"Hey," yelled James Gilliland, pointing at the horizon. "There's something hovering there, just above the mountain."
There was a flurry of excitement and several UFO watchers hurried over to look. Gilliland pointed at a small prick of light.
"And it's flashing us!" he yelled.
About thirty of us were gathered at Gilliland's "Sattva Sanctuary," at the foot of Mt. Adams, in hopes of seeing something out there. We'd come to Trout Lake, high in the mountains of Southwest Washington, from Portland, Minnesota, California, Florida, and Canada to look for some sign that maybe we're not alone, and that our little blue-green planet might be worth a visit after all.
Many of those gathered at the Sanctuary were already convinced and only needed evidence. Others were less sure, but couldn't resist Gilliland's claims of seeing UFOs night after night--thousands of them over the past seven years.
Before we came outside for the sky watch, Gilliland had primed us with videos: A collage of jerking, grainy white dots against a dark screen, allegedly zigzagging across the sky, landing, morphing, and so on. The dots trailed across the black background, while Gilliland and his friends yelled like kids at the racetrack.
"Holy shit, man!"
"Boy, he really turned on the afterburners!"
Like frat boys at a strip club.
"Whoa, check it out, man!"
"Aw, yeah baby!"
The audience was impressed.
"That's the cheapest camera you can buy," Gilliland told us, bragging, "and we've totally outgunned NASA and SETI (The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Totally outgunned them!"
The standards for peer review in ufology aren't as high as, say, astrophysics, but the videos were proof enough for most people at the sky watch. I could feel myself getting caught up in the excitement because in spite of myself--and in of spite the lack of actual evidence--I've always liked the idea of UFOs, the idea that our planet isn't the only spot in the universe where matter can look at itself and laugh and make art. The idea that we're not alone is so alluring and ridiculous and terrifying that my heart jumped when Gilliland said something was hovering over the mountain.
Squinting, I watched for the small white light to flash us. Every once in a while, it seemed to get brighter, then darker, and the colors changed a little. But on the whole it appeared to be doing what most scientists call "twinkling."
Still, everyone was enthusiastic. Mt. Adams was descending into darkness, and the night air was cold. So far there had been a few satellites and airplanes, but this "flashing" was our best prospect yet. We waited for it to power up and shoot across the sky at 11,000 mph. But it kept moving slowly, like a little star.
I went over to look through a ten-inch telescope that had been set up. Through it, the object looked like a slightly bigger star.
"That is not a star," said David, a big man with a wild mane of hair and some wild ideas about spontaneous human combustion. "That is a UFO masquerading as a star. It looks like a star, but I assure you, that's a UFO."
THE NUTTY NORTHWEST
The Pacific Northwest has long been a place of extraterrestrial interest and has been the locale for some seminal events in UFO history. One of the first and (allegedly) most authentic UFO photos was taken by a farmer in McMinnville. In the 1970s, Marshall Applewhite, the future leader of "Heaven's Gate," passed through Waldport, Oregon and convinced 20 people to sell all their possessions and follow him into space. They went to Colorado instead.
But the most famous of these events took place on June 24, 1947, when Pilot Kenneth Arnold was flying over the Cascades and saw a chain of nine "peculiar looking aircraft" flying "like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water." He timed them going between Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams in 102 seconds--more than twice the speed of sound and faster than any known aircraft. That same day there were a rash of sightings over Oregon and Washington. And just 10 days earlier, a man in New Mexico had stumbled across some odd wreckage on his ranch outside Roswell.
Arnold's sighting inaugurated the era of the flying saucer and, since then, UFOs have sunk deep roots into our culture. Despite the best scientific efforts to dismiss them as swamp gas, ball lightning, mass hallucinations, or wishful thinking, the idea is too powerful. According to the Mutual UFO Network, over 70,000 sightings are reported worldwide every year. (China alone has 400,000 subscribers to the Journal of UFO Research.)
What's more interesting is that not all those interested in alien crafts are flaming nutcases. In 1998, Peter Sturrock, a professor of space science and astrophysics at Stanford University, led a panel of international scientists that concluded UFOs needed further official study. In 1999, the French Government commissioned a study called "UFOs and Defense: What must we be prepared for?" which said the physical reality of unknown aircraft under the control of intelligent beings is "quasi-certain." And most recently, a group led by ufologist Steven Greer (called "The Disclosure Project") claimed to have 450 ex-military and industrial officials hankering to tell Congress about their covert dealings with UFOs and the little gray men who drive them.
A MIGRANE, OR ALIENS?
