My Geeky Southwest

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My Southwest hometown may not be on any of those so-called “official” geekiest lists, but we know better. Image: Lisa Kay Tate.

Earlier this month, the data-driven predictive marketing firm Mintigo announced their “10 Geekiest Cities in America,” citing the television show The Big Bang Theory as a good place to look for geeks (despite the fact that cast members have admitted again and again that they aren’t really nerds).

According to Mintigo’s results, the geekiest city in the United States is New York City, along with Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Atlanta, and Chicago.

I am by no means saying that any of these cities aren’t worth their geeky props. There are no less than three cities from my home state of Texas on the top 10 that I enthusiastically tip my hat to: Austin, Houston, and Dallas.

What I was a little puzzled with, however, was the firm’s determining factors. These included technology usage patterns, jobs and hiring of technology-related jobs, news and public relation mentions about technology topics. and website mentions of relevant topics.

I would say this is a fantastic list for “tech-savvy” (which is a good thing, trust me), but is this really “geeky?” I always assumed geeky has as much to do with how people embrace all their passions, tech worthy, pop culture related, literary, artistic, sports-oriented, or anything else we can dive into with unadulterated fervor.

geekiest cities
Mintigo’s map of their geekiest cities. The darker areas are the ones that meet their tech-savvy criteria. Image: Mintigo.

If this is the case, there are plenty more cities that deserve to be much higher on this list. To demonstrate, I’d like to propose another look at my neck of the woods along the Texas and New Mexico border. This includes the seemingly isolated city of El Paso, Texas, and its Southern New Mexico neighbors, all who have been happily contributing to geek culture for some time. I’ve listed just a few of the reasons the El Paso and the desert Southwest can proudly fly its geek flag.

We can officially claim Gene Roddenberry and Alan Tudyk.
Trekkies everywhere can thank my hometown of El Paso, because it first brought Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry into this world in 1921, long before he set eyes on the “Final Frontier.” Roddenberry’s dad was working as a lineman at the time, but soon got a better job as a police officer in Los Angeles. As a result, Roddenberry wasn’t even two when he and his family departed town.

Still, El Paso boasts a huge amount of Trekkies (we even had a couple of moderately successful Star Trek conventions), and the local school district’s planetarium is named after him.

Another famous El Pasoan, who is getting plenty of geeky attention, is Firefly alumnus and Con-Man co-creator Alan Tudyk. Unfortunately, like Roddenberry, Tudyk did not grow up here. Curse your sudden and inevitable betrayal, Alan! I’m kidding, we still love him. There are plenty of El Paso Browncoats waiting for a visit from Wash at some local event.

I wish I could also say “Deep Thoughts” creator Jack Handey (who was born in San Antonio) is native, but he did grow up in El Paso and got to hone his writing talents working for his high school newspaper. I’d like to think his time out here in the borderlands inspired poems like, “The Middle Ages was the best of times to be a rat; You could point to a man with plaque and say, ‘I gave him that.'”

We have the first “digital wall” in the nation.
The El Paso Museum of History combined the city’s past with the technology of the future, when it opened its Digital History Wall (aka DIGIE) earlier this year. This wall allows anyone age 13 and older to upload their own local memories or photos to the ever-changing wall, which can be explored via touchscreen technology. Kids are also allowed to contribute, under the guidance of a parent or guardian.

Digie-Screen Shot
A sampling of the El Paso Museum of History’s DIGIE interactive history wall. Image: El Paso Museum of History.

This tech-heavy display was developed with the help of the Museum of Copenhagen, Denmark’s TouchCity 3D Digital Wall. The creation of the wall became an international project with professionals, engineers, IT specialists, and others from both El Paso and Copenhagen. Now, we have the first Digital Wall of its kind in the United States, and it is really cool. You can find everything from Pancho Villa to Chico’s Tacos, just by perusing the touchscreen like Tony Stark in his tech lab. I’m betting other U.S. cities will be looking at getting a display like this soon. However, we can say we did it first.

We were a real Jurassic Park.
In 2001, University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) geology student Eric Kappus was hiking among the Cristo Rey Mountain range when he discovered something no one else had for literally millions of years: Dinosaur tracks everywhere! Tons and tons of dinosaur tracks, the first one being the largest print yet found of a classic 100-million-year-old theropod, or “big bird track.” This gained attention from scientists and news reporters around the world turning a new eye on the area’s significance along the great “paleocoastal tracksite” highway. There are more than three miles of nature trails at the dinosaur track sites, but since it is settled in a slightly secluded area near the border, it is best to go there with one of the many safe guided hikes held each year.

Astroscientist Alan Hale noticed what became known as the Hale-Bopp comet, while searching the skies from his New Mexico driveway. Image: Wikicommons.

One of my alma mater’s professors discovered Pluto.
Astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh taught planetary research later in life at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, El Paso’s closest U.S. neighbor and the town where I received my bachelor’s degree. He retired long before I got there, but his legacy was vastly appreciated. Tombaugh is the man who discovered Pluto at Lowell Observatory in Arizona, and later came to White Sands Missile Range to work in the ballistics research laboratory. Even after poor Pluto was downgraded to a “dwarf planet” in 2006, it is still a beloved part of the solar system for area residents. Some of the late Tombaugh’s ashes may actually get to see Pluto someday, as they are on-board NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft headed in that very direction.

Another area astronomer, Alan Hale, is the co-discoverer of the Hale-Bopp Comet. He first saw the object while observing the stars from his Southern New Mexico driveway.

It just goes to show that it’s easy to get inspired by our Southwest skies.

