I'm late and everyone is leaving. I pull into the parking lot of the Eureka Springs Conference and Event Center, a squat rectangle tucked away at the far end of a sprawling Best Western Inn, and I swim upstream of the hundreds of people walking out of the building. The event is nearly sold out, with almost 750 people packing into the convention center's ballrooms each hour. Technically, the conference has just ended for the night, but the convention's schedule lists a cash bar that will be open for an additional two hours. All good stories start at cash bars.
Right inside the doors is an alien. He's short and bulbous, not unlike what most Americans have become familiar with from television. He's wearing an olive jumpsuit and his name tag reads "Uri Kah," an otherworldly interpretation of Eureka.
I'm at the 29th Annual Ozark Mountain UFO Conference in April, and I've come in secret hopes that I'll be convinced. Of what, I'm not sure, but I want to believe. I watch as an elderly woman takes a seat next to Uri Kah and gingerly moves his hand so that it rests upon her knee. A girl in her early 20s, most likely the event's youngest attendee, snaps their photo.
Before I can make my way to the cash bar, I'm swallowed up by a group of people huddled into a corner. They surround a petite and vigorous woman, Linda Moulton Howe, the night's keynote speaker. She's just finished a presentation about the decoded messages alien visitors have left behind via symbols and binary code. (By all accounts, it was riveting.) As the crowd leans closer with each word, she tells them in stark detail the perils she's faced during her investigations. Men in black are involved.
It's at this point that someone asks Howe directly about the end goals of the aliens who've contacted our planet. Her answer is vague, most likely a warning, but against what? She can't say. A man from further back in the huddle shouts out his own answer: "Interstellar wickedness!" Heads nod in ripples around the group. As I eventually make my way to the cash bar, I overhear various conversations, people recounting their own experiences. One woman has nightly visions of an "otherworldly" body standing at the foot of her bed. Another man sees patterned lights over his house with an alarming frequency.
The atmosphere is eclectic, to be sure, the crowd largely skewing older. But is it also familiar, bordering on familial. Many of these people have been coming to the conference for years if not decades. A few have been to all 29. The air is that of a great cosmic family reunion, one that draws people from across the country. In the parking lot, cars are tagged from Florida, Michigan, Nebraska and Pennsylvania.
The rest of the weekend's speakers cover a wide spectrum. We're told the story of a woman who found herself at the center of a great cosmic war, the cause of which is locked away somewhere in her memory, and then we're treated to the struggle of a former United States Air Force member to declassify his own service records after he experienced an on-duty brush with a UFO. We're told of the countless alien-human hybrids that now walk among us (apparently humans with unusual wrist dexterity are most likely descendants of a Mantis-like alien species) and we hear a two-hour history lesson of the role aliens played in the Bible.
There's a lot of buzz about Hillary Clinton, who had appeared on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon" just days earlier, where she was asked about her intentions to declassify the military's records regarding UFOs. Although she earns a bit of acclaim for clarifying that UFOs are now called UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena), she was derided for saying that she'd only allow declassification if there were no threat to national security. In this room, it's understood that the shadow government and its militaries will never let that happen.
On the floor beneath the main ballroom is the vendors area. It's filled with booths, each one selling various trinkets and treasures. There are, of course, tables of books written by the weekend's speakers, along with magazines and other publications focusing on the unexplained. There are crystals, stained glass, tie-dye T-shirts that feature images of flying saucers and Aztec pyramids. One booth carries "The X-Files" on DVD and another has a collection of original "Star Wars" action figures. This is undoubtedly the aspect of the conference that is most in line with what the world might expect: lava lamps in neon green, crystal skulls and incense. The presence of the inverted raindrop alien face is everywhere: large, ovoid eyes; thin, slitted mouths. That face is, for better or (as most people here would assert) for worse, the symbol of UAP phenomena around the world. Even the lanyards worn by the convention's attendees bear the face emblazoned in a bright, galactic green. It's the face of a Grey, the most well known of our cosmic neighbors. The depiction is perhaps most associated with the 1947 incident in Roswell, N.M., where an alien spacecraft (weather balloon? top secret military jet?) crashed onto a farmer's ranch.
I ask what people think of the likeness and the responses are uniformly negative. "That's not what I'm here for," a visitor from Oklahoma says. She's come from Tulsa, and she sees the Grey's visage as the world's attempt to make light of the truth. Her conviction, like that of so many people, is bolstered by the knowledge that outside the convention center walls is a world built upon the assumption that we are alone in the universe, and the attendees find a solidarity in their skepticism about that assumption. Their attitudes toward the nonbelievers aren't antagonistic, nor do they view nonbelievers as oppressive — that opinion is reserved for the governments of the world. If anything, they might feel pity for those they view as sheltered, closed off from the truths of the universe.
The conference, both the speakers and the attendees, seems to straddle an uneasy divide, each foot in a version of the truth, one that might hold weight outside the convention center and another, more fantastical truth in which they all live. Here in their collective safe space, people commune in the knowledge that they are privy to a universal truth to which the majority of humanity is blind.
As the conference winds down, the atmosphere is not too far from the post-service Sunday suppers that dot a church's social calendar. People take photos, bid goodbye. Old friends agree to see each other at next year's event. The Earthly portion of their family reunion is over.
I went to Eureka looking to be convinced that aliens exist. I'm not sure if I was, but I was struck by the people who do believe. More than anything, the conference was a gathering of people looking for a connection. Each attendee, either having had their own unexplainable experiences or just being open to the possibilities of otherworldly encounters, was looking to place themselves and humanity as a whole into a greater galactic network of beings. The term "cosmic family" is apt, an interstellar network of species linked across the cosmos.
The nature of this family? Unknown. Everyone seems to acknowledge that there are both risks and rewards to embracing that family, but for many here, there is an unerring positivity in the connection human beings might share with other species — that we are not alone, that there are others who have come before us who might guide us through our current adolescent issues. It's faith — not religious, but of another kind: faith that no matter what problems we are facing on Earth, there is something greater than us out there in the universe. It lends our problems scale, and provides hope that the trials we currently face are only a minor stumbling block on humanity's long journey home.