Outside at the Sanctuary, it was getting colder and getting late. A few people had gotten excited by what was clearly a satellite. But otherwise it had been quiet, and we'd seen nothing but a sky full of endless suns.
A guy named Mike came over and introduced himself. He looked around and confided that he thought James Gilliland's twinkling light was Venus.
"Yeah," I said, "and James says ETs from the Pleiades have a base under the mountain."
"That's true," said Mike, and after a furtive pause, he went on. "The only other person in contact with the Pleiadians is this guy named Billy Meier." He started telling me about Meier, a one-armed Swiss guy who rode his moped out to take photos of the Pleiadian ships. But Mike's rambling got more frantic as he talked about ancient cuneiform references to UFOs, and how Venus wasn't an original planet, but had come into orbit around 8,000 B.C., and how it caused all kinds of havoc on earth, just when Moses was crossing the Red Sea.
"and this crap about Moses banging his stick and parting the sea, that's bullshit, because all hell was breaking loose everywhere. It's been fully documented"
Mike was so excited by these revelations he sputtered out of control. After about ten minutes, getting abducted started to look pretty good.
This must have registered because, as abruptly as he started, Mike stopped and said, "Well, I'm just a guest here," and walked off.
The night was getting long and the end of Mike's speech seemed like a good cue to leave. But just then, Gilliland pointed straight up. He was getting the pressure in his head that meant the aliens were near.
He pointed at a stationary light flashing at odd intervals. It was as bright as the stars around it, but would disappear completely and reappear in the same place.
An unidentified flashing object.
That would be the closest encounter of any kind for the night.
THE INTERDIMENSIONAL MIND
James Gilliland was once a successful California real estate salesman, deep in the material world, with few mystical inclinations. But that changed one day when he went body surfing and got swallowed by a sneaker wave.
In the time before he woke up puking on the beach, Gilliland says he shot through a dark tunnel to meet what he calls, "the source." It gave him a choice: go on or come back. He chose the latter, but when he returned he found he had changed. He didn't really care about real estate any more; he'd become a spiritual seeker.
"It blew me wide open," Gilliland says of his near-death experience. "It shifted me up into what I call the inter-dimensional mind."
It also shifted him up to Santa Cruz, where he opened a meditation center and lived for six years until he started to have visions of a place surrounded by mountains. In 1986, he happened to come to Trout Lake, Washington. When he saw Mt. Adams he knew instantly that it was the place of his dreams.
Gilliland bought some land and started the Sattva Sanctuary, which he thought was going to be a retreat for spiritual healing. For eight years that's what it was, until one day while meditating in his home, he heard a voice in his head that said it was coming "from a ship."
When Gilliland quit his meditation, his sister ran inside shouting about a UFO hovering over the house.
The theories Gilliland's developed since then are intricate and hard to follow--a blend of science fiction and new age, but with a message underneath that is deeply humanistic.
"It's real simple," Gilliland says with an air of nonchalance. "Basically, their message is to stop warring on each other and to stop warring on the planet to be kind to each other and the planet, because we're headed for major environmental collapse.
"And they've also expressed deep concern about the leadership of the planet. They've made it very clear: You're being led by the oil industry and the war industry."
Who exactly are these interstellar enviro-Marxists? According to Gilliland, the base under Mt. Adams is used by a consortium of benevolent ETs. The ones he's been in touch with come from the Pleiades. Others come from Andromeda, Orion, Sirius, and Arcturus. The more malevolent ETs (like the "grays" and "reptoids") use a porthole near Mt. Hood.
For many years, as Gilliland tells it, the earth was under quarantine as a hostile, backward place. But since we started poking our nose into space and detonating nuclear weapons, there's been increasing interstellar concern over what we might do to ourselves and others. You see, he explains, Earth was colonized a long time ago by beings from the Vega system and then abandoned after a war between Atlantis and Lemuria. We are the descendents of the survivors.
There comes a point when talking to Gilliland--usually early on--that a part of one's brain hits a wall. It might be when he mentions the light beings, or the hollow earth, or the chem-trails streaming out behind airplanes to poison us. Wherever it is, it's the point at which the plausible ends, while his theories go on, becoming ever more elaborate and inter-linked, like pieces of an intricate puzzle.
This is the self-enclosed labyrinth of UFO subculture.
To enter it you have to step over a certain line, then another and another until the pieces start falling into place. It's a place where there is no boundary between the possible, the probable, and the true, and no attempt to sort out which is which.
