Dozens of people gather at sunset on a decommissioned World War II airbase 6 miles east of Marfa, Texas. This gathering occurs on most nights. There is a long strip of asphalt next to highway US 90 where RVs, cars, and pickup trucks park. A pavilion sits in the center of this area and an observation area hosts binocular pedestals like you would find on the Empire State Building. When darkness is full, everyone trains their eyes on the southeast horizon. They are waiting to see the Marfa Lights.
The Marfa Lights: What Are They?
White and red lights have been observed since the 1800s on this horizon outside Marfa. The lights have been observed moving across the horizon, doubling back, and then suddenly disappearing. Marfa is 267 miles south of Roswell, New Mexico. For some, the connection seems pretty clear. For others, the lights are a tradition and touchstone for the people in this West Texas desert on the high plains.
Regardless of their origin, the lights are observable and are celebrated. People come from all over the world to witness this unexplained phenomenon. The fact that there is no origin, no complete explanation, and no source that can be traced makes the lights all the more fascinating.
People say the lights dance and move about near the Chinati Mountains. Others say the lights come straight towards you and vanish. Skeptics suggest that the lights are from car headlights or campfires (the area where the lights show up is on a local road but is quite remote). It’s unlikely that occasional travelers would produce such consistent results. A scientific study suggests that the lights, when seen at a far distance, are a mirage, like the heat you see on a highway in the summer. The light from various sources, like car headlights or even street signs, is bent due to physical conditions. The light appears to be dancing or moving rapidly, but it’s a mirage. Hmmm.
Seeing The Lights
The Marfa Lights viewing area is like a tailgate, carnival, and street party rolled into one. During the night I spent there, I saw about 20 people in RVs, trucks, and cars set up to view the lights. Despite the nighttime weather being chilly, people set up lawn chairs, gather at the pavilion, and mill around waiting to see what happens. There is no best time to see the lights. They are random and can appear in any season or weather condition. Because the lights appear at the horizon, cloud coverage does not seem to interfere with seeing them.
The night I was there, it was crystal clear. I saw lots of stars and planets as the light from town was a modest interference. But, like the others, I peered into the darkness, waiting to see the lights. At its onset, there was nothing. I was staying in my RV, so I went back inside to warm up. I came back out a couple of hours later and people were still there — waiting patiently. No one had seen the lights. I kept up the vigil for a while and packed it in. I don’t know if they appeared that night.
Some accounts suggest that the lights are quite infrequent, showing up only 30 times a year. But others insist they can be seen more frequently. People come back over and over to see the phenomenon. It may be folklore, but people insist they see these lights. Even James Dean was said to have looked for the lights while filming the movie Giant. He brought a telescope to observe the phenomenon.
The lights of Marfa have been a legend and phenomenon for over 100 years, though the origin of the story is unconfirmed. For 35 years, the city has hosted an annual festival to celebrate the lights. There is a parade in town, music and entertainment near the courthouse, and fun for the kids. It is a chance for Marfites to celebrate their town and mingle with others who believe in the lights.
Though Marfa has become an arts town and has gentrified somewhat, it began as a cattle and railroad town. This is an isolated place and it took a lot to be a settler and to make the city prosper. The lights became folklore and tradition, supposedly passed down through generations with pride. The city used government grants to build the observation area. There are picnic tables running the length of the parking strip, plenty of trash receptacles, and the place is kept very clean. Why wouldn’t you want to come and check it out?
There are strong believers amongst the locals, stretching to the next town of Alpine. Like Roswell, New Mexico, people in this area have built a cottage industry catering to tourists and like-minded believers. There are t-shirts, books, and DVDs along with photos of the lights that can be purchased. You’ll find lots of photos on Google Images and there are videos of the lights on YouTube. You’ll find people who are immovable in their theories that the lights exist as an alien phenomenon and those that think it’s all hogwash. The town uses the unexplained lights as a tourist draw and keeps the folklore alive.
What is verifiable by the eyes of the beholder is the beauty of the desert flats that make up this old airbase. The Chinati Mountains in the distance are a spectacular backdrop. At night, there are clear views of constellations and planets that make the trip very worthwhile. The viewing area is a great place to park overnight or picnic during the day. The city did well to create and maintain this lovely spot for everyone to enjoy the desert scenery. Whether you see the lights, believe in them, or neither, they are undoubtedly part of the Marfa culture and a fun experience.
Pro Tip: The state of Texas recognizes the Marfa Lights stop as an official point of interest and the roadside pavilion as a Texas rest stop (meaning you can park there for 24 hours).
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