Since I’m setting the book in Texas, circa 1884, I first started looking for unexplained “natural” phenomena to help me develop my story plot.
Wow! Texas sure has its share of weirdness in the Great Outdoors! Take Marfa Ghost Lights, for instance. They’ve entered paranormal literature because eye witnesses liken them to UFOs, Will-o’-the-wisps, and ghosts of conquistadors looking for gold.
The town of Marfa is literally in the middle of nowhere, near Paisano Pass in northeastern Presidio County. Marfa residents are friendly folks. They greet visitors to their website this way: “Whether you aim to remember history or forget it, live at large or only get away for the weekend, write your novel or just find a great place to read one – Welcome to Marfa.” (Emphasis by Yours Truly.) Sounds like my kind of place!
So I tried to imagine myself in my hero’s boots in 1884. Cass is a Texas Ranger, so he would be camped out with his horse in the rugged, west Texas wilderness. His face is turned toward the Chinati Mountains. He’s shivering and sipping burning-hot coffee that’s as thick as Texas crude. He left the nice, safe town of Marfa hours ago, and now it’s far behind him.
Suddenly, he spies bright, basketball-sized globes of light that are red, white, yellow, or orange. (If he poured enough whiskey in his coffee, the lights would look green or blue.)
Here’s how the website of the Texas State Historical Association described the phenomenon:
“At times (Marfa Ghost Lights) appear colored as they twinkle in the distance. They move about, split apart, melt together, disappear, and reappear. Presidio County residents have watched the lights for over a hundred years.
“The first historical record of them recalls that in 1883 a young cowhand, Robert Reed Ellison, saw a flickering light while he was driving cattle through Paisano Pass and wondered if it was the campfire of Apache Indians. He was told by other settlers that they often saw the lights, but when they investigated they found no ashes or other evidence of a campsite.
“Joe and Sally Humphreys, also early settlers, reported their first sighting of the lights in 1885. Cowboys herding cattle on the prairies noticed the lights and in the summer of 1919 rode over the mountains looking for the source, but found nothing
“World War I observers feared that the lights were intended to guide an invasion. During World War II pilots training at the nearby Midland Army Air Field outside Marfa looked for the source of the elusive lights from the air, again with no success.”
Marfa Ghost Lights may appear at any time of night, in all seasons, and in any type of weather. Naturally, enterprising 21st Century Marfa residents have erected a viewing platform so that paying tourists and ghost hunters can freak themselves out to their heart’s content while sitting in vigil, waiting for the lights to appear. Many Texas maps support the Marfa tourist industry by denoting the location where the spooky lights are most likely to occur!
The Texas State Historical Association’s website goes on to say:
“Those who have viewed the lights over a long period personify them and insist that they are not only harmless but friendly. Mrs. W. T. Giddings, who grew up watching the lights and whose father claimed he was saved from a blizzard when the lights led him to the shelter of a cave …”
Of course, folks who like to pooh-pooh anything as cool as Marfa’s Ghost Lights have developed theories to support a mundane cause for the phenomena. The Texas State Historical Association’s website reports:
“Over the years many explanations for the lights have been offered, ranging from an electrostatic discharge, swamp gas, or moonlight shining on veins of mica … The most plausible explanation is that the lights are an unusual phenomenon similar to a mirage, caused by an atmospheric condition produced by the interaction of cold and warm layers of air that bend light so that it is seen from a distance but not up close.”
Other researchers suggest that the lights are caused by atmospheric reflections of automobile headlights and campfires. (But that’s only because they’re clueless. After all, folks have been sighting Marfa lights for more than 100 years!)
Personally, I like the UFO theory. I think it’s the most interesting.