Judy Messoline moved to the San Luis Valley, high in the Rocky Mountains, to raise cattle. Five years later she knew she'd made a mistake ("Cows don't eat sand," she told us). Only then, by accident, did she tap the Valley's true natural resource: UFOs.
It started as a joke. Judy's neighbors had mentioned strange things that they'd seen in the clear night skies of the Valley, and she knew that UFO-watchers would sometimes visit her ranch after dark. To earn some money (she'd sold her cattle), Judy opened a campground on her bone-dry land, built a small stucco saucer dome as a gift shop, and surrounded it with a ten-foot-high viewing platform.
The UFO Watchtower:
• Address: 2502 County Rd 61, Hooper, CO
• Directions: On the west side of Hwy 17, about 2.5 miles north of Hooper and Hwy 112. Look for the billboards.
• Admission: $2 person or $5 car.
• Hours: Open year-round; call ahead for hours and camping rates (Call to verify)
• Phone: 719-378-2296
Unapologetic, she called it "The UFO Watchtower" because, as she told us, "When you're already at 7,600 feet, you don't need to be much higher."
The tower opened in the summer of 2000. Judy didn't expect that anyone would see anything from it, other than the distant mountain ranges and the stars at night. What she didn't know was that the San Luis Valley is revered among flying saucer buffs as one of the best places in the world to see UFOs. And Judy's watchtower was right in the middle of it.
The faithful flocked to Judy's property and made it a popular stopover. To her surprise, other Valley residents began stopping by as well, telling her their stories and using Judy as a kind of UFO counselor. "If you didn't know the people, you'd think they were crazy," she said. Judy began writing down what she'd been told, and the stories now fill several binders in the gift shop (which also stocks a healthy selection of bug-eyed alien souvenirs).
We visited during the day, when sightings are less frequent ("The serious people come in the evening," Judy said) but we climbed the steps of the metal tower for a firsthand look. Aside from the view eastward of the Great Sand Dune, most of what is visible across the billiard-table terrain is the sky. Judy was correct; she didn't need to build much of a tower to get a good view.
The most curious daytime sight is Judy's "Healing Garden," which spreads out from the dome's back door. Judy said that over twenty psychics had visited The UFO Watchtower and that "they've all said that there's two large vortexes out here."
The vortexes have been outlined with rocks and the Garden has grown around them, an organized clutter of items left by visitors: CDs, sunglasses, hubcaps, stuffed toys, and lots of pens. Judy explained, matter-of-factly, that anyone who leaves something personal in the Garden is entitled to make a request, and that "there are two large beings here who protect the entrances to the vortexes, but they are also here to help." According to Judy, the success-to-request rate has been quite good.
We asked Judy if the presence of the vortexes had influenced her decision to build The UFO Watchtower. No, she said, it was the other way around; the vortexes appeared because the tower had been built. "The psychics said that vortexes do form around UFO facilities," Judy said. "I hadn't anticipated that at all."
As you can probably guess, hanging out at The UFO Watchtower has turned the former rancher-skeptic Judy into an earnest UFO believer.
"I know what I've seen with my own eyes," she said, recounting some of the two-dozen-plus sightings that she's had from the watchtower (there have been many more that she's missed). She tries to keep a sense of humor about it, providing a separate guest sign-in book for aliens (several visitors have claimed to be extraterrestrial) and advertising her Notary status so that she can perform weddings at the Watchtower.
"If you don't have some giggles with this," she said, "you're gonna go nuts."