On a midnight drive down Highway 67 in South Texas, fifty miles from the border of Mexico, you’ll likely encounter a lone coyote or even an armadillo or two. You’re certain to see the yuccas blooming in the moonlight, and the prickly pears hugging every fence post. But in Marfa, Texas, there is something much more haunting than errant wildlife and desert flora to encounter.

A legend more than a century in the making

The Marfa Lights are a Texas ghost story so famous, they have been featured all over the world, including the BBC, Live Science, and Texas Monthly. Touted as mysterious bright spots, they can be spotted on Highway 67 between Marfa and Presidio, Texas, in an area known as the Paisano Pass. Aberrant movements and otherworldly wonders make these lights the stuff of legends, and after more than a century, they remain one of the most unexplained mysteries in the United States.

Tough to get to. Tougher to explain. But once you get here, you get it.

The scientific-minded are quick to write off the lights as atmospheric reflections of automobile headlights. But for the residents of Marfa, and anyone who has witnessed the phenomenon, the lights are anything but rational. In fact, Marfa’s official slogan is, Tough to get to. Tougher to explain. But once you get here, you get it.

According to Wikipedia, the first historical record of the Marfa lights was in 1883 when 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 so spooked he told everyone in town about it. Since that fated night more than a century ago, farmers, WWII servicemen and high-school sweethearts have reported seeing pulsating, colorful balls of light along an uninhabited stretch of prairie south-east of Marfa. The actor James Dean was rumored to be so obsessed with the lights that he kept a telescope in his Marfa hotel room during the filming of the movie Giant in 1956.

Today, people from all over the world descend on the iconic Texas valley for a chance to see the legendary glow. There is no way to predict when they’ll appear, but in general, sightseers and thrill-seekers are graced with an appearance of the lights fewer than 30 times in a year. And everyone has an opinion on their origin.

Ghosts, Aliens or Atmosphere?

Some claim the lights are UFOs (which, thanks to the Pentagon, we now know for certain exist). They have even been touted as the ghosts of Spanish Conquistadors. But what do they look like? Well, some claim to have seen them twinkle. Some claim they are red or blue or yellow or white. Often, onlookers report a second orb appearing to split, merge, float or melt into the first.

Quick research will show that scientists have been investigating this mystery for years. According to How Stuff Works, “In 2011, a group of scientists published a study in the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics on the lights after coming to a much simpler conclusion: They determined that the lights are actually car headlights on nearby U.S. 67 that appear warped as they travel across 20 miles (32 kilometers) of flatland.”

The Problem with the Science

The problem with this theory, of course, is that the lights were first reported in 1883. Automobiles were not invented until 1886, and even then, headlights were not standard on most early models. Even if the legend is off by a few years, what are the chances that a South Texas cowhand encountered–in the desert, no less–an early prototype of an invention that would not become mainstream until the turn of the century? It’s highly improbable, if not impossible.

So what reason would a young cowhand in the 1800s have to lie about such a thing? Much less everyone else that has followed in his footsteps? The scientific theory, while ostensibly rational, does not account for the long-standing tradition of this legend, nor does it fully explain the phenomenon. This, of course, only fuels the mystery of what’s behind the lights, and why they’ve appeared for so long without explanation.

Ghostly Orbs

In the video below, filmed in 2013, you can see the lights for yourself.

So what say you? What do you think is the reason for the Marfa Lights? Do they look like headlights to you?

Whether ghosts or aliens or an atmospheric illusion, one thing is clear: this Texas legend is sure to live on.