Aztec, New Mexico, with a population of about 6,500, is a tidy community a few miles east of Farmington.
The nearby Aztec Ruins National Monument stands monumentally still. The Aztec Museum and Pioneer Village features such century-ago items as a historic barbershop, antique telephone equipment, various fossils and minerals.
Something else, something much darker, draws tourists to here.
On the night of March 25, 1948, a flying saucer allegedly crash-landed on a lonely mesa in Hart Canyon, four miles distant. There’s a plaque where it put down.
Folks as far away as those who lived in Cedar Hill, 10 miles northeast of Aztec, were said to have heard the crash. But that fact was never verified.
In Farmington, hundreds reported the incident to the Farmington Daily Times. A state policeman debunked by saying the flying saucer was fluff from cottonwood trees. The Aztec tale was suddenly full of holes and hoaxes.
Here’s what came later. Two con men convinced Aztec residents that a saucer had definitely dropped in. That was a fraud, of course.
Nonetheless, Aztec swiftly became a favored spot for sky-watchers and believers from every which way.
A year earlier, in Roswell, in July 1947, a balloon fell smacked into the ground on a nearby ranch. Immediately conspiracy theories took hold as were extra-terrestrials.
As the years went by, Roswell became the king of all those who peered at the heavens thinking they had seen something important.
A 1996 UFO festival, brought Roswell mobs of visitors. A museum and research center dominated Roswell’s Main Street. Ufology turned into a serious subject. Books on the topic suddenly popped up everywhere.
Meanwhile, little Aztec became just a footnote.
And yet supposedly 12 giant humanoids were aboard that UFO. Perhaps 18, maybe 30. The saucer itself was said to be an incredible 100 feet in diameter. Members of the armed forces were ordered to store various pieces of debris and send them to such locales as Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, never to be seen again.
Frank Thayer, an emeritus professor at New Mexico State University, traveled to Aztec to see what the hubbub was all about.
“The military must have used the biggest Bekins truck available to cart away all that stuff,” he told me.
Beginning in 1997, a UFO symposium was held in Aztec. That conference lasted until 2011.
Papers were submitted on such subjects as alien abductions, cattle mutilations and government cover-ups.
Meanwhile, Roswell was experiencing an economic boom. Thus, Aztec became thought of as Roswell’s little brother.
How does one find the Aztec site?
The Visitor’s Center in Aztec is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the phone, I talked to Wilann Thomas, who ran the center.
I asked her what she believed. Her answer: “All those researchers who were here? They’re all graveyard-dead now.”
Seth Finch, a Presbyterian minister in Albuquerque, grew up in Aztec. He and some college friends took a road trip to where Seth was certain the site was located. “It was getting late, so I don’t know if we were near the actual site. It’s a wild place. There’s no signage at all. We went mountain-biking instead.”
In mid-October, my wife and I met up with another couple from Albuquerque and drove along a gritty, gravel road in Aztec for 6.5 miles. Not a single building could be seen, save for oil and gas operations.
I waved to the driver of a pickup truck to stop. “Do you know where that UFO trail is?” I asked.
He shook his head and said, “I been livin’ here 70 years and don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”
I thanked him, and onward we went. We hiked up past fallen cedar branches, and down rocky paths. After four hours of looking, we came to a clearing. There stood the celebrated plaque that had been installed in 2007.
It is certainly not a wall plaque. Rather, it appeared to be a lectern, the sort you might see in a college classroom. A few feet away lay a curious circle of rocks. Were those rocks put there by aliens? I wondered.
Nah, probably not.