Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Marfa Lights

I guess we'll come right out of the gate with a post about the Marfa lights.

Most people have at least heard talk about the mysterious orbs of light that are visible nine miles east of the town of Marfa on hwy 67/90. I've wanted to go see them many times, but living in San Angelo, the lights were about 250 miles to the southwest, and you know how precious time is nowadays. We finally made our way down to the Marfa area during our daughter's spring break. We were staying at a guest ranch near Ft. Davis, so we decided to make the short (relative to West Texas) 25 mile drive to Marfa on the night of the 14th of March, 2005. When I asked the desk clerk at the ranch about the best way to view the lights, she handed me a photocopy of a crude map to the viewing area and advised me to, "bring a bottle of tequila".

A little history about the lights, the legend states that a cowboy first saw the lights in the 1880s, but this piece of information cannot be corroborated. It seems the gentleman who saw them never documented that fact on paper (he wrote his memoirs in the 30s and failed to mention the lights) but family members tell of him describing them, so the information is heresay. This information is important, because many skeptics debunk the lights as motor vehicle traffic on highway 67 through the Paisano pass. Of course, if the lights were viewed by an 1880s cowhand, this puts a serious chink in that theory. Other theories abound, the lights are ghosts, ufos, stars, planets, etc. Some have claimed close encounters with the lights, but conventional wisdom states that the lights cannot be approached (hence the difficulty in getting close-up photos, or studying them in close quarters). The motor vehicle traffic theory is still a little tough to support, however, because the cars going through the pass are twenty to forty miles away from the viewing area. Seeing car headlights at a distance that great through close-to-the-ground atmosphere would be nearly impossible.

One fact about the lights is certain: they are important to the economy of the tiny West Texas town of Marfa, and to the economy of the region in general. Curious onlookers roll into town every night, and the TXDOT saw fit to build a viewing area due to the numbers of onlookers. It is complete with an overlook and free hard-mounted binoculars. The interesting thing about the viewing area's main building is that it uses waterless toilets (essentially a fixed porta-potty) that are actually "recycling toilets" that compost the human waste, so no water must be pumped out to the site. When you look down into the toilet, it is a black hole. Maybe that's where the lights emanate from, the copious energy drawn from tourist waste! What a coup, it would be a veritable self-licking ice cream cone!

If you want to come see the lights, be sure to give yourself enough time to see other local attractions like the McDonald observatory, Ft. Davis and the awesome True ValueHardware store in Alpine. Come early and eat dinner in Marfa. I recommend Carmen's for some good, cafe style Mexican food at extremely nice prices. I had their signature burrito smothered in green sauce dish, and it was very tasty. From there, head out to the viewing area before dusk, because the lights are active from dusk until late in the evening. Be sure to bring a heavy coat during winter months, and at least a windbreaker for spring and fall viewing. I'm sure the summer is warm enough not to worry.

If you plan on photographing the lights, you'll need to be prepared. The best time to shoot would be dusk until about nautical twilight, because it just gets super dark after that. You'll need a tripod and a good zoom lens to get intelligible images. I saw other people shooting the lights with point-and-shoot cameras with flashes going off, I knew they would not be impressed with the results. You'll obviously need a slow shutter. Use your camera's ten second release or a remote shutter release. The wind will move your tripod as well. The images you see here were shot using a Canon EOS 300D with a 80-300mm Canon zoom (a cheapie).

What are the lights? Are they the souls of dead Apaches wandering around the foothills? Are they the campfires of a lost batallion of calvary soldiers? Are they plasma, swamp-gas or starlight reflecting off mineral deposits? I can't tell you what they are, and after seeing them with my own eyes, I can tell you they are more mysterious than ever. The Marfa lights are an awesome bit of Texana that anyone can enjoy, they represent a delicious mystery, and in today's day and age, an enigmatic occurance that can't be explained using the best technology availabe.

If you do go to see them, don't forget your bottle of tequila.


Blogger prairie biker said...

Does the tequila really help that much? I'm all about the tequila.

Can you chase them? Can you get closer? What do you think they are? Do they move around? How high off the ground are they? C'mon, Answers!

Nice blog, Mark. Nice Carhartt's too.

4:53 AM  
Blogger Mark A. said...

You have free access to a couple of hundred yards from the viewing area, but then you run into the ubiqutious barbed-wire fence and then private property. Chasing the lights is possible, but you'd need permission from the land owner to do it legally. The real problem is the distance to the base of the mountains, it's a good number of miles. I've heard and read that people have triangulated their positions, and some people have claimed close encounters. The most cogent account of close encounters was from a graduate student from nearby Sul Ross State university who was fossil hunting with some companions in the mid 90s. There also circulates what I consider legends about the lights following cars and causing wrecks, etc. but there is little to no evidence supporting that. Town fathers maintain the lights are 100% benign for obvious reasons, and I don't see any reason not to believe that.

I think the tequila would be a good back-up plan in the rare event that the lights didn't show up. They have proven to be very consistent.

7:01 AM  
Blogger Mark A. said...

P.S. Matt I didn't know that was you until I clicked through your profile!

7:04 AM  
Blogger Sherry said...

The Marfa lights sound a lot like the Brown Mountain Lights of North Carolina. I think they do have a definite connection to Native American Spirits, personally. Nice sight and great pix.

7:10 AM  
Blogger prairie biker said...

Yeah? Like them glasses? They're a new addition to my visage as of last year. They let me focus on stuff that's arm's length and closer.

The hat is not so cleverly concealing my growing forward (which is working it's way forward from the back too dammit).

I think though, that once I get one of the big bikes going again, it'll be time for a nice bottle of agave and a road trip; if for no other reason than to have a new story to tell.

8:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Marfa lights are distant car headlights from US 67, refracted in a unique way. A group of physics students from UTD recently published a study on it, available at Claims that the Marfa lights predate automobiles in TX or chase people around are just stories made up by the locals to help boost tourism...

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the lights are due to car lights being refracted, why don't the Marfa lights appear regularly?

I have seen the lights numerous times and in my opinion, they were not caused by car lights. There is always automobile traffic you can see in the distance as you are viewing the Marfa lights.

I have gone out to view the Marfa lights a few times and saw none of the "Marfa Lights, but plenty of automobile lights.

Other times I have seen the Marfa Lights seemingly orbing around in the field and I truly don't believe they are caused by car lights.

10:23 PM  

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