Phenomenon (unexplained, geologic, cultural, and otherwise)

Week Seventeen (27 May – 2 June 2014) – Part 1

Creeping ever closer to the Hawaiian Islands and our new life, this week on the road we continued to test our primitive tools for determining relative location within the mainland of these united states as we moved through the arid countryside and Indian territories between central Texas and southeastern Nevada. Taxonomy (primarily in the form of easy-to-observe roadkill), geomorphology, commercial radio programming, and linguistics continued to provide the best clues for us lay navigators. (I’ll wager that one skilled in celestial observations would do well with astronavigation to fix their location in the low light pollution climate of this largely desert area; the sky was flawlessly clear at night in most areas.)

Indicators that one has passed from Central to Western Texas and on into New Mexico? A dead roadside porcupine, rattlesnake, coyote, and a cow (yes…a whole beef cow, with legs in the air) served as some indicator, as did two live jackrabbits and periodic sightings of small, spotted deer that are unlike the more robust white tails we are accustomed to. Pumping oil wells served as hints, as did the giant wind farms that have sprung up as the mismanagement of the Ogallala aquifer has left the land less than productive over the decades.

Tumbleweed crossed our path a few times, always appearing to be in a hurry to get somewhere. Large livestock was so prevalent throughout that there were cattle guards at the bottoms of the on- and off- ramps from the highway to keep strays from enjoying a saunter down the interstate system. At some point, maybe in Arizona, roadside signs announcing flowing waters switched from the use of “creek” and “river” to “wash.”

The mesas in this area were beautiful, if alien, features to us East Coast folk, reminding us that we were far from the Atlantic Ocean and Blue Ridge Mountains. We had only seen them before in books and movies, but–looking up at them–it was easy to imagine a linear formation of feathered, bow wielding riders of old staring down at us.

Periodic loss of cell phone coverage and all radio reception pointed toward the remoteness of our path. That said, when we could pull radio signals from the ether, programming selection always included all three types of music adored in these parts: country, western, and Mexican.

When we reached the Arizona-Nevada border, we encountered a radio experience that was all-together different–a talk show in a clearly non-Romance, staccato, monosyllabic, possibly tonal language. It turned out to be Navajo, the tongue of the famous code talkers of WWII. Coasting along at night through the cool desert, we also tripped across a Hopi station broadcasting a late evening selection of traditional music, which complimented the place names and road signs we began to see–Apache County, Yellow Horse’s rest stop, Coconino National Forest. We pulled into Flagstaff, AZ to the sound of tom-toms, ankle bells, and chanting pouring through our car speakers.

After traversing many a mile of desert terrain on this leg of the journey, here is the path we have followed so far:

Objects of the Flying and Unidentified Kind

Stopping in Roswell, New Mexico, a lengthy visit to the International UFO Museum left us better informed about a number of famous unexplained incidents over the years and fully briefed on the current state of UFO research. They have an impressive staffed library with books that you probably never saw in school, like the “Encyclopedia of UFOs.” This visit was a fascinating counterbalance to our look into the Johnson Space Center in Houston just a week prior, and we were left wondering which stellar-focused institution is more fueled by fanciful optimism, which is more touched by government cover ups, and which presents a picture that is closer to reality. (After all, the Apollo moon landing was staged on a Hollywood set, right?)

Seriously, for the non-UFO junkie, the museum presented some very interesting materials that have surfaced over the years, including alleged declassified briefing memos for presidents elect of years past and statements by NASA astronauts, that raise a lot of questions. Check it out, if you ever pass this way, and you may just be inspired to undertake a new hobby. (Personally, I now plan to be the first person to start hunting for Big Foot in Polynesia.)

Area 51

Abusing our status as former federal employees and calling in some favors with old colleagues, we were able to arrange a private tour of this highly exclusive facility and peek under the shroud of mystery. By law, I cannot discuss most of what we saw, but here are some of the highlights I was able to get permission to share:

Our trained family lifeguard was called upon to help in an emergency resuscitation. Turns out that spacecraft crashes happen all the time out there.

The boy-crazy teen made nice with a new acquaintance.

We finally learned the truth about where the 9-year-old came from when we discovered this photo…

…and they did not want to let her leave again.

The boy was really popular with the local inhabitants…

…and they almost didn’t let him leave either. (Something about his advanced video-gaming skills applying to advanced saucer craft maneuvers.)

