'UFO watchtower' draws visitors

The Colorado Springs Gazette/August 18, 2007

Hooper, Colorado -- The strange light first appeared from the west.

It halted, and a group of onlookers flashed a high-powered flashlight twice.

The object flashed back twice.

It then moved to another part of the sky. The group flashed twice. Two flashes back. The object shifted again, mirrored their flashes once more, then disappeared into the starry black night.

Close encounter with the third kind?

The phenomenon was the first of 40 sightings that have occurred over the past seven years at Judy Messoline's UFO Watchtower in the San Luis Valley.

Messoline moved from Golden to the valley in 1995 to raise cattle. But the land was dry and soon there was nothing to feed the animals. She was forced to sell the herd, but refused to sell the land. There was something about it. It had an aura.

Since she and her companion, Stan Becker, arrived, neighbors had told stories about strange things they'd seen in the skies. They all joked about building a UFO watchtower, but Messoline and Becker never intended to do it.

When times got desperate, however, they began to see the joke as an opportunity.

"We had never seen anything prior to opening and never expected to," Messoline says.

They took out loans to build the $10,000 tower, and tourists and UFO fanatics have been steadily trickling in since, hoping to catch a glimpse of something out of this world.

More than 15,000 people have stopped by since the beginning of last summer. A guest book shows visitors from Tokyo, Zurich, Sydney and, um, Pluto.

At 10 feet tall, the tower is really less of a tower and more of an elevated balcony. But it does give visitors enough height to take in the miles of shrub-spotted desert stretching in every direction, to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

There's a dome-shaped gift shop meant to look like a spaceship. Inside, you can buy alien-themed boxers, ET necklaces, UFO watchtower shot glasses and the like.

Donations, camping fees, and gift shop purchases bring in between $14,000 and $20,000 a year. Messoline works as a substitute teacher to supplement the income.

Visiting psychics say there are two portals to a parallel universe, guarded by invisible beings in a garden in front of the tower.

"We tell people because of all the energy -- and you can definitely feel it out in the garden -- to leave something in the garden and get their energy there as well," Messoline says.

Now it's an intergalactic junk yard. Yes, there is alien paraphernalia, but also swim goggles, a pair of white strappy heels, and a ukulele.

At the tower's 21 campsites visitors can spend all evening staking out UFOs and roasting marshmallows. Messoline also rents a small cabin.

Mancos artists Marty and Denise Stecher and their two young boys have come to the campground the past three summers. The stop usually includes visits to the nearby alligator farm and hot springs.

They aren't necessarily waiting for aliens, but say the barren campground is beautiful -- and cheap. On a recent visit, the family lit saucer-shaped fireworks that spun up in the air in a buzzing whirl. It was the closest they'd come to seeing a UFO on this trip.

Denise Stecher says she has seen "strange things" before but she wouldn't necessarily say that little green men are behind them.

"I believe in people who believe," she says. "I like to see people who are passionate about different things, including aliens."

The Stechers were the only campers on a recent night, but Messoline says the place does fill up, particularly at her annual UFOlympics conference that draws more than a hundred for a weekend of speakers and sky gazing. This year's conference was held late last month.

"We have a sighting every year," she says.

For the most part, visitors are curious tourists passing by on Colorado Highway 17, but occasionally someone claims personal experience with extraterrestrials.

One of the first visitors was a truck driver who said he'd been abducted.

He told Messoline he'd been driving north on Highway 285 toward Sawatch when he saw a big light in the sky. The light was suddenly in front of his truck and he swerved. The next thing he remembers is driving on the other side of Sawatch heading toward Monte Vista. When he was filling out his log book later, he realized he was missing three hours.

The trucker was the first of more than 100 self-proclaimed abductees who have come to Messoline seeking a kind ear.

"They know that they can come here and we'll listen. They can talk about anything they want to talk about no matter how bizarre it is. Nobody makes fun of them. Nobody says, 'What did you have to drink tonight?"' They feel comfortable here."

Messoline has started to record their experiences.

"I've seen them at night. Strange lights moving strange ways," reads a notebook entry from April 15.

There are photos, too: Eerie lights. Saucers. Orbs. But with computer programs like Photoshop, it's hard to say what's real.

That's not to say strange things don't happen in the San Luis Valley.

Messoline recalls one night when she pulled up in her pickup and felt a strange presence. The next day, cameras quit working, cars wouldn't start and watches stopped.

Messoline is reluctant to flat-out say that what she's seen has come from another planet. Becker says the government could be responsible.

"I'd like one to land so I can take a good look. I would really like that. And I've got all the room here for them to do that," she says. "There's something really bizarre going on up in that sky, and I can't explain it."

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