Something we have both learned on the trip has been that things are almost always more than they seem. We have also learned that a place (or experience in the case of the road trip) is more than the sum of it's parts. Nothing could be a better example of this than the Lightning Field.
Our trip to the Lightning Field was by far the most expensive single night on our trip. It was also our second wedding anniversary, which certainly helped to validate the cost. We had heard about it from Sam's work buddy, Hunter, who had visited a number of years ago with his girlfriend Laura.
We woke up in Gallup and knew that we needed to be in Quemado, NM by 2PM. According to Google it would be a 2.5 hour drive. We got up, ran to the store to grab some drinks and snacks, and then got on the road. I think we spent almost the entire time talking about the German National Soccer team because we had downloaded a pre-World Cup friendly match to watch if we managed to have downtime during the day. (We discussed our ideal squad, both lamenting that Marcel Schmeltzer would likely not play, that Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger would both give us a weak mid-field if they weren't at top performance, why the hell Toni Kroos is ever a part of the line-up, and whether the coach should pick Marco Reus or Andreas Schürrle to play attacking mid-field. This sounds like an awful conversation for most of the people reading this, but I assure you that talking about my favorite team was a wonderful anniversary gift.) We had looked at the forecast and saw that no rain was expected for our time there but decided we would still have a nice time regardless (we had the game, remember?). The only things we knew about the Lightning Field are what I am about to tell you now:
We would arrive in Quemado, park at an empty white building on the main street, bring whatever we would need for the night provided it wouldn't take up a ton of space, sign an NDA and a guestbook and then get in a car/truck with a cowboy who would drive us to the Lightning Field. Once there we would settle into a small cabin with up to 4 other people, eat dinner, and wait for night to fall and hope that a storm would roll through. In the morning, the cowboy would come back to pick us up and bring us back to Quemado. The Lightning Field isn't the house, but a field behind the house with a bunch of metal rods set-up as a grid, 1 kilometer by 1 mile in size. All of this was situated in a valley that attracts a lot of lighting and if it were to strike, it would dance across the metal rods and look super cool. An artist had come up with the concept and had done a few similar pieces with metal rods that could be found in different parts of the world.
So that's what we knew. What actually happened wasn't as flashy on the surface but it was decidedly more impactful in the end. We did park at the white building and sort through our cooler. We signed a paper that made us promise not to touch the metal rods if a storm rolled in and to use common sense. Nothing explicitly said no cameras, but we had read that part online somewhere and decided to leave the digital in the car. We sat by ourselves for a few minutes before being joined by 3 other people. Surprisingly enough, we discovered that not only were they also from New York City, but all three worked in the film industry. Two of them even knew Hunter (they actually had no idea that he had even been), although the reasons they were visiting were entirely their own. One of them had worked at an art foundation in Marfa, frigging Texas (that we had never heard of as a matter of fact) and that was where she had heard about The Lightning Field. It's a small world after all.
Around 2 our "cowboy" showed up. Her name was Kim and she was a lifelong resident of Quemado, though she had briefly lived in Pie Town, just up the road a half hour or so. She was in High School when Walter De Maria (wiki!) began his Lightning Field project and many locals had no idea it was going on. High school students knew though because they actually helped him build the whole thing. We loaded into her Suburban and belted in for a bumpy ride. Kim told us a bit about working at the field and the maintenance she and Robert (the cowboy that Hunter referenced) have done in recent years, as well as about how the land was procured. She explained that Walter was very careful to buy up enough land so that when you're exploring the field you can see no trace of other people. She mentioned that someone built a house that was in view on one of the mounds in the distance, but I looked pretty carefully once we were there and saw nothing of the sort. Kim also talked about why we had an escort. Part of it is to preserve mystery about the exact location of the house, but the real reason is because the road to get there is total shit. As we drove it felt like we were in a monster truck at the rally as it drives over old beat up cars. The road was large gravel with some parts that were small holes and I think Kim maintained a speed of 50MPH. It was exciting.
So we arrived at this small homesteaders cabin and could faintly see many poles glinting in the distance behind the house. Kim opened the house and gave us a quick tour. It was actually quite beautiful and everything was thoroughly thought about and well-made. We entered in a kitchen that had basics and a little more. There were beans in a slow cooker and a tray of enchiladas in the fridge. Flan for dessert. Coffee, eggs, bacon, granola, fruit for morning breakfast. She showed us the bathroom, the three bedrooms, and the main room which had a few comfortable chairs and a large dining area. There was a binder with an artist's statement, as well as a typewritten version of an article about it from ArtForum in the late 1970s. Kim talked about the different animals we might see and also strongly urged us to walk around the field at sunset and sunrise. She kept remarking that she wondered if the artist was aware of so many different aspects of how the poles interact with the landscape when he decided on this parcel of land for this work and the different traits of the rods. I kept thinking, "Does she mean that there was supposed to be a lot of lightning here, or what? All I see is a bunch of scrublands, just like the rest of New Mexico. And most of Texas and Arizona, and Utah. Sure, it's pretty, but it's nothing miraculous."
