Every morning when she opens her eyes, Patricia Leedy, a Hillsboro antique dealer, rolls out of bed, pulls back the blinds and scans the sky. She's not worried about the terrorists. She's worried about jet contrails.

Not the ordinary contrails, the needle-thin lines which dissipate within minutes. Leedy has seen those all her life. What worry her, what gnaw at her, what set her pulse racing and her joints aching and her lungs itching, are what she calls the chemtrails--the thick, white plumes that linger for hours, their wispy tendrils meshing into a ghostly veil that smothers the sky.

Professor William Randall, who teaches chemistry at Lewis & Clark College, has seen them, too. So have chimney sweeper Mark Guy, writer Deborah Yates, photographer Courtney Scott and trumpet player Derek Sims.

You've probably seen them yourself--diaphanous trails, lazily spreading across the blue like a drop of ink in a glass of water. You probably paid no notice. But over the past several months, WW has received dozens of phone calls and emails from readers convinced of a fantastic set of propositions: that these chemtrails are fundamentally different from contrails, that they are the result of the government's secret campaign to spray chemicals into the atmosphere from high-altitude jets, and that the fallout from chemtrails is making them sick.

"It's just so blatant," says Leedy. "So blatant.... It just infuriates me. Spreading this garbage into the air."

"I don't understand why the news media hushes it up," says Randall. "Something is being sprayed in the air."

"I know this sounds like the babbling of a paranoid nutcase," says Guy. "But they are spraying something. Look up from time to time."

Meteorologists and government agencies maintain that nothing is amiss. "There is no such thing as a 'chemtrail,'" Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Gibson wrote to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden in January. What people are seeing, Gibson explained, are simply ordinary contrails (condensation trails), which, under the proper atmospheric conditions, may persist for hours. "Contrails are safe and are a natural phenomenon," he concluded. "They pose no hazard of any kind."

In spite of the official denials, however, thousands of Americans insist that chemtrails do exist, and that they are part of a vast government experiment to combat global warming--an experiment gone terribly, terribly wrong.

They believe not only that chemtrails are responsible for freakish weather patterns (such as the drought in Klamath Falls) but that chemtrails have triggered an alarming rise in asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, Alzheimer's, "flu-like illness," and a host of syndromes as yet unnamed.

It sounds like a bad episode of the X-Files. But to dismiss its proponents as a handful of wingnuts is a little too glib. Apart from the inevitable black-helicopter contingent, they are ordinary people haunted by an extraordinary obsession. Using an underground network of websites, talk radio and cable access, they have bypassed the mainstream media and pieced together a surprisingly large body of evidence--circumstantial, to be sure, but persuasive enough to lure a swelling stream of new converts.

And this should come as no surprise. Like it or not, chemtrails resonate close to the dominant frequency of our current zeitgeist. Take the pervasive anxiety that we are being bombarded with environmental toxins, combine it with a healthy dose of airplane angst, throw in a sprinkling of unexplained phenomena, add a drop of paranoia, and--Voila!--you get the chemtrail conspiracy, the (il)logical product of an era where nothing can be trusted--not even clouds.

As the sun sets over the West Hills, the twice-monthly meeting of Oregon Citizens Against Chemtrails is called to order in an elegant duplex in Northeast Portland. On this particular evening, eight local chem-trackers crowd around a VCR to examine video footage of the sky above Orchards, Wash. As thick coils of jet exhaust unravel across the screen, the adrenaline level in the room soars. There, on the tape, is the evidence--irrefutable, in their eyes--that something has come unglued in the heavens. "Oh my goodness!" exclaims one. "Holy shit!" murmurs another.

Like all combustion engines, jets produce water vapor in their exhaust. At the low temperatures of the upper atmosphere, this water vapor combines with moisture in the air and condenses into droplets or ice crystals, resulting in the familiar, pencil-thin contrails that have become the hallmark of jet travel. That's not what the chem-trackers think they're seeing.

As the chem-trackers swap doomsday scenarios, Patricia Leedy fixes her gaze on a visitor, reaches deep within herself, and manages to smile.

