Presidio County Texas
The Marfa Lights
GHOST LIGHTS They appear each night In the desert near Marfa.
Bright, pulsating llghts that move about. No one has explained what they
by Kirby F. Warnock reprinted from Big Bend Quarterly, Summer, 1988 copyright © Trans Pecos Productions. All rights reserved
I have never believed in pyramid power. If pyramids can sharpen razor blades and keep your milk from spoiling, then why can't I buy one at K-Mart or order one from a toll-free number on television, like a Veg-o-matic? The Bermuda triangle was interesting until close examination proved it to be more the work of paperback writers than of the devil or sinister forces. Close En counters of the Third Kind convinced me that UFO's were a publicity stunt for Universal Pictures, 10 years in the making. No, there are no more "natural phenomena" left that can baffle the scientists and elude capture. Unless, that is, you count a certain phenomenon in a remote area of West Texas, near the town of Marfa. Now, here is a genuine wonder of nature-one that not only confounds the scientific community but that can be seen and photographed by almost any one. These "ghost-lights" are known to the citizens of the trans-Pecos as the the Marfa lights. Things don't happen until the sun goes down; then, several lights begin to appear in the desert. The light pulsate, move around, grow extremely bright, and disappear. The lights are of a white color, not orange (like fire), and can be seen without fail every night of the year. That's about it. No bodies, no missing airplanes, no sinister acts. The lights are just there to be see and to baffle you. The mystery is what kind of light appears in the desert-and why. Several explanations exist, but thus far no one has been able to come up with a conclusive one.
I first saw the lights as an 11-year-old at the Paisano Baptist Encampment near Alpine, Texas. Everyone there knew about them. "Why you just drive out Highway 67 and park by the old airfield, shut off your lights, and you'll see them," everyone would say. Usually these instructions were accompanied by a tale of what everyone saw happen when they went out there. Two of the most often repeated stories were that a National Geographic expedition had failed to explain the lights and that people who had tried to chase them had died, usually from a plane or jeep crash and not from the "lights" them selves. I promptly persuaded my parents to drive us out the next night; I wanted to see for myself what the Marfa lights were all about. We parked our car at the old airfield while my father told us that the site had been used by the Army to train pilots during World War II and that it had been closed just after the war had ended. A friend of his had been stationed at the airfield. My father shut off the engine, stopped the car, and told my brother and me to watch the desert to our right. After about a two-minute wait, we saw three tiny white lights appear. The endless plains made depth perception almost impossible, so it was hard to tell if we were watching a large light 20 miles away or just a flashlight beam some 50 yards in front of us. Certain of the lights moved, while others remained stationary. Occasionally they would pulsate, grow extremely bright, and then disappear. After a few minutes they would reappear and begin the cycle anew. I was fascinated and excited at the same time. Here was something that, if properly analyzed and explained, could make an investigator famous for the rest of his life. I could already see the headlines in Time, Newsweek, and National Geographic-with my picture accompanying them.
The first thing that I did was to read everything I could find on the subject. That was no problem, since there were hundreds of newspaper articles and Sunday supplements about the lights, as well as substantial portions of a good number of books. Elton Miles's Tales of the Big Bend is the best of those books. He devotes a whole chapter to the subject and includes some of the best legends and explanations, ranging from the far-out (the lights are the spirits of a rancher whose family was tortured to death by Mexican bandits and whose ghost has been searching for them for eternity) to the ridiculous (during World War II several German prisoners who'd been incarcerated at the airbase had escaped to Mexico, and the lights are the spirit of Hitler signaling them the way to escape) to the semi-scientific, in the mold of "ancient astronaut" stories (a team of scientists had attempted to drive a jeep up to the lights one night, and the next day the jeep was found burned to a crisp, with no sign of their bodies any where in sight). Miles does not allege that the stories are true. Early in the chapter, he warns that most of them are fourth-hand information, and that they should be taken with a grain of salt. But there is one story in particular that had also been cited in several of the news stories I'd read.
