Tuesday, March 14, 2006
The Mysterious Marfa Lights
It has been said that storytelling in Texas is really nothing more than one tall tale after another with each participant trying to out-best the other. While this may be true for the majority of the State, it is not true for the citizens of the tiny town of Marfa. They know their tall tale cannot be outdone. Their mysterious night orbs have been investigated by so many reputable authorities and written into so many scientific journals that they are guaranteed their own place in history. Let’s take a closer look at this interesting bit of weirdness…
Along the Rio Bravo del Norte, which Americans call the Rio Grande, near the Big Bend in the river, lies the crown jewels of the Southern Rockies. The majestic Chisos, or "Ghost Spirit" Mountains, are famous as the backdrop of the Big Bend National Park. To the northwest about one hundred miles, in another part of the mountain chain at the gateway of the Park, is the quiet little town of Marfa...home of the infamous "Marfa Lights," lights which have become the longest running, hardest to explain mystery in the history of the Lone Star State.
No one knows the exact sequence of events for the lights. That part of Texas has such a unique history that the lights could have been there since the beginning of Time, and probably were. But it is also just as possible that they winked into existence in the past couple of centuries or so. There is really no way of knowing, as Marfa lies on the high desert, or caprock escarpment, of the Trans-Pecos area of the Tex-Mex border, a situation which contributes to spectacular viewing of the night time sky all by itself. The Southern Rocky Mountains form the backbone of this area, and the tiny town is the second highest in the state---the highest is Fort Davis---with an elevation of 4,688 feet. Like all high deserts, Marfa’s air is crystal clear and incredibly clean. It is also unbearably hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter, a weather phenomena which helps build legends. Folks around Marfa claim that on moonless nights, the stars are so close that one can pluck them from the heavens and use them as torch lights.
Each cluster of peaks in this area bears its own name. Within the Big Bend National Park, there are the Chisos and Dead Horse Mountains, also called the Sierra Del Carmen. Outside the Park to the north, the range becomes the Christmas and Rosillos Mountains. To the west they are the Chinatis. They are all part of the same system, a system known as the Chihuahuan Desert, which teems with distinctive plant and animal wildlife unique only to itself. Yet for all its majesty, mystery, and haunting beauty, it is the most remote and sparsely populated region in Texas. More legends are associated with this country than anywhere else in the State.
Marfa is the county seat of sprawling Presidio County, but it was not always that way. Back in 1850, when the County was first created by combining a Land District with a chunk of land from Bexar County, Marfa did not exist. In fact, only one or two small pockets of adobe buildings scattered along the Rio Grande constituted the only real towns for miles in any direction. Since the newly created county became the largest in Texas, it had to contend with government from neighboring El Paso County, which had all the population.
All that changed in 1854 with the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey, which established the International Boundary at the Rio Grande. That year, the U. S. Army built Fort Davis to protect the supply trains freighting between San Antonio and El Paso from the marauding Comanche and Apache Indians. It soon grew into the first real town in the whole County, and in 1875, because of its military and commercial connections, it became Presidio County’s official county seat.
Six years later, Marfa sprang into existence as a water stop on the old Southern Pacific Railroad line between San Antonio and El Paso. Legend says that it was named after an exotic Russian heroine in the dime novel a railroad magnate’s wife was reading as they passed through the area. Within two years, it had a population of about two hundred people---and six times as many cattle, horses, and sheep.
By the mid-1880’s, the Indian Wars were winding down, and folks became suspicious that the military would abandon Fort Davis, which eventually did happen in 1891. They held an election in 1885 to move the county seat from Fort Davis, tucked away in the Davis Mountains, to the new town of Marfa, out on the prairie, some twenty-five miles south, only many of the residents of Presidio County cried fraud. They believed Alpine, forty miles east of Marfa, had just as much right to be the new county seat. The civilian population of Fort Davis was not very pleased with the election decision, either.
