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The Marfa Mystery Lights

Accounts of luminous orbs scaring the tacos out of Texans aren't difficult to dig up, especially if you look to the less populated regions where there isn't much else to do except drive around the back roads alone at night looking for a probing. There are the Anson Lights outside Abilene, the Wimberley lights south of the capital, and down near the Gulf, there's the Saratoga/Bragg Road/Big Thicket Light, for which no one can seem to agree on a name.

None, however, attract attention like the Marfa Mystery Lights in Big Bend country.

Despite their being located near practically nothing at all, the Marfa Lights draw visitors year round from across the country and around the world. Of course, it helps that they're the only ghost lights recognized as an official tourist attraction and which have their own restroom facilities.

The lights are described as glowing orbs, usually baseball size to basketball size, which take on a variety of colors. They emerge and evaporate at random, bobbing, weaving and sometimes splitting in two. The lights normally appear dancing among the brush over a stretch of flatland between U.S. 67/90 and the Chinati Mountains, though many people have spotted them elsewhere, sometimes giving chase to unsuspecting motorists on the highway.

As with any unexplained phenomenon, the rumor mill has ground out a virtual omnibus of legends accounting for the lights. One tells of an Apache chief executed by Mexican defenders whose spirit haunts the area with those of his tribe. Another story attributes the lights to the ghosts of Conquistadors searching for gold. They're also said to be the torches of the dead searching for lost lovers.

Far more amusing, though, are the lights' purportedly scientific explanations: refracted starlight, volcanic activity, quartz-borne electricity, and of course the old standby, swamp gas––in the desert, no less. Some have even suggested the lights are caused by cows rubbing together and discharging static electricity, or jackrabbits covered in phosphorescent dust.

Unfortunately, the lights tend to be just elusive enough to make close scrutiny difficult. They normally evade anyone who tries to approach them. And to the dismay of many visitors, there's no guarantee the lights will even make an appearance on a given night.

Regardless, the tourists who fill the Marfa Lights Viewing Area can be just as entertaining. People will stare in rapture at a blinking radio tower or watch car headlights for hours descending the mountains to the southwest, ecstatic to be witnessing the famous Marfa Lights. Many will gawk at a stationary mercury-vapor lamp on a distant ranch and gleefully exclaim how fast it's moving. Even low-flying aircraft can cause a commotion.

Of course, it's all the same to the Marfans. As long as the out-of-towners see something glowing, it doesn't matter whether it's real or imagined. Just so long as they buy a T-shirt.

Those Marvelous Marfa Lights Don’t Disappoint

For my entire life, I’ve lived near the border of Texas and Louisiana. Even living all the way in East Texas, I heard the legends of the Marfa Lights. Supposedly, around the Chinati Mountains all the way to the west of my home state, was a desert where ghostly lights appear on clear nights. People come from far and wide to view them, the best vantage point being 10 miles east of the town of Marfa on Highway 90.

Marfa is a long haul from where I live, but I’ve wanted to see the lights myself ever since I first heard of them as a kid. I heard so many tales trying to explain their existence––that they were the ghosts of Indian braves and Mexican bandits, that they were the wandering lost souls of travelers who died trying to cross the desert, etc. Apparently, the lights had been seen for decades, even before electricity was used in that area.

When I was 22, I finally got a chance to see the lights for myself. I had gone to school at UCLA and decided that after graduation I would hang out in California for a few months then drive from LA to LA––Los Angeles to Louisiana, if you catch my meaning. I made a point to make my way down to Highway 90 to finally lay eyes on the legendary balls of light for myself.

I was surprised to see that there was an officially marked Marfa lights viewing area filled with people. Apparently, this place fills up on every clear night––the night I was there I’d estimate there were between 60 and 70 people. And I have to tell you, none of them went home disappointed!

There was a radio tower in the distance, and people were pointing towards it making comments about what they saw. I made my way to the front of the crowd and man was I blown away. Just as the stories said, there were balls of light bouncing around out in the distance. Most of them were white and yellow, but I saw a few reds and even a blue one over the course of an hour or so that I hung around. There was a steady stream of the lights, and they definitely had a strange, intimidating aura about them. The lights moved haphazardly and would come and go at random. There’s no explanation that I can fathom for these lights. Some say swamp gas, or car headlights, but I don’t buy it all––they both seem like easy explanations for something that seemed much more mysterious.

I came into the night expecting to be underwhelmed. I mean, after all, I had heard about these things my whole life, and had even seen television stories about them. I didn’t think the experience would live up to the high expectations I had set. Seeing them with my own two eyes was a real trip, though , and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to explain what they were. –Dave Gorman

Weird Texas


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