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  • Frits Westra
    MSNBC.com In Texas, bright lights, small city Mysterious lights in the desert have baffled scientists?and delighted tourists?for more than a century
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 29, 2004
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      MSNBC.com

      In Texas, bright lights, small city
      Mysterious lights in the desert have baffled scientists?and delighted
      tourists?for more than a century

      http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6390119/

      By Zofia Smardz
      The Washington Post
      Updated: 3:30 p.m. ET Nov. 27, 2004


      The sun was gone, the sky getting inky. The wind had started to whip. (And
      even in the Texas desert, the winter wind can be cold.) I hunkered deeper
      into my jacket and jiggled for warmth. Behind me, my 16-year-old son loped
      restlessly back and forth, lupine, waiting. Suddenly a long lanky arm
      thrust past my face. "There's one!" he cried, pointing at the horizon.
      "And over there!" his younger brother echoed a moment later.

      Off in the distance, about a quarter-mile away, a bright, starlike light
      glimmered into view just above the horizon, followed quickly by a second
      one. As the first flickered out, a third took its place, materializing out
      of nowhere. "Ooo, another one!" I squealed, and again, as yet another
      twinkled momentarily above the other two. All at once, they disappeared
      together, as if an invisible hand had snuffed them out.

      At my cries, the boys instantly dropped all airs of excitement. "You don't
      have to say 'Ooo' every time, Mom," they muttered, dripping with teenage
      sarcasm, and slid their eyes furtively left and right, though there was no
      one else much around.

      That was a mercy for the boys, as it spared them any humiliation at
      maternal vocals. And it was a treat for all of us to have the viewing
      station pretty much to ourselves. But it was a shame, I thought, for all
      the people who weren't there, because on this January night, the Marfa
      lights were putting on a spectacular display. As we gawked, they blinked
      on and off, shifted position, appeared high in the sky one moment, hugged
      the horizon the next.

      This time out, the lights were livelier than the first time we'd seen them
      six months before?at least it seemed so to me - and much closer to the
      descriptions I'd read of them. Still, my skeptical husband couldn't help
      quipping: "I think the local chamber of commerce just pays a few guys to
      go out there and stand around with some really big flashlights."

      An ongoing mystery

      The Marfa lights?spontaneous bursts of illumination that materialize,
      year-round, on clear nights over the Chihuahuan Desert in west Texas?are a
      bona-fide unexplained natural phenomenon. They've defied scientific
      rationalization for more than a century. Are they swamp gases? Bent light?
      Electrostatic discharges? Signal lights from alien spacecraft? Nobody
      knows where they come from or why they appear when and where they do. Oh,
      and they have their debunkers, who claim they're nothing more than the
      headlights of cars driving down the Chinati Mountains. Right.

      Bottom line: They've stumped physicists and photographers and engineers,
      some of the best minds of the nation, for years.

      I just love it when that happens.

      In the remote, remarkable desert-mountain region of far west Texas, a
      wedge of country three hours south of El Paso and 1 1/2 hours north of Big
      Bend National Park and the Mexican border, the Marfa lights are just about
      the premier tourist attraction around. That is, of course, if you're
      looking to attract tourists, which doesn't seem to be that high on the
      agenda of the folks who live here. They seem fairly content to poke along
      from day to day in the midst of some of the most spectacular scenery in
      the continental United States, greeting interlopers politely, warmly, but
      incuriously. They don't push anything on you, and they don't try to market
      themselves.

      Mostly, in fact, they talk about how little there is to do here. "Well,
      we're not the big city," a staffer at my son's boarding school in Fort
      Davis, Tex., mused modestly on our first trip a year ago, helping us
      consider sightseeing possibilities. He gave us a short list?historic Fort
      Davis, the pre- and post-Civil War U.S. Army post after which the town of
      Fort Davis is named; the McDonald Observatory high on a peak in the Davis
      Mountains; the scenic loop drive through and around said mountains; the
      local history museum in Alpine. Then after a pause: "Oh, yeah, and I guess
      there's always the Marfa lights."

      A town lost in time

      They're called the Marfa lights after the nearest town, a low-lying little
      burg of 2,424 that supposedly got its name, in turn, from a character in
      Dostoyevsky's "Brothers Karamazov" (that being the book the railroad
      executive's wife, who suggested the moniker, was reading when she and her
      husband passed through this railway watering stop in the late 1800s).
      Marfa can make a few other claims to fame. It has one of the most
      beautiful courthouses in Texas, it was the location of the 1956 Elizabeth
      Taylor-Rock Hudson-James Dean movie "Giant," and it's home to the Chinati
      Foundation, a celebrated museum of contemporary art begun on an old
      military base by the late sculptor Donald Judd two decades ago.

