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The Lightning Field

An unusual art installation in the high-desert of New Mexico lures curious art (and lightning) lovers.

a sky full of lightning, image
Photo caption
Weather permitting, you can experience a trancendental light show at the Lightning Field in Quemado, New Mexico.

"There's a telephone in the closet," says the mumbly, wind-chapped cowboy, kicking at a dried-up cholla cactus that's lying on the ground. "And you'll find dinner in the fridge. There's wood for the wood stove out back if you need it. I'll be back tomorrow morning at around 11 to pick you up."

That was it. Without a word about lightning—or what we should do if, God forbid, a stray, 10-million-volt bolt were to strike the house with us inside—Robert Weathers climbed into his four-wheel-drive SUV and tore off down the washboard of a dirt road, a mushroom cloud of dust in his wake. As the air cleared, it struck me that the six of us who'd ridden out to this desolate high-desert outpost with Weathers were now effectively stranded for the next 24 hours, till the cowboy returned, in the middle of nowhere.

But this "nowhere"—the arid ranch lands north of Quemado, New Mexico, about 120 miles southwest of Albuquerque—was indeed "somewhere," especially if you were familiar with post-modern art. Six of us—including my wife and four strangers from L.A.—had been dropped off here for a very specific reason: to experience the Lightning Field, a 1970s-era art project that's considered a seminal piece of minimalist art and which is a well-known travel destination for curious art (and lightning) lovers.

Conceived by the New York-based artist Walter De Maria, a master sculptor in the minimalist tradition, the Lightning Field is a vast, empty grassland that measures one mile by one kilometer that's plotted with 400 pointy, stainless steel lightning rods, whose tips are lined up at the same level so that you could set a flat sheet of glass across them. Weathers, who lives down the road about three miles, is the official caretaker of the undertaking, and the driver who brings curious visitors-more than 300 of them each year between May and September-out to the plain, rustic cabin that sits on the edge of the field.

Some visitors have reported witnessing an almost supernatural light show, when, during the summer, storms roll across the plain, spitting bolts of lightning. Occasionally when this happens, says Weathers, who has seen it dozens of times, current hops from one pole to the next in a mad dance. "Sometimes it's just a single strike and that's all," says Karen Weathers, his wife. "But you can feel the power in your gut, in your soul." That's exactly why we were there. It's why we'd driven all this way and paid $110 a person to stay overnight there. Of course, for a calculated reason Robert and Karen didn't let us in on the truth that the odds of seeing a spectacular show were slim, that lightning only struck a handful of times throughout the whole summer. Because the artist intended the experience to be revelatory and personal, we would have to find that out for ourselves.

Giddy with high hopes, we dragged our bags into the creaky, old cabin that would serve as our home for the next 24 hours. Built of pine in a very plain, utilitarian style, it was nonetheless charming. It had three bedrooms and two baths, though only one of the bathrooms had hot water for showers. And when you enter the bedrooms, the iron beds and old wood made you feel like you were going back in time to the 1880s.

Of course, just like in the old days, there wasn't much to do around there.

There weren't any sights to see or trails to meander. There was just this vast field and its 400 lightning rods. So we wandered out into the grass, as silvery gray clouds rumbled in the distance. Could it be a prime day for a few spectacular lightning strikes? We hoped so, but in the meantime, we thought we'd see the Lightning Field up close and, daring the sky to strike us down, we walked out into the middle of the field.

De Maria, who was known for his so-called "land art," searched far and wide across the American West for the perfect location for the art piece. In 1977, he settled on this vast stretch of desert surrounded by red mesas and inhabited by jackrabbits, horned toads, and coyotes. The area's desolate air cast the perfect mood he was looking for. And this part of New Mexico was prime territory to see thunderstorms rolling across the plain, spitting out spears of lightning.

But as the day wore on and the only lightning was miles away, a question arose. Just what good is a Lightning Field without any lightning? What was De Maria thinking? If one wanted to really understand the artist's intent, was it necessary that lightning be present? Over dinner of green-chile enchiladas, green salad, and caramel flan custard, we chatted with our new friends. A few of them were offended, saying that we'd been duped into spending our time and our money on a lightningless Lightning Field. Others maintained that De Maria had brilliantly used irony as an artistic weapon—and we'd fallen for it. Then, out of this heated discussion, consensus began to form. Despite our differences, we were in agreement about some important points: the purpose of the art, we decided, wasn't about the lightning at all. It was about getting past our expectations. The Lightning Field wasn't really about the lightning at all. It was about experiencing the art. It was about coming here and pondering the issues that De Maria intended for us to think about—and maybe coming up with some new ideas as well. It was about the tension between untrammeled nature and the cold, penetrating world of science that we superimpose on it. In the living room, I had discovered a black binder, a sort of User's Guide to the Lightning Field, containing a magazine article that offered a simple, succinct summary of this complex place: "[At the Lightning Field] the lightning most likely to strike is psychological, not meteorological."

The next morning, we awoke before dawn and looked outside, and the place seemed different to me. I'd grown to like the place for what it was. As the sun began to rise, casting its first rosy rays on the Lightning Field, the poles began to glow with the reflected sunlight. They looked blood-red. Then, in unison, they became orange, then yellow. Finally, as the sun peaked over a distant mesa, then they glowed a brilliant white-hot. No, there wasn't any lightning, but it was a brilliant show after all.

This article was first published in May 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.