Boldly go where only the brave have gone before in this otherworldly slice of southeast New Mexico.
A few years ago, I wrote an article about a tiny town of 700 people in southwest Colorado called Nucla that had just passed a law requiring a gun in every home. When I arrived on their stoplight-less Main Street, people immediately knew who I was. “You must be the reporter,” they said. At first wary that my press pass automatically meant I’d make them out to be gun-crazed hicks, the townsfolk soon warmed to me, intent on telling the story of their forgotten town and how passing such a wild law could, just maybe, help them be remembered.
This kind of unflinching pride is why I have a soft spot for small Western towns. In big cities like Phoenix, we assimilate, blending into beige suburban sprawl and slipping into anonymity while stuck in daily traffic jams. We neglect to nurture our uniqueness. Small towns, on the other hand, fully embrace their eccentricities and hardiness. Such brazenness, I think, deserves respect.
Roswell is such a town. Though not all that little – closing in on 50,000 people with all the trappings of a “real city” like Target and Red Lobster – it certainly feels small to this big-city gal, like a quiet, dusty time capsule straight out of the 1950s. Plus, in how many cities does the Republican mayor willingly join a journalist for a friendly dinner instead of hiding behind a “no comment” public-relations screen?
“This is one of the last vestiges of the Wild West,” Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh tells me. Kintigh – an alumnus of the University of Arizona and longtime FBI agent who worked narcotics around the country before being stationed in Roswell and serving two terms in the New Mexico House of Representatives – describes why, out of a long list of cosmopolitan cities he’s called home, including Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., he chose to stay here: the tenacity of the people. “In Roswell, there’s oil, agriculture and art,” he says. “It’s a weird combo, but you have to be bold and take risks to succeed in all three.”
More aligned with the conservative oil fields of west Texas than the rest of traditionally blue New Mexico, Roswell, admittedly, isn’t much to look at. When I go during a rare cold snap in December, the groves of pecan trees are bare and stark, and there are no cacti or green shrubs to break up the monotony of rolling brown terrain. Walking off the plane onto the miniscule tarmac at Roswell International Air Center, the harsh wind and sun burning my eyes, I wonder how the hell I’m supposed to spin this place.
Later that day, talking to the director of one of the town’s world-class art museums, I find my answer. Nancy Fleming, co-director of the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art, explains the charm: “Roswell is like a geode – it doesn’t look like much from the outside, but crack it open and inside there’s a lot of gems.” Turns out like most small towns, I only had to talk to the people to be charmed. Herein, I crack this strange place open and see what gems spill out.
American Airlines flies one nonstop, round-trip flight a day between Phoenix and Roswell. Tickets start at $121 in February. flyroswell.com
Gem 1: Aliens
Mayor Kintigh prefers to respond to the “alien stuff” Roswell is best known for with a quote from the 1962 John Wayne Western flick The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance – “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Essentially: Who cares whether or not aliens crash-landed in a field just outside of town on July 1, 1947? Actual UFO or weather balloon, as the military claimed… either way, it put Roswell on the map.
Jim Hill, executive director of the International UFO Museum and Research Center (114 N. Main St., 575-625-9495,
roswellufomuseum.com) echoes this same aw-shucks skepticism. “I thought it was real weird,” the Roswell native says when the museum board first approached him to come out of retirement and take over. But now, he says, “I think something did happen – not sure about the aliens, but what I have learned is that something happened and the government covered it up.”
Regardless, the UFO museum is the town’s No. 1 draw, attracting more than 212,000 people from around the globe in 2017. In addition to exhibits on the Roswell incident, other UFO phenomena and accounts of alien abductions from around the globe, the museum boasts a well-stocked library and research center on UFO literature and media. (The gift shop is also a hoot.)
Hill says he estimates the museum has had a $60 million impact on the area and, as such, he’s spearheading a three-phase remodel starting this spring. He also wants to parlay the museum’s success at attracting international visitors into reviving Roswell’s old downtown. Judging from the Martian-shaped street lights and flying saucer paraphernalia strewn across town, aliens may just save this place, believe it or not.
Gem 2: Art
While New Mexico as a state is well-known as a haven for artists (Georgia O’Keeffe, Andrew Dasburg, Ansel Adams, et al), most of the credit goes to the beautiful northern towns of Taos and Santa Fe. But don’t let all its alien corniness fool you – Roswell is a serious art town, too.
Inside the Roswell Museum and Art Center (100 W. 11th St., 575-624-6744, roswell-nm.gov/308/roswell-museum-art-center) you’ll find a valuable collection of paintings from Roswell’s prodigal art son Peter Hurd, whose egg tempera paintings, watercolors and dark lithographs capture the matchless, ethereal light of solemn New Mexican landscapes and ranches in the ’30s and ’40s. There’s also a planetarium and the re-created workshop of Robert H. Goddard, who built and tested the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket in nearby fields.
