There’s a good book called Gullible’s Travels: The Adventures of a Bad Taste Tourist, by Cash Peters. I say it’s “good,” because Peters goes out of his way to write about weird tourist traps, flea-bag motels, and all of the other things that go with mid-level travel journalism. It’s good-but-not-great because it’s clear that Peters wants to be the sort of writer who gets paid to travel to Hedonism II (yes, it’s a real resort, it’s also, from what I can gather, pretty much what you’d expect it to be), without also having any real insight into what life at a high-end nudist resort is like (if you need a bottle opener, should you ask your waiter if they’ve washed their hands in the last five minutes? Is the staff clothed?). So, he never really commits to the bit, and, as such, misses out on the big journalistic conundrums of our age, such as, “Why would anyone make a 50-foot ceramic tooth, anyway?”

Yr correspondent, having no sense of shame or dignity, recognizes the artistic value of discomfort and misery, and has no desire distance himself from the freaks and weirdos (I also don’t usually refer to myself in the third-person; we prefer the first-person plural). Which is how I found myself on a UFO tour in Sedona, Arizona.

First of all, a brief bit of background concerning family members; I usually try to write about people in my life as pseudonymously as possible, but, in this case, a bit of background is necessary. You know your crazy uncle who solidly believes Donald Trump’s hype, incessantly talks politics, science, and religion without any real knowledge of those things, and ruins Thanksgiving? Yeah, I have one, too, except, in addition to a penchant for crypto-fascist nostalgia, he believes the Earth is flat, we are ruled by a secret race of shape-shifting reptilian aliens, the UN is dropping pesticides on the planet to de-populate it (there, I just saved you from Googling “chem trails”)(you’re welcome, BTW). He is also a professional bee-keeper. Absolutely none of that is exaggerated or fictional (I mean, I’m pretty sure that the planet is spherical, and, although it’s ruled by a cabal of multi-millionaires and billionaires, I think they traditionally use lobbying firms and old-fashioned corruption to achieve their aims, and only humans could stoop to the level of immorality and open cruelty we’re seeing; aliens are unneeded; but it’s accurate to say he believes all of that).

That level of insanity was needed to avoid the vortex of our UFO tour-guide’s mind (more on that in a minute), but, I will add, that, if you embrace weirdness and madness, as our Lord and Savior, Hunter Thompson demands, you can walk away with some truly amazing stories. “You went on a cruise to Grand Cayman? I spent an hour wandering around the desert, looking for aliens with a really kooky, freaky dude! How are your kids?” Maybe Cash was right and I should ask Napa Valley if they’d trade a glowing write-up in exchange for a week’s room and board.

First, though, a brief description of the hamlet of Sedona. It’s built into the rugged hills and mountains of Nowhere Near You County, Arizona. The town name, “Sedona” is derived from an Anasazi term meaning, “Valley of Pollen” (I’m assuming that, based on my body’s congested reaction to staying overnight). If you’re new to the world of outdoor adventure, I’d recommend it, as most hikes and activities are almost all ADA compliant (believe me, I know this), the risk of you doing something dumb and killing yourself on your first trail-ride is pretty low (author’s note: before I was hit by a speeding brain tumor and lost partial use of my left leg below the knee, I actually did mountain bike down a mountain while sustaining only mild injuries; I’d recommend a slightly flatter, more-forgiving terrain for your first death-defying outdoor adventure). Sedona, BTW, is packed with tourists. I do mean packed; during business hours all the open-access places have the same population, roughly, as Lincoln Road, South Beach, Miami (I don’t know if the toned co-ed bodies are comparable, the tans are all the same)(I made the tactical error of watching the HBO series “Chernobyl,” which left me wondering, infrequently, if some desert explorer with an amazingly sun-burnt face had just gotten back from Reactor Three). If you’re not a fan of people, you might want to consider any of the campgrounds in the area. Hell, it is a resort town; I bet you that a third of all homes are empty right now (our tour guide, George, mentioned that Air BnB is ruining the housing market in Sedona).

