Mysterious Texas Lights Draw CrowdsJuly 16, 2005
MARFA, Texas - Nevada has Area 51. New Mexico has Roswell. Texas has the Marfa Lights.
Whatever's out there sparkling or dancing across Mitchell Flat and toward the Chinati Mountains has both befuddled people and attracted them to this remote area east of Marfa for well over a century.
They start converging about dusk on a desolate spot in the West Texas desert with a ridge view and an expanse of some 20 miles of treeless rangeland.
A few bring lawn chairs. Some find a spot on concrete picnic tables. Others lean against a brick wall.
With darkness toward to the east and the remnants of a spectacular sunset to the west, the first cries erupt.
Fingers point. Binoculars get fine tuned. A few cameras click. All the attention focuses on specks of brilliance.
Legend. Myth. Natural phenomenon. UFOs?
"I just want to see for myself, and say I saw them," James Teems, 61, from Hobbs, N.M., said on a recent night.
"I thought we'd come over and look," said his wife, Fern, 59. "Looks like campfires."
That was the description back in the 1800s when cowboys and pioneers first noticed the lights. According to numerous accounts, they speculated they were camp fires or signal fires from Apaches who roamed the wilderness area around Texas' Big Bend. But, as the legend has it, when folks went over for a closer inspection, they found no sign of fires.
And still haven't.
"I'm having a hard time believing no one knows what it is," said Mike Thompson, who with his wife and two daughters made the stop as part of a trip to the region from their home about 300 miles away in San Angelo. "We've heard about this for a long time. We're here to see if we can see anything."
The lights on a recent pair of June evenings appeared to float above the horizon, dip and occasionally flare. At times, there were two or three simultaneously. They generally moved left to right, up and down. Then there were periods of no lights.
"It looks like car lights," one woman said.
Highway U.S. 67, the main route between Marfa and Presidio, winds and seesaws 60 miles to the south on the Texas-Mexico border. A car's headlights easily could be detected in the darkness from miles away.
But the lights were here before cars and even before electricity reached the region.
There are numerous theories on what causes the phenomenon. Moonlight on mica veins sparkling off the mountains. Swamp gas. Static electricity. Atmospheric conditions created by warm and cold layers of air bending light rays that only can be seen from afar.
Then there are the ghosts of the Conquistadores looking for gold, or the old Apache explanation of stars dropping to Earth.
"I have seen strange lights that moved oddly and were definitely not on the ground," said Bernie Zelazney, with the Big Bend Astronomical Society.
Some years ago he saw lights that were "bright bluish and red colors and would come together, then one would go away."
"It was unusual," he said.
Zelazney said one explanation he leans toward is called the piezoelectric effect, where voltage is created between moving solid surfaces - in this case, rock containing quartz that contracts and expands as the surface heats and cools.
"There's a lot of quartz in the mountains out there," he said.
The effect was discovered by Pierre Curie in 1883, coincidentally the same year rancher Robert Reed Ellison is credited with the first disclosure of the Marfa Lights.
Joe Duncan, 46, owner of the Paisano Hotel, estimates a third of his customers come to see the Marfa Lights, which are celebrated with a festival each summer. He subscribes to the car-lights-on-the-highway theory.
"It's a hilly road, so it comes and goes and they see that," Duncan said. "But there have been too many people that are too intelligent that say there is something out there, and that if it was just the car lights somebody would have figured it out. They were definitely here before headlights.
"Static electricity," he adds. "That's what old timers here have told me."
Other local folks have stories of lights following them or bearing down on them as they travel lonely U.S. 90 between Alpine and Marfa. About a 10-minute drive east of town, the Texas Department of Transportation has erected a roadside rest stop that serves as the "Marfa Mystery Lights Viewing Area," according to the road sign.
It's where the nightly gathering of the curious assembles, with everything from motorcycles to tractor-trailer rigs filling the free parking area.
"I'd heard about it for years," said Jack Phillips, 52, who was touring the area by motorcycle with his wife and stopped for the show. "You can't beat the price."
"I think it's somebody on the hill," Christi Collier, 54, of Austin, offered while gazing at the lights. "It's a big campfire."
"I don't understand," said her companion, Lane Howard, 49. "They can tell us what happened on the moon a million years ago but they can't explain this?"