It reports that during the war, some pilots from the airbase flew out over the lights and dropped flour sacks to mark their location. The next morning, when the pilots walked out to the spot, they found no flour sacks or any thing else. As the years went by, I kept up my research and attempted several more sightings. But it wasn't until the summer of 1977 that I was able to begin a sustained study. My first stop was at the home of my uncle, Dr. Barton H. Warnock, in Alpine, Texas. Barton had spent more time in the Big Bend country and was more familiar with it than anyone else I knew. He gave me the names of several people to see; the one that caught my fancy was Fritz Kahl, a Marfa resident. Fritz, he said, had been the flight instructor at the old airbase and had been residing in Marfa ever since. "He runs the Marfa airport," Barton continued, "and he's there most every day. If you want to talk to someone about those lights, look him up." This was the break I had been looking for. Until now, no one had given me a conclusive, or even plausible, explanation for the lights; Surely Fritz could. There were rainstorms moving through the mountains as I drove toward Marfa. The town is located in one of the most remote areas of the state. It hardly looks like a place for an unexplained natural phenomenon. There are broad plains in every direction, rising up abruptly into the Chianti Mountains in the distance. Man is still an insignificant speck in this region-the environment and the natural elements still rule. Water and gasoline are partial equalizers; without either, man is as helpless as a turtle on its back in this remote, forlorn country.
I pulled into a field marked by a large tin-roofed hangar. I got out and entered the structure. Fritz wasn't in. I was told by his helper that he was out counting ducks along the Rio Grande with the game warden and would return within the next hour. I sat and waited. Finally I heard the sound of a light plane landing, and I watched a burly man with a cap on his head emerge. Fritz Kahl had been a resident of Marfa since 1943, when he came to the air base to train pilots. Since then, he had become the owner and operator of the Marfa Airport, a business that enjoys its biggest activity when the border patrol planes land and take off. "When I came here as an instructor, we heard people talk about the lights," he told me. "Thirty years ago, it was a lot easier to see the Marfa lights, because there weren't as many lights out there competing with them. There were no electric lights back then and no four wheeled vehicles, so the lights were easier to see. There are Marfa lights, but they've been overrated and overpublicized. So many asinine stories have come out." For instance? "Oh, tales about people disappearing or dying. There have been no tragedies because of the lights. We lost eight cadets during the war, but not from chasing lights or trying to dive under them." Fritz delivered this remark with a thoroughly disgusted air. What, I asked, about published reports of pilots dropping flour sacks to mark the location for investigators to find the next day? Fritz acted insulted when I asked this. "No flour sacks were dropped," he scoffed. "I've been either instructing at or running this airport for the past thirty years. If someone would have flown out and dropped flour sacks, I would have known about it." Fritz seemed adamant in his denials of any supernatural cause for the lights, yet he admitted that they exist. What, I asked, did he believe they really were, and why hadn't he ever found out for sure? Fritz let out a long chuckle. With a grin, he told me, "The reason people come to see me about the lights is because I chased them in an AT-6 air plane. Me and another pilot got a fix on them and tried to fly to that spot, but when we got up in the air, we couldn't see them. I kept getting lower and lower, until finally the fellow in the back seat started shouting at me to get out of there because we were so low he could see the yucca plants." So one can't see the lights from the air? "I have never seen them from the air.
A few years back, Sul Ross University did a study on the lights and tried to find out what they were. I had three people in a plane with me, and one of them was the editor of the Alpine newspaper. We didn't see a thing. They had people on the ground who could see them, and those people tried to radio us and and tell us where the lights were, but none of us saw a thing."
