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.
For one, they believe that the Joshua Tree area itself is a locus for paranormal activity. Contact in the Desert is taking place at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, a sprawling, 400-acre cluster of trapezoidal, 1970s-era bungalows. The site has a long history with encounters of the extraterrestrial kind. Just 13 miles away, aeronautical engineer George Van Tassel built a big, white, wooden "rejuvenation" dome at the urging of aliens from the planet Venus. They talked to him in his dreams and telepathically faxed him the blueprints.
Shortly after construction began, Joshua Tree had its first UFO convention, in April 1953. Then, as now, this scraggly patch of dry rock is a place where people believe there are 17 energy vortices that converge over a series of secret underground tunnels.
At her lecture, local historian Barbara Harris explains that the underground tunnels are actually caverns created by the eons-ago recession of the Salton Sea.
"Yes, I have a map," one woman says and digs around in her purse, as if that's where she always keeps it, right next to her lipstick. "They're ancient. They're lit by a mild green light, and there are creatures living in them."
For many here, it is a relief to finally be around others who believe their unbelievable stories. The conference attendees believe in cover-ups, coincidences and conspiracies. They believe in disinformation, propaganda, black-budget operations and spin control.
They believe that Marilyn Monroe was assassinated — she was planning to tell the world that aliens exist (JFK told her so, during pillow talk). They believe that NASA is airbrushing aliens out of the Mars Rover photos and Photoshopping the Martian sky red to make it look uninhabitable to Earthlings. NASA astronauts, they believe, have been teleporting to Mars since the 1940s.
They believe that extraterrestrials approached President Eisenhower and asked him to go into space peacefully. The aliens met him at Edwards Air Force Base in Antelope Valley, where flying saucers are kept to this day. Not that "day" matters, because they believe in time travel.
They believe in Roswell, of course. And crop circles. And in David Icke's reptile agenda. They believe in cattle mutilations. Aliens, they reckon, are sucking out cows' blood serum for God knows what purpose.
They believe that humans are being genetically manipulated by aliens into a different species, and that the U.S. government is aiding and abetting the process.
While there is no consensus about the specific features of the alien ecology (most believe in a variety of species, as in Star Trek) or their ultimate purpose on Earth, everybody here believes in secrets. They believe in breakaway civilizations and invisible empires with technology vastly superior to that of the mainstream world. They believe that the military-industrial-entertainment complex is dumbing down the American public. Hence, they believe in nurturing a healthy distrust of corporate America.
They believe they are being lied to. They believe, as one ufology historian puts it, in "a brilliant, pervasive system of news control that is still in place."
They believe in these things with an enviable conviction. They have, like historian Richard Dolan, written 900-page treatises on UFOs and devoted decades of their lives to their chosen subspecialty. They have flown out here from all over the country — Chicago, Florida, Michigan, Canada, Virginia — and paid $225 per person, plus $24.95 extra per workshop (plus $10 per workshop DVD) for the pleasure of one another's company.
Capitalism may be dead to these folks, but marketing is alive and well. Half the people here have self-published books or e-books or Kickstarter fundraisers they'd love to tell you about.
Many claim to have proof. The Freedom of Information Act request is their weapon of choice. (The meeting with confidential government or military source is the backup weapon of choice.) But as Leir concedes, "Many times when you think you're gonna find answers for these things, what you do is wind up with more mysteries."
Some attendees, like lecturer Alfred Webre, believe there is indigenous life elsewhere in the galaxy. Like, say, on Mars. Webre, a former lawyer, presents a highly enjoyable but profoundly unscientific "analysis" of a single photograph taken by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit. Beamed back to Earth in 2008, PIA10214 is a panoramic landscape — rocks, sand and not much else ... or is there?
He zooms into the lower left corner. He traces the apparent form of a woman. Is it a rock formation? A fossil? A being traversing the cliff? It's a statue, he concludes. "How did a statue like this get on Mars, if you assume it's an uninhabited planet?"
PIA10214, he says, is "a cosmic treasure trove of pictographic evidence of life on Mars." There are, he continues, five types of humanoids currently living on Mars. One is the alien of pop culture fame — a "gray," with bulbous head and spindly body. He zooms in to a group of rocks, gesturing to the negative space between them. People in the audience squint. It takes a while, but once you see it, your mind can't unsee it: a man, bent over a boulder, arms flung out as if in exhaustion.
