We’d already been to the Tuesday night Star Party at the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis. The rain and lightning showed up, but the stars didn’t.
So, the next night, we tried our luck with the Marfa lights. Imagine it. About 25 people — tourists, locals, scampering children — all gathered together, staring at the darkening southern horizon east of Marfa. The wind blew and people wrapped themselves in blankets and stared.
I’d read about it. Indians had seen those lights. So had early settlers and cavalry members. The lights were said to be the size of basketballs. White, mostly. But maybe red. They came briefly, then disappeared. Or they came and stayed for hours.
They were some kind of atmospheric disturbance, some hypothesized. Or the ghosts of Coronado’s soldiers, still searching for gold. I scanned the horizon, thinking about the ghosts lost in this vast country.
“The lights are crinkly, like little clouds,” one woman told her companion.
“Maybe, if you pray hard enough, you’ll see them,” a woman from San Antonio had said earlier.
We all stared. Occasional lights appeared on the horizon. Small white lights — like light bulbs in nearby ranch houses. A red light. Nothing, but nothing, the size of basketballs. Funny how you can stare so hard and want to see and believe — even if you don’t know what it is you want to see and believe in. You just want something to happen, to be a witness to something extraordinary.
“That light isn’t it,” the woman said, dismissing the houselight. “The Marfa lights are like gas — kind of wispy.”
We continued scanning the horizon. My husband elbowed me. “I’ve got a laser in my pocket,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be funny if I — ”
“Don’t you dare,” I said. I elbowed him back.
“Is it that red light?” the woman from San Antonio asked. No one answered her. We were all too intent on the horizon, looking for something.
A small red light danced on a nearby desert plant. I knew where it had come from. I elbowed my husband again. I could just see the scene he was about to set up: A dancing red light, not as big as a basketball, but who cared? “Ohmygod! It’s the Marfa lights!” Pandemonium. Cameras flashing. People screaming, calling on their cells. “We’re seeing the lights! Get your butt over here!”
Then — a lynch mob, when onlookers realized the source of the red light was a jokester from Austin who couldn’t keep his laser in his pants. “Put that damned thing away,” I whispered and elbowed him again.
He and I left, still scanning the horizon to the south as we drove away. Still looking for the ghosts, the atmospheric disturbances. Maybe it had always been like this, I mused: Some prankster with a torch, a flashlight, fireworks. Some Plains Indian with a sick sense of humor who began it all centuries ago.
No ghosts. Just a keening desire to see something unearthly and mysterious, to believe. We drove back to Marfa itself, where the lights are manmade and electric and scientifically knowable. This time, my husband kept his laser in his pocket.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)