In the summer of 1980, I was pounding along in James Turrell’s truck on a tracery of dirt tracks crisscrossing a cattle range in the short-grass hills of northern Arizona. My best friend and I were on a Thelma and Louise road trip through the Southwest to visit Earthworks, and we had met up with Turrell in Flagstaff early one morning. After a few hours of eating dust, we pulled up to a barbed-wire cattle gate. Beyond it was a stock-watering tank, more dirt roads, and a colossal heap of cinders that seemed deposited from the upper atmosphere. The pale green sage dotting the red-and-black slopes glowed as though on fire.
The volcanoes of the high Arizona desert are scattered like enormous geological pimples across a plateau that looks out over the immense sunken vista of the Painted Desert. The plateau itself is rugged and beautiful: red dirt, pale yellow grass, blackish green juniper, and sky. The scale is beyond describing. I have since flown over this landscape from 20,000 feet above. At the speed of a jetliner, it takes more than an hour to cross.
Roden Craterhas a presence that feels sacred in its intensity and mystery. Turrell bought it and the land around it in the 1970s, and in 1980 he was still thinking about what to do with it. We climbed the cinder sides and reached the inner bowl. In heat and clear air, the senses are fierce. A fly like a teenage drag racer roared by my ear. I stretched out on warm cinders in the cup and floated in blue sky. Turrell pointed out what was to come: a tunnel, an antechamber, sky-viewing sites. I was impressed by his description of the subtle light that flows through here. He said that at sunset the shadow of the earth rises off the horizon and sweeps like a vast purple eyelid closing.
I think the eyelid was what made me go back. After Turrell returned us to Flagstaff, I picked up my rental car, dropped off my friend, and—on a reckless impulse—headed back out to the crater. One ranch road looks almost exactly like another, and in a rising panic, I found myself racing through junctions I had already passed. With the sun just a sun-length above the horizon, I finally found it, and in fading light, I climbed it again, panting and breathless, with a sleeping bag tossed over one shoulder.
The night I spent in Turrell’s crater changed me. I was alone. The dimensions of aloneness are eerie and vast. In the gathering darkness, I spread the sleeping bag on the bottom of the empty bowl. I lay on my back, pulled the thin cover over me, and stared up at the stars.
I was at the center of a matched set of hemispheres. The flat sky of daylight had changed shape at nightfall. In the pearly twilight, it had flexed like a rubber balloon and bent down to touch the edges of the bowl. A pallor along the western rim finally disappeared. Sky and crater became two tones of starry black and darker black, merged into a ball with me in the center. Turrell had warned me that space seems to “breathe” in and out. It was breathing out. I felt the lungs of night collapsing on me.
The wind was seeping through the sleeping bag. As the night deepened, space became transparent. The balloon was shrinking toward me. The stars were somewhere near my chest. Since no space existed, every sound was right upon me. In the darkest quickening of the night, when the threads of normality feel the thinnest, I heard an animal coughing and growling. I ran through my mental index, and the only one that fit was a cougar.
I have never experienced so intensely the warping effect of eyes and mind concocting their own reality. There was no question that the cougar was on the crater rim. This space-time warp was not an illusion. The mind bends the world to put itself at center.
Finally the stars faded imperceptibly and light returned. The world breathed in. The lungs of the sky filled and expanded. The purple eyelid swung slowly open. “I” was back, busily creating space between myself and everything. Intimacy receded and vastness arrived. And I was altered—emptied out and shaken open. I had come out the other side, wordless.
Kay Larson is an independent art critic and editor.