Can anyone explain the mysterious lights dancing above Marfa? The Traveler’s Story.
July 16, 2013
A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns
The Scene: Marfa has its mystery. Marfa has the unknown lights. But Marfa is surrounded by beauty as well. The peaks of Big Bend National Park sprawl wildly to the south, and the Davis Mountains crown the northern landscape. The town has the highest golf course in Texas, with Bermuda fairways and bent grass greens rising 4,882 feet above sea level.
The Sights: Marfa’s El Paisano Hotel, a Texas Historic Landmark, was home to the stars who filmed the movie Giant on Marfa’s storied ranch lands. The region’s western heritage is recorded in the Presidio County Museum, and old Fort Russell, established in 1913 to protect the Southwest border and manned during World War II by mechanized cavalry units, now houses the Art Museum of the Pecos. There are art galleries on almost every corner and down every street. Some even believe that Marfa, so far from anywhere, has emerged as one of the hippest art communities in the country.
The Setting: The old army fort even served as a detention camp for German soldiers, and more than a few veterans have wondered if the eerie lights that sway back in the mountains just might be a ghostly Nazi patrol heading at night across the desert to free their imprisoned countrymen. Probably not. But when no one has any answers, one explanation is as good as another.
The Story: The truck driver saw no reason to be frightened. He didn’t believe what he had seen with his own eyes anyway. He poured down a cup of coffee and ordered another, then bought a pack of cigarettes even though he had never smoked before.
“Make the coffee a little stronger this time,” he told the waitress. “I want to taste the grounds.”
“You must have seen the lights,” voiced the Red Ball trucker from the far corner of the little all-night diner.
“I was headed up Highway Sixty-seven, coming out of Presidio.”
The Red Ball trucker nodded. “Maybe, it was a plane.”
“It was flying too damn low,” snapped the driver, who saw no reason to be scared. He sipped on the coffee and chewed on the grounds.
“Maybe it wasn’t flyin’ at all.”
The truck driver knew he didn’t believe his own eyes, and now he wasn’t believing what he was hearing either. He frowned, stuck a cigarette with trembling fingers into his mouth, and struck a match. A gust of hot wind ripped through the front door. The match went out.
“Back in World War number two,” said the Red Ball trucker, “the army had an air base out just east of Marfa. A bomber took off on a training mission one day and never returned.”
He paused. The truck driver reached for another match.
“Some people think those lights out there in the Chinati Mountains are the lights of that bomber still tryin’ to find its way back home,” the Red Ball trucker concluded, his words as emotionless as the clock behind the counter. The clock had struck ten-fourteen years ago and stopped. Time doesn’t mean a lot in Marfa, Texas.
The bomber may still be missing. But the lights, I’m told, were disturbing the holy peace of Marfa long before the army flew into those sun-blistered plains in the first place. They dance in the midnight shadows of the mountains, sometimes white, sometimes blue, sometimes orange. They confuse. They taunt. They are restless, wandering from the Chinatis to the Cienegas to the Dead Horse Mountains..
“They look like headlights in the sky,” some say.
“The old-time cowboys thought they were a rustler’s campfire.”
“They flare with the intensity of fire.”
“They look like an electric light behind frosted glass.”
“They’re just weird,” said Haillie Stillwell, a former justice of the peace in Alpine. “The first time I saw them they scared me to death. They light up and run across the mountains kind of like a grass fire.”
No one has ever explained the unearthly Marfa lights. Rumor tries. Rumor doesn’t have a clue. Those dashing, daring young pilots who trained at the air base during World War number two did their best to chase the lights down. Fritz Kahl recalled, “I could see them from my plane, a low glow, yellow and red, from the air. They moved around, but they didn’t move a great distance. They don’t chase you, and they’re nothing to be scared of. Maybe the lights are a low-grade form of St. Elmo’s fire or static electricity. I only know that when you approach one of the lights, it disappears. It’s a lot like trying to catch a rainbow.”
Fritz Kahl never caught them. Some pilots would fly over the lights and drop sacks of flour. Later, when daylight covered the land, they found only busted sacks of flour, no trace of the lights at all. Around Marfa, you still hear the hushed tales of tragedy that many believe, although none can really prove. It all happened so many years ago. Records were classified and simply filed away or thrown away. “Two soldiers went out in a Jeep to try and track the lights down,” I am told, “and they vanished right off the face of the earth. All that was ever found of them was a single wrinkled sock.”‘
According to rumors, passed along like gossip and gospel, two other soldiers grabbed a Jeep and headed out into the Chinati Mountains one night. Their spotter told them by radio, “You’re sittin’ right on top of the lights.”
“We don’t see a thing.”
There was a crackle of static, and the radio went dead. The soldiers were found in a smoldering Jeep, burned and scorched beyond recognition.
Another old timer swore, “Two government scientists stumbled up on the lights. Later, when the government finally found them, they were sitting out beside their Jeep, and their Jeep was burned to a crisp.”
“What did they say about the lights?”
“Nothing.” He paused. “Those scientists never said nothing again,” he said. “At least they didn’t say nothin’ that made sense to anybody.”
“They were stark raving mad and was cooped up in a sanitarium the last time I heard anything about them.”
“What did the government report on them?”
“The government don’t admit they ever even existed. They just shut up about it and they stayed shut up. I guess there are some things that it’s best to keep shut up about.”
During World War number two, many soldiers believed that the strange, eerie lights were being used to direct German supply planes into a bleak, barren, and isolated country. They were convinced that the Nazi war machine had a large, well-hidden camp just beyond the mountains, that the Germans were planning an invasion of U.S. soil and were marching up from Mexico.
It was to be expected. After all, during World War number two, it was believed, just as strongly, that the Marfa lights were signals being used to guide German cavalry and pack mules into the Great Chihuahua Desert. An attack was bound to be just around the corner. Marfa is still waiting.
The Marfa Lights saga continues tomorrow.
Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.
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