When influential Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung said that "California is classic saucer country," he wasn't talking about dinnerware.
Jung, whose name is second only to Sigmund Freud's in psychiatry, believed in UFOs, theorizing that flying saucers' round shape was a symbol of unity and healing.
And Jung was right about California, at least when it comes to a group called the Aetherius Society, which for more than four decades has met frequently atop Mt. Baldy in the San Gabriel Mountains. Members believe that a flying saucer once hovered there to charge the mountain with spiritual energy through their leader.
Above the clouds on this wind-scoured peak, visible from most of Los Angeles, the foot-high letters GK are still emblazoned on a jagged ridge of granite. They are the initials of the group's founder, an Englishman named George King. It was there, in 1959, that Aetherians believe a flying saucer stopped overhead to invest King with a great surge of force that flowed through him into the mountain itself, according to the group's director, Paul Nugent.
The Aetherius Society, which says its name means "one who travels through the ether," as in the ether of space, was founded in London in 1955, eight years after rumors of an alien saucer's crash-landing in Roswell, N.M., sparked an enduring fascination with UFOs.
King, a London cabby and yoga master, said he received his calling through "cosmic transmissions" from space aliens, who guided him to 19 "holy" mountains around the world, including Mt. Kosciusko in Australia and several in the United States, including Mt. Tallac near Lake Tahoe, Mt. Adams in New Hampshire and Castle Peak in Colorado. Finally, he reached Mt. Baldy, which was No. 10 on his list.
King eventually opened a headquarters in Hollywood. A group of small buildings on the corner of Afton Place and El Centro Avenue still serves as the group's temple and residences, the flagship of its other branches nationwide. Newport Beach, Claremont and Santa Barbara also have branches. The group claims a few thousand members worldwide and a few hundred in Southern California.
King, who died of stomach cancer in Santa Barbara in 1997, dedicated his life to spreading the word about UFOs, writing books and a newsletter, making speeches at UFO meetings to promote his brand of faith, and trying to heal the sick through the power of prayer.
Aetherians say their beliefs mix elements of Christianity, Buddhism and New Age philosophy. They cite the late Mother Teresa as a particularly advanced human.
"The thing that you call L-O-V-E is just as much an energy as the thing you call electricity; it just operates on a different frequency and it does a different job," King told listeners in 1973.
King was born in Shropshire, England, in 1919. During World War II, while serving in the London Fire Brigade, he witnessed the terror and destruction of Nazi bombings. When the war ended, he tested race cars and drove a taxi during the day, spending his nights mastering yoga and, his followers say, levitating himself during trances.
King said that in 1954, while washing dishes in his London apartment, he heard a disembodied voice declare, "Prepare yourself! You are to become the voice of Interplanetary Parliament." From that initial contact, which he said was with a Venusian called Aetherius, the Aetherius Society was born.
It was Aetherius, King told followers, who telepathically told him to gather believers and trek to the top of 19 holy mountains. There, he could become a conduit to "charge" the mountains with spiritual force, concentrating energy in the mountains so the peaks could transmit vibes of peace, prosperity and harmony.
A handful of believers followed him at first, but by the time he got to Los Angeles in 1959, their numbers had grown to about 70.
Mt. Baldy, he told his followers, was on the list of holy mountains because it was a towering presence and accessible to millions of people. From Los Angeles, King traveled to spread his philosophy. He published the messages he said he received from cosmic beings -- including Jesus Christ -- in a bustling, in-house biannual publication called Cosmic Voice, which is still published.
Mt. Baldy is one of the Southland's dominant landmarks, the 10,064-foot queen of the San Gabriels. It was officially designated Mt. San Antonio by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in 1891, but a handwritten notation on the old records adds: "Locally known as Baldy," for its bare, wind-swept heights.
Some historians say it was named informally for Spanish settler Antonio Maria Lugo and his nearly 30,000-acre rancho at the foot of the mountains. Others say it was named by the San Gabriel Mission padres after St. Anthony of Padua. In the 1870s, San Antonio Canyon and the nearby high country swarmed with gold seekers who dubbed the towering peak an earthier "Old Baldy."
Many religious traditions -- including Native Americans and New Age believers -- consider Mt. Baldy holy, believing that it emits constructive and peaceful vibes. Environmentalists honor it as a shrine to the wilderness. Aetherians are not alone in believing that aliens will plop their spaceships down on Earth sometime in the future. The Raelians, the religious group linked to the controversial Clonaid company and its alleged human clones, believe that it has already happened -- and that the touring extraterrestrials seeded the human race.
The El Cajon-based Unarius Academy of Science also predicted visitations -- specifically, that 32 spaceships from the planet Myton would land on Earth in 2001. Undeterred by the aliens' failure to be punctual, believers remain confident that the landings are imminent.
Aetherians bristle at comparisons to other UFO-believing groups, particularly the Heaven's Gate cult, 39 members of which committed suicide in 1997 in the belief that they could board a spaceship to travel to another life.
"Suicide is not a solution to life's problems. Under the law of karma and reincarnation, one will have to face those same difficulties again," said Nugent, the Aetherius Society director.
Despite King's death in 1997, believers say they still feel his presence and carry on in his absence, conducting weekly prayer and healing services that invoke extraterrestrial intervention. Earth, they believe, has a spiritual energy crisis, and the solution is to cooperate with wiser aliens from other worlds.
The Hollywood group consists of about 70 people, many of whom moved here from England. Members include teachers, accountants and business owners. Several times a year, they trek to the top of Mt. Baldy, where they hold their hands aloft and, to the resonating Hindu chant of "om," direct the mountain's alleged energy to help all mankind.
A few years ago, at their first designated "holy" mountain -- Holdstone Down in Devon, England -- the Aetherians directed cosmic rays to the drought in Sudan. A few days later, they say, it miraculously rained.
Nugent says the Aetherius Society is not a cult because it does not try to recruit. Members live in their own houses, have their own non-Aetherian friends and are not required to turn over their life savings.
"The only energy crisis which exists on this Earth is the spiritual energy crisis," King said in a lecture during the 1973 oil crisis. "Put that right and no other shortage can exist."