The Truth Is Out There
Forget what the believers and the skeptics say. Forget what you’ve seen, or think you’ve seen, with your own eyes. There’s no way to know if the Marfa lights are real—and that’s what’s so great about them.
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 out U.S. 67, the Presidio Highway. Just outside town, the road begins a long, steady climb for fourteen miles or so, occasionally curving, dipping slightly below the surrounding hills, and climbing again. I pulled over at a high spot, hiked up a roadside rise, pulled out my binoculars and, after a few minutes, spied a couple of trucks on U.S. 90, where the viewing center sits. Then, about half an hour before sunset, I drove to the center.
There was only one other person there, an employee tidying up, and I set my binoculars on a tripod and looked toward the Chinatis, a range that pokes above the horizon to the southwest, with Chinati Peak, at 7,728 feet, to the far right. In front of the mountains was a ridge that decreased in elevation as it moved from left to right, toward Marfa. I scanned the ridge through the binoculars, and underneath one of the craggier peaks—and to the right of the top of a yucca in the foreground—I saw a road, winding from left to right. It was U.S. 67. A minute later, I saw a truck moving slowly, quietly on the road, some twenty miles away. I kept watching, spying the occasional car heading north as the sun sank in the west. When it was still barely above the horizon, I saw a flash of light at the place where I knew the road was. It was really more of a glint, like the way sunlight reflects off a piece of quartz in a sidewalk. And it was moving from left to right. I stood away from the binoculars, couldn’t see the light, looked back, and saw it again. As the sun slid below the horizon, I saw more lights; now they were just to the left of my yucca plant. The lights would appear, go out for a few seconds, and come on again—much brighter—to the right of the plant.
By now I could see the lights without binoculars; they were white, pulsing, and dimming. And I had company—a retired couple from Illinois, stopping at the viewing center because they’d read about the lights, and two retired women from Houston, one of whom had seen the lights eleven times. “This will be the twelfth,” she said with certainty. She pointed out the faraway lights to her friend, though she also said they weren’t as active or as colorful as usual. Maybe it was the cold; this was the first time she’d seen them in February, and the temperature was in the 30’s. “They’re usually incredibly active—going up sideways, breaking loose, coming together,” she said. “They float up. It’s a slow process, but they do float up.” Her friend said she’d be more confident in believing she was seeing a Marfa light if she saw one do that, and the believer pointed out one of the lights and said hopefully, “Is it going up? It looks like it’s going up.”
The man from Illinois, a skeptical Midwesterner, took pictures and said he’d heard that the lights were car lights. The believer answered, “I don’t think they’re car lights. They’re not moving fast enough. Also, you see a light that’s obviously not moving, then it gets very bright, then goes dim.” It was getting colder, and the skeptic said, “I’m gonna say we seen ’em.” The believer cried with mock alarm, “No! You can’t go yet!”
They left, and I was alone again. The sky was dark now, and I could see a pattern: Each light came on brightly just above and to the left of a red light on a radio tower, at “eleven o’clock,” as my Army father would say. Each would move slowly to the right (without my binoculars, they appeared stationary), twinkle, dim, go out, and eight seconds later come back on, until it was straight above the red light, when it would go out again and come back on fifteen seconds later at about two o’clock. And so on. Just before the light got to my trusty yucca plant, it dimmed and disappeared, then reappeared much brighter than before. The pulsing, flaring, twinkling, blinking, and dimming came as the cars on the road lined up with or pointed away from the viewing center. I didn’t see any merging and splitting, but that would probably come from one car passing another, maybe behind a curve. Ultimately, I could draw a straight line descending from the top left to the bottom right, and the lights were coming on and going off along that line. By the time they got to the bottom, right under Chinati Peak, they were almost out of sight. And they were almost in Marfa. In that sense they were Marfa lights. But there wasn’t much mystery about them.
This was a problem. Did I really remember them jumping up and down, going left and right, changing colors? Did I really remember them dancing? Yes, I did. People remember what they want to remember, just as they see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe. And who doesn’t want to believe in magic?
A man, a woman, and a girl about eight years old arrived, and the girl ran up to the wall just as a bright light came on. “Ooh!” they all said. “Ooh!”
“Bright!” she exclaimed. “Look how bright!”