…And Dr. Horrible!
New Mexico State University is also known for a top-notch drama department, home to Academy Award-winning playwright Mark Medoff (Children of a Lesser God). Geek sweetheart Neil Patrick Harris, who was born in Albuquerque, was discovered by Medoff when he was attending a youth drama camp at the Las Cruces university. Medoff later cast Harris in a movie called Clara’s Heart with Whoopi Goldberg, and he went on to do pretty much everything you can in the entertainment business… act, write, produce, direct, sing, and do magic.

Although he made a name for himself in the late 80s and early 90s as teen doctor Doogie Houser, he will be remembered for such diverse roles as his Emmy-winning portrayal of somehow lovable misogynist Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother and his Tony Award-winning role as charismatic gay East German rocker Hedwig in Broadway’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch—not to mention the title role in Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, with fellow geek favorite Nathan Fillion.

We’re home to the world’s largest classic film festival.
Each year, more than 40,000 film fanatics from around the region flood the historic Plaza Theatre for the Plaza Classic Film Festival, the world’s largest classic and semi-classic film festival, to enjoy big-screen showings of such classic films as Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Labyrinth. There are also animated shorts, documentaries, recently made local films, roof-top “walk up” movies, and concert films (with live concerts) in the outdoor plaza, along with celebrity appearances, receptions, and exhibits.

This 10-day celebration of modern semi-classic and classic cinema keeps screens at the Plaza’s ,ain auditorium and annex theater filled from morning til’ past midnight with everything from film noir to fantasy.

This year’s full schedule hasn’t been announced, although festival organizers revealed 40th anniversary showings of two films that have absolutely nothing in common except a birth-date: 1975’s dark prison drama One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and the comedy classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

There seems to be but one consideration for the films selected each year: “Is it a movie?” If so, it might end up on one of the Plaza Classic’s screens.

We’re two hours from aliens and spaceports.
Before The X-Files, before Project UFO, before the The Outer Limits, and even before Kolchak: The Night Stalker, there was Roswell, New Mexico.

Everyone knows something crashed in the desert outside of Roswell in 1947. Whether it was a piece of top-secret military research or a weather balloon or an actual alien spacecraft has been the subject of debate for more than 50 years. Whatever the answer, it has also been the basis for a healthy and fun tourist industry in Roswell.

Roswell is proud of their aliens, real or not. The Roswell-style alien, with the large head, elongated arms, and almond eyes, became such a common look associated with the UFO culture, the city was even considering copywriting the word “Roswell.” They are also home to the International UFO Museum and Research Center and the annual Roswell UFO Festival, which draws thousands of visitors to the city every Independence Day weekend from around the world… and perhaps beyond. A visit to the museum is still on my personal geeky bucket list, but I’m honestly not sure I want to brave the festival crowds.

On the flip-side of the alien lore is the reality of potential commercial space travel. Spaceport America is home to Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo, as well as to SpaceX’s Falcon 9R and many other suborbital craft. Preview bus tours of the facility and surrounding area aren’t cheap ($59 for adults), but there are plans for more accessible welcome centers along I-25. Until it gets a little less costly for a family weekend getaway, just knowing this port is there will have to be enough for us.

The famous antennae of the Very Large Array. Image: Wikicommons.

Just up the road from both Roswell and the spaceport is the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array (VLA) in Socorro, one of the world’s most famous astronomical radio observatories. If nothing else, the very presence of this 27-radio antenna field has sparked geeky photo ops, and they’ve been featured on everything from The X-Files‘ opening credits to the cover for the Dave Matthews Band’s single “Satellite.” Ironically, the video for this song featured Big Bang Theory‘s Johnny Galecki stretching his acting chops by sitting in a trailer watching television.

The idea that these antennae may find alien life brings in the tourists, but astrophysicists and other scientists have been using these for learning more about the sun and solar system, black holes, star birth and death, and other matters of the physical universe. The VLA conducts tours at least once a week, and they do have a visitor center and gift shop open daily.

Closer to home in Alamogordo, the site of the famous “Atari 2600 Port’s E.T. the Extra Terrestrial” unearthing that took place last year, is the New Mexico Museum of Space History. Among many of its indoor and outdoor exhibits is the final resting place of Ham the Astrochimp, who was the first chimpanzee to visit outer space. Bring flowers.

Our Chamber Music Festival’s artistic director killed a man with a cello… on HBO.
El Paso Pro-Musica, the organization behind the well-attended El Paso Chamber Music Festival, is under the artistic direction of world-renowned cellist Zuill Bailey. Bailey has a cadre of fans worldwide for his live performance and CDs, as well as local admirers for his innovative programming. However, fans of HBO’s dark prison comedy Oz may recognize him for his recurring role as a classical musician imprisoned for second-degree murder. He’s probably the only concert cellist who can honestly say he was killed in a prison riot.

Image: Sun City SciFi.

Yes, we do have some great ‘cons.
El Paso, like most cities, has had its share of comic, science fiction, fantasy, and horror fests come and go, but we tend to maintain a pretty good amount of fan-focused events for our neck of the woods. Most notably, Sun City SciFi events, including the Sun City Comic Con and Film Fest coming up in June, Border City Comic Con in the summer, Las Cruces Comic Con in the fall, and Sun City Scifi’s Fan Expo in October. We also have our own steampunk festival now too, Sun City Steam Fest, and handful of popular anime festivals including Las Cruces Anime Days and Yama Fest at UTEP. Past festivals have include EPCon, EPIC Festival, and Frank N’ Con horror fest. Really, for our little corner New Mexico, that’s not a bad haul.

My hometown and its surroundings may not have been on the radar for the list, but we know our geeky worth. I hope everyone else with a flair for creativity and fandom will look no further than their own hometowns as well, because when it comes to sharing our favorite things, be they scenic views or science fiction, there’s no place like home.

We don’t need a radar out here, anyway. We have a spaceport.

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