In the high Texas desert well south of I-10 cities, the land is flat except where ringed by mountain ranges, the atmosphere is dry, and the night sky is some of the darkest anywhere.
Here, since 1883, mysterious points of light have shone and flickered and danced. The Marfa Lights gained instant notoriety.
An Apache campfire? Cowhands who’d spotted the lights rode out by day to see. They found nothing.
A signal to invading armies during World War I? No evidence. Nor was there any explanation when World War II pilots flew over the area during training runs from Midland.
Swamp gas? Curiosity seekers in the hills with lanterns? Moonlight on mineral veins?
One theorist holds that the nearby town’s name derived not from a character in a Russian novel but from a corruption of the nautical phenomenon marfire, caused by phosphorescence in the sea. Early observers must have found the occurrence similar, whether caused by glowing organisms or a reflected mirage.
That makes a lot more sense to some folks than yielding to recent scientific findings. In 2011, a team of researchers using light-measuring tools concluded that the Marfa Lights are nothing more than refracted beams from the headlights of cars some 15 to 20 miles away on U.S. Highway 67. The particular combination of atmospheric conditions causes lights to appear against the mountain backdrop as eerie, floating orbs.
Visitors stopping in at the roadside observation area on U.S. 90 east of Marfa — specially built in 2003 — aren’t convinced. They need only to point out the obvious absence of automobiles back in the 1880s.
As with all things Marfa, however, the lights continue to attract and perplex. The viewing area is open 24/365 with restroom facilities, plenty of parking and low-level red lights to aid your way. Bring your binoculars and camera — you never know what you might see. And “bring an open mind” as well, advises the VisitMarfa.com website.
“In understanding Marfa,” writer Sterry Butcher once offered, “a certain suspension of disbelief is useful.”