"Moon Pollution" by Connor Syrios
UFO, n. Orig. U.S. – An unidentified flying object; a ‘flying saucer’.
ARTHUR C. CLARKE
Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.
GEORGE W. BUSH
I heard you had reports this morning of an unidentified aircraft. Don’t worry, it was just me.
The initial assumption that I had about the people of Colorado’s San Luis Valley was that the cross-section of the bar-hopping population and the weird-shit-seeing population would be a significant, large blob of a primary color that would look great on a tourism pamphlet you’d find in an ATV rental shop. It’d be a pretty Venn diagram that might resemble a crop circle, but one razed by an artistically-challenged ET. Inside of that blob you’d see Believers. The outliers of the cross-section would be people like me, Nonbelievers, but I’d be on the side that hasn’t seen weird shit by default.
I’d heard about odd things happening in the Valley before arriving there; strange lights, animal mutilations, and seemingly supernatural events are liberally peppered throughout the Valley’s rich, and often baffling, oral and written history. Sand in the Alamosa Basin is supposed to have inexplicably swallowed teams of mules and sheep during Zebulon Pike’s excursion into Colorado during the early 19th century, and during the full moon, apparitions of horses have been known to gallop across the ridges of the Sand Dunes (Simmons 6-7). Also, it is in and around that valley where Native Americans, including the Navajo and Comanche tribes, wandered, explored, and cultivated their own heritage, leaving prehistoric pictographs scattered throughout the surrounding cliffs. It doesn’t end there. Tewa Pueblo legend holds that a small lake near the Sand Dunes, referred to as Sip’ophe, is a doorway out of and into the underworld that mankind crawled out of at the beginning of time (12, 13). For every landmark, there is a story. Into the 20th and 21st century, myth and superstition have lived on, but have evolved into something more otherworldly. Legend has taken up a new moniker.
This is best illustrated by the story of one man, a UPS driver, who reported that a UFO ambushed him one day while he was driving with his nephew and his brother down a lonesome road in the Valley. The object stuck around for an uncomfortable length of time directly in front of him and refused to leave. Naturally, fed up with the powers that be, the man exited his truck and confronted the UFO floating directly in front of him: “Do you want to make contact or what?!” (Messoline 11). Eventually, it left.
For two days and one night I stepped into that extensive legacy that impresses an ancient, biblically proportioned weight upon the beholder. Once I was there, that wearable history seemed altogether unwieldy and cosmologically breathed. Strangeness is the gospel of San Luis, and I inexplicably found myself at the altar listening for the unexpected.
And I was wrong about the Venn diagram, by the way. It doesn’t exist. The tiny, drive-by towns in Colorado’s San Luis Valley don’t have any bars at all.
They have something else, and I was there to experience it.
“I have no clue what that means,” I told the cashier, a young-ish woman in a red vest. She took the coke bottle I handed her and scanned it anyway.
“That’s our rewards card.” She educated me with a pause and a look that only a local could give to an outsider. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“No. We’re from Kansas.” My two friends, Alex and Luke, agreed to go on a camping trip with me on a Thursday during a school week in October. We skipped class, geared up, packed a cooler, hit a Burger King pretty hard, and tore west toward Colorado through the vastness of western Kansas. The first night we’d stay just outside of Colorado Springs in Falcon, the second night we’d stay in San Luis, then the third we’d go back to Falcon. But our primary goal, our ultimate destination, was a small town off the cosmic highway in Colorado’s mysterious San Luis Valley: Hooper. Homo sapien population 103 (Data).
It was around 10:00pm that night and we had been gliding across the San Luis Valley, and through Hooper, in a CRV named Christie, searching in vain for the bar that doesn’t exist. Bob Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In” bounced around the car’s interior as we voyaged across the floor of the Valley, explorers bound to its dusty roads. We went to Center, about 10 miles west, and they didn’t have a bar either. Go figure. They had a gas station, though, and so there we were, picking brains.
“What brings you out here?” She slid the coke across the counter. I gave her cash.
“We’re here for the UFO watchtower in Hooper. You ever heard of that?” My reply sounded strange when it left my mouth. Not only had I never seen a UFO, but I had never seen anything truly unexplainable.
She almost laughed. “I didn’t know they actually had that. But I know that San Luis is known for that kinda stuff.” She gave me my change. The station had several people mulling around the aisles and registers, and we were speaking loudly.
I smiled at her. “So you’ve never seen a UFO?”
“No. Ya know, I’ve only been here for about a month.”
I prodded. “So you haven’t seen one yet?”
