How many visitors would make a beeline to Loch Ness if it wasn't for Nessie? Probably about as few who would visit dusty little Roswell in the New Mexico desert, if it wasn't for the alleged UFO crash over 70 years ago.
On my recent road-trip in the USA's Southwest, I went out of my way to stitch the town to my travelling schedule, lured by one of the world's greatest modern-day mysteries.
The alleged crash-landing of a UFO with aliens aboard. Incidentally, Roswell's only other claim to fame is that it was home to the bombing unit that dropped the nukes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – hardly a crowd-puller. On the 350km drive from Albuquerque to Roswell, there's little to arouse much interest en-route, aside from stopping over at Fort Sumner.
It's home to Billy the Kid's gravesite, a legendary teenage outlaw of the Old West, who was fatally shot here in 1881. His tombstone has been heavily secured within a steel cage to stop attempted thefts.
It adjoins the historic military site of the Bosque Redondo reservation, where thousands of Navajo and Mescalero Apache were forcibly relocated from their homelands and interred.
The Navajo refer to their relocation to the Bosque Redondo as the Long Walk, with hundreds of Navajos dying along the way. After reflecting on history's deep stain, it was full steam ahead for my alien pilgrimage.
Arriving into Roswell, the first thing you notice are the street lamps adorning Main Street, giving the town an unearthly glow. Their bulbous globes glow green at night and have been painted with slanted alien eyes. Incredibly, this wasn't an officially sanctioned project, but the vintage streetlamps were pimped up as a guerrilla art project about 20 years ago.
The next thing you notice is the unseemly profusion of chintzy gift stores, dozens and dozens of them, milking the Roswell Incident, chock-full with tacky alien-emblazoned souvenirs and assorted paraphernalia. Alien pate anyone? The "illegal alien" T-shirts are apparently the top-seller in town.
The notion that saucers full of aliens nosedived near town - and then the government covered it up - is urban legend radiation that just won't decay.
Documents declassified by the FBI further fuelled the conspiracy theories. From a tourism perspective, whether the believers are nut jobs or not doesn't really matter. Roswell has stamped its mark as the world's most famous UFO crash site.
The back-story began on July 7, 1947, when the local newspaper reported that William "Mac" Brazel, a local farmer, had found pieces of a flying saucer scattered across a nearby ranch. He called the sheriff, who called the military, who carted the debris and aliens off in armoured vehicles. Supposedly it all ended up at Area 51 in Nevada. But the secret was out, and it's never stopped capturing the public imagination.
The most recent comment from the Air Force came in 1997, ahead of the 50th anniversary of the "crash." The Air Force said that the most likely explanation for the unverified alien reports was that people were simply referring a number of life-size crash-test dummies dropped from the sky during military experiments. The trouble with that is those experiments took place in the 1950s.
Ground Zero for alien pilgrims is the International UFO Museum. One of its founders was Lt. Walter Haut who back in 1947 was the Public Relations Officer for Roswell Air Base. He was the one who first informed the world that a flying saucer had crash-landed, via a military press release, before his superiors hastily retracted the official line, advising the media it was nothing more than a weather balloon.
No matter where you stand on the claims and counter-claims about what really happened at Roswell, the museum does a very fine job walking you through the full story, its manifold twists and turns, right through the present day. The eye-witness accounts and the death-bed confessions from people close to the action, and silenced for decades, are particularly arresting. There's an orgy of information for conspiracy theorists to get their jollies over. I don't consider myself easily fooled, and I came away concluding that the military has indeed sought to conceal the full truth.
Much of the museum has a home-spun, unsophisticated feel, dominated by static displays of written reports, still photographs and newspaper clippings. But it's surprisingly compelling, even though the museum is about to embark on a slick multi-media makeover. Then there's the fun stuff, like the movie props from the 1994 film on Roswell, headlined by the prop alien corpse dummy, lying on a hospital gurney inside a glass-walled room. It was supposedly designed based on eye-witness accounts. Unleashing everyone's inner-child is a fanciful animatronic display of a spaceship that takes off and lands, surrounded by gibbering aliens. It's selfie-central.
The museum also walks you through the world's most documented UFO sightings, which includes the Kaikoura lights of 1978. Swooned on by UFO buffs from across the globe, the UFO Museum stages the annual UFO Festival every July. World-leading UFO researchers and astronauts descend on Roswell during the festival to deliver lectures, launch books and reveal their fresh findings.
Delving deeper into Roswell, you'll notice many businesses have adorned their frontages with lavish ET-themed murals, displays and statues. Dunkin' Donuts has a fabulous super-sized alien underneath its roadside hoarding, while the Golden Arches have gone the whole hog. Roswell is home to the world's only flying saucer-shaped McDonalds restaurant.
Its aerodynamic qualities are seriously compromised by the need to enclose a Playland, but its distinctive saucer shape, metal skin and neon-lit embellishments are a trusty traffic-stopper.
For more touring tips on exploring New Mexico, jump to the official tourism website, www.visittheusa.com.au
Where to stay? Just across the road from McDonalds, Roswell's Fairfield Inn & Suites is your typical cookie-cutter property from this Marriott-owned brand. You won't find any little green men under your bed, here. But what it may lack in local quirk is vastly compensated from the surety of knowing you're going to have a clean, comfortable and great-value place to rest your head. Plus a decent breakfast in the morning. Further, there's an outdoor pool, hot tub and laundromat all on-site for guests use. I booked my stay in Roswell through Expedia. Enjoy substantially discounted rates on a great range of hotels when you add accommodation bookings onto your existing trip. It's called the Expedia Add-On Advantage. Book your flight, car or package on Expedia and you'll instantly unlock up to 49% off select hotels until the day of your trip. There are some superb value packages. Jump to https://www.expedia.co.nz/addonadvantage
I flew to the American Southwest with Hawaiian Airlines, tripping from Auckland to Phoenix via Honolulu. The full-service carrier operates onward from Honolulu to 13 U.S mainland destinations. Kiwis love the airline's Extra Comfort upgrade, which provides more legroom, priority boarding, a personal power outlet and amenity kit. Purchase Extra Comfort for just $139 NZD. It's very popular so book early to avoid disappointment! Flying Hawaiian Airlines to Honolulu and then connecting onward to the mainland means you can clear border security while channelling tropical island vibes. Onward connections are then considered domestic sectors. Book directly at www.HawaiianAirlines.co.nz
The USA is one of the most expensive countries in the world to be stranded in a medical emergency. Ensure that all existing medical conditions are declared (including those of children). In many instances, some of these existing medical conditions can be covered free of charge or at an additional premium. Your insurer will be able to assist you with the assessment process. I Booked my travel insurance with Cover-More. Their 24 hour global assistance centre is just a phone call away. Call 0800 500 225 or visit https://www.covermore.co.nz