UNDER A NEW MEXICAN morning sky of pale blues and radiant pinks, in the lavender shadows of the Sacramento Mountains, we converged at the northern edge of Alamogordo. We came from all over the world, an incongruous group, hardly a group at all but that we shared this common desire to stand in a place where few have stood—a place where, half a century ago, the world changed forever.
There weren’t very many of us, five hundred, perhaps fewer. Families, couples, children, individuals all gathered in the Otero County Fairgrounds parking lot, dressed lightly for the mild autumn weather, which was cool just then, at dawn, but by midday would be baking hot. A solitary motorcyclist in full black leather stared between the high handlebars of his custom chopper, whose gas tank was painted with a grinning skull crowned with thorned wreath and bright red roses. Silent, detached, a congregate of Japanese waited beside their rental. It was impossible not to wonder if any of them were survivors of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. They were about the right age, and could have been among the fortunate schoolchildren who escaped death that morning in August.
We gathered because for our different reasons we wanted to visit Ground Zero, the site where at 5:29:45 Mountain War Time, on July 16, 1945, after a long, rainy night, the physicists who’d worked in secrecy up north of here at Los Alamos witnessed the successful test of their wartime creation, the world’s first atomic bomb. We wanted not so much to pay homage but stand in remembrance of just what our forebears had wrought there, that midsummer day, in their hope of bringing a brutal war to a quick conclusion.
Some of us, no doubt, had seen photographs of the site. Out in the middle of the highly restricted White Sands Missile Range, on a truly desolate stretch of desert between the Rio Grande River and the Oscura Mountains, stands an obelisk, fashioned of black malpais lava-stone, that marks where the detonation took place. It is the loneliest monument on earth. And a modest monument, given that what occurred at that first ground zero could be considered the most fearful event in human history, the place where mankind wrested from God the ability to produce the apocalypse. What had traditionally been seen as divine province was now in our hands. And this was where we were going, to witness where such a catalyst was ushered into the world.
It is not an easy place to visit. Indeed, few if any other national historic landmarks in this country are as inaccessible. None was ever more fraught with ambiguities. Open to the public for only half a dozen hours or so, on the first Saturdays in April and October, the Trinity Site occupies a small part of the forbidding Jornada del Muerto–the journey of death, as the conquistadors named it–a flat alkaline basin, hedged by bony mountains, speckled with thorny mesquite and soaptree yucca, with cholla and creosote bushes. One may only enter the range as part of a caravan of cars, escorted by state then military police, having set out from Alamogordo. From the moment the visitors leave Alamogordo–a frontier town founded in 1898 when railroad entrepreneur Charles Eddy bought this land with the idea of laying track across it from El Paso to points north–to the time they depart by Stallion Gate, Trinity pilgrims are closely monitored.
When we make our way this morning toward Tularosa, a small town north of Alamogordo, we will see that those tracks from Eddy’s day still carry the old El Paso & Northeastern line. Freight trains a hundred colorful boxcars long will be seen running through here, just as they have all century. Indeed, much of the landscape we cross today will look just as it did long ago. From Tularosa, we will bear west into a parched scratchland where Billy the Kid drove brand-blotted cattle he had rustled out of Mexico and Texas. Pat Garrett’s ghost will be out there, still chasing him, as will a spectral pantheon of legendary rawhiders, prospectors, desperadoes, timbermen, muckers, and other lost souls. As uninhabitable as the terrain will seem, generations have made bloody American history on the stoic, timeless back of this desert.
Our convoy set out at eight, the sun fully risen, the skies edged by tawny white clouds at every cardinal point, always frothing and changing shapes. I overheard a man say, when we were told to get into our vehicles and turn on our headlights, “This is gonna look like the darnedest funeral procession you ever seen.” Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce volunteers, wearing turquoise sports shirts and jeans, walked cheerfully along the rows of cars, handing out bags that contained literature about the Do’s and Don'ts of our journey. As I was riding in the passenger seat, it fell to me to read aloud to the others in our car what was written in these documents.
