Outside The Red Planet Diner, in the high desert town of Sedona, the model of a flying saucer hovered at an awkward angle, its battered body forever anchored to the asphalt. Scanning the restaurant floor, I found a table with a view of the towering red mountains beyond the car park – a backdrop worthy of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Joining me for dinner that evening was Melinda Leslie, manager of the nearby Centre For The New Age. I had signed up for Melinda’s UFO-spotting tour, which employs military goggles to scan the night sky. As our food arrived, she recounted a few of her otherworldly experiences.
“My first abduction was in San Bernardino, California, in 1993,” she said, very matter of factly.
“We were taken into a low-lit room and undressed, then put through a series of examinations. They took some eggs from me, then they attempted to extract sperm from my friend, Mike.” She paused to take a delicate bite of mashed potato. “Unfortunately, he had a vasectomy – so they had some trouble with that...”
Smiling weakly, I tried not to choke on my Space Burger.
I had been in Sedona for less than an hour, and already I felt like a peripheral character in a 1950s B-movie. Looking up from my plate, Melinda’s face was framed in a lurid, scarlet sunset, the mountains behind her glowing with alien light.
I had come to Arizona hopeful, fearful and sceptical in roughly equal measure. If I was going to have a close encounter with a flying saucer – or a sperm-hungry extraterrestrial for that matter – I had certainly come to the right place. Sedona is 4,500 metres above sea level, with some of the clearest night skies in North America. Here, shamanic healings, psychic readings and past life regressions are commonplace. Alien abduction seemed only a hop and a skip away.
But tonight was not my lucky night. “Those clouds don’t look good,” said Melinda, pointing out of the window. “I think we’re going to have to postpone our tour until tomorrow.”
The following morning, the sky was clear, and the evening forecast looked promising. Feeling encouraged, I headed towards Spaceship Rock, a saucer-shaped outcrop about an hour’s hike from the Bell Rock trailhead. At close range, Sedona’s mountains are curiously intimidating. As I squinted up at Bell Rock rising from the dust like an angry, crimson dinosaur, my mouth became suddenly very dry. What if strange beings really did use this high elevation as some sort of light-speed playground? What if all my preconceptions were about to be obliterated, like a planet in the path of an alien death ray? In 1997, the former-governor of Arizona, Fife Symington, admitted to observing “an enormous and inexplicable” craft. Many ridiculed him, but he was adamant: the ship was metallic, with “a constant shape” and “a geometric outline”.
I was having trouble erasing this image from my mind as I walked into Bell Rock’s elongated shadow. I saw chunks of glittering quartz embedded in the dust; hummingbirds buzzing through juniper bushes and the long shadows of tall trees intersecting the red valley floor. Following the path around the base of the mountain, I eventually spied Spaceship Rock hunched on the horizon. At first, I was underwhelmed (it looked more like an Egg McMuffin than The Millennium Falcon) but scrambling up its slippery sides, I was rewarded with 360-degree views of a serene and celestial landscape. Sitting on my alien perch, with Courthouse Butte to my right, and Cathedral Rock to my left, I felt like a marooned astronaut: a shorter, fatter version of Matt Damon’s character in The Martian.
That evening, I arrived at the Center For The New Age, adrenalin coursing through my veins. There I met Tom and Mindy, primary school teachers from Boston. This was the couple’s third tour in as many months. Once, Tom told me, he had seen “a triangular object hauling butt across the sky” – on another occasion, “a pair of orange orbs”.
After Melinda had briefed us on the use of the infrared military goggles – which absorb up to 20,000 times more light than the naked eye – we piled into the back of her car, and drove for about 20 minutes towards a flat-topped hill known as Airport Mesa. I was a little concerned by the name, which seemed to suggest a preponderance of earthling technology, but Melinda assured me that planes were easily identifiable by their flashing navigation lights. “Shooting stars have tails, and satellites fly very slowly towards the horizon,” she said. “When we’ve ruled all these things out, we’re left with the unknowns.”
Over the course of about two hours, we saw at least a dozen white, yellow and orange lights moving quickly across the sky – sometimes solo, sometimes in pairs. Were they high-flying satellites? Shooting stars? Or military aircraft, perhaps? Melinda seemed very sure that they were extraterrestrial craft. But oddly enough, it didn’t seem to matter. Martians or no Martians, Sedona’s night sky was a heavenly sight to behold. Training my goggles on the sparkling expanse, I felt suddenly very small – a grinning child, wide-eyed with wonder.
British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com) and its partner American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk) fly direct from Heathrow to Phoenix, Arizona. Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) and its partner Delta fly from Heathrow and Manchester via Atlanta.
Sedona is around 100 miles north of Phoenix.
Centre For The New Age (001 928 282 2085; sedonanewagestore.com). UFO sighting tour $75 per person.
Red Planet Diner (001 928 282 6070).
Sedona Tourist Office: 001 928 282 7722; visitsedona.com
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