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Sunday, October 5, 2003
Stops Along The Outer Limits
By Toby Smith
Of the Journal
When you're packing for a road trip into the continuum, you can't take chances.
When you're getting ready to solve such mysteries of the universe as If there are flying saucers, why aren't there flying cups? you want to bring along the right stuff.
This road trip would be the Great Unidentified Flying Object Grab Bag and Galactic Getaway.
A cosmic boondoggle?
The journey would eat up more than 900 miles and consist of four major stops in New Mexico, plus minor breaks to let loved ones know I had not yet been abducted.
Hypothetically, the trip's purpose was to gather, in one large loop, much of this state's great UFO heritage. But like any road trip, there would be detours and diversions.
Simply put, my loop turned loopy.
Early on I discovered that one of the joys of tracking the extraterrestrial is getting sidetracked.
Pass the ketchup, please
It must have been a full flight.
Theorists believe the spacecraft that supposedly rammed into a mesa north of Aztec on March 25, 1948, carried 14 to 16 aliens.
"What did they all come for?" I ask Leanne Hathcock. She directs things at Aztec's UFO Information Center and Gift Shop, three little rooms of interstellar bric-a-brac, including a mothership made of tinfoil and Christmas ornaments.
Hathcock, an energetic woman who also runs Aztec's public library, blames the crash on a mechanical problem. But it's my guess and any road trip makes you an instant theorist that this avocado-headed football team became distracted. So sharp were their olfactory senses, they smelled into the future.
What they smelled was Tiger fries.
At the intersection of Main Street and U.S. 550, up a bit from the tinfoil ship, stands the Aztec Restaurant, a rambling building that lays out good roadhouse grub. The specialty at the Aztec is french fries. Not the flaccid fare that emerges from drive-throughs, or the soggy curlicue jobbies pitched at state fairs. These are far, far better.
These fries are, in fact, outta this world.
"It's the Idaho potatoes," Tim Nyce, the Aztec's owner, whispers to me as I square up to a plate of the stringy things.
Nyce buys Idahos instead of Colorado spuds, even though he pays a little more for them. It's worth it, he says, because Colorado potatoes hold more sugar, which makes them more susceptible to burning.
Tiger fries named for Aztec High School's mascot are served unseasoned, unsalted and, of course, unsinged. A single order contains one whole Idaho potato.
To keep those Tiger fries fresh, after every dozen potatoes the Aztec changes the oil in its deep fat fryer.
Nyce started as a busboy at the restaurant when he was 12. He's now 33. As a youth, he heard rumors of a UFO landing close by, and a couple of years ago he visited the designated crash site, adorned now with a spiffy marker set on a post.
"Did it happen?" I ask him. Did aliens really touch down in the Four Corners?
"It's possible," says Nyce, who chooses his words carefully because he would like to keep feeding UFO buffs. If truth be known, though, the Aztec's steadiest patrons are locals ranchers and guys who drive oil and gas rigs and who keep their hats on when they jab into their Tiger fries.
One more theory: The 14 to 16 aliens said to be strapped into Aztec's UFO allegedly were carted off in secrecy to Los Alamos Laboratory for the requisite alien autopsy. It turns out, however, that a mass autopsy couldn't be done because the tiny victims were too damaged. They were, it seems, burned to a crisp.
Just like those Colorado potatoes.
Welcome to UFOville
Many of life's most profound questions can be heard along Roswell's Main Street. At the street's far south end, I have one of those questions for Priscilla Romero, who manages UFO Space Storage.
"What would it cost," I ask her, "to stash my saucer in one of your units?"
Romero fires me a weary look that suggests I am about as creative as a Xerox copier.
With a tight smile, she sighs, "And the dimensions?"
Instead of embracing aliens, like so many folks in Roswell, Romero wishes the city's UFO had done a U-turn. Though she was born here in 1949, two years after the Roswell "incident," and has spent her life in Chaves County, Romero has never been to the UFO museum and has one word for the whole, unremitting hubbub: "bogus."
"Why in the world would spacemen want to come here?" she says, swinging her arm in the direction of a tanning salon/ beauty shop called Totally Clips.
At the other end of Roswell's main drag, between 1st and 3rd Streets, lies "UFO Row." Here you can find eight UFO-related businesses, and enough T-shirts on sale to clothe the nation of Latvia.
There is controversy: The UFO Resistance HQ, whose born-again owner rails against the evils of saucer-lovers, stands directly across Main Street from the International UFO Museum and Reseach Center the Smithsonian of the three-finger set. The two organizations get along about as well as India and Pakistan.
There is craziness: The Alien Corner, which hawks an alien fetus in a jar, takes up nearly half a block. The geegaw mart shares space with, of all things, Amador Bail Bonds, a 24-hour service whose door is decorated with a walnut-eyed critter behind bars.
I'm suddenly faced with one of those nagging shopping dilemmas. The alien fetus in the jar goes for $21.95. That seems high. Should I buy it? A bright-red, eye-catching "Radioactive" sticker on the top of the jar ultimately causes me to reach for my wallet.
