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Marfa Lights: Ghost Lights Deep in the Heart of Texas
A drive along US Route 67 through Mitchell Flats outside of Marfa, Texas can provide a memorable experience. There is no telling what one might witness along this rural stretch of highway. Not only does the surrounding relatively inhospitable terrain provide a stirring natural backdrop, an occasional appearance by mysterious orbs of light in a variety of colors has compelled a number of passers-by over the years to emblaze their passage along this stretch of road at the forefront of their memory.
The unexplained Marfa Lights (or, “Marfa Ghost Lights,” as they have come to be known in the paranormal community) prove to be an interesting case. Many of the sightings of the Marfa Lights can be explained away as natural environmental phenomena or misidentification of commonplace light sources such as headlights, flames, or lanterns and flashlights. However, this isolated stretch of Route 67 has seen numerous occurrences of mysterious illuminated spheres which defy the stereotypical explanations.
According to eye witnesses, the mercurial lights appear at any time during the nighttime; and in the case of the Marfa Lights, there have been no verifiable daylight sightings…aside from late dusk or pre-dawn twilight. These highly-visible disruptors of the shroud of darkness have typically materialized south of Route 90, and east of Route 67, about 5 to 15 miles outside of Marfa. Seasons and accompanying weather conditions seem to have no effect on the mystifying lights which manifest in shades of white, yellow, orange, red, green, or blue. Moreover, they can appear for mere seconds, or continue to illuminate the nighttime sky for hours. Furthermore, while some incarnations of the lights follow a straight, consistent, and predictable path in their movements, other editions float erratically to and fro, and may shake or shudder like a knuckle ball. Other orbs appear to split apart then meld back together in mid-flight.
The unpredictable times and conditions for appearance along with the inconsistency of color, flight path, and behavior of the Marfa Lights are what make them a genuine anomaly that is difficult to explain away. On an average of 10 to 20 twenty times per year, authorities in Marfa and the surrounding area receive a report of an appearance by the lighted orbs which have made this community famous. While, on average, only 3 – 5% of these reported sightings cannot be reconciled to a plausible explanation like the scenarios previously listed; over the span of time, the number of inexplicable sightings has accumulated.
The first published story which acknowledged the Marfa Lights appeared in the July 1957 issue of Coronet Magazine. In the article, the author had interviewed several witnesses (and descendants of witnesses). He then traced the first word-of-mouth sightings back to the 19th Century. However, these seemingly anecdotal testimonials passed down from generation to generation adhere to the contemporary accounts (which accompany photos and videos to lend credence to the subject) thereby granting authenticity and veracity to the earliest sightings. All of the accounts in question describe basketball-sized spheres of light which seem to hover around the shoulder height of an average-sized human being. Similarly, the sightings share commonalities of description based on the color, brightness, and erratic movement patterns of the lights.
The earliest account of the lights dates back to 1883. A young cowhand named Robert Reed Ellison witnessed a flickering light off in the distance while driving cattle through nearby Paisano Pass. Ellison assumed that the light originated from an Apache campfire. Upon relating his experience to fellow settlers in the area, Ellison was told that his neighbors had also seen the lights from time to time, but that group investigation had uncovered none of the telltale signs of a campsite ever having been located in the area.
Subsequent Marfa Light sightings also left behind no physical evidence to betray their origin. In the summer of 1919, cowboys herding cattle on the prairies in the area observed the lights and hurried over to investigate…they found nothing. Witnesses who viewed the mysterious lights during World War I, fearing that they were markers meant to guide an invasion, repeatedly investigated the area with no success. During World War II, pilots who were training at nearby Midland Army Air Field launched numerous investigations into the Marfa Lights from the skies above to no avail. Additionally, not only are the Marfa Lights inscrutable and untraceable… they seem to be beneficent.
