"Interstellar," "The Martian," "Star Trek," "Star Wars," "Guardians of the Galaxy," "Firefly," "Apollo 13," "Alien," "2001: a Space Odyssey" – the list goes on and on. We have injected our fascination with space so deeply into our media that one doesn’t even blink an eye at a movie with an out-of-this-world setting anymore. And why would we not want to explore this fascination with space? Our interactions with the final frontier have been going on for over 50 years, and yet they only continue to evolve in more exciting ways as private space travel and the possibility of water on Mars fill the headlines. Space is far-reaching in our zeitgeist just as we ourselves aim to reach far beyond our stratosphere. Our imagined ventures into space are often full of hope and curiosity (Interstellar, Apollo 13), or at least fun-filled adventure (Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy). On the other hand, plots where outsiders come to Earth often venture into horror (Signs, Cloverfield). If the cultural mind of the United States is so inclined to imagine going to space, then why hasn’t there been a more recent and positive fascination with others coming to Earth?
Murmurs about aliens and Area 51 have fallen to the wayside in popular culture, living on outdated forum boards under the auspices of conspiracies rather than finding their way onto the silver screen or streaming on our TVs. However, for at least one South Carolinian, there is hope that others out there may have developed an interest in Earth, just as we have developed an interest in space. Although you might not see anything like it in the movies anytime soon, a material manifestation of hope for alien presence on Earth exists here in South Carolina.
When driving down I-26 South, perhaps on a road trip from Columbia to Charleston, you may stop to fill up your tank at an unassuming exit indicating it leads to “Bowman.” A typical middle-of-nowhere pit stop, there doesn’t appear to be much at the exit except for one gas station, with the rest of the area just a combination of forest and farms. Leaving the gas station, however, a small, unassuming cardboard sign on the side of the road might catch your eye, reading “UFO — 5 miles,” as an arrow points rightward down the road. Following the sign will lead you down curving roads, past farms and into a small town with not much except for an aging gas station and, to its right, what appears to be a giant, wooden, trash-laden fort.
The sagging fort is actually an approximately 40-foot-wide, wooden flying saucer, with planks spray-painted with messages surrounding the dilapidated outpost. This is the UFO Welcome Center. The structure, erected by Jody Pendarvis in the 1990s in what is actually his backyard, mostly consists of an array of 2-by-4s and ladders. In front of the precarious fort is a wooden plank sign donning a black spray-paint scrawl: “UFO Welcome Center, Bowman, Planet Earth.” A friendly fishnet alien waves from beside the sign, toeing the line between a little cute and a little creepy. As you get closer to the entrance of the saucer, a silver missile balanced atop cinder blocks again welcomes visitors to the center, while another wooden sign warns: “Space people only. Enter at your own risk.”
Beyond the structure which may or may not be able to support your weight, the entire area has the sweet and acrid smell of stagnant water, bringing with it the looming threat of mosquitoes in the summer months. If you decide to venture inside the structure, you will find that the inside of the round, high-ceilinged shack is filled with rusty tools, ladders and a gray tube TV circa the early 2000s. You can even climb to the top of the UFO Welcome Center and peak out of an opening that faces road – if you dare.
Despite its foreboding nature, the UFO Welcome Center’s quirkiness evokes a nostalgia for "X-Files," or at least just for simpler times when we could less easily disprove conspiracies and UFO sightings. The friendly alien waving from the outer fence of the center seems to be welcoming its fellow space people to the quiet town of Bowman. While earnest in its effort in to welcome UFOs and aliens – Pendarvis built the center after a UFO sighting – the UFO Welcome Center speaks to the need for some escapism every now and then. As a roadside attraction for many, the welcome center implicates us all as “space people.” We may not be from out of this world, but we are from outside the world of Bowman, and in a sense, aliens visiting from our own towns.
By inviting a little piece of a far-off galaxy to the rural South, the center alludes to a greater purpose: Maybe we could use some outside visitors to learn about a greater world, and similarly, outsiders could learn a little something from us. Whether that means space people and earthlings interacting, or just us earthlings visiting new places and meeting new people, the possibility that the center has a greater meaning beyond its status as a roadside attraction is something that I want to believe.