This last election cycle featured both U.S. presidential candidates claiming that the other would be the most likely to start a nuclear war, playing into our cultural anxiety that perhaps we have reached the final days where unstable leaders of countries armed to the hilt with nukes begin pushing buttons. But is it possible that, instead, we are due for a deus ex machina, a planet-saving meeting with our makers, the ancient alien farmers who seeded this planet with DNA millions of years ago? According to a lot of people who waited hours in line at Alien Con just to be told all of the events were sold out, the answer is a resounding yes.
“The truth is out there”—that’s the battle cry of those who are knee-deep in government conspiracies and other cover-ups of the X-Files kind. I’ve always found theories about alternative origins of our species interesting, and I decided I was going to find the truth. Like Fox Mulder, I then spent most of my time in the basement looking at porn. Also like Mulder, I believed I could handle the truth, and on the last weekend of October, I was willing to travel over the hill to Silicon Valley to find it.
My inner Jersey-bred skeptic was bristling; even 30 years in California hasn’t really blunted that edge. And nothing brings out critical thinking in me more than being enveloped by dyed-in-the-wool believers of any ilk. I arrived at Alien Con in Santa Clara, surprised at the multitude of people mucking about. I wasn’t sure who was more desperate, the thousands of people hoping for proof that life beyond our planet exists, or the group of people waving “Jill Stein for President” banners in front of the Hyatt Regency Convention Center. Considering how politics has been going, was believing in a widespread conspiracy to cover up visitations from extraterrestrials completely nuts?
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while on the presidential campaign trail, repeatedly promised she would “get to the bottom” of the UFO phenomenon, as long as it didn’t “threaten national security.” Clinton is also on tape saying, “There’s enough stories out there that I don’t think everybody is just sitting in their kitchen making them up.” President-elect Donald Trump’s position on Area 51 is still unclear, but from the top down, talk of little green men and flying saucers is all the rage in America—and has been since the 1940s. According to the History Channel’s show Ancient Aliens (which was an Alien Con sponsor) and armchair ancient alien theorists everywhere, we have been visited by space dwellers since time immemorial. But I wasn’t interested in theories—OK, I was totally interested in theories, but more importantly, I was on a mission to meet people who had been on, or at least seen, UFOs.
One thing I can say about Alien Con is that I better understand what it feels like to be abducted by a UFO, after being surrounded by thousands of devotees in grey alien masks. I definitely lost three hours of time, and that was just the line for coffee. And at certain points I wouldn’t have minded reappearing a mile away from the Convention Center, naked and crying, with no memory of what had happened.
Close Encounters of the First Kind
Throughout the day, I shadowed the author of the book A UFO Hunter’s Guide—and a moderator of one of the Alien Con events—Bret Lueder. Lueder is a tall hippie-athlete-redneck combo with a penchant for the weird. We met more than 20 years ago, while working for a bona fide warlock at a magazine that focused on the occult, the bizarre and the possibility of life beyond Earth. Bret was always a believer, while I thought the truth behind life’s mysteries was probably stranger than we could even imagine.
Two decades later, gray hair has not dimmed Lueder’s keen intellect. In fact, he’s somewhat of a celebrity in this crowd—friends with one of the stars of Ancient Aliens, even. Even so, he says he has respectful disagreements with other bigwigs of the scene. “We don’t see eye-to-eye on some things,” explains Lueder cryptically.
Like any scene, there is infighting and jockeying for position. There are those who are considered the experts, and those who are considered the lunatics. But in the UFO community, it’s hard to tell the difference. My skeptic mind was eased upon seeing an old friend, but the truth-seeker in me needed to stay on point. I found myself drawn to a man standing next to an expo booth who said his name was Javier Sandoval. When I asked him if he had ever been contacted by aliens, his eyes lit up.
“I was in Mexico, in a house with three other people,” said Sandoval softly. “All of a sudden the TV starts emitting a blue light. We all sensed something, but didn’t know what it was. I started to read books, trying to figure out what happened. Three weeks later, I’m driving home from work, coming over the hill, and there was a flying saucer in broad daylight. Since then, I only see them at night, and I can show you videos.”
