Judy Messoline and her U.F.O. Watch Tower in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. “The world needs a place where people can go to talk about their experiences and not be laughed at,” she said.
By KIRK JOHNSON
HOOPER, Colo. — “I like humans, they’re fun,” Judy Messoline said as she showed a visitor through her vortex garden, which psychics have said contains not just one, but two separate portals to a parallel universe.
Many of the humans who come to Ms. Messoline’s U.F.O. Watchtower, hard by the dueling vortexes, may be fun, but they are also wounded. About 95 percent, by her estimate — and she makes a point of asking — have experienced something, a shudder in the fabric of the ordinary, the sighting of an unidentified flying object that to one degree or another has haunted them and drawn them to this otherwise empty spot in south-central Colorado. Having fun in thinking about extraterrestrials, she said, is usually bound up with something deeper right here on the home planet.
“The world needs a place where people can go to talk about their experiences and not be laughed at,” she said.
People do laugh here. One of Ms. Messoline’s principles in building the Watchtower a decade ago, in an attempt to raise cash as her cattle ranch collapsed in economic ruin, was that U.F.O.-spotting should be a hoot, and whenever possible, a party.
“The best sightings have been when people are just out enjoying the evening,” she said. Fifty-nine events — lights that move erratically or, during the day, objects that defy explanation in shape or movement — have been witnessed from the tower since 2000, Ms. Messoline said, sometimes by dozens of people at the same time.
No one knows the count before that, since no local institution existed for counting. Many residents, though, say the San Luis Valley, just north of the New Mexico state line, has been a hotspot for decades. U.F.O. reports reach all the way back to the early settlements of the 1600s, with a particularly noted wave in the late 1960s.
The turmoil of modern life is also in evidence near the tower, at the house once occupied by Ms. Messoline’s son and his family, now vacant and in foreclosure since the couple’s divorce.
“Broke my heart,” she said. Adding to the pain, she said, is that the house will probably never sell. “Who wants to live next to a U.F.O. Watchtower?” she said.
Truth be told, the Watchtower — really just a framed metal platform perhaps 10 feet off the ground — is not much of a moneymaker at $2 a head for admission. Ms. Messoline, 65, a former housecleaner from the Denver area who moved to Hooper in the mid-1990s, still needs the paycheck from Miss Deb’s, a convenience store down the road, identified by the giant chicken out in front, to make ends meet.
But that is the interconnection of a lot of things in Hooper, a dot of perhaps 100 souls in a vast and lonely place. Harsh realities in economics and climate — high poverty rates and brutal winters — are interlaced with vistas of breathtaking beauty and a local culture that has long prized and cultivated the offbeat.
Ms. Messoline furthered that spirit by encouraging visitors to leave something in her vortex garden. One recent offering: a two-foot-tall Superman doll with one hand extended, holding a bottle of hot sauce, perhaps in greeting or in supplication.
Another visitor left a primer for extraterrestrials who might find themselves confused about human tableware. A folding knife-and-spoon was marked with text and helpful arrows pointing in the direction of each object: “This is a knife and a spoon, alien,” it said.
Even the winds are strange. One corner of the San Luis Valley, banked on all sides by mountains, somehow became a collecting spot for blown sand over the past few thousand years, since the drying up of an ancient lake bed. The result: a little bit of the Sahara in Colorado at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, about 15 miles from here.
The sky, with barely a town to break the landscape, is black at night — a riot of stars not visible from the big city — and huge at all hours. And people here are used to being out and aware of their surroundings, which makes them perhaps more likely than city folk to see things in the great Out There.
“There’s not a lot of activity, so people have more opportunity to be watching what’s around them,” said JoDene Newmyer, 64, who works with Ms. Messoline at the convenience store.
Ms. Newmyer’s own U.F.O. story — and most people here seem to have one — occurred on the Friday morning of Memorial Day weekend, 1972. She was driving her daughter to the baby sitter at 7 a.m. when she stopped cold at the sight of a huge angular silver object just above the horizon.
“Flying saucer? I will not say that,” Ms. Newmyer said. “But unidentifiable it definitely was, because I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Ms. Messoline says the years of scanning the sky and of meeting people who are drawn to her and her tower have changed her.
She decided recently to put the patch of ground under the tower and the vortex garden in her will, donating it to a U.F.O. research group in Denver to continue the work, or the fun, after she’s gone, even though she knows that a tower in perpetuity will probably doom any chance of a sale of her son’s former home.
A version of this article appeared in print on November 26, 2010, on page A18 of the New York edition.
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