ON A CLEAR, MOONLESS SEPTEMBER NIGHT, when summer was just giving way to fall, I found myself barreling west down a deserted stretch of U.S. 180 with the mayor of Anson, looking for a ghost. “You’ll need to slow down,” Tom Isbell said as he pointed into the blackness. “The cemetery should be just ahead on our left.” I eased off the gas and squinted to make out the tombstones, but Isbell saw them first. “There it is,” he said. “The dirt road will be on the far side. That’s where we’ll turn off.” We were on the trail of the fabled Anson light.
We bounced along the dirt road at about ten miles an hour as our headlights danced across the tombstones to our left. On our right I could see the lights of the town, and the emptiness ahead reminded me of The Blair Witch Project. “The crossroads is coming up,” I said after about a mile. “When we get there,” Isbell replied, “we’ll turn the car around in the middle of the intersection.” But I knew the drill: As I approached
the intersection—the other dirt road leading to darkness in either direction—I swung the car wide to the right and circled back, parking smack-dab in the middle. We were now facing the way we had come, looking past 180 into dense mesquite that seemed to stretch to the horizon. I turned off the lights, then killed the engine. The mayor and I sat in absolute darkness, not saying a word, and then, as the legend dictates, I flashed the headlights three times. Almost immediately a faint glimmer appeared in front of us, as if a phantom train had come around an invisible bend miles away. “There it is,” I whispered. The white light grew more intense, moving slightly from side to side, and I sat stock-still with my hand frozen on the ignition. The mayor nodded: “That’s it.”
I had met Tom Isbell that afternoon, and we had spent the daylight hours talking about the economic prospects for Anson, a town of 2,800 residents. As we stood across from the courthouse, we discussed the opening of the new public library and garden and the success of a new jewelry store on the square. Most of the other businesses were boarded up, some looking as if they needed just one gust of wind to finish them off. An abandoned store called Heidenheimer’s sported a banner that proclaimed “Going Out of Business Sale.” When I asked how long it had been closed, Isbell said just over a year.
“The good news is that ten thousand cars drive through Anson every day,” he said. “The trick is getting them to stop.” He has thought about opening a transportation museum, and I mentioned that Marfa has been able to cash in on its own mysterious lights. “For a long time people were embarrassed by the Anson light,” he said. “Anson has stories to tell, but for some reason we just don’t tell them. Did you know that the hero from Américo Paredes’ With His Pistol in His Hand, Gregorio Cortez, is buried here? People don’t know that because we don’t advertise it.”
I told Isbell that I had first learned about the Anson light during the early nineties, when I was a student at the University of North Texas, in Denton. I had met a music major named Carl who had grown up in Abilene, which is about 25 miles south of Anson. One night he told me and my roommate, Daryl, an irresistible story: On a deserted country road, just down from an old cemetery, an unexplained light would appear after midnight. The tale didn’t sound too far-fetched. My wife had attended Abilene Christian University, and she told me that the Anson light was one of the first stories she had heard there. In fact, students from all three of Abilene’s colleges—ACU, Hardin-Simmons, and McMurry—had been going out to the cemetery for as long as anyone could remember. Carl explained the ritual that Isbell would later confirm: Drive to the crossroads, turn your car around, kill the engine, flash your lights three times. “This is the god’s-honest truth,” he kept insisting. “I am not making this up.” If you were lucky, he said, a white light no bigger than a tiny dot would appear on the horizon. It would seem to be miles away, but it would grow to the size of a basketball as it came closer and drifted from left to right, then disappear before returning again. Did the light have an explanation? I asked. Absolutely, Carl said. A long time ago a young boy went camping by himself, and his mother gave him a lantern. She told him that if he needed help, all he had to do was flash the lantern three times and she would come to him. The boy never returned, so his mother—who just happens to be buried in the cemetery—rises from the dead with a lantern each time she sees the headlights.
At that point Daryl and I were ready to hit the road, but then Carl leaned in close and lowered his voice to a whisper. Though he had seen the light countless times, he said, a recent experience had persuaded him never to go back. He had driven out there by himself (of course), and this time the light had come closer than ever. In a panic he decided to make a break for it, so he turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. He tried a second time. Again, nothing. Finally, just as the light was upon him, the engine turned over and he sped off, heading directly toward it. It shot straight up in the air and vanished. Before we could accuse Carl of lying, he nodded and said, “That’s a true story.” Even more enticing were the words that followed: “And if you don’t believe me, you can go see for yourself.”
Daryl and I pulled into Anson shortly after midnight one evening and stopped at an Allsup’s convenience store at the intersection of U.S. 277 and 180. Daryl struck up a conversation with the elderly woman behind the counter, who no doubt had dealt with her fair share of college kids in the middle of the night. “We’re heading out to see the Anson light,” he told her, smiling as if she would approve. “Are we headed the right way?” The woman puffed on her cigarette, then exhaled forcefully. “You all shouldn’t go out there,” she replied. “The sheriff doesn’t like it. Besides, surely you know that the Anson light is just a reflection from the highway. There’s nothing to it.” Before I could counter with, “Yeah, but,” a deep voice boomed from behind a rack of potato chips: “That’s not true at all.” Daryl and I wheeled around; the woman took another drag. “There’s ghosts out there,” intoned an elderly man in tattered overalls. “You shouldn’t go out there because there’s ghosts, and that lady knows it.”
