PHOTOS BY NICK GERLICH

It’s one thing for a city to realize it’s not all that bad being a pass-through town, because there’s still plenty of money to be made from the standard touristy things like gas, food and lodging. But it is quite another when a pass-through town takes the alien by the spaceship and decides it wants to become a destination city.

That place would be Roswell, New Mexico, the city of 48,000 that has chosen not to worry about whether the UFO legend surrounding the area is true, but rather has embraced it for all it is worth. Those aliens—real or not—have been a gold mine. Roswell, with its UFO Museum, numerous alien statues, and much more, is a short 215-mile trip southwest of Amarillo on Highways 60 and 70.

The legend, known as the Roswell Incident, dates to 1947. As the story goes, a spaceship crashed nearby. Debris found in a field was declared by the U.S. Army to be from a flying saucer, but they later reclassified it as from a weather balloon. Skeptical minds weren’t having it, though, and the story grew from there. Conspiracy theorists were in their glory. 

It didn’t help matters that we had just entered the Cold War, with World War II in the rearview mirror. The true story goes like this: The government’s top-secret Project Mogul had started launching thousands of weather balloons from Alamogordo Army Air Field. The balloon’s purpose was to detect the sound waves caused by Soviet nuclear tests. On June 4, 1947, the air field lost track of a balloon train; one ultimately came crashing down on Mac Brazel’s ranch between Roswell and Corona.

Brazel found a debris field littered with large pieces of foil, rubber, tape and wooden slats, which could quite easily be explained as components of a weather balloon. He kept his finding secret for a while, until he learned of the flying saucer mania that had swept the nation by storm—the result of breathless news reports and sightings of aircraft with other-worldly capabilities. Brazel put two and two together, and contacted the Roswell Army Air Field, who sent someone out for a look-see.

At first, the RAAF issued a press release saying it had found a flying disc. Big mistake. Then they packed up the debris and sent it off to Fort Worth Army Air Field, even telling a flight engineer that it was a flying saucer. A Roswell radio station then read the press release over the airwaves, which unleashed a torrent of phone calls from fearful citizens as well as other media outlets. The alien was out of the bag, so to speak.

Suddenly the Army Air Base found itself in the middle of a media feeding frenzy, and hastily called together a press conference. They tried to walk it all back, stating that the debris found was from a weather balloon, all the while not divulging details of Project Mogul. Unfortunately, it’s hard to walk back anything of this size, and the machinations of conspiracy thinking had been set loose on an American populace convinced they should fear the Russians. It’s just that they also concluded they should not trust their own government.

Starting the next year, flying saucer hoaxes popped up with alarming regularity, and often centered around Roswell. These included tales of recovered alien bodies from a crash near Aztec, New Mexico, as well as the fictitious Hangar 18, ostensibly located near Dayton, Ohio, which contained extraterrestrial aircraft and bodies recovered from Roswell. Other conspiracy theories followed, as well as a cottage book industry nearly as popular as JFK assassination theories.

Not one to look a gift alien in the mouth, Roswell has made itself the alien capital of the world, going so far as to host a UFO Festival each July. People from coast to coast converge on Roswell mid-summer, attending parades, parties, UFO seminars and touring the crash site north of town. It’s a hoot. The festival—and its 40,000 visitors—generates north of $2.2 million in direct economic impact. Not bad for something that may or may not be true. 

The Roswell Incident has also vaulted the city into the pop culture zeitgeist. First, it inspired the book series Roswell High. From this came two television shows, Roswell, which started in 1999 with 61 episodes over three seasons, and Roswell, New Mexico, which started in 2019 and spanned 52 episodes.

Regardless of whether you believe in aliens or flying saucers, there’s probably nothing better that could have fallen from the sky to benefit a place like Roswell. Weather balloon or not, Roswell is now on the tourism map, worthy of its destination town status a half-day’s drive from Amarillo.

And other cities are green with envy.  

Nick’s Picks

The International UFO Museum & Research Center is a must-see. Some of the exhibits stretch the imagination, but it is still all done tastefully.

Be sure to watch for aliens everywhere. Just like Amarillo has horse statues, Roswell displays aliens of all shapes and sizes (though all maintain vaguely humanoid features). Businesses have woven aliens into the tapestry of their corporate identity, including chains like McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts.

The Spring River Park and Zoo features native animals and an antique carousel, but no aliens.

South of town along US 285 (Southeast Main Street)—beside the northbound lanes—is the Welcome to Roswell roadside attraction. It features a large, cut-out spaceship with human and alien figures standing in front, and makes for a great photo op.

There are many old neon-era signs throughout town. My favorite is the Crane Motel, featuring a—you guessed it—gigantic sandhill crane. These aren’t alien to the region.

The Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art and Roswell Museum and Art Center provide opportunities to enjoy southwestern art.

Cattle Baron, Peppers Grill & Bar and Martin’s Capitol Cafe are among the many locally owned eateries. The usual fast-food suspects are clustered along US 285 on the north side of town. You won’t go hungry in Roswell.

Back toward Amarillo on the north side of US 70 are the ruins of the Old Frazier Schoolhouse. It’s worth a quick stop. The Frazier Cemetery is a short walk to the west. Frazier, and its companion settlement Acme on the south side of the highway, were both bustling until WWII, then practically dried up. 

On the return to Amarillo, stop in Keene, a long speck on the road with a large, abandoned gas station. This was once the intersection of the Ozark Trails Highway, a dirt road coming from Texas, where it met what became US 70. Closer to Portales, Elida is a much larger ghost town, with several abandoned structures to photograph.

Fuel up before you travel at a convenient Pak-a-Sak store location in Amarillo or Canyon.

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  • Nick Gerlich

    Nick is Hickman Professor of Marketing at West Texas A&M University, where he has taught since 1989. He led the College of Business in their transition into online teaching in 1997, and has taught more than 125 online courses since then. In his spare time, he travels around the country, including his beloved Route 66, in search of vintage signage and other outdoor advertising. He can be found on Instagram @nickgerlich.

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