The Marfa Lights
(Originally published in Camping Life Magazine)
Scotland has its Loch Ness Monster, or at least Scotland has stories about its Loch Ness Monster, most of which have been proven to be hoaxes. Nevada has Area 51, which may or may not be anything more than a proving ground for experimental U.S. Air Force craft. And New Mexico will always have Roswell, where a UFO supposedly fell to earth in 1947, although there's not a speck of hard evidence one way or the other. If you had a mind to, you could spend just about your whole life wandering the world, looking for things that may or may not be there. Or you can get yourself out to west Texas and see one of the few legitimately unexplained phenomena on earth - the Marfa Lights.
What are the Marfa Lights? Well, they're just that, lights, but they're more than that. They're small lights that float, that move, that seem to have a life of their own. Some people have described them as colorful, others as pulsating white lights. To some the Lights are well-defined glowing orbs, while others describe them as more like floating "cotton balls." They're lights just outside the town of Marfa, right where the old Mitchell Flat airport used to be, about 50 miles north of the Chinati Mountains. The thing is, nobody can say for sure just what the lights are or where the come from. In fact, it's not uncommon for a group of people to see the lights together and disagree even on how many lights there are. They're just there.
The magic of astronomy is the wonder of the unknown, so the Marfa Lights are tailor-made for us amateur stargazers. You don't need any special equipment to see them, you don't have to consult a star chart to find them, and your guess is as good as anybody's as to what the hell's going on just outside the Big Bend National Park. And if that doesn't whet your appetite to see the Lights for yourself, I don't know what will.
The first recorded sighting of the Lights was in 1883, by one Robert Ellison. Ellison and his wife were driving some cattle from Alpine to Marfa, and as they came through Paisano Pass they saw the Lights off in the distance. At first they thought the Lights were Apache campfires, not a good sign in those days, but as the Ellisons got closer, they realized the Lights were neither a home nor a campfire. And the mystery was loosed.
Over the years, the Lights have astounded and often frightened thousands of people, and are an unending wellspring of myths. From the Indian and Mexican tales of lost lovers and defeated warriors wandering the earth in an eternal search to the modern tales of UFOs, the Lights have captured generations of imaginations. In the 1940s, people thought the Lights were marking secret Nazi runways in preparation for an invasion via Mexico. In 1918, the word was that the Lights were marking pathways for the invading German cavalry and packmules. And in 1914, Marfans were sure that the Lights were the armies of Pancho Villa, bringing the revolution north to Texas.
Obviously, none of those dire explanations panned out. But neither did the efforts of scientists who wanted to put the mystery to rest. In 1947, Fritz Kahl, a local war veteran and pilot, chased the Lights in an airplane, but came up empty. In 1975, Kahl made another attempt, this time with a team that included observers in Jeeps and planes. The "Marfa Ghost Light Hunt," as it was called, featured "more than a hundred carloads of observers gathered between the two observation points, one at Paisano Pass and the other at the entrance to the old Presidio County Airport," according to the Sul Ross "Skyline" newspaper. The searchers, "utilizing aircraft, survey instruments, multiband radio equipment and about a half-dozen search teams," were no more successful than Kahl had been in his solo search of '47, and the legend grew.
There are those who'll try to convince you that the lights are nothing more than high-powered lights from area ranches or the reflected headlights from nearby cars and trucks, but that doesn't explain why the Lights have been reported since before electricity or vehicles ever reached the Big Bend area. Nor does it explain why there have been reports of observers hearing a high-pitched, "tuning fork" noise in only one ear while watching the Lights.
Whatever they are, the Marfa Lights are reason enough to make a trip to west Texas, although the added attractions of Big Bend National Park and the University of Texas' McDonald Observatory - both within 100 miles of Marfa - make the area an irresistible draw. Better yet, unlike Area 51 or Roswell, Texas and Marfa actually WANT you to come take a gander. The city of Marfa has organized a Labor Day "Marfa Lights Festival" for the past dozen years, with the 13th edition scheduled for September of this year. The Festival has everything from a parade to live music to washer-tossing competitions (sort of like horseshoes, only you toss washers) in addition to trips out to the viewing area. And the Texas Department of Transportation has designated an "official" Marfa Lights viewing sight, 9 miles east of Marfa on U.S. Highway 90, complete with a state historical marker.
What's my explanation for the Marfa Lights? I don't have one, and I don't really want one. There are some things better left unknown, I think, but that doesn't mean I'm not planning a few trips out to the old airport this year to see and wonder for myself.
For more information on the Marfa Lights, check out the "official" Marfa Lights website at http://www.marfalights.com. For more information on the Marfa Lights Festival, including information on area accommodations, contact the Marfa Chamber of Commerce at 800/650-9696.
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