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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.