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Valley Visions

[whitespace] When the going gets weird, the weird end up in Colorado's San Luis Valley

By Christopher Weir

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 has nothing 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 "bi-locating 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, one can uncover a mystifying cache of documented curiosities and a staggering caseload of undocumented phenomena.

"They say the ancient Mariner had an albatross around his neck," O'Brien 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 crested in the 1970s. Although skeptics have dismissed the mutilations as a "collective delusion," who can blame some rancher for wondering why he found Bessie one morning with body parts surgically excised?

Then there's the case of the "bi-locating 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--until, that is, 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, Sister Marie's corpse, O'Brien writes, remains "incorruptible," baffling both the Church and modern science (and, sure enough, she looks rather snazzy in an accompanying photograph).

The book is less compelling when it veers from the historical record and into the anecdotal. O'Brien indulges 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 displays a wide-eyed credulity that defies common sense. To his credit, however, he refuses to engage in the 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 predilection for hallucinogens. On the other hand, he also isn't going to develop all sorts of associated theories about extraterrestrial zoology or government conspiracies. Sometimes a prairie dragon is just a prairie dragon.

Although 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 he also seems to have considerable fun along the way. And he ultimately roams a still-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.

Enter the Valley By Christopher O'Brien; St. Martin's; 340 pages; $6.99 paper

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From the May 13-19, 1999 issue of Metro.

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