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The Mysterious Marfa Lights of Texas

Located within the Chihuahuan Desert in northeastern Presidio County of far West Texas is the dusty desert city of Marfa. Founded as a water stop in the early 1880s, Marfa sits like an oasis surrounded by sprawling desolate desert, but despite its inhospitable location it has become a sort of center for minimalist art, and is known for its galleries, artisan shops, and historical architecture. Yet the town has become famous for something else as well, and here out in the desert badlands there has long been a mysterious, possibly paranormal light show that has never really been explained.

Marfa, Texas

What have come to be known as the Marfa Lights typically appear as orbs of light about the size of a basketball, that materialize out in the desert wasteland of Mitchell Flat looking towards the Chinati Mountains, to hover, fly, and dance about in the night before vanishing. They come in many colors, including white, yellow, pink, blue, and red, and can be very bright or faint, steadily illuminated or twinkling or flickering. The lights feature a wide range of movement and behaviors, either flying in a straight line or conversely bobbing up and down, darting about erratically, doing aerial acrobatics, accelerating or decelerating, or even merging together into larger orbs or disappearing and reappearing. They sometimes move slowly, at other times hovering stationary, or on other occasions travelling at great speed, often all of the above. One local by the name of James Bunnell has said of the Marfa Lights:

You might just see mysterious orbs of light suddenly appear above desert foliage. These balls of light may remain stationary as they pulse on and off with intensity varying from dim to almost blinding brilliance. Then again, these ghostly lights may dart across the desert or perform splits and mergers. Light colors are usually yellow-orange but other hues, including green, blue and red are also seen. Marfa Mystery Lights usually fly above desert vegetation but below background mesas.

The lights also don’t seem to follow any rhyme or reason to their appearances, emerging at all times of the year and in all kinds of weather, and they have been baffling those who see them for a very long time. Although the Native Americans had long known of the lights, perhaps the first historical record of the Marfa lights by settlers was in 1883, when a rancher named Robert Reed Ellison reported seeing a group of glowing orbs as he drove his cattle through Paisano Pass. He assumed that they were Apache campfires, but no evidence of any fires or campsites could be found the following day. After that, more and more people began reporting the mysterious lights, and over the decades there would be so many sightings that during World War II there was even an air search conducted by pilots from nearby Midland Army Air Field to find the source of the lights, but they came back empty-handed and puzzled. On some occasions there have been reports that the lights seem to show some sort of intelligence, sometimes coming closer as if out of curiosity or seeming to investigate certain areas, or to react to sound, and there are even stories of people lost in the desert being led to safety by the lights. But what are they and where do they come from? That depends a lot on who you ask.

There have been numerous theories as to what the lights may be. One is that they are some sort of atmospheric phenomenon, in particular one called a Fata Morgana, which is an optical illusion that causes far away objects to appear closer and distorted through light passing through air layers of different temperatures in a steep thermal inversion, in which a defined layer of warm air is resting on a layer of much cooler air. Another idea is that these are the similarly distorted lights car headlights on the nearby Highway 67, made to look fuzzy and wavering by light scattering due to the air being unevenly heated by the ground, but this would not explain why they are most often seen well away from the highway, why they display such erratic and aberrant movements, why they have so many different appearances, or how they would have been seen so much back in 1883. Other ideas include static electricity produced by geological activity, ball lighting, illuminated gases from the natural gas and other petroleum hydrocarbons in the area, and of course alien UFOs and even ghosts, perhaps even all of the above. No one really knows for sure.

In the meantime, Marfa has embraced the lights and sought to turn them into a tourist attraction. There is a roadside parking area nine miles east of Marfa on U.S. Highway 90 specifically built for passing motorists to view the curious phenomenon, complete with a Marfa Lights viewing platform, and there is even an annual Marfa Lights Festival that features live music, food and a parade. What is going on with these lights? What are they? Are they just distant car headlights morphed into something more mysterious by atmospheric phenomena or are at least some of them something stranger? For now the Marfa lights still occasionally come out to do their dance, and no one is entirely sure of what they truly are.