Most of the aliens around Mt. Adams may be illegal Mexican farm workers, but there is something odd about the mountain. Because on the Yakima Reservation just north of the mountain, people have been reporting strange lights in the sky for at least a hundred years. And since 1972, electrical engineer Dave Akers has been conducting a more hard-nosed investigation into the "nocturnal lights." That was the year Fire Control supervisor Bill Vogel asked the scientifically-minded Center for UFO Studies to look into the lights. Akers has been doing the field work ever since.
"It's a complicated problem," says Akers from his Seattle home, "and there are lots of theories. The only thing that I'm convinced of is that they're there, whatever they are." The lights, he says, could be the results of fault line activity or of changes in the water table.
"About 5% of the observation reports are what we would call 'good reports,'" he says. Of those, about 80% are what Akers calls Anomalous Luminous Phenomena (or ALPs; he doesn't use "UFO" because of its alien implications). Another 20% are daylight sightings and a very few are "critter reports" of humanoids and other things.
As for what any of these are, Akers reserves judgement. I asked him about the ET theory.
"I think it's a little too pat, really. I'm not convinced of anything at this point, other than the fact that these things are quite real, and that on occasion they seem to exhibit what you would interpret as intelligent behavior. But extraterrestrials is a bit too much of a leap for me at this time."
In the end, whether you see the UFOs or ALPs comes down to a question of belief. Because even when you see a light in the sky you have to ask what you believe is possible, what you believe is probable and what you believe is true. And most importantly, you have to ask what you want to believe.
That, more than anything, will determine what you will see.
ET PHONE THE COYOTES
Me? I wanted to see UFOs lots of them. Big pulsing red ones. Little darting white ones. Shiny silver disks. Giant black triangles. I wanted to see them shoot us with pulse lasers. I wanted to see Star Wars. I wanted an intergalactic air show. I wanted to see them zoom in, pick up James and zoom off, like he said they had. I wanted to see ET. I wanted to see pasty little grays, glowing white Pleiadians, and lizard-skin reptoids.
I wanted to see V.
I had to go back.
A few weeks after the first sky watch, I went back to the Sanctuary. When I arrived in the late afternoon, it was nearly empty. James was watering some trees and Paul, who works with James, was chopping wood to heavy metal music. A Canadian couple was cooking dinner near their tent. I introduced myself to them and asked what they'd seen. They said they'd come down for the week and had seen UFOs every night. The day before, they'd watched a white-gray ship circle a small airplane.
I walked around the Sanctuary while the Canadians ate dinner and James and Paul finished their yard work. After a while James came and joined me on the viewing platform and filled in the holes in his theories. The talk meandered through the shapes and sizes of the different ships, the agendas of various ET groups, and how humans are destined to join the rest of the universe.
When it finally started to get dark, Paul and the Canadians joined us. The air was warm and full of the sound of crickets and wind in the trees. The sky was clear.
For an hour or so, there wasn't much activity, but at 10:05 (as predicted by James) several lights came from the north and seemed to converge. These looked suspiciously like some of the 8,300 satellites in orbit, but James had the pressure in his head that told him they were UFOs masquerading as satellites.
For an hour or so, we watched similar lights going across the sky. Some flared up in places. Others were steady, but dim, and some a little brighter. A few stayed in one place, flashed intermittently, then disappeared. Some seemed to be going really, really fast (20,000 mph, according to James).
James had his cheap video camera out and recorded a few of these, but they were all a little boring.
"Okay," he said, looking up. "We just need one big zinger so I can go to bed."
We sat quietly in the dim light of the night sky. The Milky Way was as bright as I'd ever seen it--a thick white band of billions of stars.
Then, just before 11 pm, the Canadian woman spotted something. Almost directly above us, two lights were flying south in tandem, with a third, out front. James homed in on the triangle and tracked it across the sky.
"That's one of those Andromedan ships!" said James. "Look how you can see through the middle. That's because it's inter-dimensional."
It might have been that, or it might have been a set of satellites called the NOSS Triplet that fly in formation. Above us, the three lights turned east, then disappeared behind some trees. As soon as they were gone, coyotes started barking all around us.
"You hear that?" asked James. "The coyotes are going crazy. They always do that when the big ships fly over!" He looked at the camera. "No one's got the triangles on tape. This'll really freak the Greer folks out!"
It wasn't going to get any better than that. This was a real coup for the Sanctuary. James decided to call it a night and went back to the house to bed, and soon Paul and the Canadians followed. I went to my car and got a sleeping bag, brought it back to the platform and crawled in.
For a long time I stared up at the sky, until finally, alone under the stars, I drifted off to sleep.
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