The ride through the desert countryside is smooth and pleasant, and I try once again to take a shot of the arid landscape with my phone. It’s my first visit the Southwest of the United States, and the novelty of the scenery feels almost dreamlike. Add to that the fact I’m riding shotgun with Greg Bishop, host of Radio Misterioso and author of Project Beta –who up until now I’d never met face to face, despite the fact we’ve known each other and interacted online for almost 10 years– and that the two of us are driving to the 25th International UFO Congress, at the We-Ko-Pa Resort and Conference Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, to watch the Jacques Vallee –arguably the most notable figure in the UFO field living today– make his first re-appearance at a public UFO event since who-knows-how-many years (last time he spoke at a public UFO event, he was literally booed out of the stage!) all while listening to Greg’s curated collection of weird-ass music, and the surreality of it all reaches ‘Fear and Loathing’ levels; to the point I almost feel the pressing need to yell “we can’t stop here! This is saguaro country!”
Well, the name of the game on this road trip is not Gonzo Journalism, but Guerrilla Advertising: One of the reasons Greg and I decided to travel to Arizona and attend the congress, was because we wanted to promote an anthology of UFO essays Greg had previously posted online on the now-defunct blog UFOMystic, which he’s now self-published under the title It Defies Language! –Greg came up with the oxymoronic name, BTW, through the use of the cut-up technique created by William S. Burroughs, one of his personal heroes.
I became involved with It Defies Language! back in October of 2015, when Greg and I were chatting on Skype and I decided to show him some of the caricatures I’d doodled through the years of some of our mutual friends (Micah Hanks, Nick Redfern and others); it was then that Greg asked me if I’d be interested in doing some illustrations for his book, the same way Mike Clelland did for the late Mac Tonnies’ The Cryptoterrestrials. Imagine you were the biggest Star Wars fan in the whole world, and then you received a call from J.J. Abrams inviting you to participate in the new trilogy. Of course he had me at ‘Hello’!
Consider also how I was unemployed at the time and with nothing to do but worrying about my murky future, and you can see why Greg’s invitation was a lifeline which helped me focus on other things besides my dwindling bank account and my self pity. He gave me absolute freedom and only made minor objections to my ideas a couple of times; in return I drew illustrations for every chapter, and even ended up designing the covers for the book. By then I was heavily invested in It Defies Language! and wanted to help Greg in any way I could to ensure its success. So when we learned Vallee was going to the IUFOC we saw it as the perfect opportunity for killing two birds with one stone: Meeting Vallee –whom he had been in brief contact previously, in a failed attempt to invite him to Radio Misterioso– and attempting to have a private conversation, where we would give him a copy of the book as a token of appreciation; while at the same time preparing flyers, bookmarks and even a few posters I printed in Mexico, which we would use to promote the book among the other speakers and attendees.
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Saying the International UFO Conference is the Comic Con of UFO-related symposia is a double-edged compliment. While it is true the IUFOC is the largest event of its kind in the world, its current number of attendees don’t even come closer to what Sci-Fi/Fantasy events were gathering in the mid-nineties. And while those gigs keep getting bigger and bigger, it’s not preposterous to presume UFO-related conferences are going the way of the dodo. On an article for New York Magazine in 2014, Marc Jacobson pointed out to the dwindling attendance and aging demographic found at the annual MUFON conference in New Jersey, “a far cry from the thousands who attended the MUFON conference in the late 1970s, after Close Encounters of the Third Kind introduced extraterrestrials to the mainstream moviegoer.”
Where Jacobson was dead wrong in his piece, however, was in equating the disappearance of UFO conferences to an overall decrease of public interest in the topic, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. As I pointed out on The Daily Grail’s comment section, Jacobson failed to take into account the Internet’s impact in the way people interested in UFOs go about finding new information. In the 70’s or 80’s, live conferences and the journals published by the civilian UFO organizations were indeed the only game in town when it came to getting the freshest news and updates from researchers; but in 2016, when you can find almost anything about the topic freely online, and researchers are regularly invited to podcast shows, many in the younger generations don’t see the point in spending up to a thousand bucks and almost a whole week of their vacation time, so they can sit on an auditorium to listen to a speaker for 45-60 minutes –and without even the chance to press PAUSE in order to play a round of Candy Crush.