Sandoval says he’s clairvoyant now because of the experience, as well as constantly dehydrated. “That’s one thing contactees never talk about,” he says. “The thirst.”
Twenty minutes later, after showing me numerous digital videos on his phone that had the resolution of a 1981 Missile Command arcade game, Lueder rescued me. “I can’t believe you were drawn to Javier,” he said, “He’s one of my crew.”
Turns out Lueder has a big crew, who I rolled through the exposition floor with for the rest of the day. It was like having a casual interest in ghosts, and then spending a day with the actual Ghostbusters. I heard first-hand accounts of UFOs, MiBs, alien hybrids and one fellow whose PTSD—from, he claimed, being abducted—was palpable.
Finally, I became convinced that these people were sincere, lovely and odd. And while I remained dubious of their wild stories, I am convinced that they were reporting experiences that were real to them—if not to anybody else.
Close Encounters of the $econd Kind
What was behind the interest of the 10,000 alien enthusiasts who attended the oversold convention? A chance to feel the wild mane of Ancient Aliens’ rock star host, Giorgio A. Tsoukalos? Perhaps. But also to get a chance to touch, glimpse or even smell the unknown—as alien theorist Terence McKenna referred to it, “the transcendental object at the end of time.” Or, what other people would call a UFO.
Why? Because evidence of life beyond this planet might explain how we got here. It might fill the void that science and religion doesn’t satisfy.
Before his passing earlier this year, I got to talk to Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who summed up this human desire to understand our history, present and future. I asked the esteemed American hero if being in space for nine days gave him any new insights.
“I realized from that experience that our scientific cosmology on how we came to be and how the universe formed was incomplete and flawed,” says Mitchell. “We need a new story about ourselves. At some point in human life, people always ask the questions ‘who are we?,’ ‘how did we get here?’ and ‘where are we going?’ It seemed to me as a newly minted space-herded civilization that we needed to re-ask those questions.”
Did Mitchell experience anything otherworldly? “I experienced the universe as interconnected, and as an intelligent process,” he says. The things he experienced, according to Mitchell, “neither are described nor understood in any of our official ways of knowing.”
Are UFOs part of this process? Like a multiverse version of Whack-a-Mole, they seem to appear and disappear before one can get a read on them—or a non-blurry photo. All of the much-hyped videos of aliens being dissected are fake, and much of the photography and digital film footage of orbs, spheres and cigar-shaped craft have been discounted as well. It doesn’t leave a firm believer with much to go on. Jacques and Janine Vallee, in their landmark book Challenge to Science: The UFO Enigma, compiled thousands of reports over several decades. Official reports from military personnel and civilians were subjected to a critical analysis. The Vallees’ conclusion: “something” was happening, and it wasn’t just psychological.
That’s pretty vague, though. Could there be actual proof that we were visited by extraterrestrials thousands of years ago? Consider the world’s foremost expert on Sumerian culture, Zecharia Sitchin. Roundly and soundly debunked in the scientific community, his theories on extraterrestrial influence have still been a source guide for Ancient Alien theorists and sits at the heart of many conspiracy theories.
“At some point in human life, people always ask the questions ‘who are we?,’ ‘how did we get here?’ and ‘where are we going?’ It seemed to me as a newly minted space-herded civilization that we needed to re-ask those questions.” — Apollo 14 Astronaut Edgar Mitchell
From his home in New York in 1997, Sitchin told me what he thinks the Sumerian texts said about our real forefathers and foremothers. “They were capable of space travel half a million years ago and they had as much knowledge as we do today,” the prolific author explained. “When they came here 450,000 years ago, we did not exist yet, there were only hominids. The Sumerian text and the Book of Genesis, which is based on the Sumerian text, acknowledge and recognize evolution. Homo sapiens did not exist, modern man was not here, there were only ape-men and women, if you like. The Sumerian text says that when the Annunaki came here they needed workers, manpower, and through genetic engineering combined their genes with the hominids. That was 300,000 years ago, which scientific studies suggest is when our species, Homo sapien, first appeared. They jumped the gun on evolution and brought us half a million, a million, I don’t know [how many], years ahead. Evolution would have brought us around anyway, but not as fast as they could have.”
