Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.
Adapted from the transcript of the
Marfa Mondays Podcast # 7,
this article originally appeared in slightly different form as
a guest-blog on The
Metaphysical Traveler blog.
WE HAVE SEEN THE LIGHTS
The Marfa Ghost Lights Phenomenon
If you've heard of Marfa, you've probably heard of the Marfa Lights, which are sometimes called the Marfa Ghost Lights.
If you haven't heard of Marfa, let me fill you in on the basics. Named after a maid in a Dostoyevsky novel, it's a speck of a town in the middle of the sweep of Far West Texas, part of an area the Spanish called the tierra despoblada, and, later, somewhat frighteningly, the Apachería. Even today with the railroad and the highway, and the recently internationally famous art scene, not a lot of people live in Marfa. But it seems almost everyone who does has seen and has a shiver-worthy story about the Marfa Lights.
I first visited Marfa in the late 1990s, I made an arrow for
the Marfa Lights viewing area, a pullout on the highway between
Marfa and the neighboring town of Alpine. About 9 miles out of
Marfa, it was just a parking area with, as I recall, a couple
of sun-bleached picnic tables. There was an RV parked to one
the side and standing on top of one of the picnic tables, a burly
man in shorts and a T-shirt, his knees bent like a quarterback
about to grab the football. There was no one else there.
As I set my shoe on the dirt, I saw that it was surrounded by a scattering of something silvery: quarters. I have found many a penny on the sidewalk, and few dimes over the years, but this was several dollars worth of quarters. I gathered them up.
"OH MY GOD!" The man was bellowing. "OH MY GOD!!!"
I would have thought him barking mad except that, I too saw the lights and they were unlike anything I had ever seen. I climbed up on the other picnic table for a better view. There were a couple dozen little lights dancing on the flats and up in the foothills. They must have been miles away maybe around the town of Shafter? Shafter is on the way to Presidio, the main town on the US-Mexico border in these parts.
They looked like car lights, but they were not just white and red, but green, blue, yellow nor they did they move like car lights. Up they bounced! No helicopter I ever saw moved that fast, that straight, that high. Whimsically, the little lights shot left, then right, sliding horizontally, apparently along the ground, as if on greased rails. They blinked on, then off. Then on irregularly, not like any mechanical signal. A yellow one went left; red up, blue blinked. Green stretched to divide like a piece taffy, in two. And just when I thought um, maybe those are car lights? Whoom, one would shoot up straight into the air, turn a different color, and blink off.
My sister had remained in the car, arms resolutely crossed. When I got back in, she harumphed. "Those are car lights."
As we pulled out, that man had stopped shouting, but he was still standing on top of the picnic table, transfixed.
After dinner in Alpine, my sister and I drove back to Marfa in an ink-black night. We passed a few cars, a truck. Then what I thought was a motorcycle came toward us. A white, round light a headlight, right? There was something odd about it, though, and then behind, in a line, came several others. A motorcycle convoy? At this hour? The parade of white lights swept by us and, I swear, I felt our car levitate.
Then it was dark again and all I could see were our car's own headlamps casting forward onto the highway. That was when I realized what was so odd about those motorcycles. Those lights had not cast light forward onto the pavement as a vehicle's headlamp does. They were uniformly glowing orbs. A line of orbs moving along the pavement at what must have been at least 60 miles per hour.
"Did you see that?" I said to my sister.
"What," she said.
"Those weird lights that just passed us."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
We ate the next night in Fort Davis. When I parked the car on the main street, I opened the door, and there, shining in the gutter, was another splash of quarters, several dollar's worth. And on the way to Marfa that night, out in the middle of the desert, heading off at a right angle from the highway, I saw what I took to be the tailights of a truck. But suddenly those two red lights, whoom, flew apart and I don't know what, I just kept driving.
My sister didn't see that, either.
Does this all sound like a tall tale? I'm telling you exactly what I remember experiencing; but whatever you think of that, I can assure you that if you go to Marfa and ask politely, you will find that eyewitness accounts of the Marfa Lights very much like my own and many, indeed, far stranger, abound.