That’s why online conferences and pay-per-view video streaming are more than likely the way these events will survive in the digital age; if at all. But here’s the thing: When you come down to it, the reason why spending all that money and free time is worth your while, is because of what happens AFTER the presentations are over. Getting to see people in the field you always wanted to meet in person is something you will definitely NOT get from your laptop –or even your Oculus Rift.
On the list of people I’d never met before, there was for example Stan “the Man” Friedman, with whom we conversed for a little while at his desk in the vendors room to talk about Bill Moore, and the times of yore when both used to collaborate together –I tried to point out to Stan how the serendipitous circumstances in which he managed to find Jesse Marcel was one of the most important synchronicities in modern UFOlogy, but in a typical ‘Stan’ stance, he didn’t see anything ‘magical’ about it (oh well). Another Canadian investigator invited to this annual IUFOC was Chris Rutkowski, whose presentation was one of the few we actually DID attend during that weekend –seeing how he handled an elderly heckler during the last part of his Q&A was just priceless (Heckler: “It’s a disgrace you don’t support Paul Hellier!” / Chris: “Just because we’re both Canadian doesn’t mean we have to agree!”).
We chatted with globetrotter David Hatcher Childress at his table, who I gave one of our posters I brought. I also met Gene Steinberg, co-host of The Paracast, for the first time –his über-hipster tshirt filled me with great envy– And let’s not forget Open Minds’ Alejandro Rojas, MC of the whole event, who made us feel almost overwhelmed with his politeness and eagerness to help us out; a high mark in my book, given how busy he was making sure every little aspect of the IUFOC was going according to plan.
Rojas by the way told us that something funny had happened earlier in the week, which was directly related to me: How some attendees were convinced HE was the infamous Red Pill Junkie! It kind of made sense if you think about it –after all, “Rojas” means “Reds” in Spanish– although I never thought I had been THAT successful in concealing my Meatspace identity. It made the perfect opportunity for mischief and confounding things even further…
Finally, another notable figure in the field I’ve always wanted to meet was Zuni elder Cifford Mahooty, who kept us all laughing and enraptured with his many personal anecdotes and knowledge about his people’s customs; I remember how proud Greg was when he showed Clifford the turquoise ring he’d bought at a thrift store we’d visited earlier, until he realized his big blunder –the ring was Navajo, and there’s always been bad blood between them and the Zuni– Greg ammended his mistake, I’m happy to report, by wearing a Zuni ring during Saturday’s banquet.
The place where Greg found that Navajo ring, an über-cool soda fountain/thrift store called MacAlpine, is worth mentioning because of a nice ‘coincidence’: Greg had found this establishment on a previous trip by simply googling “weird places in Phoenix,” and had liked it so much he couldn’t wait to show it to me; after having lunch passed down with a terrific ice-cream soda, we went to the store section to have a look around, and while Greg was checking out the jewelry section I found myself gravitating toward an old draftsman table. I’m a designer and work in Architecture, so you could say this used to be the ‘tools of my trade’ way before AutoCAD (thankfully) revolutionized the industry; keep this in mind as I continue…
On top of the table were a collection of old books, which seemed to be part of an Aerospace encyclopedia, first published in 1968. One thing you need to know about me is that I LOVE encyclopedias; my parents went through great efforts to buy several collections for myself and my sisters so we could use them for our homework assignments –yes, young Millennials: this was BEFORE the Interwebz– but even if I didn’t have any homework, I used to go through the pages of these sacred repositories of human knowledge anyway, just for my own personal gratification (OK, you can stop screaming “NEEEERD!” in front of your monitor now)
Here’s the interesting part: In the very first book I grabbed, the one that seemed to be Volume 1 of this Air & Space encyclopedia, as I was browsing through the old yellowing hardcover, imagine my surprise when I found a chapter about… UNIDENTIFIED FLYING OBJECTS! I quickly began taking photos of these pages, and called Greg to take a look at my finding. He looked at the book and was quick to point out the name of someone very special to us: None other than Jacques Vallee.
