MARFA — They have perplexed travelers for nearly 150 years. The Marfa mystery lights sparkle through the West Texas night sky and attract visitors from around the world.
Erica Wiggins is a third-grade teacher in Richardson, Texas. She told Verify reporter David Schechter she saw the lights in Marfa once before.
But what is it that she saw? Can the lights even be explained by science?
Wiggins said she’d take a few days off if we took her on the road to find out if the Marfa mystery lights truly are a mystery. So, Schechter and the Verify crew met Erica at Dallas Love Field, flew her to Midland and then drove three hours to Marfa, a very remote place.
"I love road trips," Wiggins said as we headed through the Davis Mountains.
After arriving in Marfa, they Skyped with James Bunnell. He's a retired aerospace engineer who’s written four books about the Marfa lights. He spent more than a decade on his research.
"When is the best time we should go?" Wiggins asked.
"Try to get there around sunset to look around and kind of get your orientation," Bunnell said.
"The mystery lights turn on and off," he said. "Particularly when they're first getting started, they might turn on for a little bit and go off and be out for a while before they come back."
"What do you think causes the lights?" Wiggins asked.
"I have concluded, most likely, these lights are fundamentally plasma," Bunnell said.
Above, solids, liquid, and gas, plasma is the fourth state of matter. In Bunnell's theory, tectonic plates rub together causing underground lighting. That releases a hot ball of plasma, he said. As it cools it travels erratically through the air shooting off light.
"I wish you great luck," Bunnell said as sunset approached. "Maybe they'll come out just for you."
Before they headed out to see the lights, the team picked up resident Rosemary Cox. In 1883, Cox's grandfather, Robert Ellison, was the first rancher to report seeing the mystery lights. She has lived in Marfa most of her life. She said the boys used to drive the girls out to see the lights and they called it courting.
"Do you think the Marfa mystery lights are really a mystery or can they be explained by science?" Wiggins asked.
"Oh, I think they're a mystery and I want them to remain a mystery," Cox said.
It's almost night and Rosemary joins Wiggins and Schechter at the Marfa lights viewing station. From the official viewing platform, our expert, James Bunnell, told us to look for a blinking radio tower, to help get our bearings.
"I think that's a radio tower," Schechter said.
"A radio tower is up in the air?" Cox said with doubt.
"Now I see a car. You see a car?" Schechter said.
"Yeah, I do," Wiggins said.
"You can't see a car from here," Cox said, again with doubt.
OK, so now we've got a controversy. Rosemary's been out here her whole life and doesn't believe Marfa lights could possibly be caused by headlights.
A lot of people look at a blinking white light out here and think they’ve seen the Mystery Lights. But the Verify crew brought along a special, low-light camera that shows those are not lights floating in the sky. Those are cars on a mountain road, 20 miles in the distance. The lights appear to flash because they're occasionally masked behind terrain.
"This is where we are sitting right now and he says to look hard left," Schechter tells Wiggins and Cox.
"Well, I bet there's not a way in the world to prove it," Cox said.
By nightfall, Rosemary is home in bed and Wiggins and Schechter are now all looking to the left of the tower, where the experts said you can find the true Marfa mystery lights.
The guys on our crew are starting to see things.
"You see it still? Oh, it's red. Did you see that?" said photographer Chance Horner.
"No," Wiggins said.
“I saw it flicker red," Horner said.
"We are definitely seeing things," said director Alex Krueger.
Even though we're looking to the left of the tower, Bunnell had warned us about trucks on ranch roads. They can fool you and they probably did.
"I think, most likely, that’s a car," Schechter said.
"David, the truth is out there," responded Krueger.
Our expert said the true mystery lights don’t show themselves very often, and they didn’t show themselves tonight.
The next morning, Wiggins and Schechter are sardined inside a tiny, 60-year-old airplane. Burt Compton, with Marfa Gliders, is flying us over the things we saw last night.
"You start to realize how far everything is away from you. It makes the mystery even more mystery," Schechter said.
"I wouldn't think we could see the headlights from that far," Wiggins said.
"I wouldn't either," Schechter said.
Compton said the air is so clear out here and that it's possible to see headlights from 20 miles away.
"What do you think it is?" Schechter asked the pilot.
"Two jackrabbits rubbing up against each other," he said.
So, what have we verified? Well, we saw for ourselves some of the lights can be explained. They’re headlights. But something else is out there too.
Our experts said what we’re seeing is likely plasma. But Erica is not convinced. She doesn't believe there’s a good explanation for the lights.
“There have been a lot of people trying," she said. "We just haven’t found the answers yet."
"What was our question?" Schechter asked Wiggins.
"Are the Marfa mystery lights really a mystery?" she said.
"Yes, they are really a mystery," she said.
"They can't be explained by science or anything else?" Schechter asked.
"I don’t think so," said Wiggins.
Some people like their science explained. Erica likes the mystery. Don’t take my word for it. Take hers.