A Place to Crash: Fear and Laughing from Route 66 to Roswell
Story and photos by Ryan Clark
FANNING, Mo. – I’d just stopped by a Route 66 outpost store – you see them along the way if you’re driving west on Interstate 44 – and I needed a drink. Nothing stiff – I don’t roll that way – but I needed something cold. I pulled in to a gravel lot, and to my left I noticed the world’s largest rocking chair. It had to be the largest – it said so right on the front of it in big, bold letters. To my right, on a porch outside the country store, an older couple sat in much more normal sized furniture, sipping what looked like icy sodas.
There was a dry, summer heat in Missouri that day, but I opened the car door and noticed the wind had picked up. It felt to me like a storm could be brewing. I nodded to the older couple and walked into the shop. There were T-shirts and knickknacks and snacks – think Cracker Barrel without the food. A pretty blonde woman looked up from behind a counter and smiled.
“Hi there – what would you like?” she asked.
“Well,” I looked over an array of drinks. “What do you recommend for someone thirsty?”
She nodded: “You need the Route 66 Beer.” She smiled again and lowered her voice. “It’s really just regular root beer.”
“Done,” I said, grabbing one and heading for the counter. “Feels like a storm’s coming. Have you heard a weather report?”
“Let me check,” she said, making my change. She turned around to scan a small television. “Oh – it looks good,” she said. “Don’t worry – all the bad weather looks to be south of us.”
I smiled. “South is where I’m heading. Taking Route 66 all the way to Amarillo. Then going to Roswell for the UFO Festival.” I took a swig of the drink. It was good.
“Oh,” she said, face turning more stern. “Well then, I hope you have fun, but it looks like you’re in for a bumpy ride.”
She was right. I didn’t know it then, but she was right.
I took another swig and walked out the door.
It was one of the few normal interactions in what would become a series of strange encounters with the beings of Earth.
Ever since I was a kid my family has taken car trips for vacation. We drove to New York, Washington, D.C. and Florida, among other places. I grew to love the road. Later, in college, I interned at places like Baltimore and Atlanta, and on the weekends I would burn up the highways. One trip took me from Virginia Beach to Boston, another took me from Little Rock to Savannah.
It was always a dream to travel cross-country. But I’d never had the chance to do it.
Coincidentally, my fascination with the paranormal also started with nightmares when I was a kid. Frequently on those long car trips I could be found reading a book about UFOs or supposed alien abduction. Bigfoot wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. The Bermuda Triangle made the collection.
They all scared the hell out of me – especially the alien stories. While other kids were afraid of ghosts or monsters or Freddy Krueger, I was deathly afraid that aliens would land in my backyard and abduct me. I knew it could happen. I’d watched Unsolved Mysteries.
Growing up did nothing to quell my love for the long road trip or my interest in the paranormal. I’m now a writer, editor and professor just outside of Cincinnati, and I try to focus on projects that allow me to write about what I love.
Last year, a friend of mine and I discussed the possibility of driving out to Roswell, New Mexico, for their annual UFO Festival. (In 1947, something crashed on a farm in Roswell, N.M. Though the Air Force’s story has changed four times over the ensuing decades, their first claim was that they recovered a downed UFO. Since then, the town has become a sort of Mecca for UFO enthusiasts).
To make the trip even more fun, I thought we could take Route 66 most of the way. I could write about it and he could take pictures. Plans were made. Reservations were set. Then, a family illness forced my companion to step away at the last minute. With just days to go before we left, I reached out to friends to see if anyone could go with me. Through no fault of their own each said no, and I expected as much. It wasn’t easy to just leave on a whim.
But I still had to go. Doing things is important to me. I don’t want to be one of those people who say they’re going to do something, then never follow through. Plus, this was a dream of mine. When would I get the chance again?
It was settled. I’d be going alone. Neither my wife nor my mother felt wonderful about the idea. It was a nearly 24-hour road trip. Cincinnati to St. Louis. Pick up Route 66. Go southwest to Tulsa. Then Oklahoma City to Amarillo. Southwest again to Roswell. And back.
