By Joe Nelson
Southern California’s Morongo Basin has long been a hotbed for UFO activity, whether real or imagined.
Ever since George Van Tassel, a former flight inspector-turned-ufologist, leased an abandoned airstrip adjacent a seven-story boulder in Landers in 1947, built an inn and began hosting interplanetary conventions, the area has since been a global draw for those who believe, or want to believe.
“As many as 15,000 people showed up for these conventions in the middle of the desert. They would come by plane, automobile, campers, and they would listen to these speakers,” said Barbara Harris, a member of the Morongo Basin Historical Society and expert on the history of Giant Rock, the landmark seven-story boulder where Van Tassell set up shop in 1947.
Van Tassel’s guest speakers claimed to have either been abducted by extraterrestrials or had direct contact with them. They included Daniel Fry, George Adamski, Gabriel Green and Dr. Frank Stranges, founder the of National Investigations Committee on Unidentified Flying Objects, Harris said.
“They were called the ‘contactees’ at the time,” Harris said. “They talked about their experiences. They talked about the government cover-ups. They talked about the X-files.”
Van Tassel himself claimed to have been abducted by aliens. In 1959, he completed construction of his Integratron, a resonant tabernacle he claimed was designed with blueprints personally delivered to him by four aliens who landed at his airport in Landers in 1953 in a spaceship from another planet. Howard Hughes helped fund construction of the project, now a national tourist draw.
In the spirit of the Morongo Basin’s rich UFO history, the Joshua Tree Retreat Center will host the second annual Contact in the Desert, a three-day weekend convention featuring some of the world’s most reputed ufologists and alleged contactees, from Aug. 8-11. Registration is underway, and bookings for this year’s event have more than doubled, said Paul Andrews, an event organizer.
He believes the event’s popularity can be attributed mainly to the popularity of television shows like the History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens” and radio talk shows like the paranormal-theme “Coast to Coast.” The hosts of both shows, Giorgio A. Tsoukalos and George Noory, respectively, are among the featured guest speakers at this year’s event.
“The whole UFO question is a huge mystery to the American public . . . , and people want to solve that mystery. They need to know,” Andrews said.
Unlike UFO conventions that tend to draw the proverbial fanatics in foil hats, Contact in the Desert prides itself on taking itself seriously and assembling a pool of leading experts in the field, which can also be attributed to the event’s rising popularity, Andrews said.
Also on this year’s roster of guest speakers include Erich von Daniken, author of the 1969 book “Chariots of the Gods”; Nick Pope, a former official with the UK Ministry of Defense UFO Project; David Wilcock, host of Gaiam TV and author of “The Source Field Investigations”; and Travis Walton, an alleged abductee whose book, “Fire in the Sky,” was made into a feature film.
Andrews said the region’s long history of reported UFO sightings makes it the perfect spot to host such an event.
“What better place to convene a conference exploring some of the greatest questions in human history than an ancient sacred site (Giant Rock) with a long-lived reputation for sightings and contact experiences?” Andrews asked in a news release.
Harris, a Yucca Valley resident of 10 years and former president of the Morongo Basin Historical Society, will give a lecture on the history of Giant Rock and a tour of the site.
She said the Morongo Basin is near the 33rd Parallel North, where many of the world’s UFO sightings have occurred.
Since Van Tassel put down roots in Landers, his legacy has lived on, as have the reported sightings of UFOs.
“Almost all the old timers have seen some kind of mystery craft some time in their lives up there,” Andrews said, adding that the 17-mile loop in Joshua Tree National Park is a popular place for people to gather, to pitch tents or sit in the back of their pickups, sipping beer and searching the sky for unidentified flying objects.
George Noory, host of the radio talk show “Coast to Coast” and who succeeded Art Bell, will be opening up this year’s event via Skype on Aug. 8 and then speaking in person in panel discussions on Aug. 9. He said Joshua Tree serves as the perfect locale for the event, which coincides with the Perseid meteor showers.
For the nonbelievers and skeptics who often scoff at the idea of little green men with almond-shaped eyes traversing the solar system, visiting Earth and abducting or examining humans as some sort of intergalactic scientific research project, Noory said such skepticism is actually a good thing.
“I think skepticism is healthy. If you can go in with an open mind, not believing everything you hear, that is much better than a blind believer,” Noory said.
Noory, however, is no skeptic.
“Life is just too complicated to be randomly done without some intelligent force behind it,” Noory said, adding that some call that intelligent force the work of God, while some believe it is the work of alien life forms visiting Earth in vehicles that far surpass the technologies of modern man.
“There is something that put this altogether, and they did it very well,” Noory said.