Back then, when most Texans were still wild and untamed, land feuds usually culminated in some kind of war. The county seat argument flared for two years---until the Alpine hierarchy snatched a huge chunk out of Presidio County for themselves. They called their new County, Brewster. A year later, Fort Davis mimicked Alpine and became the county seat of Jeff Davis County. The once giant, sparsely populated Presidio County thus became the fourth largest county by area---and possibly the smallest by population. Even today, it has just a little more than 6,500 residents. Marfa, the largest city in the County, boasts a whopping population of 2,500.
No one knows for sure just when the legendary lights were first seen flickering in the area. As early as 1840, wagon trains on the Chihuahua Trail reported seeing unexplained lights along the flats. But no one ever dared to investigate. The Trail ran eight hundred miles over the roughest country in North America, beginning at Ojinaga, Mexico, and culminating at Indianola on the Texas Gulf Coast. Apache Indians were everywhere, and to stray off the Trail meant flirting with death. There may be even older accounts still hidden in Mexican archives.
The first recorded Texan history occurred in 1883, when Robert Ellison off-loaded his cattle in Alpine and drove them west through the Paisano Pass toward his ranch forty miles away near Marfa. Camped at the base of the Pass, at a place now known as Mitchell Flats, he saw strange lights in the distance. He was looking southwest toward the Chinati Mountains, and he and his fellow cowhands thought they were looking at the flickering flames of Apache campfires. The lights appeared to be a few miles away and hovered just above the ground.
The unexpected lights alarmed the cowboys, who thought the Apaches were on the move, and they quickly doused their own campfires. But they determined to investigate the area in the daylight. After spending an uncomfortable night huddled under blankets for warmth on the cold desert floor, dawn found them on horseback, combing the area for any signs of an Indian encampment. They found none.
All day, the men searched along the base of the Chinati Mountains and the mesa between their camp and where the lights had been. They found no evidence that Indians had been anywhere in the area. No tracks, no doused campfires, no nothing. But the next night and the next after that, they again saw the strange lights. Cowboys kept seeing the lights night after night, week after week, and year after year. All attempts at identifying them went fruitless. Full of superstition, the cowboys finally decided the lights were not man-made and began calling them "ghost lights."
The lights really do defy all attempts at explanation. Attempts to locate their source always fail because they usually vanish when anyone tries to approach them. People hike, ride horseback, drive jeeps, and even fly helicopters and airplanes to follow the lights. Some have followed them as far as thirty-five miles. The lights always win. Searchers have never found campfires, buildings, tire tracks, footprints, or any other evidence that could explain the lights’ sources. Some people even claim that the lights would reappear, after they had abandoned the search and were miles away looking back over their shoulders.
The lights can be seen in the southwest, across the Mitchell Flats near Chinati Mountain, from an official viewing point on Highway 90 between Alpine and Marfa. This viewing point was erected at the request of area ranchers, who became tired of curiosity seekers disturbing their cattle, and they had a right to complain. Just about every night, right before dusk, the parking lot fills up with spectators equipped with everything from binoculars, cameras, and camcorders to high-powered telescopes. And they are seldom disappointed. As the sun sets, the lights appear, coming in all sorts of sizes, which climb in the sky, then merge, split, or float back down. They change color, appearing green, yellow, blue, and sometimes orange. One minute they will be bright, then fade and disappear. They have even been reported between Paso Lajitas and San Carlos, Mexico, and the Federales, who patrol the road for smugglers, have been fooled into spotting what they thought were approaching headlights, only to have no vehicle ever appear.
One long-time resident of the area, Hallie Stillwell, reported she first saw the phenomenon when she was eighteen-years-old in 1916. Her home was in Alpine, but she taught school in Presidio. That small town of sun-baked adobe buildings squats in the shade of giant cottonwood trees lying along the Rio Grande about twenty miles south of Marfa. What was current events to Hallie turned out to be old stuff to the residents of Presidio. The town is more than three hundred years old, having been founded along with Ojinaga across the river in Mexico by the Spanish in the 1600’s. Everyone knew of the lights. They had seen them in the winter, as well as the other seasons of the year, and nearly every night. The lights always appeared to be moving erratically around the Flats, winking and twinkling like fireflies in the night. This is one reason why most believers rule out car headlights as the cause. For one thing, there were not many cars in 1916 and none in the 1880’s, when the first official recording was made.
