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Allure of Desert 'B&B' That's Real Work of Art

February 03, 1991|PAT HANNA KUEHL | Kuehl is a Denver free-lance writer.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — We sat on the front porch in the middle of nowhere, staring at miles of nothing but sagebrush and stainless-steel poles, waiting for lightning to strike.

Even for New Mexico, this was a pretty far-out bed and breakfast.

We'd heard vague stories about The Lightning Field, near Quemado, a sneeze of a dusty town southwest of Albuquerque, and we wanted to see for ourselves. Was there really a B&B you could go to to watch lightning for entertainment?

The more we asked, the more we got strange looks from the locals until the chamber of commerce in Socorro referred us to Kathleen Shields, the local representative of the Dia Center for the Arts, a New York City-based contemporary art organization.

Dia commissioned and maintains The Lightning Field, she said, and while the project is basically an earth work by internationally known artist Walter De Maria, it includes a small house that sleeps six. Bed, breakfast and dinner are included in the admission fee.

Installed in 1977, The Lightning Field is a square mile of desert scrub, smack in the middle of nowhere, gridded with 400 stainless-steel lightning rods that average 28 feet in height.

Intended as a "live-in" art work, not a tourist attraction, The Lightning Field is an experience in total isolation in a desert setting. Since the artist considers isolation so important to the piece, the number of people visiting at any one time is strictly regulated to a maximum of six. Visitors must stay a minimum of 24 hours. And cameras are forbidden since it is not permissible to photograph the field, which is a copyrighted piece of art.

When we asked for details, few were provided. "It's an art experience," Shields said. "Each person has a different interpretation of what it is. Our driver will pick you up in Quemado, drop you off at The Lightning Field, then pick you up again the next morning. While you're there, you're on your own."

And she could tell us nothing else? "No, it's an art experience," she repeated. "It's about being out there, isolated. I will tell you no one has ever complained the next morning."

OK, we were hooked. My friend and I plunked down $65 each and reported to Johnny's Bar, the van pickup station in Quemado, by 3 p.m. Audrey Ward, the bar manager, collected our money and asked us to sign documents releasing Dia from all responsibility for everything from rattlesnake bites to being struck by lightning.

Rattlesnake bites? Hey, Lightning we'd expected. But we were committed. We signed. Then she directed us to the Dia art gallery next door.

Still wrestling with the thought of rattlesnakes, we could easily have missed the significance of the two-room art exhibit of works by De Maria. The first room, the size of a small auditorium, was bare except for the floor display of three enormous stainless-steel rectangles flanking three circles of matching proportion. The second, smaller room had another stainless-steel floor show: squares with varying numbers of insets--a domino set for cerebral giants?

Robert Weathers, The Lightning Field caretaker, drove us 35 miles or so out into the plains. The wide-open spaces got wider to the point of desolation--nary a tree in sight on a late June day, with the temperature hopping over 100 degrees.

Finally we spotted the tall stainless-steel poles, hundreds of them, stretching off in all directions, each precisely placed in geometric patterns reminiscent of what we'd seen back at the gallery. If lightning did hit--and we'd seen lightning several times on the three-hour drive from Albuquerque--it would be a whale of a show.

Weathers, not a talkative type, allowed as how lightning struck the field maybe twice a year. Our best chance of seeing the highly polished poles in action, he said, would be at sunset and sunrise when they reflected and bounced colors of light.

The cabin, an environmentally conscious structure, looked like a set for "Little House on the Prairie." No screens on the windows to interfere with Mother Nature. On the other hand, there was plenty of ice in the fridge for tonics for those who had had the forethought to bring cocktail ingredients. Otherwise, you settled for the iced tea or fruit juice that Dia provided.

The refrigerator held ample supplies for dinner and breakfast: an enchilada casserole and a bowl of Spanish rice to be warmed in the gas oven; lettuce and tomatoes for a salad, and bacon, eggs, fruit juice, milk, coffee, butter, jams and jellies for breakfast. A metal-lined pantry box nearby held a variety of crackers, cookies, health bread, herb teas and seasonings.

After Weathers had shown us how to use the CB radio to call him in case of emergency and warned us about a persistent stray cat that previous guests had dubbed Walter, he left.

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