Playing with Zeus’s Fire

Set amid rolling terrain, The Lightning Field’s 400 rods have been individually engineered to rise to exactly the same height. Lightning formation begins when condensation and freezing create a charge separation in storm clouds, with electrons clustered near the bottom of the cloud (1). The electric field around the cloud repels electrons on the ground deep into the earth, creating a strong positive charge at the surface (2). The voltage difference between the base of the cloud and the ground ionizes the surrounding air, making it much more conductive (3). When the resistance of the air drops sufficiently, electrons race to the ground in a violent discharge we see as lightning (4). The Lightning Field’s equidistant steel rods provide the lowest-resistance path to the ground for these massive jolts of electricity.

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.

Every schoolkid is taught that lightning is simply a discharge of potential electric energy, positive meeting negative between clouds and earth. The juice is generated in conditions unique to the upper reaches of the thunderheads themselves, which billow as high as 10 miles into the atmosphere. Low temperatures and violent winds conspire to mash microscopic ice crystals one against the other, shucking electrons, building a charge differential. The positively charged crystals gravitate to the top of the cirrus anvil, and negative crystals to the bottom, where they occasionally, violently, discharge to the ground.

But fewer people realize what is happening simultaneously on the ground, where masses of positively charged ions are flowing in from all directions, drawn to the negatively charged mothership above. To get closer, these particles climb whatever is handy–trees, steel poles, people. It’s this movement of billions of positive ions up your head that causes your hair to stand on end just before a lightning strike. Well . . . that and the riveting fear.

In the distance, the storm clouds are like an advancing army of purple airships. I wrap a blanket around myself and start to walk into the field, between the poles, as a lasso of electricity flashes from one side of the heavens to the other. I’m not certain whether this is protocol, or safe, and without the protection of the cabin, I feel naked, exposed on all sides. Especially up. The lighting is now a Close Encounters light show, which makes it easy to forget to breathe. Steady pulses of heat and light burn toward the earth, hitting it, bang, and again, bang-bang, the electricity cutting the air over and over. The wind grows stronger, my ears are warm, the hair on my neck is standing up. I’m thinking of the science, the ionization, the cirrus anvil. But mostly I’m thinking: holy s–.

The storm gallops along the plain until what were electric saplings of distant lightning bolts are now thick trunks striking the desert beyond the poles, bang, bang-bang, filling the air with spasms of 50,000-degree air. This is an intimate weather moment, and I’m duly self-conscious. I find myself thinking about the metal in my watch, about my height, the fillings in my teeth. I think about standing on one leg, the way old-time electricians used to when testing new powerplants, to keep the voltage differential from crossing from leg to leg and frying their wedding tackle. And then I think about going back inside, to the cabin.

My new companions and I watch the show all night as it slowly approaches, rages, then sweeps back into the desert and behind the hills. It’s dark then, and quiet. Then the moon rises, full and close, followed by a seamless desert of pinprick stars, each a burst of light from a place we’ve never seen–a stream of ancient wave energy, beautiful and, apparently, quite real.

Looking for a hair-raising experience? Don’t know enough to get in out of the rain? Read on.

Electrical storms
The Lightning Field, Quemado, NM
A night of cabin camping amid nature’s light show. May?October; $110 ($135 in July and August);

Storm Chasing Adventure Tours
Five- and 10-day tours through America’s Tornado Alley between April and July. $1,700?$2,900;

Hurricane Chase Safaris
Tag along with weather videographer Richard Horodner. $2,500;