A second came on. “There!” she called. “Ooh! I really think that’s a Marfa light!”
A train rumbled by on the tracks just north of U.S. 90 and blew its horn. The family walked briskly back to their car, and the girl called out, “I’ve seen the Marfa lights!”
OKAY, HATS OFF TO SCIENCE. And common sense. Plus really good binoculars (the laser and the lights stayed in my motel room). But there were no cars in far West Texas in 1883, so first thing next morning, I called on Rosemary Cox, a granddaughter of Robert Ellison, the sixteen-year-old cowboy who had reported seeing the lights 123 years ago. Cox lives at the northern edge of town and taught at the elementary and junior high schools for 30 years before retiring, in 1992. She’s not a fan of the new Marfa (“They’ve priced the common folks out of homes”); the old one is much more majestic.
She carefully laid out her past in front of me on her couch: a copy of her grandfather’s obituary, a picture of him and his bride, a long poem he had written about his life. The thing I really wanted to see, though, was Ellison’s memoir, which he had written in 1937. I knew that he had reported bringing three thousand cattle through the Paisano Pass with a small crew, but I had read conflicting accounts on whether he’d written anything about the lights. If he’d seen something strange, I thought, surely he would have. I had talked with Cox on the phone, and she’d told me I was welcome to come see the manuscript.
But when I arrived, she said, “I’ve been through this twice and couldn’t find anything about the lights. I kept thinking I’d find a sentence or something about it.” I was disappointed, but I read aloud some of the document anyway. The only reference I found to seeing something bright was a memory of how on the first night, camped at Paisano Pass, one of Ellison’s men “noticed something shining in the grass and kicked it up and found he had a human skull.”
“Rough country,” said Cox.
Ultimately, her grandfather became the original historical source for the Marfa lights because he had told stories about them to his family. Cox recalled, “What I remember is there were lights down there they couldn’t explain. They thought they were Indian fires. They were just there all the time, part of the country. At least that’s what I remember him saying.” I asked her if there were other things her grandfather didn’t write about in his memoir. “His wife and his family,” she said. “This was just a cowboy’s story. All in the world it was.”
If Cox’s grandfather didn’t actually write about the lights, the state of Texas said that Clayton Williams’s grandfather did, so I called the ex-politician to ask about it. He explained that O. W. Williams was a former lawyer who had become a surveyor in the Terlingua area in the 1880’s. “He had a Mexican guide named Juan Cano,” said Williams, who donated ten acres of land for the viewing center, “and he told my grandfather stories by the campfire that the Indians had told the Mexicans, including one about the Marfa lights. The Indians called them Alsate’s Ghost, for the Apache chief who had been killed by the Mexicans. My grandfather wrote a lot of stories—Indian stories as told to Mexicans, who told my grandfather. He saw the lights too, but I don’t think he ever wrote down his observations. But he told me about seeing them.”
So Williams didn’t exactly “write” about the lights and Ellison only “reported” them to members of his family. But that, insist their grandchildren, doesn’t mean the lights don’t exist. In fact, both Williams and Cox—along with almost everyone else out there in far West Texas—say they’ve been seeing mysterious lights near Marfa for as long as they can remember. Cox is kind of blasé about the whole thing; Williams, who lives in Midland now but still runs cattle on his Loma Vista ranch, near Paisano Pass, is anything but. “They’re blue-white,” he said excitedly. “They go straight up, hover, straight down. Different people see ’em different. I’ve always seen them looking west, toward the Chinatis.” But, I asked him, don’t most of those lights come from cars? “Correct.” And these are in the same area? “Yes. Right above the car lights. How do I differentiate between a car light and a Marfa light? Even an Aggie can tell that when the light goes straight up, that’s a Marfa light.”
It took me ten years, but I was finally let in on the little secret shared by locals and old-timers: There are two kinds of Marfa lights, the real ones and, well, the phony ones, the ones you see from the viewing center. “It’s good for tourists,” said rancher Kerr Mitchell about the setup, “but you’re telling them something that is completely and totally incorrect. That’s not right.” Kerr, who lives on the southern end of the Mitchell Flat, which was named for his family, has seen the real Marfa lights only twice, and that was enough for him. “The first night, I was outside and saw this light, and it was just indescribable—this massive, enormous white light. I thought I was dreaming. The second time, there were five or six in a series, headed south at a pretty good clip, not very high up. They gradually disappeared. You see some strange things out here, but what I saw made me a believer.”
