Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mr. (and Mrs.) Hills' Wild Ride

The alleged "UFO abduction" of Betty and Barney Hill on Sept. 19, 1961 was the first such report of its kind in the United States, and one of the most famous alleged UFO encounters of all time. I will not attempt to relate in detail this extremely complicated story. For a detailed account of it, see chapter five of my book UFO Sightings. For even more details and all kinds of viewpoints on the case, pro, con, or simply confused, see Encounters at Indian Head .

I just recently happened across a very interesting paper written in 2007 by James D. Macdonald,  a former Navy navigator and  science fiction writer who lives in Colebrook, New Hampshire (not to be confused with the late atmospheric physicist and UFO proponent Dr. James E. McDonald.). He lives right along the path of the Hills' famous journey, on U.S. Route 3. Performing a careful line-by-line analysis of the account of the Hills' Wild Ride in John Fuller's Interrupted Journey and also scrutinizing the recent book Captured by Kathleen Marden and Stanton T. Friedman  (Marden is Betty Hill's niece), Macdonald notes that "the real reason why they were making a forced march is revealed. They didn’t have enough money for a motel so they’d decided to pull an all-nighter." Exactly.

As quoted by Fuller, Barney Hill told Betty while in Colebrook, NH shortly after 10 PM, “It looks like we should be home by 2:30 in the morning—or 3:00 at the latest.” Macdonald says, "That’s a wildly optimistic estimate. But they’d already decided that they were going to drive home that night. They were on the tail end of a twelve-hundred-mile trip, had run out of money, and were committed to pushing on." In fact, "By the time they reached home they’d been driving for around twenty-one hours. They’re lucky that being abducted by space aliens was the worst that happened to them: Others who’ve tried similar trips have run into trees." Or a deer. Or a moose. In fact,  the National Sleep Foundation has proclaimed November 6-12 as Drowsy Driving Prevention Week® 2011. The AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety lists as the top "warning sign" of the driver who is too drowsy to drive safely as "The inability to recall the last few miles traveled."  The Hills could be the poster children for this traffic safety crusade. 

The moon, Jupiter, and Saturn (bottom) as seen from the White Mountains at midnight, Sept. 19-20, 1961 (moon and planets enlarged, not to scale) 
I was the one who suggested, back in the 1970s, that Betty Hill's description of the "UFO" and a "star" near the moon matched up quite well with the known positions of Jupiter and Saturn, respectively. (It was much more difficult to calculate celestial positions for a specific time and place back then, without computers, than it is today.) This was published in the now-classic Official UFO magazine in 1976. But I knew that this was not the whole story. As the Hills passed by tall peaks like Cannon Mountain and went though the Franconia Notch, the Moon and Jupiter would have been too low to see in the west behind the mountains. So surely they must have been looking at something else. But what?

The light at top of Cannon Mountain: is this the "UFO" that abducted the Hills? (Photo by James D. Macdonald)
Driving the route late at night, Macdonald noted that "the Cannon Mountain tramway runs 365 days a year, and has been doing so since 1938 when it became the first aerial tramway in North America." A bright light on the lookout tower at the top of the mountain was installed in 1959, and shines all night long. Macdonald says,
Betty would have lost sight of the moon and its accompanying planets as the car went up hill along the side of Mt. Prospect, heading nearly due south. As they crested the rise, the moon and planets would reappear, only now there were two lights to the left of the moon. The light on Cannon Mountain, at that range on a clear night, is as bright or brighter than Jupiter. On a clear night stars appear below the peak of Cannon Mountain to the right and left. Up above we heard the Hills, in a different interview, relate, “it first appeared to be a falling star—only it fell upward.” Immediately after cresting the shoulder of the mountain, Route 3 plunges down a 9% grade for the next half mile. The road is pointed directly at Cannon Mountain at this time. Subjectively, at night, I can report of my own direct observation, the light appears to head rapidly straight up...the light on top of Cannon Mountain is visible at various points along this entire route—sometimes high, sometimes low, sometimes to the right of the road, and sometimes to the left... One question that you’d have to answer in order to show this was a flying saucer is, “If what you saw was a space ship, where was the light on Cannon while all this was going on?”
The Hills reported what appears to be a second Close Encounter with the light atop Cannon Mountain on April 2, 1966: "As we were returning through the Franconia Notch in the general area of the tramway and Cannon Mountain, one [UFO] moved around the mountain about 50 feet from the ground, in front of us. Its lights dimmed out and we could see the row of windows before it became invisible. It just faded out of sight and then just reappeared with different lighting behind us... On the opposite side of the highway was a second one, which also faded out. ” (Marden, p. 208-209).