After hours of back-numbing sedentary travel, the bride availed herself of advanced extraterrestrial techniques of the house chiropractor…

…and, near the end of our visit, I barely escaped with my life after realizing that my tin foil hat was not blocking the mind-control rays of the aliens (or were they from the government?)….

Enter the Flop House

Upon arrival in Roswell, at our illustrious 1-star motel, reservation secured with the price-chopping acumen of William Shatner–we were informed that the esteemed establishment was overbooked and that we had been moved to another property that was “the same,” but that did not provide complimentary breakfast. (The owners graciously invited us to drive back the next day some 25 blocks to their establishment to partake of our morning meal, gratis, but the offered fare did not seem worth the bother.) No worries. For we are a band of hearty and seasoned world travelers, prepared for inconvenience, changes of plan, and even a little peril every now and then.

Things left unsaid about our alternative lodgings included the fact that there was no pool. Again, no worries. We didn’t plan to swim, but we did pay for a certain level of amenities, two of which we were no longer afforded. (Mental note: Probably should fire off an email to Priceline.) Also unspoken–perhaps unknown to our original inn keepers–was the fact that, in our new dwellings, every fabric item within the rooms would be ripped (curtains), torn (towels), burned (blanket), caked with food (carpet), or graced with stains that appeared to be strategically located human body fluids (sheets).

My blanket

A warm refrigerator, covered in cigarette burns and smelling of decomposing meat, only added character to the place, as did an air conditioner–apparently some advanced extraterrestrial technology–that had the power to create an in-room micro climate that alternated every hour between tropical rainforest and arctic tundra. (Quick checks outside confirmed that we probably would have been more comfortable sleeping in the parking lot. In fact, at one point the bride asked if I would mind if she slept in the car and, though she ultimately did not, she refused to use the shower and slept fully clothed. Love of my life…) One fabric-covered chair that had seen better days sported a two-inch piece of rather sharp metal framing jutting out just at ankle height, not unlike a punji trap that one might encounter along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Bath Mat

Upon initial entry to our bathroom, I was greeted by a cockroach that was running laps around the dry bathtub. (He appeared to be in training for a marathon and I am certain he made verbal protestations when I went after him with a shoe.) Looking for a bright side, I cheerfully noted to the bride that there was at least a complimentary packet of shampoo and, though the outside was caked in some unidentifiable orange substance, it was fancy, or rather, imported…from India. Upon departure, sweeping the room for any left behind items, we discovered that the bed we slept on was held together with duct tape. (Mental note: Need to make a call to Priceline.)

Duct Tape Hanging from Under Bed

As the Black Knight of Monty Python fame said, “I’ve had worse.” In the end, it was only two nights and Priceline refunded us $50 for our “inconvenience.”

Indian Encounter of Another Kind

So…as you may have gathered…during this cross continental journey, to keep costs down, we have stayed in motels when we required paid lodging, and they were typically of the 1-star sort. While we have stayed in low-end U.S. motels before (here and there), and experienced even more rudimentary lodging in the Third World, we never had the luxury of a cross-country U.S. string of stays in such establishments, nor the opportunity that such repetition offers one in terms of detecting trends.

As we moved along, from Georgia to Arizona, we noted that all of our lodgings seemed to be owned and run by South Asians. Some of the places were spotless and exceptionally well managed; some (as noted above) reflected different standards. Some of our hosts were at least second generation and showed a mastery of flawless English (no accent at all); others seemed to be more recently arrived. The fragrant smell of tumeric lingered in the check-in area of all but one of these boarding houses.

Curious, we poked around the web a bit and found that, today, nearly 60-percent of motels in the United States of America are owned by individuals whose origins trace back to India. In fact, 70-percent of those proprietors can follow their roots to the western Indian state of Gujarat and, from that group of Gujaratis, three quarters share the family name Patel, giving rise to a slang term for this phenomenon of Indian motel dominance, the “Patel Motel.”

Interesting phenomenon and lots of heated (sometimes vitriolic) commentary out there on this issue. There is even a book about it: “Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream.”

You learn something new every day…

(Side Note: As mentioned above, the former captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise helped me book a hotel room in Roswell, in the heartland of the most famous UFO incident in history, and some of the hotel owners we encountered in the town were aliens, of a sort. All coincidence? You be the judge.)


As not to overwhelm you, good reader, and given the content-intense nature of this week’s long travels, I’ll stop this post here. Stay tuned for our adventures in the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas in a separate, second post covering this busy week.

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