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The Truth Is Out There

David Darlington is the author of "Area 51: The Dreamland Chronicles" and "The Mojave" (both Henry Holt & Co.). His last piece for the magazine was on Alaska

Flying-saucer hunting is thankless work, but somebody has to do it if our modernmythology is going to stay fresh--let alone keep feeding us “The X-Files” story lines that may or may not have any connection to reality.

I should know. Recently I wrote a book about Area 51, the top-secret Nevada Air Force base--and magnet for conspiracy-minded ufologists--that I’ve since learned most people think is in New Mexico. (In the wake of last year’s hype on the 50th anniversary of a purported UFO crash in that state, even the New York Times captioned a picture “Area 51 . . . near Roswell, N.M.”) Amid such misapprehension, what’s a clear-eyed, conscientious investigator dedicated to disseminating the truth to do?

You persevere: you don your jeans one leg at a time, consume your Carnation Instant Breakfast and get behind the wheel of your sport utility vehicle with cell phone, laptop, global-positioning system and road atlas. And you keep ferreting out the truth--if not necessarily the facts--behind yet another alleged UFO cover-up.

At least that’s what Glenn Campbell does--or did with me when I was researching my book and he was collecting data for his Web site, www.ufomind.com.

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This Glenn is not to be confused with the pop-country troubadour of “Wichita Lineman” fame (who spells his name with only one N). My Glenn is a modern Everyman--a bald and mustachioed ex-software programmer in his mid-30s who lives in Las Vegas. Five years ago, lured by the legends of a military base that the government claimed didn’t exist, he moved from Boston to a trailer in Rachel, Nev., (population 100), just outside Area 51. He went on to publish the “Area 51 Viewer’s Guide” and escort a succession of reporters to the border of the base, making him largely responsible for that mysterious installation’s household-word status.

Campbell isn’t a UFO believer; neither is he a doubter. Though he exudes the sarcasm of a skeptic, he terms himself “agnostic” on the question of extraterrestrial life. “The field is full of nuts and ridiculous folklore,” he allows, “but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth hiding behind it.”

To that end, Campbell recently embarked on a field trip to northwestern New Mexico to explore the site of an alleged UFO crash. No, I’m not talking about Roswell; that’s in the southern part of the state. I’m referring to a crash that supposedly occurred a year later, in 1948, near the small town of Aztec. The subject of “Behind the Flying Saucers,” a 1950 bestseller by Hollywood reporter Frank--get this!--Scully, the story was subsequently disputed by True magazine, which found that the author’s sources were con men. In 1987, however, another book appeared, penned by one William Steinman and ex-Air Force officer/UFO proselytizer Wendelle Stevens. Titled “UFO Crash at Aztec: A Well Kept Secret,” it went on for 600 pages, insisting that the event had occurred.

As it happens, one of Campbell’s Area 51 informants--a person he calls “Alfred,” a onetime employee at the Nevada Test Site, where nuclear tests were conducted--grew up 15 miles from Aztec in Farmington, N.M., which in 1950 experienced a wave of UFOs witnessed by half the town. Owing to all the above, Campbell determined that the area was worth a road trip--and since I was about to head home from a vacation in nearby Durango, Colo., I decided to tag along.

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If nothing else, it was a chance to visit New Mexico, one of our nation’s quirkier locales; if the crash at Aztec didn’t prove out, the Land of Enchantment still held plenty of other potential for travel-minded conspiracy buffs. It may just be a coincidence that so many extraterrestrial craft have terminated their missions in the American Southwest, but it’s a decided sightseeing bonus for people who want to believe.

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In the course of an hourlong drive down U.S. Highway 550 from Durango to Aztec, I detected a distinct vibrational change. The alpine grandeur of Colorado, a skiing-hiking-mountain-biking paradise, has spawned a predominantly Caucasian civilization; by contrast, the Hispanic/Indian heritage of New Mexico has a funkier, more down-to-earth feel. Almost as soon as you cross the border, you begin to perceive the inescapable fact that the place has soul.

I rendezvoused with Campbell at one of the less spiritual spots, albeit one that has seen its fair share of alien visitors: the Chamber of Commerce, near Pizza Hut. He got out of his Toyota 4Runner wearing khaki shorts and a white T-shirt bearing an image of a mushroom cloud above the words “Los Alamos--The Atomic City.” He proceeded to brief me on the story we were about to investigate.

