What's a "Marfa light"?


What makes a light near Marfa a Marfa Light?

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Just seeing the name, Marfa Light, you’d probably think that a light near the town of Marfa, Texas, qualifies as a Marfa Light.

 

So does that mean that street lights in Marfa are Marfa Lights? How about the traffic control light at Highland Avenue and US90 in Marfa? Or, neon sign lights from local businesses? Are they Marfa Lights?

 

Well, the lights in the town of Marfa don’t qualify. The Marfa Lights that people care about all have a mysterious element to them. If no one knows what they are, then, they qualify as Marfa Lights.

 

If someone knows what they are, but you don’t, they still are Marfa Lights to you. For example, if a green light chases your car down US90. That’s a mysterious Marfa Light to you (and most other people also).

 

But be careful when describing your newly discovered mysterious Marfa Lights to others because you may be embarrassed to learn that your mysterious lights are common knowledge. Also, be aware when reading the literature that some people may be playing games with you.

 

For example, one commonly repeated story tells of a person who saw a Marfa Light fall to the ground near him. He rushed to pick it up. As he held it in his hand, he watched the light “dissipate”, never to be seen again. What do you think? True story?

 

There are some noted authorities on Marfa Lights. Judith Brueske from Alpine, Texas, is a real expert; and one who has written on the lights. She considered the Marfa Lights to be seen widely in the Marfa area.  In a 2005 Letter to the Editor of The Big Bend Gazette, she described the expanse over which mysterious lights have been sighted ―


Reports have come from many places in the greater Big Bend: from along the Alamito Creek that runs between Marfa and the Rio Grande, from both the Texas and Mexican sides of the Rio Grande itself (from Lajitas and downstream at least as far as Redford), from in the Chinati Mountains and the foothills east of them, from Shafter and from the flat between Shafter and Presidio, from the flat on Highway 118 south of Fort Davis, from between Fort DBMS [Davis] and Marfa, from up around Saragosa and Grandfalls, and, of course, from the official Viewing Site on Highway 90 between Marfa and Alpine that overlooks Mitchell Flat and the various mountains beyond.

The Big Bend Gazette, (September 2005) Vol. 5, No. 9, 12-13.
 

The territory Judith Brueske described is a major portion of the Big Bend area.  And, we’d say that until these lights are explained, they are Marfa Lights.

 

A narrower definition of the Marfa Lights traces to the witnesses who have seen mysterious lights from a location along US90 over the last 98 years (at least). These lights were the driving force behind the Texas Department of Transportation’s construction of a viewing center at the approximate location of those historic sightings.

Today, the Marfa Lights Viewing Center (MLVC) provides a platform where people can observe the current lights. An illustration of what you might see from the MLVC at dusk is shown at the top of this page. Most of the lights seen from the MLVC have been proven to be vehicle headlights traveling toward Marfa on US67. (See our history.) We think they still qualify to be called Marfa Lights because of their historic significance. They were the original Marfa Lights;  and, after all, were unexplained for nearly 90 years!

 

But, at least one person wants to define true Marfa Lights in a way that excludes the autos on US67. His definition is that the true Marfa Lights exist on the Marfa plain, but only east of a line that runs from the MLVC approximately southwest across the Marfa plain. (See our map for the approximate location). That line connects the MLVC with a red tower beacon on the Marfa plain and defines where the US67 car lights first appear. (See page 78 of Mysteries of the MarfaLights Revealed for a more detailed map.)

 

Our view is that it’s semantic gaming to say that a mysterious Marfa Light can exist on one side of a line, but not on the other. But, you be the judge. Go see these lights for yourself. From the MLVC, look out over the region to the left of the arbitrary line. In the daytime, you’ll see the panorama of the horizon as illustrated in our gallery.

