Q: During a recent trip to West Texas I was invited to a private ranch that was advertised to me as “the best place to watch the Marfa Lights.” I went, and we definitely saw something. The host told us that we were really lucky to see such a great display of the lights, but I’ll admit I was kind of underwhelmed. The lights we saw were basically two little pinpoints of illumination off in the distance that maybe moved around a bit or maybe it was just the constant micro-movements of my eyeballs that created the illusion of motion? Everyone who drove there and back with me, though, were convinced they had seen something unexplainable. What are your thoughts on the Marfa Lights?
Jeffrey Trout, El Paso
A: The Texanist has personally attempted to view the legendary mysterious illuminations outside of Marfa no less than a dozen times over the last thirty-some-odd years, and each and every time has also been disappointed with what he witnessed. In fact the Texanist never saw anything that he could, even by the most wishful of stretches, call the Marfa Lights. So, you’ll forgive the Texanist if he is less than sympathetic with your dissatisfaction. At least you saw something!
But were the lights you witnessed really the Marfa Lights? Or did you, like so many folks, merely see some lights on the outskirts of Marfa?
As you may or may not be aware, Marfa’s famous lights have been on the radar of Texans for at least as long as Marfa has been Marfa. In fact, the year of the little town’s founding, 1883, is the same year in which a young cowboy, Robert Reed Ellison, is reported to have witnessed the lights. Ellison’s account is oft noted as the very first recorded sighting, although there are tales of Native Americans having witnessed the lights. Since these early reports, there have been many, many more sightings and the lights have become a major attraction in the area. (The 33rd Marfa Lights Festival takes place this coming Labor Day Weekend.) In 2003, the Texas Department of Transportation even built a roadside viewing center on U.S. Highway 90 nine miles east of Marfa, on Mitchell Flat, the geographic feature over which the lights appear.
Through the decades there have also been oodles of scientific study conducted on the lights. And the investigations have confirmed a couple of things for certain: Strange lights of an unknown source do occasionally appear outside of Marfa, and regular everyday lights of known sources are often confused for the strange lights whose source is a mystery.
One of the most dedicated Marfa Lights researchers is James Bunnell, a retired aerospace engineer who grew up in Presidio County and graduated from Marfa High School. Bunnell studied the lights for a dozen years beginning in the early 2000s and has written four books on the subject. For some insight, the Texanist did some digging of his own and eventually uncovered a phone number for Mr. Bunnell, who is seventy-nine years old, still retired, and living in the Fort Worth area.
Bunnell was nice enough to take the Texanist’s call and was happy to talk about his experience with the mystery lights. He also talked about the Texanist’s experience with the lights. And eventually the Texanist remembered why he had called and we talked a little bit about your own recent experience.
Before the conversation with Bunnell, the Texanist was, he’ll admit, ready to give you a bit of a tongue lashing for what he considered to be an overly apathetic reaction to having successfully witnessed one of the great West Texas road trip rites of passage. After the conversation with Bunnell, however, the Texanist is more understanding of your response. Despite what you were told by your host, Bunnell, after the Texanist relayed the details of your sighting, figures that what you likely viewed were the headlights of cars traveling on U.S. Highway 67, which runs between Marfa and Presidio, and not the actual lights. “The actual lights are a rare occurrence,” Bunnell said. “If you really want to see them, you have to be very patient.”
Bunnell’s research bears this out. According to his long-term studies, a full 97 percent of what people think are “Marfa Lights” are the result of explainable sources. The unmysterious culprits include vehicle headlights, train lights, ranch lights, low-flying aircraft, Air Force blimps, satellites, stars, lightning, sprites (a type of lightning), trash fires, brush fires, oil fires, fireworks, fireflies, lights from nighttime work, and folks horsing around. Sightings of a number of these things, save for the blimps, fireworks, fireflies, sprites, and stars, could, the Texanist would guess, leave a person underwhelmed.
Do you think there’s a chance that your host was mistaken? Or just pulling your leg?
Mr. Bunnell, in his chat with the Texanist, recounted his first sighting, which occurred when he was just a young boy, maybe four or five years old. His granddad took him out to see the mysterious Marfa Lights one evening and they did indeed end up seeing some lights. But Bunnell didn’t recall the experience as being mind-blowing and thinks now that what he saw that night were probably just car lights.
Years later, though, in 2000, he took his wife out to the viewing area east of Marfa to look for the lights, and they were treated to an amazing show. “These were definitely not car lights,” he said. “I was blown away.”
Despite having never personally laid his peepers on them, the Texanist would expect an actual sighting of the actual Marfa Lights to elicit a response similar to this.
The Texanist doesn’t want to disappoint you any more than you are already disappointed, but he is of the mind that what you saw was something other than the real deal. Thus, your underwhelmed response to whatever it was that you witnessed is perfectly understandable. And forgiven.
Thanks for the candid letter, and better luck next time.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.