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BOOK REVIEW: "Mysterious New Mexico" by Benjamin Radford

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BOOK REVIEW: Mysterious New Mexico by Benjamin Radford (University of New Mexico Press) 2014

One of my favorite TV shows is the Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul, starring Bob Odenkirk as Albuquerque, New Mexico-based lawyer and conman Jimmy McGill.

One thing I love about the series is that Albuquerque – and the New Mexican landscape - is a character as well, with its Southwestern motifs, adobe-colored buildings, desert-minded denizens and a discernible sense that this is a place where enigmas find sanctuary.

In Better Call Saul, Jimmy is a native of the Chicago area and Albuquerque is still alien to him, at least in season one.

It’s there, in the last episode of the first season that Jimmy is reading off letters and numbers at a nursing home bingo game and goes on a rant about living in Albuquerque …

I mean, what is it with this place? It’s like living inside an Easy-Bake oven,” McGill says, now on a rant. “I mean, look out that window. It’s like a soulless, radioactive, Georgia O’Keefe hellscape out there crawling with coral snakes and scorpions.

You ever see the movie The Hills Have Eyes? It’s a documentary. God forbid your car breaks down. You have to walk 10 steps and you have melanoma the size of a pineapple where your head used to be.”

Actually, New Mexico is all that and much, much more. With a fairly small population, lots of desert and cacti and dangerous critters – plus, no shortage of high weirdness and puzzling mysteries, it’s no wonder the state has long-embraced its nickname – The Land of Enchantment.

New Mexico is one of my favorite states. Not just because of its climate, geography, history and great food and culture, but also for its well-earned reputation as a haven for the bizarre.

That reputation was one of the main reasons that when I stumbled across Benjamin Radford’s 2014 book Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic & Monsters in the Land of Enchantment, I snapped it up.

Well, little did I know that Mr. Radford is not only a native New Mexico who still lives in the state, he is also a well-known skeptic who writes and is also an editor for the Skeptical Inquirer.

So, when it comes to the supernatural and unexplained – mysterious creatures (like Bigfoot, lake monsters and chupacabras) – just don’t exist. After all, where is the proof? Where is the dead carcass of a Bigfoot, blah, blah, blah.

However, shame on me for not reading a few reviews of the book before picking it up. Had I known the background of the author, someone who revels in picking apart people’s mystical experiences, I would have kept my money and spent it on something that embraced awe and wonder rather than trying to paint anything smacking of “mystical” or “New Age” or “paranormal” as mostly harmless and dumb - mostly ...

Running close to 300 pages, Radford, a noted “rationalist” who offers up well-written-but-snarky chapters on long-time New Mexico mysteries ranging from an allegedly haunted theater in Albuquerque and so-called “crystal skulls” with purported paranormal qualities to the famous “miraculous” staircase at Loretto Chapel built by a French carpenter in the 19th century.

In the introduction, Radford explains that he is simply interested in using “science and scientific methods to explore the mysterious and the bizarre.” Fair enough. But halfway through, one gets exhausted being reminded how grounded and smart and rational Benjamin Radford is.

Sure, he says that growing up in the state as a boy, he was intrigued by tales of ghosts and UFOs, but as an adult he wants to know the truth. And who doesn’t, right? I certainly do.

But I also understand that there are plenty of things in this world that are unexplainable. As a reporter who has investigated – and continues to investigate – the mysterious, unknown and bizarre, there have been many times I’ve come away perplexed, chalking it up as “just one of those things.” I’ve had a number of strange experiences of my own, which I’ve written about. I’ve always been open to the idea that we don’t know everything, despite the Cult of Scientism telling us that we do and you’re a rube if you don’t fall in line.

So, Radford investigates and reports and , but he always concludes that his “rational, logical explanations” are really the only honest and truthful ones. The silly dupes who think ghosts are haunting their property of a flying saucer crashed near Aztec, N.M. in the late 1940’s are simply confused or are just prone to being hoodwinked by conmen looking to sell something, not much different from Better Call Saul’s Jimmy McGill, when you get right down to it.