Rotating exhibits are stocked by grant-funded artists in the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program (rair.org), which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017. Known for giving visual artists the “gift of time,” RAiR allows grantees to live and work on a communal ranch for a full year. Brooklyn-based miniatures artist Rachel Grobstein sculpted nightstand tableaus of inch-high Kleenex boxes, centimeters-wide retainers and miniscule pill bottles for her exhibit, When I Close My Eyes, on the ranch. “The sky thing is for real,” Grobstein says of the impossibly blue, domed sky on the range. “It’s a pretty unique, amazing experience to be here.”
Less than a mile away, the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art (409 E. College Blvd., 575-623-5600, roswellamoca.org) houses art from previous RAiR program artists. Founded in 1994 by Don Anderson, the oil man, philanthropist and artist who established RAiR in 1967, the museum walls are packed with art from more than 240 artists. See outlandishly large polychrome fiberglass sculptures of Western scenes like a terrified cowboy roping a frothing, red-eyed bull from Luis A. Jiménez alongside soothing pastel landscapes from the founder himself.
Gem 3: Noshing
You won’t find any Michelin-starred chefs or James Beard Award winners in Roswell – at least, not yet – but you can successfully avoid Big Macs and Blooming Onions in favor of something much tastier and far homier.
For breakfast, order the warmest, fluffiest homemade biscuits at Cowboy Café (1120 E. Second St., 575-622-6363, thecowboy.cafe). Have ’em smothered in gravy, or do as I did and smear lots of strawberry jam on top.
Lunchtime is best for New Mexican food. You’ll find traditional green chile on most menus in town, but I’d recommend getting it on the chicken and cheese chilaquiles at Los Cerritos Mexican Kitchen (2103 N. Main St., 575-622-4919, loscerritosmk.com), or in the posole or atop a cheeseburger at Martin’s Capitol Café (110 W. Fourth St., 575-624-2111, martinscapitolcafe.com).
Fancy lattes (with almond milk, no less) and scratch-made lemon-blueberry muffins can be found along with comfy couches at Stellar Coffee Co. (315 N. Main St., 575-623-3711), where I’m told plans are underway to convert the back room into Roswell’s first microbrewery.
You’ll find the mayor and his family eating dinner at Pecos Flavors Winery (412 W. Second St., 575-627-6265, pecosflavorswinery.com), which boasts a wide assortment of New Mexico-made wines you’ll have trouble finding anywhere else in the country. Try a glass of the winery’s own Compadres Cabernet Sauvignon, which pairs well with the bistro’s pork loin and, hands down, the best apple cake I’ve ever had.
Gem 4: Caving
As stated previously, southeast New Mexico is one big expanse of brown. But beneath all that dirt lies something pretty spectacular. Literally.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park (727 Carlsbad Caverns Hwy., Carlsbad, 575-785-2232, nps.gov/cave) is an hour and a half drive south from Roswell. Though not the largest cave in the U.S., Carlsbad’s intense decoration of stalactites, stalagmites and other rock formations may make it the prettiest. Formed 265 million years ago as an undersea reef, the cave now resembles a massive, dried-out coral bed.
The basic tour through Carlsbad Caverns is self-guided (highly recommended audio guides can be rented in the visitors center for $5) and takes you on an asphalt-paved trail that zigzags down, down, down into a dark, gaping hole near the parking lot. The 1.25-mile trail spits you out 755 feet below the earth’s surface. Marvel at how warm and humid it is – about 56 degrees Fahrenheit year-round – while traversing another 1.25-mile trail of ghostly dark tunnels, the drip, drip of rain droplets that have made their way underground over a period of months sounding your way.
Walking along the edge of the show-stopping Big Room – 8.2 acres of giant rock columns growing from the floor and hanging from the ceiling that glow golden from the soft artificial light – I think of the Native Americans who ventured into this great unknown more than 1,000 years ago with only fire to light their way, and the tough settlers who peeked inside despite seeing thousands of bats rushing out of the entrance like great billows of smoke in the 1800s. Mayor Kintigh’s words echo back to me: You have to be bold and take risks to make it in the West.
There are plenty of comfortable budget hotel options in and around Roswell, but why not try something with a little more panache that captures the spirit of this strange land?
Clary Sage Bed & Breakfast
Lovingly restored from a historic 1914 home by a husband and wife team, this B&B offers four spotless rooms starting at $149 a night. The breakfast spread includes scratch-made coffee cakes, fresh fruit, granola and yogurt.
312 N. Lea Ave., 505-407-1246, clarysagebandb.com
Built in 1892, the Trinity hotel was once home to a bank, the town’s newspaper and the historic headquarters of the Carlsbad Irrigation District. Today, it’s Carlsbad’s best hotel (rooms start at $169) and finest dining option, with a huge local wine list and menu featuring pasta and steakhouse dishes.
201 S. Canal St., 575-234-9891, thetrinityhotel.com