Flashes of Brilliance: “The Lightning Field” in Western New Mexico’s High Desert

In The Lightning Field, Nature and Art Merge to Shape an Electrifying Experience

Looking for a place to disconnect from the outer world while you reignite a connection to the land, the elements and yourself? I’ve been to and experienced the perfect place—a masterful art installation in the high desert of western New Mexico where no electronics are allowed, and the exact location is a well-guarded secret. It’s called The Lightning Field and it involves a spate of contradictions—you have to make arrangements to go months in advance but can only stay less than 24 hours. You’ll have to rely on others to take you there, but you’ll feel more in control of your own life after your sojourn.

Created in 1977, The Lightning Field puts to use the vast open space and stunning vacancy of the remote New Mexican desert plateau it occupies to explore the meaning of scale and terrain, and overhaul our perceptions of land and the natural phenomena that impact it.

The installation relies on repetition of a very simple shape – a pointed rod. 400 of them. Made of polished stainless steel, measuring two-inches in diameter and 15 to 26 feet high, and set vertically into the ground across a 1 mile by 1 kilometer rectangular grid, the rods lead the viewer’s eyes upward and outward into the distance.

Located 7,200 feet above sea level in Catron County, New Mexico, The Lighting Field is a challenge to access. But if you make the effort, you’ll have a magnificent, one-of-a kind experience worth every bit of the time, energy and thought you put into it!

Though devoid of humanity, this plateau is extremely electrically active and whipped by powerful winds. You may not see lightning strikes around the poles—they’re pretty rare—but you’re almost sure to see dramatic, unceasing displays of bolts rending the skies above the distant mountains.

Quemado to The Lightning Field.
On the way to The Lightning Field. Photo credit: @marjan_peters

If You Want to Go

The Lightning Field is maintained by the Dia Art Foundation and seeing it requires an overnight stay in a rustic cabin for six at the edge of the field of rods—you can visit from May through October but must book well in advance. Only Dia reps know the exact location of the installation. On the day of your stay, you’ll meet up with one of them who’ll pile you in a dust-streaked van and drive you, your cabin companions and some supplies out to the middle-of-nowhere, about 45 minutes away.

The meeting place for the ride, the tiny town of Quemado, New Mexico, will begin to prepare you for the overnight cabin stay ahead—because there’s nothing to do in Quemado but grab a quick bite, sign your name in a log book in the all-but-empty Dia office and wait for the other cabin guests to arrive. And since they’ll be coming from all over (world renowned 20th-century artistic masterpieces tend to attract people from everywhere), and the drive to Quemado is likely to be long and unfamiliar to most (it takes about three hours from Albuquerque), you may be waiting for quite a while. Practice opening yourself up to the kind of stillness only the desert can provide and tuning into spare surroundings.   

It’s not easy to make the required arrangements or get here, so it’s best not to venture if you can’t do without electronic devices (they’re not allowed—Dia will give you a shortwave radio to contact the office if there’s an emergency), or if you’re unable to see the silver linings in isolation, modest forms of shelter and folks who may or may not be kindred souls.

But if you’re at least willing to try, the payoff will be enormous.

It will be late afternoon when you arrive at The Lightning Field. Explore the cabin then head out to the poles and walk around the 220-foot gaps between them and far into the distance. As the sun sets, you’ll hear the coyotes howl and spot the waning rays of light on the shimmering poles. You’ll be ready to prep your provided dinner.

Absent the usual distractions, your time at the cabin presents a remarkable opportunity to bond with your cabinmates and form new friendships. Hang out with them and uncover their personal stories, points of difference and shared points of view. Who knows what coincidence will unveil in an environment located at the intersection of human enterprise and nature.

As you down your meal, you can’t help but marvel at the incessant lightning. Think about how these electrically driven displays compare to the shows that flicker across your screens back home.

Though the cabin beds are totally comfortable, you probably won’t want to spend the limited time you have here in them. Rise early to take in the sunrise and see how the poles transform dawn’s gorgeous beams.

Throughout the morning, continue exploring the field. Since there’ll be nothing to capture your attention but the sound of the wind and your own footsteps, you’ll be able to focus squarely on the cloud-coated skies, the lumpy soil beneath your feet, the ring of majestic mountains circumscribing the plateau and the ways in which the gleaming rods point toward and interact with everything.

Your perceptions will inevitably shift. One’s sense of space in this field is amplified. Mountains and clouds are no longer mere byproducts of weather and cataclysm—they become looming sculptures, more artful than the rods, but only because of their presence. Time will pass both too slowly and too quickly.

The Dia rep will pick you up at midday for the return trip to Quemado. Organizing the trip and getting to The Lightning Field may have been taxing, but it may be even harder to leave. That’s because a journey to this art installation delivers in the best of all possible ways—it both recharges you and lights up your soul.

Cherry on top experience: Once you get back to Quemado, you’ll be ready for a different kind of self-indulgence. Pie Town is 21 miles away—head to Pie-O-Neer Pie Shop for an unbeatable slice.

Behind the Art  

Some of the most artful lines, shapes and colors we will ever see occur naturally, outdoors, in brilliantly colored leaves, twisting root systems, curvaceous rock formations, undulating dunes, craggy peaks and water-filled trenches. Unsurprisingly, human creators of art, both small and large scale, have long taken inspiration from nature’s striking features.

The land art (aka earthwork) movement, which was born in the 1960s, took this inspirational linkage further by melding manmade works into the landscape, playing off its most compelling characteristics to infuse both the terrain and artistic creation with fresh meaning and transform the perspectives of onlookers. Land art artists manipulated the earth itself to shape both temporary and permanent works that would become part of the natural environment, or they took materials from it to create pieces that would live indoors. One of the pioneers of the land art movement was Walter De Maria and his monumental artistic achievement, The Lighting Field is a premier example of the genre. 

Why are there no photos?

The Lightning Field is meant to be experienced in the moment. That’s why the artist, Walter De Maria, set up strict requirements for this one-of-a-kind place. Even in 1977, when cellphones and the internet weren’t yet in everyone’s pockets, Walter De Maria didn’t want any electronic devices brought to the field. And he didn’t want photos of the artwork to be shared either. Photographer John Cliett lived on site for a year taking hundreds of photographs for educational use. Walter De Maria choose nine photographs. Those nine photographs are the only approved representations of the artwork that are allowed in publication– and the use of those is strictly prohibited to educational purposes.

In keeping with the artist’s wishes, we have not provided any images of the field and its 400 poles here. We hope all curious travelers can experience the art experience themselves.

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