“YEAH,” I’ VE ALWAYS TOLD anyone who asked me about the Marfa lights, “I’ve seen them.” Not just once, either. I’ve been to far West Texas a dozen times over the past decade, so of course I’ve seen the lights, as people have for more than a century. I’ve seen them at dusk and at midnight, in the summer and the fall, by myself and with other people. They appeared in the darkness south of U.S. 90 between Alpine and Marfa: yellowish-white lights that glowed, faded, disappeared, and returned in different places. Sometimes they changed colors, other times they split apart. I couldn’t tell if they were ten miles away or a hundred, the size of a car or a house. I didn’t understand them, but I didn’t care. I loved those lights.
The best place to see them has always been a little half-moon of paved road off U.S. 90, about nine miles east of Marfa. You pull over and park as if you’re having a nighttime picnic (there are even tables) and wait for the lights to appear. In 2003 the town used $720,000 from the federal government and the Texas Department of Transportation to expand that area into the Marfa Mystery Lights Viewing Center, one of the oddest roadside monuments in the state, a giant, circular adobe restroom with mounted binoculars and bronzed plaques. The main one reads “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.” Another says that O. W. Williams, the grandfather of former gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams, “first wrote of the mysterious lights in the 1880s.”
Almost every night, the center is crowded with tourists, who get a thrill out of sharing an inherently good-natured puzzle with total strangers. A few years ago I was there on a busy summer night, and a man passed around a pair of night-vision glasses to eager witnesses. In addition to the two or three lights we had been watching, we could see seven or eight more crawling dimly through the darkness, like the aliens in Space Invaders. This, by all accounts, was excellent: You didn’t have to believe in UFOs to think that something was out there.
Driving to that spot, I always got a kick out of the blue roadside sign that said “Marfa’s Mystery Lights Viewing Area: Night Time Only.” Well, duh. But the truth is, you have to see the landscape in the daylight to take in the full measure of this mystery. The terrain between Marfa and Alpine is downright otherworldly; you’re in the desert, yet you’re also almost a mile high, surrounded by all these stark, lonely mountains. And you’re gazing out over this wide plain, the Mitchell Flat, that empties southward into the dark mountains of Mexico far away. There is something magical about the Flat, as if it were a stage.
I knew what the skeptics said: The lights were from cars on a nearby road. But these weren’t car lights. They didn’t move like cars. Sometimes they just sat there, and other times they were absolutely playful, moving and winking at one another. Hell, they danced. My wife and I got married in Alpine six years ago, and the night before, the wedding party wound up at the viewing area. Alcohol was involved, and so was a lot of loud talk. There were more than a dozen of us, and just as a funny movie is funnier with a group of friends, so is a mystery more mysterious. We all agreed—no way those were car lights.
So I was intrigued when I read last December that a study from the Society of Physics Students at the University of Texas at Dallas had concluded that the lights come from … cars driven on U.S. 67, which runs south from Marfa to Presidio. I was skeptical, to say the least, and called one of the students, Jeff Klenzing. He said twelve of them went down to the area in May 2004, camping at Fort Davis. “We came up with a list of eight experiments,” he said, “and three worked really well.” We’re talking lasers, walkie-talkies, a traffic-volume monitoring box, a chase car, and high-speed video.
But we’re also talking about a group of college kids—including members of the UTD Gun Club—and a three-day campout in the mountains. In other words, a high-tech frat party. Car headlights, indeed. People have been seeing the Marfa lights since the nineteenth century, long before there were cars. The city of Marfa and the state of Texas had built a roadside monument to watch them from. Most important, I’d seen them. There’s no way those were car lights.
I HAVE TERRIBLE NEWS.
In February I returned for two days and three nights, without wife, friends, or alcohol. When I first started visiting Marfa, it was a dying ranching town; now, as everyone who reads the New York Times knows, it has been rescued by Houston lawyers and New York artists and turned into a hipster paradise. Everywhere you look you see new art galleries and restaurants, as well as old, crumbling adobe houses that are being rebuilt by out-of-towners who’ve paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for them. The weekend I was there, the new Marfa public radio station premiered, and the town was full of celebrities such as Dan Rather, Houston lawyer Dick DeGuerin (who owns a home there and was representing the owner of a Dairy Queen in a wiretapping trial that was to begin the next morning), and folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
I brought along binoculars, a laser, a superbright flashlight, and a high-powered strobe (I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do with them, but it was good to have them). The first thing I did was drive