September 30, 2009 — ...and the best thing about writing a Part II is that you don’t have to come up with any type of creative introduction other than to just recap Part I. So here goes. In the previous article, I recounted the semi-reenactment on the part of me and my wife of the fateful trip of Barney and Betty Hill, famous alien abductees, as well as our visit to their eventual final resting places. I say semi-reenactment, of course, because our retracing of their route left out the bits about being hijacked by aliens and having our noses lit up by an extraterrestrial game of Operation. Not by choice, mind you.
That was more than a year ago now. In the missing time since then, we’ve come across other Hill-related oddities worth visiting in New Hampshire, including a homemade alien abduction exhibit in a gas station bathroom and the official university-held collection of original artifacts and documentation from the Hill incident.
I’m going to start with the former because, well, you stopped reading the sentence at that point. I am, however, including the giant caveat that it’s easy to make tons of topics seem more worth writing about by just throwing lots of hyperbolic phrases decorated with capital letters and exclamation points at them. In this case, though, it’s going to be impossible to do better than the simple phrase “homemade alien abduction exhibit in a gas station bathroom.”
And that’s exactly what it is. The strange bathroom can be found in the town of Lincoln, at the Franconia Notch Irving Express gas station located right off exit 33 on I-93/Route 3, the same route down which the Hills traversed that dark night decades past
Upon pulling up to a pump, the first inkling you get that this gas station is more than mere pit stop is the large eight-foot-square painting of a spindly, big-headed alien standing in the middle of a dark forest road, which is hanging beside the ice freezer where any other gas station would have a vinyl banner hawking beer, cigarettes, and stale snack cakes. Above the painting are the words, “First Close Encounter of the Third Kind, Betty and Barney Hill, Sept. 19th, 1961."
I didn’t notice this until after I’d returned and was sorting through the pictures from my visit, but the painting is actually signed and dated way down in the corner, inches above the paved parking lot. The author’s full name is difficult to make out for sure, but the last name is probably Thibeault and the first name seems to start with an A. He or she shouldn’t be too hard to track down, though. Just look for the person with the “painted giant alien tableau for gas station” feather on their resume. The date on the painting, though, is most definitely 2009…making this relatively breaking news on my part (working on the “relatively breaking news” icon as we speak).
After I pretended to fill up my gas tank, all the while merely checking out the painting, I went inside to see the inevitable alien-themed wares for sale. The gas station had some, of course, although not as many as I thought an eight-foot-square painting of an extraterrestrial would presage. Clustered around the register counter were various trinkets in alien form, including day-glo inflatables and key chains, as well as a few copies of the Marden and Friedman book Captured, which I referenced in Part I of this article.
As I started to leave the station, trying to weigh whether the outside painting by itself was enough to merit more than a passing mention in this article, my bladder made a better decision than my brain. I memorialized the moment with a Twitter post at the time. When I walked into that gas station’s single unisex bathroom, I felt like Ali Baba discovering the phrase, “Open, Sesame.”
The walls inside this relatively spacious bathroom were plastered all over with articles about the Hills and other alien incidents, facsimiles of official documentation, drawings of extraterrestrials, photographs, spreadsheets (yup, spreadsheets) regarding alien encounters, and, most oddly (if possible), images from random science fiction shows and movies, including Star Trek and Alien, both of which were tacked up in positions of honor right above the commode.
It looked like one of those rooms they have in police detective movies, where evidence and assorted paper slips are tacked everywhere on boards while the protagonist tries to fit them together to solve some crime “before it happens again.”
The coolest thing about the display was probably that it was in a bathroom. Unfortunately, for that same reason, propriety doesn’t allow you to stay in there long enough to take it all in. Might be a good thing, though. If you stick around in there long enough, that bathroom might make you believe.
At the very least, it’ll make you leave with a big grin of satisfaction, nodding to the cashier like you’ve just been indoctrinated into some private and rare mystery before buying a Twix, a Coke Zero, and an alien key chain and getting into your car and driving off into the sunset. Or at least, that’s how my time at the gas station ended, minus the sunset. It was noon, and I was headed south.
Anyway, I expect access to cheesy stuff like extraterrestrial museums in gas station bathrooms, but I was surprised at being allowed anywhere near this next bit of oddity. It turns out that, in the spring of 2009, the Betty and Barney Hill archive, which had been donated to the University of New Hampshire in Durham, went on temporary public display at the Milne Special Collection and Archives Department of the UNH library.
The archive includes letters and personal journals from Betty and Barney Hill, audio tapes and transcripts of their hypnosis sessions, essays, newspaper clippings, reports, photographs, artwork, and even artifacts from that surreal night.
Because I couldn’t make it to see the display during the regularly operating Milne Special Collection hours, I took the rare step of contacting them to see if it was possible to view the exhibit after hours and the even rarer step of being honest about who I was instead of lying about being a TIME magazine reporter.
One of the curators at the UNH library, Dale, responded to my e-mail and informed me that she’d be more than happy to allow me to see the display after hours, despite the low level of professionalism on display at my O.T.I.S. website. Dale is what we in the business call “awesome.”
We went up to Durham expecting to just spend a few moments gawking and photographing the few items of the enormous collection that were actually on display, and we certainly got to do that. The public exhibit was located in a hallway on an upper floor of the library, where the Milne Special Collection and Archives Department is housed, and included one of Betty’s handwritten journals, a box of her notes on extraterrestrial sightings, a few pieces of artwork including a paper mâche bust and painting of an alien, some photographs of the couple, and other assorted bits. Just enough to satiate the superficial level of interest I have toward everything in life.