Think about it: Here we were in Phoenix Arizona, a city I’ve NEVER been before, at a place expressly picked by Greg because he wanted to show it to me due to its ‘weirdness’, and near something indirectly connected to my personal life in the present –a draftsman table– was an old book which fondly reminded me of my past (an encyclopedia), with a chapter about UFOs –the topic of the conference we were about to attend– and as a cherry on top of our synchro-sundae, the person we were EXPRESSLY interested in meeting –Vallee- was mentioned.
If that ain’t a synchronicity, I’ll stop my career as a Fortean luchador!
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We’ve now returned to the beginning of my account, with Greg and I driving through the desert after leaving our economy hotel at the Phoenix’s downtown area –Greg told me it reminded him of a motel in Tijuana he’d once visited when he was younger, sans the 20-dollar hookers– on our way to watch Vallee have his Q&A session with Lee Spiegel, one of the few mainstream reporters who’s dedicated his career to cover the UFO phenomenon, which is tantamount to career suicide on his profession; showing Spiegel either has bigger cojones than his colleagues, or is the perfect embodiment of that famous quote about madness: keep doing the same thing over and over again, expecting each time a different result. Probably a bit of both…
There’s no point in hiding the obvious: We were both nervous. Greg even more so –despite the fact he’d actually met Vallee years before– because he’s admired him longer than I have, and “It Defies Language!” owes a huge debt to his iconoclastic pursue for the Truth, particularly when it comes to Greg’s heavy criticism about the way UFO groups tend to concentrate more on the ‘objective’ aspects of a close encounter –the size and shape of the object, it’s movement and/or trajectory, any sounds (or lack thereof) perceived during the sighting, etc– all while usually leaving behind the PERSONAL IMPACT this incredible event may or may not have had in the lives of the witnesses –how did it make them feel? Did the encounter reinforce or undermine the witness’ personal belief system about Religion and Spirituality? Did they experience weird dreams before or after the event?
Most ‘nuts and bolts’ researchers, in their eagerness to ‘kick the tires’ of the phenomenon and try to prove a favored interpretation –i.e. the Extra-terrestrial Hypothesis– might scoff at such a ‘wishy-washy’ approach. What the hell do the ‘feelings’ of the witness have to do with trying to pinpoint the star system these beings come from, they would sneer, or the propulsion system used by their spaceships??
Well, nothing, IF we are indeed dealing with beings coming from another star system on board propelled spaceships. But all the high strangeness present in close encounter accounts, which Vallee was among the first to point out and compare it with ancient folklore, seem to indicate we are dealing with something far weirder and more complex than extraterrestrial explorers. And, as Greg suggests in It Defies Language!, it may very well be the witness himself who is more involved in the ‘superficial output’ of the experience than we initially assume –what Greg calls “The Co-Creation Hypothesis.”
This is why this trip was such a huge deal to Greg, and almost like a pilgrimage for the both of us: Showing the fruits of his long labor of introspection, research and quiet consideration, after many years of treading the excluded path in the middle of this confounding mystery, as homage to someone who blazed that narrow trail for the likes of us so many years ago.
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On that Saturday afternoon, catching a brief glimpse of the man who inspired the character of Lacombe in Close Encounters of the Third Kind on the hallways of an Arizonan conference center, was positively Spielbergian; more so due to the fact Vallee’s penetrating eyes give him a certain physical resemblance with the British actor portraying the latest incarnation of Dr. Who, Peter Capaldi –who better equipped to mess with our preconceptions about the nature of Reality than a Time Lord, I ask thee!