With some urgency, she said through her smile, “I guess. Enjoy your time here, I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for.”
And what was I looking for? Something extraordinary, to put it mildly. I was looking for something strange, undefinable, and evergreen that would turn my head and fill me with wonder, if only for a moment. I was looking for a damn UFO at the world’s foremost and singular UFO Watchtower, with a woman named Judy Messoline at its helm.
We left the gas station, and on the journey back to our campsite in the dark, I scanned the inky, clouded horizon. Why not?
I noticed something strange, something dark, just above the grass to the south of the road. It was reflecting moonlight. I didn’t breathe for a moment. As we drove past it, I realized it was the tin roof of a shack.
“I thought I just saw something.”
Alex was driving, but he turned his head. Luke was asleep in the back. “Really?”
“Yeah, but it was nothing.”
One of us turned up the music.
We arrived in San Luis on the afternoon before the gas station encounter. At Pinyon Flats, nestled gently between the Great Sand Dunes National Park and the base of North Zapata Ridge in the Sangre de Cristos range, we unpacked our gear and set up our tent with the busted zipper. It was a beautiful spot. We grabbed a quick bite at the nearby diner, loaded a few backpacks with water, and took to the dunes.
Through a dried riverbed we trudged on toward the enormous drifts, past parents with their kids and old men with their belligerent dogs. With each step forward our feet sunk further and further into the sand. The three of us exchanged uncertain looks. “This is gonna suck,” one of us said. It’s the elevation. Each step up the dunes in Colorado’s thin air, even the small steps, cost four Kansas steps. But we made it up through pep talks and sandy shoes.
“Hooper is somewhere down there,” I said from the top of High Dune as we plopped onto the edge of the sandy ridge overlooking the San Luis Valley. The trek took about an hour and a half. “We’ll be there tomorrow.” Luke and Alex sat beside me, and I wondered what they were thinking. They agreed to go on the trip out of fascination and the chance to take one last road trip in college. I looked out. Under the wavy low atmosphere in the valley’s basin was a collection of glowing specs of light marking the towns. It was a promisingly clear day covered with a curtain of blue sky, with one wall cloud forming in the north that refused to budge. It was a nice spot to think, way up there on top of that enormous sandbox.
I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel about Hooper’s UFO Watchtower. I discovered it online by accident while looking for an excuse for a road trip that would take me into Colorado. When I stumbled upon their website that looks like it hasn’t been touched in over 10 years (which it most definitely hasn’t), I was immediately sold. Throughout its existence, that website has been visited by users worldwide from around 80 countries, as well as NORAD, NASA, Turner Broadcasting Systems, and the United States Postal Service (Messoline 49-51). I’m not a believer in extraterrestrial contact on planet Earth, but I was undoubtedly drawn to the mystery behind the claims I began to hear and its startling worldwide reach. Even more so, I was drawn to the type of person that would operate a beacon that would attract so much attention that most would consider to be abnormal, untrustworthy, and otherworldly.
Who is Judy Messoline?
A French couple that took our picture on our way to the top of the ridge walked past us as we sat down, and they stood huddled next to each other to shield themselves against the blasting wind and bullets of sand that rode on it like biting autumnal hellfire. They giggled to each other and lit a cigarette.
Two college-aged girls boarded down the peak on overpriced wooden toboggans that we had refused to pay for at the diner leading into the National Park. The first girl sledded down with no problem, but the second one hit a bump, spun, and tumbled thirty feet below us. We winced, probably too loudly. Nothing, not even a floating cigar-shaped object on the horizon, could tarnish our view from up there.
People from all over the country flock to the San Luis Valley for what we were seeing. The valley that stretched out from us holds visitors in an ethereal headlock, with eyes transfixed, making it stark in comparison to the yellow of the dunes and the gray and green peaks of the surrounding ranges. Explorer Zebulon Pike described the San Luis Valley in 1807 with the first English words to be written about the Valley: “The great and lofty mountains, covered with eternal snows, seemed to surround the luxuriant vale, crowned with perennial flowers, like a terrestrial paradise, shut out from the view of man” (Simmons 4). And there we were, three college kids with matching red beanies, two girls chasing thrills, and a French couple releasing their cigarette ash into the blue sky.
Dinty Moore canned stew was on the menu that night, stuck haphazardly in the fire pit, and as we stoked a small fire in the dying light of the sun, we waited. I had a secondhand mug and a flimsy metal spoon just for this occasion. I went to the car to grab my dinnerware, but only found the mug. Ten minutes later and still no spoon.
“Use your knife,” Luke suggested. I opened it.
