Inside the little wooden cabin in a vast open field, on the wooden desk by the wooden chairs, you’ll find a list of suggestions for your stay. And at the bottom of that list you’ll find one simple fact, underlined for emphasis: The invisible is real.
See for yourself. Step beyond the table to the back porch, out into the blazing sunshine. Now look around. All the way around. It’s a beautiful nothing, 360 degrees of scrub brush and sage framed by distant mountains and a robin’s-egg sky. You could be anywhere—the Sahara, the Moon—but in fact you’re somewhere outside the town of Quemado, New Mexico, a dozen or so miles from the Continental Divide. You’ve been dropped here to spend the night at this remote desert cabin with four perfect strangers, and to wait for the lightning to strike.
It happens, when it happens, just beyond the porch, along a grid of 400 equidistant stainless steel poles, extending a mile this way and a kilometer that. Despite the rough terrain, each pole has been painstakingly engineered to reach to exactly the same height, such that a mile-long pane of glass might be rested evenly on their tips. These tapered tips point to the sky like the male ends of electrical plugs facing an enormous potential outlet. They are designed to attract the invisible, and make it explosively real.
At 7,200 feet above sea level, the high desert of New Mexico is one of the most frequently lightning-struck places in the country. Sometimes, when passing clouds get within 200 feet of the poles, they feel the tug of the steel and—kaboom! Sometimes the pole tips are surrounded by auroras of St. Elmo’s Fire and blaze like plasma tiki torches in the desert. And sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes you sit here, in the middle of nowhere, thinking about what you can’t see.
This is The Lightning Field, an installation by earthscape artist Walter De Maria. In the 27 years since De Maria’s team first laid its computer-modeled grid on this high desert, the work has evolved from a boutique destination for a handful of art aficionados into a popular pilgrimage for a growing conglomeration of art, science and extreme-weather tourists. Reservations, booked up to a year in advance, are essential. The Field offers a rare opportunity to actively confront a phenomenon so deadly and majestic that it has become a universal metaphor for God’s wrath. In the normal world, it’s the sort of encounter that thinking people generally avoid.
At any given moment, our planet is being sizzled by an estimated 1,800 thunderstorms. In this country alone, lightning touches down 25 million times a year, along bolts extending up to 10 miles and carrying up to a hundred million volts. In the U.S. these strikes kill an average of 73 people a year; thousands more are injured, more than 700 seriously. Over your lifetime there’s a 1 in 3,000 chance that you’ll get struck yourself. It’s not just for quaint rusticity that this little cabin is made of wood.
As luck would have it, my reservation coincides with a prediction for a stormy weekend, and sure enough, by 6 p.m. the horizon is promising, with a hard western wind pushing thunderheads across the vast desert space. Thin fingers of lightning stripe the distance. The five of us crowd out behind the house, staring in wonder. There’s a feeling in the air—something big is coming. How can we be so sure? Maybe it’s just intuition, or the clouds. Most probably, though, it’s the ions.