E.T., Phone Home to California

The journey from the Owens Valley Radio Observatory in Big Pine, California, to 7121 Lonzo Street in Tujunga, nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, takes about four hours, depending on earthly traffic. OVRO is the site of hundreds of DIY antennae built by an ambitious Caltech professor and his team searching for habitable planets. Alta contributor Po Bronson visited the observatory to find out how chicken wire and cake pans might one day save humanity. Read his report here

The Tujunga residence served as E.T.’s temporary home after his fellow space aliens accidentally left him behind in the film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Those who grew up with this Steven Spielberg classic might note that if E.T. found himself stranded in Tujunga today, he’d be just a few hours’ drive from some scientists who’d be very happy to help him phone home. In fact, the West Coast has a number of spots where excited earthlings aim high-powered lenses at the heavens and launch quirky alien-themed business plans—both areas of endeavors are more promising than last month’s half-hearted attempt to flash-mob Nevada’s infamous Area 51. Take a tour:

Founded in 1984, the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute is perhaps our planet’s most well-known organized attempt to look for other life forms in the universe. SETI is headquartered in Mountain View, California, and operates, among other projects, the Allen Telescope Array (named for Microsoft founder Paul Allen) in Shasta County. 

If all goes according to plan, the UFO Hotel in Baker, California, will resemble an artist’s rendering of an unidentified flying object. Owner Luis Ramallo says his proposed 31-room hotel will be situated off Interstate 15, the main driving route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Ramallo aims to stage construction of this space-age Shangri-la near his alien-themed beef jerky roadside store, which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. 

The Automated Planet Finder is a robotic telescope invented to search for Earth-like, extrasolar planets from the base of Mount Hamilton, just east of San Jose, California. The APF, part of the University of California Lick Observatory, operates every clear night of the year. Don’t have time to head over to Mount Hamilton? No problem. The view from the Lick Observatory All-Sky Camera updates every 60 seconds. 

If humans ever do manage to locate another habitable planet or communicate with alien life forms, it just might be humans from California who do it. I’m reminded of one of the last lines from my favorite episode of the 1990s sitcom Frasier. Phil Patterson, Seattle political candidate, has lost his bid for election because of his claim that he’d been abducted by space aliens. Dr. Frasier Crane asks Patterson about his future plans. 

“Maybe I’ll run in California,” says Patterson. “A thing like this could actually help me there.”

—Beth Spotswood

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True L.A. Ballet
Seven years into his role as L.A. Dance Project’s artistic director, choreographer Benjamin Millepied and his dancers embrace the city’s offbeat soul. Could L.A. Dance Project be the world-class ballet company the City of Angels has always deserved? READ MORE
Watch, Visit, and Read
What do The Nutcracker, an Oregon photography exhibit, a 20-year-old print publication, and a haunted house in Hayward all have in common? Read Alta editors’ Fall 2019 Picks for the best of the West and find out. READ MORE
Broad Definitions
Rather than drop anchor in a safe harbor, Alta celebrates the wild. In his Fall 2019 Publisher’s Note, Alta editor and publisher Will Hearst ruminates on the importance of staying unmoored. READ MORE
Alta Podcast: Remembering Tom Frost

Famous in climbing circles for his remarkable humility, Tom Frost is one of the lesser-known legends of the rock climbing world. Today’s podcast guests are Tom Seawell and Craig Flax, two of the filmmakers behind a feature-length documentary film about Frost. Alta offers a look at Frost’s efforts to preserve a beloved Yosemite campground in our Fall 2019 issue. A small handful of tickets remain for Alta members to attend a screening of this documentary in San Francisco on October 22. Email to reserve a spot. 

Do you have something to tell us after reading an Alta article? We welcome letters to the editor at Drop us a line and let us know what you liked, what you disagreed with, or what blew your mind.

Top Picks from the California Sun Newsletter

Photo: Getty Images

Enough Is Enough

A mystery surcharge on gas is costing California families an estimated $1,800 a year—and no one seems to know why. Enough is enough, wrote the editorial board of the Mercury News: “They deserve to know whether that money—roughly $4 billion a year—is going to further enrich oil companies at the expense of consumers.” Mercury News

San Francisco’s Howard Street, then known as Skid Row, in 1937. Photo: Dorothea Lange

History Repeating 

Dorothea Lange had a studio in San Francisco in the 1920s, where she captured the city’s high society. After the stock market crashed in 1929, she turned her lens to the streets. “The Depression woke me up,” she said. The images invite comparisons with the human misery now on display on San Francisco’s streets. PetaPixel |

For more California Sun, visit

Altatude: This Week’s Cartoon
Complimentary beverages.

