IF THE TRUTH IS ANYWHERE, IT’S out there in Roswell, New Mexico, the site of the most famous UFO incident in American history. In July 1947 something fell out of the sky and crashed onto a ranch outside of town, and that something—described as an alien spacecraft by many locals and UFO buffs, dismissed as a weather balloon by the Army—has made the city’s name synonymous with “government cover-up.” Although Roswell for decades distanced itself from spacey sorts, today its UFO fame is no longer an alien concept. This month, as the town gears up to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the crash with a galaxy of events—a costume contest, a “spaceship” design competition, a “flying saucer” (pancake) eating contest—it will also be celebrating its emergence as a pop culture phenomenon and bona fide tourist destination.

Centered in the southeastern quadrant of New Mexico, the town of 50,000 is ninety miles or so from the Texas state line and about a two-hour drive from Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands, and it snags a healthy percentage of visitors to those sites (some 10,000 a month even before the summer hordes begin to descend, some 50,000 expected for the July 1—6 anniversary celebration). But the real impetus for Roswell’s rebirth has been the gradual popular acceptance of belief in extraterrestrials, once the province of unabashed wackos. For example, Roswell (the town is interchangeable with the incident) is regularly invoked on the hit show The X-Files, and it’s also the basis of a regular spoof featured in The Simpsons comic-book spin-offs. This spring a national commercial for Butterfinger candy bars also capitalized on the Roswell appeal.

Closer to home, much of the credit for Roswell’s fame is due Mayor Tom Jennings, a trim, mustachioed 47-year-old. His predecessors steadfastly refused to exploit the flying saucer saga, but Jennings—trying to revitalize a town with a household income 23 percent below the national median—welcomed the UFO connection as a way to boost the lo-cal economy. The town adopted a new slogan—“Welcome to Roswell, Wherever You’re From”—and now boasts not one but two UFO museums. Since 1995, when Jennings backed the first UFO festival (the brainchild of local oilman Stan Crosby), the city has benefited to the tune of $5 million a year, from motel rooms to bumper stickers proclaiming “I Crashed in Roswell, New Mexico.” Local business endeavors took off too, such as Impact Confections, a candy company that has marketed its alien-headed Glow Pop nationwide.

A steady stream of visitors cruises Roswell’s eleven-mile main drag (U.S. Highway 285), which is punctuated by more than a dozen traffic lights. Like most cities hereabouts, Roswell sprawls across relatively flat terrain broken occasionally by gulleys and mesas. The wide-open spaces and unobstructed sky account for the area’s status as an aeronautics center; the military has long tested aircraft in the state’s wild blue yonder (not to mention guided missiles and atomic bombs), and the elbowroom also inspired rocketry pioneer Robert H. Goddard to relocate from Massachusetts. Even New Mexico’s state symbol—the zia, adapted from a Native American sun sign—pays homage to the heavens. (Some stars are more earthbound; actress Demi Moore, whose maternal grandmother lives in Roswell, is occasionally sighted at a local cappuccino bar.)

As for the 1947 incident itself, there are few undisputed facts, but the basics are these: Around July 4 a ranch foreman named Mac Brazel discovered metallic debris scattered across pastureland near the hamlet of Corona. He showed a few scraps to fascinated locals and to the Chaves County sheriff, who in turn alerted officers at the Roswell Army Air Field. Those officers, intrigued by the unfamiliar nature of the material—supposedly it could be crumpled but not torn—quickly dispatched two hundred soldiers to retrieve the remaining debris. They then issued a press release alerting the public to the recovery of a “flying disc” and shipped the strange material to the Fort Worth Army Air Field (later Carswell Air Force Base) for further testing. It was there that General Roger Ramey summarily quashed the report, brusquely identifying the wreckage as nothing more than a weather balloon. Subsequently several other key figures, including ranch foreman Brazel, also recast their recollection of the events.

