The Dancing Ghosts of The Chinitas

I Can Never Go Back To Marfa, Texas; there's a warrant out for my arrest there.

I was at the old Air Corps training base east of Marfa, Texas in 1970 to tow gliders at the World Soaring Championship. All that was left then were the huge runways and one old hangar. One night I walked out among the gliders and towplanes tied down on the ramp and I came upon a group of people clustered around a telescope, talking in hushed voices. I looked off across the dark sagebrush in the direction of the Chinita Mountains and could make out two or three small points of light on the floor of the desert. I asked what they were and was told they were called the Marfa Ghost Lights. They said that local Indians claimed it was the ghosts of their dead ancestors which came out to dance each night. When it came my turn at the telescope, I could see some fuzzy lights that looked much like a Coleman gasoline lantern. One of the lights remained steady while the one near it, which was more red in color, tended to change intensity and moved around a bit. A cold shiver ran down my spine; I was watching ghosts dance.

The first report of the lights was in 1882 when men building the railroad across the Big Bend of Texas observed lights out in the desert south of where they were working. Thinking that they were campfires of Indians preparing for attack, they notified the Army, which sent a company size unit to protect them. The Captain observed the lights for two nights in a row and then sent a mount of scouts out to locate the camp. When they returned three days later, they reported that the Indians must have kept moving and they were unable to locate their camp. Thinking that the scouts had just gone out a ways and goofed off for three days, the Captain took the whole company out into the desert to locate and attack the Indians. They found tracks where the scouts had been but no sign of Indians. The railroad was built on west and the incident forgotten.

The army made occasional searches for the lights over the years, but when they were spotted in 1912, they were sure that Pancho Villa had moved that far into Texas and sent a large force to do battle with him. They tramped through the sagebrush for almost a month until Villa crossed the border at Columbus, New Mexico, about 300 miles away. The lights were forgotten again until 1917 when a rumor started that it was Germans sneaking into the US from Mexico and the hunt was on again. When nothing was found, Congress asked the National Geographic Society to study them. Two years later the society reported that they were caused by swamp gas. Now, in an area that gets only about six inches of rainfall a year and most of it will come from one or two storms, swamps are awfully hard to find there.

World War Two came along and it was decided that Marfa would be an ideal location for pilot training bases; flat country all around, land worth almost nothing and there was seldom ever rain or snow. Three bases were built in a triangle with Marfa sort of in the middle. No sooner was the one east of town put into operation than someone spotted those strange lights out in the desert. Thinking that they must be spies, the base commander ordered troops to intercept them. They scoured the desert each day, finding nothing but the lights would always be back that night. Then they set up surveying posts and began to locate the position of the lights by triangulation. The next day scouting parties were sent out to where the lights had been but all they found was an occasional rattlesnake and tire tracks left by soldiers who had already been there.

In a typical military fashion of never being able to leave well enough alone, they sent airplanes out to drop bombs on the lights. The airplanes would take off but as soon as they got within a mile or so of the lights, they would disappear. They flew weeks of night missions but always brought their bombs home. So they called on Military Intelligence (which is an oxymoron) to investigate the lights. A year of study later, they announced that they had discovered flakes of mica and the lights were caused by moonlight reflecting off them. When someone pointed out that the lights could best be seen on overcast nights when there was no moon, they changed their minds and reported they were automobile lights. I wonder how many cars there were around when they were first reported in 1882.

I suppose the military finally decided that if they just ignored the lights, they would go away. At least they were forgotten until stories started popping up that the lights were flying saucers landing in the desert. The clincher came when a couple hippies, who had been out in the desert gathering Peyote, came stumbling half crazed into Marfa to report that a flying saucer landed next to them and little green men captured them. They had escaped but the saucer took their van. The sheriff and a couple deputies found the van stuck in the sand but no signs of a flying saucer. It was too late because the story was already out and the CIA was involved. A year or so later, they reported that the lights were caused by rabbits running through the sagebrush and collecting phosphorus on their fur and it was glowing in the dark. Made just about as much sense as flying saucers.

So how come I have a warrant out for my arrest? I wrote a magazine article about the Dancing Ghost Lights and described Marfa as, "A forgotten little town that hangs on Highway 90 like wash left too long on the line, bleached by the sun and tattered by the wind. After you have looked at the photos of the cast for the movie, Giant, on the walls of the old El Paisano Hotel, played golf on the highest course in Texas and eaten some of the best Mexican food north of the Rio Grande, about all that's left to do is drive out east of town and wait for darkness so you can see the ghost lights come out and dance."

A few weeks after the article was published, I received a letter from the Mayor telling me that I had done a great disservice to Marfa with my description of it. He told me that they had new books in the library, a new stop light and a new fire truck. I answered with an apology for not mentioning all the new things in Marfa and said I should have written, "After you have looked at the new fire truck, stopped at the new stoplight and colored in the new book at the library, about all that's left to do is drive out east of town and wait for darkness so you can see the ghost lights come out and dance."

The mayor evidently failed to see the humor in my letter and wrote a scathing reply saying that he has sworn out a warrant for my arrest and if I ever showed my face in Marfa he would have my ass in jail.

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Copyright 2000 by Jim Foreman