"We really had a great show," Bob told me as the three of us walked up the gravel path toward the Parkview Lodge in Linville Falls, North Carolina.
Before he took his first engineering job with Bell Laboratories decades ago, Bob had worked mostly on weekends as a professional keyboard player in a progressive rock band. However, his musical expertise had little to do with the kind of "show" he was describing for us now.
"In these pictures, you'll see one of the lights rising steadily over the mountaintop," Bob's friend Bill, also a musician of many years, explained. "Bob captured the entire sequence, but in my photo, you'll actually see where the object changed direction."
Bob Ashmore and Bill Fox began coming down to Western North Carolina years ago, tagging along with other coworkers who spent their vacation time looking for scenic areas of the Eastern United States where weekend hiking trips were ideal. But that wasn't all that had drawn the two engineers to the region.
"One of the guys on that first trip had a Commander X book," Bob recalled, referring to a peculiarly kooky book first published back in the 1970s called Underground Alien Bases: Flying Saucers Come From Inside The Earth! (the book can still be purchased online here). "I remember reading through it, and seeing that it talked about a supposed underground base right where we were going!"
The base, as the book alleged, existed underneath Brown Mountain, North Carolina, which had already been recognized as a "UFO hotspot" for decades, due to the anomalous lights that are famously associated with the region. Needless to say, there's no evidence that any "underground bases" exist beneath Brown Mountain -- nor any other localities in the region -- although such amusing rumors have been occasionally fueled by periodic Special Forces training operations carried out in the nearby Linville Gorge (a friend of mine, who had undergone training with Green Berets in the region a number of years ago, once described to me the harsh conditions the rugged Linville Gorge provided during such training excursions, which included scouring creeks for crayfish and salamanders in order to survive).
Despite all the silly talk of underground bases, it had been the kernel of possibility that a valid "earth light" phenomenon seemed to be occurring in the region that caught Fox and Ashmore's attention, giving rise to decades of return visits to try and observe and photograph the region's mysterious illuminations.
Much the same, it was my own interest in the subject -- and one of my many personal visits to the area in search of possible causes for these alleged "earth lights" -- that I met the aforementioned Pennsylvania lab workers. To this day, they continue to visit the region with hope of observing the strange nighttime "light shows", and I often join them to compare notes about what is known, and what remains unknown, about the so-called "Brown Mountain Lights."
Briefly, to give a bit of background on the broader "earth light" phenomenon, I will cite Sean B. Palmer's essay "Earth Lights: Spooklights and Ghost Lights", which gives an authoritative overview of the subject. Of course, it is a theme that has been documented by many others, including physicist William R. Corliss, Paul Devereux (as outlined in the excerpt below), and my own contributions in previous articles and MU posts over the years; Palmer's definition and brief history of the phenomenon is as follows:
"Earth lights are a rare anomalous light phenomenon, mistaken throughout history as dragons, UFOs, and ball lightning before being recognised as a separate category. One leading theory is that they are produced by tectonic strain in minor fault lines, so that they are literally generated by the earth.
In America they've been called "spooklights" or "ghost lights" since at least the 1950s, but Persinger and Lafrenière were the first scientists to recognise the phenomenon, in the late 1970s. The lights were renamed and brought to wider public attention by Paul Devereux in 1982 with his publication "Earth Lights".
They appear in many colours, shapes, and sizes, though the basketball-sized globular orange variety seems most common. Most sightings occur at night, when some lights can be seen from miles around. They're reported to be able to move against the wind and reach extraordinary speeds. Their terrestrial nature means that though many sightings are sporadic, there are some locations where they appear relatively often. It's through studying these hotspots, such as Hessdalen in Norway and the Engligh Pennines, that their characteristics become evident."
The assessment above is largely informed by the research by British scientists that occurred in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, during which some of the most interesting scientific work pertaining to the earth light phenomenon was undertaken.
The lights seen near Linville, North Carolina, known colloquially as "The Brown Mountain Lights" due to their prevalence near that location, have a history dating back to 1913. Some sources maintain that there are earlier legends about the lights, but despite this long-held rumor, no apparent evidence for this exists. Skeptical researcher Joe Nickel offers the following brief, but quite concise, history of scientific research into the cause of the lights, in his article from earlier this year:
The first known reference to the lights in print was in the September 13, 1913, Charlotte Daily Observer. In 1913 a U.S. Geological Survey geologist concluded the lights were those of locomotives, while a U.S. Weather Bureau report of 1919 explained the phenomenon as an electrical discharge compared to South America’s “Andes Light,” although the writer had not actually visited the site.
The careful reader will note that, while I have disagreed with some of Nickel's conclusions in the past, I don't disagree with him on all points. In order to lend a bit of balance to this post, I am comfortable citing Joe's research here, and unlike many skeptics that write about this subject, Joe has taken the time to travel to Brown Mountain, and put in the hours of field research that many other "experts" on the phenomenon have not (this explains his mention of the U.S. Weather Bureau report above, which likened the Brown Mountain phenomenon to another "spook light", though the author of that report had not witnessed it firsthand).
And, despite my own numerous visits to the region, I too am one of these individuals that has seen very little which seems to fall into the category of "undeniable proof" of some mysterious phenomena at work. What I have seen, as far as evidence, includes many photographs, and I've interviewed at least a dozen or more witnesses over the years who have shared detailed accounts of lights they observed there under a variety of meteorological conditions. To me, this suggests something real is occurring in the region, which bears similarity to lights, similar in behavior to ball lightning, that are observed near Hessdalen, Norway, as well as mysterious illuminations seen at Marfa, Texas, and a variety of other places around the world.
