It was a warm summer night when my friends and I drove out to the middle of the west Texas desert and turned off the road at a big sign proclaiming, “Marfa’s Mystery Lights Viewing Area: Night Time Only.”
We walked past a cylindrical adobe building—part of a viewing station built in 1986 and renovated a decade ago with roughly three-quarters of a million dollars of public funds—over to a row of telescopes perched on the wall adjoining it, expectantly pointed toward the horizon. Squinting across the black void of the grassy plain separating Marfa and its neighboring town, Alpine, we didn’t really know what we were supposed to be looking for.
Like so much of the two weeks we spent snaking through the southern U.S. on our road trip that summer, we had done just enough research to know vaguely what we wanted to see, leaving the rest haphazardly up to luck. Unfortunately, when it comes to Marfa’s mystery lights, luck doesn’t often deal the hand you’re looking for.
The lore of the lights—big yellow-orange glowing orbs occasionally seen flying, splitting off, and merging into each other in an elaborate dance on the low horizon of West Texas—stretches back for centuries. According to its many legends, Native Americans speculated they were fallen stars; 19th-century cowboys ruminated on the potential threat of faraway Apache campfires; during World War I, townsfolk feared they were signals from an invading German army; rumor even has it that, during the Marfa-based filming of the 1956 classic Giant, James Dean spent his nights peering through a telescope, eager to catch a glimpse of the ever-elusive light show. Today, the Marfa lights still have next to nothing in the way of a definitive explanation.
But in 2005 speculation was temporarily cut short. A group of University of Texas at Dallas physics graduate students camped out near the viewing area, recording video of visible flashing lights southeast of Marfa. Correlating their footage with traffic patterns on nearby Highway 67, the students determined that all of the so-called mystery lights they had seen were actually attributable to headlights. To skeptics, that settled it.
But others who had seen the “true” lights disagreed. One man in particular, a retired aerospace engineer named James Bunnell, has been steadily collecting hundreds of hours of night-time video footage since 2000.
Despite his diligence, he’s only captured them a few dozen times. From 2000 to 2009, for example, Bunnell identified only 60 “true” Marfa lights, and, since the lights tend to happen in clusters, they occurred over the course of only 31 nights. According to Bunnell, the key to identifying the outliers from the frequent occurrence of man-made lights lies in the sheer quantity of data he’s been able to collect: by comparing footage from his eleven low-light surveillance cameras in any given event, he can eliminate the usual suspects. Anything questionable, Bunnell claims, gets tossed out as well. “
The biggest obstacle to gaining understanding of the Marfa lights is their rarity of occurrence,” he says. This means that most people who come back with fabulous tales of the Marfa lights really are just seeing cars. But, more importantly, some—according to Bunnell—are not.
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