There’s a mystery that seems to have no reason to be a mystery. This mystery concerns the location of a famous work of what’s called ‘land art’ by Walter De Maria, an American artist who lived from 1935–2013. The official Dia Foundation website (1) situates his The Lightning Field from 1977 at a speck of New Mexico named Quemado. According to those I know who saw the work in person, visitors begin by meeting at a small storefront in the town. If you look at the Wikipedia entry you can see the storefront pictured. They are picked up in by a car, blindfolded or not, depending who tells the story, and driven about 45 minutes or up to two hours, depending who tells the story, to a secret location where they are dropped off with food for an overnight stay. Here they find a renovated homestead and stretching before them the work of art.
The site is a flat plateau 7,200 feet above sea level. According to the Dia Foundation website, The Lightning Field “is comprised of 400 polished stainless steel poles installed in a grid array measuring one mile by one kilometer. The poles — two inches in diameter and averaging 20 feet and 7½ inches in height — are spaced 220 feet apart and have solid pointed tips that define a horizontal plane.” Yes, De Maria was into the big and repetitious and just as often the big and repetitious. I’ve always liked De Maria’s work. I have seen The Broken Kilometer and The New York Earth Room, a second floor gallery filled with nearly two feet of dirt. I can’t recommend the first as astounding, but I can recommend the second as something special. Caretakers rake and water the dirt to keep it fresh. I couldn’t help but wonder if the people working in the shop below were concerned about that 280,000 pounds of dirt hanging over their head.
Still, what sparked (apologies) my attention was that sites acted as though the location of The Lightning Field was a place unknown, worthy of an episode by Josh Gates. Wikipedia writes, “Trips to the site consist of a long drive from a scheduled meeting place to a log cabin in the area.” Atlas Obscura says, “The exact location of the site is a well kept secret, but is definitely in the middle of nowhere.” A more detailed description is given on the Khan Academy website (2): “We… eagerly piled into the big, dusty SUV that would take us to our destination. The route was hard to chart, as so many roads are unpaved and unmarked. I had trouble keeping track of the time …. After what felt like only a moment, but must have been more than an hour, we pulled up to the edge of a large field of metal poles….” The headline of Only In Your State reads in a clickbaity manner, “The Secret Lightning Field in New Mexico That Will Absolutely Astound You.” All that needs is an exclamation point. An article in Mental Floss says, “Even after you’ve made a reservation, the exact location of The Lightning Field is never disclosed.”(3). The site taoStyle says, “Hard to get to, difficult to find; the exact location of the site is a well kept secret, but rest assured, it is in the middle of nowhere, and you are required to sign a waiver before visiting.” NewMexic.co writes, “The exact location, however, is a well-kept secret, adding to the appeal of this spectacular work of art.”
I don’t know whether the location really is really intended to be a secret or whether it’s just marketing hype. At any rate I figured it would be fun to find it on a satellite view of earth site. So I started looking.
Well, it didn’t take long to find the coordinates of the old homestead itself, believe it or not on a review atTrip Advisor. How ironic. 34.519600, -108.106006. So I fired up Google Earth and dropped in the numbers.
There is no street view here on road A078. It was clear from images of the cabin found online that this was the place. Next I began to consider the property, not knowing in which direction the field might be. It seemed clear that it wouldn’t be North as that would be across the road, and the porch faces south. And it didn’t make sense that it would parallel the road. South seemed obvious. I also figured that due to the number of visitors there would be worn paths. There were.
Now, although Google Earth allowed me to zoom in to a point where one inch on my computer screen equalled 5 meters, the detail and pixilation of the image did not allow me to pick out any poles. I looked for regular glints of the sun. No luck. I decided to check the position of the sun. Given the shadows on the buildings the sun on the Google Earth image was shining from about a SSW position casting shadows to the NNE. I went back to the area in question near the worn paths.
Bingo. Here was the first of many shadows.
Let’s recall, the poles are twenty feet tall. They are spaced 220 feet apart. Here is a shadow to the right of the first one:
Heading south we find this:
Here are two more that that also show a worn path next to the poles:
There it is, The Lightning Field. It’s about 6 kilometers North of Pie Town, just to the right, along a wavy sort of fault line or old river bed (I don’t know geography). Right where it jags right then left in a darker reverse C is where the cabin sits, along the road.
And get this.
As I was looking, a silhouette appeared to be on the image.
A figure, it seemed.
I zoomed in.
Could this be De Maria?
When was the is Google Image taken?
I zoomed in even more.
Could it be?
(1) Dia Foundation, Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field. Found online at https://diaart.org/visit/visit/walter-de-maria-the-lightning-field
(2) Kuykendall, L. (n.d.) Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field. Khan Academy. Found online at https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/minimalism-earthworks/a/walter-de-maria-the-lightning-field
(3) Schneider, C. (May 19, 2016). Spend the Night in a Massive ‘Lightning Field’ in the New Mexico Desert. Mental Floss. Found online at https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/80200/spend-night-massive-lightning-field-new-mexico-desert