Bouncing down dirt road towards Fort Sumner and the “real” grave of Billy the Kid the morning was far behind me.
The sun was directly overhead when I stepped out of the car into the hot New Mexican sun. There was no humidity in the air, it was just a good hot heat that lets you know exactly where you are. A museum stands in the middle of a dirt lot. Behind in the grave site. The museum charges a fee, and didn't seem to offer much. A small path leads you behind to the cemetery. Four or five plots sparsely populate the grass – Mr. The Kid's is obvious from first glance.
An iron cage contains two tombstones. The first, a large white stone which has deteriorated over the years stands prominently. But it's not the original. It was created in the early twentieth century. The smaller stone, in much better condition, proclaiming that, “he died as he lived,” is the original. And the reason for the cage.
The stone has been stolen and returned more than once over the years – and now stands protected. Well, kind of. The stone is close enough to the edge of the cage, and thin enough that anyone who really wanted to could still grab it with some effort. There's a lesson here – if you are famous or notorious get a bigger stone. Or – be happy that yours is one that warrants theft. There's something to that too.
Two hours out of the way, I had driven along roads – small and large – to see this stone. Some might wonder why. Do I even care about this person? Not really – I don't know that I'd have even known about him if not for the school project by Ted Theodor Logan, and William S Preston. Still – it's an important part of American culture and what's the point of being on a road trip if not to drive way off course to see one thing of little importance. The drive alone was worth it.
From the moment we entered New Mexico, crossing over at Farwell, Texas and Texico, New Mexico the country changed. We were no longer free in the country, but rather lost amongst the small towns that lined once great highways. It's strange to think of the power roads once had for determining community placement. It's the type of power that fast food chain, McDonald's now seems to wield. Most of the shops have long since closed down. There are more boarded up doors than open ones. The world is a blend of oranges and yellows and reds, except when it falls into darkness – the sun blotted out by the oppressive shadows of grain refineries – the only reason for the few thousand people still living here to stay.
One mile outside the town limits, green grass returned, a landscape unlike anything I'd seen since Africa. An hour passed along the one lane roads which split the ranches one from the other. The horizon was painted with red rock splitting the land from the sky; the view in the rear view mirror matched exactly what I saw before me. Two hundred kilometers without a gas station – the south west is no place to fool around. It wasn't until Sumner that we could replenish our dwindling supplies.
Waking up in Amarillo we made sure to fill our tank along 6th street – part of historical route 66. One time, the road to drive through the country, little authenticity still remains. What once was great, is now a ghost – and must be pieced together by travelling many streets, research required to make the journey that only a few decades back was the way to see this proud land.
Not all of Americana has abandoned the old route, however. Down on I-40 between exits 60 an 62 lies the Cadillac ranch. Even after the sun had set, last night, cars still pulled up. This morning, with the sun just rising into the sky, shadows stretching out across the barren field, there were dozens collected. Once the motorcycle club decided to move on down the road, the ranch cleared – but there would still be a continuous stream of people to check out the ten cars shoved into the ground, growing like brilliant flowers of all colours.
It's tradition to bring your own spray paint here. Everyone adds their own touch making the piece a constantly changing thing of beauty. Empty bottles an coloured caps litter the area, which leads to the question – who cleans up this area? Someone must otherwise the ten caddies would be buried in filth.
Girlfriends proclaim their love on the hoods of these beasts, while others simply splash the vibrancy around. Under the golden light of the low sun these testaments to the strength of Americana are things of beauty – but I couldn't stay forever. We were headed to Roswell New Mexico.
That was the plan, anyway – until the woman working the Texico information center pointed us out towards good ol' Billy. When we left there, hours were still required on the road. It's unfortunate that I feel the drive is beyond description, or were it to be described it would be so cliché as to take away from it. It has been one of the greatest drives I've ever had the luxury of undertaking.
Two hours – two gas station-less hours – and we entered Roswell. You'd have to be a fool to miss the fact that something had changed. It's one thing to not see the town line sign. It would be another to not notice the UFOs that cover the town. The local Wal-Mart is emblazoned with an extraterrestrial image. The loans centre has a ship on its sign. McDonald's is covered in images of space. Aliens fill shop windows, even if they're just music stores. The street lights are Martian faces. This type of nonsense I have not seen since the Dinosaur obsessed town of Drumheller Alberta.
First stop? The visitor centre to get our picture taken with little grey beings. Then down Main Street to the UFO museum and research centre. The admission is five dollars – and normally I'd not pay for the delight of coming here, but... I came to Roswell. Why was I here if not for this one museum?
Inside were sworn affidavits by witnesses and the family of witnesses. Information about UFOs around the world, and all sorts of pictures. There were a number of things worth seeing, but none that were presented any better than they would be on the internet. In fact, the gift shop sells Majestic hand books that have simply been downloaded and photocopied – and for this high quality piece they charge – twenty dollars.
But in a town with only one real thing making it stand out from the rest of the country they need to take advantage of whatever they could.
When you exit you can put your entrance sticker (that which lets you access the museum) on a metal space man. I can't imagine that this is a good thing to encourage though, as – if you know – you can just go grab one of the stickers from the street and walk on in. The only catch? They have different stickers for each day. But, just wait for someone to leave, and then all will be revealed.
Outside, back on the street, Coke machines have pictures of little green men drinking soda. and I have to wonder, do locals hate the aliens, love them, love them but pretend to hate them, or hate them while pretending to love them?
One last thing laid before us – taking the road out of town you could drive around the airport where old passenger jets lay discarded, chopped up for parts, and looking like something from a post apocalyptic era. Who knew there was more to this town than just downed space ships and ongoing tales of government conspiracies?
...There also happens to be a zoo here. A free zoo. But the less said about that, the better. It's one of those sad terrible places, where two mountain lions pace back and forth in a small cage, beside a bean wanting nothing more than to escape his small cell. Even the bald eagles, symbols of American freedom, find themselves caught, cramped, and contained. This is not a happy place – many of the visitors can be overheard remarking as such.