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The Marfa Lights: A Mystery

Written by Rosemary Williams.

The Marfa Lights appear as bright, pulsating globes that sometimes undulate, flicker and move in no predictable pattern. The two lights on the left of the photograph resemble those seen by writer Rosemary Williams. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

The fabled Marfa Lights. They pulsate. They dance. They flicker. Sometimes they flash colors. Sometimes they display the bright intensity of a strobe. Always, they fascinate.

Thousands have seen them. Thousands have speculated about them. Thousands will continue to enjoy their serendipity.

Drive nine miles east from Marfa any night to the turnout viewing site that edges the old Marfa Army Air Field, and, usually, you will see a dozen or so hopeful light-sighters. They sit on car hoods. They wait by the fence. They talk quietly in the changed West Texas darkness. Sometimes, they wait in vain. For the mysterious ghost lights march to their own drummer. The lights appear at random, during all kinds of weather at no particular time, during no particular season.

When did this spectral phenomenon begin? No one really knows, although the first reported sightings occurred in the 1800s. What are the Marfa Lights? No one really knows that, either, but folks sure have spend lots of time trying to figure them out, identifying them as anything from phosphorescent jackrabbits to atmospheric phenomena. Undoubtedly, some of the lights that people spot are the distant headlights of vehicles traveling down US 67 in the distance. Some of them –– but not all.

The ghost lights have entranced area settlers and visitors for more than a century and have eluded precise scientific examination and explanation for at least half that long. Some viewers claim to have seen them up close, describing them as one or two (occasionally more) red or yellow or bluish lights about the size of basketballs, or one colored baseball-seized light, or as a single, startlingly bright light. But most people view them from afar, the way Hallie Stillwell has done for more than 75 years.

"Well, I first saw the Marfa Lights in 1916, when I was teaching school in Presidio," says Hallie, who has lived in the Big Bend country for most of her 95 years. "Every time I'd go home to Alpine, I'd have to wait until school was out, and it would be nighttime when I would pass the Chinati Mountains. That's where the 'mysterious lights' would appear," she says.

'I have an idea that the early Indians in this country and everyone else who came through saw those lights. I know for certain the lights I saw then weren't auto headlights. You know, there weren't too many automobiles going up and down the road in 1916!'

 Back then, we would wonder about the lights, but we didn't know they were going to be famous one of these days! From Marfa to Alpine, we'd really get a good look at them. They'd flare up and be kind of red, then they'd die down, then they'd move elsewhere and flicker a little bit. They're really weird. There are also lights around the Cienega Mountains. No one talks about those. Folks are always just interested in the lights in the Chinatis.

"I know of some people who saw them 100 years ago," says Hallie. "So, I have an idea that the early Indians in this country and everyone else who came through saw those lights. I know for certain the lights I saw then weren't auto headlights. You know, there weren't too many automobiles going up and down the road in 1916! I don't know what the lights are and I don't really want to know," she says.

But there are some whose natural curiosity prickles and prods them to seek an explanation. For them, the search for the source of the Marfa Lights can prove a lifelong quest. Such a seeker is Kirby Warnock, whose family settled in the Trans-Pecos region just north of Big Bend country more than 100 years ago.

“My last father, Dr. Frank Warnock, took me and my brother, Miles, to see the lights for the first time in 1963, when I was 11 and my brother was eight,” says Kirby, who lives in Dallas. “The lights fascinated me. But when I asked my father, “What are they, Dad?” he simply responded. “We don’t know.” Well, I wasn’t satisfied with that, so I determined to find out,” Kirby says.

“Every summer, when I visited my grandfather in Fort Stockton, I drove out to see the lights. I took pictures of them. I talked to everyone I could about them. Over the years, two of those folks, Fritz Kahl and the late Pat Kenney, spent hours talking with me about the Marfa Lights,” he says.

“Fritz, a pilot, ran the airport at Marfa, and Pat was a geologist. Fritz told me a lot about earlier sightings of the light––he had even searched for them from the air ––while Pat helped me try to pinpoint them, so I could examine them up close.

“In the late 70s, a corporation became convinced that vast uranium deposits existed in the area,” says Kirby. “They paid Pat to live out there and investigate further. Well, Pat had all kinds of surveying equipment, and he and I located a stretch of land where it was impossible for car lights to interfere. When the ghost lights appeared, we triangulated them.

“My brother and I tried to get closer, but never could,” says Kirby. “The lights always seemed to move away, out of our reach. Once, Pat saw them fairly close, within 25 yards or so, but Miles and I never did. By the way, Pat never found uranium deposits, either.

“Finally, after some 15 years of studying the lights and searching for their source, I kind of adopted the local “let ‘em be” philosophy, and quit looking so hard,” he says.

But Kirby just couldn’t let go altogether. He wrote an article about the Marfa Lights for the Southwest Airlines in-flight magazine, Spirit in April 1982, which he later reprinted in 1988 in the first issue of his publication Big Bend Quarterly. A research assistant for the NBC television program Unsolved Mysteries picked up on the story, and the producers eventually contacted Kirby for his help in televising a segment about the lights. Kirby appeared in the show and served as a technical adviser as well. The program, which aired in 1991, also included appearances by Fritz Kahl and Hallie Stillwell.

“I still don’t know precisely what the lights are, but I do have a theory,” says Kirby. “I believe the Marfa Lights are some type of natural phenomenon, just as St. Elmo’s fire is a natural phenomenon. The real mystery about the Marfa Lights is that they occur so often. The Big Bend country harbors lots of mysteries, and the se lights are jut one of them,” he says.

Scientific theories about the lights exist, of course. One concept describes the lights as an atmospheric phenomenon that resembles a mirage, wherein u, under certain atmospheric conditions, headlight beams or even the lights from stars just over the horizon head back toward earth and appear to move around and change. Such explanations don’t excite old-timers like Hallie Stillwell.

“The Marfa Lights are a mystery,” says Hallie. “Let ‘em stay a mystery.”

So be it.

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