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The Truth Is Out There

A UFO 'Agnostic' and a Clear-Eyed Investigator Tour the Southwestern Sites That Conspiracy Theorists Love

April 19, 1998|DAVID DARLINGTON | 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,

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.

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.


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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