As a souvenir of that visit back in the late 90s, I bought a little stapled-spine book by Judith M. Brueske, PhD, The Marfa Lights: Being a Collection of First-Hand Accounts by People Who Have Seen the Lights Close-Up or in Unusual Circumstances and Related Material, second revised edition, published in 1988 by Ocotillo Enterprises. It turns out that the lights have been regularly witnessed and reported since the 19th century, mostly in the Marfa area, but throughout the desert, on the other side of the Rio Grande, south into Mexico and even as far northwest as New Mexico though the ones I heard about there, in the mountains outside Alamogordo, from two different eye-witnesses, were red pinpricks that would float up close to one's face and seemed to possess intelligence.
One of my favorite books about this region I mean the greater Big Bend region of Far West Texas is Pat Little Dog's Border Healing Woman, about Jewel Babb. This strange, haunting and oftentimes delightful story of a ranch wife who became a solitary goat herder and renowned healer, Border Healing Woman was recognized with the coveted Southwest Book Award when it was first published by the University of Texas Press in 1981. And oh, yes, Jewel Babb tells many stories about the lights. Just one of them, from page 100 of that book, I quote:
"One morning, I walked out with my goats. I was still close to the house when I looked up, and there was a bright object about as big as a football, lavender, yellow, orange, red, and green, bright as could be. And it was falling to the ground. It wasn't falling straight down, but rather it was slanted and falling fast. When it did hit the ground, there was, it seemed, just a puff."
In the summer of 2011, I visited Marfa again, this time with my husband. Near twilight, supposedly the prime viewing time, we drove out to the Marfa Lights View Park, now a substantial and nicely painted southwest-style building with restrooms and a deck furnished with a row of telescopes aimed out over Mitchell Flat. We read the plaque, which was set into a plinth of stones:
MARFA MYSTERY LIGHTS
The Marfa Mystery Lights are visible on many clear nights between Marfa and Paisano Pass as one looks towards the Chinati Mountains. The lights may appear in various colors as they move about, split apart, melt together, disappear and reappear.
Robert Reed Ellison, a young cowboy, reported sighting the lights in 1883, he spotted them while tending a herd of cattle and wondered if they were Apache Indian campfires.
Apache Indians believed these eerie lights to be the stars dropping to the earth.
Many viewers have theories ranging from scientific to science fiction as they describe their ideas of aliens in UFO's, ranch house lights, St. Elmo's fire, or headlights from vehicles on US 67, the Presidio highway. Some beieve the lights are an electrostatic discharge, swamp gases, moonlight shining on veins of mica, of ghosts of the Conquistadors searching for gold.
explanation as to why the lights cannot be located is an unusual
phenomenon similar to a miracle, where atmospheric conditions
produced by the interaction of cold and warm layers of air bend
light so that it can be seen from afar, but not up close.
The air was warm enough to go without a sweater, but comfortable and the landscape, so vast and otherwordly, the way the sky blanched to lemon and to the southeast, the jagged profile of Cathedral mountain turned luscious shades of chocolate and lavender. To the south, the massive bulk of the Chinatis darkened to a plum-like purple. A few stars began to wink. We waited. I told my husband the eerie coincidence of finding those quarters, two days in a row, both times right by my foot when I opened the car door, and about that man on the table shouting, OH MY GOD.
More people arrived. A family tumbled out of their RV; a couple from a sedan; and from a battered truck, a woman who commenced to set up an expensive-looking video camera. We meandered up and down the deck. We peeked at the horizon through one of telescopes. We meandered some more. We looked again through another telescope. We made small talk. The woman with the camera said she'd captured some lights on film just last week. She said she had a relative who'd lived out there in a lonely ranch house and he'd seen blue lights, but he closed the curtains didn't want to see, didn't want to know.
The air coolled. The mountains sharpened into near-black silhouhettes. In more than an hour, we had seen no lights other than the stars and one that was constant: a ranch light. My husband, he wanted to go to town and get dinner, so that was what we did.
