In the interest of full disclosure, I have had exactly two brushes with the “paranormal.” And to be completely honest, neither of them was that impressive.

The first incident happened when I was a firefighter. Contrary to what the name would imply, wildland firefighting is mostly grunt work. Sure, there were moments of high adventure, but not many. Even on a fire, I spent most of my time bent over a shovel cutting a fire line or digging through the dirt looking for hot spots. And if I wasn’t on a fire, I was doing fuel reduction. That usually entailed removing dead trees and clearing brush. But at least the views were usually pretty good, and I was outside in the fresh air.

When I wasn’t working up a sweat, I  was issuing burn permits. That meant visiting various residents around the two counties I was responsible for and looking at burn piles. My job was to make sure that the pile was not too big and that the fire did not have the potential to escape and burn down the resident’s property or those of their neighbors. If everything looked good, I would fill out a permit and tell the person to check the clearing index and call central dispatch before lighting it up. And hope that I didn’t have to come back for an escaped fire.

I was working on a fuels project when I got a call for a permit. The property was a good 90 minutes away and I was getting toward the end of my day. I was hot, filthy, and, sweaty and knew that by the time I got down there, it would be the early evening. The caller was nice enough to let me wait for a day and added: “This is at the UFO Ranch.”

You probably know the UFO Ranch by the name popularized by a certain TV channel that at one point showed programs about history. Even before it was made famous by a *ahem* reality program, the ranch was well-known in the area for its apparent weirdness.

I told the caller I would be there first thing in the morning.

What was it like? What did I see? To be honest, it wasn’t much different from any of the other ranches in the area. Aside from the home for the researchers and a plethora of cameras, the most notable thing about it was a really nice German Shepherd that came out to say hi when I got out of the engine. The burn pile looked good and I scratched out a permit. Except for a photo shown to me by the caretaker of what appeared to be a full-grown cow elk that was about two feet tall, there was nary an alien, saucer, or wormhole in sight. I’m not saying that those things aren’t there. I’m just saying I didn’t see any of ‘em. It was a fairly routine start to another fairly routine day. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Flash-forward about a decade and a half, and I’m working at a desk job in the city. I started work at 7:00 and I had a habit of taking one last look at the sky and the mountains before I plopped down in my spot in the cube farm. One such morning, I was taking my morning look when I saw what I thought was a piece of garbage caught in an updraft. I tried to catch up with it to throw it away when I realized that not only was it huge, but it was impossibly high for a piece of garbage. Then I thought it might be a paraglider. That sport is fairly popular where I live. Not only was it too big to be a paraglider, but what kind of idiot would be paragliding over a busy freeway at the start of rush hour? So there was a huge, black rectangle hovering over the freeway. A light strobed on one corner…and it was gone. It literally dissolved right before my eyes. What did I do? I went to work. I did call my wife and say “Guess what? I just saw a UFO.” And that was pretty much the end of it. I was not abducted. I did not form a mystical connection with visitors from beyond, and unlike Richard Dreyfuss, I did not build a replica of Devils Tower from mashed potatoes.

I am under no illusion that what I saw was extraterrestrial in nature. On the contrary, I am convinced that this thing was part of some sort of experiment. Utah has its fair share of military bases and operations, so it’s a fairly safe bet that my UFO sighting has an earthly explanation. For all I know, it was some advertising gimmick that went way over budget. Hell of a way to sell used cars or new condo developments.

With that in mind, reports that NASA is getting serious about UFOs. Or UAPs, as they are now called. I guess UAP is the culturally sensitive term. In June, it launched an independent study on UAPs/UFOs/flying saucers…whatever. The study will be led by astrophysicist David Spergel, who told

“Given the paucity of observations, our first task is simply to gather the most robust set of data that we can…We will be identifying what data — from civilians, government, non-profits, companies — exists, what else we should try to collect and how to best analyze it.”

But before you get your hopes up and try to book a first-class seat on the next flight to Alpha Centauri, Avi Loeb, head of Harvard’s Galileo Project, was about as sanguine as I am. He anticipated that the findings would turn up a combination of human-made and natural sources. And even then, we may not know. If the strange things people see in the sky are part of some black budget operation, you can expect that explanation will never see the light of day.

The real question is: Why are we spending taxpayer money on this? If we do find aliens, what are we going to do? Levy a saucer tax? Ask them about their pronouns? Put them on a bus for Washington, D.C.? I’m all for NASA, but to be honest, I’d rather have them getting us out of the International Space Station and starting a colony on Mars than doing this. Even the late and extraordinarily great Ray Bradbury lamented the fact that there was nothing impressive about watching a space shuttle land.

And besides, there is something infinitely more interesting about an unsolved mystery than a solved one. Maybe I saw a military experiment over my office, or maybe I saw an interstellar craft. Maybe Bigfoot lives in the mountains near my town, or maybe it is just a bear that was mistaken for something else. Maybe a prehistoric throwback lives in the waters of Lake Champlain, or maybe people are just seeing logs and currents. There is a charm and wonder in not knowing. And it allows us to find an escape, even for a few minutes, from an increasingly dull, grey, and depressing financial and cultural landscape. Let us have wonder, and even weirdness, while we can.

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