But the government’s explanation rang resoundingly false. As many as 350 locals, both military and civilian, claimed to have examined the debris firsthand. In addition, plenty of people asserted something more astonishing: The Army had found one alien that had survived the crash and the bodies of two others. The feds have fessed up to their deceit in other shocking cases—for instance, their deliberate failure, for a period of forty years, to treat African American men in Tuskegee, Alabama, who had syphilis—but half a century later, Uncle Sam remains mum about Roswell. In March, Space Center Houston, NASA’s entertainment complex, advertised an exhibit titled “The Roswell Incident: Fact or Fiction? You Decide.” But a few weeks before its scheduled opening, the exhibit was canceled without explanation. (Other institutions are also skittish: Pepsi-Cola canceled its backing of a rock concert during the Roswell celebration because—according to concert organizers—it feared being linked to “Heaven’s Gate cult nuts” and other fringe types.)

The nonstop stonewalling has, of course, fueled ever-wilder speculation about what truly happened that summer of 1947. The town’s duo of UFO museums provides a crash course. One, the UFO Enigma Museum (6108 S. Main, 505-347-2275, $1), is a wan little storefront operation on the south edge of town stocked largely with laughably faked UFO photographs and tabloid clippings so blown up that the type suggests nebulas. Best of show is a diorama of the spaceship wreckage complete with lifeless E.T.’s, an expressionless plaster GI, and a coiled rattlesnake. The larger undertaking—a don’t-miss venue—is the International UFO Museum and Research Center (114 N. Main, 625-9495, free), housed in the former Plains Theater. The warehousey setting offers an endearingly tacky jumble of UFO-related displays. There are homemade UFO-themed crafts (metallic polyester fabric and glow-in-the-dark paint figure largely) as well as declassified government documents; both can be equally amusing (a spaceship quilt, a 1947 memo from J. Edgar Hoover debunking UFOs as “ash can covers, toilet seats, and what not”).

Half of the museum’s visitors move slowly through the displays, savoring every word; others snicker and roll their eyes. One wall enumerates the myriad explanations given then and now for the Roswell sighting: practical joke, optical illusion, meteorological or electrical phenomenon, fireworks, gossamer spiderwebs reflecting the sunlight, enemy spy mission, top-secret high-tech aircraft from one of the many nearby military installations. In the 1994 Showtime movie Roswell—for sale at the museum, along with numerous other videos (many of which are regularly screened)—the sheriff theorizes that the incident is merely “some sort of cowboy humor.”

The New Mex Files subhead: Did a flying saucer and its cosmic crew crash-land near Roswell fifty years ago? This month, terrestrial tourists can entertain that alien notion. summary: The New Mex Files Did a flying saucer really crash-land in a field outside Roswell fifty years ago this month? The truth is out there; find out for yourself. by Anne Dingus

Humor—cowboy or not—is universal here. A favorite photo op for visitors is posing with the silver-painted wooden sculpture of a cute little alien (named RALF—for “Roswell Alien Life Form”—by a local third grader). Adding to the el cheapo surrealism is a plethora of posters from popular sci-fi hits—Star Wars, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Independence Day. (The museum’s sense of humor is shared by the rest of the town. Alien heads top the mannequins in dress shops along Main Street. A mural in the window of the Ginsberg Music Company features the Pleiadians, an alien rock band. Alongside handicapped parking spaces at the Roswell Inn are signs for “Alien Parking Only”—which are frequently abducted by souvenir hunters. Locals’ return addresses often close with “Earth, Milky Way Galaxy.”) And the gift shop is a white-trash wonderland, purveying mementos such as alien-head golf club covers; refrigerator magnets of Kokopelli, the flute player of Native American lore, with huge black alien eyes; and a stunning assortment of extraterrestrial earrings, from dangly versions combining coyotes, saguaros, and spaceships to futuristic studs created of “burnt-out shards found at an undisclosed UFO crash site.” But by far the preferred souvenirs—some 50,000 sold, at $3 a pop—are replicas of the Roswell Daily Record’s front pages for July 8 and 9, 1947: RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region and General Ramey Empties Roswell Saucer.

The museum includes not only a library of ufology texts but also a resident field investigator from the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), the best-known group of its kind. Dennis Balthaser, a former highway engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, gave up a lucrative consulting business to work full-time as a combined tour guide, alien scholar, and weirdo magnet. He is fervent in his belief that life exists beyond Earth and that a UFO crashed in Roswell. “I can’t tell you for certain what happened here, and I won’t lie to you,” he says. “But we do know that something happened in Roswell in 1947 that the government is still trying to cover up.”