However, the problem with the long-held mystery of the Brown Mountain Lights is that, as we attempt to learn "what the lights are", we must acknowledge that we are actually dealing with a variety of different sources of illumination, the majority of which have very prosaic underlying sources.
During one of our visits to Wiseman's View, a popular observation point for light-watchers in the Linville Gorge, Ashmore, Fox and I were accompanied by a number of area locals. At one point, someone exclaimed, "look, there's one!" and, turning our attention toward the light in question, the object did appear rather unusual... at least while viewed with the naked eye, and at a distance.
"Here", a voice from behind me said. "Try looking at it through these." Chris, an off-duty fireman from the nearby Jonas Ridge community, handed me a pair of quality binoculars, and focusing on the light, the enhanced optical conditions they provided clearly revealed the flashing beacon of a small aircraft, which had been obscured by the partly cloudy conditions further away.
I stayed and spoke with Chris afterward, comparing notes about the lights that so many describe seeing. "I'm convinced that 99% of what you see up here is just locals over there on Table Rock and Hawksbill Mountain, playing the Brown Mountain Lights game," he said. "They'll get up there with Chinese lanterns, flashlights, Roman candles, and whatever else, just to get a rise out of people."
Despite his skepticism, Chris was quick to assert that he had had a few of his own observations. "When things are seen, it's never over here in the Gorge," he told me. "But I remember a number of years ago, on Christmas Eve, I had been driving down Highway 181 toward Morganton, and as I passed Brown Mountain on my left, there was a very odd light that moved across the side of the mountain. These weren't orbs, and they didn't resemble headlights. They moved like blue-white electricity, crackling across the mountain at ground level. They moved too quickly to have been off-road vehicles, and I remember radioing other firefighters on duty that night, who saw them over the course of the evening as well."
Chris further noted that the lights, whatever they had been, had appeared when it was particularly cold. "The night we observed the lights, I'll never forget because it was on Christmas Eve, and it got unusually cold that year. I believe the temperature had been about 3 below zero."
While noting the fact that I've never seen something I take to have been an anomalous occurrence in the area, there have still been instances that have caused me to wonder. On one occasion many years ago, I had traveled with two friends to the 181 Overlook, roughly the same area where Chris and the other firefighters had observed the "electric" lights on Christmas Eve several years earlier. High in the sky, I observed an amber-colored light, which was moving slowly over the mountain where we stood, which suddenly blinked out. At the time, I had guessed that a refraction might have occurred, in which I had seen the reflection of distant headlights moving up the mountain, which might explain both the color, as well as sudden "blinking out" as the light vanished. Years later, I also considered that the light might have been the International Space Station, a satellite, or possibly a bit of metallic debris in low-orbit as it entered the Earth's shadow. However, the amber coloration seems inconsistent with my numerous other observations of the aforementioned orbital objects, which are bright white in appearance, similar to starlight.
Where the "advocates" and the "skeptics" seem to find the most common ground is that, despite the legends about the lights and their various causes, it remains clear that there is no single phenomenon that is recognized as being the "only" source of the Brown Mountain Lights. While a fairly consistent hypothesis has suggested over the years that the "real" lights may be something akin to ball lightning, the majority of the objects seen and photographed near the area likely have more prosaic origins.
Again, as skeptic Joe Nickel wrote earlier this year in his Skeptical Inquirer piece, "The evidence is clear: There is no single explanation because there is no single phenomenon (author's emphasis). Just as we know that not all UFOs are weather balloons, not all Brown Mountain lights have a single cause." Despite Nickel's acceptance that there are a variety of causes underlying reports of the Brown Mountain Lights (he acknowledges the possibility that some are actually ball lightning, too), it is worth noting that the article in which he stated this had been titled, "The Brown Mountain Lights: Solved! (Again!)". To be fair, there is actual no solution being offered here; instead, there is what I would call an instructional assertion that, while a number of things are seen at Brown Mountain and surrounding areas, no single phenomenon has been accounted for as being "the" supposed light source in question. In truth, most of us appear to agree on that point, regardless of our interpretations of the likelihood of there being a "mystery" at hand.
In the end, perhaps there are good questions that can be asked, without having to bring alien craft, ghosts of ancient Native Americans, or inter-dimensional vortexes into the equation; though I have very seldom, if ever, met anyone with a serious interest in the lights who actually asserts that such things are the underlying causes of the illuminations. Both the science-minded skeptics I've worked with, as well as the more open-minded amateur researchers, seem to lean toward a ball lightning or "earth light" explanation. If there are indeed any particular factors about the region that cause such illuminations to occur here, and with greater frequency than in other locations, this area may yet provide us with something unique, after all.
For my part, I think there is certainly data that warrants further consideration for the Brown Mountain and Linville light phenomena. If even a minority of the illuminations reported have something to do with environmental conditions that may cause this area to be more "active" than others, it seems it should be worth devoting time for study; whether that relates to an actual source of light, or merely the presence of meteorological conditions that cause an increased potential for refractions, mirages, etc. Either circumstance may offer new clues about our natural world, and what kinds of special conditions might contribute to the broader observation of unidentified lights in our night sky.