Over my two days in Marfa—and then in the weeks afterward—many people told me their own personal Marfa lights stories. Some, truth be told, were kind of dull, at least in the context of others, which were absolutely nutty. But one thing is clear: Something is out there. And it ain’t coming from the headlights of a Mazda pickup.
YOU’D THINK, THOUGH, that if almost everyone who’s been out there has seen the real Marfa lights, someone would have written about them, say, 100, or even 75 years ago. But the earliest known story is a San Angelo Times piece from February 1945 titled “Ghost Light Appears in Marfa Area,” and the earliest written report I found at the Marfa Public Library, where I went after talking to Cox, was a short 1957 Coronet magazine piece. “A mysterious light gleams out of the night like a weird Cyclopean eye,” wrote the author. The library has a thick notebook full of stories, high school and college term papers, and eyewitness reports about the lights. You won’t see much original research: Most accounts merely repeat folklore, such as tales about Ellison or the one about the man saved by a light in a blizzard (it led him to a cave) or the one about James Dean (who was so fascinated by them during the filming of Giant that he kept a telescope handy). But you will see how the Marfa lights have evolved as a phenomenon. Usually, the early tales refer to a single light—the Ghost Light or Smuggler’s Light or Alsate’s Light—and old-timers quoted in stories talk about it as being unremarkable. In modern times, though, there were numerous lights, and they moved really fast. They were balls of fire. They were life altering.
In the early eighties, poets praised the lights; “People lean out of themselves,” wrote Naomi Shihab Nye, “to find this impossible thing.” The lights became, in a word, stars, with stories in the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Post, and the Wall Street Journal and support from the Marfa Chamber of Commerce, which began trumpeting them after much pestering from Mando’s Garage owner Armando Vasquez. “I started promoting them back in the seventies, taking people from the motels to see them,” he told me. “I saw it could help our economy.” In 1986 the original roadside viewing area was built, and the city held its first Marfa Lights Festival. Busloads of tourists began stopping by the side of U.S. 90 and scanning the horizon. Longtime resident Fritz Kahl had some keen advice for them: “I still say the best way to see the lights is with a six-pack of beer and a good-looking woman.”
The locals have no choice but to maintain a sense of resigned good humor about the mystery lights. Indeed, most of them take the lights for granted. Like their forefathers, residents see them as just part of a landscape that includes, for example, the majestic Cathedral Mountain jutting dramatically out of the high desert. As Cox had told me, they’re just there. You want mysterious? How about a New York Minimalist artist, Donald Judd, moving to town 34 years ago, buying up the downtown, and eventually bringing in thousands of arty weirdos? How about run-down adobe homes selling for a quarter of a million dollars? How about Dan Rather flipping the switch and turning on a public radio station in the middle of far West Texas?
But lights rushing around in the desert? Not so much.
ON MY SECOND NIGHT I RETURNED to the viewing center, set up my binoculars, and saw the same thing: the road, the first lights at dusk, more as it got darker, then finally the repeating pattern from the left to the right along a long, unseen line. I drove out onto Nopal Road, which snakes down through the Mitchell Flat, ground zero for many close encounters. The road is packed dirt and rock, and on either side are the scrub and cacti of the ranches. I drove past the first cattle guard and up a slight rise in the road and parked about a mile and a half in. I shut off the car. It was in this spot one night in 1973 that geologists Pat Kenney and Elwood Wright saw two cantaloupe-size balls of light come barreling out of the southwest toward them at about 200 miles per hour. The first sped off toward the abandoned Marfa air base, while the second slowed down and then hovered two hundred feet away. They wrote later that the light seemed to be “daring them to chase it … It seemed to possess intelligence!”
A little farther down the road is where Alton Sutter, a minister from Monahans, had one of the more fantastic experiences I’ve heard. It was 1994, and he, along with his wife, two sons, and another minister, had driven out to see the lights. It was cold, and they waited about half an hour. “Finally,” he told me, “we saw one coming toward us, then a bunch of them, all small. If you ever saw The Wizard of Oz, the bubble the Good Witch arrives in, that’s what they looked like—fluorescent balloons floating, going all around us. One actually landed on the ground. I went over, and I took my glove off, reached down with my index finger, and picked it up; it was the size of the head of a pin. It went out, and I joked, ‘Okay, I’m not going to prison for killing this Marfa light. It died on its own.’”
