seen the Marfa
lights. Twice. Only the first time I saw the Marfa
lights, what I saw wasn’t the Marfa
lights. This requires explanation.
My pal John Tolleson and I were coming home from the Western Writers
of America’s convention in El
Paso. The evening we left there was a thunderstorm that filled
the desert floor between El
Paso and Sierra
Blanca with shoe-top deep water—oldfashioned high-top shoe shoe-top
deep. We were in one of the older Lincoln Continentals and the combination
of rushing water and wind nearly blew that heavy car off the road.
As we passed through Sierra
Blanca all the lights were out. We stopped up the road in Van
Horn to grab a snack and told the folks in the café that all Sierra
Blanca’s lights were out. They immediately began pouring oil into
lanterns and lamps. “Ours will be next,” they said.
John and I picked up old US 90 south out of Van
Horn just as the storm struck. By the time we reached Valentine
the storm was just lightning in the rear-view mirror. The next town
was Marfa, and we were
determined to see the Marfa
lights we’d heard so much about.
Just southeast of Marfa,
on the south side of US 90, there’s what’s called the “Marfa Mystery
Lights Viewing Area.” At the time, in the early ‘90s, there wasn’t
all that much there—just a sign, a fence to keep you from wandering
out onto the desert and getting lost, and some big rocks to stand
We were immediately shown what we thought were the Marfa
lights. Please understand, as an old Artilleryman who twice won
the unofficial but much-coveted ‘calibrated eyeballs’ award at Fort
Sill, I tend do most of my estimating in meters. What we were seeing
were, at distances of one to four kilometers from us, brilliant flashes
of light, from ground level to perhaps twenty meters in the air. They
were white, pale pink, pale blue, and pale orange in color. They were
lighting up areas as much as two hundred meters across, so brilliantly
that even at four kilometers you could clearly see the shape of bushes
on the edge of the circles they lit up.
After watching this spectacle for a while, John and I went on to Alpine,
confident we’d seen the Marfa
years later I was in the Marfa/Alpine/Fort
Davis area, doing some historical research. Legend holds that
the key to one of the greatest literary mysteries in US history is
in or near Marfa. Supposedly,
Ambrose Bierce—Bitter Bierce, the Devil’s lexicographer—is buried
in Marfa. I was researching
death records in the Presidio,
Davis county courthouses to see if I could confirm this. For the
record, I didn’t—but I did discover a probable murder. Since the murder
took place in the early 1900s, there wasn’t much I could do but write
a story about it, which I eventually did.
On this trip I was with my pal Wes Williams, who illustrated my gun
book, TEXAS SMOKE—MUZZLE-LOADERS ON THE FRONTIER (Texas Tech University
Press, Lubbock). Since we were in the area, we decided, of course,
to see the Marfa
lights. Wes had never seen them, but I had—or thought I had, anyway.
In a café in Marfa I
was describing to Wes what John and I saw when the waitress, a Marfa
native, said “We’ve never seen anything like that out there. When
was this?” I told her and she said “Nobody else has ever said anything
about seeing anything like that out there.”
This, of course, piqued my curiosity. What had John and I seen out
there? I still don’t know for certain, but I suspect it was the result
of aftershocks from an earthquake. We were there in late June. There
had been an earthquake—not a San Andreas Fault type earthquake, of
course, but an earthquake all the same—in April. The aftershocks,
recorded by seismograph but mostly not felt by people, continued through
There’s a lot of crystalline quartz out there—big chunks of it. Boulders
of it. When you stress a crystalline structure, you get what is known
as a piezo-electric discharge. It comes in the form of a flash of
light. You can test this yourself, if you care to. Buy a roll of wintergreen
Lifesavers—not the Wint-O-Green, but the true wintergreen. Go into
the bathroom at night, face the mirror, open your mouth, put a wintergreen
Lifesaver upright between your molars, turn out the light, and crush
it with your teeth. It may take several tries, but eventually you’ll
see a tiny green flash in your mouth. That’s the piezo-electric discharge
that comes when you stress or break a crystalline structure. Earthquakes
certainly stress or break crystalline quartz boulders. So do their
aftershocks. The piezo-electric discharges resulting from the earthquake
aftershocks stressing or breaking underground quartz boulders were
probably what we saw.
Wes and I saw the ‘real’ Marfa
lights. They look like a train’s headlight seen down a straight
stretch of track perhaps twenty miles away—but they’re up in the air.
They move from side to side and up and down. They flash on and off.
What are they? I have no idea—and neither does anyone else. They’re
‘explained’ as atmospheric inversions causing city lights to be seen
at great distances, but they’ve been there a long, long time. There
are reports of these things going back to the 1870s—and there were
certainly no electric streetlights west of the viewing area then.
A surveyor once tried to determine the location of the source of the
lights. He set up a five mile baseline on the flat and shot azimuths
to a single one of the lights. Then, by triangulation, he tried to
locate the source of that one light. He then threw his paper away.
According to the math, the light’s source was beyond two mountain
ranges, each of which was high enough to block his view of a light
at the altitude the lights seemed to be.
So what are the Marfa
lights? I don’t know—and neither, apparently, does anyone else.
However, they’re definitely there. They show up about 300 nights out
of each year, so the odds that if you journey to the Marfa/Alpine/Fort
Davis area and go out to the Marfa
Mystery Lights viewing area, then look to the right of the red
flashing light on the horizon—that’s the top of a microwave tower—you’ll
see what Wes and I saw. And if there’s recently been an earthquake,
you just might see what John and I saw.
© C. F.
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
4, 2008 column
by C. F. Eckhardt