- Peter Holslin
I've only been in town for a couple weeks when my editor, Enrique Limón, sends me off into the unknown.
"There's a UFO festival happening in Cedar City," Enrique says after calling me into his office on a recent Monday. It's deadline day at City Weekly. Everybody's hunkered down at their computers, putting together the upcoming issue. In his office, Enrique chats with me in between scanning messages and jotting down notes—juggling many tasks. "I want you to cover it, so let's figure out how we can get you there."
At my new desk, I look up Cedar City on Google Maps. Utahns probably know this college town off Interstate 15 best as home to the Utah Shakespeare Festival. By car, it's 252 miles from Salt Lake. The UFO festival is taking place on a campground called Three Peaks Recreation Area, about 10 miles outside of town.
All of this sounds good, except for one thing: I don't have a car. In San Diego, where I was living before moving to SLC, I was mostly getting around on foot, since I was temporarily unemployed and sick of riding the bus. In February, I bought a new pair of shoes; by May, the bottoms were bald. I still have an ache shooting through my left heel from all that damn walking.
My new job at the Weekly marks the end of an exciting, but also Peter Pan-ish, six years spent roving from city to city and traveling the globe as a freelance journalist. I came to Salt Lake thinking it was high time for me to finally settle down. Now look at me: Booking bus tickets for Cedar City to hang out with UFO enthusiasts.
I was never drawn to unidentified flying objects—floating orbs, mysterious shapes and other phenomena that famed UFO researcher J. Allen Hynek once defined as "the reported perception of an object or light seen in the sky or upon the land ... which is not only mystifying to the original percipients but remains unidentified after close scrutiny of all available evidence by persons who are technically capable of making a common sense identification." By training, it's my instinct not to buy into conspiracy theories or outrageous claims. But I grew up on the paradigm-shifting sci-fi novels of Philip K. Dick, and I'll never pass up a good adventure when given a chance.
So here I go on Friday, June 14, to the fourth annual Utah UFO Festival.
- Peter Holslin
The taxi driver is taking me down a long road from Cedar City to the campground. We're flanked on both sides by green fields of alfalfa and grazing sheep and cattle. Then the road juts upward into the high desert, giving way to stretches of sagebrush and juniper trees (the latter originally called cedars by the first Mormon settlers, giving Cedar City its name). As we get closer to Three Peaks, we pass by a camp for troubled teenage girls. Volcanic rocks show marks from tire tracks of Mars Rover-like "rock crawling" vehicles, which hold regular competitions here.
It's just weird enough of a place to make it perfect for a UFO gathering.
We turn at a road marked with a tiny green sign that says "UTAH UFO FEST." There's a hill, and then a stunning vista overlooking mountains off in the distance. I arrive a little after 6 p.m., and some campers have already set up folding chairs near a wooden pavilion. As people lounge around, a disembodied voice beams out over a PA system—someone is delivering a lecture on cattle mutilations at Skinwalker Ranch, a site in northeast Utah famous among UFO enthusiasts for alleged paranormal activities.
"They did get some evidence from a couple of the mutilations. There was a blue substance in one and some other kind chemical on another," says the voice, cranked so loud that it carries over the campground like an omnipotent force.
The late-afternoon sun beats down as I lug my supplies in search of a suitable campsite. I borrowed a tent and sleeping bag from a coworker, and I bought a gallon jug of water and a handful of pre-packaged sandwiches at a gas station before heading for Three Peaks. The website for the festival was vague about whether there'd be food vendors, so I mentally prepare for the possibility that these will be my only rations for the weekend.
"There was no blood on the ground," the voice continues. "There was no blood on the animal."
I find a nice, flat spot next to a trail, and I heave and sweat as I struggle to assemble the tent. My heel starts to ache and my temples tighten from a headache.
"It cuts with a laser ... Nobody's ever been caught."
When I'm done, I collapse inside my tent and wonder if maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.