Balthaser’s favorite exhibit is a tableau of props from the movie Roswell, in which a faux alien lies dying on a military hospital gurney. (In fact, the now-standard depiction of extraterrestrials with exaggerated skulls and attenuated limbs sprang from the alleged Roswell prototype.) A chuckling Balthaser makes sure visitors don’t miss the adjacent display: a page from the September 1996 issue of Penthouse. The magazine paid a five-figure sum for several pictures of the cinematic spaceling, thinking they were proof of an actual E.B.E. (“extraterrestrial biological entity,” as any buff worth his moon dust knows).

Another tourist destination is the rugged piece of ranchland pinpointed by ufologists Kevin D. Randle and Donald R. Schmitt as the actual crash site. The property in question is on the Corn Ranch, a 15,000-acre spread owned by spouses Hub and Sheila Corn. When the Corn family acquired the land in 1976, they had heard of no sensational tales attached to its history. In the wake of Randle and Schmitt’s research, however, UFO enthusiasts and academics began pestering the Corns to let them visit. The couple cheerfully obliged until the trickle became a flood, at which point they began charging for the privilege—an astronomical $15 a head (to book a tour call 623-4043). For that sum they take groups down dirt roads and through locked gates to the rocky ridge where the craft supposedly smashed.

Sheila Corn seems an unlikely guide. The petite, pretty brunette is a far cry from the hippiesque star child one might expect. Loading up a quartet of visitors in her dust-covered Suburban (license plate: I BELIVE), she confesses that at first she balked at “UFO-ing,” as she terms it: “I didn’t want to be part of some scam.” But after a little checking, she and her husband deemed the claim solid enough (and they are careful to credit the two researchers by name). The site itself is unremarkable. Orange flags mark the spots where the craft and bodies were supposedly found. Aromatic creosote dots the canyon, vultures wheel overhead, and a few curious deer peek over the ridge, then skitter away. Nevertheless, a steady stream of the faithful reserve tours. This month the couple are renting buses to transport the daily crush of visitors and, for the first time, they are offering close-encounter seekers the chance to camp overnight at the crash site ($98 per couple, includes tents and cots; reservations required through Ticketmaster, 884-8810).

If overnight camping holds no appeal, visitors can still experience New Mexico’s awe-inspiring night sky at the Robert H. Goddard Planetarium (Eleventh and Main, 624-6744, $2 and $5). And even UFO phobes can have fun next door, where the ambitious art museum (free) also offers a pleasant reprieve from the summer sun. Permanent exhibits range from a vast collection of beaded Indian artifacts to the adept floral studies of Henriette Wyeth, who died in April; she and her late husband, Peter Hurd, worked in a San Patricio studio some fifty miles away.

Travelers, take note: The town’s many motels have long been booked solid for the week of the anniversary bash, but plenty of lodging is available for the rest of the summer. Good bets are the stately Sallyport Inn (2000 N. Main, 622-6430), adjacent to the handsome redbrick campus of the New Mexico Military Institute, and the Holiday Inn Express (2300 N. Main, 627-9900), a brand-new hotel with an ersatz adobe exterior. For general information and assistance, call Roswell UFO Encounter ’97 (800-295-7611) or the chamber of commerce (624-6860). As for dining, the fare runs largely to fast food and New Mex—Mex. A local favorite is Peppers Grill and Bar (500 N. Main, 623-1700), where the extensive menu showcases a variety of regional flavors, from Indian fried bread and tequila-lime chicken to pasta and burgers incorporating the state’s beloved (and potent) green chile. Another steady draw is Mario’s (200 E. Second, 623-1740), which offers standard American fare and bright menus bedecked with UFO art by schoolchildren. Be warned that, although nonsmoking areas are available, most Roswell businesses permit tobacco use indoors. A final bit of advice: During the day, use sunscreen—the rays are surprisingly fierce. At night, of course, the only light is that of the moon, the stars, and—according to locals—a persistent, flickering red-and-green glow.

And the government would have you think it’s only traffic lights.