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Turns out that, compared to Aztec, Roswell was small potatoes. Whereas that mother of all crash cover-ups “produced” only a couple of alien bodies, this one involved 16. Aside from that difference, the tale follows the classic pattern of UFO-conspiracy folklore: A disc-shaped craft was recovered intact; security was ratcheted to tourniquet level; debris and corpses were removed by the military and all evidence of the crash eradicated; the bodies were autopsied; a top-secret program was created to study and duplicate the craft’s technology. Sound familiar?

Campbell had brought along a copy of “UFO Crash at Aztec,” whose jacket displayed a photograph of the site we were seeking. It wasn’t what you’d call distinctive: A brown rock cliff dotted with pinon pines, it could have been almost anywhere in the West. The book, however, located it in Hart Canyon, five or six miles off Highway 550 northeast of Aztec. Campbell had marked the spot on a U.S. Geological Survey topographical map. What was more, he had the aid of GPS: a global-positioning system computer, now popular among people who need to know exactly where they are.

“Right now we’re at 36.82503 degrees north and 107.99664 degrees west,” Campbell disclosed. “Our elevation is 5,749 feet, plus or minus 170. The computer tells us our position on the planet after a few seconds of searching, during which the clip-on roof antenna is looking for a satellite--four satellites, actually.” When we got in the 4Runner and rolled out onto 550, this wallet-sized package of wonders also told us our direction and the speed we were traveling. As we drove, it drew a little map on a matchbook-sized screen, tracing our path.

We made our way north, searching to the east for the Hart Canyon road. Various nondescript dirt routes departed from the highway at intervals, none of them mentioning the place by name. But when I suggested that we ask for directions, Campbell responded, “No. We’re men. Our goal is not to find the solution, but to find how to find the solution.” In a sense, this summed up his entire attitude toward UFOs.

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When it became clear that we’d gone too far, Campbell pulled over to study the old-fashioned road map. The curves on U.S. 550 exactly matched those that had been traced on our GPS route from Aztec; hence, using the human controls on the GPS, he marked an electronic X on the screen at the point where the map said the road for Hart Canyon should be. As he turned around to drive back toward town, I kept my eye on the computer, which began tracing a second line parallel to the first; when this latter line met the X, we looked across the highway to see a dirt road numbered 2770. Campbell turned east, confident that we were now on our way. “Of course,” he admitted, “real men wouldn’t use GPS, either.”

A set of brown bluffs appeared on our left--rock cliffs quite similar to those on the cover of “UFO Crash at Aztec.” We drove slowly, trying to match the terrain with the jacket picture. Soon enough, we saw the same configuration of ledges and boulders portrayed on the book. Between us and it, however, was a network of tanks and pipes fenced off by “No Trespassing” signs announcing the authority of various oil and gas companies.

“Steinman interpreted this drilling as government secrecy,” Campbell said. “You have to admit that it’s awfully convenient to have an oil-storage facility here; that way the area is already disturbed. Obviously those ‘tanks’ are there so they can put the saucers directly down in.” Scrutinizing a vertical air vent, he added: “Underground bases need ventilation.”

He was, um, kidding. Campbell has a curious ability to entertain farfetched ideas while parodying the mentality that hatched them; on the other hand (witness the present expedition), he lends such questions enough credibility to investigate them firsthand.

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We continued past the tanks to an intersection in the road; turning left, we ascended onto a low plateau just behind the cliffs. Campbell parked and we got out. It was colder here than it had been in Aztec. He donned a navy-blue watch cap and camouflage coat, then started walking in the direction of the cliffs. The ground was sandy and rocky, interspersed with grass and rabbit brush. Along the edge of the pinon forest was a dilapidated wire fence, half-heartedly supported by sagging posts.

Campbell stopped to study a patch of dirt. “Can’t you tell from desert pavement how long it’s been undisturbed?” he asked. He was referring to the layer of gravel that binds the surface of a pristine desert; unfortunately--whether because of cattle grazing, oil development or extraterrestrial visitation, the three most common uses of American public land--this desert was far from pristine.