Then my phone dings with a few text messages from my dad, and I lay back in relief. Even if I end up abducted and anal probed, at least I'll be able to call the taxi driver to get a ride back to the bus stop and home to Salt Lake. Mindful of the battery power I'll need to call in a rescue operation, I switch off my phone and rally my energy to go outside.
At the pavilion, the first people I meet are two Mormon missionaries—young, fresh-faced lads decked out in crisp dress shirts and ties. They decline an official interview, but say they were invited by the organizers and showed up to answer any questions people may have about the LDS church.
Nearby, two toddlers are playing on a swing-set with their dad. A couple young guys roll by on touring bicycles—they decided to come through while on a cross-country trip from Reno, eager to check out the quirky event and take advantage of the free camping.
I breathe a sigh of relief when I see that the organizers are selling cold sodas and bottles of water at a merchandise table in the pavilion. They greet me warmly and direct me to the festival's co-founder, Nathan Cowlishaw, aka Nathan Arizona, who has been holding forth on a range of UFO-related topics in an amplified storytelling/open mic session. He's keeping festival-goers entertained as organizers scramble to put up a giant, black, inflatable screen—a bit like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey—in the center of the festival grounds.
Cowlishaw founded the Utah UFO Festival with his brother, Joseph. They rely on the good will of the UFO expert community and local government agencies to throw this DIY shindig together year after year. Iron County and the Cedar City-Brian Head Tourism Bureau waived rental fees to let them host this year's festival for free on the Three Peaks campsite, and they're selling glow-in-the-dark festival T-shirts and hoodies in hopes of offsetting operation costs.
A landscape photographer and tour guide by trade, Cowlishaw, 37, is stocky and intense, wearing a thick headband and a pair of sunglasses with polarized blue lenses.
"Have you ever seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind?" he asks me by way of an introduction. "Richard, the character, gets really obsessed when he sees an object, and it leads him on a path that's irreversible. He ends up leaving with the aliens, going to another star system.
"I saw the lights. I've seen objects. I've had three close encounters," Cowlishaw continues. The rawness of his encounters and his experiences with Native American communities helped inspire him to take a populist approach for the festival. "If I was in this to profit, I would be taxing people and doing this at a hotel somewhere, trying to really make money. I'm getting a completely volunteer event off the ground."
- Peter Holslin
The great beyond
I'm watching Cowlishaw talk on the mic when Tanner Camarena sidles up to me.
"Getting serious, huh?" he says, gesturing at my notebook as I scribble down observations. He's 25, friendly, with messy brown hair and a white tank top bearing the NASA logo. Like me, he recently moved to Utah from San Diego, and now he runs a welding shop in Cedar City with his dad. I ask why he came to the fest, and his eyes widen with urgency.
"Man, I have an experience of my own," he says, taking a swig from a can of Miller High Life.
Camarena invites me to stop by his campfire later to do an interview, and I promise I'll drop by.
Outer space has long captured the American imagination. Flying saucers appear in B-movies, critically-acclaimed TV series and the "Mothership Connection" of Parliament-Funkadelic. But the idea of extraterrestrial life forms visiting our planet is too much of a leap for many earthlings. J. Allen Hynek writes in his 1972 book The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry that when he was investigating flying saucer reports for the U.S. Air Force from 1948 to 1969, the Pentagon at times treated the subject with "subtle ridicule." The scientific establishment rejected the concept of UFOs outright, while movies and tabloids fed into the narrative that this stuff was for kooks and cultists only.
Leading UFO researcher Stanton Friedman, who died at the age of 84 in May, was outspoken about his conviction that evidence shows signs of alien visitations to Earth and government attempts to cover it up. He offered insights on the ways "debunkers" unfairly attack UFO believers: "If one can't attack the data, attack the people. It is easier," he writes in his 1997 manifesto The UFO Challenge.