The final spot where the Hills stopped and had a "close encounter" (where Barney says he saw "Nazi" spacemen in his binoculars) was just south of Indian Head. Barney and Betty took UFO researcher Walter Webb to that spot to re-enact the sighting in 1964, and in 2000 Betty Hill took those of us participating in the Indian Head conference there. It's near the location of the now-defunct Mountaineer Motel on Rt. 3 in Lincoln, NH, whose sign stands just north of Exit 33 of  I-93 (which was not yet built in 1961). After they drove off from that site, in something of a panic, they never saw the UFO again. Macdonald notes, "2.1 miles south of Indian Head is the last time the Lookout Tower Light is visible from Rt. 3."

Macdonald continues:
"There's another possible object they may have seen: the Jack O'Lantern Resort in Woodstock which, at the time, had a large billboard with their logo (a stylized jack-o-lantern) down by the road. That would certainly appear to be a "large, luminous moon-shape, which seemed to be touching the road, sitting on end under some pines." This is well out of town; no other features are nearby."
That is a very interesting suggestion. As Kathleen Marden describes it, at this point the Hills vaguely remembered "seeing a huge fiery red-orange orb resting upon the ground." I was not able to find any photo of the Jack O'Lantern resort's giant, unlighted billboard, but I did discover some old postcards with photographs of the giant orange pumpkin that used to sit on the motel roof. Judging from the cars out front, the photo would seem to be from the 1960s. And if the pumpkin were illuminated but the motel lights were out, the "orb" might seem to rest on the ground. In any case, the Hills must have driven past this giant pumpkin on Rt. 3, just minutes after they were frightened out of their wits near Indian Head.

Could this be the "huge fiery red-orange orb" that the Hills remembered seeing as they sped away from the "Close Encounter" site, just a few miles away?

 Macdonald concludes:
What do they remember south of Indian Head?
a) The Lincoln/Woodstock road marker
b) Downtown North Woodstock
c) (Possibly) the billboard for the Jack O'Lantern Golf Course & Resort in Woodstock
d) Downtown Plymouth
e) Downtown Ashland
f) Entering the superhighway
g) Concord
h) Portsmouth

In short, they remember every single town they passed through. The rest of the trip is past dark lakes, rivers, fields, and woods. I’ve driven that route more than once, and I don’t remember much more than that myself. Not only isn’t there any missing time, there aren’t any missing memories.


  1. Not that I am disagreeing but were all the cited light sources there and actually visible as described back when the alleged abduction took place.

    Also Bellero Shield.

  2. The Cannon Mountain Light was mounted in 1959.

  3. James,

    Thanks. I added that information. So in 1961, that light was a relatively new addition?

    I also added the following text to the Blog posting:
    "The Hills reported what appears to be a second Close Encounter with the light atop Cannon Mountain on April 2, 1966: "As we were returning through the Franconia Notch in the general area of the tramway and Cannon Mountain, one [UFO] moved around the mountain about 50 feet from the ground, in front of us. Its lights dimmed out and we could see the row of windows before it became invisible. It just faded out of sight and then just reappeared with different lighting behind us... On the opposite side of the highway was a second one, which also faded out. ” (Marden, p. 208-209)."