Like to laugh? Visit the Alta site for more Altatude cartoons. SEE MORE
Our recommendations for this week’s best writing about California and the West.
Jeff Bezos’s Master Plan — Atlantic

He Wanted to Post Pictures of Weed on Instagram. He Wound Up Creating a Nightmare. — Los Angeles Times

I Was Flying to Montana to Bury My Son — Outside

New Oakland Soul Food Spot Reminds Us Vegan Food Is Part of Black Culture — San Francisco Chronicle

Cleaning Up Paradise As a Grim Anniversary Nears — CalMatters
Support Alta and our event partners at these upcoming events:
TONIGHT: KQED and Books Inc. present Peabody Award–winning journalist for Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting Aaron Glantz for a discussion of his heart-wrenching new work, Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream. In Homewreckers, Glantz recounts the transformation of straightforward lending into a morass of slivered and combined mortgage “products” that could be bought and sold, accompanied by a shift in priorities and a loosening of regulations and laws that made it good business to lend money to those who wouldn’t be able to repay. He will be in conversation with Erika Aguilar, KQED’s housing affordability editor. Details: Books Inc., 601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, 7 p.m., free.
Monday, October 21: The long pilgrimage of LeRoy Chatfield weaves its way through multiple collective projects designed to better the condition of the marginalized and forgotten. From the cloisters of the Christian Brothers and the halls of secondary education to the fields of Central California and the streets of Sacramento, Chatfield’s story reveals a fierce commitment to those who were denied the promises of the American dream. In this collection, Chatfield recounts his childhood, explains the social issues that have played a significant role in his life and work, and uncovers the lack of justice he saw all too frequently. His journey, alongside Cesar and Helen Chavez, Marshall Ganz, Bonnie Chatfield, Philip Vera Cruz, and countless others, displays an unwavering focus on organizing communities and expanding their agency. Details: Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, 7 p.m., free.
Monday, October 21: Andrew Offenburger, assistant professor of history at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, will discuss his historical account, Frontiers in the Gilded Age: Adventure, Capitalism, and Dispossession from Southern Africa to the U.S.-Mexican Borderlands, 1880–1917, at this informative and free event. Crisscrossing the American West, southern Africa, and northern Mexico, Offenburger examines how these frontier spaces could glitter with grandiose visions, expose the flawed and immoral strategies of profiteers, and yet reveal the capacity for resistance and resilience that indigenous people summoned when threatened. Linking together a series of stories about Boer exiles who settled in Mexico, a global network of Protestant missionaries, and adventurers involved in the parallel displacements of indigenous peoples in Rhodesia and the Yaqui Indians in Mexico, Offenburger situates the borderlands of the Mexican North and the American Southwest within a global system, bound by common actors who interpreted their lives through a shared frontier ideology. Details: The Huntington, Ahmanson Classroom, Botanical Center, 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, 4 p.m., free.
Tuesday, November 5: Alta and Book Passage are proud to present author Nick Neely in conversation with Alta editor and publisher Will Hearst. In his book Alta California, Neely chronicles his 550-mile trek on foot from San Diego to San Francisco, following the route of the first overland Spanish expedition into what was then called Alta California. Led by Gaspar de Portolá in 1769, the expedition sketched a route that would become the famous El Camino Real. It laid the foundation for the Golden State we know today, a place that remains as mythical and captivating as any in the world. In a weave of natural and human history, Alta California relives his adventure, tells the story of native cultures and the Spanish missions that soon devastated them, and explores the evolution of California and its landscape. The result is a collage of past and present, of lyricism and pedestrian serendipity, and of the biggest issues facing California today—water, agriculture, oil and gas, immigration, and development—all of it one step at a time. Details: Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, 7 p.m., free.
Thursday, November 7: Alta and the Mechanics’ Institute are excited to present author Roland De Wolk as he discusses American Disruptor: The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Phil Matier. De Wolk’s book is the untold story of Leland Stanford—from his birth in a backwoods bar to the founding of the world-class university that became and remains the nucleus of Silicon Valley. The life of this robber baron, politician, and historic influencer is the astonishing tale of how one supremely ambitious man became this country’s original “disruptor”—reshaping industry and engineering one of the greatest raids on the public treasury for America’s transcontinental railroad, all while living more opulently than maharajas, kings, and emperors. Details: Mechanics’ Institute, 57 Post St., San Francisco, 6:30 p.m., free to Alta and Mechanics’ Institute members, $15 for the public.
Thursday, November 14: Join Alta and the Mechanics’ Institute as we present author Lori Harrison-Kahan and her presentation, “The Superwoman: Miriam Michelson and Suffrage Activism in San Francisco.” Harrison-Kahan will join the Mechanics’ Institute’s Laura Sheppard for a discussion on the career of writer and suffrage activist Miriam Michelson, an overlooked figure of the early women’s rights movement. One of San Francisco’s first women reporters in the 1890s, Michelson went on to become a bestselling author of feminist fiction like The Superwoman, a novella that inspired the Wonder Woman comics. Harrison-Kahan’s talk will address Michelson’s upbringing as the daughter of Jewish immigrants in Virginia City, Nevada, her influence on Progressive-era politics in San Francisco, and her relevance to contemporary movements like #MeToo. DetailsMechanics’ Institute, 57 Post St., San Francisco, 7 p.m., free to Alta and Mechanics’ Institute members, $15 for the public.
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