The Lightning Field
On August 17, the morning after my 33rd birthday, I opened my eyes to a gorgeous sunny day and a vista of the Gallinas Mountains well off in the distance. I was lying in a bed in a rustic (ramshackle) cabin approximately fifty miles from the nearest town, at least three miles from the nearest anything, in the middle of godknowswhere in the North Plains of New Mexico. The cabin was the only structure, aside from a decrepit stockade and windmill, as far as the eye could see in every direction. Nothing but desert scrub brush and a massive open sky… and 400 stainless steel poles.
Tracey, my petite tour guide, and I arrived in Albuquerque, home of Pace Picante, the previous day. I had no idea why. I was told to pack a variety of specific items, including a raincoat and an umbrella. Looking around at the cacti and dirt cooking under the afternoon sun, I was slightly confused. We spent the afternoon touring the town (getting lost) and hiking in the Petroglyph National Monument. There are supposedly hundreds of ancient rock carvings in Rinconada Canyon. We saw three that looked authentic. The funny stick figure with the broad smile holding what looked like a coffee cup… "whadda ya think, maybe 3,000 days old?". Anyway, it was boiling under the afternoon sun and my rain gear was neatly packed in my duffle bag. The two of us turned around after walking about a mile through the sand and brush and followed the trail back to the car. A silver PT Cruiser, touring edition. Yeah, baby, cool! That evening we ate dinner at an upscale local Italian restaurant. Anywhere in Atlanta, this place would have been packed with pretentious superficial vacant snobs and vacuous cosmetically enhanced miniskirt wearing gold-diggers. In Albuquerque, the clientele were average everyday folks with their Stetsons and Zuni inspired patterned vests. I miss the west.
The next day, on the morning of my 33rd birthday, I opened my eyes to an unfamiliar room, in an unfamiliar town, wondering what the hell I doing here and where in the hell we were going. I was in Albuquerque (is there another word in the English language with two Q's ?). We had breakfast at an awesome little joint across the street from the University of New Mexico called the Frontier. I had a big daddy breakfast burrito smothered in green chili sauce and a tall orange juice to put out the fire.
Belly's full, PT Cruiser gassed, ear-to-ear smile in the passenger seat, and it was on the road to parts unknown (to me). The PT Cruiser hummed along Interstate 40 for about 70 miles through the desert, across Indian lands, and past one horribly ugly poverty-stricken reservation town... next to a casino. We turned off the interstate on highway 117 heading south. The El Maipais National Monument welcomed us into the back country of New Mexico. This is one of the most beautiful stretches of road I have ever driven. On one side of the road sandstone cliffs undulated in shear cliff faces and valleys and on the other the black basalt rock of ancient lava flows stretched off into the distance. We drove through rain and a brief lightning storm when I spotted a massive bird in a field off to our right. It was about a hundred yards away and looked enormous, big enough to carry a tight-lipped mini tour guide away. I saw my first Golden Eagle. The wingspan on this monster was at least four feet. We stopped at a stunning overlook and at La Ventana Natural Arch on our way to…? Miles and miles further through open prairie and one-mailbox towns we arrived at our destination. Quemado, New Mexico.
I was still scratching my head. We were 149 miles from anything approximating civilization in country barely fit for cattle and there was a weather beaten cowboy and two other couples waiting for us. “Looks like our cabin mates have arrived”, says my tiny secret-keeper. At which point, she looked at me and said, “You still haven't figured it out yet?”. “Um, No I haven't. We are in the middle of the [insert expletives] desert in a po dunk one-block-long town of ten buildings and I have an umbrella." She-mini-devil finally spilled the beans. We were on our way to see something called The Lightning Field. POP! I remembered the conversation months earlier. I had stumbled across a picture and brief description in an art magazine I was paging through and said, “wow, that's cool!” and turned the page. How in the world would I have figured this top-secret adventure out?