      Along with mile-high Fort Davis (pop. approximately 1,000) and the
      appropriately mountainous Alpine (the "big city," with a population of
      about 6,000), Marfa forms an equilateral triangle enclosing a swath of
      desert terrain out of which rise majestic volcanic mountain peaks, many
      higher than 6,000 feet. It's an arid, otherwordly beauty ? like the
      landscape of the moon, or Mars, maybe, but for the scrubby grasses and
      bushes, yucca and cactus that stipple the flats and the mountainsides, and
      the cottonwoods that hug the creek banks. There's sky - blue as lapis on
      glorious days or roiling with thunderheads on stormy ones - every way you
      turn. Desert though it is, the climate's actually a draw; in the old days,
      wealthy merchants and entrepreneurs from Dallas and Houston traveled to
      the Davis Mountains to put up at the Limpia Hotel and enjoy the dry air
      and pleasant breezes. Yes, the temperatures can reach 110 degrees in the
      shade, but as you've no doubt heard, when it's this dry, you don't feel it.

      What you do feel is the haunting nature of the place, the way it launches
      you back to another time. A frontier time, when people led hardscrabble
      lives and braved the wilderness and the elements to make a home in an
      inhospitable place, where water was scarce and other people scarcer.

      The cattle ranchers who staked out vast tracts of scrubland for their
      steers had to have what it takes to persevere here. Even today, a handful
      of ranchers, descendants of the first settlers, still control most of the
      land in and around Fort Davis. At least that's what the elderly lady
      minding the desk one day in the town's curio-filled Overland Trail Museum
      told me. (A dusty, unpaved stretch of the local "overland trail," the San
      Antonio-El Paso stagecoach road that ferried 19th-century travelers
      between the two towns, still runs through the heart of Fort Davis.) "They
      decide who gets to move in and who doesn't," she said conspiratorially, as
      I leafed through a bin of old, laminated turn-of-the-20th-century photos.
      My husband and I were her only visitors that day. "That's why you don't
      see a McDonald's or any chain stores around here,? she said. ?They want to
      keep Main Street looking like it did 100 years ago."

      She didn't sound exactly happy about that, but I was. None of us missed
      McDonald's. And fast, I'm sorry, just isn't the mode in these parts.
      "What's your hurry?" Betty Nunnally, the proprietor of Starr's Emporium in
      Fort Davis, chided my menfolk when they tried to pry me away from her
      eclectic shop on our most recent trip. "You're in far west Texas now. You
      got to slo-o-o-w down."

      Seems like the right prescription to me. Fits the spell of this place. It
      tickles me that our cell phone doesn't work everywhere down here, that the
      Limpia and its sister hostel, the Hotel Paisano in Marfa, don't have
      phones in the rooms. I love that you might see someone riding horseback
      down the highway, that you can catch the occasional glint of spur on
      someone's cowboy boots around town, that one of the oldest working dude
      ranches is around the bend from Fort Davis. I savor the sense of having
      stepped into another world, of being in a place that, while modern enough,
      is still cut off from the narcissistic, plugged-in present.

      So I'm sure you'll understand my reaction when, after having read that
      Marfa's experiencing a yuppie boomlet, I saw a couple of bikers in full
      tight-shorted, speed-helmeted racing regalia working the scenic loop the
      day we drove it last July. "Where did you come from?" I screamed. (Don't
      worry, the car windows were all up.) "Go away!"

      Watching for lights

      The Marfa lights have been around since at least 1883, when a rancher by
      the name of Robert Reed Ellison supposedly first saw them shining in the
      distance as he bedded down in the desert one night. Ellison assumed they
      were Indian campfires. Only when he rode out the next day to the area
      where he'd spotted them, he found - cue "Twilight Zone" music?no remains
      of any campfires.

      Today, there's an official viewing area erected by the Texas Department of
      Transportation, complete with telescopes and restrooms. It's a little
      weird to have someone lay out the red carpet for what some people think
      could be UFO landing lights, but it's nice to be told where to have the
      best look-see.

      Of course, "best" in this case is relative. In fact, it's downright
      idiosyncratic. For they say that everyone sees the Marfa lights
      differently. You can be standing right next to someone who's ooh-ing and
      aah-ing and essentially see . . . nothing. That was my experience the
      first time out: One of the boys or my husband would point and say ?There!?
      and I'd ask, "Where?" I didn't see many that time, nor on our most recent
      trip this summer, when the lights seemed sluggish and coy.