“Boy,” he said, looking around. “When they cover something up, they really do a good job.”

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We got back in the car and drove through hart canyon to rejoin 550. Next stop: the Farmington Museum, a brick-and-stucco building in a tree-shaded part of town. As we entered, an elderly woman at the door asked: “Are you here for the World War II exhibit?”

“No,” answered Campbell. “We’re here for the UFOs.”

“UFOs?” asked a young woman behind the register.

“Yes,” he said. “There were a number of sightings here in 1950. Do you have any information on them?”

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“Lordy, no!” exclaimed the young woman. “I had no idea.”

She went to make a telephone call, saying she would ask someone about the UFOs. When she returned to report that she hadn’t found out anything, Campbell gave her his card and asked her to send whatever she turned up. Then we high-tailed it out of town, just ahead of the men in black that she’d undoubtedly alerted.

Campbell’s Area 51 informant, “Alfred,” had told him a different story from the one that Steinman and Stevens circulated about the 1948 crash at Aztec. Alfred insisted that it occurred northeast of Farmington and northwest of Aztec--not in Hart Canyon. He said that his supervisor at the Nevada Test Site had participated in the crash cleanup, from which only four bodies were recovered, not 16. Alfred hadn’t provided any clues as to the exact location, but Campbell wanted to drive out and take a look at the area.

When we did, we uncovered yet another departure from reality. “X-Files” episode #49--"Anasazi,” in which Agent Mulder discovers a bunch of alien corpses buried in a boxcar--happens to be set in Farmington, N.M. Series followers will be aware that this episode, like all “X-Files” episodes, was filmed in Canada--where, it turns out, a Southwestern red rock effect was achieved with a coat of paint.

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Aside from the usual narrative liberties, there was one problem with this representation. As Campbell and I penetrated the Farmington back country, probing beyond the squat, trailerlike homes on the outskirts of town, not only did we fail to find any evidence of a UFO crash, we also failed to find any red rock. In other words, our favorite TV ufologists made up a phony Farmington landscape to match the Southwest of popular imagination. The truth is out there--sure enough!

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Campbell intended to hang around Farmington and Aztec for a few more days, talking to people and doing research in the archives of the local newspaper. I, for my part, had to return home by way of the Albuquerque airport. This enabled me, however, to continue the investigation en route. I began by driving east from Farmington through the town of Dulce, 90 miles away and 1,000 feet higher.

After an hour or so on U.S. 64, I rounded a bend and beheld the scattered dwellings of Dulce (population 3,000), backed by the looming specter of Archuleta Mesa. This large massif, just north of town, is one of the most portentous landforms in conspiracy folklore--a veritable hotbed of alien abductions, saucer sightings and cattle mutilations. Legend has it that one canyon conceals a replica of the Sphinx; more notoriously, the mesa itself is said to contain a multiple-story subterranean facility--a bioengineering lab controlled by EBEs (extraterrestrial biological entities) who are collecting human and bovine DNA to create earthling/alien hybrids. At one time, the story goes, this project was jointly run by the EBEs and the CIA--a corrupt deal designed to exchange extraterrestrial technology for living research specimens. At some point, however, a disagreement resulted in the deaths of 66 American personnel. After that, the interlopers came and went as they pleased--specifically through doors in the side of the mesa allowing the ingress of flying saucers and their hapless biocargo.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time (or guts) to explore Archuleta Mesa. Anybody could see, however, that the place was exceedingly ominous. It had a suspicious-looking tower on top, with an enormous dirt road curving up the mountain to reach it; some curious souls have driven up there and spent a night without seeing anything, but--duh--it goes without saying that secret operations would cease if civilians were in the vicinity.

On the other hand, the local Jicarilla Apaches are said to have seen a lot of weird stuff. Therefore, in the Best Western parking lot, I asked a passing Indian if he knew anything about the UFOs.

“No,” he said. “But have you checked out our casino?”

Next stop: Los Alamos.

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Los Alamos National Laboratory is, of course, where the atomic bomb was developed during World War II under the clandestine cloak of the Manhattan Project. For perhaps related reasons, it is also believed to be the headquarters of the entire UFO conspiracy. During the postwar flying-saucer craze--the era of Aztec, Roswell, et al.--this place was home to many of the most brilliant minds in science, as well as being designed for secrecy and located smack in the middle of mucho saucer crash sites. Doesn’t it stand to reason, therefore, that it would serve as the brains of the covert UFO operation?