For instance, in a chapter on sightings of large, prehistoric birds with 30-foot wingspans – called “thunderbirds” by Native Americans – could not possibly exist, because they would have been photographed, seen by airline pilots or even picked up on Google Earth. After all, creatures like that have to breed and multiply. But that’s as far as Radford is willing to go. He has boxed himself in as a “New Atheist” type, a group I am quite familiar with. And it’s dull. Sure, they think folks open to these strange “ideas” and “phenomena” are leading us back to some superstitious dark age. But I think these things are happening on some level and have been with humanity since we first walked the Earth. That’s just my read on it after years of my own research.

But Radford wants the reader to know that he – “The Amazing Radford” – has, “unlike most other books on mysteries in the Southwest and New Mexico … solved many of the mysteries, and this book is the first to publish the explanations.

Indeed. Bold statements. And his arrogance is peppered throughout Mysterious New Mexico, a book that should have been more accurately titled – Disenchanted in the Land of Enchantment: Pompous Rationalist Sneeringly Writes About Mysteries He Has Solved in Home State.

Repeatedly, Radford notes how eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable, with three people seeing the same event recounting it later in three different ways. That said, it doesn’t necessarily change the fact that something unusual occurred.

He loves pointing out the mistakes of his predecessors writing about mysteries in New Mexico. Some are called out by name, the implication being that they are lazy writers who did little research. That may be true in some instances, but the inclusion of that in his book comes off as petty and unnecessary.

At the spa and hot springs at Ojo Caliente, a place known for its healings, cures and restorative powers, Radford does finally admit that while the “Hot Eye” waters may not cure cancer, but “it is possible that true miracles have occurred there.”

Wow! Ol’ Ben is hedging just a smidge here. Plus, I think he just liked how good it felt soaking in those hot springs. Who wouldn’t love that?

And the chapter on labyrinths in nice enough, but people walking in labyrinths sure as hell haven’t solved world peace …  and they do little for the author except offer a place to get some fresh air.

Writes Radford: “As with previous labyrinths I’d walked, I did not experience any transcendental connection to the universe; I didn’t feel any of the mystical earth energies or healing vibrations that (others) had mentioned. Then again I’m a generally practical, skeptical, science-minded type.”

Yeah, we know. You’ve told us a million times already.

It’s guys like Radford that give skeptics a bad name, and taint science in the process. Yes, we know Santa Claus doesn’t exist … give it a rest!

For instance, in the book The Meanings of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Lindsey Michael Banco writes about the creator of the atomic bomb, a man who loved the area around Los Alamos, N.M. when he was younger and spent time at a ranch there. Oppenheimer loved the enchanting beauty of northern New Mexico and selected it for the site of the secret city that was involved with the Manhattan Project.

And of course he was a brilliant scientist. But even Oppenheimer had a mystical side, a man who “reveled in the mysticism of Hindu scriptures” and quoted from Bhagavad-Gita, notably saying “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds,” after witnessing that world-changing atomic-bomb detonation at Trinity site on July 16, 1945, near the Jornada del Muerto (“Journey of the Dead Man”) trail between Socorro and Las Cruces.

Oppenheimer was a scientist. A rational man. But he was balanced in that he had a mystical side as well, a side open to other possibilities as yet not explained. Just look at the human brain. It has two hemispheres for a reason. Radford and his pals seem to only rely on the left side, much to their detriment. It leads to imbalance. And that is evident in Mysterious New Mexico.

Yes, Radford, “People will forever see what they want to see.” Psychic detectives are charlatans and stories of ghosts and other strange phenomena are “repeated, with errors and embellishments compounded year after year.

Yeah. Humans are storytellers. Stories do change. But usually there is some truth at the heart of it. I just don’t think Radford is willing to peel that particular onion.

One hopes that Benjamin Radford, inspired by the beauty and mystery of his home state, will broaden his horizons a little more. Stick with science, sure, be a skeptic, but also admit (as he sort of did when visiting Ojo Caliente) that things happen that even modern science can’t explain.

But then, most skeptics don’t like to admit when they’re wrong. In fact, perhaps Radford is more content with viewing New Mexico like Better Call Saul’s Jimmy McGill: “a soulless, radioactive, Georgia O’Keefe hellscape out there crawling with corals snakes and scorpions.”

But then I could be wrong.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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