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Marfa Lights: The Spirit of Texas

by Ariel Slick

Marfa, Texas will celebrate its 35th Annual Marfa Lights Festival September 2-4, 2022. Don’t let the name fool you—this isn’t a manmade lights spectacle; it’s something quite out of the ordinary.

They’ve been called ghosts. Some think they’re aliens. Others brush them off as headlights from passing vehicles. The lights appear on the horizon of the stark, West Texas territory nearly every night; they glow, zoom, hover, and dance, creating an otherworldly show for the thousands of guests that flock to the tiny town every year. No one knows exactly what causes the Marfa Lights phenomenon, and for that, it is a perfect example of the blend of local traditions, storytelling, tall tales, and mysterious nature of Texas.

Many reasons grounded in science have been postulated over the years to describe why the lights appear seemingly out of the clear, cobalt sky, such as headlights from passing cars on Route 67, which runs east of Marfa. However, the first mention of the lights goes back to 1883—well before the first car was invented— when Robert Reed Ellison reported having seen the lights while driving his herd of cattle through a mountain pass in the area. At the time, he thought it might be the light from campfires of local Apache Natives, but when he and a few others investigated, nary a trace of campfire or evidence of Apache was found. Plus, the lights aren’t always yellow in color; blue, green, and red have also been observed.

Photo by MacQ from Flickr Creative Commons.

Another common explanation is that they are a mirage, caused by a difference in atmospheric conditions. Marfa sits approximately 4700 feet in the air, and when there are drastic temperature differences, which is common at that elevation, mirages happen. What many point out is that the lights don’t stay fixed in one place—they bob, dart, and zoom across the horizon, unusual behavior for mirages.

St. Elmo’s Fire, piezoelectricity; the list goes on. Marfa has a population of 1,974, and if you travel there, you’ll likely find as many explanations for the lights. However, ultimately, their origins and cause are unknown. In a world where, seemingly, every answer is at our fingertips, people long for explanations to enigmas, and people have crafted stories and legends to explain this phenomenon.

As with so many cultures throughout the world, both ancient and modern, locals and lovers of mystery alike have created tales about the myths. Some are grounded in truth; others use the natural landscape to describe their values, such as the Apache Natives saying the lights are stars that have fallen to Earth or the spirits of warriors who have earned the right to return to the land they love.

Other legends also stem from the Old West: one tells of a Native American chief who was murdered, hastily buried in the area. The light is his ghost guarding his grave and keeping watch for his murderer to seek revenge. Similarly, one legend says that the lights are the ghost of a sheriff, whose wife was murdered; the sheriff is still out on the land searching for the murderer. Another is that of a ghost of a Mexican man looking for a lover who was kidnapped by Native Americans.

Marfa Lights viewing area by Jack Parrott from Flickr Creative Commons.

Not all the legends concern murder and revenge. One speaks of a Native who went out with his flock one night and never returned. The light is the bonfire lit by his lover to beckon him home. Indeed, some legends are based on the benevolence of the lights, such as the one about them leading a man to safety after a harsh blizzard fell on him in the mountains. He was lost, blinded by the snow, and far off the path. The lights appeared to him and led him away from a sharp precipice; the man would have fallen, or froze to death, if the lights had not guided him to a nearby cave.

One of the most famous is about Alsate, an Apache chief.

The legend goes like this:

There once lived an Apache chief named Alsate who was notorious for raiding, thievery, and in general giving both Mexican and Anglo settlers hell. Eventually, the Mexican army captured Alsate and executed him. The lights, “they” say, are his spirit signaling for help from his tribe. Another version is that Alsate was tricked by the Mexican army, separating him from his band of warriors. The lights are the eternal fires of the warriors searching for Alsate.

This legend, like most, is based partly on fact. There indeed lived an Apache chief named Alsate, who was the son of a Mexican settler, who was kidnapped at a young age and raised among the Mescalero Apaches (the Mescalero were a band in the complex web of tribes, families, and clans of the Apache). Alsate’s father, José Gonzalez, grew up among the Mescalero and eventually married an Apache woman. Their son became a feared and fearless war chief of the Trans-Pecos region of Texas and Mexico.

