My Night Hunting UFOs at an Alien Ranch

Photo by Diana Robinson Photography, Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

“SO, I SAW THIS PLACE ON A LATE NIGHT DOCUMENTARY and I’ve always wanted to go,” my friend Ash pinged me one day.

I clicked through to the homepage for ECETI, short for “Enlightened Contact with Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” Located on a ranch in the small town of Trout Lake, Washington, ECETI professes a mighty mission: “To help with public awareness of the E.T. reality and to assist people with connecting to positive otherworldly beings.”

“This looks like a Christopher Pike novel,” I typed back. “I’m in.”

After a five hour drive south from Seattle, we arrived at the ranch. It’s entrance was marked by ECETI’s official logo: a winged golden heart with a lion’s face. Continuing down the long, wooded road, our cell phone signals cut out. White flags of peace flapped from the pine trees. Lenticular clouds loomed over the majestic, white-capped Mt. Adams in the distance.

I felt like I had fallen off the map of reality and into the pages of some YA fantasy fiction.

“There’s five different species of aliens that live in the base of the mountain.”

ECETI FOUNDER JAMES GILLILAND has been hosting people at his ranch since 1986. Seekers from all over the world come to stargaze, explore alternative healing techniques, and speculate about the possibility that we’re not alone in the universe. The biggest draw is the SkyWatch Weekends, which Gilliland hosts May through September. The hope is that, for a $15 donation, you can see some UFOs.

Arriving with zero expectations, Ash and I parked in the dirt lot and went inside the main lodge to pay for a night’s stay. (While you don’t have to stay overnight to attend a SkyWatch, we opted for the full experience.) Visitors can camp out on the property for a suggested donation of $10 a night, or shack up in a guest room, yurt, or private cabin ($75-$125). Accommodations can best be described as celestial summer camp: bunk beds, few frills, many dream catchers.

Paying cash (this is not a credit card kind of place), Ash gently nudged me and pointed to the man standing behind us. “That’s James.”

With his tie-dyed shirt and scrappy ponytail, James Gilliand looks more like a Deadhead than the self-appointed wingman for interdimensional beings. Gilliland claims he saw visions of Mt. Adams after several near-death experiences body surfing. He was drawn to the lore of this region, which goes back centuries: One Native American legend told of a secret doorway in the mountain, from which otherworldly beings with healing powers would emerge. And it was near Mt. Adams that, in 1947, pilot Kenneth Arnold made the first UFO sighting in modern history.

“There’s five different species of aliens that live in the base of the mountain,” Gilliland told us, as nonchalantly as someone placing their morning coffee order.

We smiled, nodded, and scurried off to explore the property. Like Pee Wee’s Playhouse for the paranormal, there are wildflowers as far as the eye can see, a handful of yaks wandering around, and a mysterious orange watchtower. I later learned this is where Gilliland records his weekly radio show, As You Wish, which speculates about galactic mysteries and the existence of Big Foot with various free-thinking guests.

Photo by ECETI Ranch / Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

AT SUNSET WE GATHERED FOR THE SKYWATCH in the “Field of Dreams.” Predictably, the eavesdropping here was next-level. One man discussed the supernatural powers of his ex-girlfriend: “She knew when I was cheating because she could astral travel in her sleep and spy on me.”

People took turns sharing bizarre stories. Someone had watched souls slip out of corpses in Egypt; another recalled a UFO encounter in the woods. Even more uncanny than the possibility that we’d soon make alien contact was the sense of total freedom and uninhibited expression at ECETI. Like being five years old again, you could say literally anything and no one would bat an eye. All perspectives and experiences of reality, no matter how odd or esoteric, were accepted.

After dark James Gilliand emerged to lead the SkyWatch, strapping on a pair of night vision goggles and instructing us to look upwards. With a laser pointer, he directed our attention to small balls of light traveling across the night sky, occasionally flashing and pulsating. They looked like illuminated amoebas wobbling across the blackness.

“See that?” Gilliand asked, revving up the group. “It just flashed. Man, this one’s dimming out. Oh, whoa! There you go. Did you see that? It flashed us. I think it’s gonna power up.”

Nothing drew more excitement from sky watchers than the possibility of a “power up.” The ECETI website identifies these hovering lights as “metallic craft,” “ships,” and “large luminous objects.” During a power up, they are “throwing off tremendous energies expanding to several times their original size and responding to the people below” to demonstrate that “they are under definite intelligent control.”

“We have to focus really hard,” one sky watcher chimed in.

“It’s getting brighter,” someone observed.

“Come on,” Gilliand urged, flashing his laser light pointer around on the light. “Power up. It’s getting brighter. There it goes. There’s the power up!”

The ball of light appeared to momentarily enlarge and flash, kind of like when Mario eats a super mushroom in Super Mario Brothers. The group cheered with the genuine enthusiasm of parents at a little league baseball game.

Gilliand turned to me. “Want to try out the night vision goggles?”

I nodded. I slipped the goggles over my head and wandered about the darkness. The whole sky was lit up with stars that appeared to glow Slimer green with the night vision goggles. Bright lights above me pulsated, then enlarged. I watched them whiz past at various speeds, performing some sort of celestial symphony.

I can’t say with any certainty that these lights were actually aliens out for an evening joyride. But I’ve done my fair share of star-gazing, and the sky activity at ECETI was unlike anything I’d ever witnessed. And it’s worth noting that I was sober as a judge: there’s a no drugs/drinking policy at the ranch.

As if our experience at ECETI wasn’t trippy enough, on our drive home the next morning, Ash and I saw a random alpaca standing alone by the side of the road. And, shortly thereafter, a rainbow. It hadn’t rained in days, but we knew better than to overthink it. Sometimes it’s best to simply sit back and go with it.

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