MYSTERIOUS MIRAGE EFFECT OF THE MARFA LIGHTS
(c) Copyright Sharon Eby-Martin 2001, 2002
The last time we (my family and I) went down to this small west Texas town it was to get a feel for the area and to view the lights for the very first time. They have been known to appear out in the desert out of nowhere, suddenly flash very brightly and then dim to a mere flicker, and then just as quickly burn bright and split off into 2, 3, or even multiple lights before merging back again. They have been seen, by some peoples' testimonies, to avoid people when folks tried to get too close, and also to go as far as chasing cars down the highway to the nearest town of Alpine, TX which lies about 30 minutes east of Marfa. Numerous accounts of the lights have been published in magazines and newspapers across the country and a scrap book FULL of many of these articles are located in the local Marfa library. Some of the reports on the Marfa Lights have been as far back as 1883 by Robert Ellison, grandfather of Ms. Rosemary Cox whom we interviewed while there. Rosemary, and her parents before her, have had a long history of viewing the lights and have been on numerous interviews about them in the past.
Back during the Thanksgiving holidays, while on the county dirt road "Nopal Road" we stopped near a ranch and witnessed the lights within a mile distance. We only knew this distance because of the area we were at, and having driven around the lights and seeing them from both sides (north and south). The same nature of the lights, with the brightening and dimming of their luminescence, as well as splitting off into multiple lights thrusted their magical qualities into our eager eyes as we watched with awe. The question this time around was. were we going to be able to see the lights on this springtime trip?
Being a researcher/investigator the main directive for me was to meet and speak with the local ranchers to gain permission for land use access to view and study the Marfa Lights provided they would appear. This involved numerous methods to locate the land owners and then seek their phone numbers and then actually be able to reach them when they were at home and not out doing the duties of ranch life. As luck would have it, the information fell into my lap and I had permission from two ranchers within a short amount of time. That was all we needed although I also had the data I needed for future possible expeditions to other sites in the valley south of Marfa.
My nephew Derek Eby, an intern with CBS news channel 4 out of El Paso went with me and caught on camera our adventures of Marfa light chasing as well as the interviews of the Marfa Mayor, Fritz Kahl, also Marfa residents (of 38 years) Armando and Josephine Vasquez (Armando was influential in choosing the official roadside Marfa Lights viewing spot), and also Jan and Jimmy Poenisch (local Marfans who have seen the lights numerous times). We also spoke with a good number of other locals and professionals who wish to remain anonymous, but did tell about their experiences off camera.
Of course, all this interviewing and learning was in preparation to investigate the lights themselves. Three nights were available for the viewing of the Marfa Lights although the lights did not show up the first night at all, at least not for us. Hours and hours we sat there and moved around between locations to see what we could see.. but nothing. I suppose most people go to the Marfa Lights viewing area, which is located 9 miles east of Marfa on Highway 90, and stay anywhere from minutes to hours. We spoke with some folks from Houston who believed they had been seeing the lights that first night, although it turned out to be the car headlights on the Presidio highway. They also thought they saw the lights down in the valley toward Nopal road just 20 minutes prior to our arrival (bobbing up and down, and going on and off, and then finally disappearing), although it is conspicuous since we had been driving up that very road at that exact time! Our vehicle had been running up and down the hills, passing between both clearly seen and hidden spots from the viewing area, and we saw no lights behind, in front, or around us (and believe me, we were looking!). I didn't have the heart to tell them it was our own headlights they had spotted as the "Marfa lights". Unfortunately, this is all too common and most people don't realize it. The desert can be very deceptive at night, and the atmospheric distortion can influence the appearance of any light, big or small, no matter how great or small the distance is between the viewer and the source.
Some have said that the cars' headlights barreling down Presidio Highway (seen in a southwesterly direction) could not be seen from the viewing spot on Hwy 90, and that the spot was chosen because you COULDN'T see the car lights from there; however, if you go there during the day you can see the mountain, and if you have also driven south on Presidio highway (up the mountain) you can most obviously see that this highway is MOST DEFINITELY visible from the viewing area. Of that there is no doubt. I would suffice to say that with all the turns and curves on that road, and the hills that block the carlights on occasion, that it is entirely possible that many, if not most, of the "Marfa Light sightings" by the untrained eye are indeed nothing but the car headlights. They APPEAR to turn on and off (by going behind hills and turning direction), and APPEAR to flicker (obvious atmospheric distortion) and they APPEAR to split off into multiple lights (one car behind another and then once they go around a curve you see two sets of headlights instead of one). It is all a very deceptive game of chance if you don't know what you're looking for.
