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."
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."