Day 13. TX/NM: God, aliens, nuclear bomb, hot-tub

by Kevin May

The restaurant was already packed when I came down at 8.15, but there was a space at Jeff and Karen’s table. There was a very obvious cowboy in his sixties wandering from table to table chatting with folks. He came over to pour himself some coffee and Jeff called him over, saying that I had to meet Jim. “What part of England are you from, partner?” were his first words, followed by “London… mmm… London” after my reply. He said that he’d spent some time in “the north of Ireland, fraternizing with the Real IRA”. The alarm that I felt was slightly calmed when he reassured me that he didn’t necessarily agree with their point of view but had been impressed by the way they’d talked about issues.

Jeff and Karen were going down to San Angelo to pick up more stuff and went off to get ready. Jim sat down. He asked me if I knew why Jehovah was referred to as The Lord in the King James translation of the Bible. It seemed a remarkably long shot on his part but, as pure chance would have it, I’d done a degree in Theology and so did have a fair idea. I told him that I thought it was to do with the name being too holy to say out loud and that the precise pronunciation of the Tetragram had got lost over time because the Hebrew word Adhonai had been habitually used since. And we translate Adhonai as The Lord. He nodded, but said the problem was that The Lord was actually a term for Ba’al, an infidel deity.

I swallowed hard. This conversation had come in straight from left field. It was even more disconcerting because his tone wasn’t that of obsessive evangelist. He was speaking like an academic. He then set out his theory of translation and why dictionaries of foreign languages were no good. The problem was that words could not be taken piecemeal and always had to be considered in the context of the living culture from which they came. He then started giving me loads of Spanish examples.

It transpired that he had spent much of his life as a Professor of Historical Anthropology in South America, and had specialized in linguistics. He’d come back to Fort Davis, and now spent his time tinkering with airplanes out on his nearby ranch. In his time he’d made and lost several million dollars, and these days he chose not to encumber himself with owning anything. He had turned over the deeds of his property to his kids, and he just lived there. He also told me that he had imported from South America the first Porsche Carrera into the United States and that the customs folk in Miami had been so surprised that they’d waived the duty. He evoked a strange plausibility that made me believe most of what he said.

Jeff came over to say goodbye. By the time I had said my farewells and got to the till to settle my bill, I was told that Jim had already paid for my breakfast. I saw him outside and thanked him, and he made sure that my car was pointed in the right direction for the best route through Pecos to New Mexico.

I tuned in to the daily news review by Paul Harvey. This was a segment that was obviously syndicated across the country, as I’d heard him before earlier on the trip. It was a digest of all the day’s news from around the localities, delivered in avuncular mid-West tones. Among today’s offerings, I was given a warning about my propensity to listen to the radio at top volume. A man in Cambridge OH had been charged for playing his car stereo too loud. He had been found guilty and the judge had sentenced him to fourteen hours listening to Polka music.

My main objective for the morning was Roswell, famed for its “incident” in 1947 when a weather balloon/spaceship (depending upon whether you believe the government or the conspiracy theorists) fell out of the sky nearby. Since the crash Roswell had become a Mecca for kooks. A flavor of this was given on approach to the town, where a 48-sheet poster announced competitive rates for cremation and casket burial, with the tag-line “Have you ever met an honest mortician?” At the time, I didn’t realize that the whole Roswell story was fuelled by the account of an undertaker who claimed to have witnessed an autopsy of a space alien at the local military base and who then went on to found the UFO Museum and Research Center.

The UFO Museum in question was my first stop. It was one of two devoted to the subject of aliens and was apparently the more credible of the pair. A large space alien was painted on the side wall facing a parking lot. I went into the museum and was told that entrance was free, but that I was welcome to make a donation. I was given a badge, a leaflet entitled “The Truth is Here” and a bumper sticker. “You can put that on the back of your car” the lady said helpfully. “Or if you don’t want to do that, you can put it on the back of the judge’s car, or perhaps your doctor’s.” No doubt Dr. Langdon would really appreciate that back in Paddington.