In the interviews we recorded, it became obvious also that there were a number of completely differing opinions about this whole phenomena. That there exists a phenomena (despite some sightings being mere car headlights) was not in question (in most everyone's minds). That the stories get exaggerated over time, and that some reports of light sightings are bogus, just comes with the territory. One must be very keen and be able to read people well enough, and show some discernment concerning the stories they tell, in order to tell what is truth, and what is not. I had been told that the Mayor himself, being a WW II pilot in the Marfa area, had been involved with dropping flour sacks where the lights were, only to find out that the lights were not there the next morning. After speaking with the Mayor, Fritz Kahl, in a personal interview he threw that story in the trashcan because he was not involved with any such happening at all, nor did he know anyone who had. With that clear, it is well understood that going to the source of the information is crucial when attempting to decipher between Marfa Light stories. This includes different versions of the stories of the lights chasing people, avoiding people, or even the lights being angels, spirits, sent from God, or showing intelligence. Until I see it for myself, I'm hard pressed to believe it. But so it is with most.. as it should be. But I also believe in the REAL Marfa lights, especially because they've been seen since well before cars or street lights were even invented. I've seen them so I can say that with no doubt in my mind. Now WHAT the Marfa lights really are is a whole issue unto itself!
A hotly debated topic was that very question that I asked to all the interviewees, "What do you think the Marfa Lights really are?" Without naming names, I'm going to simply reconstruct a summary of a mere few of the many answers here: The spirit of an old Indian chief looking for his maiden, St. Elmo's fire, Apache campfires, Ignited phosphorous gases, Static electricity, Earthquake lights, Angels, Lights from radioactivity, Mirages, Ghost lights, Ufo's, Spirits. The list goes on..
There are several issues that need more investigation but some of the reasons why the lights will show sometimes, and why they won't other times, is also covered by the hundreds of reports and personal opinions of Marfans and strangers alike. A few of the reasons given for the lights showing or not showing at certain times include:Weather, High winds, Solar flare activity, Geomagnetic storms, Rain (abundance or lack of), Seismic activity, Geology, Magnetic fields/lines within the earth, Whether the lights "want" to be seen by certain people or not, Atmospheric distortion, Outside temperature, Location of the viewer, Desert mirage effects. Again the list goes on...
On our second night out, while sitting in a rancher's pasture (with permission of course as stepping foot on ANYONE's land in the entire state of Texas is illegal once you're off the road easements) we spotted two amber colored lights to the northwest. Our location was fairly far down in the valley off Nopal Road. (Please note that the local Border Patrol office was also notified personally of our whereabouts and our purpose in this area because drug trafficking is common in the area and because of the dangers down those roads at night) The two separate lights would appear to be bright and then the left one would go dim. They would flicker, appear to change from yellow to reddish, to greenish, to bluish, etc. but would mostly stay a soft yellow color. They seemed to sit still although at one time you could look through the binoculars and see one was clearly below the horizon (it was silhouetted by a small hill) while the other one was not. No other lights were seen. We triangulated the lights with a compass and a map and found them to be about 2 miles from us. Later the lights dimmed and the left one flickered out, or appeared to almost flicker out at different times, and would come up above the hill and then drop back down. Also both my 14 yr old son Tyler, Derek, and myself all watched while the brighter light split off into what was clearly two separate lights (a total of three now). We viewed this with the naked eye as well as through 10x50mm binoculars. Finally they became two lights again, got smaller/dimmer and faded into the distance, almost as if they had moved much farther away (DIRECTLY away) from us than the original 2 miles we projected them to be at. The whole scene of these lights doing all these things was absolutely spectacular even though it was slow going. Now, my question to you, the reader, is.. DID WE SEE THE MARFA LIGHTS?
It appears so. Or did we?
A further look into these things would not happen (at least not for us) until the next day when we went atop a hill of another rancher's land south of the city of Marfa during the day. The nice gentleman who owned the ranch showed us the lights on his property and amazingly they were a low-light amber color. There were two of them, plus a smaller white light that was lower in height that the amber ones. They were located in the same direction as the way we had estimated them to be on the map, but about 4 1/2 miles FURTHER than we had triangulated them at from two separate locations. What was going on???
