimmering Lake Lea, one of the eight, spring-fed cenotes for which the park is named. About the impetus for tonight’s’ walk, an In Depth Events staffer tells us, “We were hired by Roswell to curate the festival experience, and just really wanted to include the night sky.” Soon, we’re filing out like reluctant summer campers. I’m behind a woman in a “Human Haters Club” t-shirt and a guy from Huntsville, Alabama, with a “Space Camp Educator” patch on his backpack. There are a serviceable number of stars, better than last night when it was overcast, but not clear enough to see the Milky Way, as you can on many nights here on the edge of the Pecos River Valley.
We start down a long boardwalk, and, after venturing a couple hundred yards, come to a darkened hut where waiting for us is not a local astronomer, nor a park ranger, but none other than Robert Chapman, co-founder of In Depth Events. He wields a laser-pointer with the wattage of a light-saber and uses it to point out precisely three constellations: The Big Dipper, Libra, and Cassiopeia. Someone sees a shooting star. The rest of us miss it. We walk a little further before stopping again. Here, Chapman recites the Wikipedia article about the universe that he’s read. Next, we discuss our limitations, given that “we’re in our infancy as space travelers.” These include not having enough to eat while space-traveling, not being able to travel the speed of light, loss of bone mass due to extended time in zero gravity, and the downside of getting really old while traversing great distances. A few responses he extracts from the group. The rest he supplies himself.
It’s not that he’s doing a bad job, exactly. He’s performing like an adequate substitute teacher who manages to prevent a barrage of spitballs. It’s evident, however, he can’t shut up for fear of us not getting our money’s worth, which means also there’s no real chance to look up, no opportunity actually to stargaze. At our last stop, he asks the group to name some science fiction movies we’ve seen, or heard of, or simply know to exist.
We’re far from awe by now. The walk ends, and we’re corralled into a photo for his company’s website. No one seems upset. We smile when instructed and make silly faces on request. The red-light flashlights are ours to keep. “Thanks so much, this was great,” we tell him as we reach the pavilion again. We’re sincere in the context of our limitations. But as I walk back to my campsite, I’m thinking of the end of Strieber’s talk, when he instructed the audience to imagine with him how we might reconstitute ourselves by virtue of new insights into our universe and who we might share it with. “What is on offer?” he asked. “A whole new world if we can take it.”