One Weekend with Alien Enthusiasts Might Make You a Believer 

Thursday, Nov 28 2013

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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.

click to flip through (3) ILLUSTRATION BY SKIP STERLING

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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.

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