We were interrupted by a call on the airport radio from a Border Patrol plane that needed to land. Fritz gave him clearance and sat back down. I then asked him just what he thought the lights were. "Well, the logical explanation would seem to be either static electricity or geophysical activity. I think the Marfa light are a local natural phenomenon. Whatever they are may not be that unusual, but they only appear here, not in other countries. Or it may be that they are something common to other parts of the world but very unusual to see in this country. "We have the right conditions for St. Elmo's fire in the spring of the year. It even appears on the horns of cattle. The only problem with that answer is, you can see the lights year-round." In walked John Williams, the Border Patrol pilot, and Murphy Bennet, a local resident. A rainstorm came up suddenly, then turned into hail. As hail stones banged and echoed off of the tin roof of the hangar, the four of us sat and listened to John relate a story of a friend who had lost some fingers in a planer ("He stuck 'em in a planer, and it planed them") until we got back on the subject of the lights.
Fritz offered a last comment: "I still say the best way o see the lights is with a six-pack of beer and a good looking woman. But if you still want to talk to someone else about the light, you need to see this geologist who lives in town. He drives right up to them." "I've seen those light ever since I was a little kid," commented Murphy. "They got to be phosphorous. Can't be nothing else." "You go see Pat Keeney," said Fritz, ignoring Murphy. "He'll tell you about the lights." I took Fritz's advice. "I've been around phosphate deposits before, and those are not phosphate," said Pal Keeney, a geologist for the Fort Worth-based Meeker Corporation. When he'd first come to Marfa to check on some oil leases, he had been told of the Marfa lights, and had been fascinated by them. He had then begun a one man crusade to solve the mystery of their origin.
The first thing he'd done was to test out all the popular explanations. Since daytime checks revealed no ranches in the area, the next possibility was car lights on the Presidio highway. Keeney was able to determine with topographic maps and surveying tools that there was one stretch of highway that was visible from the old airbase. He located this strip of road with a surveyor's transit and marked the location, from beginning to end, with surveyor's stakes that had highway reflectors attached to them. He lined up three stakes, one behind the other, so as to sight down the tops of them and determine the start of the stretch of road. Then he marked the end the same way. With this arrangement, he was able to sit in a lawn chair at night and, with a flick of his flashlight, to sight the reflectors and determine whether a light in the desert was a car or a ghost light. "I tried to get a fix on the ghost lights and triangulate on them to get their position so I could check it out," he said. "But I never got a good triangulation, because they are always moving." Nevertheless, Keeney had a good idea of where the lights were located, and, with another geologist, Elwood Wright, he headed out a small ranch road for a closer look. About two miles down the road, they saw a pair of lights moving out on a flat at a high rate of speed. "They looked like they were moving at about a hundred-fifty to two-hundred miles per hour, but of course I had no way of measuring that. The lights spooked some horses and they almost ran into them. Those horses started kicking and running through a cactus patch, trying to get away. The lights came to the edge of this road and stopped. "Several times I had see lights around this old hangar they had on the airbase. Well, one of these lights took off for that hangar, but the other one stayed there by the side of the road. It kept moving around a bush, kind of like it knew we were trying to get near it. It seemed to possess intelligence-it was like that thing was smarter than we were. It was making us feel pretty stupid. It was perfectly round, about the size of a cantaloupe, and it moved through that bush like it was looking for something. When the light stopped moving, it would get dimmer, but as it moved, it got brighter. Finally, it pulled out in the middle of the road about twenty yards from us and just hovered there. "I had left the engine running, and Elwood said, 'Put it in gear and floorboard it. We'll run over it.' All of a sudden it got real bright and took off like a rocket. It was the damndest thing I have ever seen. I still don't know what it was that we saw."