Not everybody is sure about what exactly they saw or researched, and many fear ridicule or rejection if they speak about it openly. Festivals like this offer a space for people to debate and discuss with their peers.
"Is it alien technology? Are there little green men aboard these spaceships, and they're coming to visit us and trying to communicate, or send us some kind of message? I don't know," Heinee Hinrichsen, the festival's director, tells me. "Is it military? More than likely. We just don't know. But everybody that comes to this festival, they want to find out. They want to know what these objects are. It's a mystery, and everybody loves a mystery."
The Utah UFO Festival has gotten off to a shaky start. Nathan's brother Joseph spends Friday in Cedar City, helping his wife recover from a disastrous car collision she was involved in earlier in the day. When the organizers put up the monolith screen, they discover that the white sheet they need to project images is missing. Then the wind picks up and they scramble to take the screen back down.
Everyone prepares for rain. Instead, we're treated to a miraculous sunset. A band of orange glows across the mountains. A rainbow emerges from a hole in the grey skies above. On a spread of rock formations, two guys send a drone flying into the wind while a family decked out in matching Baja hoodies blow melodies on tiny, ocarina flutes they bought at the merch table.
It's after 9 p.m. and I'm starving for one of my gas-station sandwiches when the organizers finally fashion a jerry-rigged screen inside the pavilion. The crowd has dwindled to about 20 diehards and they sit quietly for a presentation by author Greg Bishop, who clicks through slides on a projector while discussing influential Russian scientists and mainstream media perceptions of UFO research.
"How do we progress if we can't think in ways that haven't been thought of before?" he says.
Erica Lukes, who heads the organization Unexplained Utah, then steps up and delivers a revealing talk about the triumphs and disappointments of her career as a veteran UFO field researcher.
"I will say that this is the most important thing that I will ever do in my life," she says. "I have come up against a hell of a lot in this, and sometimes I wonder why I'm here doing this, because I've sacrificed my friends and my family and money. I've watched myself get slandered all over the internet. I've had stalkers and death threats as of a month ago. It has been a really, really, really, really hard journey for me.
"But I know in my heart when I come to these events and I talk to people that have had sightings as profound as mine that this is important—and that we have a history, and that we need to make sure that we keep our personal power, and that we're doing the right thing," she continues. "This is about all of us."
- Peter Holslin
Seeing the light
"Have you seen Travis anywhere?" Nathan Cowlishaw asks me as I'm walking back to my tent on Saturday afternoon.
Travis Walton—the leading speaker of the festival, whose story of alien abduction inspired the 1993 film Fire in the Sky—has temporarily disappeared.
I ask Cowlishaw how the festival is going. He looks a little stressed. "We're short on staff," he admits.
Suddenly, Walton strolls out from behind some juniper trees. In a grey suit jacket and slacks, the poker-faced gentleman looks dressed for a day at the office on this sweaty plateau of earth tones and volcanic rocks. Cowlishaw spots him and they both take off toward the pavilion, conferring like respected colleagues.
The 80-degree heat has turned my tent into an oven. I lay back and take a swig of water, my temples pounding. I examine my aching heel for outward signs of damage and stretch my other foot, which has also gotten tender after I went on a brief hike to study the alien-looking "rock crawler" marks.
Back at the pavilion, I wait patiently to get a word with Walton. The 66-year-old is a bona fide celebrity here, signing autographs, posing for selfies and passing the mic during an impromptu bull session with fellow UFO experts.
"I was warned early on to never let that stuff go to your head. You just have to stay grounded and realistic. I'm still me," Walton says of all the attention he gets in the UFO community. "People think it's lucrative. It's not. If I didn't have my pension and my retirement, I couldn't do it. It's just something I do to educate people."