The museum did have some interesting exhibits. There was a whole section on crop circles and another on the difference between a close encounter of the first, second and third kind. Basically, it’s the first kind if you just think you might have seen something, the second kind if the thing you saw was really close, and the third kind if they stop for tea and swap e-mail addresses with you. I looked around the plethora of photos of UFO sightings and the general paranormal, and was particularly impressed by the shot of the “invisible critter” which amounted to a picture of a piece of road in the darkness.

A fair proportion of the exhibition was dedicated to the events of July 1947, with contemporary records to back up the conspiracy theory. It showed how the official story given by the authorities had changed over a period of a few days. Framed on the wall were a series of quotations from various US Presidents after they had left office suggesting that all of them believed strongly in the existence of UFOs and alien life.

It was the first place that I felt relieved to be leaving. I climbed the mountain road through the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation, paying close attention to the signs with the Cartesian warning “Gusty Winds may exist”. By six I was in Cloudcroft, which looked like being everything that I had imagined Fort Davis to be but wasn’t. There was a wooden walkway with clapboard shop fronts and, critically, people. I went into the grocery store and was mesmerized by the smell. Inside was a bakery that had a constant run of fresh bread, cakes and savories in the oven. It was like something out of a film set for the end of the 19th Century.

The drive back down the mountain to Alamogordo was spectacular, with some of the best views in the whole of the USA. Alamogordo itself nestled on a flat plain and was surrounded on all sides by mountains. I was lucky enough to be passing through just before sunset. I can’t say whether the words exist to describe what I saw but, if they do, I don’t know them. Instead, I’ll have to make do with a pedestrian report. It began with a rainbow, the full arc of which spanned the reddening sky behind the mountains. As the distant rain abated, it gave way to a kaleidoscope of colors that looked more like a firework display than a sunset. Finally the mountains to the west became silhouetted against the sun, while the rest of the plain basked in an ember like glow that gave the landscape a distinctly Martian feel. I had to stop the car because it was dangerous driving along and only spending a quarter of the time looking at the road in front.

Most of the flat plains were now taken up by the White Sands military base. Among other activities, the area was used as a landing zone for the Space Shuttle. And sixty miles to the northwest of Alamogordo was the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was tested in July 1945. It seemed hardly surprising that the place felt other-worldly.

The radio reported that Ray Charles had yesterday played a Labor Day concert in Reno NV. It had been due to take place outside at a stadium that was located next to the railway line. One of the organizers had twigged that a train was due to blow through right in the middle of the gig and had given Union Pacific a call. The response had been a firm “so what?”, until it was revealed that the performance under threat was being given by Ray Charles. In deference to the “great man”, Union Pacific delayed the train until after the show had finished.

A smattering of twilight still blushed the tarmac as I reached the Interstate and stepped on the gas to make up time. I was expected at eight that evening, and it was already 7.30. It took an hour to reach my exit and another half an hour through the pitch black and bats of the treacherously winding mountain road to find my final destination, the tiny silver mining town of Kingston (present day population 128). The “town” itself, although the silver mining capital of the world in the 1880s with the largest population in the New Mexico territory, now comprised just one street, and so it took me several passes up and down the main highway before I spotted the turning. It took me almost as long again to find the Black Range Lodge into which I had booked myself. The modern era had not brought with it streetlights to Kingston.

I walked across the gravelled drive and under the huge tree that shaded the main building. It had an open porch with a couple of upholstered armchairs and I knocked on the door. No reply. I wasn’t sure whether to venture in or just sit in one of the chairs and wait. After a couple of minutes there was a movement of shadows from the darkness within and a nervous-looking woman appeared. I explained that I had telephoned earlier about a room. I had spoken to a very ebullient sounding chap, and must have told him about what I was doing. “Oh, you’re the one who’s doing the crazy journey” and she beckoned me into the lobby. She turned some lights on to show a large hall with wooden beams and stone floor. There were about a dozen doors leading off from the room and a large staircase. Around the edge were a number of sofas and in the middle a large dining table that looked like it was very old and had been made by hand from local timber.

