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We Come In Peace

August 8, 2014

Thursday has to be the most productive day I’ve ever had that involved seven hours of driving.

The ultimate goal was to get to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The cavern itself is supposedly very impressive but for the Hamster and I the biggest draw was the bats. Some 400,000 bats live in the cavern, and at sunset they wake up and swarm outside through the cave’s biggest entrance. You can’t enter the cavern after 5 p.m. but you can still come to see the bats.

Unfortunately, Carlsbad, New Mexico is a seven-hour drive from Tombstone, which was our last stop on Wednesday. To break up the long drive, we had a choice: either we follow I-10 through El Paso and stop off there, or we hook north a bit and hit Roswell. Some cursory research showed there to be very little of interest in either city. We chose Roswell.

Of course, getting to Roswell required several hours of driving, most of which took us through huge stretches of land so barren that the U.S. government uses a chunk of it to test missiles.

White Sands Missile Range

We also had to stop at another U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint. The guy asked me if we’re U.S. citizens. I said yes. He waved us through.

Sam spent most of the drive watching The Incredibles. I spent most of the drive watching the road, which was considerably less entertaining with the single exception of a roadside stand called Pistachioland.

Yes, that thing on the right is an enormous statue of a pistachio.

Yes, that thing on the right is an enormous statue of a pistachio.

As we got close to Roswell the skies appropriately darkened and, after threatening for a half hour or so, opened up with a fury. Within minutes the road was so flooded that partially submerged police SUVs were diverting traffic. Sam took this photo out his window:

Roswell flooding

Somewhere underneath all that water is the road. It was rather worrisome but we made it through and the rain soon stopped.

We arrived in Roswell at around 1:30. What I really wanted to do there was to take a guided tour of the city and particularly the alien-landing-related sites. There’s one reasonably reputable guy who does this, and he tends to fill up pretty far in advance. So a month ago I checked his availability, and sure enough he was already booked for this afternoon. Plan B was to head straight to the International UFO Museum and Research Center. Sounds official, doesn’t it? The exhibits even look kind of official, until you finish reading about the supposed UFO crash of 1947 and you get up to the incredibly cheesy “alien” displays:

Roswell Aliens Roswell Aliens 

Roswell AliensRoswell Aliens

Very scientific.

Sam, being 12, has a much less discerning eye for fakery and came away from the 1947 exhibit pretty convinced that it was really aliens that crashed in the desert outside of Roswell. To convince him otherwise, I could have pointed out the faulty grammar in the museum exhibit explanations. I could have pointed to the unclear timeline of supposed events. I could have focused on the fact that much of the “evidence” refuting the government account of the crash was related third- and fourth-hand. I could have mentioned that the Washington Post reported that the UFO was just a weather balloon–the same Washington Post that uncovered the Watergate scandal and was thus no puppet for government conspiracies. I could have argued logically that if aliens sophisticated enough to get to Earth had crashed, someone from their home planet would have gone looking for them and thus this would not be the only alien contact in world history. Or that the White House couldn’t keep the secret of the Watergate break-in for even a few months, there’s no way that several branches of federal government plus half the Air Force could keep alien corpses a secret, even in pre-Internet 1947. I did none of those things. Instead I showed him this museum display from the TV movie about the Roswell incident:

Roswell movie setSee at the top, where it says, “altered newspapers”? It’s referring to the newspapers at the foot of the alien’s bed. See them? It means those newspapers were fakes made just for the movie. I had Sam take a close look. Then I took him back to the main exhibit and had him look again at the local newspaper that first reported the crash.

Roswell Daily RecordIt’s exactly the same newspaper that’s in the movie set. The UFO “museum” is using a movie prop as evidence of a visit from aliens. Conclusion: there may very well be intelligent life out there, but if there is it sure didn’t crash in Roswell in 1947. Sam laughed, both at the museum and at himself for briefly falling for this nonsense.

Despite our skepticism we still had fun with all the alien nonsense. We posed with alien cutouts, we made corny jokes about the museum being out of this world, and we shopped for alien souvenirs. And hey, the museum even gave us stickers, so the dashboard in front of Sam’s seat now looks like this:

Museum stickers

But that was not the best part of Roswell. The best part was that it let us finish everything else on our to-do list. For starters we stopped at a Dollar Tree store and bought supplies to better store our poorly packed Shabbos food from Tuscon. We got disposable tins to replace the smashed Styrofoam clamshells, and a sturdy plastic jug to hold the soup, which had leaked badly despite the deli guy’s insistence that it was properly sealed. With that out of the way we then found a barbershop. It was a really old-school barbershop, with a striped pole outside and gray-haired barbers inside. Sam’s was named Claude; mine was named Dewain. They took forever, but they did a decent job and Sam looks like a human again instead of a woolly sheep.

