Texas Travel

The Mystery of the Marfa Lights

By Paige Phelps 2.3.13

The man working the Exxon station in Marfa is rocking out to heavy metal when I walk in unnoticed. Not too many people use this gas station for more than filling up, what with the two Stripes stations less than a mile away stuffed with all the taquitos, corn chips, and beer you could ever want. (In all honesty, everything in Marfa is less than a mile away.) I go to the counter to pay for my gas and water and notice his book, flipped open, marked at the half-way point, Hunting Marfa Lights by James Bunnell.

“So, what does the book say the lights are?” I ask.

“Some of them are car lights, there’s a highway that runs behind where they are, some are starlight, but some are plasma. Or at least that’s this guy’s theory. Really, no one knows,” he says. “It’s a mystery.”

I leave and the guy cranks his music back up to 11.

Since the 1800s people have reported seeing the mysterious Marfa lights, and since the 1800s, the answer, by those who have lived in the area long enough to hear the question, “What are they?” has always been, “No one knows.” It’s an answer that clues you in to two things about Far West Texas; one, mysteries abound here (in fact they are quite common); and two, no one is in a hurry to figure out what the heck is going on.

Aurie West, a Marfa resident who grew up on a remote ranch at the very end of Nopal Road, smack dab where the lights are supposed to be, says she’s seen the lights. Or light, as it were.

“I don’t know what all this talk of ‘lights’ is. When I was growing up there was always just one light and we’d see it bobbing in the distance,” she drags her finger through the air to show the pattern the light she saw took. “We always used to say that it was a goat herder that got lost in the desert and died, the light was his lamp as he wandered around looking for his goats.”

Whatever the lights are, Marfa celebrates them. Besides the crowd of international sophisticates that come to this desert plateau to experience the art of Donald Judd, Dan Chamberlin, and Dan Flavin, Marfa’s Chamber of Commerce puts on the Marfa Lights Festival every year on Labor Day Weekend catering to another crowd, one that lives to consume conspiracy theories. Well, that and corny dogs, funnel cakes, homemade burritos, as well as enjoy a good old-fashioned dunking booth, marshmallow eating contest, and well, OK, there aren’t a lot of black helicopter-type people here that weekend after all.

Look, in a part of Texas where the sunset sets the clouds on fire and the meteor showers zip by stars that seem so close you’re tempted to throw rocks at them, a few bobbing lights of unknown origin, although wonderful, really isn’t the main show out in these parts. So don’t be surprised when your excitement about the lights— What are they? Why are they here? Have you seen them?, etc … — is met with a polite nod and a curt answer of, “No one knows. It’s a mystery,” that puts a hard stop to your querying.

As for me, I have seen the Marfa Lights. One night after about an hour of watching what had to be car lights on the mountain road to Presidio, one multicolored light floated high above the rest and split into three separate lights, each one bobbing high above the horizon until they disappeared to the east.

These were not from a car; I know that. So what were they?

In “Let the Mystery Be,” Iris DeMint sings, “But no one knows for certain/ and so it’s all the same to me/ I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”

Yep. That about sums it up. Welcome to Far West Texas. We hope you enjoy your stay.

To learn more about Marfa, check out our City Spotlight.