Dear Trinity Site Visitor, a letter from the Public Affairs Office, Department of the Army, began, The driving distance from Alamogordo to Trinity Site is about 85 miles. During the drive to the site please follow the directions of the city, state and military police. They are present to insure your safety and protect missile range assets. Then I turned to a schedule of restrictions all visitors were required to obey. Everyone was bound to stay with the convoy, or risk expulsion. Demonstrations, picketing, sit-ins, political speeches, and other similar activities were prohibited, as well. No one was allowed to eat or drink at Ground Zero, in order to avoid ingestion of radioactive plutonium, traces of which can charge the dust that is raised by a breeze or tramping feet. Application of any kind of cosmetics, especially lipstick or balm, is prohibited at the site. No one was to handle Trinitite or remove any fragments of it from the detonation area–Trinitite being the green-black glassy mineral that was created when the sandy floor of the Jornada melted and fused beneath the nuclear fireball. Watch out for rattlesnakes, the list advised, although my companions, who’d made this expedition once before, said they feared scorpions more than rattlesnakes. Scorpions are harder to see, and give no warning.
Other caveats were listed, too, but above all, this document stated, no one was allowed to take photographs on the way in to Trinity. Anyone caught using a camera would be detained, have his film confiscated, and be conducted back to Tularosa Gate where he would promptly be evicted from the military range. As our caravan moved out onto the highway, police cars with lights flashing ahead of the line and police cars behind, I thought: This is no Mount Rushmore, no Statue of Liberty. There are reasons Trinity Site isn’t a component in the visual collective consciousness of the nation.
We passed stark pecan groves, pretty pistachio farms. Eastern hills picked up strands of sunlight along limestone strata and down in fawn alluvial fans. Cottonwoods and Chinese elms quivered in their green gowns. Beyond spikes of cypress washed by saffron light and kinetic shadow were sedimentary cliffs that dated back from Cambrian to Permian eras. We passed mobile home parks with satellite dishes. And in a scrap metal yard, the ruined mixer that once was mounted on a cement truck reminded me of the contour of the Fat Man bomb that razed Nagasaki. This was Route 54 toward Tularosa.
Tularosa, whose name comes from tular, a reedy place, harkens back to the days when marshy tracts of cattails embraced by swales of long grass were common here, before hers of thousands of head of cattle were driven northward from Texas, trampling, thus decimating, the delicate ecosystem. What those first colonizers witnessed when they arrived in this sere basin was stark but opulent. Arroyos and washes, now such customary geographic features of the New Mexican landscape, hardly existed in the terrain before sheep and cattle exposed their fragile, friable soil which for thousands of years lay under the protective inch-deep weave of grass. “Tularosa” no longer makes much sense. The reeds and broad swales of grasses are largely gone, at least those that were indigenous. The migrant settlers who christened this landscape our convoy now crossed, through their very activities of trailblazing and homesteading their Tularosa, rendered meaningless its beautiful name.
Progress was slow along the highway, which gave me the chance to take in the farms and businesses scattered along the roadside. A pickup parked near Tularosa Vineyards caught my eye. Painted on its door was the advertisement, Ostrich: The Other Red Meat, and beneath it, the address and phone for a local ostrich farm. What this brought to mind was that Tularosa had always been a place where settlers did well to be creative in their labor to make a living. Little water and much heat has forever reigned in this place. As a result, the first Hispanic and Anglo settlers–not to mention the inhabitants who preceded them by ten thousand years up at Three Rivers–who set down roots in the region all had to display bountiful ingenuity, stubbornness, stamina, and heart essential to survive here, or perish. This was why even now we found ostrich farmers, nut-tree orchard keepers, nuclear weaponry engineers, and Air Force test pilots, all amalgamated here. All eking out their canny existences in a harsh domain.
Half an hour into our journey we reached Higuera Street. The convoy slowed and turned left at Wild Bill’s Saddlery. Adobes and low frame houses made up dusty neighborhoods where kids rode bikes and old men sat on porches watching the caravan pass by. Apple trees and white roses prospered along shallow acequias. Pastor Chuck Parish’s Church of the Nazarene was strung with vistras of dark red chilies.
Fences girdled the narrow two-lane road, and soon we reached the outskirts of this sleepy, almost ghost town. It was hard to believe Tularosa had once been a hinterland Sodom where blood feuds over range, water, and other rights were waged year in and out. Where boys like Oliver Lee shot Charles Rhodius over a cattle dispute, and James Smith murdered C. F. Hilton over a land dispute, and François Jean Rochas, known as Frenchy of Cañon del Perro, was murdered by a man named Morrison, over a horse dispute, and so forth. The days of that particular brand of inglorious glory were over, it seemed, though what were we to make of the technological glories that lay up ahead on this road, built to settle grander disputes in grander ways?