Describing Marfa’s mysterious lights is all but impossible. They appear as distant bright lights on the Mitchell Flats and are distinguishable from ranch lights and automobile headlights on nearby Highway 67, between Marfa and Presidio, by their aberrant movements and behavior. They appear and disappear, veering and cavorting suddenly in odd directions. One moment there might be one, and just as suddenly, it might split into two or three or more, dividing and merging at whim. They hover in mid-air and sometimes flicker like balls of fire. They might shoot straight up into the sky, or race madly to the left and right. The color is predominately greenish-yellow, but they also are white and shades of pastel. "I do not know how anyone could mistake them for car lights," reported one eyewitness in 1984.
The only thing certain about the Marfa Lights is that nothing is certain. As the town grew, the locals became accustomed to seeing the strange lights flickering in the distance and ignored them, but newcomers to the area remained intrigued. During the period of Pancho Villa, and also later in World War I, Army observers saw the lights and immediately jumped to the conclusion that they were some sort of spotlights set up to guide an invasion force into the United States from the south. The Army’s recorded observations brought the lights to the attention of people outside the immediate area, but not enough to garner any real public interest. The legend just continued as "ghost lights."
It was 1943 when the mysterious lights were given a real boost in publicity. That year, the Army established a pilot training base in Marfa. Fritz Kahl, an airman at the base, who later stayed to run the Marfa airport, reported that when the airmen saw the lights for the first time, there was absolutely no vehicular traffic at night. In fact, fuel was rationed, and lights themselves were a phenomenon because there were no lights of any kind, not even on the local ranches. Kahl described seeing something that was totally foreign to anything in and around the air base. He said finding the lights’ origins was like trying to catch a rainbow. When officials inquired of the phenomenon with the area residents, the locals simply said, "Yeah, we got ghost lights. So what?"
Over the years, explanations for the mysterious lights have ranged from ball lightning to St. Elmo’s fire to dead Indians, ghosts, tricks, static electricity, combustible dust, bat guano, solar activity, electromagnetic energy, volcanic activity, biological luminescence, and UFO’s. There’s even the glowing jackrabbit explanation. Under that theory, the jackrabbits race across the desert with a coating of phosphorescent dust or glow worms clinging to their hides. In the absence of a more definitive explanation, legend and folklore have been known to sprout like tumbleweeds.
Fortunately, several of these theories can be discounted because they don’t apply to the West Texas region. For instance, while jackrabbits are abundant, phosphorous is not, and volcanic activity in the area ceased about 30 million years ago. Also, although jackrabbits are known for their speed, they are not known to fly or outrun cars, and both pilots and motorists have reported being chased by the lights.
Still, the locals are convinced that there is more to the Marfa Lights than first meets the eye. Native superstition seems to confirm it. The Indians saw the lights long before any white man did. Their legends tell of the Great Spirit, who made the mountains in the area by throwing all the jumbled rocks left over from the creation of the stars, the birds and fishes, and the earth itself, into a huge pile in the middle of the leftover wasteland. The Devil then promptly claimed the rock pile and wasteland and turned it into hell, adding things that bite, sting, or prick. When anyone died in that hell, the lights became the spirits of the dead ones, who were thwarted in real life and forced to wander the desolate world in search of kith and kin. The locals who like this explanation also say that ‘it is a hell of a place that the Devil has for hell.’
Other Native stories tell of the phosphorescent souls of brave warriors, betrayed by treachery or killed in battle, and doomed to roam the lunar-like landscape in search of justice or revenge. This has the classical advantage of perpetuating myth into legend. Still another ancient Indian tale came from the journal of O.W. Williams, grandfather of former Texas governor Clayton Williams. According to the elder Williams, the lights are the ghosts of the Apache war chief, Alsate.
