In Roswell, the city of alien encounters, our bus will not start.
We have been traversing the United States in an old renovated school bus on a sabbatical from our life overseas and we are trying to be open to God.
The idea of a sabbatical is, I think, to rest and recover—from your labors, both professionally and spiritually; it’s laying down what was in order to take up a new way of being and seeing, if but for a time. But a sabbatical can be a tricky thing. What do you do with your time? How do you rest without becoming restless? We decided to take to the road. All seven of us.
The highway would be our pilgrimage, each town a mecca of its own what spiritual encounters we found along the way would be whatever the lay of that land, that town, the wind in that corner of the world, would bring us. If, as Gerard Manly Hopkins wrote, Christ plays in ten thousand places, we hoped to find him playing wherever the road would lead.
The road leads us to Roswell, New Mexico where we stop in a Walmart parking lot for the night, but not before passing sign after sign projecting large, green alien heads with hollow eyes, belaying the fact that we are in alien country, where lore and legend and some documentation has made a sort of creepy, dated tourism out of this small town in the middle of nowhere-land. But we are just passing through though, on our way to the canyons and warm red rocks of the American southwest. The plan is to head further south, away from aliens and sketchy parking lots, and especially the ever-prevailing cold. Come morning, we will take the road leading right back out of Roswell.
Morning comes, but there is no heading out of town. The key turns, and the bus remains quiet. Dead. A short clicking, and then silence. Like a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the landscape in Roswell is bleak. The roads are eerily quiet, and images of McCarthy’s zombies begin to play in my head. My husband thinks it is a battery problem and starts looking for a service to come help us. Instead, he found roadblocks, frustrations, misinformation. Daybreak stretches to midday, the sun tracing a cold hard line to the west where we are no longer heading.
We find ourselves in a holding pattern, stuck in an empty lot backed up against a barren field. We look for ways to pass the time. There is a Denny’s across the way and we watch the breakfast crowd come and go. Then the lunch crowd. A couple of old men unload their rifles from the back of a pickup, stopping for breakfast en route to hunt, presumably, and I tried to avoid any thoughts about McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. A pair of crows play, diving, fighting for scraps by the dumpster. My daughter collects rocks, the pale white ones used for landscaping around light poles. Moon rocks, I think. And we might as well be on the moon. She and I chuck them across the lot, seeing whose will go further. But neither of us is going anywhere.
This is wasted time, empty time, I think. We might have to hole up and live at the mercy of a Denny’s menu in this town where extraterrestrial visits have been reported (and entertained). We might have to pray.
I believe in prayer, if not the extra-terrestrial; prayer is its own affirmation of life beyond the terra-firma, is it not? My son asks if we (his parents) think life beyond the earth is possible. We give a long and rabbit-trailed response. Fascination with the extra-terrestrial has a certain 1960s panache to it, the heyday of corny sci-fi films and television shows, and Americans are more sophisticated now, but not much. For all its penchant for scientific materialism, today’s modern culture has a litany of films and findings regarding life beyond the terra. In a laundromat just a few days prior, I read an article in National Geographic about the absolute confidence scientists now have that we are not alone in the universe.
I too am a supernaturalist, though my scope of the extra-terrestrial is shaped mainly by Old Testament narratives, by the incarnation, resurrection, and pentecost. But I have limits. I call on God for help, but expect very little. I believe in miracles, but only (mostly) two-thousand-year-old ones. I don’t look for angels (or aliens) to show up.
Later, a man shuffles across the lot from Denny’s, headed our way. He is haggard and a little unkempt, black pants hanging loose on an undetermined frame, a soiled black apron swinging listlessly around his neck. I eye him warily while the kids play, but he keeps approaching and then speaks to one of the boys. Is your dad here? Can I speak with him?
The boys climb the bus steps, politely responding to his request and he follows them, unnerving me, who secretly worries about sinister encounters, but I stay outside with the moon rocks. I hear him offer a couple boxes of fried chicken from the restaurant. Fried onion rings, fried cheese sticks, and fried jalapenos as well. “Just saw you guys sittin’ out here and thought you could use it,” he says. We all thank him. He waves it off and shuffles back across the lot to work. Everyone dives in to the food, like the children of Israel desperate for this manna-like provision. But inwardly I grumble, begrudging the layers of saturated fat, unsure of this provision.
More time passes. I watch a beetle crawl its way across the pavement at my feet. His journey seems long. Does he know where he’s going, I wonder? Does he have a plan? A destination? Will the weather or some giant alien from the sky squash his dreams? I watch him and hope against these things. I think about scooping him up and transporting him, beam-me-up-scottie-like to the far sidewalk.
Three shallow pools of water sit listlessly in the ravine just beside us. The sky, turning blue and bright and hard under the midday sun reflects off their still surface. Still waters. And then I think of it:
the Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in level Walmart parking lots
He leads me beside dumpsters and small pools of still waters
He restores my doubting, disbelieving soul
He guides me through Roswell
on a straight Route 60 highway, to aliens, and apron-clad angels
Even though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of Denny’s—
of all things that go wrong
I will fear no evil (aliens, or zombies, old men, dirty aprons)
for thou art with me—perhaps even giving us fried chicken and artery-clogging onion rings.
My cup overflows. My batteries are replaced.
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord,
and, perhaps, Roswell
We sit, all seven of us, in the bus with our hands held out, palms towards the sky, and say this, the twenty-third Psalm. We affirm our belief in the life beyond the firma. My husband locates a mechanic who is willing to come help us; he brings fresh batteries and works quickly. The bus starts, chugging loudly, juices overflowing. The sun is low in the sky when we pull out and I think I will get a t-shirt that says “I was in Roswell with the aliens.”