I joked around on Facebook how we’d just achieved a Close Encounter of the First Kind with the V-man: Visual confirmation only, and from a distance. Like many other witnesses, the sighting left us too stunned, so we needed to press forward until we could at least gather some material samples confirming our encounter (Read: a signed autograph at the least).
We weren’t the only ones affected by the Uncanny Vallee, of course. Witnessing seasoned UFOlogists reversed into giddy fanboys in the presence of their longtime hero was both hilarious and sobering for a relative newcomer like myself; it was a nice reminder that EVERYONE in this field started up as an impressionable young man or girl, and either happenstance or fate put a book in that youngster’s hands written by people like Jacques Vallee, John Keel, Ivan Sanderson or Jenny Randles. And there he was: One of the last UFOlogists’ UFOlogist, who was there almost from the start, when those pesky flying saucers started invading our skies as omens of a paradigm change.
We all knew THIS was the main event of the whole congress, so everybody found a place to sit or stand. I caught a glimpse of Nick Pope and even David Jacobs –which I found a bit strange, seeing how much of Vallee’s ideas seem to fly counter to his rather literal interpretation of what we choose to call “the alien abduction experience.”
Spiegel took the wheel of the conversation at the beginning, reminiscing with his old pal Jacques about how they both met, and joined forces in 1978 in an attempt to convince the United Nations to create an official, international office in charge of studying UFOs; back when they were both younger, more idealistic… and with darker hair. Ultimately the initiative failed, despite the fact that several countries showed a great deal of interest in the presentation; the United States’ delegation helped to sabotage the proposal, by arguing the UN could not afford to spend any money studying UFOs (ironic, when you consider Spiegel was only asking for an office with a desk, a chair, a file cabinet and a phone; not much more than what the Air Force utilized when they carried out Project Blue Book). The coup against the Prime Minister of Grenada, the country that officially supported the initiative, didn’t help the cause either…
It’s been almost 40 years since Spielberg wowed us with his technological ‘New Jerusalem’ in CEIII, and the Spiegel/Vallee duo tried to convince the nations of the world that studying flying saucers was NOT a waste of time. In 2016, making the case for UFOs is still an uphill battle: Our most popular science communicators still believe “cranks and weirdos” are the only ones who see UFOs, and even when trying to make a case this phenomenon is far older than what popular culture and newspapers assume, sometimes people on the UFO camp (like the late Budd Hopkins) are also dismissive of the kind of ‘historical research’ Vallee and his collaborator Chris Aubeck embarked upon with their book Wonders in the Sky, originally printed in 2010, and now successfully crowd-funded into a super-deluxe collector’s edition.
If academic naysayers actually bothered to employ the same level of open-mindedness their predecessors employed to lay the foundations of modern Science, and took a good look into the impressive body of historical evidence Vallee and Aubeck gathered, they would be able to reach 4 reasonable conclusions:
- Not all witnesses who reported something weird in the sky were kooks. In fact, the most detailed historical accounts were written by some of the best minds in Antiquity, like Columbus and Michelangelo.
- The sightings are clear and well documented. So much so in fact that nowadays we can use modern tools like Sky Gazer in order to determine a very precise list of all the prominent astronomical bodies which could have been easily observed by the time the sighting took place; which can help researchers weed out the cases with probable prosaic explanations (e.g. comets or eclipses) from the potentially anomalous ones.
- It’s possible to do rational analysis, despite the hundreds or thousands of years since the accounts took place. And finally,
- Researchers CAN find basic patterns we can relate to modern observations of what is potentially the same phenomenon (or phenomena).