Williams, who was a surveyor in Terlingua and other parts of the Big Bend in the 1880’s, worked with a mostly Mexican crew from San Carlos, Mexico, located across the Rio Grande from the ghost town of Lajitas, Texas. One member of the surveying crew, Natividad Lujan, always told stories around the campfires, and Williams patiently recorded them in his journal. One morning, Williams called attention to the beautiful sunrise. Lujan promptly called it "the great spirit of Alsate" and regaled his rapt listeners with the story of the last Apache leader in the Big Bend. It seems that in the 1850’s and 1860’s, the Kiowas, Comanches, and Apaches maintained friendly relations with the townsfolk of San Carlos and Presidio, while at the same time raiding back and forth across the border into Mexico. Alsate, like most Apaches, grew up believing this way of life to be normal. He was of the Mescalero Apaches, also known in the Big Bend area as the Chinati or Rio Grande Apaches.
As Alsate grew into manhood, he became a great warrior and leader of his people. But, his depredations into Mexico made him hotly sought after by the Mexican Rurales. He and his tribe were finally caught and taken to Mexico City to stand trial. Throughout the trial, and no doubt also through the help of the earnest plea-bargaining from a close relative, he managed to talk himself free. He then led his tribe back to the Big Bend country, where he once again took up his thieving ways. He was caught again, only this time, he was taken to Presidio and executed. His tribe was taken into Mexico and scattered into slavery, by one’s and two’s, and the whole tribe was thus destroyed.
After a time, a sinister rumor began to creep across the old frontier of the Chisos Mountains and the Chinatis. Ranchers and cowboys talked of seeing the ghost of Alsate. It came in the form of flickering lights, and was seen in the old haunts of the Chinati Apaches. One man saw it rolling up a rocky slope, another saw it stationary on a promontory of the Rio Grande. It appeared often in the Chinati Mountains and could be seen as far south as the Chisos. The rumor finally became part of the folklore of the area---that the "lights that some people see" is the spirit of the dead Alsate.
Although mysterious lights can be seen all along the mountain range from the Chinatis to the Chisos, they are most constantly seen on the high desert plateau of Marfa. This has prompted many serious searches for the lights’ source. The first such attempt appears to have been made by Walter T. Harris just before the turn of the century. He was an employee of the railroad, and with the help of several other employees, he used surveyor’s methods of triangulation to plot the exact location of the night beacons. By his calculations, the lights were behind the Chinatis, "deep in Mexico, and impossible to be seen from the spot where we had taken our readings!"
An unscientific method was tried in the 1980’s by Dallas journalist, Kirby Warnock. Warnock’s family had settled in the Trans-Pecos region just north of Big Bend country more than one hundred years ago, and he first saw the lights in 1963, when he was eleven-years-old and his brother was eight. He and his brother decided that the reason no one ever got close to the lights was because they used motor vehicles, such as airplanes, jeeps, and cars. The two men thought that if they headed out on foot across the desert, they just might be able to sneak up on the lights.
One summer, they assembled their gear and a camera, and at dusk, started walking. They tried for four hours to get close to the lights, but it was like walking up to a mirage. The more they walked, the further the lights moved away. Warnock reported that he thought the lights were "trying to frustrate and thwart us. It was like they knew what we were doing and were teasing us by staying just a little ahead of us." It is a fact that distances are deceiving in the desert. The Warnocks could not tell if they were looking at a light as big as a tire or one as big as a cantaloupe. They just could not get close enough to get a good idea of how big the lights actually were.
Local lore also has a way of turning into local legend. Supposedly, during World War II, pilots training at the old air base dropped sacks of flour to mark the lights’ location. It is a story that has been told so many times and in so many variations, that it long ago achieved the semblance of fact. But, Fritz Kahl disclaims it. He has been either instructing at or running the airport for the past forty years. If someone had flown out and dropped flour sacks, he would have known about it.
