The Valley: Strange Attractors

In his new travel series, Jeff Merrion explores San Luis Valley, a land known for flat terrain, bizarre locals, and unexplained animal mutilations.

San Luis Valley

At -33 degrees Fahrenheit, you’re as likely to vomit as you are shiver upon taking your first breath outside. This kind of cold makes interacting with rural eccentrics in a warm small town bar attractive, even if it’s not your kind of scene. Even if it’s at a reception for a conference of “UFOlogists.”

I’m in Colorado’s remote San Luis Valley with a couple of friends, and we’ve come here to meet these UFO aficionados. Like many here, we’ve been drawn after reading Christopher O’Brien’s poorly researched and written, but nonetheless compelling, accounts of paranormal activity in the San Luis Valley. We all grew up in Colorado, but none of us has been to this area since childhood.

While the alcohol doesn’t make these UFOlogists any stranger than they usually are, it certainly makes them more gregarious. One of the recurring topics of discussions this evening has been the Valley’s recurring problem with unexplainable livestock mutilations. We’re talking to a local cattle rancher about the grisly fate that has befallen several of his herd.

“What people don’t know about mutes [local parlance for inexplicably mutilated animals] is that they’re not gory, and that’s what’s so damn scary about them. I mean sure, you’ve got your amateur copy-cat-type mutes, which are grislier’n a combine accident, but the true mutes are bloodless. They’re cut with laser precision. They’re always found with identical wounds: the area around the eyes and mouth removed with surgical skill; same for the genitals; and often sometimes the flesh and gristle’ll be peeled way back near the organs, and of course those are gone as well.”

He doesn’t exaggerate. These are textbook traits of classic San Luis Valley livestock mutilations, which are a matter of concern not only to paranormal people, but also to ranchers in the Valley. Though few ranchers have lost more than one animal to these mutilations, cattle are shockingly expensive. Not to mention, they just creep out all parties involved. Despite the UFOlogists’ certainty, there are other purported explanations, usually involving black magic or high school students.

He continues, clearly relishing his arrival at the most disturbing aspect of these mutilations: “The damndest thing, though, is you can’t find fuck-all in the way of tracks, animal, human, or otherwise, leading to or from the carcass.”

“Now another thing even fewer folks know is that often when you touch or hold the mute, lotsa people get this strange electric sensation in their body.” He reaches into his bag, a one-shoulder briefcase-type thing. I have one of those awful protracted internal moments where you’re trying to convince yourself that what’s about to happen isn’t about to happen, but deep down I know that he’s reaching for a chunk of mutilated cow.

He pulls out a mason jar that contains a desiccated cube of cow, and shakes the jar like a kid would if there were bugs in it.

“Hold out your hand,” he says.

This falls firmly into my no-fucking-way category, but my good friend David “Cowcatcher” Gilbert is all about this kind of thing, so he holds out his open palm, and the cow-chunk slides smoothly into his hand like some communion wafer from an extraterrestrial Black Mass.

Meanwhile, word has gotten around the bar that we’re from the City, and we become attractions in our own right. Most of the paranormal people seem to regard us with an almost parental pride, saying with a sigh that they wish more folks from our generation would realize the significance of things like the Taos hum, a bowel-shakingly deep hum only audible to an unlucky few that pervades the Valley at night. We get cornered by a woman who says she’s on the Chamber of Commerce for the area, a man who claims that the contrails of jet airliners are actually “chemtrails” spewing mind-control chemicals, and a whole host of other such things that make Ancient Aliens seem like a Ken Burns documentary.

The last thing we see as we finally edge our way to the door is someone emphatically saying, “…unheard of in the annals of probing abductions,” without even cracking a smirk.

We end up staying at a thirteen-dollar-a-night motel that’s not without its charm, but is on the whole one of the more disgusting places I’ve ever been or seen. Not even the Gideon’s Bible people have crossed the threshold of this forsaken place. The heater has fallen out of the wall, and it’s still 33 below outside. The beds are like some horrifying expressionist Pollock painting, spattered with marks recognizable and unrecognizable as well as enough hair to make a third-rate toupee. Of course, a turd lays mockingly in the toilet, and the soap and toilet paper are stolen from a Super 8 motel. We all end up sleeping on the floor mummy-wrapped in sleeping bags to keep out the cold and squalor.

To keep our minds from all the microbial friends we’re making, we discuss an unidentifiable weird feeling we get from the Valley itself, a strangeness wholly other from that of these UFO people, a strangeness more fundamental and yet more alluring. It’s as if all your senses become more alert, more aware of the influence of the landscape on your mind. A strangely spiritual-type feeling, we all agree, that some folk would call “numinous.”


This was a few years ago now, but it marked the beginning of a recurring relationship between me and the San Luis Valley. I found as I talked to other people about the place, they all described a similarly uncategorizable but vaguely unsettling feeling induced by the place. Since that first visit, I’ve returned many times, both as a lover of Weird America and as a student of religion in the American Southwest. I’ve never been to an area with such a unified feeling of place. I came for the alien abductions and cattle mutilations, but stayed for the people and history (and alien abductions).

While he excels in most other areas, Jeff Merrion’s spatial logic falls within the lower third percentile of United States citizens. He is a Religious Studies major and, as such, has a long life of administrative assistantship awaiting him. To potential employers: Jeff makes a mean cup of coffee.