About 20 miles outside the small far west Texas town of Alpine there is the even smaller town of Marfa, Texas. For a place of roughly two thousand residents, Marfa has much with which to recommend itself: it’s the Presidio County seat; notable movies such as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood have been made in and around Marfa; in the old Hotel Paisano you can still see where Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor stayed during the 1956 filming of Giant. Donald Judd, the great minimalist artist moved to Marfa from New York City in 1971 and the Chinati Foundation still oversees its expansive local collection of works from Judd and his contemporaries.
All well and good. But to most people Marfa is best known for one thing and one thing only: the mysterious Marfa Lights.
For over a hundred years local residents have claimed on clear evenings to see shimmering balls of light on the distant desert horizon southeast of town, flickering, darting, floating, sometime splitting into twos and threes. The lights are unpredictable but persistent and have become such a tourist attraction that Presidio County has shrewdly built the Marfa Lights View Park, a modern viewing pavilion on the highway nine miles outside of town.
Late one recent frosty evening at that very View Park my family and I peered into the desert in search of the mystery. Sure enough, out in the distance: a single orange pinpoint of light.
“There! It moved. Did you see it?”
Several were certain that the light was moving from side to side but in the largely moonless night it was impossible to determine any reference point in the distant darkness with which to confirm it. I chose skepticism instead, partially just to be contrary but also the glowing dot appeared to me more like the fixed porch light from some far remote ranch house.
But as the believers in the group expressed their conviction with more and more excitement I gradually began to think I saw some movement as well. Having come many miles into the middle of nowhere and several hours toward the middle of the night, I felt a genuine longing to forfeit my incredulity and experience the fabled Marfa Lights.
In the end I can’t be certain what it is I saw. I still think it was an isolated porch light in the vastness of the desert dark. Any perceived movement was likely just the result of collective confirmation bias brought on by a suggestively placed “viewing station”. But I do know this, there was something exciting and special to be all together as a family in that place peering into the black and encouraging each other to see something mysterious, unexplained and a little scary.
It is no great thing, of course, to see what you’ve been encouraged by others to see. We often count that as a vice not a virtue. But if there is a time when it is acceptable, then it is surely at the passing into a New Year. Marfa reminded me that it invigorates and ennobles us to stand together staring into the unknown and New Year’s Day is our annual “viewing station”. Each January 1 just for a moment we allow ourselves to gaze into the darkness of a yet unlit pathway with family, friends and colleagues, expectant and wondering together what awaits its traversing.
Maybe I saw the Marfa Lights and maybe I didn’t. All I know is that I was nourished by the shared experience with the people I love. As we navigate 2015 here’s hoping that we all have occasional roadside viewing stations within which to wonder and hope. It is how we move forward.
Happy New Year from The Stubborn Glebe.