It was in March 1973 that the legendary lights got a big boost of publicity. Two visiting geologists appeared in the area to assess the likelihood of uranium deposits for a big corporation. While parked in their car on the Flats, they were startled by the sudden appearance of two similar balls of light. The lights were about one-half the size of a basketball, and they darted behind some bushes and in front of others, always hovering a few hundred feet away before they blinked out. Coming from the scientific community as it did, all sorts of people sat up and took notice. Theories begin to multiply tenfold.
It is a known fact that triboluminescence is light resulting from friction at the surface of certain crystalline materials, such as quartz, and quartz is abundant in the area. Under pressure, it creates an electric current called piezoelectricity. The current is capable of ionizing the air into visible luminosities. Piezoelectricity also might ignite gases escaping from sedimentary rock along fractures lines. The gas explanation is reinforced by the history of the Cienaga Mountains. Cienaga is Spanish for "marsh" or "swamp." In the past, the area was wetter and may have produced natural gas. Gas has been found in the Casa Piedra area, south of Marfa, near the Cienaga Mountains. One pilot even reported a patch of phosphorescence the size of a football field, as he flew over the Mitchell Flats at night, and phosphorescent gases can produce luminescence without ignition. So, scientists argue, with the severe heating and cooling of the Earth’s surface in the area, as well as seismic activity, might not there be all sorts of friction along the fault lines?
Locals really do laugh about all the scientific theories that crop up, especially since the lights appear to have minds of their own and do all sorts of crazy things which defy explanation. For instance, believers argue, cannot science be described in terms of either black or white…either it is or it isn’t? How then does science explain all the shades of gray that the locals experience? There is absolutely nothing cut and dried about the lights. Some of the bizarre stories involve lights chasing or scorching cars, jeeps, and trucks. Some claim cars melt and their occupants disappear, go into shock, or turn into babbling idiots who are put away in sanitariums. There is even the tale that the lights are a government laser weapon project that went awry. Several years ago, the operator of a Marfa gas station had to make a delivery to Presidio late at night. It was close to midnight, as he drove through the Chinatis. "Suddenly there was this big blue ball of light a few feet off the road right in front of me," Hector Escobedo said. "I slammed on my brakes, but it did not move. I decided to keep driving, but it was so bright, I had to shade my eyes to see the road." The light stayed right in front of him for several miles, miles where the highway never once formed a straight line, as it twisted and turned around the rocks and peaks of the mountain pass. As suddenly as it came, it disappeared. "I was never so scared in my life. I do not drive through there at night anymore."
The case file contains thousands of reports from ordinary citizens just like Hector, who have seen the legendary lights. Even celebrities have gotten into the spirit. In 1955, when film crews were in Marfa making the movie Giant, which starred Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson, James Dean mounted a small telescope on a fence post to better spy on the lights, should they suddenly pop up.
Because the phenomena is so well-recorded and remains yet unsolved, there have been many serious investigations by individuals and small groups attempting to explain the lights. One of the best known and recorded came in March 1975. Don Witt, then a physics professor at Sul Ross University in Alpine, coordinated a monumental effort to locate the lights’ source. Using the Sul Ross Society of Physics Students, the Big Bend Outdoor Club comprised of community members, and local pilots, short-wave radio amateurs, and a few outside professionals, Witt’s group was positively unable to form any sort of solid conclusion. They did say, however, that sometimes the lights that people claimed were "Marfa Lights," were really artificial lights from area ranches or automobile headlights merely passing behind unseen obstructions along distant Highway 67, which winds through the Chinati Mountains between Marfa and Presidio.
The findings created an uproar in the otherwise sleepy little town of Marfa. Highway 67 was twenty-four miles away and well below the horizon, eyewitnesses pointed out. And even if the lights were headlights, it had to be traffic from Presidio to Marfa, or traffic moving left to right, since anyone going from Marfa to Presidio would show only taillights. Furthermore, they maintained, the lights also move from right to left which, if the scientists’ theory were to be accepted, indicated a crazy person backing up on Highway 67 at a high rate of speed on a dark night on a treacherous mountain road in order to make the right-to-left kind of movements that the mystery orbs have been known to make. It was preposterous.