In a violent land, as the valley once had been, there was back then one unwritten rule that did obtain. Known as the Rattlesnake Code, it held that if a man deserved to be killed, it was fair to kill him, no matter what reason you had for killing him, just so long as you warned him first of your intention to kill him. You could shoot him in the back, if you so desired, as long as you told him, let him share in the bad news. There are accounts that before Smith murdered Hilton, who was old and unarmed at the time, he did first say, “Hilton, I’m going to kill you.” It was a primitive sort of decorum, but decorum nevertheless.
As the first high-tech tracking dome loomed now on the horizon–resembling a golf ball held at twice arm’s length–the contrasts and conundrums of Tularosa Valley began to come into focus. Paradox abounded here. How could I not marvel at the fact that a brief century ago, Tularosans celebrated their first board sidewalk in town with festive huzzahs, pistol shots, dancing, and lots of liquor–the same Tularosans who would have grandchildren who were knocked out of their beds one quiet summer morning when that first atomic blast backlit the San Andres, and sent a massive roiling of radioactive ash into the heavens? While Tularosa seemed to have fallen on hard times again, the vision ahead–not just the proving grounds for the atomic bomb but where cruise and patriot missiles had flown, where Stealth fighters were even now being tested–stood in high relief.
Looking further through the packet of materials distributed back at the fairgrounds, I came upon a document that told more about current activities out on White Sands. Though its language was marked by the upbeat singsong of the sales pitch, what it spoke of struck me as darkly remarkable. “Between the beginning and the end of the test program,” it read, “be it Pershing or solar power, range employees are involved in every operation connected with the customer and his product. The range can and does provide everything from rat traps to telephones, from equipment hoists and flight safety to microsecond timing. We shake, rattle and roll the product, roast it, freeze it, subject it to nuclear radiation, dip it in salt water and roll it in the mud. We test its paint, bend its frame and find out what effect its propulsion material has on flora and fauna. In the end, if it’s a missile, we fire it, record its performance and bring back the pieces for post mortem examination.”
The caravan had briefly come to a halt, but then started moving forward again. I folded the pamphlet and put it back in the plastic bag, thinking that while the cowboy wars of the nineteenth century were famed for their ferocity, they were but a modest overture to the scenes that would manifest out here in the desert, and beyond, in the century to come. At that moment when Little Boy was dropped from the Enola Gay, the humble Rattlesnake Code, absurd and Wild Western as it was, became a comparatively gentle, decorous bit of etiquette from a bygone era.
The Trinity visit was established back in 1971, but most people seem unaware that, however infrequently, Ground Zero is open two days a year to whoever wants to see it. True, the military, who would just as soon not have private citizens caravaning across some of their most intelligence-sensitive terrain, don’t go out of their way to advertise the tour. And for many of those who are mindful that the site can be visited, fear of radioactive poisoning or perhaps a distaste for the legacy of the nuclear birthplace deters them from considering a visit.
Such anti-nuke or anti-military sentiments are rarer here in Alamogordo and Tularosa, however. The nerdy culture of aerospace, rocketry, high-tech defense systems has been deeply assimilated into this community. The presence for over half a century of the Army, Navy and Air Force at White Sands reveals itself in many ways. Earlier this morning, en route to the fairgrounds, for instance, along the main drag from the southern end of town, we passed the Sonic America’s Drive-In, Rocket Mobile Homes, 21st Century Hock Shop, the Satellite Inn, and the Star Motel, just to name a few. At night, the blinky neon sign for the Satellite Inn resembles a fifties version of some Jetsons-like spaceship, with pink and silver ellipses flashing in futuristic cartwheels. Many of the buildings along the strip have a nostalgic aura, and at night the blazing light show on either side of White Sands Boulevard puts one in mind of glitzy old Las Vegas–a hollow, honest vulgarity plunked down in the desert.
Indeed, the most prominent building in town, nestled above Alamogordo in the Sacramento foothills, is the International Space Center. Locals call this museum the Golden Cube, because it burns a brilliant tangerine color as its massive windows catch the sunset light. Here one can visit the grave of Ham the chimponaut. America’s first primate in suborbital space, Ham had his fifteen (sixteen, actually) minutes of fame in 1961. Here on can see Apollo II astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s surface visor–its gold globe like a funhouse mirror in which you can see your face contort–and Neil Armstrong’s woven stainless-steel glove worn during the first moonwalk, housed in display cases. An old cinetheodolite tracking instrument is displayed at the Center, as are a thousand other early space-age mementos.
The frontier desert that spreads to the horizon below the museum’s windows is the birthplace of America’s missile and space programs, and a phrase stating this fact is part of the White Sands logo. Back in the forties, V-2 rockets overflew these grounds, and strange objects have coursed across the sky ever since. Is it any wonder that Roswell, due east on the other side of the mountains, is one of the greatest UFO hotspots in the world?
