Moonlight in The Lightning Field

We arrive at Quemado, an impoverished tumbleweed town in central New Mexico that cuddles up to the Arizona border, in time for lunch at one of the two cafes. A sassy, frontier waitress takes our orders, a toothless old cowboy hangs his head at a corner table. Both straight from central casting. We arrive at a sun-bleached wood building just before two, it’s door ajar, a discrete sign stenciled on the window says we’re at the right place. No one’s inside, but a note tells us to sign the open registration book, they’ll be along soon ‘nuf to pick us up. (Yes, the setting calls for a little twang.) We wander back onto the street. I photograph the beat-up old retail building across the way. Back in Time, it’s called, back when it was once open. Not a car moving along this remote two-lane highway. The town sot wanders by, a happy grin on his face, says something that is hard to catch. He also has no teeth.

A van swings ‘round the corner just up the street and pulls along beside us. The driver, a woman born and bred in the ranch country outside of town, helps us throw our bags in the back. “Okay to leave our cars right here?” No problem, she says, nothing has ever happened to them in the 30 years we’ve been doing this.

The Lightning Field is one of the most famous examples of Land Art, a movement that flourished in the 1970s. American sculptor Walter De Maria, supported by New York’s Dia Foundation, took years to find the right location for his grand plan: 400 polished stainless steel poles — each 2 inches in diameter, about 20 feet tall, with pointed tips at the top — installed in a one mile by one kilometer grid. The poles stand 220 feet apart from each other, and the tips all finish at exactly the same elevation though the land rolls over the broad plain. He saw it as an experience to be walked through during an extended period of time. At sunset and sunrise, he said, they come alive.

An hour later, after negotiating a network of washboard roads, we arrive. It’s about as remote as you can get, and empty, silent but for the breeze, an oversize version of a Zen garden. She shows us the cabin’s three rooms, the living room, the two bathrooms, the dining table and the kitchen, and where she has stored the enchilada casserole for dinner, how to heat it up, and where she has put all the things for breakfast. And she drives away.

Initiation is slow. We sit on a narrow terrace of the old renovated sheepherder’s shack and start to take it in. Silence. Ellipses of quiet conversation, dots between thoughts. It’s like sitting in a French cathedral. We talk, but there’s a sense of the sacred present. Then one slips away, starts walking out among the poles. Then another. Then we are all in the field, walking about, quiet, inward, gauging what it’s all about. Ideas penetrate the brain. I try to see how the grid works. It’s mental at first. Mathematics and geometry, and… how did he do that? Sun lowers, and the scene takes on reds and orange and warm yellows. I listen to the wind as I walk the perimeter, watching the lines of poles shift and change. The solidity becomes fluid. It’s a play of permanence and change. I am inside it.

We open the wine we brought, talk in the living room as night descends, a full moon rising that in a photo looks like the sun. We have dinner, more wine, walk out in the field again, under the moon. I think of old movies shot in night-for-day. We go to bed. I awake in the night, hope that maybe a storm has brewed up and lightning is on the way, that we might be one of the few guests who actually get a storm. It’s rare, I read. I go outside, still just high clouds and that big white moon. I go back to sleep. Then wake again a half hour before sunrise. And the magic begins.

Later, hot coffee, a big breakfast, we are excited about what we saw and talk openly, unguarded. No more whispers. The sacred has become us. We understand it and are a part of it, and now we don’t want to leave.

She arrives at 11, We throw the bags in the back, take a last look around. We are the initiated now. We get it. Back at the tumbleweed highway, our cars are fine. And we drive away.

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