Be an Art Pilgram: A Day at The Lightning Field

As I watched the caretaker’s truck disappear in a cloud of dust, headed back to the nearest town — Quemado, New Mexico — it dawned on me that there was a certain amount of blind trust involved here. Watch out for rattlesnakes, she’d warned. Eat the food in the fridge, sleep in whichever bed you like. And then she was gone. She said she was coming back tomorrow to get me, but how did I know for sure?

Then again, how did she know I wasn’t going to trash this lovely pine cabin in the middle of the nowhere? I suppose the kind of people who find their way to this place — paradoxically one of America’s most famous land-art installations and also one of its most remote and obscure — aren’t likely to be petty vandals. They are questers. Pilgrims. And The Lightning Field is one of the greatest one-day pilgrimage destinations you will ever find.

One day because that’s as long you’re allowed to stay. Dia, the art foundation that manages The Lightning Field, tries to squeeze in as many visitors as it can — so one overnight is the limit. Its creator, the late Walter de Maria, strongly believed that a full day was the bare minimum you need to appreciate this particular work of art. Because it changes, hour to hour. And so do you.

Looking West from the cabin’s deck, here’s what you see: spread across the scrub plain are 400 polished stainless-steel poles. They look like giant upright knitting needles, evenly spaced in grid a mile by a kilometer. The artist approached this project with a jeweler’s eye and a geometer’s rigour. Sixteen (four squared) poles by twenty-five (five squared) making 400 (twenty squared). The measurements are so precise that a sheet of glass placed on top of the poles would be perfectly, evenly supported. Distances between the poles are accurate to within one-twenty-fifty of an inch. From any direction, the rows appear to stretch to infinity.

De Maria spent five years searching for this spot. He wanted a high, flat, lonely spread in an area of high lightning activity. He scoured California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Texas before settling, in 1977, on this isolated plain. You could say The Lightning Field is, as much as anything, about patience. It took patience to find it, and it takes patience once you’re here to fully appreciate it.

There’s a decent chance of seeing lightning. In the summer, lightning comes in with what the Navajo call “male rain” – hard rain that falls in big drops – as distinct from the gentler female rain that falls between November and March.

Every visitor has a unique response to the poles, the caretaker told me. Some climb them. (“Very disrespectful.”) One man mummied himself from head to toe in aluminum foil and went running among the poles, hoping to attract a charge. (It was a clear day.) Some observe a vow of silence. It struck me that it would be a good place to come to try to repair a marriage, or mend fences with an estranged relative. There’s something powerfully affiliative about waiting together, just waiting, for something that may or may not come.

My cabin-mates were Peter, a photographer from Massachusetts, and Tom, a sculptor from Sydney, Australia. They’ve been friends since art school in Boston, and had re-united for a trip across the American Southwest. I couldn’t have asked for better guides. Both guys had studied land art —that very Seventies movement, monumental in scale but minimal in form, where artists put aside paint for bulldozers and made craters and berms and whorls: “earthworks.” De Maria was a minor rock star within that tribe. For Arthur, the Lightning Field was the cobbler’s unmended shoe. Until now he had been too busy lecturing on it to actually come and see it.

They were easy company, Peter and Tom. After poking around among the pinon and torrey yucca, and watching the poles pick up the afternoon light, we settled into mission chairs on the porch.

Peter told a story of a friend’s mother from back home, a woman who apparently had some psychic gifts. She’s been having these dreams. They’re full of Southwest Indian imagery so vivid that one day she just gets into her car and drives to New Mexico. She arrives in the middle of a freak snowstorm. She can barely see the road. Suddenly an animal darts in front of her car. It’s a white coyote – a sight so novel she is moved to mention it when she arrives in the next village. The villagers snap to attention. Turns out the local shaman has just died. When a shaman dies, his soul supposedly takes the form of a white coyote. “The first person to see the white coyote,” the villager explains, “becomes the next shaman.” Peter’s friend’s mother did not stick around for the formal initiation. She now lives in Calgary and has a postgraduate degree in chaos theory.

Dusk gave way to night. Stars bloomed over the desert. The moonlight transformed Tom, who looks like Bill Clinton, into a sinister character actor. If this were a Tony Hillerman novel, one of us would now turn into a shape-shifting Navajo witch and take out the other two with a shiv made from a human femur. Earlier, Arthur noticed there was enough bacon in the cabin’s fridge to clog the arteries of half a dozen really big men. “That’s what they do,” he concluded, about Dia. “After you’re dead they come in and take your passports and sell them, and then they prepare for the next earthwork. See those three mounds out there?”

This was fun. I’d hoped, arriving here, that a big bolt of lightning was going to fall like the finger of God. It now seemed highly unlikely we’d see any lightning at all. But it didn’t matter. The Lightning Field, I’ve decided, is not about lightning. It’s about resolving in your heart the thing that brought you here in the first place.

And anyway, lightning does not fall. I was surprised to learn, in the same way I was surprised to learn that the North Star is not fixed, that lightning isn’t a single charge. There are two strokes. One leaves the sky for the ground, and another leaves the ground for the sky. And somewhere in the middle, they meet.

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