We have spent the last two years planning and pursuing artistic adventures on and off the roads of the Southwest. The most recent was the Gerson Zevi Land Art Road Trip, a month long traveling residency taking 30 artists on a journey to see some of the most important land art, landscapes, and museums in America. This guide shows you many of the places we visited, and showcases original works of art created by the participants. As photography is strictly forbidden at The Lightning Field, I have taken this opportunity to post some paintings made by artists on the Land Art Road Trip as thoughtful representations of the work.

This section of SUITCASE’s Guide to the Land Art Road Trip opens with a rare disclaimer: I have never seen lightning strike at Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977). But then again, the phenomenon has only occurred between five and fifty times since work has been in place (depending on who you ask). Read on to discover why The Lightning Field, perhaps the most misunderstood work of land art, continues to be fully booked each day of its season – almost forty years after de Maria erected his shining poles in the desert – despite almost never living up to its name.

Alexander Gerson

Image by Alexander Gerson


As with most works of land art, describing The Lightning Field to someone who has not already seen it is something of a fool’s errand. The numbers defining the work – 400 steel poles, about 20 feet tall, arranged in a grid measuring one mile by one kilometer, spaced 220 feet apart – are more prescriptive than descriptive, giving you the blueprint to build an ersatz field, but no conception of what your field would do.

To describe how The Lightning Field works, and what makes it special, is to describe a piece of string. It is the moon in the morning and the stars at night, sublime geometry and sweeping curves of nature, light and dark, and everything else your eyes are capable of seeing, all at once. Having seen the work yourself, you will immediately dismiss these descriptions as frivolous, and start making plans to go back. It is just that kind of place: complicated to visit, hard to describe, impossible to forget.

Geoffrey Owen Miller

Geoffrey Owen Miller


Visiting The Lightning Field is an experience to remember, and de Maria certainly wanted it that way. Having made your reservation months in advance, you arrive in the barely-there town of Quemado, New Mexico, absolutely no later than 2pm on the appointed day, as requested by the delightfully stern instructions sent over by the Dia Art Foundation. You then find yourself with some time to kill, because time moves at a different pace in this remote corner of Catron County (larger than Connecticut, pop. 3,725). You wander around town, becoming increasingly aware of how out of place you look, with your shiny rental car, city-slicker luggage, and acute lack of firearm tucked into your jeans.

About an hour later, as you bump at high speed along an unmarked dirt road, in a truck driven by the enigmatic caretaker of the site, Robert Weathers (ask foolish questions at your peril), you are firmly out of your comfort zone, which is exactly where de Maria wanted you to be. And then, right at the moment when you are about to give up hope, you see it, The Lightning Field, not at all what you expected it to be. Before you have time to voice your concerns, your ride has disappeared in a cloud of dust, and your group of six explorers, suddenly feeling very small in this great wilderness, is left alone to decipher de Maria’s masterpiece. Enjoy.

Yana Naidenov Leaving Quemado


Some practical considerations surrounding your visit:

• Be on time. Be on time!• Many people report an improved experience when they bring something to drink. Stock up at the gas station in Quemado. Recreational drugs are frowned upon in New Mexico.• Dinner at the cabin on-site is simple and delicious. If you do not like enchiladas, buy some snacks before leaving town.• There is no lunch at The Lightning Field. The best food in town is at El Serape Cafe (look for the mural “Steaks, Shakes, and Hot Cakes). For a very un-Quemado, free-wifi dining experience head to the Largo Motel, at the western edge of town.


Matteo Zevi

Image by Matteo Zevi

As any visitor to The Lightning Field will quickly realize, the setting is as important as the work, and this extends some distance beyond the immediate landscape you can see from de Maria’s modest cabin. This vast, empty, expanse of high desert in western New Mexico is populated (sparsely) with some of the friendliest and most unusual people you will meet anywhere on your trip. Famous for its extremely clear skies, abundant wildlife, off-the-grid artists, and fantastic eccentrics, the area around Quemado is a joy to explore.

On your way back to Albuquerque, pass through, Pie Town, NM, where you will find award-winning pies and an outdoor museum devoted to windmills. Stop at The Pie-o-neer for a life-changing apple and green chile pie, and to meet the dishwasher-cum-artist who met Picasso. A bit further down the road, pull over at the Very Large Array, whose twenty-seven building-sized radio astronomy antennas are constantly gathering information from deep space, arrayed across the broad plan like a giant homage to de Maria’s work.

Words by Matteo Zevi Feature image by Alexander Gerson

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