On the Path to the Perfect Storm

Times Travel Writer

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.

Dia requires visitors to arrive in Quemado at 2:30 p.m., leave their cars, accept transport to the three-bedroom cabin at the Lightning Field site, on about 3,800 acres of Dia-owned land, and take no photos. They don't blindfold you, but once the northerly route leaves the road to Fence Lake, it veers and crosses so many gate-protected dirt paths that only a covert operative could find his way back.

Robert, the taciturn, leathery host, met us at the Dia office and drove us out to the cabin. From his battered hat to his dangling cigarette and Wrangler jeans and gleaming Gallup Lions Club belt buckle, he looked the cowboy part. He'd been working with the Lightning Field for all of its 24 years. Somebody asked whether there had ever been any lightning-related injuries around the cabin. His reply was as dry as a bleached bone.

"None," he said, "that we talk about."

Once delivered to the site, guests remain there until pickup around 11 the next morning, the better to see the land and rods under the advancing sun and feinting storms. The Dia staff leaves green chile enchiladas for dinner and eggs and bacon for breakfast in the cabin's refrigerator. Robert led us around the kitchen, showed us the emergency phone line, rooted around for some matches, then rumbled off down the road.

Now it was time to bond with the landscape and our cabin mates: Chris and Molly, a pair of twentysomething painters and art school students from San Francisco; and thirtyish Patrick and Stephanie from Chicago, he a business consultant, she a museum art curator.

Scanning the sky, we could see the storms were still distant, so couple by couple we wandered out amid the rods, like a sextet posing for a hugely pretentious album cover. Then the storms came closer, and we gathered on the porch.

As the lightning advanced across the mountains, the booms grew louder, the steel wool overhead thicker. The rods, nearly invisible when the sun is high, now were thrown into occasional silhouette by lightning flashes. Then the rain came crashing down, and the lightning started striking on our side of the mountains.

The six of us sat on the porch, eyes darting, speaking mostly in monosyllables, like fans at a tennis match. Later I consulted my "National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Weather": Most lightning discharges take place strictly within the clouds, never touching Earth, it said. It also gave a formula for estimating distance: Thunder takes five seconds to travel a mile.

Thus, when we saw lightning, then heard thunder five seconds later, the strike was mighty close to our rods.

I can't say I actually saw lightning strike a rod, but that hardly mattered. As the storm receded, the low, orange sun peeked through from the west, just below a cloud, just above the horizon. While we watched, the rods began to glow in the raking light, first faintly, then fiercely, and their numbers seemed to multiply. For perhaps three minutes, all 400 caught the orange glow, like a neon forest. Then the sun vanished, and it was time to heat the enchiladas.

Early the next morning Stephanie tapped on our door, and we assembled for sunrise. Another revelation: Now the sky was nearly cloudless, the low-angled light more pink than orange, and dozens of birds sang from somewhere among the creosote bushes and cow patties. I did a lot of whimpering about having to leave my camera in its bag. And when Robert rolled up to collect us at 11:45, it seemed too soon.

It was a quiet ride out.

"You probably hear things like this all the time, driving people back," Molly said to Robert, "but this is the best thing I've done in"--she hesitated a moment, suddenly self-conscious--"years."

"Try your life," Chris said.

In a state more predictable than New Mexico, a traveler might find himself facing a letdown after a night like that. It's true that we didn't get any panoramas to surpass that sunset and sunrise. But in many ways, the strangeness merely moved to another plane in the next few days. We drove into a storm, or a storm drove into us, every afternoon.

"At about 3 in the afternoon, the western horizon would be a wall the color of lead. On the front of the wall would be little clouds, pale silhouettes of torn cotton," writes author Stephen Bodio in "Querencia," a 1990 memoir about his seven years on the plains of San Augustin. "A half-hour later, a dark blast of wind, laden with the odor of wet dust, would punch through the yard, swirling sand around the windows, rattling the panes. From the yard I'd see a wall towering over the town and know that we weren't going to have to water the asparagus again. We'd stand and inhale for a moment, stretching our arms toward the storm; then, as the hiss of a billion approaching drops bore down, we'd run."

This sort of thing, punctuated by the occasional burst of sunbeams through a cloud gap, keeps a road trip lively, even if you don't have 400 rods to mark the occasion.

