New Mexico, Episode 1: The Church Of Cartesian Space

May 16, 2007 on 1:27 am | In Travel | No Comments

My wife and I just returned from a glorious 2-week, 2000+ mile road trip in many parts of New Mexico. Now, it’s been my practice to write a post after such trips, with a travelogue of some nature accompanied by a cornucopia of pictures. This trip, however, produced such a wealth of experiences and memories that I feel overwhelmed by the prospect of sitting down and summarizing it. The intensity, the quantity and the diversity of what can be seen in New Mexico are daunting.

At some point I realized the way to go was episodic: whenever I feel up to it, to simply pick some fragment of the trip, any fragment, and work with those images and those memories.

Part The First: The Church Of Cartesian Space, describing our visit to Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field in Pie Town, New Mexico.

Lightning Field at Dusk

Pie Town

“Why is Pie Town called Pie Town?”

Regardless of why, something is right with the world in that there even can be a place named Pie Town.

“Can one get pie in Pie Town?”

The question seems academic. It hardly affects the importance of visiting a place with this name.

“If one can get pie in Pie Town, is it edible?”

Somehow, this question seems much more important. Inedible pie in Pie Town would amount to a betrayal, an unraveling of the fabric of a tiny universe.

US 60, Pie Town

Pie Town welcome sign

Pie Town is a lonely place perched on top of a lonely place, the latter lonely place being the Continental Divide in Catron County, New Mexico. US 60 is the main highway through Pie Town, and despite its federally maintained status it feels like a back road. We approached by way of back-of-beyond roads, though, snaking a long dusty journey from Grants through gnarled black lava fields, towering sandstone escarpments, then low hills and finally desolate ranches. We followed a turnoff with a sign for Pie Town, but after 30 miles of sign-less dust and gravel we found ourselves no longer believing in it. The name had been a taunt, a come-on, a fiction after all. Then, suddenly, we were there.

I wish to report that despite its apparently desolate character, there is pie in Pie Town, and it is very good pie, more than edible. Two fine establishments offer food and pie, and they appear to be open on complementary schedules, perhaps to afford a better living to the both proprietors. We ate at a hearty lunch at the Pie-O-Neer Cafe, at which I had a green chili cheeseburger, followed by peach pie a la mode, and learned some non-imaginary facts about Pie Town.

The town was named Pie Town by an early entrepreneur who enjoyed baking pies and wanted to entice people to the area to try his wares. In those days, even just-OK pies would have probably attracted a swarm.

Before the Pie-O-Neer and the Daily Pie opened (which was fairly recently), no pie had been available in Pie Town for some time. A sad hand-lettered sign on the only cafe in town is said to have informed the frustrated traveler, “There ain’t no pie for sale in Pie Town no more”. That was that. One imagines a pile of bleached human bones lying nearby in the dust, relics of pie-seekers doomed to a dessert-free death. Theirs was not to reason why. But the pile has since been cleared away, with no reason to be replenished. Pie can be had.

The US Postal Service initially scorned the name “Pie Town”, declining to dignify the community with a post office until they changed their name to something more respectable. The residents would have none of this bureaucratic meddling with their identity. I don’t know if they argued using counterexamples of other towns with post offices and ridiculous names, like Accident, PA, or Why, AZ. But they could have.

Lunch consumed, we drove 22 miles west to Quemado and met our ride who was to drive us to the Lightning Field and leave us there for the night.

The Lightning Field

The Lightning Field is an outdoor artwork, occupying almost 2 square kilometers of high, flat desert ringed by distant mountains and consisting of 400 stainless-steel poles between 9 and 20 feet high in a 25×16 array. It is literally in the middle of nowhere. No man-made structures are visible from it except for a small rustic cabin in which visitors may spend an evening deprived of most amenities except for Environmental Art.

Each pole is tipped with a needle-sharp point, and is reinforced by a carbon-steel insert set into a well-grounded concrete foundation. All the points are leveled to sit at the same height. An imaginary pane of glass would sit perfectly on top of all the points of all the poles in the field. 3 out of 30 lightning storms in the area strike the Lightning Field. But there was no lightning while we were there — it wasn’t thunderstorm season.

Arriving at midday, the view was unimpressive:

I investigated the cast of flamboyant characters populating the field:

Max and I circled the entire field, walking in opposite directions and meeting in the middle of the other side, over a kilometer away. As I walked, I noticed that the poles lined up unexpectedly along many, many different angles. I began to realize that these angles corresponded to lines of sight along the diagonals of rectangles of different ratios: 1×1, 1×2, 2×3, 3×2, and so on. When you walk in a huge grid, even one so lightly delineated, you begin to perceive it from the inside, and these sparse visual alignments begin feel almost like solid objects hanging in space.

At dusk, a low sun illuminated the poles and the magic took full effect.

Who needed lightning?

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