But more to the point, Sedona is a gorgeous, tourist town in the middle of some equally delightful scenery, with miles of meandering hiking trails, readily-climable rock walls, and unexplored desert and canyonland. It is, in short, an outdoor enthusiast’s dream, even if aforementioned outdoors aren’t exactly ADA-compliant (it’s worth noting that before my left leg got mangled by a speeding brain tumor, I was an ardent hiker and enjoyed camping in the warmer months, and, yeah, I miss all of that — a lot — but I think the planet is a better place if we don’t pave and level it all)(but I digress), but, for able-bodied folks, there are endless entertainment options. In short, it could be a warmer, sunnier, redder version of Aspen, Colorado. Or a less-violent and rapey version of Westworld, depending upon your preferences and framing.

Behold the majesty and wonder of nature, mortals!

That’s not how the town has decided to bill itself, however.

Sedona is the New Age capital of the world, the UFO capital of the world (why aliens capable of traversing galactic distances would pick a single spot on a relatively uninteresting planet to cluster, is as befuddling a question as to they would use World War 1-type chemical warfare to kill us instead of ray guns or something, but, again, common sense need not apply), and the vortex capital of the world. I shall address each of these in turn, but let’s start with the last one. Anyone who’s gone white-water kayaking or rafting will be familiar with the traditional, unimaginative definition of a vortex as an isolated little part of a river or rapids that has a sucking/slowing effect on your water craft, and should be avoided if you don’t want to test your breath-holding skills. How unenlightened I was.

A vortex, is, according to the experts (all of whom have obvious commercial connections to Sedona)(boy, that’s not suspicious at all!), where a “ley line” intersects one of Earth’s magnetic lines. Don’t ask me what any of that means, I honestly have no clue, but they’re supposed to be good for you, or attract aliens, or help you get a higher SAT score, or something. I actually limped out to one of the easier-to-get to ones:

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If you squint, you can see a chupacabra lurking in the foliage

I still have a limp, so either vortices are BS, their healing powers are greatly exaggerated, or I went to the wrong spot, because invisible things are damned hard to find when you’re wandering around the wilderness of the southwest (I’m not a big fan of paving the planet, but, perhaps they could just put a placard or signpost or something where the vortex is). It’s worth noting that I went with my dog, who is capable of detecting dropped sandwiches, cats, rabbits, quail, and friendly toddlers from a kilometer away. He didn’t do anything out of the ordinary (of course, it’s also likely that he would have absolutely no interest in vortices, since they’re inedible and can’t scratch his ears).

If it seems like I’m being harsh or exceptionally facetious here, let me remind you, this is how the town markets itself. This is like applying for a job as an aerospace engineer; you’d expect the interviewer to ask you about where you got your degree, involvement in past projects, etc. before making a hiring decision. If you bill yourself as a pre-eminent supernatural hot-spot, you can’t get upset when James Randi, Michael Shermer, and myself show up and say, “Care to elaborate on that claim?” (Not that I’m anywhere near their level of competence, but I make up for it in sarcasm). Again, I’d recommend just visiting Sedona as a really cool tourist destination with a vibrant arts scene.

Pink lawn flamingos just don’t measure up

Still, if you’re going to visit the UFO capital of the world, you should probably go out looking for UFOs.

Which is how I found myself off of a side road on a frosty Friday evening, with a pair of high-priced night-vision goggles, looking for little green men (the company was Sedona UFO and Vortex Tours; I’d recommend it, although I’d also recommend taking some cold weather gear). So, a bit of background on myself and this particular area, with a brief discussion of my beliefs on this matter. Even though I’m far from an expert, I do have an undergraduate degree in molecular biology, a master’s in biomedical science, a bit of informal training in astronomy, and a 30-year membership in sci-fi fandom. I’d agree with Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s statement (I’m paraphrasing), “Let’s talk about UFOs, particularly the ‘U’ part. That’s ‘unidentified.’ Once you start saying it’s aliens or Illuminati satellites, it’s no longer a UFO.” If you look up the Drake Equation (a theoretical equation involving a lot of unknown variables — there are a lot of DIY versions of this available on the web, and a lot of corresponding resources advising you on which values to assign which variable), you quickly realize you have to put in some ludicrously low numbers to arrive at the conclusion that we’re alone in the universe. This lead to Fermi’s Paradox, which states, basically, that if there are multiple other civilizations, where are they? I developed the Trump Counterpoint as an explanation: we live on a planet where Donald Trump, Vladimer Putin, Warren Buffet, George Soros, Boris Johnson, and Kanye West are major global players. And we have nuclear weapons, V8 engines, and smallpox. What self-respecting intergalactic civilization would want to come to this shithole planet, when you could, for a fraction of the price, visit the zoo in Alpha Centauri, a place where you’re much less likely to be imprisoned and experimented upon and/or contract carbon dioxide poisoning? If you really want to visit Earth, you just have to wait a few hundred measly solar cycles, and galactic gentrification will take care of those pesky, disease-ridden Homo sapiens.