But first I have a profound question for the owner of the Alien Corner: Do you take Space-Travelers Cheques?
Trying to get a leg up
The UFO that many believe crashed on July 7, 1947, plowed not into Roswell soil, theorists say, but into Corona.
It's true, and the 285 residents of Corona know it.
For a while, this forgotten fact bothered Corona's citizens, especially each summer when thousands of tourists clogged Roswell. The Corona Trading Co., the village's only grocery, used to sell some UFO lollipops to meet the Roswell spillover, and the town's single cafe talked of serving up X-Files Burgers, but never did.
Corona eventually realized it could not be the draw that Roswell is, so it stopped trying. While spacious inns have sprouted along Roswell's Main Street of late, the Corona Motel, all eight rooms, is still the only place to stay in town.
But missing out hasn't stopped one Corona man from trying to spark his own boom.
Floyd Proctor, a grizzled 67-year-old, was born in Corona but left to work highway construction and weld pipelines. In 1994, Proctor returned with an idea that he thought would ease him into a comfy hometown retirement.
He would raise ostriches.
Ten years ago, the big bird bug was biting everyone. Fertile ostrich eggs were going for $1,000.
Proctor unloaded a piece of land he owned in Bloomfield and bought 16 ostriches. That quickly grew to nearly 60.
Then, just as fast, the fad laid an egg. Proctor has five birds left, and he can't give them away. He ate many of his birds himself, often chewing ostrich fajitas three times a day.
Floyd Proctor's parents and brother played roles in the Roswell incident. Floyd could have spun some big yarns about what happened back in '47, and made some big bucks.
Instead, he lost $80,000 on ostriches.
"I ain't upset," Proctor says. "Oh, I guess the notoriety Roswell got could have boosted Corona. But I like these little towns the way they are."
With its Audrey Hepburn neck and popover eyes, an ostrich, I suddenly realize, looks a lot like E.T.
I decide not to tell Floyd Proctor.
That's what the main character howled in the 1974 movie "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore." The uncomplimentary line won't go away just like the city's supposed UFO.
Back in 1964, a Socorro cop named Lonnie Zamora said he glimpsed a rutabaga-shaped spacecraft getting ready to lift off from an arroyo on the south edge of town.
There were two small figures standing alongside the craft, Lonnie swore, and they had on shiny white jumpsuits.
Lonnie Zamora's account made all the papers and Look magazine, and it's recorded in a bunch of UFO books.
As a law enforcement guy, Zamora had a rep as solid as an oak. But eventually Lonnie quit talking to the media and the Star Trek sniffers. Enough was enough; he had grown embarrassed describing something nobody could explain.
In lieu of interviewing Zamora, I yearn to see a memento, like a Roswell T-shirt, or a plaque, such as Aztec's. But out in Lonnie's gully only the bare bones of the long-closed Sierra Vista Drive-in Theater greet me.
The city's Hammel Museum, which specializes in late-19th century history, an era when flying saucers apparently were quite primitive, offers no help. Nor does Larry's Texaco Station on South Highway 85. Larry's used to have hanging on a wall a framed, souvenir front page of the Socorro newspaper from April 1964. But Larry sold his gas pumps and when I quiz the new owner, he is left scratching his scalp.
So what to do? At the Socorro County Chamber of Commerce, on the town's plaza, I stumble on a merry little gray-haired woman, who turns out to be the best keepsake of all.
Sally Haigler witnessed that '64 UFO.
Sally says she was sitting in her living room, out on Lopezville Road, one evening nearly 40 years ago with her husband, Curley. The couple were watching television when Sally glanced out the window toward M Mountain and noticed a lot of blinking lights.
"I saw this thingumabob go right up the mountain and there was nothing between us and that mountain except except air," says Sally. "'That ain't right,' I thought, so I elbowed Curley and he looked up but heck if he knew what it was."
By the following day, almost all of Soccoro knew.
"Everybody and his cousin went down to that arroyo and trampled everything," says Sally. The curious uprooted greasewood purportedly charred by the craft, and scuffed over nicks the vehicle supposedly left in the soil.
"There weren't nothin' left," says Sally. "Nada evidence."
Curley, Sally recalls, wished he'd taken a photograph that night but he didn't, so there are no pictures, either.
Is Curley around? I ask.
Sally, who giggles a ton when she talks, suddenly turns serious. She divorced him two years after that and never saw or heard from him again.
Good humor surely helped Sally, who is 71, get through her split-up and a subsequent tangle with cancer. Most weekday afternoons she volunteers at the chamber office. "What's my title, Lavern?" she shouts to a co-worker, laughing. Her job is to tell tourists that, nope, she doesn't know where any Spanish doubloons might be buried, and yep, the Econo Lodge has smoking rooms.
When chamber visitors ask her about the 1964 UFO, Sally Haigler, who saw the thingumabob, lets out a giggle and once more gets ready for liftoff.