The <Wonders in the Sky database is fascinating stuff, for sure. But what good could it do when we’re still stuck in a vicious cycle dominated by fundamentalist skeptics and fundamentalist true believers? If the Randis of the world are not swayed by accounts supported by what little corroboration we’ve managed to gather (dubious photographic evidence, radar tracking, physical traces, controversial official documents) what makes us think Renaissance codexes or 18th-century newspapers would fare any better? Part of me feels Vallee’s interest in the historical stuff has more to do with leaving behind something for posterity, rather than trying to convince the people of his own age. Like many pioneers, true recognition will come in the years to come, when the UFO phenomenon will finally be recognized as something real.. and quite possibly still beyond the scope of human understanding; it will be then that our descendants will like to know when the phenomenon started, and how far back can we objectively track it amid the detritus of superstition and historical distortion.
To conclude the all-too-brief session, Spiegel moved to more personal stuff and asked Vallee about HIS own personal close encounter, which he described on the 1st chapter of Forbidden Science, Vol. 1. Indeed, it happened in 1955 when Vallee was only 15 years old –seasoned students will remember France was the epicenter of possibly the most active wave of humanoid encounters just a year before. His mother yelled at him, and when he came over they both saw a typical saucer (“like a spoon”) with a dome on top from their home’s window. Later, young Jacques was able to determine a schoolmate of his also saw the same object, several miles away.
But his father, who was a very stern magistrate, wasn’t too impressed by the event. Arguing that it was probably some kind of “new helicopter” they were testing, he then proceeded to lecture his son on the nuances of personal testimony, which helped Jacques learn that what people remember is not necessarily what really happened. Nevertheless, that early lesson didn’t prevent Vallee from arguing by the end of the Q&A with the audience how researchers should also ask witnesses about their particular state of mind, both before AND after an encounter; I was standing next to the exit by then, waiting to be interviewed by a crew from Telemundo at the request of Rojas, but when I heard the ‘V’ man say those words, I was half-expecting to also hear Greg stand from his seat and shout “YEAH!!” in response.
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It’s Sunday morning, and our hopes and efforts are about to be rewarded. We’re sitting at a table on a shady patio, and Jacques Vallee is seating next to us, wearing a black corduroy jacket and looking somewhat tired. We know he’s been constantly accosted by all the overwhelming signs of affection from all the attendees, so we unspokenly decide to keep this private interview short and sweet. The first order of business is for Greg to hand over the last copy version of It Defies Language! he has left, which he’d been saving just for this moment; the next thing that happens (something Greg did not want me to share publicly out of modesty, but I’m doing anyway) is we’re both caught off-guard when this real-life Time Lord grabs his black Bigelow Aerospace duffel bag –which I want to believe he carries around just to troll UFO buffs– to take out not a sonic screwdriver, but a copy of Greg’s previous book (Project Beta) and asks him to sign it for him too, in his elegant French accent. Whether Vallee had the courtesy to carry the copy once he’d been alerted by Greg we were both traveling to Phoenix via e-mail, or the Bigelow duffel bag had secret alien technology capable of manifesting objects a-lá Mary Poppins, is another one of those mysteries we’ll probably never solve…
Our private salon was only briefly interrupted by Alejandro Rojas, who came and apologized to Vallee for the round of applause requested in his honor during the Saturday night dinner banquet; Rojas had felt it was the appropriate thing to, despite knowing Vallee is very shy and averse of fanfare, however well-deserved –it was this shyness, Rojas explained to me later, part of the reason why Open Minds bestowed their 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award to Barbara Lamb instead of Vallee, something which caused a bit of confusion among all of his fanboys (myself included).