I think it’s a little indicative of our species’ bloated sense of self-importance to think that we’d be on anyone’s “must see/study” list (unless there’s some sort of extra-terrestrial Jane Goodall and we’re quietly being taught some sort of galactic sign language). And it’s just ignorance of biology that makes anyone think we could begin to comprehend alien intelligence. I believe Carl Sagan once wrote (and I could be misremembering this; I do have an organic brain disease), “The only thing we can definitively say about alien life is that it will be alien, in the very truest sense of the word.”

Quick little homework assignment: Google “vampire squid.” Go ahead. For those of you who didn’t; it’s a squid (duh) from the deeper parts of the ocean, and it looks like something HP Lovecraft would dream up after dropping acid. You have more in common with the vampire squid than you would with any alien species out there simply by sharing a common planet, even though we come from vastly different environments. My problem with guys like David Icke and Whitley Strieber is that they inevitably project human values and ideals upon creatures, which, again, if we want to project a simple sense of human self-preservation upon them, would probably want nothing to do with humans. Again, there would be no reason for the Lizard People of Alpha Draconis to poison us; we’re already doing a superb job of that ourselves. If you want some unifying, awful threat of a global conspiracy hell-bent on destroying humanity, just imagine some lobbyists from the oil, tobacco, and arms industries meeting. I’m sure those conversations are far more evil and insidious than bulbous-headed beings plotting our downfall.

So, even though I am — and remain — a skeptic, I found myself gazing at the sky with expensive night vision binoculars. Normally, I’m not terribly self-conscious about my physical disabilities (I have a bad leg, and an unreliable left arm), but, when I was handed a piece of equipment that’s in the $5–10k range, I did wonder if maybe they had a neck-strap or something in case my knee gave out on me. Then I looked at the night sky, and the cosmos swallowed my fears. I have been stargazing before, I’ve lived in rural communities where you can see most of the stars at night. This, in no way prepared me for the awesome (and I use that word in the original sense) experience of looking into the night sky with light-enhancing goggles. It defied description. It was easily the very best star-gazing experience of my life, and, yeah, I saw plenty of weird, moving, inexplicable things through the goggles, but I’m also aware that our species has been leaving debris in orbit since the 1950s (this is true)(again, if you’re an alien, our planet is like the broken-down house with a car on cinderblocks in the front yard — you don’t knock on the front door selling Girl Scout cookies); I’m still not sold that alien races are spying on us (I’m also still not sold that Mitch McConnell is human, but that’s another story).

I’d thoroughly recommend the experience, and I’d also recommend, if you’re a fan of casual snobbery, occasionally tuning in to the inevitable (and inevitably weird) chatter of the guides about what you’re seeing. I could make fun of these folks, but it would be like shooting tuna in a bathroom sink — it’s so easy, the job almost does itself. All I will say is that our guide treated the 1994 film Stargate as a documentary. I am not making this up. It was a supremely cool and life-changing experience, but it did require occasionally ignoring the guide. I didn’t ask him if there was a local chupacabra-hunting tour or something, I’m saving that for next time. I do like how Jamie Lee Curtis Taete described the mind-set in Vice (I’m absolutely paraphrasing, because the full quote is long and requires more context than I currently have the energy to give)(the original article is at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/bnyb3w/i-tried-to-have-a-spiritual-experience-in-the-desert), “Imagine what life would be like if you didn’t believe in any coincidences at all.” Our UFO tour ended a little ominously with our guide promising us that ET’s (his term, not mine, because I thought the creature in that movie was a little terrifying) would visit us in the next several days. If we’re counting plague-level allergies, he nailed that prediction. I have been sleeping better than I usually do, too, but that might just be fatigue and jet lag (but that might just be a coincidence).

In summary, Sedona is a beautiful, welcoming place to visit, and it’s filled with bizarre characters that you usually associate with mid-60s California, and it’s absolutely worth the price of admission. Just make sure you take your Claritin, and suspend your disbelief at the door. Next time, I’ll try to look in on crystal healing, since the vortex didn’t pan out.

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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