Just before my trip, a man named Robert Collins (said to be the real identity of “Condor,” an informant featured on the TV documentary “UFO Cover-Up--Live”) announced on the World Wide Web that, in the early 1980s, certain “alien artifacts"--presumably debris from Roswell--had been moved from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to an underground facility at Los Alamos. Collins said that, according to an anonymous “retired Air Force lieutenant colonel,” the material was brought in through a bay door at the bottom of a canyon adjacent to Technical Area 33, in the most remote part of the complex. Quite conveniently, the site borders Bandelier National Monument, site of an ancient Anasazi ruin. Its primary public campground practically overlooks the area, making it an irresistible stop for any touring conspiracy theorist.

Los Alamos is on the Pajarito Plateau, a couple of hours southeast of Dulce and 30 miles northwest of Santa Fe. The city has the lowest unemployment rate and highest average household in-come in the poor state of New Mexico--a somewhat predictable circumstance, seeing as how it’s a company town run by a national defense laboratory. Today much of its weapons work has been turned to the concomitant task of nuclear-waste disposal (or so they’d like you to believe). I learned this at the Bradbury Science Museum, near a terrific Cold War bookstore that complements museum exhibits on techo-marvels of the late 20th century.

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The Pajarito (“little bird”) Plateau consists of several fingerlike mesas extending outward from downtown Los Alamos. I took circuitous State Route 4 to reach Bandelier National Monument and Technical Area 33, skirting the ponderosa-pine-filled environs of Santa Fe National Forest and the higher Jemez Mountains to the west. This was certainly a scenic setting for a top-secret laboratory; Los Alamos even has a hiking-trail system navigating its back country, allowing one to thread one’s way around off-limits areas. Just remember not to ignore the “Keep Out” signs: Even if you don’t find a UFO, there’s always the chance of kicking up some radioactive dust.

TA-33 is located at a hairpin turn on Route 4, on top of a mesa extending south to the Rio Grande River. Established in 1948 as a firing site for “artillery fired atomic projectiles,” it’s now designated a “multi-use experimental science zone.” The entrance is bordered by a chain-link fence lining the two-lane road, but its gate did not appear to be guarded. Its most prominent feature was a huge satellite-dishlike antenna. Reportedly attached to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory Very Long Baseline Array radiotelescope, it looked suspiciously like something out of the movie “Contact.”

Lacking a high-level security clearance, I proffered my national park pass to enter Bandelier, whose main road parallels Chaquehui Canyon--location of the secret entrance to the alleged underground complex. This “sensitive” area did not, however, seem very “secure.” On this side of TA-33, an open pine forest extended across a broad and level plateau; Chaquehui Canyon, which separates the lab from the monument, started out as a shallow ditch but grew steeper and deeper as it plunged toward the Rio Grande. It was protected only by strands of cattle-quality barbed wire, bearing signs that warned “Danger--Explosives.” It seemed far too rough and narrow to allow the construction of a transport road for any “artifacts,” alien or otherwise. Nowhere did I detect any soil disturbance to indicate past work.

Sunset was fast ap-proaching. I followed the public road down to the Bandelier visitor center in Frijoles Canyon, where I had barely enough time for a walk through the ruins. Compared with the Anasazi dwellings at Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon, this was a relatively low-key site, appealing in its accessibility and lack of crowds. Some of the ruins themselves had been carved from the side of a volcanic cliff, with a network of steps and ladders leading from one cave to another above a central kiva. Frijoles Canyon was probably the ancient boundary between the Tewa and Keres people, who farmed and hunted in this stream-fed canyon for four centuries until--like other Anasazi tribes--they mysteriously packed up and abandoned the village. This, of course, presents ripe fodder for energetic “X-Files” scenarists.

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Lo and behold, as night descended, I did see a super natural event. In the twilight, at the far end of the ruins, something that looked like a cloud emerged from the cliff. Undulating over the treetops, the vaporous mass looked downright alive--and for good reason. It was an airborne river of bats: thousands of flying mammals embarking on their evening hunt. It was the most amazing extraterrestrial phenomenon I witnessed on the trip.