And I was going to do it solo. Ready or not, I thought, Wild West, here I come.
Let me make this clear: Just like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. I’ve always wanted to see something I can’t explain. Aside from tagging along on a trip with some ghost hunters (you can read about that here) I’ve never been in the right place at the right time. Never seen a UFO. Never been haunted by a ghost. Never happened to hit a Bigfoot with my car.
So I decided I wanted to see a UFO. How could I do it? Being from Cincinnati I talked with folks at the nearby Dayton Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. It is there that the supposed alien bodies from the Roswell crash were taken, stored in something called Hangar 18. I thought maybe they could tell me.
A spokesperson told me they do not comment on these stories. Never.
I decided to look closer to home. I work at Northern Kentucky University, just a few miles outside of Cincinnati, and we have an expert of our own as a member of the faculty. Dr. Robert Trundle teaches an NKU class on Philosophy and UFOs, and even published a book about society’s response to the possibility of alien life. His book, Is E.T. Here? led him to be named one of the 100 most influential people in UFOlogy by Fate Magazine in 2005.
Another book, The UFO Hunter’s Handbook by Caroline Tiger, told me I needed to do something called a Skywatch – basically go out and look at the night sky. The best time (when the most UFOs are seen) seemed to be around 9 p.m. or 3 a.m., according to the Chicago Center for UFO Studies.
I asked Dr. Trundle to accompany me on a Skywatch. It’s best to have witnesses with you, my handbook said, and I wanted someone with expertise.
He politely declined.
It was then I realized the national home for MUFON was located in Cincinnati. MUFON is the world’s largest and oldest UFO investigative organization. I contacted the President of the organization who was very helpful and put me in touch with a local astronomer who agreed to a Skywatch. Then, over the course of several emails back and forth, he stopped responding to me.
Creepy, I thought. Could the government be monitoring my emails – or my thoughts? – and did they eliminate my new astronomer friend?
It really seemed like the only explanation.
I figured I’d hook up with someone in Roswell for a Skywatch. People still see weird stuff there all the time. Then I’d finally get to see a UFO.
But first I’d have to survive the trip out there.
I’d never been scared traveling on my own. Since my freshman year of college I’d been driving on long trips by myself. I never had any problems. Why? Because I used common sense and was careful. I knew about dangerous places and generally avoided them. I stopped to rest and eat in populous locales.
And I always carried my trusty Boy Scout knife. Had it since I was 13.
But something was a bit different on this trip. I set out with just a small bag, a backpack with my laptop and a bag of snacks and water. I kissed my wife and 5-year-old goodbye and I was off to the desert.
Unlike in past years, I found myself being a little more cautious because now, I realized, I had a lot more to lose. Before, I just had to take care of myself. Now? Well, now I have people who depend on me, so I have to get home safe.
But you can never predict what you’ll run into on the road.
I couldn’t be more different than the characters in Kerouac’s On the Road, yet at the same time I share many of their more admirable traits. While I don’t engage in recreational drug use and I don’t particularly love jazz, I do enjoy every little thing about life. I enjoy traveling and exploring, meeting new people and telling stories. I enjoy putting myself in situations that I know will create stories that I can tell.
Like exploring an old road, one littered with junk shops, museums and eccentric folks.
From St. Louis to Tulsa I decided to get off and explore Route 66, (the now decommissioned road that stretches from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif.). A lot of the road has seen its businesses and motels close due to the traffic bypassing them for the interstate. With a resurgence in interest in the past 20 years, some have reopened, and it makes for a fun trip if you have the time.
Things I enjoyed:
– Random billboards. One simply said “Obama lies.” Another: “Welcome to Uranus, Missouri.” And yet another: “OMG Becky! Look at this ad! It is SO big!” Finally, I saw one with a big bull on it welcoming me to Osage County, which made me think of the play and the movie about Osage County. There was a difference – in the story it talks about August in Osage County. This was early July – but the bull on the billboard did look a lot like Meryl Streep.
– I loved being an adventurous eater. It started with something I never do. In Indiana I ate breakfast at a Wendy’s. I ordered a biscuit with egg and cheese. They gave me a sausage biscuit instead. I threw it out the window and cursed the state of Indiana.
