Crop circles lure visitors to Wilbur, Wash.
Wilbur, a no-stoplight wheat town 65 miles west of Spokane, is on the way to becoming the Northwest's hub for the extraterrestrial-obsessed. For the second time in three years, crop circles have mysteriously appeared in wheat fields, generating curiosity, jokes and coffee-shop debates of the "Big Question."
Seattle Times staff reporter
WILBUR, Lincoln County — The Chamber of Commerce in Wilbur paused last year to give special thanks to an uncommon type of visitor who doesn't come around much but makes each visit count.
"Thanks to the Aliens who made Wilbur their Vacation Destination!" reads an award of appreciation.
Wilbur, a no-stoplight wheat town (population 960) 65 miles west of Spokane, is on the way to becoming the Northwest's hub for the extraterrestrial-obsessed. For the second time in three years, crop circles have mysteriously appeared in wheat fields, generating curiosity, jokes and coffee-shop debates of the "Big Question."
The most recent appeared in late July on a remote hillside of the Haden family wheat farm just south of Wilbur. Five rings of declining size, plus one circle, were crushed into ripe wheat. "This is the one where they put the spaceship landing pad down," said Keith Haden, pointing to the circle, and struggling to keep a straight face.
His friendly skepticism is the prevailing local mood. Depending on your belief in the supernatural, crop circles are either a mysterious sign of extraterrestrial contact or a clever hoax that has risen in popularity since the mid-1970s. Southern England has been ground zero, but at least three formations have been reported in Eastern Washington farmland since 1993.
Before Haden's formation, the most recent and celebrated was an elaborate set of nine circles found in June 2007, amid 120 acres of green wheat northwest of Wilbur. That sighting was widely reported, and the Llewellyn farm was soon inundated with out-of-state tourists in saris and tinfoil-covered helmets, scientific researchers from the University of Washington and — in at least one case — a group of naked dancers. Billy Burger, a local institution, put an Alien Burger and Invasion Fries on the menu.
"I thought the less you said, the more it would go away," said Jim Llewellyn, owner of the farm. "But the next thing, there were planes flying overhead and people all over the place. It spread like wildfire."
Looking for signs
Craig Haden, owner of the land where the most recent crop circle was found, hoped to avoid such a scene. After seeing the circles while inspecting his land on a motorcycle, he told his son, Braidy. They found no sign of tracks through the ripe wheat or footprints between the rows.
"It makes you think," said Braidy Haden, a 23-year-old wearing striped overalls and sporting a soul patch.
The sighting wasn't widely reported, but word leaked out locally and ad hoc roads soon were cut through the fields. A woman recently dropped by with a metal detector. Keith Haden, Craig's brother, offered the woman's husband the tinfoil hat that a friend had dropped off.
Among the people who arrived was Peter Davenport, who runs the National UFO Reporting Center from a former military missile bunker in nearby Davenport.
"As to whether it is a genuine formation, I am not able to pass judgment with any certainty," he said. The wheat stalks at the Haden crop circles were sharply crimped and the formation's edges were ragged, both signs it was man-made.
But the Llewellyn crop circle, Davenport said, was "very interesting." A team from BLT Research Team, a Cambridge, Mass.-based group that investigates crop circles, came away believing it was the "real McCoy," according to a summary of its research on the group's Web site. Among the evidence: bent — not crimped — stalks and cavities blown out of the wheat stalks, interpreted to mean they had been pushed down by a pulse of energy.
The researchers made a case that "makes a skeptic like me think," Llewellyn said, talking on his cellphone from his combine. "It wasn't the high-school kids from Wilbur. This was a professional job, somebody who knew what they were doing."
Debunking the mystery
Joe Nickell, a former magician, has investigated crop circles for decades and has a conclusion:. "One hundred and two percent of crop circles are fake," said Nickell, a writer for Skeptical Inquirer magazine, in Amherst, N.Y.
Two British hoaxers admitted in 1991 they came up with the idea at a pub decades earlier. Their techniques have been replicated for a Discovery Channel documentary that sought to debunk the mystery. Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists found similarities between unexplained formations and crop circles known to be man-made.
There will be no such tests on the Haden crop circle because the Hadens plowed the field last week. "The combine levitated as I went over it; the electric instruments went haywire," said Braidy Haden, with a straight face.
The night after it was found, he and a buddy drove out to the formation at night to look for unexplained lights. When their headlights crossed the reflectors of an old piece of farm equipment, the pair jumped. "Scared the hell out of us," he said.
On a tour of the field this week, the circles — the largest at 120 feet across — were visible amid the stubble. Braidy and Keith Haden wondered how the circles were made so straight, how the equipment was brought in and how they were made without leaving tracks.
"It'd be tough to do," said Braidy Haden. "I'd like to get some friends together and give it a try."
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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