Since that close encounter, Pat Keeney has been out to the site of the spotting almost 74 times and has yet to see "them" up close again. Keeney was a spotter for the Navy during World War II, and he is familiar with almost every type of aircraft. He is not a man given to heavy drinking, and as a geologist, he has a very analytical mind. His story cannot be discounted. On my first meeting with Keeney, it became readily apparent that we both shared the same zeal in trying to find an answer to a puzzle that had turned us into fanatics. Worst of all, none of the local residents seemed to care much about the lights. A typical answer we "The lights are there, and people have tried to find out what they were before. No one has, and I don't care to waste any more of my time." We were like inmates in an asylum built for two. With the help of Pat's secretary, Charlie Rhodes, and her husband, Skip, we undertook a concentrated effort to solve the mystery and come up with some plausible answers. A quick comparison of our collection of newspaper articles and magazine features revealed that several writers had covered the subject but not a one had actually tried to solve the mystery himself. The writers had simply relied on interviews with people who had experienced a "close en counter". The lights have been see since the 1890's, when several early ranchers feared that they were the fires of renegade Indians. Several cowboys had attempted to ride up on the lights, all without success. Sul Ross University, in Alpine, had tried to unravel the puzzle, and one one occasion had engineered a huge "dragnet," with cars lining the road, a party in a jeep, and an airplane, all coordinated with radio communication among the different search parties. The results were fruitless. The lights simply evaded them or disappeared when they tried to get close.
It became apparent to us that other expeditions had failed because of the size of the party involved, or because jeeps or vehicles with engines were used. We felt that two people on foot might "sneak up" on the lights without attracting attention. It was determined that my brother, Miles, and myself would walk out in pursuit while the rest of the party waited on the ranch road. We would take a camera for a close-up shot (we had photographed the lights several times at a distance), and we would avoid using a flashlight so as not to scare our quarry. With the aid of Pat's surveying gear, we got a rough fix on the lights, but it wasn't a good one, because, once again, they kept moving. In looking at a topographical map of the area, we determined them to be about two miles from the old airport. "I just don't believe they're past the Presidio highway," Pat said. "They're probably two to four miles out on that flat, just before it drops off on the south rim, and not up in the Chianitis, like most people think." Walking around the West Texas desert at night in the middle of summer is some people's idea of suicide; the rattlesnakes of the region like to come out in the cool of the evening after holing up during the day. Pat warned us to obtain some snake leggings. This seemed like good advice, but the only trouble was, none of the stores in the area carried any. Their reason? "Nobody goes out at night around here. Too many snakes, young fellow." We were forced to model our own leggings out of some large-diameter PVC pipe. (We should have a patent on them in the near future, and we plan to sell them on late-night TV.) Looking and feeling more like R2-D2 and C 3PO than like ghost chasers, we suited up and headed out as darkness fell.
Skip and Charlie stayed behind. If they saw an SOS from our flashlights, they were to pick us up in the four-wheel drive truck. We set out at about 10:00 that night. It wasn't the best of all possible nights to be hiking on the Marfa plains. There were flash flood warnings out, and a thick cloud cover shut out any light from the stars or moon, making it as dark as a sack of black cats. Worse, we had agreed that the flashlight would not be used except in case of emergency or to take a quick compass reading should we become lost. Upon walking just a few feet from the car, we were enveloped in darkness, causing me to imagine that we were actually Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, set upon some deserted planet trying to make our way back to the Starship Enterprise. The lights were out, though, and they almost seemed to know what we were trying to do. As if to taunt us, they began to put on a show. First, one would appear and increase in intensity, lighting up the landscape around us, then suddenly split into two lights of equal lumination. The split was not like an amoeba separating, but rather as if one light had been "hiding" behind the oth er, then suddenly rose up from behind it. We pressed onward, but after four miles of hiking the lights did not appear to grow any closer than when we saw them from the old airport. But they did seem to be brighter. We had been gone for almost two hours and were beginning to get discouraged in our sttempt to gain ground on them when suddenly Miles jumped back and I heard a flutter and whistle. It was a mourning dove that had been roosting on the ground. We chuckled over it and stopped to consider our next move. Should we walk on to the south rim or go back? We decided to sit and watch for a few moments, then decide what to do. We noticed from our new vantage point that whereas we had seen the lights "go out" while watching them from the old airport, here they dipped down into draws instead, or dropped be hind a bush, their glow giving away their location. A moment later, they would rise into view again. They were definitely moving. As we got up and prepared to hike on, they disappeared. They did not reappear during the next hour. Without light to follow, we had nothing to walk towards, so we deemed further hiking useless and turned back. Why go to the barn if somebody's already let the horses out? Before leaving, I marked our progress with my cap, which I ceremoniously hung from the branch of a mesquite tree. We returned to the car about two a.m., bone-tired and disappointed. We looked out over the plains one last time. A light mist was falling, and no lights were visible. We were headed for town.
