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Things Are Looking Up With UFO Watch Tower

Judy Messoline had the space after her cattle ranch went bust, and her modest platform now lures visitors from all sorts of wild places.

August 08, 2004|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

HOOPER, Colo. — Shortly after her cattle business went bust, Judy Messoline looked to the heavens for salvation.

She had never thought much of flying saucers but knew that her San Luis Valley ranch sat in a region renowned for bizarre, unexplained phenomena. So Messoline erected what she believes is the world's first UFO watchtower.

"I opened it as a tourist trap," she acknowledged.

But it became bigger than that. Over the last four years she has seen self-described alien abductees, psychics, channelers and visitors from Pluto, Jupiter and points beyond come through her door.

The straight-talking rancher has learned to bite her tongue during these close encounters, occasionally of the third kind.

"Who am I to doubt?" she asked.

The last year has been her busiest yet. Thousands have pulled off Highway 17 near tiny Hooper in south-central Colorado to climb the tower and scan the skies over the craggy Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

People search for mysterious flying lights, soaring triangles or hovering balls of fire. Messoline, 59, shows documentaries of local UFO sightings and discusses assorted odd happenings in the 120-mile-long alpine valley that stretches into northern New Mexico.

The UFO WatchTower isn't exactly towering. It's a metal platform in the middle of the desert standing about 14 feet above a spaceship-shaped gift shop.

"I don't know why more people are coming," said Messoline, who doesn't charge admission but accepts donations.

She's taking advantage of the newfound popularity by holding a conference at the site next weekend with UFO experts from around the country. And she's writing a book about her experiences here titled "That Crazy Lady Down the Road."

There is certainly enough material.

"I had a guy come in and ask if I had a place to sign in," she recalled. "I told him yes and he said, 'No, do you have a place to sign in for us?' and I said, 'Where are you from?' and he said, 'Pluto.' "

A woman claiming to channel the thoughts of extraterrestrials rebuked Messoline because the aliens depicted in her shop all looked alike. She said the real space folks were annoyed that just one of their 157 races was represented. The channeler left after buying a rubber alien head for her car antenna.

Then there was the trucker who said he saw a bright light above the highway and later couldn't account for three hours of his life.

"I told him to see a hypnotherapist," Messoline said.

At an ethereal 7,600 feet above sea level, the San Luis Valley has always been a land of mystery, a place where the Wild West meets the Weird West. Early Native Americans claimed "ant people" lived underground here; other tribes talked about "star people"; and the Hopi believed all thought originated atop the valley's towering Mt. Blanca.

There are stories of Bigfoot sightings, clandestine military installations, secret alien bases and vortexes leading to other dimensions. New Agers and those seeking spiritual enlightenment flock to towns such as nearby Crestone, where Buddhist prayer flags snap in the windy foothills of the Sangres.

"The San Luis Valley was the first area colonized by the Spanish in Colorado, and it's just been sitting there for 400 years simmering in its own broth," said David Perkins, a journalist who has written about the region for nearly 30 years. "It's so isolated. It's ringed by mountains and there are a lot of superstitions."

Perkins said the mix of Indian, Spanish, Mexican and Catholic folklore might also make inhabitants predisposed to seeing certain things.

Leslie Varnicle, state director of the Colorado Mutual UFO Network, said the valley is an area of major military operations, full of low-flying, high-speed aircraft operating from bases in Colorado Springs.

"But that doesn't explain similar sightings 50 years ago when we didn't have that kind of technology," she said. "This is one of the biggest hotspots in the country for unconventional flying objects."

The valley's history was relatively unknown to Messoline when she arrived from Golden in 1995 to start a new life after her divorce.

It wasn't long before people asked if she had seen any UFOs.

Messoline hadn't. She was too busy trying to keep her ranch afloat. But dwindling pasture eventually forced her to sell her cattle, leaving her with 640 acres of unused land.

"My friend said, 'Why not put up a UFO watchtower?' " she recalled.

To her own amazement, she agreed.

After giggling her way through the permit process, Messoline had the tower built down the road from her house. She advertised with metal "aliens" along the highway. Soon after, she said, she saw her first UFO -- a narrow, glowing object sailing over the mountains.

Since then, she's seen 19 more.

"You will see dots moving real fast. Then one will stop and the other will catch up," said Messoline. "I have talked to military men and they say no planes can do that."

Over the course of a recent day, about 75 people stopped in for a look.

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