The eyewitnesses also ruled out the scientists’ artificial "ranch lights" theory. With only one ranch in the area with only one spotlight---a spotlight easily recognizable to the naked eye and, therefore, discounted as a legitimate sighting---there was no way ranches played any role in the matter.
Then, a sighting occurred in 1985 which appeared to succeed in wiping out the car headlight theory...at least, that’s the claim. Robert Black, a graduate student in geology at Sul Ross University, decided to climb Goat Mountain south of Alpine for rock samples. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, he and a friend drove out a county road east of Marfa, parked their truck, and hiked in. It was early in the morning on an exceptionally warm day for the mountains at that time of year, and both men were dressed in light-weight clothing.
After collecting rock samples, Black’s friend, who loved sunsets, commented, "This is going to be a beautiful sunset, isn’t it. Look, the sun’s going down." At that moment, Black realized that they had stayed longer on the climb than he had intended. They would have to really hurry to make it out before dark.
Breaking into a run, they spied the truck way off on the Flats, but distances are deceiving in the desert, and before they could reach the truck, the sun was down. They were on the west side of Goat Mountain, in the middle of the Mitchell Flats. Black says it best, "Anyone who knows the Marfa flats, knows that it is flat, featureless, and boring---no geological marker out in the sea of desert and really no way to find your way around, especially in the dark." The men wisely decided to spend the night where they were. To keep warm, they gathered creosote bushes for fires.
A little before midnight, as they huddled around the fires looking toward the north and northwest in the direction of Highway 90, their talk turned to the Marfa Lights. The men were right in the Flats, where the lights were normally seen, and they began to hope the lights would make an appearance. They didn’t have long to wait. Shortly after midnight, they saw a "horizontal length of light that had a sort of dancing vibration movement." As the men watched in fascination, the "little beams of light danced up and down in a kind of wave formation, moved across, jumped straight up vertically, came back down, danced horizontally, then disappeared." They saw the lights four or five times that night.
Black’s account was unusual because it was the first reported sighting of the lights from a location several miles south of Highway 90 and looking north toward Highway 90. The Chinati Mountains were to their backs. It ruled out any supposition of car headlights in the mountains as being the cause of the mystery lights. Since Black and his companion were between the Chinati Mountains and Highway 90, and the lights appeared between the men and the highway, skeptics were forced to rethink their previous positions.
There is even another recorded incident of the brilliant orbs communicating with one of the local ranchers. Mrs. W.T. Giddens of Sundown, Texas, reported that her father actually lived the adventure. According to her story, her father was up in the Chinati Mountains, looking for stray cattle, when a sudden blizzard struck. Darkness, accompanied by howling wind and blowing snow, reduced visibility to near zero. He was unable to see his way home and had to feel his way along what he hoped was the right trail, fearing he would soon freeze to death if he did not find shelter.
Rounding an outcropping of rocks, the panicked rancher stopped dead in his tracks when some of the mystery lights suddenly appeared. Although he never explained how they did it, the rancher claimed the lights "spoke" to him, telling him he was three miles south of Chinati Peak, off course, headed in the wrong direction, and dangerously close to a steep precipice. He was advised to follow the lights---or die.
The lights led him to a cave that provided shelter from the raging storm. The smaller lights left, but the larger light remained with him until morning. According to the rancher, the light claimed they were "spirits from elsewhere and long ago."
When the rancher awoke the next morning, both the light and the storm were gone. As he headed toward home, he passed the outcropping of rocks and discovered that when the lights had intercepted him, he had been on the edge of a sheer cliff several hundred feet high. He had no doubts---the lights had saved his life.