The piece I was the most interested in from the start, even before arriving, was the purple dress Betty wore the night of her abduction, for that reason and because she claimed to have found some unidentifiable pink, powdery substance on it that apparently defied scientific analysis. Also because I’m into women’s fashions of the 1960s. They had the dress displayed on a mannequin torso inside one of the glass cases. Immediately apparent is the missing swatch that had been removed for analysis, and the discolored patches from the mystery substance was evident as well. The analysis findings were posted on the wall near the dress, but they must have been over my head, because I don’t remember them (my brain has evolved a method of blocking things out that I don’t understand...it’s a handy survival mechanism).
Anyway, the dress should have been the highlight for me, but then Dale offered us the chance to see the files containing most of the original materials from the archive. After dragging her to the nearest computer and showing her my site again, she still maintained that it was okay, so we pulled up a chair and I played the part of studious researcher that I’d seen so many times in the movies.
The first items I pulled out were the original stained pencil drawings that Betty and Barney had sketched of the spaceship that had accosted them and the famous star map that Betty claimed was shown to her by one of the alien crew. This was actually way cooler than the dress to me. I’d seen these rude drawings reproduced in books since I was a child, and here were the originals, right in my very own white-linen-gloved hands. Oh, those weren’t mine. Dale gave them to me to wear to protect the delicate photos from the horrible oils that my hands excrete. She could tell I was that type, I guess.
Next were the hypnosis transcripts. They had the original tapes, and it would have been swell to hear them, but they were off being digitized or somesuch other more worthwhile purpose than me excreting oils on them, or they were there and I was too chicken to push my luck and ask to hear them, I can’t remember. Still, the transcripts were the next best thing, and I got to read the dramatic memories of Hills’ emotional abduction experience vividly surfacing/being falsely created right in the moment.
After that, we read through a few more letters and journal entries and viewed a few more photos before taking our leave, grateful to the UNH library, and Dale personally, for the great opportunity and cautiously watching the skies on our drive home.
Actually, I probably need to apologize to you for speaking about the exhibit in such glowing terms since the Betty and Barney Hill collection is no longer on public display. However, something tells me that UNH will have to bring it out again in two years for the for the 50th anniversary special deluxe edition of the event.
In one of her letters that I got to read with my shamefully naked eyeballs, Betty Hill typed the phrase, “P.S. New Hampshire is swarming with UFO’s.” Besides being a great documentary title on the subject, she was right in a way. Her incident wasn’t the only high-profile UFO event that occurred in that state in that decade.
On a September night in 1965, on a dark road just outside of the town of Exeter, a local 18-year-old hitchhiker by the name of Norman Muscarello witnessed some intensely bright, low-lying aerial lights unearthly enough to panic him into going to the police.
And while that’s usually the point in every tabloid-published UFO story where the account dies with a resounding “wacko,” in this particular case it’s where the story gets interesting...and borderline credible...or as close as these types of accounts get to that famed wonderland, at least.
Muscarello was able to convince the local authorities to accompany him back to the spot that night. Two officers, David Hunt and Eugene Bertrand, returned to the location on Route 150 between Exeter and Kensington where the cosmic jacklighting occurred and actually witnessed the phenomenon at close range themselves. Meanwhile, other corroborating reports of strange sky sightings came in to the police station.
And that’s why the Incident at Exeter started making at least national headlines (possibly international...it’s hard for me to gauge the whole world sometimes), finding itself in various media reports, Air Force files, and a snug little niche in the overall UFO mythology.
Besides alien visitors, the time of year, the decade, and the national response, the other thing that the Hill abduction and the Muscarello experience had in common was investigative reporter and columnist John G. Fuller. In 1966, he published best-selling nonfiction works about each of these incidents (The Interrupted Journey and The Incident at Exeter, respectively), further ensuring that these stories would stay afloat amidst the flotsam and jetsam of the surface that is popular culture.
Now, the fine print on this story is there’s an air force base in nearby Portsmouth, and according to the official Air Force explanation there were some sort of military air activity going on at the time. However, even if the Air Force hadn’t of admitted to anything, it’s a reasonable assumption that strange lights are still an FDA-approved side effect of Air Force bases. And while that’s enough of an explanation for a lot of people, the story still just won’t die no matter how many attempted murderers it has.
In fact, in September of 2009, the town of Exeter celebrated its first festival commemorating the 44-year-old event. I missed going, but that’s a mistake I hope to correct at future festivals.
These days, the relevant area of Route 150, also known as Amesbury Road, where Muscarello witnessed the UFO activity is mostly taken up by an equestrian center, the white fences of which nicely delineate the fields that made him famous.
In the end, the cops never caught the aliens. Some say they still roam those horse pastures, awaiting just the right shade of night and just the right errant hitchhiker...unaware that the practice stopped being cool by the end of the 1970s.
New Hampshire in the 60s, man. One day I’d like to get my hands on the 50-year-old intergalactic travel brochure that blurbed, “When in the Milky Way, visit New Hampshire"
UPDATE (6.10.2013): I accidentally found myself refilling at the gas station a few weeks back for the first time since my original visit. There's still that glorious plastic-protected alien mural on the front of the station, and they've added a chalkboard adjacent to it so that you can write about your own encounters. They also still sell alien-themed gifts beside the usual gas station cups of jerky and months-old Frosted Honey Buns. The only change, and this was a little bit sad to see, was that they took all the materials that decorated that bathroom and moved it to the wall of the store itself, just under the ceiling where it's hard to read. But the real problem is that they just lack the style of a bathroom museum. It's still worth a stop, though, whenever you have that all-too-familiar craving for Swedish fish and alien lore.
Also, since , the state of New Hampshire has officially recognized that terrifying September night with a historical roadside sign.