Image: Marfa, Texas
Associated Press
Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully would appreciate the mysterious dancing orbs of Marfa, Texas, which have been seen in the sky near town since the mid-1800s. Called simply the Marfa Lights, the effect remains an unsolved phenomenon with random basketball-size blobs of energy appearing in pairs or groups and bouncing in the night sky around town.
updated 7/24/2008 2:20:57 PM ET 2008-07-24T18:20:57

The UFO stories started out simply enough. A craft hovering at high altitude. Strange lights. Lasers. A disc glowing far above in the Nevada sky. Then DeWayne Davis, a retired Air Force engineer, dished dirt on a particularly revealing saucer sighting. According to him, "It emitted an orange sodium-vapor color, not the xenon glow you’d usually see."

I was sitting at a bar in Rachel, Nev., a trailer park town two hours north of Las Vegas. Outside, past the big sign featuring an alien face, Nevada State Route 375 — aka the Extraterrestrial Highway — traced north to cross an expanse as desolate as the dark side of the moon. In the inky night sky above Rachel, where stars pack dense on a black dome, more UFOs are sighted than at any other place on the planet. Or so says the Nevada Commission on Tourism.

Extraterrestrial tourism is a minor force in the travel industry, with gift shops, tours and alien-themed establishments bringing visitors to dusty towns like Rachel or Roswell, N.M. It's a trade built on government deceptions and glowing discs, with layperson testimonials, small-budget museums and self-published pamphlets directed at suckers and truth-seekers — depending on your view.

But traveling to see a saucer crash site or an alien-themed attraction is also an excuse to visit some of the strangest places on the planet. And, in some cases, speak with some of the strangest people.

Take Wyoming's Devils Tower National Monument, for example. This 1,000-foot-high monolith has been associated with aliens since its cameo in Steven Spielberg's 1977 movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." It is indeed an otherworldly formation: a sheer-sided geologic wonder sacred to Native Americans for centuries.

"There's a power to the Tower," says Frank Sanders, owner of Devils Tower Lodge, a resort adjacent to the park. Standing eerily alone in the ranchland of Crook County, Wyo., Devils Tower indeed could play the part as a waypoint in an alien rendezvous. Not surprisingly, "Close Encounters" references run rampant with quests at Sanders' lodge. He once rented rooms to three friends from California who watched the Spielberg film several times, a window shade open to view the formation looming above. "They got a big kick out it."

Travel to the high desert of West Texas and you might stop to see the town of Marfa and its namesake "Marfa Lights." The unexplained phenomenon features dancing orbs and glowing balls that are purported to appear in pairs or groups against the night sky. With sightings recorded as early as the mid-1800s, Marfa brings tourists to gape after dark at the scrubby flats around town. The city has clearly taken an interest: There's a viewing platform off Highway 90 near Marfa and a plaque that outlines some theories on the lights' origins.

Image: Raëlian Embassy for Extraterrestrials
In 1973, a French singer, journalist and race car driver named Claude Vorilhon was abducted by aliens and told the secrets of the universe. Vorilhon renamed himself "Rael" and began teaching the truth—that humans were created by aliens who were mistakenly seen as gods by our primitive forebears. Raelian gatherings are held in several dozen countries worldwide throughout the year.
T-shirts, alien trinkets and the International UFO Museum and Research Center are attractions in Roswell, N.M., a town long famous for its association with aliens. In July, 1947, military workers from a base in Roswell recovered material from a site purported to be the scene of a flying saucer crash. The military has long maintained the downed object to be a weather balloon. But conspiracy theories on alien autopsies and covert military operations in Roswell are among the strongest of all American alien tales. Roswell today benefits from thousands of annual visitors who patron gift shops and events like the annual "Roswalien Experience" festival.

Space slideshow archiveMy trip last spring to Nevada's Extraterrestrial Highway, a two-day visit to hike in the desert and snoop for saucers at night, did not net a substantiated sighting. I did climb a hill near Area 51, the top-secret military base adjacent to the town of Rachel, and saw fighter jets breaking the sound barrier. After dark, I drove alone on the highway, pulling over and shutting off the car on a mountain pass south of town. Military planes continued to trace in the sky, red lights and blinking dots dipping behind desert hills. I stood and looked up at the stars, hoping for the "orange sodium-vapor color" the Air Force engineer had foretold.

The truth was out there, somewhere, maybe, unseen and high above. But that night on the Extraterrestrial Highway I wasn't yet seeing it.


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