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October 16, 2000

UFO Watchtower Provides Platform For True Believers

By Judith Kohler
The Associated Press
    HOOPER, Colo.   —   Green, glow-in-the-dark cutouts of bug-eyed extraterrestrials line a dusty road off a two-lane highway in southern Colorado.


Click to enlarge


    Travelers stop in a makeshift parking lot on Judy Messoline's ranch, get out and wander into a small, domed building with shelves stocked with "alien dust," posters, shiny extraterrestrial dolls and pyramid candles.
    Outside, steps lead to a 10-foot-high UFO-watching platform. For $2, people can scan the skies for bright, darting lights and strange, hovering crafts, the likes of which have been reported for decades by residents and visitors in the San Luis Valley.
    "I didn't realize I could work 11 hours a day, seven days a week and giggle the whole time," said Messoline, who, with her partner, Stan Becker, opened the UFO watchtower on Memorial Day weekend.
    The idea might sound like a joke, but tales of supernatural phenomena abound in this naturally spectacular 50-mile-wide, 125-mile-long valley, which is 7,600 feet in altitude and ringed by the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountains.
    The UFO Computer Network Internet site ranks Saguache County, home of the watchtower, as No. 1 nationwide in reports of otherworldly sightings per capita   —   131 this year in the 4,619-person area. Neighboring Alamosa County is No. 3.
    Saguache County Undersheriff Mike Norris said his office doesn't get frequent reports about mysterious lights or crafts, "but people talk and it gets out."
    The book "The Mysterious Valley," by Christopher O'Brien, examines reports through the years of cattle mutilations, mysterious helicopters and oddly shaped aircraft hovering over the valley.
    Messoline got the idea to build the watchtower after putting up with ET enthusiasts camping on her property. She also needed to make some money because cattle ranching, which drew her to the valley five years ago, was foundering.
    A big fan of "The X-Files," a TV show about UFO-hunting FBI agents, she admits she has seen strange lights in the sky. As for believing in UFOs, she said, "It would take one landing so I could take a look."
    Restaurant owner Tim Edwards, who lives north of the valley, is a believer. He made national news in 1995 when TV stations broadcast his home videotape of what he believes was a UFO hovering near the sun.
    "It was quite a spiritual experience. I basically kind of went into an emotional trauma," Edwards said.
    He called Messoline's watchtower "a publicity stunt."
    "You can drive up to about 12,000 feet here and see for a hundred miles. You could just sit by your car and not pay," Edwards said.
    Dozens of people who have heard about the watchtower have visited the ranch near Hooper, a town of 120 people about 220 miles southwest of Denver.
    For some, it has been a stop on a circuit that includes Roswell, N.M., scene of what true believes say was a UFO crash in 1947 and the site of the annual UFO Encounter, which draws tens of thousands of people.
    O'Brien, who lives in the valley, has made an avocation of documenting the area's strange occurrences.
    The reports stretch back centuries, with American Indians talking about flying seed-pod-like objects, O'Brien said. Area newspapers in the late 1800s and early 1900s ran stories about strange crafts and lights.
    People in the farming and ranching area tend to be set in their ways and regard Messoline's watchtower with some cynical unease, O'Brien said.
    "However, nobody is going out of their way to really slag her about it," he said.
    Instead, Messoline said she has taped hours of conversations with residents who say they have had otherworldly experiences but don't feel comfortable talking to most people about them.
    O'Brien has heard the same thing from many people since writing in a local newspaper about a wave of reported sightings in 1993. "I've found myself acting like a paranormal counselor," he said.
    Edwards said people who feel they have had a supernatural encounter seek him out at his cafe, which he opened after his experience. The restaurant, "ET's Landing," has a 32-foot-by-8-foot sign with a silver metallic disc bearing the words, "Food that's out of this world."