My body shivers from the strong, cold wind whipping across the desolate valley floor as I stare up at a brilliant and twinkling night sky, waiting. Great Sand Dunes National Park is shrouded in darkness to the southeast while an out-of-place, igloo-shaped building, faintly illuminated by a single green light, glows below as I sit with my feet up on the railing of its surrounding metal platform.
My thoughts take me to Area 51, little green men with big eyes, Scully and Mulder, abductions, flashing lights from unidentified craft that hover in the air before darting out of sight, and wondering if all the stories are true. Are we really being visited by aliens? Is the government hiding it all from us? What if I actually see a UFO tonight?
I stare into the vastness of the heavens with my IPhone ready to capture the moment of contact. Ten minutes later, nothing. A half hour goes by, still nothing. The only lights in the distance are occasional headlights rolling along Highway 17 every few minutes unaware of a freezing journalist atop what is called the UFO Watchtower hoping for a glimpse. After 20 more minutes I give up and retreat to my car and a hot shower at the hotel, deciding tomorrow night’s warmer weather will be better.
It’s late April, and while the rest of the world is talking about Earth Day today, I pull into a dirt parking lot next to a black truck adorned with alien bumper stickers; one I assume is Judy Messoline’s, the watchtower owner, who I will be discussing ‘other world’ issues with instead.
Little green alien statues and flying saucer replicas glimmer in the late morning sun as I walk into the gift shop and wait for Judy to finish with a group of visitors packed with cameras and a life-size alien blowup doll souvenir. The place is tiny yet full of newspaper clippings, bumper stickers, shot glasses, and various memorabilia including Judy’s own book entitled, That Crazy Lady Down the Road, which are all for sale. I’m immediately attracted to the two binders resting on the glass countertop that are full of sighting stories witnessed on the property. Accounts of dancing lights above the mountains, triangle and disk-shaped craft, and even a mysterious figure on the viewing platform itself are mixed with various photos of other visitor experiences.
The UFO Watchtower is located about two miles north of Hooper, Colorado, a mere dot on the map with maybe 100 residents, but breathtaking views of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range rising above the San Luis Valley. The area is apparently a hotspot for UFO sightings dating back to accounts from Spanish Conquistadors in the 1600s, yet Judy opened the roadside attraction as a joke at first.
“When I first moved down here, I moved here to raise cattle,” Judy states after the group leaves and we walk outside to take a seat in the shade. She wears a pink sweatshirt decorated with alien faces and occasionally chuckles as she tells her story. “And when I started meeting the locals they all were telling me UFO stories and I’d just giggle saying we needed a UFO watchtower, never thinking I’d ever do it. Well, I struggled with cows for four and half years because they don’t eat sand very well and had to sell the herd. Then one day I ran into one of the farmers here at the gas station and he said I should build that watchtower I always laughed about. Initially this was just gonna be a little ol’ mom and pop business to catch that tourist traffic off the road…. Well, we had other tourist traffic come around too.”
One hundred and thirty unexplainable ‘tourist’ sightings have come around since Judy opened in May 2000 to be exact. She alone has seen 27; something she never expected.
“I’d never seen anything prior to this except for the X-Files,” she laughs. “The closest one was between here and the mountains. I called it cigar-shaped. It was narrow and really long and zipped across the sky. Eleven o’clock at night and we had over a dozen people here who saw it. So, what the heck was it, you know?”
UFO sightings have typically been downplayed by pretty much everyone, and the people who talk about their experiences are often labeled as ‘crazies’ or ‘conspiracy theorists’ who have no idea what they are talking about.
But out here, there are simply too many stories to brush aside, and Judy’s watchtower has become a safe place for people to talk freely about what they’ve seen.
“People don’t get made fun of here. People will come, and I always ask them if they’ve seen anything. Well, nine out of ten times they’ll hang their head but after they’ve been here for a bit, they’ll open up and tell me about what they’ve seen. They’re afraid to mention it which is silly ‘cause it’s kinda cool, you know? Not all those people are crazy.”
Whether they’ve had their own experiences or are just traveling through and happen upon her place, Judy says the watchtower has seen over 30,000 visitors through the years. And many have left something behind at her request to ‘receive their own good energy’ because of the two vortexes that run through what she calls the Healing Garden. Thousands of trinkets, including old license plates, photos, business cards, keys, toys, and even personal items in memory of lost loved ones now surround the various alien statues littered with even more items.
“I wonder at times if I’ve told them the right thing ‘cause I have so much stuff out here,” she laughs as we stand to walk through the garden.
My last sight of Judy during my visit is of her sitting just outside the gift shop doors looking out over the garden toward the snow-capped peaks in the distance. Before I shake her hand goodbye, I say I’ll return soon to do a little UFO hunting. She simply smiles saying, ‘I hope you see something and come back to tell me about it.” I promise to do so.
And now that it’s past eleven o’clock, a good time to start looking to the sky according to Judy, I’m again inundated by the millions of stars and by the magnificent view. Only this time I’m not shivering, and the small breeze in the valley has a bit of warmth to it. My hopes are high as I stand patiently waiting, camera in hand, hearing the voice of the late astronomer, Carl Sagan, saying, “The universe is a pretty big place. If it's just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”