It was an engraved invitation: Daryl and I dashed to our car and hightailed it to the cemetery. After some waiting—I think I suggested to Daryl that maybe we should flash our lights again—a light appeared on the horizon. It didn’t come as close as Carl had said, but it was enough for us. True believers, we couldn’t wait to tell the tale.
Now, six years later, I went back to that Allsup’s and asked a woman wearing a “No Whining” button what she knew about the light. “I don’t know what it is,” she told me. “You shouldn’t go out there though”—pause—“but if you do, go after midnight.” Other folks told me expanded versions of the familiar tale, and many said that Unsolved Mysteries had even done a piece on the light (which, by the way, isn’t true; Texas Country Reporter’s Bob Phillips hasn’t even stopped by). Woodrow Simmons may be more familiar with the light than anyone. The 81-year-old former police chief, sheriff, and investigator has lived in Anson his entire life, except for the three years he spent in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Since the thirties his family has owned the land at the southeast comer of the crossroads, which he calls the “beer drinking corner,” and he says kids have been coming out there for years. “About three times a year, ACU kids get beered up and go out there looking for the light,” he said. “And every now and then I end up having to repair a section of my fence because the kids drive off the road.”
Before Isbell and I had headed out to investigate, we had eaten dinner at Peacock’s Mesquite Grill. Over plates of fried catfish we kicked these stories around, and the mayor asked people at other tables what they thought. The men cracked wide smiles when asked about the light and told jokes about ghosts. One said that the crossroads sits up on a hill and looks over a highway miles away. He argued that the light is nothing more than headlights and pointed out that there is no reason to flash your lights either. (Years ago I had seen the light without flashing my headlights, which, while not nearly as much fun, at least proved that no one was hiding in the mesquite waiting for a signal.)
That night in the car, right after Isbell and I saw the light, I was ecstatic. “Mayor, I just don’t see how it can be lights off a highway,” I said. “If that was the case, then the road would have to be exactly in line with where we’re sitting.” Calmly, he asked me to turn on the light and proceeded to unfold a map of Jones County. “Here we are,” he said, pointing just south of the cemetery. “And about three miles to the north is this stretch of highway 277.” The highway runs northeast from Anson to Stamford, but one part curves so that it is perfectly aligned with the dirt road we were on. I wouldn’t have been more deflated if I had just watched Troy Aikman throw five interceptions against the New York Giants. Although I had always believed that there must be an explanation for the light, now that I had cracked the “mystery,” I kicked myself for asking too many questions.
There was still one last person the mayor wanted me to talk to: an Anson native named T Middlebrook, who now lives in Fort Davis. “I’m responsible for the whole thing,” Middlebrook said when I reached him by phone. In the early sixties, he told me, when he was fifteen, he was flying with a friend from Abilene to Stamford, which is seventeen miles northeast of Anson. He noticed that part of 277 was directly in line with the dirt road by the old cemetery. Not long after that, he and some friends happened to be driving near the cemetery after dark and saw some ghostly lights, which he realized had to be cars on that same stretch of 277. Like any red-blooded American teenager, he put the information to the best possible use: impressing girls. “A couple of weeks later I had a date, and I was trying to get a kiss, so I told the girl that if we went to a certain spot, I could show her a mysterious light,” Middlebrook said. “I told her this horrible ghost story, making it worse and worse. Driving down the road we stirred up a lot of dust, and just as we turned around, a car went by on that highway. The dust really made it look eerie. Well, to make a long story short, I never did get my kiss.” I sympathized with him. The time my future wife and I drove out to see the light when we were in college, I didn’t get a kiss either. What I did get was a set of fingernails jammed into my forearm as she yelled at me to get us out of there.
So is the Anson light nothing more than lights on the highway? Well, probably. Still, when I explored the area in broad daylight, I discovered that part of the explanation doesn’t seem quite right. The crossroads does not sit on a hill. In fact, to me it appears to be level with the highway that you turn off of. Second, the view across the plains is obstructed by scrub. And finally, there’s my wife, who, when I told her the mayor’s explanation, said indignantly, “It’s not lights on the highway. It doesn’t look anything like lights on the highway. Besides,” she reasoned coolly, “if that’s the case, why do you never see more than one car at a time and why don’t you ever see taillights?”
I had taken a video camera with me to Anson, and after dropping the mayor off that night, I returned to the cemetery to videotape the light. I thought I had gotten it, but when I played the tape back at home, it hadn’t picked up the light. And although I had provided clever narration just in case I never made it home, there was no sound. My wife, supporting me as best she could, exclaimed, “The light did it! The light did it!” suggesting that somehow the ghost had ruined my tape. I offered a more plausible explanation: “I think I’m an idiot,” I muttered.
But it takes more than facts to kill a legend. Before packing it in on my last night in Anson, at about two o’clock in the morning, I had made one last trip out to the cemetery. Just as I was about to turn off onto the dirt road, I saw something in the distance. At the crossroads someone was flashing his headlights—once, twice, and then a third time.