What transpired during the rest of the conversation, Greg and I agreed not to share publicly. Don’t worry, Vallee didn’t reveal to us the secret of the UFO mystery, nor handed over a piece of a crashed saucer kept on his magic Bigelow bag; Greg was simply interested in asking Vallee was for a bit of help concerning something that’s part of an ongoing research, and Greg doesn’t believe in sharing incomplete pieces of information until you have actually managed to procure some replicable results. One tidbit of info I will share, though, is something that was brought up apropos of that last thing he mentioned during the Q&A with the audience, with regards to asking the witnesses about their state of mind before and after an anomalous event: Vallee mentioned the famous Father Gill UFO sighting of 1959, which involved an aerial object and entities of such an almost mundane nature, Gill was convinced at the time it was some form of hovercraft owned by the American Air Force; however, Vallee told us how Father Gill had revealed to him a few nights prior to the sighting, there was a knock on the door on his Papua New Guinea chapel, and when they went to answer the call and open the door, “zere waz nobody zere…”. A simple mistake or perhaps a childish prank performed by a young parishioner; or MAYBE a sign that the level of abnormality in that area was piling up, until it provoked a final ‘crisis’ in the shape of a hovering object piloted by friendly humanoids mimicking the hand waves of the witnesses below…
As for myself, I didn’t ask any questions. The abnormality levels in my brain had finally peaked, so no great query came to mind, and I was too nervous of fumbling my words in English anyway. The only thing I could clumsily utter was praise to Vallee and my personal thanks for his book Messengers of Deception, perhaps the most important UFO book I’ve ever read (and I ain’t saying that just because Daily Grail republished it) but NOT for the UFO stuff in the book though, but for Vallee’s exploration of synchronicities and his early speculation on how Consciousness and Information are the true building blocks of Reality, instead of Energy and Time/Space as maintained by our current materialistic paradigm. Of course, almost no-one who read the book in the late 70’s understood this; UFOlogists were too angry with Vallee for pointing out their gullible narrow-sightedness, and the rest of the readers could not really relate with Vallee’s proposed model on how synchronicities seemed to show how Consciousness could connect seemingly unrelated caches of data, bypassing the limits imposed by Time and Space. Like most of Vallee’s books, MoD was written for future generations, who would make the World Wide Web their playground, and know things as ‘hypertext links’ to help them finally understand what the hell this heretical Frenchman had been saying for almost 40 years.
Vallee smiled at my praise of MoD, and directed me to his webpage where I could find a video of a presentation he gave at TEDx Brussels in 2010, where he discussed the ideas about Consciousness and Information further. I embarrassingly replied I’ve watched that video about 10 times.
And thus we all stood up, shook hands and said adieu; our private conversation with Vallee had come to an end. No, we did not dare to take a selfie with him; like most close encounter witnesses, we only have our personal testimony as proof, which will suffice to some and not to most –and that’s quite fine by me. Overall, we spoke with him for about 20 minutes or so, which may not seem too long until one remembers a typical interview with the late David Bowie lasted 10 minutes or less. When it comes to catering to their fan base, UFO rock stars are more generous.
The Bowie comparison is not just a witty metaphor to close down this pilgrimage chronicle. Like Bowie, Vallee has the dubious honor of having received critical appraisal in sharp contrast with his overall popular reception –how many UFO buffs have actually *read* Passport to Magonia in comparison to say, The Day After Roswell? Likewise, Blackstar would have probably not risen to the #1 rank on the UK charts, if its author hadn’t died in early 2016…
But Popularity does not equal Influence, not in the music biz nor in the wacky world of flying saucers. Because like Bowie, Vallee remained long enough to watch his research contributions progressing from initial welcome, to being widely rejected or ignored by the mainstream, to then being rediscovered by weirdos like my friend Greg Bishop, who appreciated the originality of his ideas and his unwillingness to compromise their integrity in favor of ‘trends’. It’s not like Vallee or Bowie tried to remain culturally relevant throughout the years; it’s just that they managed to successfully hijack the culture from within, until everybody tried to imitate them.
The culture keeps ever changing not only under the influence of maverick iconoclasts, but also through that strange thermostat we call UFOs; which keep flying over our skies to remind us that YES, contrary to the rejection of the materialistic priesthood monitoring our modern beliefs, this world is still full of wonder! Wonder that defies many of the pillars of our civilization –Language and Logic to name a few– yet that doesn’t mean it won’t speak to a deeper part within ourselves as human beings, and press us to keep asking for questions. In our search for those answers, we will still need trailblazers to point the way and chart the undiscovered country.
One cool thing about Time Lords, though, is sooner or later they always regenerate.
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Mexico City, April 2016