It’s about ten o’clock at night. My wife and I are standing at a low Texas Department of Transportation observation building on Highway 90 about 9 miles east of Marfa, Texas, the seat of Presidio County. Marfa is a remote town in the middle of the deserts and mountains north of Big Bend National Park.
As we look toward the south-southwest, in the general direction of a slowly flashing red beacon on a communication tower several miles away, small lights begin to appear in the sky. First one, then two, then five and six, then only two, then none. They appear near the horizon down toward the Chinati Mountains and their intensity varies from one moment to the next. Sometimes a mere glow of white light, they increase in brilliance until it seems we are looking into distant car headlights. Sometimes one light seems to spawn another as they flicker, glow and move up, down and across the sky.
These strange lights date back to at least 1883 when it is reported that Robert Ellison was moving cattle west from Alpine. Camped near Paisano Pass, Ellison saw the lights and feared they might be Apache signal fires. Searching the area, he found nothing. Other settlers told him they too had seen the lights, but nobody had an explanation for them.
The mysterious lights have been the subject of speculation for many years and explanations vary from the supernatural to the ridiculous – an Apache Indian chief’s spirit searching for his lost tribe or the ghost of Adolf Hitler looking for renegade prisoners of war. Scientists have suggested that the glowing lights are swamp gas, but there haven’t been swamps in these barren deserts for millions of years. Other high-powered thinkers suggest they are the result of atmospheric refraction bending the images of distant car lights from another location. Casual observers theorize they are headlights of cars descending the distant Chinati Mountains. Sorry folks; there are no roads out of the mountains in that area. Perhaps they are the result of static electricity causing St. Elmo’s Fire, a visible corona of energy taking the form of balls. Or maybe they are UFOs piloted by extraterrestrials.
Back in the 1800s there were no light sources brighter than lanterns or campfires, so headlights on distant cars can’t be the explanation. Strangely, it has been said that a person standing right next to you may see something different than you do. Some folks see colors in the lights; others don’t. One ranch hand who lives way out in the desert told me they don’t always appear in the same area of the sky. He’s seen them all around him. “They look like they’re chasing each other sometimes, dodging around in the sky,” he said.
During World War II, there was an air base at Marfa and many aviators and other personnel saw the lights. Planes from the base tried to fly to them. In some instances, although visible from the ground, they could not be seen from the air. Other pilots flew over their location, but later investigation showed nothing unusual on the ground.
Fritz Kahl, the manager of the Marfa Airport back in 1988, was quoted in an article printed in Big Bend Quarterly (Ghost Lights by Kirby F. Warnock). He said he had seen them dancing around the hanger and moving around a bush. One moved about like it was “looking for something.” It finally stopped in the road 20 yards ahead and he and a friend tried to run over it. It suddenly got much brighter and “took off like a rocket.”
A team from Sul Ross University at Alpine, Texas, using cars, a jeep and a plane attempted to tract the lights but the glowing dots disappeared when they got close to them. There is even a story of a group in a jeep that went after the elusive lights one night and never returned. Their jeep was later found burned to a crisp. Whoooo!
So, what are they? I don’t know. Many local residents at Marfa and Alpine seem content, and even desirous, that no explanation ever be found. Whatever they are, the Marfa lights are certainly one of the most unusual phenomena in Texas fields and forests.
Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click firstname.lastname@example.org to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.