– But seriously, in real adventurous eating, I went to the Cattlemen’s Steakhouse in Oklahoma City, where they offered me “lamb fries.” I asked what those were and they told me: fried lamb testicles. I tried one – it tasted like fried chicken. Or at least the balls of a fried chicken.
– Cattlemen’s should not be missed, by the way. Add Big D’s Downtown Dive in Roswell to the list as well – recently named one of the top 10 burger joints in America. More on that later.
– Meramec Caverns in Missouri. On a hot day you can cool off in the 60-degree temperature of the caves where Jesse James hid from Uncle Po-Po.
– Seeing the boyhood home of Mickey Mantle in Commerce, Oklahoma. Best player of all time? Maybe. From modest upbringing to the Hall of Fame.
– Looking at the scenery in Oklahoma. You can see forever. It looks like a something straight out of Friday Night Lights.
– Seeing the aforementioned largest rocking chair in the world – and drinking a cold Route 66 Beer at the Route 66 Outpost.
– Visiting the amazing and touching memorial to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. There is a reflection pool, as well as a group of chairs representing all the lives lost.
– Seeing the National Route 66 Museum in Elk City, Oklahoma. Learn how the highway was the most hoppin in the country.
– The 75 mph Texas panhandle speed limits. I loved them. But they would screw me over in the worst way. Vicious harpies.
– Visiting the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. You’ve seen them – the 10 Cadillacs stuck in the ground with graffiti all over them? So much fun.
– And while in Amarillo try eating the 72 ounce steak at The Big Texan Steak Ranch. If you eat it all – along with your appetizer and all the fixins – you get it free. I did not try it because I am a sane person.
But those experiences were better than these:
– Cattle Country, more specifically Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, smell like shit. You smell it for miles and it seeps into your clothes. It made my eyes water and could be blamed for my speeding tickets. More on that later as well.
– The tipi people: Along Route 66 you may find people living and selling goods out of tipis – traditional Native American cone-shaped cloth structures. Keep your eye on these folks. One husband and wife pair (not Native American at all, by the way – just plain Caucasian) explained it would be $2 to come in to their place. But if you bought some of their goods they’d deduct $2 from the total. I agreed. I only wanted to take pictures of their tipis. I did, and when I started back to my car the couple ran after me, berating me. Apparently I misunderstood: it was $2 to step on their property. It was my bad. As the woman, a petite, rough-around-the-edges sort who looked very much like she lived in a tipi off Route 66, spewed nasty things about my mother and how I must have been born out of wedlock, I explained my confusion. (The thought also crossed my mind that I was going to be killed and buried under a tipi). Even though the husband was much bigger than me I was frustrated with the shouting and did some of my own. I told him I thought he meant it would be two dollars to go into their shop. I knew I was wrong, but they were totally overreacting. I then paid him and headed back to my car. The man looked at me. “So you don’t want to come in and look around?” he said. I was shocked. I declined, as the woman continued to shout obscenities at me. Irritated, I got into my car. I rolled down the window, and as I sped off I shouted, “I’m glad I got my money’s worth!” In the rearview I saw the man, still scowling, the woman shaking her fist like the old lady in the neighborhood who decided to keep the soccer ball because it rolled into her yard.
– The police can be sketchy. I was pulled over twice in the span of 40 minutes between small towns in New Mexico and Texas. In New Mexico a state trooper was nice as can be and gave me a warning. In Bovina, Texas, a local police officer pulled me over for going 53 in a 45. I couldn’t believe it. A ticket for $161 convinced me it was real. Maybe I shouldn’t have laughed when he told me I was going eight miles over the limit. It just seemed so absurd.
– I ran out of deodorant in Roswell. My thinking: if I’m to be abducted, I want to smell good. So I went to Walgreen’s and got my roll-on. As I walked out I accidentally cut off an old man (I mean old – very old, like close-to-death old) and the only thing I could say was “I’m sorry.” He wasted no time with his response. “You sure are,” he said. I decided to be like Idina Menzel and let it go.
