the rambling boy
Ode to the Marfa Mystery Lights
By LONN TAYLOR
I have never seen the Marfa Lights. I have been told that the best time to see them is in the winter a couple of hours after sundown or a couple of hours before sunrise. A couple of hours after sundown in the winter is my supper time and a couple of hours before sunrise is my sleeping time, and besides that, it is cold out there at the viewing station in the wintertime. But I believe they are there. At least I believe something is there, because I know a lot of reliable people who have seen some sort of lights on Mitchell Flat.
Scoffers will tell you that the Marfa Lights are the lights of automobiles traveling north from Presidio on Highway 67, or the lights on ranches on Mitchell Flat, or the lights on airplanes or Border Patrol helicopters. My friend Aurie West, a totally dependable woman in her 70s whose family has ranched on Mitchell Flat since the 1880s, has seen a light out there since she was a little girl. She describes it as a ball of pulsating light that glows for 30 seconds or so and then disappears, only to reappear a minute or so later. Her father saw it, her grandfather saw it, and her great-grandfather saw it in the 1880s. Robert Ellison, who drove a herd of cattle to Marfa in 1883, saw lights glowing in that direction as he brought his cows over Paisano Pass. He did not write about them in his memoir, as a lot of journalists have alleged, but he told plenty of people about having seen them. So did O.W. Williams, who heard about them while surveying around Marfa in 1901 and 1902 and told his grandson, rancher and oilman Clayton Williams, about them. Many people who think they are seeing the Marfa Lights are undoubtedly looking at automobile headlights or ranch lights, but it is clear that there were other lights out there before there were either automobiles or electricity in the Big Bend, and they are still out there.
Marfa people tended to consider the lights just part of the landscape until World War II, when cadet pilots from all over the country were being trained at the Marfa Army Air Field on Mitchell Flat. The young pilots chased the lights in jeeps and in airplanes. They never caught them, but when they completed their training they spread word about them all over the world. People started turning up who wanted to see them, and eventually the State Highway Department developed a roadside park on U.S. 90 east of town to accommodate the people who were parking on the shoulder at night to watch for them. Armando Vasquez, now in his 90s, remembers that in the 1970s he started taking people from motels out to see them. “I saw it could help our economy,” he told Texas Monthly writer Michael Hall, who did a story on the lights in 2006. The Chamber of Commerce, at Vasquez’s urging, put up signs on U.S. 90 that said “See Marfa’s Mystery Lights.” Allison Scott recalls that in 1995 the late Presidio County Judge Jake Brisbin Jr. persuaded the county commissioners to replace the signs with big billboards because people kept stealing the signs. Finally, in 2001, as the result of a Marfa eighth-grade school project to improve the viewing area, the state spent $720,000 to turn the roadside park into an official Marfa Lights Viewing Area, with covered seating, mounted binoculars, and restrooms. Clayton Williams, whose grandfather had told him about the lights when he was a boy, donated the additional land needed for the expansion.
The guru of the Marfa Lights is James Bunnell, a retired NASA engineer who started observing the lights systematically in 2000 and has published 4 books about them. The books are combinations of detailed guidebooks for watching the lights, with maps and charts telling observers what direction to look in and what not to confuse with the lights (automobile lights, ranch lights, radio tower lights), and expositions of Bunnell’s hypotheses about what might be causing them, hypotheses that have evolved over time. Bunnell found that the main impediment to scientific observation of the lights was the infrequency and unpredictability of their appearance. He got around this by persuading ranchers on Mitchell Flat to allow him to place 10 automated video camera systems on their property, and by 2015, when he published his most recent book, “Strange Lights in West Texas” (Benbrook, Texas: Lacey Publishing Company), he had the most complete photographic record of the Marfa Lights ever made.
The videos allowed Bunnell to study not only the paths and varying brightness of the mysterious lights but to analyze their combustive processes. In “Strange Lights in West Texas,” he sets out the hypothesis that the lights are the result of electrical charges that build up in the layers of igneous rock that underlie Mitchell Flat and then discharge as what Bunnell calls “underground lightning”. The electrical charges, Bunnell says, are the result of high tectonic stress along the line where the South American – African plate pushes against the North American plate, a line known to geologists the Ouachita Trend, which runs near Marfa. The charges percolate upwards through the ground and emerge as what Bunnell describes as “dusty plasma structures” – Marfa Lights.
What makes Bunnell’s hypothesis compelling is that he describes other places in the world where similar geologic conditions exist and similar mysterious lights appear: Hessdalen, Norway; the Taro River Valley in Italy; Min Min, Australia; and Brown Mountain, North Carolina. Bunnell has become part of an international group of scientists who study this worldwide phenomenon.
There are, of course, alternate explanations for the lights, some of which Bunnell lists in his books. My favorite is that they are caused by the glowing fur of jackrabbits, which have encountered radioactive material left over from secret World War II experiments carried out at the air force base.
Just the other day I was in the lobby of the Hotel Paisano when a tourist walked up to the desk and said, “We want to see the Marfa Lights.” A cowboy who had been chatting up the woman behind the desk turned to her and said, “We don’t turn them on until after dark.”
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.