Thousands swarmed the high desert like locusts, clad in Birkenstocks and bandanas, cut-offs and tank tops. Their skin burnt cherry red, they poured out of trucks and Toyotas, sweating under the oppressive hundred and six-degree heat, scuttling through sand and rock, not in search of a shady refuge or a sip of water — but to find salvation.
Aging boomers, bearded Mad Max types, hippies, burners, little old ladies and medical doctors, ravers — they all shared a common vision. They've had an experience that would cause you or I to laugh, maybe label them crazy. But no one's crazy at Contact In The Desert, the Woodstock of UFO conferences. If anything, people like you and me, the non-believers, we're the weirdos.
They may have looked intimidating, but people there were friendly. Lost in a never-ending desert of a parking lot, a round, smiling woman driving a golf cart offered me and my girlfriend a ride. We hopped on and our savior gushed about seeing a UFO the night before.
"Y'know, this is Chumash Indian burial ground," she said, handing us necklaces with silver starship pendants before dropping us in front of the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, an archipelago of chapels and sepulchres. It looked like an occult farmer's market. Vendors pushed t-shirts, crystals, pizza. It was a music festival without the music, a crypto-Coachella where you couldn't step two feet without eavesdropping on someone reliving their visitation. And everyone was dead serious.
More than four thousand people came, some from as far as Australia and Finland, all willing to pay hundreds for the four-day event in the dunes. Some camped on-site, others stayed in normally empty motels, sold out since January. And it wasn't cheap; everything from workshops to special events within the event (like night-vision stargazing and what to do if you're contacted), were all add-ons, ranging as much as $49.99 a pop.
"The first time I was abducted, I was twenty-one years-old," said a fifty-something in a visor and sunglasses, as casually as she'd explain the recipe for meatloaf. Her companion nodded, his gray ponytail swinging — he'd look at home on the back of a Harley, or with a Bud Light and a bug zapper. "That's when they come," he responded wistfully. "I know it."
Whatever your conspiracy, it's served there. Some of it even had a slice (paper-thin) of science. The links between psychedelic drugs, consciousness, the invention of language, art, and human evolution, simulation theory, genealogy, the potential of CRISPR genome editing — were all explored with an alien twist. Most often, it was the "ancient" variety made popular on the History Channel show, "Ancient Aliens." Groupies queued for a glimpse of the stars of the show, Erich von Däniken, Giorgio Tsoukalos, writers like Whitley Strieber, who penned the Communion series, and AM radio host George Noory, extraterrestrial high priests come to preach and hawk their wares.
Von Däniken, the godfather of it all, was once a hotel manager in his native Switzerland; perhaps his hospitality bent made him such a good salesman. In 1968, he published Chariots Of The Gods, the spark for the ancient alien hypothesis that many have since made their meal ticket. Now well into his eighties, and still very much the movement's patron saint, von Däniken boomed into the microphone on stage. Sweating and swaying, proselytizing from the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico to the Nazca lines, and back, he laughed at "the free press" for silencing his truth.
Erich von Däniken
"The public should not doubt that we should doubt," von Däniken preached in thick Bavarian English as the audience applauded. "We're unreasonable. Every newspaper, every television station, it belongs to someone. These organizations always want to be serious. That's why this society needs people like you — just be a little unreasonable."
It felt like a revival. If the guy next to me had begun to roll on the floor, speaking in tongues, I wouldn't have been surprised. Anything seemed possible. But in two days there, I didn't have a single extraordinary encounter, at least not with otherworldly beings.
I came close in speaking with a Brit named Nick Redfern, an author of forty works who moonlights as a strip club reviewer, "which does have its perks," he confessed. He wore a hypnotic skull bandanna on his head, an Affliction tee, as he detailed FBI plots to silence the contacted. It was strange that a guy so convinced never had an experience himself, beyond his father's sighting during a stint in the British Royal Air Force.
Still, I couldn't help leaning forward when Graham Hancock discussed the powers of DMT and psilocybin mushrooms as catalysts for ancient man's creative spark — maybe psychedelics did have a hand in evolution, certainly based on ethnography, it did play a role in cave art, geoglyphs and history in classical Greece, Europe and the Americas, right? But language wasn't born from all that, and I bristled at the concept of extraterrestrials as knowledge bearers. Sure, there's no way to know, but the "all roads lead to the sky" philosophy...?
When David Childress dished on the link between Hitler and Hannibal based on their facial hair, I couldn't tell if he was being serious or fucking with me. Neither would have been surprising.
If von Däniken is the godfather of this gang, Giorgio Tsoukalos is his rockstar heir. Sporting a fake tan and possibly fake hair, (the follicles brazenly defy gravity), he looks the part. "What we're doing is carrying the message to the masses," he said to a round of cheers. "This time, we will not be stopped." He was dressed head-to-toe in flowing linen, like Indiana Jones just back from a dig, and he had a glint in his eye as he spoke (whether that's from all the adoration or other substances was hard to say).
"People ask me how come you don't show any skeptics on the show? They've pissed in our pot for years, we're not letting them take part!"
"He's so real," someone in the crowd said as women with short gray hair giggled and snapped photos.
Even among these circles, Tsoukalos has a diva-ish reputation. The purported publisher of Legendary Times magazine — I've searched high and low for a copy, but it's easier to be abducted then find an issue — after years of banging the alien drum, he only recently had a sighting.
At the same event last year, Tsoukalos saw a UFO for the first time. When he shared the experience, he acknowledged the implicit cliche of it all, then called for the "twenty-eight people" in the crowd who were there to corroborate his story. No hands went up. Fumbling for credibility, he scanned the audience. Finally someone in the back yelled out it was true.
Why didn't you say anything sooner, Tsoukalos hit back with comedic timing, to which the audience erupted. "It was too early for us all to be inebriated," he continues. "Sober people saw it, too."
A fan asked what the aliens looked like. "If the hatch opens, we'll be looking at ourselves," says Tsoukalos, whose surname means "night pot" in my paternal Romanian. "If we are the offspring of the aliens, they look like us, because we look like them."
The crowd roared again, and Tsoukalos smiled ear-to-ear. Like a master huckster straight out of Twain, he wove into an audience Q&A on everything from his own short-lived spinoff series, to esoteric Siberian sightings, hybrid space beings, often without answering the question or even keeping a consistent train of thought. It didn't seem to matter what he was pushing because the people came to buy. Following von Däniken's lead, and possibly smelling this doubter only a few yards away, Tsoukalos wailed that the press went out of its way to suppress the truth, even when faced with it.
"Journalists wouldn't believe they were seeing an alien even if they were standing in front of one — unless you're ready for this, even if you have an alien in front of you, you won't believe," he said. Here stood the true extraterrestrial, powerful enough to deploy an army of sycophants ready to follow orders. And yet, as he wailed and jived, I still couldn't tell if this man himself believed. Was he simply drunk off of his own manna, or did he think he was a vessel for a higher power?
I turned to my girlfriend. It was clear to her; I didn't even have to ask. "He's been out in the sun too long," she whispered.
We got up and no one leapt to stop us, no one seemed to notice — all eyes were locked forward, mouths agape, iPhones snapping away. As we crept down the aisle and headed for the door, I expected the preacher to yell "There are non-believers among us. SEIZE THEM!" But he didn't say a thing. He couldn't see us. I'm not sure he could see anything. If the truth is out there, that's where it'll stay, buried, deep in the desert, or high in the sky, one and the same.