– There’s a state park near Roswell – Bottomless Lakes, and it’s a beautiful place. But the drive out there is through the middle of nowhere desert – like, Breaking Bad, nowhere desert. Every now and then you see a trailer and a fence around it. You wondered what was going on behind that fence. Sometimes folks came out, no shirts on. One guy was holding a spatula.
At once I knew where I would go for my Skywatch. I had to go to the middle of the desert. If there was something weird to see, I knew the best place was the middle of the Roswell desert.
When I got to Roswell I took in the town. With a comic convention going on at the same time as the UFO Festival, it was overrun with folks in alien and cartoon outfits. The festival really caters to the family crowd, so there are parades, costume contests, pet costume contests, comedians, music and booths with any sort of souvenir. I couldn’t help but think how odd it was that such a strange event more than 60 years ago sparked a festival where you can now accompany your little kids to watch fireworks.
Roswell reminds me of a small college town. In fact, there is a school there – the New Mexico Military Institute, along with two movie theaters, a small shopping mall, a slew of hotels and restaurants, a minor league baseball team and a fantastic art museum.
Mostly, I stayed on Main Street, just a stone’s throw from a few of the best things about the town and festival:
– The International UFO Museum. With dozens of exhibits and a massive research library, the museum is well worth the $5 price of admission. Photo opportunities abound, and a gift shop offers a great collection of paranormal literature – as well as jerseys and hats from the local minor league baseball team, the Roswell Invaders.
– The alien costume contest and – even better – the pet alien costume contest. This should be self-explanatory. I will say, it’s one thing to make yourself look ridiculous. But your pet? They have no say in the matter. Uncool, alien pet owners. Uncool.
– The light parade and fireworks. When the sun goes down the lights come on, mostly in the form of a brilliant parade featuring floats lit by blinking lights. Fun for the family. Also, because the festival occurs around July 4, there’s always a great family fireworks display. It shouldn’t be missed.
– The sign contest. Almost every business competes in a sign contest welcoming folks to the festival. I liked Arby’s the best.
– The burger joint, Big D’s Downtown Dive, is well worth the wait for a dynamite burger – rated one of the 10 best in America by voters to the TripAdvisor website.
– People-watching. Some people looked like characters from the Big Bang Theory. Others looked like hippies from another planet. Others just looked like you and me. (Maybe they were the creepiest of all.) One guy told me he’s seen more UFOs in his lifetime than “regular airplanes.” Hmm. Alrighty then. (Note: The Japanese are fascinated with Roswell. Fascinated. There are so many Japanese tourists in Roswell I’m investigating whether or not there’s a Godzilla connection.)
– The sessions. At times fascinating and disturbing, various paranormal investigators held three days’ worth of lectures and presentations on topics ranging from the history of the Roswell incident to a discussion about alien abduction. In the latter, hundreds of people came out to listen to multiple people who claim to have been abducted. Some even brought elementary school-aged children to the talk. It was too scary for them (I knew from experience – they were going to have nightmares), and I noticed after about 30 minutes, the family left.
– I left most impressed with speaker Ben Hansen, the former FBI agent who starred in Syfy Channel’s “Fact or Faked,” where investigators try to re-create or debunk unbelievable paranormal videos. Hansen has used his FBI training to develop a profile sketch of the kind of person who would fake a paranormal experience. More can be seen and heard on his personal website, like how his use of nonverbal queues help see how a person could be lying. The Bill Clinton example is especially fascinating.
Once in New Mexico I emailed three local MUFON members to see if they would accompany me on my Skywatch. Even though I’d seen some strange people along the way, none of it compared with what I wanted to see. I wanted to see a UFO.
All three MUFON representatives turned me down. I understand why. They didn’t know me, just as I didn’t know them. None of us really trusted the others to go out into the desert in the middle of the night.
As I went off to the abduction panel session I realized that, once again, I’d be traveling solo.
And I was a little freaked out.
I thought about this as I listened to dozens of adult men and women describe countless experiences with “greys,” “lizard-men,” or even hybrids. The presentation was appropriately titled “The Abduction Panel.” Yes, it was the opinion of the panel that the world was most in danger of a combined alien and human race plotting to take over the world.
