chookooloonks wild west road trip: the marfa lights


So.  The Marfa Lights.

I don't remember when I first heard about the lights, but I've always been intrigued by them.  The best I could tell when I researched them before going out to Marfa was that these are lights that appear over the desert near Marfa, and have been doing so since at least the 1800s.  I read that they're basketball-sized and bright, and I've also read that they're faint and tiny; I've read that they rarely show up and I've read that they appear all the time.  In every case, no one knows what they are or why they appear.

Naturally, after taking the 8-hour drive all the way out to west Texas, we had to try to see them ourselves.

Now, even though I admit to loving stories about paranormal events, when we arrived in West Texas, and the likelihood of our actually visiting the Marfa Lights viewing station was looking more and more certain, I found myself filled with greater and greater skepticism.  On the days leading up to our trek to the station, we happened to meet several friendly locals (I guess it was obvious we were outsiders) who approached us to make conversation.  And each time, I couldn't resist asking them:

"So -- these Marfa lights.  Have you ever seen them?"

Each time I asked, I expected the locals to say something noncommittal.  No, I haven't actually seen them, I thought they'd say. But yeah, I've heard the stories...

I was wrong:  every single person swore that they were real, and that they see them "all the time."  I became even more cynical.  "Really?" I asked, looking at them askance.  "Or is this just something that you guys tell the tourists to see how they react?"

"No, no, no," they insisted.  "They're really there.  Go see them.  You really need to go see them yourself."  

And then, each one, on several different occasions, gave the same advice:  "When night falls, look for the blinking red light in the distance -- that's the railroad light.  The Marfa Lights tend to appear near it.  Look in that direction."

So, armed with this information, after dinner in Marfa on our first day, we headed to the official viewing station.

You have to admit that even the fact that a viewing station exists, an actual structure on the side of the highway in the middle of the desert, lends some sort of credence that maybe, perhaps, lights actually appear.  The station was apparently designed by the gifted and talented students of Marfa High School in 2001, in concert with the Texas Department of Transportation (and really, when was the last time that you heard a government agency appropriate funds for a myth?).  It's really quite a great little structure -- sort of like a fancy rest stop -- with an exhibit explaining the history of the Marfa lights, and a plaque thanking the students who were a part of the project.


Once you enter the site, there's a large viewing deck facing the great expanse of desert, and several telescopes (including one that is accessible for people in wheelchairs).


We arrived just as the sun was setting, along with many other people who had the same idea.  There were folks from all walks of life:  locals who were bringing skeptical family members ("I told my mom that I see them all the time, and she didn't believe me, so I had to bring her") to the 80-something-year-old man who was there with his large SLR camera ("I was here back in 1989, and I didn't think I would see them, but there they were, clear as day! I had to come back!") to the young man who brought his girlfriend, a large tripod and a serious video camera ("I don't really believe in these sorts of things at all.  I'm definitely a skeptic.  I am afraid of Bigfoot, though ...").  People brought lawn chairs and blankets (the temperatures drop in the desert), and everyone was generally friendly.  And expectant.

Finally, the sun dipped below the horizon, and the red railroad light could be seen flashing in the distance, so we all -- about 50 of us, by now -- trained our eyes to watch.

This is just a picture of the sunset, looking toward the highway behind the viewing station.  Those red lights in the corner are on top of an approaching semi.  You can't see the red railway light in this shot, which would be over my left shoulder, across the desert.

This is just a picture of the sunset, looking toward the highway behind the viewing station.  Those red lights in the corner are on top of an approaching semi.  You can't see the red railway light in this shot, which would be over my left shoulder, across the desert.


Here's the part where I tell you what we saw, as factually and dispassionately as possible:

We definitely saw lights -- they were tiny, appearing and disappearing near the horizon (and near the red railroad light, as advised).  To the naked eye, they looked like stars -- they'd burn bright and then fade out, one would appear, and then suddenly there'd be as many as seven or eight, and then they'd all disappear at once.  They did look like headlights in the distance, except (1) when you looked at them through binoculars (Marcus had brought a pair), they definitely didn't seem to be in pairs like you would expect headlights to be; moreover, they moved erratically -- up, down, rapidly going side-to-side or weird circles; and (2) there weren't any roads in that direction, save for one dirt track, and there is no way that there would be that much traffic on a dirt track (we hardly saw that much traffic on the paved highways while we were there).  They were yellow, or white, or sometimes green.  They were above and sometimes below the horizon.  Because they were so far away, there was no way my camera, with its 50mm lens, could've captured them, so I put it away.

We watched for about an hour or so -- everyone's eyes trained in that direction, trying to figure out what could possibly be causing them.  

And then ...

... just as Marcus and I were thinking about leaving, to the left of the viewing station, there was suddenly a burst of light, about 150 feet away.  It was actually almost a series of lights -- sort of like runway status lights, except green -- basketball-sized orbs in rapid succession, maybe 5 or 6 of them.  It happened so quickly that I might have thought that I was imagining things, except about half of the people on the deck -- 25 of us, maybe? -- all gasped in shock at the exact same time.  And just as quickly as they were there, they were gone.

The people who didn't notice the lights but heard the gasps immediately started shouting, "What?! What did you see?"

I turned to the girlfriend of Bigfoot Man.  "Um ... you saw that, right?"

She looked at me, her eyes wide.  "What, you mean the series of lights that just lit up right there?  YEAH. Yeah, I saw that."

"Okay, good.  Because I totally would have thought I was imagining that, except ... you saw that, right?"

"Yeah, absolutely. DEFINITELY.  I saw it."

So, at the risk of sounding completely crazy, I'm going to go on record as saying that yes, I definitely saw lights that I couldn't explain in Marfa.  Do I think they're spirits, or ghost orbs? No, honestly, I don't.  I think there's some sort of scientific explanation for them, I just can't imagine what it is.  I read somewhere that it might be some sort of "atmospheric reflections or refractions" of the lights on the highway behind the viewing station -- I suppose that's plausible, but my mind can't figure out how that would work.  I also read that it might be "swamp gas" -- yeah, no.  It's a desert:  there isn't a swamp for 500 miles.  So I'm not buying swamp gas.  Ball lightning?  Hmm.  Maybe.  The lights that half of us saw close to us looked sort of like this description of ball lightning, and there were storms in the distance.  But the sky was clear above us, all the way out to the far star-like lights that were appearing and disappearing on the horizon, so it wouldn't explain those.  And it would take a helluva lot more convincing for me to think it was any sort of UFO or alien craft.

So it is puzzling.  Definitely.

In any event, whether or not you believe the truth is out there or you're a complete skeptic, if you do ever happen to be in the vicinity of Marfa one clear evening, you should definitely grab some high-powered binoculars, go visit the station and check out the lights -- it's a gorgeous spot, and just being out there in the beautiful desert with lots of friendly people all hoping to catch a surreal phenomenon is a really fun way to spend an evening.

And if you do go, and you figure out what's causing the lights, please let me know.


Song:  The X-Files theme by Mark Snow.  Because come on, this song had to happen.