“It’s just a pocket knife.”
“Use my spoon, I’ll use my knife.” I agreed. He handed me the spoon and we started eating. He paused. “I’m definitely going to cut myself with this.” Alex made a spoon out of a plastic plate and had a hard time, too. I ate fast and gave him my spoon when I finished.
The campsite to the east of us was having a party over their own fire, and the one adjacent to us, just south, had hammocks set up between pine trees. The sun dipped behind the Dunes and filtered through the trees, slowly, like molasses. There was something unspoken floating between us campers, I think. We were soaked to the bone with the same kind of orange light that drenched the Tewa Pueblos and Mr. Pike so long ago. I couldn’t help but feel like I was waiting for something historic to happen there.
“Guys. What if we see something for real tonight? What would we do?” Alex asked.
“Shit ourselves, probably.”
I desperately wanted to experience the night sky from the inside of the expansive Valley of San Luis. I’d never seen the Milky Way before, and I heard this was the place to do it.
I looked up. New, wispy clouds had wandered over the Valley, and the wall cloud we saw from the Dunes was on top of us. A few specs of sparkling starlight could be seen through the haze, but that was all. As dusk turned into night, I began to realize that the Milky Way wasn’t in the cards. This was my chance, and it wouldn’t happen. The thin clouds over the Valley were illuminated with light from the moon, polluting it with its brightness.
Not long after, we left in search of that bar that doesn’t exist.
“Dammit,” I yelled. “I found the spoon.”
It was morning, and we were packing up to head to the Watchtower, and there it was in a cup holder in the door of the CRV. All at once, I remembered placing it there on purpose so I wouldn’t misplace it. We left for the diner next to the National Park to eat breakfast around 9:15. It was the last day they’d be open for the season, we were told. A stroke of luck. We sat down, and the waitress poured our coffee.
Bleary-eyed, I asked the waitress, “Have you ever seen a UFO?” while opening sugar packets. It seemed a little early for UFO talk, but I had to try.
She looked flustered and didn’t answer right away.
“I mean, yeah, but not really. Not an unidentified flying object. You know, unidentifiable flying objects used to just be that. Not something else.”
We left, and headed for Hooper not long after.
“Guys, this could be weird,” I said out loud. I looked to the south of the road and saw the shack with a reflective tin roof from the night before.
Take the cosmic highway, known to most roadmaps as highway 17, north through the San Luis Valley until you get to Hooper. Then keep driving for about 3 miles and take a left once you see the wooden archway with a white sign attached to it that says: COME ON IN explore the UFO phenomenon at the UFO watchtower. Go under the archway and drive until you see a green alien with its hand raised. Then take a right. That’s what we did.
Waving back to the alien is optional.
All that was missing from the scene at the Watchtower was a Star Wars moisture evaporator. The whole Watchtower consists of a dome gift shop and information center that looks like it belongs on Tatooine, a 9ft tall platform around the dome, and a garden out front made of trinkets and rock formations. The place was empty.
We paid a small entrance fee and looked inside the gift shop.
A sign on the door, titled “UFO SIGHTINGS,” told about the many strange sightings since the 1600s and the exact number of sightings at the tower: 56. But the 56 was crossed out with sharpie, and above it, dozens of numbers reaching into the 100s were crossed out. Currently, their tally for sightings is resting at 127.
While looking at the signs, I heard a truck pull up. Luke and Alex were in the garden. I walked around the dome to find an older man with brown hair and sun-weathered skin get out of a pickup truck, leaving several Mini Australian Shepherds whining at the window. He walked towards me, and I shook his hand.
“I’m Stan,” he said.
“Stan, I’m Connor. Good to meet you.” Stan was a tall man with a black and white goatee. He was wearing an old, pastel shirt with a UFO picture that said UFO Watchtower above it and San Luis Valley below it. I’d wear it.
“Why the hell do you have a back pack on, Connor?” He clunked my shoulder.
“Bad habit, I guess. I’m in college.” He laughed and took us inside the dome.
The interior was lined with bookcases and stands adorned with novelty hot sauce, magazine clippings, t-shirts, toys, and informational posters. Stan walked to the middle of the room to a circular podium and began to launch into his UFO spiel. He opened a 3-ring binder on the podium, and pointed as I flipped through it. Egyptian hieroglyphics, emailed UFO stories, grainy photos of orbs in the garden. A laminated Yahoo News article titled: “Vatican: It’s OK to believe in aliens.” I told him that I was a writer, and I asked if I could take pictures.