No one in the Portland area believes in chemtrails more sincerely than Leedy. With an angelic face and scrubbed-pink skin, she looks vaguely like an opera singer. In fact, she is a churchgoing, 46-year-old antique dealer, a mother of two, and a lifelong skywatcher. She first saw the trails in 1999, when she noticed that certain jets left behind "a huge, thick plume" that lingered for hours. In the days after seeing the trails, she grew "deathly sick." She felt like she was suffocating, like invisible needles were piercing her joints; her exhaustion was so profound, she could barely put pen to paper.

Her doctors were baffled. But when she chanced on a radio show about the link between chemtrails and mysterious "flu-like illness," her heart skipped a beat. That night, her husband Don, a process engineer at Intel, brought home some information he found on the Internet. "When I took a look at that, I had to sit down," she says. "It just blew my mind."

Since then, Leedy's life has been turned inside out. When the bombardment is heavy, she and Don keep the windows clamped shut, even though they don't have air conditioning. Formerly a technophobe, she now spends hours trolling the Internet for the latest chemtrail news. She keeps a calendar, marking off "spray days" and charting her symptoms: She says they synchronize perfectly.

Leedy has a warm, outgoing personality and a bewitching smile. But there is an undercurrent of real frustration in her voice. "I hate it," she says. "I just hate it. If I knew a place where there was no spraying, I would pack up and go. But it's everywhere."

Other chem-trackers offer variations on this theme. Trumpet player Derek Sims and his wife, Karina, saw their first plume while driving back from Mount St. Helens. Now he has a fungal infection his doctors cannot explain. (In addition, the Simses' cats, Tao and Jasmine, are constantly sneezing). Carpet salesman Chuck Tautfest wonders if local TV weathermen have been "hushed up." Housecleaner Robin Bee straps on a surgical mask whenever the spraying gets heavy.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Type "chemtrails" into your favorite search engine, and you'll find a deluge of references. Hundreds of websites depict lurid photos of eerie plumes, with eyewitness accounts from Boston to Botswana. Military projects, weather control, mind control, global warming, genetic engineering, the Illuminati and the Trilateral Commission--conspiracies enough to fill the Texas Book Depository many times over. For chem-trackers, the plumes have become a sort of Rorschach blot, an aerial projection of their worst nightmares.

Presiding over this conspiratorial miasma is talk-radio host Jeff Rense, whose weeknight show, Sightings, is broadcast from a studio somewhere in Southern Oregon. (Citing threats to his life, Rense asked WW not to print his exact location.) Five nights a week, millions of Americans (including an estimated 21,000 Portlanders) in 120 cities tune in to Rense to catch up on the latest news on alien abduction, Bigfoot, paranormal phenomena--and chemtrails.

A former news anchor at KOBI-TV in Medford, Rense began to hear reports of chemtrails in 1999. At first, he wondered if the trails could be the result of some atmospheric anomaly. Then, looking up at the sky one bright, sunny day, he saw an aircraft flying overhead, leaving a "thick, white, cotton-candy, sky-writing type plume, which did not dissipate, but began to drip across the sky in clumps, like a frozen white rope," he told WW. "Right then and there, I knew something was going on."

Since then, Rense has logged thousands of calls and emails on the topic. Together with Will Thomas, an environmental reporter from Canada, and Cliff Carnicom, a computer consultant based in Santa Fe, N.M., Rense has become a clearinghouse for the constantly mutating chaos of the chemtrail movement.

Chem-trackers have compiled considerable evidence that the government has, at the very least, expressed interest in experimenting with the sky.

A 1996 Air Force research paper, often cited by chem-trackers, states that in the next quarter-century, "U.S. aerospace forces can 'own the weather' by capitalizing on emerging technologies and focusing development of those technologies to war-fighting applications. Such a capability offers the war fighter tools to shape the battlespace in ways never before possible."

Chem-trackers also point to nuclear physicist Dr. Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, who in 1997 outlined a plan to combat global warming by introducing tiny particles into the upper atmosphere, forming a planetary sunscreen that would reflect a small fraction of the sun's rays back into space.

How would this be done? In 1991, researchers at the Hughes Aircraft Company obtained a patent to cool the atmosphere by adding tiny particles of aluminum oxide to the fuel of jet airliners, "so that the particles would be emitted from the jet engine exhaust while the airliner was at cruising altitude."

Of course, none of these documents prove the government is actually conducting operations. But, chem-trackers insist, they do suggest a capability--and a motive.