The story was pretty fabulous, but when I told it to Cox, she dismissed it with a wave of her hand. “I don’t any more believe that than nothing,” she said. But he’s a preacher, I protested. “I don’t care. Don’t believe those stories about lights chasing people. ’Tain’t so.”
But out here on Nopal Road, miles from nowhere, it was hard not to think about such things. I looked southeast. Nothing. The stars crept slowly overhead. I looked to the Chinatis and saw the car lights blinking and going out. I didn’t have the same reference points I had had at the viewing center, so I tried to look at the strange lights winking and pulsing in the dark without any preconceived notions or patterns. It worked. The lights seemed to be playing with one another, turning on and off at will. They seemed capricious, magical.
For a few moments. So I counted jackrabbits. I listened to the wind and the sound of the trucks on U.S. 90. I called my wife on the cell phone. After an hour out there, I gave up and slowly began driving back. As I did, I realized my car lights were probably being seen by tourists at the viewing center—and probably appeared strange as hell. I flicked them off and back on. Then I did it again. It wouldn’t be me, but somebody was seeing a mystery light tonight.
ODDLY, YOU WON’T FIND MUCH information about the Marfa lights at the Marfa Chamber of Commerce, whose office is in the old Hotel Paisano, just down the hall from a room packed with Giant memorabilia. There are maps, brochures, and dozens of T-shirts for sale, most of which are from last year’s Marfa Lights Festival and show a boy’s face on top of a mountain, with the words “I’ve seen the Marfa Lights and they’ve seen me.” The office also hands out a sheet of information called “The Unsolved Mystery of the Marfa Ghost Lights.” “The lights appear almost every night,” it reads, and ends telling visitors to park at the visitors center and “scan the southwestern horizon, looking toward Chinati Peak.” I wanted to ask the chamber how it could print such disingenuous stuff, but the truth is, I couldn’t really blame the city elders. Something was out there; it just wasn’t as simple as they made it seem. They’d come to believe the hype to the point that it had become the truth, when the real truth—the real Marfa lights—was so much more interesting than the hype.
In fact, the best place to learn about the Marfa lights is the Apache Trading Post, in Alpine, which is owned by Charlotte and Richard Allen. Out front is Jack-Assic Park, home to four donkeys, and inside are Indian blankets, Western jewelry, hundreds of maps and books on the Big Bend area, and, of course, photos, T-shirts, and postcards of the Marfa lights. In the back room sit chairs in a semicircle around a television. Here, Charlotte shows Marfa lights videos and DVDs. Some days, she gets overwhelmed by people asking about the lights. “Twelve times a day people show up,” she told me. “They want to hear the story from someone. I say, ‘Here’s the DVD and the book,’ but they want to hear it. They want to drive up, know exactly what time, see them, leave, and tell their children, ‘We saw the Marfa lights.’ I say that can’t be done.”
Charlotte met her first Marfa light purely by accident. It happened fifteen years ago, when she was in a car near Nopal Road. “I looked up about two hundred feet in the sky, and there were five lights hovering over us, almost like they were floating. I don’t know how big they were; they were like very close stars. After a few seconds, they went out one by one, systematically, and this shaft of energy was left. It was illuminated particles, if you will, coming down from where the bright lights were. I was awestruck.”
She played me a couple of the videos she shows tourists, one of which, Sightings, includes an interview with the leader of a team of Japanese scientists who came to Marfa in 1989. I knew something about them, because I had sat through a two-part video on the expedition, in Japanese, at the library the day before. That video, which may or may not have been called The Chase, followed (to music that sounded like the theme from the seventies detective show Mannix) three men as they talked on walkie-talkies, slept in an RV out on the Mitchell Flat, stared into little blue screens, blew up some ice, released some balloons, brought in a Buddhist priest, and waited. And waited. For a week they sat out there and didn’t see anything. In Sightings, at one point, the head scientist says, in halting English, that he thinks the lights are a natural phenomenon.