Several witnesses report experiencing an overwhelming sense of calm and inner peace when while viewing the lights. Similarly, Mrs. W T Giddings, who is native of the area and a life-long observer of the lights, shares an interesting tale. He says that her father was once lost out on the open prairie in a blinding blizzard. Miraculously, the lights materialized and guided the lost and desperate man to the welcome shelter of a cave. Mrs. Giddings believes the Marfa Lights to be curious and benevolent “beings” who are simply investigating the world around them.
Other explanations for the baffling spheres revolve around them being entities as well: that is, they are spirits of the deceased which are manifesting themselves. Some who fancy a paranormal origin of the lights believe that they are the spirits of Spanish conquistadors who are still posthumously seeking the gold from the area which eluded them during life. Indigenous tribes from the region believed that the orbs were the spirits of dead warriors who were still protecting their territory. Likewise, a few contemporary residents of the region feel that the lights are the spirits of dead aviators who were stationed at the Midland Air Field at one time.
Never to be discounted, members of the Ufology community cite the presence of extraterrestrial beings as the genesis of the lights. While such true-believers do not posit that the lights are actual craft, they do assert that they are a sort of “scouting drone” conceived by an advanced other-worldly intelligence which can dissipate and rematerialize at will. While the paranormal faction has its explanations for the Marfa Lights, the scientific community holds a very different position on this riddle.
While the majority of scientists and academicians dismiss all of the Marfa sightings as headlights and campfires, natural light refracting off specific minerals in the terrain, or simply human exaggeration and hoaxes; a segment of climatologists and meteorologists concede that a small proportion of the sightings might truly be unfathomable…to the masses.
This widely-accepted solution to the puzzle postulates that the Marfa Lights are simply a mirage. A rare, but scientifically documented, phenomenon can occur when sharp temperature gradients between warm and cold air are present. Because Marfa is located at an altitude of 4,688 feet above sea level, 50 -60 degree Fahrenheit temperature differentials within the same 24 hour period are quite common. These dramatic shifts in temperature have been shown to induce mirage-like visions similar to imagining a body of water in the heart of a scorching desert. Those who are incredulous about this explanation cite that spheres of light have never been singled out as the definitive manifestation for this phenomenon—but that is what is always seen by witnesses.
Additionally, two meticulous scientific investigations have been undertaken by separate entities seeking to discover incontrovertible evidence which explains this mysterious phenomenon. Teams from the University of Texas at Dallas (2004), and Texas State University (2008) spent several days each conducting scientific study and observation around the area. Unfortunately, the sparse light sightings that were observed and recorded by each group were proven to have been created by headlights and campfires around the area. Recurring large-scale expeditions are problematic because terrain is difficult to traverse, and it is part of an extensive parcel of private property. As such, written permission must be acquired well in advance from the landowner; and he/she has been reticent to grant that permission.
While debate as to the explanation for the Marfa Lights continues to burn, the local community (and the state of Texas as a whole) continues to fan the flames. The phenomenon of the lights has been developed into a boon of tourism. The Texas State Highway Commission has constructed an elegant roadside park on Route 90 for tourists who want to catch a glimpse of the light show. “This attractive park provides a convenient place for nightly visitors who look into the night hoping to see bright elusive balls of light that sometimes fly mysteriously low over desert foliage” (Marfa Lights Website). The state of Texas also denotes the location of the lights on its state-approved travel maps. For its part, the community of Marfa has erected a viewing platform of its own in town. In addition, The Marfa Lights Festival is held annually in the city’s downtown, and the Marfa Chamber of Commerce promotes the lights throughout the remainder of the year through publications and commemorative plaques.
While the cause of the Marfa (Ghost) Lights is open to debate, the existence of this peculiar phenomenon is not. Innumerable eye witnesses and copious amounts of video footage and photos have verified the existence of these illuminated spheres beyond the shadow of a doubt. Yet, while they are an accepted fact, there is no concordance of opinion. So the question remains: What are the Marfa Lights?