Most people who think of Texas have this image in their mind of the land: a rugged, lonely landscape in muted tones of faded yellow, dun, and slate, dotted with thorny shrubs, prickly pear, and mesquite. Enormous stretches of desert with nothing but jackrabbits, cottonmouths, and horned toads seem to wander into infinity, dwarfed only by the unrelenting, featureless sky above, with the exception of the scorching orb of the sun. It is hard country. That is the Trans-Pecos region in which Alsate lived and in which the Marfa lights appear.

Big Bend/Chihuahuan Desert by By Adbar from Wikimedia Commons.

It is not flat desert, though; the region is punctuated by ancient mountains, whittled down to scrape the sky at barely more than 8,000 feet. Still, the band of Mescalero Apache ranged the Davis (once named Limpia), Chisos, Chinati, moving as far south as the Sierra del Carmen of Coahuila in what is now Mexico. They were nomadic hunter-gatherers, relying on buffalo, antelope, and deer, as well as smaller game, such as rabbit. Women were often in charge of gathering the plants, such as prickly pear and mescal agave, from which their name comes.

By the time of Alsate’s life, the Spanish had existed in the area for about three centuries, no more welcome than when they first arrived in the 1500s. During the early to mid-1800s, the Mescalero often used the antipathy and rivalry of the Anglo and Mexican settlers to their advantage. Alsate and his warriors would frequently raid Mexican towns and settlements in Chihuahua and Coahuila, then take their stolen wares to trade for guns, ammunition, and gunpowder on the Texas side of the Rio Grande River, but they were no stranger to raiding Anglo settlements as well.

In 1878, Alsate lived near the town of San Carlos in Chihuahua, and he and his men frequently raided nearby farms, which the townsfolk did not appreciate. The then-president of Mexico ordered Alsate’s arrest, and Colonel José de Santa Rosa captured Alsate and brought him to a jail in Mexico City. In December of 1879, Alsate managed to escape when in transit and slipped into the mountains.

However, Alsate’s life would end in 1880 in San Carlos. Another colonel offered Alsate and his tribe a peace treaty that he had no intention of keeping; he used the treaty as a way to lure Alsate and his men into a trap. Once the negotiations were finalized, the two sides sealed their treaty with a celebratory feast, which included heavy eating and drinking. After all of Alsate’s warriors were too drunk to fight, Ortiz and his soldiers attacked and killed them. The rest of the group were kidnapped and sold into slavery, making Alsate the last chief of the Limpias band of Southern Mescalero Apache.

That is why the lights representing Alsate’s spirit are so powerful and perhaps why the story has endured for so long. Alsate represents the dying of a tribe, a way of life, but through the lights, he lives on. Every time the Marfa Lights are talked about, his legend inevitably snakes its way into the discussion, and a small tribe of Native Americans are remembered, at least for a little while. The Mescalero Apache were nomadic wanderers, and so, too, do the lights wander across the lonely desert every night. The lights are the “spirit” of the Apache Natives—symbolically if not materially—because as long as we keep talking about them, they exist in our memory. At the very least, the lights are symbolic of the power of Texas storytelling.

The Marfa Lights Festival is free and open to the public and will feature food and retail vendors, a parade led by the Jumano Nation of Texas, and live music. Featured musicians include Destino Band, Eric y Su Grupo Massore, and others, including MXTX: a Cross Border Exchange, a musical collaboration between DJs and composers from both sides of the Rio Grande. Other performances will include a youth DJ workshop, an original play, and a presentation by the Marfa ISD Ballet Folklorico.

To reach the Viewing Center for the Marfa Lights, travel on Highway 67/90 East for nine miles. The Visitors Center is open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., and Saturday/Sunday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. The best time to see the lights is anytime after dusk.

Featured image by Angi English from Flickr Creative Commons.

Ariel Slick is a Dallas-based freelance writer. She graduated from Rice University and enjoys writing about Texas, cannabis and lucid dreaming.

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