First we needed to eat, and there was Pie Town, 22 miles up the road. We had lunch and pie with Patrick and Stephanie at the Pie-O-Neer restaurant (cheerful service, authentic atmosphere and pretty good pie) and read a sign on the porch that outlined the history of the town, which is to say, the history of the restaurant. It began: "Due to our stragetic location. ..."

From there we looped farther south toward Silver City via New Mexico Highway 32 and U.S. Highway 180. We overnighted three miles outside Silver City at Bear Mountain Lodge, a former school, country club and dude ranch, now handsomely outfitted as a naturalist's B&B;, reopened in March by the Nature Conservancy.

Silver City is sort of an unfinished quilt. It's an old mining town that's on the way to becoming an art colony, but it's also colored by the presence of miners and mountain bikers, Western New Mexico University and a fair number of mobile homes. Teenagers cruise Bullard Street in beat-up cars or lounge on their bikes under the old Gila Theater marquee.

At the Buffalo Bar, next to the town hall, the customers arrayed along the counter looked as though they'd answered a casting call for bikers and felons. (The barmaid was friendly enough, but Mary Frances declined to enter.) At El Paisano restaurant, recommended to us for tasty, unpretentious Mexican food, we found a mobile home across the street and a tent in a jumbled yard beyond it.

In the last five years or so, more than a dozen galleries have sprung up in town, including a tight knot of them on Yankie Street, just off Bullard. Tucked between them, the A.I.R. coffeehouse includes a world map full of pushpin markers showing where customers have come from. In the Blue Dome Gallery, which opened in late 1999 at Texas and Yankie streets, I found artist Lois Duffy hanging a new show, including a fine oversized portrait of Geronimo, who glowers out at the storefronts done up in crimson and indigo.

It was time to head north--and the road we'd chosen, winding and scenic New Mexico Highway 152 through the Mimbres Mountains, seemed likely to kill anybody who insisted on hurrying. So we ambled along at 30 mph or less, crossing Emory Pass at 8,178 feet, finally returning to flat earth outside the charming town of Hillsboro.

To reward ourselves for completing what seemed the toughest part of the drive, we stopped at the gaily painted Barber Shop Cafe for a serving of snacks and local lore from Carrie Carrillo, who came here from Huntington Beach with her mother to open the cafe last year.

A block down the road, Hillsboro's city fathers and mothers have put a mannequin in a perpetually parked sheriff's car to discourage those who speed and amuse those who linger.

"He's always here," explained a 7-year-old named Garrett as he passed on his bicycle. "His name is Officer Bob."

Truth or Consequences cropped up next as we pressed north, a Rio Grande-adjacent collection of tidy trailer homes, New Age boutiques, motel courts full of cars on blocks, antiques shops and natural hot springs. T or C (as the locals call it) is a strong candidate, in my view, for recognition as weirdest town in the West. (The new Bradt guidebook to "Eccentric America," in fact, lists the town under the heading Just Plain Weird.) Mary Frances found one of those pueblo-style lashed-pine kiva ladders for $25 (highly practical if you live in a cliff dwelling) and insisted we buy it. I wandered into the Riverbend Hot Springs Resort (and hostel) during afternoon nap time.

There are several soaking establishments in town, but Riverbend's are the only outdoor tubs at the river's edge. A soak costs $6 an hour. Most overnight guests arrive by bus and sleep in converted mobile homes, although there's also a handful of tepees out back, available for $14 per person per night. When I arrived, a half-dozen young travelers were dozing or chatting on the patio by the tubs.

The town was known as Hot Springs until 1950, when a radio quiz show held a promotion to entice some little town to adopt its name.

About Riverbend management: "I got here two months ago. I was gonna stay two nights. Now I'm running the place," hostel manager Mark Theall told me. Originally from New England, he had come to T or C after a failed experiment in California living. The hostel's owners, who live across the street, sized him up as management material. Now Theall has various improvements in progress, although the place is still loose enough to allow guests to paint walls when the mood strikes.

It was time for us to move on, up the great, wide Interstate 25 and into the teeth of the strongest storm of all. Pelted by hail, slowed by widening puddles and thrilled by the lightning-strike bursts of static on the radio, we noticed how, when the light is just right, distant telephone poles look remarkably like an array of lightning rods.

We straggled into the upscale Ranchos de Albuquerque area later than we'd planned. By the time we reached Los Poblanos Inn, a grand residence that was converted by owners Armin and Penny Rembe into a bed-and-breakfast in 1999, it was nearly 11 p.m.