Stripped of its wilder variants, the theory runs like this: The U.S. government (or the United Nations) has embarked on a secret campaign to reverse global warming (or to alter the weather) by adding particles to jet fuel. Unfortunately, the spraying has resulted in international epidemics of flu-like illness, asthma, bronchitis and Alzheimer's, in addition to freakish drought and floods.

For evidence that spraying is a real phenomenon, chem-trackers point to reports that tiny filaments--known as "silly string" or "angel hair"--have been spotted in the wake of military jets.

That may sound far-fetched, but such an incident really does seem to have taken place in the skies over Enterprise, Ore. Last October, Elane Dickenson, news editor of the Wallowa County Chieftain, was sitting at her desk when a caller reported that thousands of "spider webs" were falling on downtown Enterprise.

As she subsequently reported in the Chieftain, when Dickenson arrived at the Ace Hardware store, masses of fine filaments were descending from the sky, covering utility lines and car antennae. And, overhead, she saw the telltale streaks of high-altitude jets.

Dickenson scooped up a handful of the filaments and took them to OSU's Wallowa County Extension Office for analysis. Under the microscope, the filaments appeared to be very similar to--but somewhat coarser than--spider web. Dickenson consulted Oregon State University entomologist Lynn Royce, who said that spiders do on occasion generate large quantities of web to propel their newly hatched spiderlings out into the wild. But Royce said that a massive fallout was unusual--and that spiderlings should have been observed on the webs (they weren't).

Dickenson is hardly a radical. She has worked at the Chieftain, one of Oregon's oldest newspapers, for more than 20 years. "I'm not much of a conspiracy person," she says. "But that stuff was really weird."

In addition to the filaments, chem-trackers say that chemtrails contain other compounds. Santa Fe chem-tracker Carnicom has collected dozens of rainwater samples in the wake of heavy spraying that contain high concentrations of aluminum, magnesium, barium and--ominously--red blood cells. He has forwarded these samples to the EPA, only to receive them back, unopened.

Government agencies maintain that chemtrails are a hoax--that they are nothing more than persistent contrails that linger because of moisture conditions in the air. "Contrails have been a normal effect of jet aviation since its earliest days," states a fact sheet published by the EPA, NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Persistent contrails are mainly composed of water naturally present along the aircraft flight path."

"The Air Force doesn't conduct any weather manipulation experiments," Air Force spokeswoman Marriane Miclat told WW. "There is no spraying going on."

"It's one of those things that seem to be based on a little bit of fact and stretched out of all recognition," says OSU climatologist George Taylor, who fields several calls a month from anxious chem-trackers. "I try to explain it's just condensed water vapor, but it's not very convincing. They say I'm in on the plot."

Chem-trackers don't want reassurances. They want investigations, studies, proof that the government is not spraying chemicals. But what counts as proof when you don't trust the government, the doctors or the media?

If there is a giant conspiracy to spray chemicals from the sky, chances are good that Professor John Day is not a part of it. The author of six books on meteorology, Day is a world-renowned expert on clouds, a professor emeritus at Linfield College and a regular contributor to the McMinnville News-Register, where--at the sprightly age of 88--he pens a weekly column, "Words on the Weather," still running strong in its 23rd year.

Day is also a tireless champion of the grandeur and beauty of clouds. "Most people don't spend much time looking up," he says. "I have tried to do what I can to persuade people to see the beauty of the sky."

When he hears the word "chemtrail," however, Day's frosty mustache droops, and his sky-blue eyes darken. "I don't happen to warm up to that phenomenon," he sighs.

Despite his reluctance to be drawn into the controversy, Day graciously agreed to examine photographs of chemtrails to see if he spotted anything unusual.

"This is a perfectly normal situation with cirrocumulus cloud and a single spreading contrail," he declared after inspecting one photo for a full minute. Then he flipped to the next. "Nothing weird about that. Cirrostratus cloud..."

And the next. "The criss-cross pattern is a consequence of planes flying criss-cross patterns...."

And the next. "I've seen many situations like this one...."

Contrail formation, Day explained, depends on the relative humidity of the atmosphere--the ratio of what is to what could be at a particular temperature.