Charlotte met the Japanese researchers, and she has become a kind of hub for other seekers, men such as Edson Hendricks, an electrical engineer and MIT graduate who witnessed an hour-long lights show at the viewing area in 1991—bright yellow lights stopping, reversing direction, getting brighter, splitting in two, dividing and changing direction, speeding up, fading, and finally disappearing. Hendricks, who lives in San Diego, began making frequent trips to the area, bringing along electromagnetic radiation detectors. He also met other aficionados, like fellow MIT grad Bob Creasy and physicist Irwin Wieder. They came, they measured, they returned. “It’s like a think tank here,” said Charlotte. “All these brilliant, brilliant people coming together, sharing stories. We go in the back room and hang. People need that.”
During my visit to the trading post, Joaquin Jackson, the legendary retired Texas Ranger, walked in. He’s seventy but looks years younger in his blue jeans, cowboy boots, and white jacket. He has lived in Alpine since 1987 and has driven the road between it and Marfa hundreds of times, and I asked him if he had a Marfa lights story. Of course he did.
“Most of the time,” he said, “what you see are lights from cars on the Presidio Highway. But one morning, I was headed to Marfa about five, five-thirty, and in the Flat, out near the lookout, I seen these lights come on. There were three, to the south, maybe a mile away, and they’d get real bright, then get dim, but before they went out, shooo! They’d shoot out across the horizon to the right in the blink of an eye. They were at different altitudes—up high and close to the ground—and that happened three or four times. Shooo! It damn sure wasn’t headlights. That’s the only time I saw something. I know one damn thing: It’s weird.”
SO WHAT DO ALL THESE RESEARCHERS and eccentrics think the lights—the real lights—are? Theories range from the logical (planes, helicopters, and off-road vehicles dealing with drug and illegal-immigrant traffic) to the stupid (the rain making bat guano glow). Some have speculated that the lights are natural gas; bubbles might explain Sutter’s vision. Maybe they’re mirages: The whole Mitchell Flat is a basin between mountains, hot in the day and cool at night. The different layers of air, some denser than others, bend light in strange ways. Many go for electrical explanations, such as St. Elmo’s Fire, the little flecks of lightning that sometimes pass between a steer’s horns during storms, but that only lasts for a few seconds. Then there’s piezoelectricity, or the electrical charges that result from earthquakes, but there hasn’t been one in the area since 1995. And, of course, there are the stars and planets. “Venus puts on a great show some mornings,” said Hendricks, who hypothesizes that ultimately the lights are related to electromagnetic currents that run through the planet’s upper layers.
Some of the best and most thorough research being done lately has come from James Bunnell, a retired aerospace engineer who had a vivid sighting in 2000 of lights glowing in the brush that changed his life. He began returning to Marfa with wide-spectrum and infrared cameras and had more sightings. He set up two cameras on nearby ranches that would take photos when he wasn’t there—one a black and white video camera and the other a camera that would take an image every few seconds—and aimed them away from the Chinatis and U.S. 67. The results were pictures of lights shooting into the sky and across the horizon. “To see the real Marfa lights,” he said, “you have to be really lucky. They show infrequently, less than thirty times a year. The best way to see them is to look to the south or southeast, to the right of Goat Mountain. The best time is early in the evening, right after sunset, and early in the morning, right before dawn.”
Bunnell wrote a book, Night Orbs, and produced a DVD, Marfa Lights, both within the past two and a half years. He speculates that the lights may result from all the high-energy particles, or plasma, that rain down from the inner Van Allen Radiation Belt; while most are absorbed into the planet, some, he thinks, may be repelled by the layer of volcanic rock in the Mitchell Flat, which behaves like a magnetic shield. This hot, ionized plasma then shoots around, splitting and recombining and glowing like mad. “It would be nice to solve the puzzle,” he said, “but it won’t matter if I don’t. I’m confident there’s a natural explanation.”
Others in the area aren’t so calmly logical. “No,” Williams said firmly when I asked if he had any theories. “They’re not explainable.” Local writer and historian Cecilia Thompson had a similar response. “There will always be people who just absolutely refuse to accept the fact that they can’t explain something,” she said. “I hope there’s never any explanation.”
