Fwd: In Texas, bright lights, small city
In Texas, bright lights, small city
Mysterious lights in the desert have baffled scientists?and delighted
tourists?for more than a century
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
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
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,
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,
© 2004 The Washington Post Company