      We can tell the folks back home we done seen the famous Marfa lights --
      not," cracked a woman in a group of Texas Junior Leaguers who had
      descended on the viewing area in a chartered tour bus. I could tell she
      was disappointed, and I wanted to say, "Come back in the winter." Because
      I've got my own theory of the lights, you see. I think the cold winter air
      makes them brighter and friskier, more playful and powerful.

      Or maybe it doesn't. Who knows? It's a mystery. And like the place they
      haunt, a marvel.

      West Texas and the Marfa Lights

      GETTING THERE: There aren't any commercial airports in the desert
      mountains, so you have to fly to Midland, Tex., then rent a car to drive
      two hours into the mountains (the vistas make every mile worth it once you
      hit Scenic Highway 17).

      WHERE TO STAY: In Fort Davis, the historic Hotel Limpia (on the town
      square, 800-662-5517, www.hotellimpia.com) is a charming throwback to the
      frontier days of the Old West, with broad porches, a Victorian lobby, wide
      corridors and high-ceilinged rooms and suites. And it's a bargain: Double
      rooms start at $89 per night, less if booking online. On our last trip, my
      family stayed in the hotel's cottage, a delightful 1940s two-bedroom
      bungalow with original furnishings nestled in the shadow of Sleeping Lion
      Mountain, for $139 a night. The Limpia's sister hotel in Marfa, the Hotel
      Paisano (207 N. Highland St., 866-729-3669, www.hotelpaisano.com), is
      equally beguiling, in more of a Southwestern, Spanish-hacienda style. You
      can ask for the James Dean room or the Rock Hudson or Elizabeth Taylor
      suites. Rooms start at $79 per night.

      Alpine offers the historic Holland Hotel (209 W. Holland Ave.,
      800-535-8040, www.hollandhotel.net), in the middle of downtown, with 14
      rooms and suites starting at $45 per night double.

      WHERE TO EAT: With its old-fashioned soda fountain, the Fort Davis
      Drugstore on Main Street is great for breakfast and lunch; I love the
      BLTs. If it's Mexican food you crave, head for La Casita (1102 E. Avenue
      H) in Alpine. The ambiance isn't much, but locals say the food is the best
      north of the border, and I'm with them. Lunch for four is less than $30.

      For dinner, Pop's Grill (Highway 17 just west of Fort Davis) offers good
      down-home food at reasonable prices, although there's no wine, as Jeff
      Davis County is dry. Dinner for four is about $60. For a somewhat fancier
      but still moderately priced meal, try Jett's Grill at the Hotel Paisano in
      Marfa, where dinner with wine runs about $120. For a splurge, the Reata
      Restaurant (203 N. Fifth St.) in Alpine serves great steaks; dinner for
      four with wine was just under $200. Maiya's (103 N. Highland Ave.), down
      the street from the Paisano in Marfa, will deceive you into thinking
      you've stumbled into someplace on the Upper West Side, with its
      avant-garde menu, chichi decor and New York (or at least D.C.) prices;
      dinner with wine came to nearly $350, including the tip. Good, though.

      WHAT TO DO: The largely restored Fort Davis National Historic Site
      (432-426-3224, Ext. 20, www.nps.gov/foda) is considered one of the best
      remaining examples of a frontier military post. The McDonald Observatory
      (17 miles from Fort Davis on Highway 118), a major astronomical research
      facility, hosts constellation-viewing "star parties" three nights a week,
      as long as the weather is cloudless. Details: 432-426-3640,
      www.as.utexas.edu/mcdonald/mcdonald.html.

      In Marfa, the Chinati Foundation (1 Calvery Row, 432-729-4362,
      www.chinati.org; $10) is a contemporary art museum that sculptor Donald
      Judd founded in the late 1970s. Dedicated to permanent installations of
      large-scale works, it features art by Judd, Claes Oldenburg, John
      Chamberlain and others. The Scenic Loop, a 75-mile drive through the Davis
      Mountains, is full of surprises, from Sawtooth Mountain to the cattle that
      just might be taking a snooze in the middle of the road.

      INFORMATION: Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce, 800-524-3015,
      www.fortdavis.com; Marfa Chamber of Commerce, 800-650-9696,
      www.marfacc.com; Alpine Chamber of Commerce, 800-561-3735,
      www.alpinetexas.com.

      © 2004 The Washington Post Company

      URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6390119/
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