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Author Explores Western Mysteries

Who among us would not want to be like Erich Von Daniken, sitting on a balcony that overlooks the Mediterranean, sipping martinis?

Well, Sal Trento for one.

Not that Trento has anything against the island of Mallorca, where Von Daniken - the author of “Chariots of the Gods?” - lives. Nor, for that matter, does he have anything against martinis.

But, says Trento, Von Daniken’s way of making a name - and some $7 million in book sales - is not for him. Attributing strange geological formation to space aliens, he says, “That’s just not my thing.”

The space alien part, anyway. Otherwise, Trento does have something in common with Von Daniken: As author of “Field Guide to Mysterious Places of the West” (Pruett Publishing, 295 pages, $18.95 paperback), Trento is an expert on strange geography.

He’ll talk about some notable western sites of mystery during a slide-show reading of his book at 7:30 tonight at Auntie’s Bookstore, Main and Washington.

Example: “There’s a place in northern New Mexico, for instance, that has a church that has this special earth that people, for centuries, have been putting on their bodies and getting healed,” he says.

That may sound as bizarre as space aliens, but Trento is first and always a scientist. He won’t pass on folklore as fact. At least not without proof.

“I ran an analysis of that particular stuff about a year ago, and I was surprised by what I found,” he says. “There really was something in the dirt that’s a bit unusual. Whether it causes healing is questionable, but it’s definitely different.”

When Trento expands on how science can offer explanations for what seem to be strange phenomena, he can’t get the words out fast enough. Yet his meaning remains clear: The simpler the explanation, the better.

“One goes for the law of parsimony with scientific explanations,” he says.

Such an attitude distinguishes Trento’s book from the mass of published pseudo-study that, ultimately, is the scientific equivalent of urban legend. Trento’s credentials extend back to the University of Buffalo, New York, when as a 19-year-old biology student he wrangled a grant to study in - shades of Von Daniken - Mallorca.

“It started off as a goof,” he says of the grant proposal, which involved studying human body fat.

In Mallorca, he discovered various monuments whose significance no one could explain. But the discovery led him to change his major to physical anthropology and, eventually, to write his first book, “The Search for Lost America.”

While giving slide-show lectures on the Mallorca monuments, he says, “My students started saying, `You know, you really should take a look at something out in the field with us. We have this really weird cave.”’ And matters developed from there.

Four years ago, he moved to Denver and continued to indulge his increasing interest in western landscape and archaeological history. He began to write “Mysterious Places of the West” as, he says, “something easy to read. … I wrote basically the book that I would like to have, a little field guide I can throw in my glove compartment.”

Next to his martini shaker.

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