He pulls up more blurry close-ups — a Martian in a black caftan running away from the camera; another diving into a hidey-hole. "They're camera-shy."
What is the atmosphere on Mars, a girl in the front row asks. "What I've been told by people who were there is it's like being in Denver, Colorado," Webre answers.
Webre sought to have National Geographic publish his findings. "We have not yet received a reply." He has been waiting four years.
Other attendees believe that the evidence has been on Earth all along, hiding in plain sight in the world's great stone monuments — the Egyptian pyramids, Chichén Itzá, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat. How else to explain the massive stones perfectly cut, held together by only friction and weight, no mortar?
As author and retired engineer Marshall Klarfeld puts it, "We're stuck with this scientific box that we're in. 'Because the Egyptians were there, they built it. Because the Mayans were there, they built it. Because the Sumerians were there, they built it.' Couldn't they have inherited it?"
Klarfeld believes that extraterrestrials came to Earth a long time ago and influenced early human culture. In the UFO community, this branch of inquiry — based largely on the writings of controversial, self-taught biblical scholar Zecharia Sitchin — is called the "ancient astronauts" or "ancient aliens" field.
Klarfeld is aware that not everyone shares his passion for Sitchin's writings. "There are people in the scientific community, frankly, who called me a woo-woo," Klarfeld says.
"Off the wall. Lost my marbles."
Such insults don't bother him.
Back in the 1950s, says implant surgeon Leir, the government made Joshua Tree ufologist George Van Tassel — who believed that aliens from Venus were communicating with him telepathically — look like an "absolute jackass."
"If you talked about this to your neighbor, you were almost afraid," Leir continues. "Because someone was gonna laugh. You know, 'There's a class-A, No. 1 nutcase.' It worked very well. And it's still working today."
"Some people would rather go to a psychiatrist," he says, "and take a pill rather than admit they were abducted."
What does it take to be taken seriously? Perhaps a few serious academic studies? "You don't fund research on UFOs," historian Dolan says. "No one goes into it because who will be your adviser? No one."
He knows. He tried. "Oh," his professor said, "you're a conspiracy theorist."
It's sad, Dolan says. You encounter a UFO, "and you tell no one about the most amazing experience of your life."
Murmurs of assent waft up from the crowd when he says this. The room is stiflingly hot, and the women fan themselves with programs, as at church.
One young half-Filipina woman says she confessed to her family that she believed she was being abducted. "They all think I'm crazy."
These people are not kooks. Not in the traditional sense. Klarfeld got his degree from Caltech and studied under Nobel laureates Linus Pauling and Richard Feynman. Webre, the guy who believes platypuses are running around on Mars, is a Yale Law School graduate and a former general counsel for the New York Environmental Protection Agency.
The more psychologically minded among us ask, when, exactly, did their schizophrenic break with reality occur?
And yet ... some things linger in the mind long after you've heard them. Skyped in from London on the conference's second day, explorer and best-selling author Graham Hancock suggests — to the everlasting irritation of mainstream archaeologists — that, yes, perhaps the Great Pyramid and other megaliths are thousands of years older than we currently believe and were built by one such advanced, ancient civilization. Whoever the pyramids' builders were, they had a deep knowledge of astronomy.
The perimeter of the base of the Great Pyramid, for instance, multiplied by 43,200, gives you the equatorial circumference of the Earth. And 43,200 isn't a random number. It is a multiple of 72.
Why does 72 matter? Like a top winding down while it spins, the Earth wobbles on its axis. In astronomy, this motion is called "precession." It takes 72 years for the Earth to complete one degree of precessional wobble. So it seems the Great Pyramid's builders knew not only the size of the planet but also some very subtle, sophisticated things about how it moves through space. This at a time before modern man even realized Earth was round.
And why couldn't life have been seeded throughout the galaxy by giant aliens? The stairs at Chichén Itzá, for instance, are 12 inches high. "Who climbs 12-inch steps?" Klarfeld asks, a small smile dancing at the corners of his mouth. "People 9 feet tall."
For some, proof is not necessary. One woman waiting in line at the registration booth admits she's never seen an alien but has "intuited them."
Others have seen things, and heard and touched things. They have the truth of their own experience.