The next morning we saw the full glory of what we'd stumbled into. We were the only guests. The home was built in the 1930s by architect John Gaw Meem, pioneer of the Territorial Revival style, for two clients with serious clout: Albert Simms and Ruth Hanna McCormick had married after meeting as Republican members of the U.S. Congress, Simms from New Mexico, McCormick from Illinois.

We shuffled across the cedar floors, took breakfast in a shady courtyard and wandered among six acres of tall elms and lush gardens, the red peppers strung up just high enough to elude the nibbling peacocks.

Then, while her husband gathered branches felled by the previous evening's storm, Penny Rembe took us around the 15,000-square-foot La Quinta Cultural Center next door, built so the new Mrs. Simms could entertain in appropriate grandeur. We admired the pool, the tile work, the tin chandeliers, the old owners' initials executed in wrought iron. And on the ballroom ceiling I noticed a recurring design carved into the massive beams. It was striking and somehow familiar.

That, said Penny Rembe, is a Native American symbol. The curved shapes in the foreground are clouds, and the straight lines radiating from them are rain.



Guidebook: Flash on New Mexico

* Getting there: Southwest flies nonstop from LAX to Albuquerque; there's direct service (one stop) on America West. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $156.

* Where to stay: Los Poblanos Inn. Six guest rooms in a 1930s courtyard home furnished with antiques and surrounded by acres of gardens. Doubles, including breakfast, $135 to $250. 4803 Rio Grande Blvd. N.W., Albuquerque, NM 87107; telephone (505) 344-9297, fax (505) 342-1302, Internet http://www.lospoblanos.com.

The W.E. Mauger Estate B&B.; Eight rooms in a restored brick 1897 Queen Anne home in a pleasant residential area. Doubles, including breakfast, $89 to $189. 701 Roma Ave. N.W., Albuquerque, NM 87102; tel. (800) 719-9189, fax (505) 842-8835, http://www.maugerbb.com.

The Lightning Field begins taking reservations March 1 for a guest season from May 1 to Oct. 31. It is sold out until early September this year. Rates, which include dinner and breakfast, are $110 per person per night in May, June, September and October, $135 in July and August. The cabin includes one bedroom with a queen bed, two with twin beds, two bathrooms and a common kitchen. On most nights it houses six guests. Children are allowed, but the Dia Center for the Arts asks for notice so it can match groups appropriately. P.O. Box 2993, Corrales, NM 87048; tel. (505) 898-3335, fax (505) 898-3336, http://www.diacenter.org/ltproj/lf/lf.html. (Despite the Corrales mailing address, the jumping-off point for the Lightning Field is in Quemado, about 150 miles southwest of Albuquerque.)

Bear Mountain Lodge. A B&B; run by the Nature Conservancy; 11 rooms on 178 acres. Lobby features big wood beams, twin rock fireplaces and mission-style furniture. Rates, including breakfast, $95 to $175, $15 more at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Dinner $18 per person. No children under 10. P.O. Box 1163, Silver City, NM 88062; tel. (877) 620-2327, fax (505) 534-1827, http://www.bearmountainlodge.com.

* Where to eat: In Albuquerque, Flying Star Cafe (four locations, including 4026 Rio Grande Blvd. N.W., local tel. 344-6714). Italian and Southwestern main dishes, sandwiches. Prices top out at $7.95.

In Pie Town, the Pie-O-Neer, U.S. Highway 60, about 200 miles southwest of Albuquerque (at mile marker 56), 75 miles east of the Arizona state line; local tel. 772-2900. It's not haute cuisine, but when you pass a town that owes its existence to a pie-peddling restaurant, it's bad form not to eat there. Also sandwiches, steaks and other Western fare. Main dishes up to $11.95.

In Hillsboro, on New Mexico Highway 152 between Silver City and Interstate 25, the Barber Shop Cafe, 200 Main St., tel. 895-5283, in an 1880s building. Burgers, burritos and sandwiches. Prices up to $6.75.

* For more information: New Mexico Department of Tourism, 491 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, NM 87503; tel. (800) 545-2070, fax (505) 827-7402, http://www.newmexico.org.

Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau, 20 First Plaza N.W., Suite 601, Albuquerque, NM 87102; tel. (800) 284-2282, http://www.abqcvb.org.

Silver City/Grant County Chamber of Commerce, 201 N. Hudson St., Silver City, NM 88061; tel. (800) 548-9378, http://www.silvercity.org.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World