A rainshower began and ended quick as a wink. Sunflowers on stalks that would prove to be as tall as the malpais obelisk at Trinity began to glisten now, and the scent of alfalfa mingled with piñon. Jackbottoms stood in the fields, munched orchard grass, and shook their heads. Bright whiteness shimmered in faraway titanic clouds out toward to Oscura range, whose stony slopes hid the bomb tower from detection from over in this part of the basin–hid the tower, that is, and all the equipment there, but certainly not the radioactive cloud and brilliant burst of light that emanated from it.
Now we arrived at a railroad crossing beyond Tularosa. Ten thousand surveyed telemetry, camera, and radar sites lay ahead, most of them mobile, all of them cloaked in secrecy. Instrumentation areas, we could see, loomed on every distant bluff. A sign indicated that cardiac pacemakers may be affected by equipment from this point on.
I recognized the gate and fence from a photograph in the July 16, 1985, issue of the Albuquerque Journal that was taken right here. Another range war now came to mind. The photograph was of rancher Pat Withers, who stood in the hard morning sunlight, thumbs hooked in his baggy bluejean pockets, straw Stetson shading his eyes. The look on his seventy-six-year-old face was stubborn if grim, and in the background of the photograph caravan cars passed him on their way into the site that day. Mounted atop the metal fencepost at his side was a skeleton with the upper ribs and shoulder bones hunched up, frustrated, shrugging. A lurid death grimace was drawn on the skeletal face. Under that, writ in clear hand, was the message: “this is what is fast happening to the ranchers waiting for the government to pay them for their ranches.”
What the sign referred to was that Pat Withers and a hundred and fifty other ranch families want their property back, claiming the military essentially swindled them out of their lands. Another player in the range wars that defined this part of the world, Pat was, back then, the oldest of that dwindling group of ranchers whose spreads were confiscated by the Army during the last years of World War II in order to make room for the atomic test. The military kept the land for decades, finally bought it for under market value, and ultimately condemned it, so they could continue with their program of hardware testing out here. Forty thousand missiles have been launched over this property in the years that followed. Pat never did get his land back, his death’s-head sign proving prophetic.
We entered the range. The convoy halted one last time so that military police could drive by slowly, counting cars and passengers. A breeze made the yellow grasses quiver and stiffly wave. Dead, arid quiet prevailed as a dragonfly perched on a mesquite thorn. Beyond that bush, tiny dunes like ossified puddles of sand came into focus as my eye adjusted to so much pure, saturating light. Looking again, I saw that, no, they were not dunes, but more bunkers and berms and unnatural shelters.
Soon enough the MPs announced by loudspeaker: “Everybody back into your vehicles so we can proceed.” A mild northeasterly breeze kicked up the wind direction on Trinity morning, when the first radioactive cloud in history drifted over the sleepy hamlets of Bingham and Carrizozo not far from here, as crows fly. And as we drove we began to see what the military have done to the landscape. Tula-G Viewing Area overlooked a long mound of pink dirt, one more earthen berm, with tin-roofed bunker behind. Very red clumps grew against the whitish-brown earth, like khaki dipped in cranberry juice. The police raced past the caravan, surveillance against the cameraman, the videographer, the shutterbug–but what in the world, really, was there to photograph here, in the last analysis? I wondered. Given all the “black” programs that were being conducted on the range at any given moment, I supposed my question was rhetorical.
The caravan next serpented past biblical-looking shrubs, past fleabane with purple flowers and prickly pears. Scattered seemingly at random, though assuredly not, were old observation stations of white concrete with green trim and shutters, bright silvery bowed roofs. We saw blue signs at turnoffs that led into the desert: “NATO Seasparrow Missile System, Salt Sotim.” And we saw, way off to the south, an oryx grazing–an African gemsbok with ominous backward-projecting black horns, imported from the Kalahari Desert by the Department of Fish and Game sometime after the war in order to introduce prey more exotic for local hunters than the indigenous mule deer and antelope. The oryx, as it turned out, adapted so successfully to this frontier savannah that they now had developed into a menace, and when provoked could drive their needle-sharp horns through the side of a car. I spotted five others out there, some hundred yards to the north, a small herd, flashing their long black tails in the warming air.