  4. OMG! Altair was visible....Maybe they saw the explosion of Altair-5??? Today, only the older types remember just how dark Franconia (And the rest of the US!) was then, before all the lights were installed---everywhere. I lived there and in many other states where there was not a lot of light pollution, so I can readily see how they would have been impressed by the only lights when they came to Cannon MT...


  5. > Barney Hill told Betty while in Colebrook, NH shortly after 10 PM

    As a side note, I have grave doubts about the legitimacy of the time. This is Barney, speaking at Peirce Memorial Church, Nov 7 1965, as quoted in Incident at Exeter, page 196 of the Berkley Medallion paperback:

    "When Betty and I left Colebrook, we never remembered the exact time until we were regressed back under hypnosis. Here, I had looked at a clock on the wall, and the time was five minutes after 10 at night."

    The more I read about this case, the mistier the facts get.

    (BTW, both Fuller and Marden misspell Peirce. Fuller simply didn't name it in Interrupted Journey.)

  6. Terry,

    Many thanks for catching that. I'd almost forgotten that Fuller wrote the Hills' story briefly in his Incident at Exeter, then wrote the long version of it in The Interrupted Journey.

    So according to Barney, the "fact" of them departing from Colebrook at 10:05 is solely a RECOVERED MEMORY CLAIM?????? In other words, we really have NO IDEA what time they left Colebrook??????????

    (Another "recovered memory fact" that has entered the narrative is where Betty says that the object crossed the face of the moon. She never said that before hypnosis, so she probably did not see it happen.)

    Curiouser and Curiouser!!!!!!!!

    Thanks so much, Terry the Censor!!!!!!!

  7. Here's another curiosity, this time from Betty's Sept 26 1961 letter to Donald Keyhoe:

    "There does not appear to be any damage to our car from the beeping sounds."

    Maybe this explains why Walter Webb never looked at the spots on the trunk?

  8. What a stretch....and I'm not referring to the road the Hills traveled.

    ~ Susan

  9. I recently viewed a UFO last summe in the Colebrook area. I know of many people who have seen them,,,many sightings are viewed by as many as 8 people at a time...No one is willing to go public and be ridiculed by their neighbors...One very spring day I was working on a snowmobile with my son when my father in law came running by us very,,very nexcited and pointing towards Mt.Monnadock very yelling " did you see it ,,did you see it????"...I responded with " What did you see" and he replied in stutured words that he saw a large grey cigar shaped object hovering over us...I asked what happened and he said that it,it,it just zipped off that way..I then made a joke of the event by saying that grandpaw was seeing UFOs...He was not happy with that commet and stormed into the house ...Later I thought to myself "what was that thing doing hovering over myself and son " ???? I called him the next week to tease him and ask if he had seen any little green men but a family member answered and quickly told me the news that the family and some friends had all watched a group of UFOs the evening before...I was speechless...She then told me that very soon after the UFOs departed two very large helecopters were seen in pursuit...What do you think maybe military in origin???

  10. I always suspected it was wishful thinking on their part. Regardless of their intent (I'd prefer to think it self delusion rather than willful deception), they have remained in the Zeitgeist for over a half century and their names are forever linked - for good and ill - to this subject. So in that sense, good for them.

  11. That photo of the Jack o Lantern on the motel is quite telling and a great find. At night, in low light conditions, I think this is precisely what the Hills must have mistaken for a fiery orange orb.


Keep your comments relevant, and keep them civil! That means no personal attacks will be allowed, by anyone, on anyone. Commenters are welcome to disagree with me, or with other comments, but state your arguments using logic, and with a civil tone. Comments in violation of these rules will be deleted, and offenders banned.

Comments should be in English, although quotes from foreign-language sources are fine as long as they're relevant, and you explain them. Anonymous postings are not permitted. If you don't want to use your real name, then make up a name for yourself, and use it consistently.