Arizona logger Travis Walton, the world's most famous abductee, on whom the movie Fire in the Sky is based, is one such person. In the 38 years since the event occurred, he has never changed his story. Neither has he been able to prove it. Ironically, he is perhaps the most believable of all.
On Nov. 5, 1975, Walton and five co-workers were driving home through the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest after a job, when a glowing, hovering metallic object appeared in the sky. On impulse, Walton ran out of the truck to get a closer look. He felt the sound more than heard it — a throbbing, rumbling, scraping. A mixture of high and low and everything in between. Suddenly, a burst of light shot out from the craft. It hit Walton like a football tackle and lifted him into the air.
His crew took off. Believing Walton dead, they called the sheriff, who rejected their story. He thought they'd murdered Walton. A massive police search party combed the forest. Tracking dogs followed the trail to the abduction site and stopped.
Walton, for his part, recalls waking up in a small, trapezoidal room. It was warm, humid, and he struggled to breathe. He heard movement and saw creatures standing above him. In the years that followed, their stare became the focus of his nightmares. He remembers their skin — grayish white, translucent, suggestive of moisture underneath.
They affixed metal objects to his chest. But he rolled off the table and ran out of the room into a curved hallway. Humanlike creatures caught him by the arm, led him out of the ship into a large, open hangar, then into another ship, and put a mask over his face.
He awoke on a highway by the woods. It felt as if only hours had passed, but it had been five days.
A media storm followed. The community of Snowflake, Ariz., where Walton and the other loggers lived, was divided. People doubted the UFO explanation. They thought the guys had hung a papier-mâché sculpture on a tree, that they'd seen a ball of lighting, that Walton hid out in the forest for five days, that it was a drug hallucination or a publicity stunt. Walton, however, was tested for drugs — none turned up. The crew consented to a polygraph. Everybody passed.
Afterward, the men went their separate ways. All experienced life-altering trauma. One man became like a little kid afraid of the dark, afraid to look out the window and see the spaceship.
Walton was 22 when it happened. People are uncomfortable with ambiguity, he says now at 60. "They want things to be either true or false. But most things are not." He is standing in a lecture hall with a dozen or so conference attendees, tall and lean in a neat white shirt, dark tie, dark slacks, serious as a Bible salesman.
"People who pride themselves on being skeptics can often be just as gullible," he continues. Often the debunkers aren't scientists but will point to science. "True scientists recognize science as a set of ever-changing principles."
His whole life since that night has been a battle for people's ability to reason. For their willingness to consider all sides of an issue, and not just stubbornly pick an opinion and scrounge around for facts to fit.
"You're either crazy if you believe it, or a liar because you made it all up." These were Walton's choices back then. Today, he adheres to an altogether different mantra: "The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."
He never had proof. But it doesn't matter. Belief is personal. It is a spectrum. "If I said, 'Raise your hand if you believe everything you've heard at this conference,' " he says, "I don't think I'd get one hand."
Over time, acceptance of Walton's story has increased. "Back then, space travel was an extremely novel thing," he notes. "Now, shuttle trips are routine."
Still, he would rather the entire thing had never happened. He would rather have lived a normal, uncontroversial, unexamined life. If he could go back in time, he never would have gotten out of that truck. The only thing left is to try to make some good come of it.
Someone asks a question: Do you ever doubt your own truth? Walton sighs. "I would welcome the idea that I was hit on the head."
There is a choice to be made. This is the message of the final lecture on the conference's third and closing day. Steven Greer is speaking to a packed auditorium. Greer is famous in UFO circles as the father of the Disclosure Movement, the grassroots effort to get the government to publicly reveal everything it knows about extraterrestrials. A former trauma doctor, he left a $500,000-a-year job as chairman of emergency medicine at Caldwell Memorial Hospital in North Carolina to study UFOs full-time. He shares anecdote after anecdote in a charming, impassioned if rambling sort of way. The primary response is thunderous applause.
Greer attended his first UFO conference in 1990. He was still employed as a physician then, and full-time alien work was scarcely a germ in his imagination. "Whatever you do," one old-timer warned him at that early conference, "don't do it quietly. Because if you do, you're a dead man."
Greer is not a quiet kind of guy. In May 2001, he held a disclosure conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Some 250,000 people waited to view the accompanying live webcast. It was, at the time, the Press Club's most watched program ever. The film he released this year, Sirius, is the most successful crowd-funded documentary in the history of crowdfunding. The public contributed $500,000 to make it.
