Light: Marfa Mystery Lights

Susan Briante
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Four glowing orbs move like headlights on a distant desert highway. They stall, then burn like candles in a window before rustling branches.

“Well, what do you think?” A woman turns to her companion on the platform of the Marfa Mystery Lights Viewing Center.

“Frankly, I don’t know what to think.”

Three new globes shine like torches held by men on horseback. Sometimes, they are train lights through scrub brush, then a flickering campfire. Now two fireballs appear, now four, now six, sometimes in a line, sometimes rising higher than the cellphone tower’s red lights blinking in the west Texas night.

The historical marker at the viewing center, eight miles east of the town of Marfa, declares that reports of the mysterious lights date back more than one hundred years. They have been variously explained as “torches of the ghosts of conquistadores,” “spirits of Indians,” “lights from the highway reflecting off mica,” or a “gas phenomenon.” Over the years, viewers have theorized that the fiery balls emerged from chemicals left by the Army, St. Elmo’s fire, little volcanoes, mirages, meteors, reflections, or UFOs.

Each night as darkness falls over the desert, young couples and families with children, excited science geeks and weekend tourists make their way to the viewing center from RVs and SUVs, campers and compact cars filling the parking lot and lining the shoulder of U.S. Highway 67-90. Since the state built the viewing center in 2002 to lure the growing throngs off the road, the lights have become so popular that the local chamber of commerce sponsors a Marfa Mystery Lights festival, complete with parade and 5k run, every Labor Day weekend.

But as most visitors gaze out over the former Army airfield behind the center, they do not realize that they are probably witnessing lights with perfectly understandable origins. Retired Air Force officer James Bunnell has published two books on the subject: Night Orbs and Seeing Marfa Lights. He offers several possible explanations: The lights emanate from automobiles on the Presidio-Marfa road or Mitchell Flats. They’re ranch lights, airplane, or train lights. They come from an unmanned, tethered Air Force blimp “whose purpose is to provide airborne radar surveillance of the border.” Or they are just “latent images of telephone poles” that become imprinted on the retina as one stares into the darkness.

Bunnell contends that “true mystery lights” (or “MLs” as he calls them) appear only in the southeast or south of the park, moving cross-country, often shining dimly, increasing in intensity before dimming again. He writes: “The idea that MLs are plasma from the inner radiation belt is a logical hypothesis supported by suggestive evidence and consistent with scientific knowledge of trapped particle behavior, albeit one that falls short of answering all outstanding questions.”

Within the hundreds of books like Bunnell’s on unexplainable phenomenon, amidst data, figures, and theories, there is also desire: that intelligent life exists beyond this planet; that the dead hold the living accountable; that a sinister transnational society of powerful men controls our fate—and that in naming them we can end their rule.

In the harsh west Texas landscape of tumbleweeds and mesas, even explainable phenomenon such as storm clouds and sunset acquire a sublime drama. The minimalist artist Donald Judd was so impacted by nature’s displays that in the late 1970s he erected a series of concrete and aluminum boxes about half a mile south of Marfa that seem to do nothing more than bear elegant witness to the light’s changing warmth and hue.

The Mystery Lights Viewing Center stands as another kind of marker: a monument to mystery or our desire for story, a Rorschach, a place to remember the Indians we killed or the conquistadores we are, where visitors gather pitched against the viewing platform’s railing, looking hard at the horizon, leaning into the night.

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