They are waiting for an alien named Bijoux from the Andromeda galaxy. They are coaxing him down from the sky with laser pointers and chants, signaling their location with electronic tones. But will he come? They believe.
Seven hundred people — hippies, New Agers, kooks, nutcases, wackos, psychos; call them what you will — have pilgrimaged to Joshua Tree for Contact in the Desert, a three-day weekend of lectures and workshops billed as a serious inquiry into UFOs, human origins and extraterrestrial life. This many ufologists in the desert smells like sun, weed, incense and sweat. Yet there is also an unexpected whiff of truth.
Take Roger Leir, a medical professional who has come to believe that aliens are visiting Earth and putting implants in people. A frequent speaker on the UFO radio and cable TV circuit, Leir is a board-certified podiatric surgeon who has been in private practice in Ventura County for the past 43 years. He says he's removed 16 of these implants himself.
Over the years, he explains to the assembled audience, he has removed thousands of objects from feet — people step on stuff all the time.
The objects he's removed from alleged abductees, however, are different. They're small and cylindrical or T-shaped. Sometimes they have a shiny, ceramic outer coating with tiny wires snaking out. The wires, he says, are carbon nanotubes. Made mostly of iron, with trace amounts of iridium, their composition strongly resembles that of meteorites.
He seals the objects into vials and delivers them to reputable labs — Los Alamos National Laboratory, University of Toronto, University of California at San Diego. "Don't blame the plumber for what came out of the kitchen sink," Leir likes to say. Though he is not so bold as to consider himself a scientist, simply a careful investigator, he has moved from outright skepticism to certainty. "I did my first two surgeries for fun because I didn't believe it," he says. Now he believes.
What might a scientist make of, say, the curious case of the patient who showed up at Leir's Southern California office one February day. "I think I've got something in my toe," he said.
The man had awoken to find the second toe of his left foot "hurting like the dickens." It was red and swollen. There was no entry wound, just a few drops of blood on his bedsheets.
X-rays revealed an object 3.5mm long and the diameter of pencil lead. During surgery, the object broke into 12 pieces, which Leir extracted one at a time. Each time he'd approach them with his instruments, the objects moved away. Weirder still, two days after sealing them into a vial, the pieces, he says, reassembled into their original order.
Leir went to the patient's house. In the yard, he found more anomalies — a highly magnetic avocado tree, a patch of soil that would spontaneously catch fire. The master bedroom held the pièce de résistance: handprints, under the window beside the bed. Two little hands, with four little fingers each. The prints fluoresced under ultraviolet light. "Very childlike," Leir describes them. They were "not bear prints, not cat prints, or dog. ... They're something else."
He pulls up the next slide, a photo of what looks like a black seed embedded in an oyster. Another implant. The black seed is metallic. The gloopy, gelatinous oyster is a capsule of the person's skin.
A man in the audience cries out, "That's identical to what I got out from behind my leg. It was a quarter-inch deep into the muscle tissue."
"Really?" Leir says. "I would love to see that."
The man shakes his head glumly. "I destroyed it. I hit it with a hammer after I took it out."
After extraction, Leir says, he sends patients to hypnotherapist Yvonne Smith. These people, Smith says, are "haunted by missing time." They come to her speaking of objects inserted into their nasal cavity with long, needlelike instruments. Of being submerged, naked, into tanks of liquid. They describe different types of beings: so-called "grays," with hairless gray skin and giant eyes; tall ones in black capes; giant praying mantises that seem to be in charge.
In 22 years of practice, she is struck by the similarity of their symptoms. The geometric marks on their bodies — scoop marks, dots, triangles and chevron signs that fluoresce under ultraviolet light and can't be removed with soap or water or other solvents. The anxiety. The recurring dreams of eyes. The fear of water. Fear of owls. Fear of deer and sharks.
As Smith speaks, a woman in the audience starts to cry.
The beliefs held by the people at Contact in the Desert are, quite literally, out of this world. But here, even the strangest of views will be given credence. Here, out in the middle of nowhere, they will know they are not alone.