“Go right ahead.” I kept flipping through, and he kept giving me stories. One for every page. He talked about the history of the Watchtower. Judy’s original intention in San Luis was to raise cattle, but it wasn’t easy. “So we figured out cattle can’t eat sand, and we thought we’d take advantage of all of this UFO stuff. That’s Judy, we’re together.” He pointed at a bookrack behind me. I picked up a small book called That Crazy Lady Down the Road: All About the World Famous UFO Watchtower and looked at its cover. On the front is a middle-aged woman, Judy Messoline, wearing a pink hoodie and holding a stuffed alien under the crook of her left arm.
“Are you married?” I asked.
“No, we’re together.” We poked around the shop for a few minutes while talking, and Stan abruptly said, “Oh, here she comes.” Judy walked in. Outside, she had more dogs in tow.
She was wearing a UFO Watchtower shirt, like Stan, but hers was white. Newer. Her face was kind and framed by cropped gray hair. She wore black sunglasses.
Right out of the gate, after saying “hi” and greeting us with a smile, she asked us, “Have you guys ever seen a UFO?”
We answered honestly with a “No,” and she seemed perfectly okay with that.
For an hour and a half, it was just the five of us humans, Stan and Judy’s five dogs that they referred to as their kids, and a multitude of alien cutouts hanging out at the Watchtower. Stan and Judy told us how they made their genuine alien dust that they kept in vials in the store.
“We’ll have to make some more green stuff to mix in,” said Stan with a wink.
Judy and I wandered into the garden leaving Stan, Alex, and Luke to talk under the shade of the Watchtower. Judy kept her sunglasses on, and I asked her about the garden.
“These are the two vortexes.” Piles of rocks like tumbled cairns on a mountain pass designating routes of safe passage marked the vortexes. The rocks were surrounded by pocket change, dusty pens, and the like. “They turn in opposite directions and meet in the middle at this spot.” She pointed at an arrangement similar to the others. “It’s called the Eye of Pieces. This is the doorway into another dimension. Over the years we’ve had dozens of psychics come out here on their own, we didn’t ask them, and they each told us the same thing. And there are two guardians standing by protecting us.” She gestured to the center of each vortex. She said they were incredibly tall and glowing white. “People talk to them and ask for things, we’ve seen some pretty incredibly stuff come from that. Miracles.”
“So I take it you’re not religious.”
She paused. “I do believe in God and I pray to him out here. I just believe you don’t have to go to church to be religious. Plus, I feel closer to God here.”
“I’m the same way. I think it’s the elevation,” I said. I looked back to the Watchtower. Alex, Luke, and Stan were laughing and talking under the shade of the platform. One of the dogs was chewing on a green rubber bouncy ball made to look like an alien’s head.
“Now, because this garden gives off a lot of energy, we like to ask people to leave a bit of theirs if they feel like it. All of this comes from people. Really, some incredible stuff here.” I decided that before we left, I’d go grab that spoon from the car and bid it good riddance. It felt like the right thing to do. As we strolled through the garden, she rearranged some of the objects and nudged things off of the path with her feet.
“I feel like I should rearrange some of this stuff,” she said, kneeling down to move something. I looked up and surveyed their impressive property under the cool sun.
“You could just expand,” I offered.
“Expand?” she stopped. “What’s the fun in that? I’ll tell you, I’ve been out here so many times and I always find something new.”
It struck me as odd that Judy would take such liberty with moving and altering the state of the vortex garden. After reading her book, I realized something; interaction with her garden enriches her guardianship. She can truly understand the garden’s chaotic intricacies without interacting with it, without owning it by touching it. She’s been charged with its ownership.
We walked through the pathways of the trinket garden, past driver’s licenses, stuffed animals, CDs. You name it, it’s got representation in the vortex garden. People were happy to leave a piece of themselves there. What shocked me was the Kansas License Plate from 2016 with a county tag on it exactly where I’m from in Kansas. My car has a plate just like it.
During our time there, we kept our eyes on the horizon, just in case. In her book, well over 100 sightings in the valley are transcribed, going decades back, many of which happened at the Watchtower. One entry from July 2003 tells the story of a man riding his motorcycle across the cosmic highway at night and finding a giant, partially translucent and rectangular-shaped “magic carpet” fly right above him and zoom off to his right, into the darkness (Messoline 164). Another, from August 8 of the same year, describes a man and woman’s experience with a diamond-shaped, undulating light that followed their car through the Valley somehow making the night stars disappear (169). The stories get stranger the more you read.
