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Aliens and alligators

Tom Boyd

HOOPER, Colo. — Two-thousand feet beneath the hard-baked sage flats of the lower San Luis Valley is an underground swampland, a subterranean wetland charged with heat from the planet’s core and forced upward through fissures in the crust of the earth.Allowed to rise at its own geological pace, this swampland could theoretically transform the San Luis Valley into a sub-tropic, banana-bearing Amazonia sometime in the far distant future.But if you think like Jay Young, you don’t waste time. You want your Amazonia NOW!. So you drive a well into that sucker and pull water up to the surface, where it comes out of a PVC pipe at a warm, bathtubbian 87 degrees Fahrenheit.I know what you’re thinking hot springs, sulfur smells, and naked hippies washing their bandanas between sips from the communal jug.Not the case.At Young’s Colorado Gator Farm near Hooper, Colo., hippies are referred to as “gator chow” and the weight of the nearest catfish is around 70 pounds. Most of the things that grow in the waters around here can chew your arm off if they feel like it, or at least crush your rib cage, dislocate their jaw, and swallow you over a period of months.Neither option is very appealing, but walking around among these creatures in a tropical atmosphere can certainly fulfill that strange, post-ski season craving for warmth that so often goes unfulfilled among the broke and hardworking. The beauty of Hooper is that it’s only about three hours away, so getting there is a heck of a lot cheaper than getting to any other tropical place.And, as one visitor put it, “It’s just one of those place you can’t drive past twice.”That’s especially true because Colorado Gators is located along Highway 17 in one of those bizarre places in the West where the military could test H-bombs and there’s a good chance no one would notice. The surrounding terra firma is very terra, ultra-firma, flat and covered entirely by dirt and scrub. Some stunted variation of sagebrush covers the ground, but it kindly leaves room for wind to collect sedimentary sand particles and deposit them at Great Sand Dunes National Monument, located a few miles to the northeast.But the alligator farm is an oasis (of sorts) from the heavy winds and high elevation of the San Luis Valley. Reality immediately begins to warp inside the threshold of the hangar-sized buildings at the gator farm, where everything is warm and stinky, if not downright fishy.Blame the fishiness on the talapia. They’re the ones that started the whole thing. The hardy tropical fish makes good food, and it survives pretty well in 87-degree bathtub water. Selling the fish to restaurants went well for a while, but asking employees to dispose of accidental dead fish made for a turnover problem.Rather than hire all seven of Hooper’s residents to carry away the dead fish, the folks at the gator farm hired a few alligators instead. Pretty soon the alligators became an attraction in themselves, and about four years ago someone got the bright idea of charging admission.Now nearly 35,000 people a year visit the farm, and this year they began offering gator-wrestling classes (recommended as a gift idea for someone you really hate).But rather than spoil all the fun of the Colorado Gator Farm, and give away all their secrets (like a 100-plus-pound python and an ornery ostrich), let’s just talk about the aliens that live nearby.Ah yes, aliens.Across the street and up the road from the gator farm is the UFO capital of Colorado, owned and operated by Judy Messoline and Stan Becker. Relatively new to the region, Becker and Messoline began hearing stories of UFO sightings from such reliable sources as cattle ranchers, geriatric troubadours, ex-Pueblo medicine men and local law enforcement officers. They also became acquainted with a nearby dweller named Christopher O’Brian of Crestone, who has written books about the long and distinguished history of alien abductions and sightings in the valley.Some of these aliens have been captured on film, and one startling picture portrays a pair of aliens riding one of Young’s alligators. This may seem improbable, but nothing about Hooper is to be expected. (The little green men do, however, look a bit plastic and inflatable astride their mount, which is a giant green alligator named “Fluffy”).Still, the UFO watchtower Becker built makes for a pretty cool hangout, and although it’s possible you may see aliens, all you’re likely to see is an extra couple acres of sagebrush. So if you don’t see any weird, floating objects in the sky, then try staring deep into the sagebrush for a few hours. After that everything starts looking like a glowing orb.Aliens aside, Becker and Messoline make great hosts. They’ve got a bunch of camp spots, proximity to the Sand Dunes, and lots of creepy stories to tell. Nighttime gatherings on the watchtower are common, though the weirdest stuff to see isn’t up in the night sky it’s standing right next to you in a flowing silk robe. Turn to the Russian lady who came here on a UFO pilgrimage, crack a beverage, bug your eyes and repeat the San Luis chant: Chomp chomp, whizz whizz, that’s the way that Hooper isAll you can hope is to fit in.


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