What happened in Roswell stays in Roswell

UFO capital of the world perseveres, with centerpiece museum holding its place amid all manner of alien curios and souvenirs. Photos: UFO mania in Roswell

ROSWELL, N.M.--In early July 1947, in a field not so close to this small town, a rancher named "Mack" Brazel found what appeared to be the remains of an alien spaceship.

Brazel noticed a significant amount of metal debris, and a good-size trough in the ground, and so, a couple of days later, he mentioned his finding to the local sheriff.

From that, 60 years of UFO madness was born.

You probably already know many of the theories surrounding the case. Was it an alien crash-landing? Were there dead aliens? Or was it, like the military steadfastly maintained, nothing more than a broken-down weather balloon?

For all these years, the mystery has remained, as has the sense that those who believe in the theory are part of a righteous community, while those who don't are realists among a bunch of crazies.

Either way, the mystery and uncertainty has fed a cottage industry for this small city of 45,000 people in southeastern New Mexico.

There are plenty of other things going on in town, but if you're a tourist, I can't really imagine why you'd stop here if not to see the for yourself.

That's what I came for, at least, as part of Road Trip 2007 through the American Southwest. Was I impressed? I'm still trying to make up my mind.

The thing is, I'm in the group of people who can't decide whether they believe in aliens and UFOs. So for me, a chance to visit the International UFO Museum and Research Center was valuable, as I could see some of the evidence for myself and draw conclusions.

To its credit, the museum does a good job of presenting the available information in a level-headed manner. My take is that it certainly wants you to come away believing there was a UFO, and that UFOs exist, but it also presents plenty of evidence countering that argument.

Now, if you're a conspiracy theorist, you're going to look at the framed newspaper stories on the museum's walls and say, "See, this is just further proof that the newspapers and the government are in cahoots."

I can't say I drew that conclusion. On the other hand, some of the military's explanations for what happened are pretty thin. (For example, at one point years later, the military claimed the events in Roswell happened 10 years after they did, despite ample published evidence to the contrary.)

So, I'm going to dodge the question and not reveal my personal conclusions. Let's just say I'm a cautious believer.

Road Trip 2007 promo

What really struck me, however, was how much one area of this little city is overcome by aliens, UFOs and the commercialization of such.

It's all centered on the museum, in the heart of downtown Roswell, and it seems like for a block in every direction, there's little but souvenir shops, alien-themed cafes and even little green alien footsteps on the sidewalk, heading gradually into one of the curios shops.

The joke may well be on these businesses, however, as the UFO Museum is getting set to move a good way up Main Street. And since it seems clear that most of the UFO tourism is based on the museum and the bet that people visiting it will be inspired to buy alien stuff they encounter on the way back to their cars, well, these shops may be out of luck.

It's an interesting phenomenon: will the moving of the museum kill the cottage industry that has developed around it, or will that industry find a way to move on itself?

Judging from the musty smell inside a couple of the stores, I can't really imagine them moving anywhere, as it looks like they're permanently anchored to their locations. But I see their business drying up as soon as the museum relocates.

I also see as likely the streamlining of the UFO industry here. I bet the new one that develops around the museum will be much spiffier, more expensive and possibly even more corporate. Because that's the way things go these days, isn't it?

After all, drive down Main Street in Roswell and you come across a McDonald's with a big "Aliens welcome" sign painted on the windows. And a Burger King, too, if I recall properly.

I suspect the UFO mania isn't really anything many of the residents of Roswell are interested in. But it's not going to go away anytime soon. There's an annual UFO festival to put on, and an endless numbers of tourists.

And it's an impressive tourist trade, as well. At the museum is a map on the wall, and visitors are asked to pop a push-pin onto the site the map where they come from. The map is refreshed each month (according to a sign), and when I looked at it, it was jam-packed with pins from all over the world. So, clearly, Roswell is a tourist draw, and nothing's going to change that.

I suppose some day, the definitive answer to the mystery may evolve, and we'll either be sure that there was an alien landing--or there wasn't.

Then again, why would we want to know the answer? Mystery is so much more compelling.