As I listened to their theories, I couldn’t help but wonder if what they were saying was true, or – as Ben Hansen surmised – some of these presenters were fakes, and they just got their kicks by preying on the gullible nature of their followers. For me, I’m open to anything, but I only know what I’ve seen, which is basically nothing, and who I believe – and I am extremely skeptical. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and for me, I just hadn’t seen it yet. I stress yet.
That’s why I wanted to drive out into the desert – and that’s why I was willing to do it, even if I were all by myself. It was about proof.
As these thoughts traveled through my head I focused on Travis Walton, one of the more famous so-called abductees on the panel. Hell, he was one of the more famous people here, period. In 1975, Walton, a logger in Arizona, disappeared for five days and could not be found. The others in his logging group claimed he was abducted by a UFO. When he reappeared, he had an incredible story. It involved being taken aboard a spaceship, probed, and returned. Afterward he wrote a book and a movie was made about his experience.
Immediately, I was a skeptic about his story. I’d heard it long ago and even watched the movie, which to the child version of myself was pretty scary. The weird thing is, Walton is unassuming in public, and almost shy when he speaks. I get the sense he is telling the truth about what happened – or at least what he thinks happened. To top it off, Ben Hansen calls Walton a personal friend.
So – is Walton telling the truth? And did a UFO crash at Roswell? Were the bodies taken to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio? Is the world really in danger of being overrun by alien/human hybrids?
The answer is that I don’t know. But I do know this – I’m not afraid of these possibilities anymore. Here’s what I’m afraid of: I want my daughter to grow up in a world where she can continue to be safe and dream and do what she wants. I want my wife to be happy. I want to continue to investigate the things that make me wonder about everything amazing in the world. If something out there keeps these things from happening in any way, that makes me scared.
As the panel concluded, I stepped out into the setting Roswell sun.
My wife and I have a saying: When you’re young, you’re afraid of things that aren’t real – monsters, the Bogeyman, etc. When you grow up, you’re afraid of things that are – burglars, child predators, etc.
Coming out on this trip alone, and leaving my wife and daughter behind, ignited a real fear – fear of what could happen to them while I was gone and what could happen to me by myself. I knew I had to play it safe, for their sake and mine.
If it meant sacrificing a cool trip out to the desert at midnight, I decided I was okay with that.
I desperately want to see something weird, something I can’t explain, I thought. But I’m not going to do anything stupid to do it.
I got in the car and turned the key. Instinctively, I looked to the darkening sky; I always do that.
But instead of heading out into the desert I turned the other way, toward my hotel. In 10 minutes I would be on the phone to my wife and daughter. I caught them just before they went to bed. It was nice to be able to tell them goodnight.
On the drive home from St. Louis to Northern Kentucky I looked down at the digital clock in the car. It was midnight.
The stretch of highway was lonely. Every now and then the headlights of a passing car would illuminate the other side of the road. Again, I took a few seconds to scan the skies. It was clear, but the only thing I saw were stars. But that was fine.
The night before I’d stopped in Tulsa. It was a night of reflection. My trip was amazing, and I felt very lucky to have been able to make it – even if I didn’t see a UFO. I grabbed a pizza and flipped through some notes before reading the rest of The UFO Hunter’s Handbook.
In a chapter called “Top Ten UFO Hotspots in the United States,” I perused the list. Surprisingly, Cincinnati was on it.
Turns out I was pretty close to one of the major UFO hotspots all along. I wondered if maybe the little green (or grey) guys were hovering over all the time because they were trying to get their comrades’ bodies back from Wright-Patterson.
Either way, I realized I didn’t have to go into the desert by myself to see something weird. It’s all about being in the right spot at the right time. And after all the cool stuff I saw across the country, I’m convinced aliens would want to come for a visit.
I really do believe something strange is out there. Or, up there. And I’ll keep looking until I find it. Maybe I’ll even go out for a Skywatch sometime in Cincinnati.
But I’ll have to tuck my family into bed first.