Was Sitchin correct? Do these ancient cuneiform texts talk about genetic engineering and creatures from another planet? I needed a second opinion.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (or Close Enough)
I once interviewed the late social theorist, mischief maker and Capitola resident Robert Anton Wilson. To Wilson, the idea of somebody accurately translating text from a dead language was highly suspicious. “You can ask five people who saw a car accident yesterday and get five different stories,” he said. “Everyone believes their own B.S. (belief system) and experts are the worst people to get rounded stories from.”
To varying degrees, the truth is already out there. Pope Francis does have a plan in place to baptize extraterrestrials (perhaps with Papal tongue-in-cheek). Several world governments did release their UFO files. Stephen Hawking does seem hell bent on warning us about first contact. And these aren’t your run-of-the-mill kooks on the side of the road, staring into the sun with cardboard signs that say, “Welcome Visitors.” From Harvard’s John Mack—whose work with abductees is eye-opening and disturbing—to generals, firemen and farmers, many seemingly sane people claim “something” is happening, has happened and will happen again. Others argue that humanity is just a series of evolutionary mistakes and mutations, a random chance of bumping atoms, a Darwinian singular event amid the billions of habitable planets in the galaxy. Could we really be alone in an ever-expanding space?
Across the world we struggle to find patterns, connect the dots and see what draws things together, so that we may get a sense of why we are here and who we are in relation to everything else. But evidence doesn’t always point to a conclusion. Are the patterns on the Nazca Desert floor landing strips for UFOs, or were they drawn by the Banksy of Peru?
“The Sumerian text says that when the Annunaki came here they needed workers, manpower, and through genetic engineering combined their genes with the hominids.” — Zecharia Sitchin
Have commercial enterprises like Alien Con, while bringing fans and TV stars together ($40 an autograph), taken what is a very dark and serious subject for many believers and made it silly? Ufologist Bret Lueder thinks so, but he has a sage perspective. “In 2007, I interviewed Bill Birnes of UFO Hunters TV show and UFO Magazine fame,” says Lueder. “I asked him if it hurt the UFO field that Roswell logos were emblazoned on T-shirts, coffee cups and children’s toys. He said that that kind of mainstream exposure, while trivializing the subject on the one hand, actually helps spread the ideas on the other. The subject is too much for the mainstream mind to handle, so easing into the source material is a good thing.”
Beyond the glitz and merchandising of Alien Con, I bonded with a dude there who genuinely seemed tuned into something powerful. His name is Spartacus, and while his humanity was deep and resourceful, his stories were the most extreme. “The last time I went to one of these gatherings, two hybrids started shadowing me. They were like 6-foot-1, beautiful, but their eyes and hands were different. Wherever I went, they were right behind me, or around me. Hybrids can sense people that are empathic. We are a magnet for them.”
Whether or not Spartacus is pursued by alien hybrids who seek to mate with him, or elusive Men in Black who prowl the perimeter of his property at night, or a Plebeian craft that buzzes his neighborhood every month became less important to me as the day wore on. Spartacus reminded me that people who are kind, interesting and genuine are enough of a truth to find sometimes. As god dang folksy as it sounds, maybe the truth we need the most isn’t “out there” somewhere, but inside, where it’s been all along.
Here’s another truth: One time, as I was staring out of the window of La Bahia, looking at the Monterey Bay at dusk, I saw a UFO. It was gelatinous, definitely floating toward me, and something I had never seen before. My mind was racing, desperately trying to identify what my eyes were registering, when I suddenly noticed another one behind it. Then two, then a dozen. I don’t know how much time had passed before my sense of danger finally kicked in. I shouted out to my wife, who ran to the window and explained that they were balloons released by the Coast Guard for a training exercise. She then patted me on the head like a dog. Once again, Scully trumped Mulder. But deep down, I don’t care what anybody says; I know the truth is still out there.