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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

The Marfa Lights

by C. F. Eckhardt

I’ve 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 on.

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 lights.

Several 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, Brewster, and Jeff 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 that summer.

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. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
October 4, 2008 column

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