At the horizon of fate in the primordial emptiness of the Chihuahuan desert. The light piercing; West Texans say you can see clear into next week. The openness liberating; thoughts free as tumbleweed spiraling across the plain. A town of plainspoken geometry, linear simplicity, existential solitude. Of contrasts: rough and smooth, manufactured and handmade, eccentric and conventional, cosmopolitan and rural. Started by ranchers, kickstarted by art, revived by the well-heeled, kept real by the quirky. Can you tell we fell in love with Marfa?
Regular readers know we’ve already posted more blogs than our number of days in Marfa: one about the artist Donald Judd, another artist’s story, Robert Irwin, a post about chef Rocky Barnette and a story about Prada Marfa. We booked an extra night, wanting to photograph the expressive stillness of Sunday in Marfa.
Did I tell you “Sweet Child O’ Mine” that Sunday began with breakfast at Buns ‘N Roses?
Feeling the lassitude of Sunday in the high desert, Magellan remembered seeing a poster advertising CineMarfa and that the penultimate film of the four-day festival was showing at 6 pm at The Lumberyard. This being Marfa, naturally The Lumberyard isn’t your typical movie theatre. Sofas in velveteen, brocade and weathered-leather (with wheels for ease of moving them about), plastic chairs, lazy-boys and other cast-off seating fronted the viewing screen. On a table at the back, we chatted with the guy selling soda, beer and packaged snacks and with Glenn, our guide at the Chinati, a fellow Albertan who fell in love with Marfa and stayed. To be unobtrusive, we took seats at the back. Not for long. We were soon ushered to a comfy maroon loveseat near the front of the room. About thirty of us settled down to enjoy Vic Berger’s satirical take on Ted Cruz, Jimmy Baker (we all laughed and guffawed the most at his evangelical peccadilloes) and Donald Trump.
Marfa is also a foodie destination. The Capri was closed and the lineup at Pizza Foundation an hour long, so we ate two meals at the George Hotel’s restaurant that Sunday. For lunch, almond gazpacho and a salad of yellow beets, watermelon radishes, feta, Marcona almonds, grapefruit and tossed greens. Dinner was calamari marinated in agave and lime, fried crispy and served with a pineapple habanero sauce, blistered shisito peppers, sesame seeds and miso butter.
The day wasn’t yet over. Have you heard about Marfa Lights? Also called Marfa Ghost Lights, Marfa Mystery Lights?
No one knows for sure what causes them and it’s impossible to predict when they will appear. Those who have seen them describe twinkling white lights, splitting apart into colours, recombining to be large as glowing basketballs, playfully reversing direction, disappearing, reappearing, flickering, floating, fading. This is serious stuff— every Labor Day weekend for the last thirty-five years, the town has hosted the Marfa Lights Festival.
Later Sunday night we drove nine miles east of town to the Marfa Mystery Lights Viewing Center. The place is crowded almost every night and by the time we parked Rove-Inn, forty people had gathered at the Texas-sized circular adobe. A bronzed plaque described the phenomenon: “The Marfa Mystery Lights are visible on many clear nights between Marfa and Paisano Pass as one looks towards the Chinati Mountains. The lights may appear in various colors as they move about, split apart, melt together, disappear and reappear. Robert Reed Ellison, a young cowboy, reported sighting the lights in 1883.”
Skeptics say they’re car lights from U.S.67—but there were no cars in 1883.
The Indians called them Alsate’s Ghost, for the Apache chief who had been killed by the Mexicans, sixty miles away.
Other explanations abound. Paranormals. UFOs. Optical illusions from the refraction of light caused by layers of air at different temperatures. Natural gas bubbles ignited by surface oxygen. Discharges form crystal formations. While not proven, the most scientific rationale comes from retired aerospace engineer James Bunnell. Using wide-spectrum and infrared cameras, James captured lights shooting into the sky and across the horizon, mostly right after sunset and just before dawn. In his book Night Orbs and DVD, Marfa Lights, he speculates the lights are high-energy electrical particles from the inner Van Allen Radiation Belt, unabsorbed and repelled by the ground, the Mitchell Flat that acts like a magnetic shield.
Magellan played with his camera on Bulb mode—an exposure setting allowing you to remotely hold your shutter open for as long as you want, the only way to capture the movement of night-sky activity. The moon was too bright to see Marfa Lights, even if they were present. Following car lights fading into the darkness, we made our way back to Marfa, the town that radiates magical.
Fiumi, Elettra and Stein, Eliot. “The Mysterious ‘Ghost Lights’ of Marfa, Texas.” BBC.com. January 16, 2018.
KRTS Marfa’s local radio station (for a town of less than 2,000 people), part of NPR, listen anywhere, anytime.
Lallanilla, Marc. “What are the Marfa Lights?” Live Science, June 19, 2013.
Lerner, Ben. 10:04. Canada: McClelland & Stewart, 2014. Ben devotes one chapter to his experience as an intern in Marfa.
Hall, Michael. “The Truth is Out There.” Texas Monthly, June 2006. A wonderful read.
Thompson, Helen. Marfa Modern. New York: Monacelli Press, 2016. A gorgeous view of artistic interiors in the West Texas High Desert by the former writer and producer of Metropolitan Home magazine.
Wright, Lawrence. God Save Texas. New York: , Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.
Abbie Perrault Through the window of Quintana’s Barber Shop The Big Bend Sentinel 2019