Greer believes a friendly alien has been following him around for some time now. Its name is Bijoux. Bijoux is from the Andromeda galaxy. "He'll be there tonight," Greer says.
Tonight, Greer will be leading a mass meditation in the desert. He will summon the aliens. And they, he promises, will appear.
Which brings him to The Choice. "Will you choose to see the one thing that binds us all together?"
It isn't culture or intellect or emotion that we have in common with the aliens, he says, but the "light of awareness."
He made his choice. It is hard to imagine why someone with a wife and four kids leaves a half-million-dollar-a-year job until you understand that, in Greer's view, extraterrestrials are nothing less than an answer to a spiritual crisis. Why save one life in an emergency room when you can save an entire planet?
The aliens are eager to make contact with us, he insists. They are waiting for us to grow up. They are waiting for us to realize that we are not alone in the universe. They are waiting for us to say "welcome." And frankly, he prefers the term "star people" because "aliens" is xenophobic.
He pulls up a picture of a desiccated critter now, and the audience gasps. It is 6 inches tall — small enough to snuggle comfortably in your palm — and skinny, with a pointy head and a grotesque grimace, the worst Barbie doll ever. Discovered in Chile in 2003, it is called the Atacama Humanoid, and it's the subject of Greer's Sirius documentary. The specimen, which has been analyzed by a respected Stanford University geneticist, is not a hoax. It is the skeletal remains of a real, biological organism. It has 10 pairs of ribs (humans have 12). It is not a dwarf. It is not a fetus. The Stanford geneticist, Garry Nolan, believes it is a human with some as-yet-unidentified abnormality. Greer suspects it is an alien.
There are small aliens all over the place, Greer says. He tells of a woman in Russia who supposedly captured one that was 8 inches tall. She tried to keep it alive in her house, but it died. Its name, Greer says, was Alexis.
Greer has been seeing UFOs since he was 8 years old. He and a few neighborhood kids spotted a windowless, disc-shaped object hovering in the sky. Quick as it appeared, the disc vanished. This was the first of many sightings. Lying in bed at night, young Greer believed he was seeing skeletons melting out of the wall. He now understands that these were beings from outer space.
On his 18th birthday, he climbed up onto a fire tower to meditate. Again, he saw a disc materialize. Feeling a tap on the shoulder, he turned to behold a small creature with "beautiful eyes." Greer felt himself flying as the creature beamed him onto a spaceship. Time stood still. He felt connected to everyone and everything.
After that experience, he continued to "connect with a pure, universal love." Every night he meditated. And every night the aliens came.
The chanting begins after dusk. People, hundreds of them, gather at the large, empty patch of sand that serves as the retreat center's open-air amphitheater. They sit on folding camp chairs and blankets and on the scrubby bare ground itself.
Meditation, Greer believes, is central to making contact with aliens. He urges the crowd to take a deep breath, to release their anxieties. His voice is measured, soothing. "Become aware of this awareness," he says. He recites the necessary phrases: "infinite mind" and "mother Earth" and "father sky." For hours he chants, until words seem to lose their meaning.
"We're inviting them here in universal peace to manifest in any way," he purrs.
He shines the laser pointer into the sky as if he might draw the aliens down like cobwebs.
When he asks people to be silent, it is so quiet you can hear someone snoring softly at the other end of the amphitheater, the crunch of sand underfoot, the hissss-pop of a soda can opening.
"Interstellar beings can use anything to let you know they're with you," Greer says. "They can appear by sight, by tone, by touch, or by materializing in their person before us." Every person, Greer continues, has been "assigned one E.T. to be with you."
A full gallery of stars twinkles in the dark sky, but the night is spooky. This is a modern-day séance.
"As we sit here, the magnetometer makes a strange tone," he says. "They've arrived. It sounds like a cetacean. I'm holding it with both hands. This should not do this."
He points to the horizon. Do we see it? But there is nothing. No Bijoux. No saucer. No glowing metal orb.
An hour before midnight, a bright light streaks across the eastern sky. The annual Perseid meteor shower is scheduled to begin tonight. "Ooooh!" the people shout.
"An alleged meteor," Greer says. "They are coming."
Next week: In the second part of our two-part series, Gendy Alimurung explores the world of "experiencers" — people who believe they've been abducted by aliens.