I could see the scene at Thanksgiving: he and my sister rolling their eyes.
In the Marfa Book Company I found a copy of Hunting Marfa Lights by James Bunnel, which was published in 2009.Two things about this book caught my attention: First, that the author, who grew up in Marfa, is an engineer with quite a resume. Among many other things, he was a member of the launch team for all manned Apollo launches from 1968 to 1973 and he retired from BAE Systems as no less than Director of Mission Planning Systems for Air Force Programs. Second, Bunnel went after with the Marfa Lights with a rigorous methodology, superb equipment, and relentless determination.
He found that many of the lights could be explained, variously, by car lights, night mirages, light curtains, and what he called "chemical electromagnetic phenomena" which are, to quote him, "truly mysterious."
When I began my travels for this book project, back in the winter of this year, 2012, I asked many local people if they'd seen the lights. Charlie Angell, owner of Angell Expeditions, who has been my guide through some of the wilder areas of the Big Bend, told me, quote:
ago I was watching the lights with my sister and as we left we
saw one down a dirt road near the viewing area. I drove down
the road towards it and it hovered away from
Charlie gave me a tour of Fort Leaton, outside of Presidio on the Rio Grande for those of you without a map, that's about an hour southwest of Marfa and we were just about to leave the parking lot when the ranger there volunteered his story:
One time, very early in the morning, when he was driving a school bus from Marfa to Presidio, he saw in the rear view mirror that a big orb had appeared on the highway. It followed the bus, and then it came closer And then it moved inside the bus.
And the children?
"They were all asleep."
I said, "wow." And I sure did wish I'd had the presence of mind to record that.
When I visited Chinati Hot Springs, a ways up the Rio Grande from Presidio, I did have my recorder handy and here's what one of the caretakers, Diana Burbach, told me:
"I saw them in Mexico. Horseback riding, coming back from that little village over there, we were on that road at night-time, and whew, yeah! I thought it was car lights coming at us. So I told the kids to hurry and scoot over. The guide told me, no wait, watch. The closer we got, they disappeared, and then coming up behind us, there they were!"
In the Marfa and Presidio County Museum, I asked the docent, Marfa native Berta Sánchez, had she seen the lights?
seen them only in white. But there are other people, especially
the people that come from, I would say, from Presidio or Ojinaga,
that they have to go to Odessa for a doctor's appointmentthey
come very early to get there at that time, and they go to Alpine
and they have seen them in red and green and yellow. But they
don't harm anything. They say it's very scary because you see
them, they come on like rolling, and they come close to your
car or truck, whatever you're driving, but nothing happens! It
disappears! I don't know what in the world it is. I sure don't."
Also in Marfa, when I was interviewing Paul Graybeal, owner of Moonlight Gemstones, I asked him, what lights had he seen?
"I've seen them fairly regular. Usually it's coming back at night from Alpine. You can see them any time you get over the passes, where you're high enough to see the radio tower. If they're not every active you might not recognize them, you know, if you've one or two lights thery're just setting out there, not moving. I've seen them when there are like 15 of them. I've seen them when they're like extremely bright, you know, motion, you know. One will get bright and disappear, and then two will pop up. There's a range of behavior they're common to but they're not always active."
Had he seen them up close?
time we drove down Nopal Road, it's a county road until you get
to a gate, about two miles before the turn-off there's a little
sign with the ranches. But it is a county road so legally you
can drive down it to the gate. That was the brightest. And what
was the most amazing thing to me was, it seemed like it was like
a streetlight up there but it did not illuminate the ground,
it did not cause shadows. That is the strangest thing about them. Another time I was driving
back, it wasn't way off there, it looked like it was real close,
like you know, a block or two off the fence. But it was elongated,
blue, it hovered like burning gas. And there again, it did not
give off shadows. It was not a circle, it was stretched out,
you know, like it was a gas."
So what do I think the Marfa Lights are? At this point in time an invitation to wonder.