She asked me what I wanted to know. I was a bit taken aback, as I hadn’t even signed in let alone brought my stuff in from the car or been shown to my room. I told her that I was interested in anything that she had to say about living where she did. She launched into a sermon about water being the crucial issue and that there wasn’t enough to support the number of people and the way they wanted to live. She was particularly vexed about the ranchers and my mind went back to something Jeff had mentioned in Fort Davis, about a ranching friend who had given up working the land because it had become more profitable for him to divert the rivers that ran across his patch to sell the water to El Paso. Even Jeff had conceded that this rather screwed everyone who lived downriver and who relied upon that water for their livelihoods. This lady was more concerned about the effects of such actions on the environment.

We were interrupted by the arrival of the bloke with whom I had obviously spoken before. He bounced down the stairs and held out his shovel-sized hand and introduced himself as Pete. He then introduced Catherine, anticipating that she wouldn’t have told me her name herself. He was “dying to find out about my trip” and what I’d been doing. Catherine went off to fetch some coffee and he ushered me to sit down by the dining table. It turned out that she used to be an assistant director in Hollywood and that he came from North Dakota and had lived all over. They were now non-militant eco-warriors, leading a life that was healthy and in line with nature.

Pete didn’t have a particularly high opinion of his home state. With relish, he amused himself telling me that it was the very last of the 50 to allot any public money to the promotion of tourism and that, when they finally had done so in the early 70s, the only thing invested in was a couple of posters at either end of the state on Interstate 94. The one at the Minnesota end read “Welcome to North Dakota. Custer was still alive when he left here” and the one at the Montana end read “Welcome to North Dakota. Mountain removal project now complete.”

They were enthusiastic about the place where they now lived, and bombarded me with stories about the town and its history. The rock was so hard around there that it was impossible to dig graves conventionally. When a body needed burying, they had to sandblast a hole out of the ground. They fetched a stream of books for me to look at, and were keen that I take a couple of volumes of Aldo Leopold up to bed with me.

Their way of life contrasted starkly with that of Jeff and Karen from the night before, and so did their values. They saw no humor when I unwisely recounted Jeff’s observation about shooting coyotes (“If every time any man saw a coyote he shot it dead, then there would still be too many coyotes left”). They were opposed to the ranching way of life, and the degradation to the environment (particularly the irreversible erosion of soil) caused by raising cattle in this part of the world. They were also appalled that the US had not signed up to the Kyoto Protocol “not even to stop pollution, but just to reduce the rate at which it is increasing”.

We didn’t move from the spot until gone midnight, as the conversation lurched from the environment to politics and then back to light frippery. Only after I had finished off the third pot of coffee did Catherine mention that they had a beer somewhere that they could have offered me. My ears perked up but the suggestion was almost immediately withdrawn on the basis that it wouldn’t be cold. Needing something to damage my health, I asked if I could step outside for a cigarette. Pete came with me, still talking in fervent overdrive. A monstrous looking spider was spinning its web in the eaves of the porch, which caught his attention and transformed him into an American David Attenborough. The depth of his knowledge about its species, habitat and lifestyle was astonishing.

Pete wanted to show me the outside hot-tub where they always took a dip for 10 or 20 minutes prior to bed. He told me that I was welcome to join them that evening, and I smiled hoping that the offer wouldn’t be repeated come that fateful hour. I was sure that I had explained that I was a Brit, but he evidently hadn’t grasped that point. I went to the car and picked up my bag and Pete took me up to my room.

It was approaching 1 am, but he didn’t want to go to bed yet. He offered to get his guitar out and play some music downstairs. He asked me if I wanted more coffee. He told me that I could take it with me to drink in the hot-tub. I needed an excuse quickly, and mumbled something about having to darn my suitcase and iron my shoes. When the English reserve card doesn’t work, then play the English eccentric. He seemed disappointed, but made a point of showing me how to get out on the balcony if I needed another cigarette, before disappearing off to join Catherine for a splosh.