On Saturday, the festival grows into full bloom. Joseph Cowlishaw posts up at the merchandise table, playing the theme from The X-Files on the tiny flutes, officially dubbed WOW Flutes, which he made himself using europium compounds bought from a company owned by Area 51 whistleblower Bob Lazar. Festival-goers in the growing crowd show off aluminum foil hats and UFO tattoos. A local catering company shows up and starts grilling burgers, and later I snack on a spaceship-shaped cookie with the words "BEAM ME UP" written on it in sugar frosting.
While the sun goes down, Walton recounts his alien encounter for a rapt audience of a couple hundred people. The monolith screen flickers with eerie illustrations of flying saucers and humanoid creatures. Walton says he was working with a forestry crew in Arizona's Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests on Nov. 5, 1975, when he was hit by a blast of energy, taken onto a spacecraft and examined by a team of grey aliens and "human-looking entities."
"The stare that they were giving me gave me this really horrible feeling. It was a squirmy kind of a feeling inside my head. But they were unable to control me," he says of the grey beings. "I felt injured. I felt wounded. I felt mortally wounded. And all of that added to the terror that I felt."
Other people he's told his story to over the years claim they would've reacted differently, he says. "They'd just stay cool, ask good questions, grab a souvenir," he continues. "All I can say is, you have to have been there."
Tanner Camarena's campsite is the last one at the end of a long dirt road. The moon, Jupiter and Saturn shine like beacons in the cloudy night sky. Tanner, his camp-mate Dusty and I stand around a fire pit, tossing shreds of a paper bag into the fire to get the logs going as we sip Dusty's last three cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
My feet are worn out from standing. My sun-burnt calves feel like two roasted chicken wings. But there's a cool breeze and a calming quiet, punctuated by crickets and the crackling firewood.
"Start from the beginning," I tell Camarena.
One evening in 2009, he was riding down the freeway through the Cuyamaca Mountains of San Diego with his aunt and his two cousins.
"Off to our left-hand side, we noticed something above the mountain that was darker than the sky," Camarena says over the glowing fire. "It had three lights on the front of it. We were staring up at it from out of our window, and as we were coming up to it, we noticed it was moving kind of to the side."
As they drove, he says, the object lined up with their car in the road. They pulled over, and Camarena, bold teenager that he was, rolled down the window to get a better look. "My aunt was yelling at me, 'Tanner, get in the fucking car!'" One of his cousins started bawling, trying to crawl between the seats to escape.
"I was looking out like this, up into the sky, directly up at it. And it was not even 100 yards into the sky. Not even a football field above us. It was gigantic," he says. "It looked like an airliner stopped above our car."
He couldn't hear anything from the mysterious object—there was only a sensation. "It felt like a hum. To this day, if I had my jacket off, I'd have goosebumps. It was insane to think that something that big was right above us, hovering that close, with no sound. Only a feeling of vibration."
I'm highly skeptical, of course. It's my job to be, and I ask lots of questions like any journalist would. During my time at the Utah UFO Festival, I get the impression that nobody here would mind if I launched my own investigation into claims like these, working against all odds to corroborate accounts and verify details, studying scientific concepts and weighing theories. It'd be worse if I just rejected it all outright, as most people do.
Tonight it feels more fun and thought-provoking to accept that there could be some validity to all these impossible accounts and mysteries. There are so many questions floating out there in the milky black, so what's wrong with a few dedicated souls trying to find answers?
On Sunday morning, I pack up my tent and call a cab to make my way home. For some of the folks behind the Utah UFO Festival, the adventure continues. At the pavilion, people are getting ready to drive in a convoy to the gates of Area 51 in Nevada. After that, co-founder Nathan Cowlishaw tells me he's hoping to join an eight-day road trip with a fellow UFO expert, culminating this week in a visit to AlienCon in Los Angeles.
At some point along the way, though, he'll need to get some rest. He's had a busy week, after all. "I've had seven-and-a-half hours of sleep over the past three nights," he says.
Meanwhile, somewhere out in the farthest reaches of space, a life form different from our own prepares for its own odyssey, dreaming of new planets and species yet to be discovered.