But at night, you’ll see lights out there that don’t move (mostly ranch building lights), and lights that do move (mostly cars and trucks, but occasionally airplanes). Most of these lights are no longer mysterious because their sources have been identified. (See our book for full details.) But, the lights seen out there still may appear mysterious to a new visitor. Two categories of lights that are not mysterious are shown in the illustration at the top of this page — the red tower beacon light and the lights that appear as long segments working their way downward and to the right where Marfa is located.  These are vehicle headlights on US67. (See our history.)

 

The difference between just any light in the Marfa area and a Marfa Light is whether it's mysterious, not where it is.  You can find lots of lights around Marfa that are readily explained.  The challenge is to find ones that can’t be explained (or haven’t yet been explained).

Go to Marfa and find one that is mysterious. You’ll enjoy the hunt. And you’ll enjoy discovering the history and technical basis for the lights that have been seen over the years. Take our book along. It’s your best guide book.


Now that we have a working definition of a Marfa Light  (a mysterious light seen in the marfa/big bend region of texas) — we need to consider the possible sources of a Marfa Light.


That’s a different question. It’s also the more difficult of the two questions. That’s because, if you know the source of a Marfa Light, you’re well on your way to eliminating the mystery of that particular Marfa Light. Usually, you won’t know the source of a light tens of miles away from you, but you can still make a good start at saying what it isn’t, and what it could be.

 

Since every light seen on and around the Marfa plain is called a Marfa Light by someone, they all need to be considered in any comprehensive explanation. To help organize the possible light options, it is useful to associate them with four questions:

 

Is the light visible on a repeatable basis (say every evening)?

Is the light stationary, or is it moving?

Is the light above or below the horizon?

Is the light white, or is it colored?


The decision tree on the chart on the right provides possible answers to these four questions.


There’s a bright light on the left that divides the chart into two halves. The upper portion is a decision tree for lights that are repeatable.


The lower portion is a decision tree for lights whose appearances are nonrepeatable.


On the right-hand side of each half, we list possible sources of the lights seen. Known sources are colored green, while mysterious sources are colored yellow.


Let’s consider the repeatable lights first. If they’re moving and above the horizon, they probably belong to an airplane, whether they are colored or white. If they’re moving and below the horizon, they come from vehicles, whether colored or white. If they’re stationary, but repeatable, they have additional possible explanations for their sources as shown on the decision tree.


The possible sources for repeatable lights listed on the decision tree are likely to be complete. But in the case of repeatable lights, an explanation doesn’t require a comprehensive list, since no rancher in the Marfa area would allow an unexplained, repeatable light on his property to go unchallenged. If the rancher couldn’t resolve the origin of the light, he’d call in the U.S. Border Patrol, which maintains a very high presence in the area. They will find the source! The very fact that it appears regularly will cause someone to determine what the light is. Then, it is no longer mysterious, and it’s not a Marfa Light by the definition above.


This leads us to a major conclusion about a Marfa Light. If it’s repeatable, it’s not a Marfa Light (except for the special case of vehicle lights from the historical path of US67 as described above).


All the sources that are not repeatable are potentially mysterious. And, they each require a different explanation. The decision tree on the bottom half of the chart shows that some of the lights in the “nonrepeatable” category (which are colored green) are from well-known sources. Whereas, the sources colored yellow are mysterious in some way.


That just shows that every nonrepeating light has the potential of both conventional explanations and mysterious explanations. But, whether it’s conventional in origin or mysterious in origin, if you only get to see a light once, you are not likely to discover its source. To you, it will remain a mystery. 


This leads us to a lesson about a potential Marfa Light. Since a real Marfa Light has to be a mysterious light, you have to come back and view the sighting area again and again to make sure it doesn’t repeat, in order to confirm the mystery. Quite a challenge to one’s patience and endurance!


If you have yet another definition of the “Marfa Lights”, or you would like to comment on the reasoning in the logic tree above, we’d be happy to hear from you. Email us at marfalightsmysteries@outlook.com.


Bob and Judy Wagers