All this, and we were still ahead of schedule.

The bat flight program was scheduled to start at 7:30. It takes place at a stone amphitheater built specifically for viewing the bat exodus, and it consists of a Park Ranger talking about the bats until they start coming out, and then shutting up while everyone watches the bats. But it gets cancelled for safety reasons if there’s lightening too close to the park. The sky was still very overcast as we drove to Carlsbad, and I started to worry that one of the events I’ve been most looking forward to on this trip might be cancelled.

We got to the park at a little after 6 p.m., and the bat program was still scheduled for 7:30. So we grilled hot dogs in a nice little picnic area overlooking a vast sea of desert land, and then we headed to the amphitheater. We grabbed seats in the back row, and then when she started talking the Ranger mentioned very casually that the folks in the back row ma or may not get visited by wildlife, including raccoons, rattlesnakes, or tarantulas. Sam and immediately moved down one row.

As she spoke we noticed lightning in the distance behind her. She explained that they have sensors that determine its distance, and if it gets too close the whole park closes and everyone has to leave. Then she got interrupted by another Ranger, who came and whispered something to her. Several people in the crowd worried that it was about the lightning. My heart sank. But then the Ranger continued her speech. Game on.

I was told by a Ranger earlier that the bats can be a little unpredictable, exiting the cave as early as 7:45 or as late as 8:15. Tonight they started coming out at 7:40. Sam and I both expected a massive swarm of bats to come shooting out all at once, but it started slowly. A few dozen came out, flew around in circles in front of the cave for speed and self-defense, and then flew off. More came out in dribbles, and then another wave of several dozen. It was cool but a little underwhelming. Sam joked to me that there must be someone inside the cave holding a clipboard and yelling, “Group A! Go! Go! Go! Group B, get ready, you’re up next!”

And then it happened. Hundreds of bats, followed by hundreds more, and hundreds more, and on and on nonstop for 40 minutes. They flew in all directions. One flew right past me and Sam, inches from our faces. We marveled at how the bats didn’t fly into each other considering how many of them were in such a small space and going in so many directions. And then two bats smacked right into each other, making an audible clap and momentarily free-falling before they both righted themselves and flew off. These guys are so baller, not even a head-on collision phases them.

When there were a decent number of bats flying out we could hear their wings flapping if everyone was quiet and we listened carefully. But now the flapping sounded like a rainstorm. Which was good because the people sitting next to us Would. Not. Shut. Up. It was so cool. Occasionally we heard the bats squeak, too. We just sat there, the Hamster and I, awestruck by the sight, the sound, and the abilities of this very cool creature. I said something about there being a ton of bats, and Sam wondered if their collective weight actually added up to a ton.

I had been excited about seeing the bats since I started planning this trip. I don’t especially love bats in general but they are pretty interesting animals, and they eat mosquitoes, which is a big bonus in my book. Plus there’s just something extraordinary about watching tens of thousands of bats swarm out of their cave and into the night sky. You can see bats at any zoo, but you can’t see this anywhere in the world but here. I had been worried that reality might not live up to my expectations, or worse–that lightning would ruin the whole thing. In the end it was just as cool as I had hoped. Even cooler, really, because the occasional flash of lightning lit up the sky and the bats and made it all the more dramatic.

Also, there’s no picture-taking allowed. In fact, no electronic devices of any kind can even be on, because they disrupt the bats. At first I was disappointed that I wouldn’t have pictures but it actually freed me to just focus on watching the scene and soaking it up.

Eventually the crowds of bats started to thin out and the sky was getting too dark for us to really see them. We got up to leave, still in awe at what we had seen, and right at that moment a Ranger announced that the lightning was getting too close and we were all going to have to leave. I could hardly complain about the timing.

On the way out we asked a Ranger about the size of the bats. The bats who live in Carlsbad are tiny. Their bodies are about the size of my thumb, and they weight only half an ounce–about the weight of three nickels. Sam and I did some quick math. Half an ounce each means you’d need 32 bats to make a pound. That means 64,000 bats would weigh a ton. We probably didn’t see all 400,000 bats who live in the cave, but we definitely saw a ton of bats.

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