January 8-9, 2013
From Aquirre Springs we planned to take two days to get to Big Bend National Park in southern west Texas. As we approached El Paso, we stopped for coffee and to search online for a possible camping place midway there. Checking the helpful website, freecampsites.net, I discovered the perfect spot. The Marfa Mystery Lights Viewing Station! You can stay for the night for free in the parking lot (just like Walmart) and there are even bathrooms. What could be better than a night with unexplained phenomema?!
The sun set when we are still sixty miles from Marfa. The desert and sky turned opaque with few lights to penetrate the surrounding darkness. I was looking down at something (probably my iPhone), when Chris cries, “Did you see that!?” No, what did you see? Dumbfounded, he claimed that we drove past a small, almost miniature, lit-up storefront displaying high-heeled shoes. Huh? This is truly a remote area, no towns, no gas stations, no houses, just a vast plain of flat desert. I couldn’t imagine what he actually saw. High heels?
The answer is as weird (in a good way) as it looked. We find out later that it was an art installation constructed in 2005, called “Prada Marfa”. Prada shoes and purses are in a mock store in the middle of far west Texas, an area more commonly hosting cattle ranches, armadillos and BBQs. (See more at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prada_Marfa) My only regret is that we didn’t stop and go back so I could see it.
Farther along Route 90 we see a contained brightly lit area ahead on our right. Its isolation in the darkness is strange. Chris speculates that it is a prison; a good guess I think. Closer, we see a large circle of intense yellow lights shining inward onto a huge object at its center. It is some kind of ship or blimp, but not your average Goodyear blimp. Glowing yellow from the lights, it has the shape of a bulbous cartoon bomb. It appears to be hovering off the ground. Huh? What is that?
Later we find out that it was the “Marfa Blimp”, or Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS), a low-level radar providing surveillance along the southwest border of the United States and Mexico. It is usually floating at 12,000 feet while being tied to the ground. The blimp tries to detect low-flying aircraft in support of the United States’ drug interdiction program as well as gathering information for other agencies. Locals joked that since its multi-million dollar installation in the late 90’s it has led to exactly one arrest. I recently came across articles saying that the blimp may be retired soon.
(See more at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tethered_Aerostat_Radar_System)
Continuing down the road, gazing ahead listlessly, tired from a long day of driving, we were both jolted awake again as a large green ball of light arced across the sky, descending to earth and disappearing. The Marfa Mystery Lights? Or was it a meteor? Or . . . . ? This is a strange neck of the woods.
The name Marfa sounds less like a town and more like an acronym for a government agency or a trade agreement, or like a small child’s mispronunciation of Martha. The viewing station is a few miles past the town center. We often look for unusual remote places where we might rent a room for a month someday, just see what life is like there. Marfa has been put on our list. With a population of about 2,000, it has a thriving arts community and has been the site of many films. Its name supposedly comes from Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov. Texas is full of surprises.
When we arrived at the viewing station, there was one other person there. Apparently some nights draw a crowd. We checked out the facility, an adobe style building with decks for viewing. The night was bitter and windy. We were bushed but stayed up for a while sitting in the cab of the truck, hoping to see more lights. Nothing unusual appeared but there was a marvelous canopy of stars to stare into. Soon we retired. People came and went during the night. To see the lights? To use the restrooms? To traffic in something illegal?
About midnight rain started. I thought it might be a light shower but it became a heavy constant downpour. At times the wind blew hard and buffeted the truck. I wondered, wakened from my sleep, if they have tornadoes here. Probably. People say that an approaching tornado sounds like a train coming, and just as I had that thought, I heard the roar of a train – fortunately, a real one, rushing along the tracks across the road.
In the morning it was still pouring. We were eager to get to Big Bend but the weather was demoralizing. The sky was so low and dark that it was if daytime never really arrived. The rain was cold and was whipped violently by the wind. The next town was Alpine, and we spent the morning resupplying and doing errands. Walking out of a luncheon restaurant, we were dismayed to see that the rain had morphed into soppy, big-flaked snow, creating deep slush everywhere. Someone told us that the road into Big Bend was becoming impassable. Defeated, we looked for a cheap motel for the night as snow quietly covered this Texan town in the Chihuahuan Desert.