HERE IS WHAT A SMALL TOWN MARFA IS: On my second night I had gone to the DQ and, while waiting for my chicken sandwich, asked the manager about the sign on the counter that read “Marfa Lights Explained: Book on Sale, $22.” The book turned out to be Bunnell’s, and the manager turned out to be the brother of the man who had gone on trial for wiretapping that morning, represented by Dick DeGuerin (he would be found not guilty). Then the manager told me how his son’s Boy Scout troop had seen a video of a Marfa light shot by the mother of another Scout. Her name was Linda Armstrong, and she and her husband owned a vineyard east of town. This sounded promising, so I called the next morning, and she invited me to see the video. I drove out to their land, which sits on a large hill above the Mitchell Flat. The video showed a big, round white light that seemed to be bobbing, though Armstrong had been walking around as she took the video. She said that she had seen it out her window every morning for three weeks. At first she thought it was a star, but on a recent cloudy morning, it seemed to be in front of the clouds. It hovered. On their perch up high, she said, she had seen lights on two previous occasions. “They accelerate,” she said, “like pressing the gas pedal of a car—whoosh!—then they kind of float back to the same spot.” She invited me to come by at five o’clock the following morning to see it, but I thought, since she lived above the whole Bermuda Triangle of Marfa and the Flat, maybe I could just sleep out under the stars and get a firsthand look. I would be driving home later, and this would be my last chance to see a Marfa light.
I watched the moon rise at about nine-thirty, just over Cathedral Mountain. It was huge and as yellow as a sunflower. Standing there on top of West Texas, I could see the silhouette of Goat Mountain to the east, the lights of Marfa to the west, the car lights of U.S. 90 to the north, and the car lights of U.S. 67 to the south. I had borrowed a sleeping bag and blankets, and after Armstrong parked her truck so that the bed was facing the east, where the light had appeared, I crawled in. I had binoculars, camera, and tape recorder ready.
As usual, there wasn’t much going on out in the Mitchell Flat, aside from coyotes and jackrabbits. But there was a faint reddish light to the left of the radio tower light, which was strange. And looking at the Chinatis, I saw a light above the imaginary line I’d burned into my brain. That was weird too. Then another light showed up above the line. They both looked like car lights, but then the second one began moving—to the left. I swore I could see a glow in the desert around it. And then the two seemed to come together. What the hell had just happened? This didn’t fit my pattern at all. Of course, maybe it was some jerk horsing around on a ranch road.
I had visions of waking up to a Marfa light hovering over me and could barely sleep: dozing off, waking, peering over the sides of the truck, and lying down again. The reddish light stayed where it was all night, and more lights appeared above the U.S. 67 lights. Jackrabbits hopped and stars revolved overhead.
“Mike! Wake up! There it is!” At five-twenty Armstrong came running out of her trailer, yelling and banging on the side of the truck. I woke up to see a large, superbright yellow light, straight out over the Flat. I grabbed my glasses. It was a glowing, bulbous teardrop of light, full of what looked like writhing snakes of fire. It was huge—bigger than any non-lunar thing I’d ever seen in the night sky—and sure enough, it was hovering. It was farther away than I had hoped it would be, far out on the plain, in the eastern sky, north of Cathedral Mountain. In fact, it seemed to be on the horizon. In fact, it was rising in the sky near where the moon, so exaggerated in size and color, had also appeared.
In fact, it was Venus, the morning star, startling me and Armstrong the way it had other humans for many other eons. I was crushed. So was Armstrong, who, in the cold February mornings, hadn’t actually come out this far to investigate. “I swore it was in front of the clouds,” she said when we realized what we were looking at. She had a good sense of humor about it. “I’m like, ‘Oh, well. Not impressed.’ I’m not one of those people who believe in UFOs, and I’m not one of those people obsessed with the lights.”
On my way out of town, heading home, I stopped by the viewing center one more time. There was a camper parked out front but no one at the binoculars. It was six-thirty, and on the southwestern horizon I could see the car lights of people driving to work from Presidio. I drove east, toward Venus, which by now was higher in the sky and looked like any other large celestial body. I thought how much I’d really wanted a Marfa lights story of my own. You may have to wait a long time and sit through many eventless nights. Indeed, you might spend your whole life waiting for a Marfa light.
Next time, I’ll bring a six-pack of beer and a good-looking woman. My wife has never seen a real Marfa light either.