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On the Path to the Perfect Storm

From the Lightning Field to almost-artsy Silver City and a host of hamlets in between, rockin' and roilin' on an odyssey of oddities.

July 22, 2001|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | Times Travel Writer

OUTSIDE QUEMADO, N.M. — There were six of us on the porch, and except for the 400 lightning rods, not much else for miles.

The rain puddles were deep enough to drown June bugs; the nearest neighbor was seven miles off. Now and again thunder would rumble, and we'd grin dumbly, gaze toward the southern sky and hope for magic.

"This," whispered Mary Frances, glancing at the four strangers around us and the bare homesteader's cabin behind us, "is the wackiest vacation I've had in my life. Out in the middle of this with people you don't know ... "

Mary Frances and I have been married 11 years, so I know she has spent at least one Christmas Day in Bahrain, an Easter week in Croatia and a summer spell on Bora-Bora, where she was invited to an autoharp recital. Around the globe, she has drunk deeply from the well of wackiness.

What brought us here was, in many ways, your basic four-day desert road trip, Albuquerque to Silver City and back, with a single added wild card: this conceptual-art lightning thing I heard about a year ago from a guy at a birthday party.

And then another storm came at us and brought me back to the moment. The sky flared, the rain fell just about sideways, and the sun dropped into a little slot between the lowest cloud and the distant horizon ...

Every year, come July and August, great stretches of the arid American West get briefly wet. In the skies above southwestern New Mexico, the cloudscapes swell to rival the landscapes as great billows of black and white hang above the red buttes, the cactus and the creosote clumps. When late afternoon rolls around, the booms and lightning bolts begin.

The New Mexicans call this their monsoon season, but you can consider it an invitation: In these weeks you see the desert at its most dynamic, the colors richer, the sky livelier, the Rio Grande swollen, the flora and fauna taking it all in.

Our visit was in late June, just as monsoon season was beginning. Flew to Albuquerque. Rented an SUV in case of dirt roads and deep mud. Turned our backs on the glossier New Mexico of Santa Fe and Taos. Headed south and west to the New Mexico of unaccredited museums and towns with goofy names.

We paused in Albuquerque's Old Town long enough to get soaked in a downpour and collect Certificates of Bravery (just for paying admission and looking) from the American International Rattlesnake Museum. Then we roared toward Socorro, Magdalena, Pie Town, Quemado and beyond.

We arranged the SUV accordingly, maps on the dash, umbrellas and water bottles rattling around in the back while we climbed from 5,000 feet and 95 degrees to 8,000 feet and 80 degrees and dropped back to 5,000 feet and 95 degrees again.

In Socorro we browsed in a combination Brownbilt shoe store/Wild West museum, where hung a photo from the 1984 Catron County Fair, an old Girl Scout hiking boot and a relic labeled "human skull crushed with a blunt object."

After Socorro, Datil. After Datil, Magdalena.

Along the way we saw cottontails and cottonwoods, embraced the 75-mph speed limit and accepted the cumulonimbus, the cloud whose charged electrons make lightning possible, as our companion but not necessarily our friend.

Six days before our trip, a 32-year-old Texas man vacationing in New Mexico was struck by lightning and killed as he stood in the parking lot of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. I waited to tell Mary Frances this news until a moment that seemed appropriate: as we were stationed on an exposed plain 7,200 feet above sea level, about 45 minutes outside Quemado. For a few hours, storms had been smearing the horizon on two or three sides. Arrayed before us, like a stick-figure army, stood the 400 stainless steel rods.

She barely batted an eyelash, maybe because she knew our log cabin and all the rods had been grounded and she was wearing rubber-soled shoes, or maybe because she was still assimilating the spectacle before us: the bare plain, the jagged distant mountains, and the lightning rods, identical in height, arranged in a rectangular grid one mile wide and one kilometer deep. The nearest one stood about 200 feet from our porch.

The Lightning Field, as the place is known, is not a resort. It's a conceptual work by artist Walter De Maria, commissioned and sustained by the New York-based Dia Center for the Arts. The Dia people don't advertise; in fact, they wouldn't grant The Times permission to print a photograph of the site. But the Lightning Field, which is open from May through October, is in sufficient demand that I had to reserve our June 30 stay in late March.

It was 1977 when De Maria found this location (which is prone to summer storms), the Dia people bought it, and local people were hired to help precisely place all those rods in buried concrete bases.

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