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Tucson Weekly Zen And The Art Of Cattle Mutilation

If You're In Search Of Unexplained Phenomena, Enter 'The Valley.'

By Christopher Weir

MARCH 22, 1999: 

Enter The Valley, by Christopher O'Brien (St. Martin's Press). Paper, $6.99.

HOMETOWNS ARE LIKE families. You always think yours is more bizarre or dysfunctional than the next. Not so, of course. For example, don't forget the Manson family. As for hometowns, yours doesn't have anything on Crestone and the surrounding San Luis Valley.

Wondrously depicted by self-appointed paranormal investigator and Crestone resident Christopher O'Brien, the San Luis Valley--a breathtaking expanse that straddles southern Colorado and northern New Mexico--is plagued by flying saucers, cow vandals, space guns, serial killers, spook lights, ghost trains, coma healers, prairie dragons and even something called a "bilocating nun."

Did we mention that Enter The Valley is allegedly a work of nonfiction?

The thrust of the book is that while every region has its curious legends and inexplicable oddities, the San Luis Valley is truly the nation's mecca of high strangeness. Up there in the high country of "North America's virtual attic," O'Brien claims, is a mystifying cache of documented curiosities and a staggering caseload of undocumented phenomena.

"They say the ancient mariner had an albatross around his neck," he writes. "Because of where I live, I've got a dead cow around mine."

Indeed, the San Luis Valley is, among other things, ground zero for the cattle mutilation phenomenon, the first wave of which transpired in the 1970s. While the phenomenon has been dismissed by skeptics as "collective delusion," who can blame some rancher for wondering why he found Bessie one morning with her anus surgically excised?

But cattle mutilations are just one thread in the valley's tapestry of the absurd. To emphasize this point, O'Brien scours the historical record and unearths some real gems. There's the case of Alfred Packer and his fellow errant miners, whom Packer cannibalized in 1874 after they got lost in the San Juan Mountains. Another local legend tells of Felipe Espinoza, who was inspired by visions of the Virgin Mary to butcher 26 gringos before being gunned down at his wilderness camp by manhunter Thomas Tate Tobin.

Then there's the case of the "bilocating nun." It seems that Sister Marie de Jesus Agreda's claims of astral travel to faraway lands didn't charm the reactionary Inquisitors of 17th-century Spain. Accused of practicing witchcraft, she was placed on trial. That is, until some Spanish explorers returned from North America with amazing tales of Native Americans who had already been converted to Christianity by a phantasmal "blue lady." Thus, Sister Marie was vindicated.

According to the tale, the Blue Lady's travels took her at least within a 100-mile radius of San Luis Valley. Now 300 years old, O'Brien writes, Sister Marie's corpse remains "incorruptible," baffling both the Church and modern science (and, sure enough, she looks rather snazzy in an accompanying photograph).

Enter The Valley is less compelling when it veers from the historical record and into the anecdotal. O'Brien indulges in the unfortunate habit of random transitions, a sort of prose version of attention deficit disorder. One moment he's theorizing about secret government aircraft, the next he's singing the praises of mutilation investigator Izzy Zane before jumping straight into some account of a UFO sighting.

As with so many of his "ufology" peers, O'Brien sometimes wields a wide-eyed credulity that defies common sense. To his credit, however, he refuses to engage in the accompanying stridency that afflicts most paranormal enthusiasts. If some rancher says he saw a prairie dragon, O'Brien isn't going to question the guy's sanity or predisposition to use hallucinogens. On the other hand, he isn't going to develop all sorts of associated theories about extraterrestrial zoology or government conspiracies, either.

Sometimes a prairie dragon is just a prairie dragon.

While O'Brien doesn't presume to have all the answers, he is fearless when it comes to asking questions. He obviously takes his investigations seriously, but also seems to have considerable fun along the way. And ultimately, he indeed roams an as yet unexplained territory between reality and fantasy, science and perception.

"We have all been taught, by one system or another, that we are spiritual, sentient beings, coexisting with one another in a consensual reality," he concludes. "We find ourselves as participants in a swirling daily dance between cause and effect and chaos."

In the San Luis Valley, it seems, they do a whole lot of dancing.

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