In July 1989, scientists from McDonald Observatory on Mount Locke outside Fort Davis, and from Sul Ross University, decided to conduct another investigation into the lights. Included in the group were a professor of chemistry, Dr. Avinash Rangra, and an astronomer, Dr. Edwin Barker. With them were eleven other technicians and observers. Since the lights are most frequently seen near the Chinati Mountains from Highway 90, which runs east and west between Marfa and Alpine, the scientists decided they had best rule out any misidentification of headlights on Highway 67, which winds through the Chinati Mountains north and south between Marfa and Presidio.
A radio beacon resembling a red spotlight, visible in front of the peaks, was used as a guide. In order to prevent the misidentification of headlights, two marker lights were placed at the borders of Highway 67, where it enters and leaves the mountain range. These marker locations were manned by two technicians with radio equipment. Any lights spotted outside the markers, which the scientists could not explain, would be identified as the ghostly phenomena.
The investigators used special cameras and night-viewing equipment. At midnight, an unknown light appeared past the right marker light in the middle of the empty Mitchell Flats. Contacting the technician at the marker by radio indicated there was no traffic on Highway 67. The ghostly globe was recorded on a video camera. Observers were certain the light did not come from a man-made source. It disappeared and came back and faded again.
Doctor Rangra confirmed that something of natural origin was occurring over Mitchell Flats outside Marfa, but he did not know what. All he could say for certain was that it was not man-made. Doctor Edwin Barker agreed. People were seeing real activity in the atmosphere, but how to explain it? One scientist thought the lights might be refracted starlight. Another believed them to be illuminous gases produced by small earthquakes. But the fact is, every one of the scientists in the investigation were not sure and could only say for certain that it is a natural phenomena as yet unexplained by science. "Ha," the locals snorted, "we already knew that."
So, what are the mysterious Marfa Lights? Who knows? Theories are as prolific as the skeptics are to the theories. There are some who think the lights are caused by swamp gas escaping from underground pockets and igniting. Well...maybe. Only there has not been a swamp in that part of Texas for thousands, perhaps millions of years. What about St. Elmo’s Fire? Possibly, but not very likely. Saint Elmo’s Fire only occurs when conditions are absolutely perfect. The Marfa Lights, on the other hand, are seen year-round in all kinds of weather and under all sorts of different atmospheric conditions. This seems to also rule out ball lightning.
According to another theory, the lights might be a by-product of what is referred to as the Novaya Zemlya effect, which was first noted by the explorer Willem Barrents in 1597. Unlike the normal temperature inversion layer, which forms a distinct reflective boundary between warm and cold layers of air, the Novaya Zemlya effect may involve several different layers or slices of atmosphere. This means that a locomotive headlight between Ojinaga and Chihuahua, Mexico, could bounce back and forth between varying layers of air and be seen as far away as Texas’ official "Marfa Lights" viewing site, located ten miles east of Marfa on Highway 90. In a strange sort of way, this seems to corroborate the Walter T. Harris surveying party’s conclusion conducted at the turn of the century, as well as adding credence to the refracted starlight theory. The only real problem with the Novaya Zemlya effect is that the lights appear even on cloudy nights, which cannot possibly be considered atmospheric reflections.
The real truth is that no one really knows for sure what causes the Marfa Lights. The legends surrounding them just continue to expand, as more and more research proves nothing. For the people of Marfa, who have grown up with the lights, no explanation is necessary. They have them, and they mean to keep them.
So there you have it. Truly a bit of weirdness in the truly weird world we inhabit. An interesting anecdote was recorded by researcher Dennis Stacy in 1989. It seems that Dr. Ray Hauser of Hauser Laboratories in Boulder, Colorado, wrote The Marfa Independent with an unusual request. He offered one dollar for each used car air filter (up to ten) used in the area south of Marfa. The filters had to have at least a thousand miles of wear and tear. Hauser wanted to analyze the dust in the filters to see if there might be a connection between the lights and the chemical composition and behavior of certain dust-clouds. According to Stacy, "the idea sounds completely cock-eyed, until one remembers that accumulated dust in grain elevators is capable of tremendous explosive ignition." Who knows!!?
I’m Average Joe