So, we unloaded the PT Cruiser and put our bags into a very large American made pick'em up truck and drove off with a sweaty woman who could have beat the hell out of a gorilla. She just looked tough. We drove off the main road onto a dirt road heading toward Pie Town some fifty miles distant, then eventually turned off that road onto another even more dirt-ish road going nowhere in particular. I was sitting in the front seat watching the landscape pass by at 65 miles per hour. A very wide open plain lay off in the distance. I assumed we were heading in that direction, so I asked.” So how much farther is the cabin?” She replied, “down in the plains”. The truck bounded down the hills, around bends and over cattle guards. We rounded one corner and came to an abrupt stop. A very large very black drooling longhorn bull was standing in the middle of the road. He looked at us with a slobbery face and a swagger that said, "don't hit my bitches" and moved off to the side of the road. The fifteen cows behind him followed his lead and we moved past the herd. I spotted a large weather battered mailbox ahead. She, the ranch woman, slowed down to take the corner and stopped in front of the mail box. She opened it and pulled out a large stack of manila envelopes and assorted mail. Huh? You have got to be kidding me… and people bitch about the USPS. A little further down the dirt road I was just about to ask again how much farther we were going when I saw the cabin. I looked around for any other sign of life. Off to our right lay the Lightning Field. We pulled up to the cabin, unloaded our bags, got the tour, the mice and rattlesnake warning, and our host drove off. “All right, y'all, see you tomorrow at 11:30.”
The Lightning Field is a privately commissioned and owned earth work, or environmental art project. It was commissioned by The DIA art-something-or-other and conceived by Walter De Maria. It consists of 400 stainless steel lightning rods spaced 220 feet apart (within 1/23rd of an inch of the next pole) in a grid pattern over an area of a mile by a kilometer. The average height of each pole is twenty feet seven inches high and the tips are so perfectly level a sheet of glass could be placed over the entire field. Each pole is sunk into the desert in a concrete encasement and strong enough to withstand wind gusts of 110 miles per hour.
That's a lot of pointy poles.
According to the artist, the work is about isolation, not simply about lightning and making your hair stand on end. Meteorologically speaking, this particular part of the country sustains the highest number of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes in the country. On average, at most, three strikes a year actually hit the field during the monsoon months of July and August. Our odds weren't good. An hour after we were left to ourselves, in the middle of the desert, with the snakes and jackrabbits and steel poles, clouds magically began to form over the mountains to our southeast. Soon, the temperature dropped into the fifties, the rain was coming down in sheets and we all had our cameras and video cameras ready. One lightning bolt, then another struck about two miles away. We were counting for the thunderclap to judge distance. Another struck near. We were all shivering and twitching in anticipation. Aaaaaaaaaaand, that's all she wrote. The lightning field was quiet. Supposedly, when a strike hits one of the poles it then spreads across the entire field jumping from pole to pole to pole. One giant conductor. Oh well, it’s a rarity and we got as close as anyone could hope to get without seeing the event. Schucks.
It was still really cool. Seriously, it was [insert explitive] cold and I actually did need my rain gear in the desert. Who knew?
We had a tasty dinner of green chili enchiladas and beans and enjoyed good conversation with the two other couples with whom we were sharing the cabin (the other mystery was that the cabin not only had running water, but also hot water, and electricity. I don't recall seeing power lines). One couple was from NYC and involved with the contemporary art world. The other couple were relocated midwesterners celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary. Later that night we watched the stars and a fireworks display a couple miles off in the distance. No kidding, fireworks in the middle of nowhere. Probably a consolation prize for the lack of lightning or a drunk cowboy.
Which brings me back to the sunlight flooding the room and warming the ponderosa pine floorboards. After breakfast, we went for a walk in the mud amongst the lighting rods and cow pies and wandered over to the rusty windmill and back to the cabin. It was hot, salty sweat was dripping into the eyes I was using to spot rattle snakes, and my butt itched.
And the bird watching was fabulous. I have always found it interesting that the arid west is home to significantly more species of birds than the east (with all it's vegetation). I saw an American Kestrel, three Merlin's, a Prairie Falcon, hawks, vireos, warblers, and my favorite, Rufous Hummingbirds. The hummingbirds were very active around the cabin due to a large nectar bush outside the front door. The bush was buzzing with all manner of nectar-sipping bees, wasps, moths, butterflies and birds. Rufous, Calliope, and Broad-tailed Hummers were all in attendance. These are some fiesty territorial little birds and they spent a tremendous amount of energy chasing one another (including bees, moths, and butterflies) away from the flowers. It was amazing to watch. I was thrilled. My trigger finger fired off six rolls of film in rapid succession. I can't wait to see how steady my hand is...
Roundabout (around) 11:50, a stoic ranch hand in a disgustingly dirty stetson picked us up late and drove us back into town to reclaim our cars. We had to make our flight out of Albuquerque at 5pm. It was 12:30 when we got back to Quemado. We had to haul ass. I had the PT Cruiser zipping along at 85mph the entire way back. Two hours on the nose, out of gas, and just as traffic backed up due to an accident ahead we took the exit to the Sunport (airport) in Albuquerque. A great trip.
I love the southwest.