When she left we picked our bedrooms (the other group let us have the room with a double bed facing the field because it was our anniversary, which I thought was very nice of them). Then we hopped outside and walked onto the field. The poles themselves weren't quite as shiny as chrome, but they were more shiny than a stop sign post. They were all between 15 and 18 feet tall and were spaced pretty far apart. The tops were rounded points, so they looked like rows of metallic toothpicks stuck into the ground. There were hundreds of them and it was hard to see from one end to another from where we stood in front of the house. In the distance were a few rocky hills, similar to much of the landscape in that part of the United States. We walked about 3 posts into the grid and then 3-4 posts to the right. We looked around and were impressed, but didn't quite feel compelled to make the trek around the perimeter as our compatriots were doing. The ground was pretty uneven, the sun was pretty intense. The wind would kick up every now and then. All in all, our initial impression was, "Heh, ok, this is pretty cool. But it's too bad that we won't see lightning." We spent a lot of time talking to each other about the changes in soil or guessing about which animals could have created some of the poop pellets we were seeing. Noticing small wild flowers. Longing for Sam's camera, but still trying to make observations with the same eye we use when we do have it with us.
When we returned to the house we skimmed the artist's statement and read some of the technical specs. Apparently all of the pointed tops on the rods were at the same height so that a flat plane could balance perfectly on the points without any slant, not an easy feat considering how uneven the ground was. Again, we were mostly considering the meaning of our time there on the surface only. I remember thinking to myself that all in all, it was definitely a really special place, but not quite as cool as many of the other great things we had seen on the trip. I thought that maybe we had reached a "cool stuff out West" overload and I couldn't appreciate the more simple things because we had explored so much in the previous two months. I focused on appreciating the engineering of the whole field a lot more than I normally would. I thought to myself, it was just as much a feat in engineering/land surveying as it was a piece of art. After our introduction to the lightning field Sam and I decided to take a nap for an hour before cracking a few beers and watching the game.
This is where my eyes finally started to open. Since our bedroom window overlooked the field, I glanced out every now and then as we watched the soccer game. I noticed that one moment the poles would look like a series of bright white gashes against the hills in the background. Five minutes later they were nearly invisible. The sunlight, shiny metal, and very plain surroundings were playing tricks on my eyes. I thought, "Hmm, maybe that's what Kim meant when she was wondering if Walter intended the poles to look like this..." Still, I chalked up the invisible poles to the hundred yards of distance between me and the field. After the game we ate a snack and went back out to the field. We had all agreed to eat dinner after sunset so we could enjoy the hours leading up to it fully out there.
We got outside about 20 minutes before scheduled sunset and headed right, or West, along the far edge of the perimeter. It wasn't a well-beaten path, but it was smoother than walking across the raw scrubland. We had the Lumo and Quad cameras, because we had justified that taking "artistically motivated" photographs that aren't meant to capture the field itself would be permissible. The cameras were entirely plastic after all; we wouldn't be able to depict anything realistically. We noticed the poles started to take on a peach color, akin to the sky. Before we really realized it, we were at the mid-point of the Western side of the perimeter. The sun was still up and we had walked an entire quarter, so we decided, heck, let's walk the whole thing.
The sunset itself was more colorful than any I had ever seen before. In the opposite direction, the hills in the distance were becoming more intensely hued. Looking East at the poles as the sun blazed, the colors were different every minute. One second they were the color of smoked salmon, the next they looked like rows and rows of hot pink neon lights. They changed to golden toothpicks and then as we rounded the next corner the bottoms of the poles would take on the purple color that the hills had become. We were looking back at the last moments of the sun, trying to really soak in the beauty, all the colors, all of the rapid changes that were still hard to detect from one second to the next. As the colors started to take on more blues and purple, about half a mile into the third side, we found ourselves focusing on the changes in perspective as we walked amongst the rods. All perfectly aligned. If the house hadn't been there to orient us, we may have walked in circles all night and not even noticed. And with less light to play tricks it was easier to get an actual count of the rods and see the poles at each of the farthest corners.
It was dark and the stars were starting to appear as we rounded the last corner. The homesteader's cabin was glowing a warm yellow, casting long milky light out into the field. We carefully made our way back to the porch and then into the house, which by now smelled like enchiladas.
We all sat together for dinner, then champagne and flan, and finally a round of cocktails. The five of us talked about our experience on the field. We now understood what caused Kim to wonder about how much Walter De Maria could have realized when he decided to create art there. Did he intend for light, not lighting to be so much at play? Did he know how starkly everything would change from moment to moment, or did he start out with a surface idea that gained depth as he continued to plan and then build the field; much in the same way our expectations evolved into realities during our visit. What things happen there that he didn't imagine even then? It really did seem like this particular spot was a magical place for the Lightning Field to be. And even though it took him five years of scouting to choose this spot, I'm certain some of the effects of the field on the rods and the rods on the field couldn't be foreseen. Did he use the idea of a "lightning show" to draw people in like a marketing point or headline, and then let them explore and discover what this place is really about for themselves? How much does the small number of people visiting at one time and the overnight stay impact how meditative the audience is about this work?
That night we went out into the field once more to stargaze. Sam tried to take some long-exposure pictures of the house with his Lumo, but they didn't turn out in the end. We went to bed fairly early with the intention of catching sunrise, just as Kim had suggested. I have to say, sunrise was beautiful, but not as transformational as sunset. The neon glow was back, but rather than pink, they rods glowed buttery yellow. The sky was pale and lacking the intense colors that we had seen the night before. It was more serene and peaceful. An awakening feeling, but I am not a morning person. So after about 20 minutes we went back to sleep for four more hours.
Breakfast was tasty and we followed with one last walk around the field where I ignored my rule-following instincts and told Sam it would be okay to take a cell-phone picture of the house.
Kim came to take us back to Quemado at 11 and before we knew it, we were saying goodbye to our new friends and driving down the road to Pietown (wiki!). Which is known for, you guess it, pie. We split a lovely slice and the snapped this photo before making our way to Santa Fe for a night.