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My last stop was Kirtland Air Force Base, which once served as airport during the Manhattan Project and is hence a focus of conspiracy folklore. I had to pause at a visitors entrance to tell a security guard my destination; when I did, he told me to keep driving “until you see the missiles.”

The National Atomic Museum--the place displaying said missiles--opened in 1969 with the purpose of “preserving the history of nuclear science and presenting it to the public.” It’s operated by Sandia National Laboratory, which engineered the bombs that Los Alamos physicists designed. In light of this relationship, it isn’t surprising that the museum’s main subject is weaponry. Wandering through its open rooms, I beheld:

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--a copy of a letter from Albert Einstein apprising President Franklin D. Roosevelt about the power of uranium and his fear that the Germans were developing a nuclear weapon.

--the energetic visages of Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, and Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb.

--photos of the Bikini and Eniwetok atolls in the Pacific Ocean, poisoned by atmospheric testing.

--"Ten Seconds That Shook the World,” a 50-minute black-and-white movie made in 1963 by David Wolper, recounting the development of the Bomb and culminating in the destruction of Hiro-shima and Nagasaki.

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UFO legends fit hand in glove with this disquieting history, down to dates and places and people. For example, 1947--when the Air Force and CIA were created--was also the year of the crash at Roswell, which happened to be home base at the time for the world’s only air squadron authorized to drop nuclear weapons. Edward Teller--a.k.a. Dr. Strangelove--is himself reputed to rank high in the “Majestic 12" organization charged with administering the UFO cover-up; anyone doubting the credibility of this claim need merely contemplate the man’s initials.

It shouldn’t come as a major shock that a cult of secrecy, science and mortality should feed the parallel idea of a plot to conceal a confounding technology of mysterious origin. Nor does it require much insight to know why its major nexus is New Mexico, where culture and geography themselves conspire to inflame the imagination. Truth is a subjective phenomenon, to be sure--but in the land of enchantment and enshroudment, post-Cold War reality is even more complicated than the scheme to cover it up.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Guidebook: Making Contact

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Getting there: Southwest Airlines flies nonstop from Los Angeles to Albuquerque, the most convenient airport to fly to when visiting northern New Mexico. America West, Delta and United airlines have direct flights to Albuquerque. The best way to explore is by car; you can rent one in Albuquerque.

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Where to stay: Los Alamos and Farmington are fairly large towns with a good selection of lodgings. The Farmington Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 448-1240 or (505) 326-7602, can help you find a hotel. Dulce has fewer amenities, but there is a Best Western, (505) 759-3663. Rate: $80 for a double.

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What to see: The Aztec Public Library, (505) 334-3658, https://www.cyberport.com/aztecpl, is sponsoring a symposium May 25 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the alleged UFO crash near Aztec. Lectures, panel discussions and histories are scheduled. $25 preregistration, $30 at the door. The Farmington Museum, 302 N. Or-chard Ave. in Farmington, (505) 599-1179. Free admission. The Bradbury Science Mu-seum, (505) 667-4444, is on the corner of 15th and Central in downtown Los Alamos. Free admission. Bandelier National Monument, (505) 672-0343, near Los Alamos. $10 per car to enter, $10 per night to camp. The National Atomic Museum, (505) 284-3243, is at Kirtland Air Force Base, which is adjacent to Albuquerque International Airport. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for children.

For more information: New Mexico Department of Tourism, 491 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, N.M. 87503; (800) 733-6396 or (505) 827-7400, fax (505) 827-7402.

To reach Farmington and Aztec, take Interstate 25 north about 15 miles to New Mexico Route 44, then follow it northwest for 12 miles to Bloomfield. From there, N.M. 544 goes eight miles north to Aztec, while U.S. 64 leads west 13 miles to Farmington and east 60 miles to Dulce. To get from Dulce to Los Alamos, drive east on U.S. 64 for 27 miles to Chama, then south 80 miles on U.S. 84 to Espanola. From there, N.M. Route 30 leads south to N.M. 502, which goes west to Los Alamos. Bandelier National Monument is reached via N.M. Route 4, which loops south from Los Alamos and N.M. 501/502.


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