When relative humidity is low, contrails dissipate within seconds. But when relative humidity is high, especially at the subzero temperatures of the upper atmosphere, the addition of even a tiny amount of water vapor acts as a catalyst. Under these conditions, contrails may linger and spread to cover the whole sky.

"Contrails can persist a long time," Day concluded, gently. "If you have the right situation, you can produce a cirrostratus sky that will last for hours and hours."

At length, Day extracted from his bookshelf a well-thumbed edition of Peterson's Field Guide to Clouds and Weather, which he co-authored in 1991 (a good 10 years before chemtrails became widely discussed), turned to the section on contrails, and pointed to a photograph of a thick, white plume--a plume that looked for all the world like a chemtrail.

That photo doesn't disprove the existence of chemtrails, of course. But it does suggest that the chem-trackers' most compelling evidence--the "sudden" proliferation of persistent trails--is nebulous.

It's no exaggeration to say that we live in an age of anxiety. Over the past 20 years, formerly innocent phenomena--a drop of blood, a chip of paint, an unwashed apple--have mutated into deadly biohazards. We are under assault from the air we breathe, the food we eat, the bodily fluids we once exchanged (more or less) freely. Lead lurks in our drinking fountains, mercury in our thermometers, mold in our basements, and aflatoxins in our peanut butter.

Given this atmosphere of paranoia, perhaps it was inevitable that even clouds--the ultimate symbols of harmless fluff--would eventually fall under suspicion.

Ironically, there are legitimate concerns about contrails. Some researchers believe that contrails may contribute to global warming by boosting the earth's cloud cover--a phenomenon likely to intensify as air traffic climbs.

But that's not what the chem-trackers are worried about. They want an explanation for the coughing fits, the fungal infections, the unearthly filaments and the drought in Klamath Falls. Terrifying though it may be, the chem-trackers have found something that gives them a sense of purpose, a mission in life--a mission that gains new urgency every time they look up at the sky.

--WW interns David Shafer, Brett Weinstein and Marianne Reid contributed to this report.


Tracking the Lines in the Sky

Despite our considerable skepticism about chemtrails, WW decided to conduct the following experiment: Setting aside for a moment the question of whether chemtrails exist, we asked local chem-trackers to alert us when they spotted a suspicious plume. We then attempted to track down the identity of the aircraft and interview its operators.

The call comes in at 4:41 pm on Thursday, Sept. 6. Patricia Leedy has spotted two jets in the northeast quadrant of the sky, flying north, trailing thick plumes over Hillsboro. "I can see them now," she says. "They're right overhead!"

I thank her, hang up the phone, and page Mike Fergus, a public-affairs officer at the Federal Aviation Administration in Renton, Wash.

Fergus and I have worked out a procedure in advance: When I get a "live call" on a chemtrail, I will relay the information to him, and he will relay it to the regional Air Route Traffic Control Center in Auburn, Wash., which monitors civilian flights over Portland. Based on the time and the location of the sighting, an air traffic controller will--hopefully--identify the offending aircraft.

Minutes later, Fergus calls back. ARTCC has a positive identification for both jets. The first is Alaska Airlines Flight 513 from Ontario, Calif., to Seattle, a Boeing 737 cruising at 39,000 feet.

The second is a private jet, a British Aerospace BAE 125, cruising at 35,000 feet, owned by Potelco, a utility contracting firm based in Sumner, Wash.

Finally! We've nailed the sprayers! Or have we?

"If I refused to comment, it'd make your story more exciting," says Alaska Airlines spokesman Jack Walsh. "But I can unequivocally say no, there is no spraying. If there was anything like that going on, we'd know about it."

Contacted by WW, the pilot of the Potelco jet described the chemtrail theory as "rather fantastic," and said there was nothing unusual about his plane, its engine or the fuel he was using. "The persistent trail is a matter of physics," said the pilot, who asked that WW not print his name. "Sometimes you see them, and sometimes you don't." He added that the plane, the sole jet owned by Potelco, was returning from "a trip on company business."

Chem-trackers were not convinced by the denials. "I don't know if you're getting the real facts on that," Leedy told WW. "I would be surprised if anybody came clean."

Nonetheless, the experiment suggests that the chemtrails hypothesis now implies a conspiracy involving, in addition to the government, Alaska Airlines and a Washington company whose specialties include ditch-digging.

--Chris Lydgate

Originally published 9/26/2001