The following night, we returned, but this time Skip recommended that we bring along a spotting scope that he had at the house. He also brought a survey or's tripod to mount it on, so that we could "lock in" the scope whenever a light appeared. Surely this would answer some of our questions. We set up in our spot along the ranch road and waited for darkness. Right on schedule, the lights began to appear. Miles looked through the scope Right on schedule, that lights began to appear. Miles looked through the scope but had trouble finding the light because of the scope's extreme magnification. After much jiggling and cursing, he finally found the light and immediately blurted out another expletive. "It's got all kinds of colors!" he exclaimed. I looked through the lens and sure enough, the light was glowing in varying colors of blue, red, green and gold! Skip took his turn. What does it look like to you?" I asked breathlessly. "Car lights," he replied. "They look like car lights." Surely he was mistaken. I grabbed the scope and looked again. My heart sank. He was right. A pair of head lights could clearly be seen winding down the road. We checked our surveyor's stakes and sure enough, the lights were in the area designated as the Presidio highway. But there was another light that appeared off the highway, farther up, on a hill. We focused on it. It was so far away that it appeared as a white globe of light, pulsating and changing intensity constantly. "Let's drive down the highway and look back in this direction," suggested Miles. We piled into the Blazer and took off, marking the spot by a ranch light that was just 500 feet from where we stood. Upon our arrival on the Presidio highway, a glance back at our old position revealed the ranch light, but no "Marfa lights." However, we could see some other lights to the south of us, on the opposite side of the road. I was beginning to see why Fritz Kahl had given up the idea of pursuing the lights long ago. I was also beginning to see why the residents of Marfa were satisfied with the fact that the lights were there and that was all they needed to know about them.
So that leaves me here at my typewriter. I had intended to get good photos of the lights from close up so as to explain the mystery. I was able to accomplish only half of what I set out to do, but I still have a good story to tell. My final conclusion is that the lights are there. You can see them on most any night, even through rain or cloudy skies. When you start asking me why the lights exist, you can have your pick of several explanations. I don't cotton to the explanations of static electricity or phosphorescent minerals, or that the lights are mirages. Some residents have tried to say that the lights are swamp gas, but Marfa, Texas, has not had a swamp in several million years. Some of the lights are car lights-but not all of them. Some have suggested that the lights are spirits of the dead, or "ghosts" and there is even a reference to this possibility in the Bible. In Matthew 12:42-43 it says that when a demon is cast out of a man it dwells in the "waterless places" or desert, depending on which translation you are reading. I have a hard time figuring out why spirits or demons would want to hang out in Marfa, Texas. I mean, they don't even have a Dairy Queen in Marfa.
So this is where I'm left. I recounted earlier the attempts of other people to classify or capture the lights, all of them ending in frustration and empty answers. Whenever I read one of those stories, I'd always feel that the people were going about it the wrong way and that I could do a better job. I'm sure you're thinking to yourself as you read this that you could succeed where I and others have failed. Right? That's just fine with me. Go ahead. But don't say I didn't warn you to just forget it and stay home. The lights are there for you to see, but after 100 years of sightings and the attempts of even the best of expeditions, I suggest that when you visit Marfa you investigate its fine Mexican food instead. At least you can get your hands on it, and it contains no ingredient of the creepy, frightening or frustrating.
Editor's Note: Pat Keeney passed away shortly after this story was written.
This page, and all contents, are Copyright (C) 1997 TransPecos Productions.
© 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by Ken Short
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