Once nightfall came, and taking into account the "mirage effect" that was so predominant during the spring and fall times of the year (due to hotter days and still cooler nights) since the extreme temperature fluctuations cause extra heat waves to appear on the horizon, we focused on seeing if the lights we had witnessed doing all those things had indeed been those two ranchers lights. We went back, and sure enough, the two lights were there in the distance, in the exact direction we'd seen them flickering and splitting off, etc. the night before, both amber colored. I knew the ranchers lights were out there, but because of the enormous "activity" the lights seemed to exude we figured that they HAD to be "Marfa Lights". Not so. Even we, with critical thinking, decent binoculars, experience in seeing the lights before, and a full range of information at our fingertips, were still deceived that second night. But not the third night.
Hours and hours had been spent watching this from both sides of the spectrum. And here we had personally witnessed the "mirage effect" of the desert. Something I was all too familiar with, but had never seen in quite this way. Most of us think of a mirage being heat waves on a concrete or asphalt road that makes the appearance of water in the distance. I can tell you that as we had driven to the Marfa area that first day, we had all seen the entire corner of one of the mountains just "disappear" because of the mirage effect. And not only did Mayor Kahl mention the mirage effect in the desert, since he has been a pilot for most of his life, but it is also interesting that despite conflicting reports of the lights being seen from the air, the Mayor himself said that he had never seen the lights from above the ground. Are they only visible from ground level? If so, why?
On a separate interview Jimmy Poenisch had told of how he was once working cattle on a ranch and that the buildings and fence and windmill of ANOTHER ranch were suddenly ON the pasture where he was. He recognized it, as well as the man he was with, as not belonging on that pasture. Jimmy said it was very clear and that they could see details of the building and fence, etc. and that within 5 minutes the entire mirage was gone and it was all "back" where it belonged 2 miles away on it's own ranch. This type of mirage is not unlike the scenes one can see in the Sahara, when one is still mentally coherent but the bending of light and optical illusions and "mirage effect" take place very elusively and solemnly in the vast desert areas of the world. Few get to experience this type of magnified (holographic?) mirage, but during this time of year the effects are especially evident. It was clear that not only do some folks see the "Marfa Lights" and they turn out to be car headlights, but also some of us see the "Marfa Lights" and they turn out to be a mirage.
Now, I have to ask myself, and those who witnessed the lights with me back in November of last year.. Were the lights we saw the real thing, or just another rancher's lights having a mirage effect so strong and precise that it was visible from two (at least) completely separate directions? I don't have any final answers to that question yet.. but.. I find it interesting that we first saw the lights appear from the viewing spot on the highway (location #1), and then we drove to Marfa to fill up on gas and noticed that the light had become two (location #2 while we were driving). Then we drove down Nopal road and parked near a ranch, and by this time the light had become one again and just sat still for a long time (location #3).. then the light split off into two, then into four, and they were VERY bright and then went dim, back and forth, etc. before combining back into two lights (from the four) again. Then we drove south on Nopal road toward the last ranch on the road and viewed the lights one more time, but this time we had to look north to see them, instead of south. (location #4) Is it possible that what we witnessed within a mile distance was only a mirage? A mirage that could be seen from 4 separate locations to be in the same place on the map??? Somehow I seriously doubt that!
Here's the biggest question of all though, as all this still does not solve the Marfa Lights mystery.. What is the source of light, even IF it happens to be a mirage? Again, we're dealing with lights that have been showing up since the 1800's and very likely before that. before cars were in the area, and before street lights were evident in society as we know it today. Are we back to the Apache campfires being miraged throughout the desert? How about those accounts from folks who claim to have had the lights come VERY CLOSE to them.. within a 100 feet or even within a few feet? Are these reliable eye-witness accounts? Is it sensationalism? Is it real? Do the lights really show intelligence as some feel they do? Until the Marfa light mystery is absolutely, scientifically, and unequivocally solved beyond a shadow of a doubt, then we cannot claim to know or understand every aspect of this phenomena. All I can say with assurance is that sometimes, for some people, the lights are merely car headlights; and sometimes, for some people, they are a mirage... but if a mirage, then are they a mirage of a car, a mirage of a ranchers light, or a mirage of an authentic Marfa Light that is still desiring to keep itself as an unsolved enigma to the world? The source of the lights is still completely unknown... and much to Marfa's joy, it is STILL A MYSTERY!
Until next time.. Think on these things..