Into the fiery, plague-ridden nightmare-scape of 2020, like a gift from some benevolent higher being, has come a source of true wonder and delight: the wandering monoliths of Utah, Romania, California, and New Mexico.

The monoliths are long vertical slabs of metal, each 10 to 12 feet tall. They appear with no warning and disappear just as quickly: First, one in the Utah desert, which emerged on November 18 and vanished on November 27. Second, one outside the Romanian city of Piatra Neamt, which appeared on November 27 and disappeared on December 2. Third, one at the top of Pine Mountain in Atascadero, California, which appeared on December 2, was taken down on December 3, and reappeared on December 4. And fourth, one in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which appeared on December 7 and was taken down the same day.

They look like alien artifacts. In part, that’s because they are heavily reminiscent of the monoliths of Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, where vast black monoliths are deposited by aliens to guide human beings from one stage of evolution to the next.

Kubrick or no Kubrick, all four of these real-life monoliths are eerie, solitary objects. No one knows whether another will suddenly appear, or whether it, too, will vanish into the night.

We know very little about these monoliths at all, in fact, and that seems to be part of their point. They are a beautifully inexplicable phenomenon, and proof that the world still contains marvels.

Here’s what we do know about the monoliths — and why we keep talking about them.

A monolith timeline

The first monolith was discovered in November in a remote desert canyon in Utah’s Red Rock Country. A helicopter crew counting bighorn sheep noticed a flash of metal looming up from the ground and flew down to investigate, and there it was: deeply embedded in the red rock of the canyon floor, an enormous smooth metal triangular prism, just standing there.

“What the heck is that?” one of the workers mutters in a video released by the Utah Department of Public Safety. “Okay, the intrepid explorers go down to investigate the alien life form,” another cracks.

The canyon is remote and inaccessible without a helicopter, Utah’s Division of Wildlife Services told the New York Times. “It’s a tough place to get to on vehicle and on foot,” a spokesperson said. Officials for the Department of Public Safety added that they had no idea how long the monolith had been there, although Reddit sleuths used Google Maps Earth View to work out that it was installed sometime between August 2015 and October 2016.

The Utah Department of Public Safety announced the “unusual find” on Facebook, with a cheeky alien emoji appended, and the story took off inexorably from there. A mysterious artifact that is an art project but also maybe from aliens, discovered out of nowhere in the middle of the desert, here in the grinding misery of a plague year — what’s not to love about that?

Plenty, argued BASE jumper Andy Lewis and adventure guide Sylvan Christensen, who filmed themselves removing the monolith from the desert on November 27. They say they did so for environmental reasons. “This land wasn’t physically prepared for the population shift,” they declared in a joint statement. The statement goes on to say that the rapid descent of masses of monolith-gawkers into the pristine desert landscape, with no infrastructure set up to support them, caused permanent damage to the delicate ecosystem.

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