This place is both a tourist destination for folks just passing through and a headquarters and haven for true believers. “I’m not here to convince anyone,” she writes in her book. “I’m just here to give them the facts I’ve been taught and to tell stories about what we’ve seen and what has happened here.” Judy treats everybody with the same kind of infectious wonder of the unknown that enabled her to open up shop in the first place. She built the Watchtower for the investment and stayed with it for the aliens. She has a job to do, and she loves it. “I built all of this,” she’d proudly say as we walked around, circling through the vortex garden.
“What message do you usually have for nonbelievers that come out here, or hear about you guys?”
“I just ask people to keep an open mind. I mean, how arrogant can humans be to believe that we’re alone in the universe? I just want people to be open, that’s all.” I felt solitary within the wide valley.
I replied to her with a butchered Arthur C. Clarke quote about our terrible truth as lonely humans trapped on planet Earth, and I continued: “So what’s the common denominator for people that do come here?”
She stopped walking and peered at me through her sunglasses, smiling.
I turned from Judy and looked back to my friends and Stan. I think they were talking about college football. Judy and I stayed in the garden for a little while longer.
Eventually, she showed me back inside to tell me about a few things that I’m not sure she’d want me putting in writing, so I won’t. It was around that time that I stopped her to ask if it was alright to write about our conversations. She didn’t have a problem with that. “Some people come in here asking for interviews and I’ve started asking for money. But you’re a kid,” she said. “I like to try to help out the kids.”
“But we get all kinds of people in here. Now I’m gonna go out and smoke.”
Around that time, after playing with the dogs and chatting about college and the fact that we had skipped school to visit them (which they loved), several other groups arrived. A van-toting family from Wisconsin pulled in first, then an Israeli couple, and a man and woman that left one of those Do Not Disturb door signs on a bush in the garden.
Stan told us he was going back to their house, and he invited us to go with him. So I bought a coffee mug with the UFO Watchtower logo that Judy designed when she worked in Hooper, and a copy of her book. Turns out that she wrote it herself one winter many years ago.
I thanked Judy for her time, and I shook her hand. As I grabbed the handle to the door leading out of the dome, she stopped me.
“Wait, did I give you my card?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Here,” she said with an exhale as she took one from the podium and handed it to me. “Write good. I just want to know what grade you get.”
“Dammit,” I said. “I forgot to leave my spoon.”
We had piled back into the CRV and were pulling out of Stan and Judy’s land after a tour of the entire property. Stan had walked us through their house, into his shed full of tools and equipment, and around the back yard. “I built all of this,” he kept saying.
Once we were off, part of me wanted to turn around to leave the spoon. But we kept driving. We drove back toward Pinyon Flats, but turned south, swung around the mountain, and headed for Colorado Springs. That was it. Hooper was in the rearview. Christie the CRV took us back home, miles away, back to class and back to Kansas.
That little speck in the valley, with glimmering trinkets left by thousands and thousands of people from across the world, sits in waiting like a softly pulsating beacon in the cosmos, for anyone with any level of belief or unbelief to visit. But whether anything or anyone answers it isn’t really its purpose. The simple truth of Judy, Stan, and their UFO Watchtower is that it’s just there. It’s there with the history, the legacy, the unbreakable legends of the San Luis Valley. I suspect that it always will be.
Take the cosmic highway north through the San Luis Valley and stop when you see aliens. That’s what we did. Maybe you’ll find that the UFO Watchtower is altogether normal in its strangeness, steeped in optimism and nostalgia that its two lovely, happy, and smiling operators wear like a rain hat, deflecting bad vibes and potentially bad ETs. And please note: the grey ones are good, and the reptiles are bad.
And waving back to the alien is optional.
Becker, Stan. Personal Interview. 15 Oct. 2016.
Bush, George W. Quote. Presidential UFO. N.p. n,d. 17 Oct. 2016. Web.
Clarke, Arthur C. Quote. Goodreads. N.p. n,d Web. 17 Oct. 2016.
Data Access and Dissemination Systems (DADS). “American FactFinder – Community Facts: Hooper, CO.” U.S. Census Bureau. N.p., n, d. 19 Oct. 2016. Web.
Messoline, Judy. Personal Interview. 15 Oct. 2016.
Messoline, Judy. That Crazy Lady Down the Road: All About the World Famous UFO Watchtower. Paonia, CO: Earth Star Publications, 2005. Print.
Simmons, Virginia McConnell. The San Luis Valley, Second Edition Land of the Six-Armed Cross. Boulder: U of Colorado, 1999. 21 Oct. 2016. Web.
“UFO, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press. 20 October 2016. Web.