|Giant Rock Convention, Landers, 1966. (Courtesy Morongo Basin Historical Society)|
MORONGO BASIN — Tim Gaul had an extraterrestrial experience — in sales.
Gaul, an artist who graduated from Indio High School, found out how mainstream the fascination with other possible life has become when he rolled out his newest necklace creation earlier this week at a festival: porcelain alien faces — featuring those familiar almond-shaped eyes.
He sold dozens within a few days.
Although Gaul doesn't think a bunch of E.T.s are walking the Earth, he doesn't rule out the idea that other beings exist.
"I believe there's life on other planets," he said. "Maybe there's a race of other people on other planets."
And if there are, they aren't evil.
"Or they would have taken us out already," he said.
Extraterrestrials, ancient aliens, crop circles, contact experiences and UFO sightings are among the many out-of-this-world topics that will be explored during the "Contact in the Desert" four-day conference beginning Aug. 8 in Joshua Tree.
The second such conference, it features scientists, researchers, archeologists, best-selling authors and experts featured on History Channel shows such as "Ancient Aliens" and "Hangar 1."
It's in "stark contrast to UFO conventions famous for attracting fanatics in foil hats," according to organizers.
The event coincides with the Perseid meteor shower — one of the brightest meteor showers of the year — which occurs every August, peaking this year between Aug. 10 and Aug. 13.
The location of the conference is significant.
"Joshua Tree has a long history of sightings," co-organizer Paul Andrews said. "We think that, scientifically, there's something about the area that is attractive to this phenomena."
Just as us earthlings are drawn to Joshua Tree — its other-worldly beauty amplified by a sense of spiritual serenity — visitors from other worlds might also be lured by the charm of this secluded, sprawling high desert sanctuary.
George Noory, host of the nationally syndicated radio talk show, "Coast to Coast AM;" Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, host of "Ancient Aliens;" and Erich von Däniken, author of "Chariots of the Gods," are among the headliners of the event, which features a lineup of nearly 40 speakers, including local historian Barbara Harris, who has studied the Morongo Basin communities, specifically Morongo Valley, Landers and Joshua Tree for the past 30 years.
Harris said the history of the area's connection to UFOs dates back to at least 1947 when George Van Tassel — an aircraft mechanic and flight inspector who worked for Douglas Aircraft, Hughes Aircraft and Lockheed — left Southern California's aerospace industry and moved his family to Landers, site of the mysterious Giant Rock, a massive, freestanding boulder standing seven stories tall.
The 25,000-ton behemoth, purported to be the largest freestanding boulder in the world, covers 5,800 square feet — the size of an estate-size home in the Coachella Valley.
"That's where all of the UFO stuff began," she said. "Van Tassel started having visions or connections with space beings from Venus."
During one of these encounters, he received some advice.
"They told him, 'You human beings are coming along OK as a species. However, when you finally get to the place where you 'get it' you die.' They gave him some information on how to build the integratron — a time machine or rejuvenation device to help extend human life."
The one-of-a-kind, all-wood parabolic dome-shaped structure was built on a powerful geomagnetic vortex. Construction began in 1954 and he worked on it until his sudden death in 1978.
The structure, which still stands today, is open to the public.
Van Tassel put on open-air conferences called the Interplanetary Spacecraft conventions, which began April 4, 1953.
"In the 50s and 60s, as many as 10,000 people found themselves driving to the middle of nowhere in the middle of the desert to listen to George Van Tassel speak, to listen to contactees," Harris said.
Harris believes UFO activity — and sightings — are related to specific times in history.
The upheaval of World War II and the development and use of nuclear weapons may have drawn intelligent life closer to Earth, she said.
"Certain people believe the UFOs and the E.T.s come here as a support system to the human race. They're here, basically, to help us grow as a species. They were showing up so we wouldn't destroy ourselves."
"During this time period, people were just starting to come out of their shells and talk about UFOs, talk about X-Files and talk about government conspiracies. At the same time, things were happening in Roswell," she said.
Harris said people living in the high desert at the time had such an interest in UFOs that a newsletter was published — known as The Smoke Signal — that reported specifically on UFO sightings.
Interest in aliens ebbed in the 70s, 80s and 90s.
"There are times when the subject has its peaks and its lows, depending on media coverage," said Nick Redfern, an author and lecturer who writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Lochness Monster, alien encounters and government conspiracies.
"Fortunately today, there's a great deal of media coverage and attention given to the subject. History Channel, Nat Geo, Discovery. The more attention it gets, the more people listen to it."
Redfern, who is a featured speaker at the conference, will present a lecture on "The Pyramids and the Pentagon" and a workshop, "The Real Men in Black."
In the past, the media would laugh at the subject, poke fun and make jokes about "little green men," he said.
"The stereotype is a 40-year-old UFO researcher living in mom and dad's basement," he said. "The reality is, most people, we have normal lives, but we just happen to be interested in unusual subjects. It's not like it's an obsession. It's a fascination which I've made into a job."
If you go
Contact in the Desert
Joshua Tree Retreat Center, 59700 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree
Date: Aug. 8 - Aug. 11
Cost of four-day pass: Single: $250; Couple: $475
All lectures and panels are included. Workshops, intensives, tours and meal plans sold separately.
To order tickets, call (760) 365-8371 or visit contactinthedesert.com