Imagine, for a moment, Oliver Lee and his half brother Perry Altman as they rode from Pecos over into Tularosa Valley with a guide named Cherokee Bill, who had enthused to them about this unsteaded part of the country. Imagine them as they rode past dry Mescalero, over the summit of the blue Sacramentos, and down into a fault-edged rift known as Dog Canyon, whose floor is a clutter of stone and bone.
What they had been looking for was a secluded territory where they could settle, to ranch in absolute peace, having had enough of the populated plains over in Texas where a man couldn’t get himself proper elbow room. When he described this valley to the brothers, Cherokee Bill may or may not have exaggerated its lushness, but either way, Oliver and Perry weren’t prepared for the austerity of this sun-scorched basin.
Local legend has it Perry turned in the saddle of his thirsty horse to his half brother and said, “Well, Oliver, this country is so damn sorry I think we can stay here a long time and never be bothered by a soul.” That was before the great drought of 1889, when, according to one local historian, what little water there was ran speckled with maggots from carcasses of sheep and cattle that lay in streams above.
They lived their lives out not far from here. Dog Canyon was where Frenchy died. Oliver Lee would be involved in the murder of Colonel Albert J. Fountain not too many years later, 1896 or so, out in the snow white reaches of the dunes near where Holloman Air Force Base now sprawls just over the horizon. During a séance down in El Paso, the Colonel’s spirit spoke through a spiritualist and confirmed, “I was killed three miles east of the White Sands and within fifteen minutes’ ride of Chalk Cliffs. They threw a rope over my head and dragged me some distance.” Once a disputatious place always a disputatious place.
High over White Sands, as we moved deep into the missile range now, a formation of jets could be seen, microscopic blots against a cerulean sky. From the plaza of the Space Museum one might look out over this same valley and glimpse the buildings and runways, faint in the heated wavy air, of Holloman. Later today there was to be a ceremony to induct Soviet cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who spent more than a year in outer space during his career, into the Hall of Fame. As part of the inaugural festivities a fly-over of a Stealth fighter was scheduled. I mentioned to the others in our car, now an hour out of Alamogordo, that I hoped we would be able to get back in time for the festivities. It wasn’t every day one could see a Stealth making a low pass over a friendly audience.
Unfortunately, a brief but furious rainstorm caused the airshow to be canceled.
We were now far enough into the desert that past and present seemed to become one and the same. Past Rhodes Canyon Range Center, white buildings were clustered near where the road abruptly turned north, having gone thirty miles straight west. Out the car window, old electrical poles zipped by, wireless and weathered gray-brown, their clear glass insulators glimmering, poles and crossbeams–some cradling hawks’ nests in their wooden arms—looking like ideograms against the subtly polychromatic geology. In the foreground were acres of alkalite waterflats, dry frost on the pink-brown floor. Feral horses ran down in a draw; roan, gray-mottled. The mountains, a long stone curtain, were dappled by cloud shadows.
Now we reached the conventional-payload impact areas. Another of the paradoxes of Trinity: Is there anywhere on earth where the overwhelming natural beauty–stark, serene, venerable, magisterial—comes more fully into appositive contact with the darker ambitions of mankind? In the normal course of things, mountains erode into mesas, mesas erode into buttes, buttes into towers, towers into spires, and spires into soil, until volcanic thrust creates new mountains. Here, the probabilities for fast-forwarding nature by means of explosives changed forever the definition of normalcy.
Denver we neared next, but not that Denver. More tracking points, more anonymous-looking buildings out on the recumbent field. Signs on both sides of the roads, painted red and black on white background, read: “danger unexploded munitions keep out—Peligro Prohibido Municiones Explosivas.” Unknown quantities of lost, unexploded ordnance may be dispersed across the landscape. And yet it seemed impossible to lose airborne munitions, given all the observatories set on white steel-girder platforms which house super-high-speed optical tracking cameras that follow the trajectories of each launched object as it flies over startled coyotes and spooked oryx. I’m told, though, that even after survey and clean-up, the danger exists. More signs at dusty turnoffs, for back roads that would take you to sites like Burris Wells and impact areas with curious names such as Pup and Zumwalt (Bat) Test Track. We turned off KZZX Alamogordo Country Radio 105.5 and listened to the country music of crickets and wind.
When we reached Mockingbird Gap, I knew we were close. This was a landmark I’d read about, a spot where scientists and others had hunkered down to watch the detonation through tinted welder’s glass. The road ascended into the foothills and after some minutes we emerged into a high desert plain, where we saw for the first time the Jornada itself, where the atomic blast occurred.desertward was a tamarisk grove. Tiny birds, black-throated sparrows, bounded over their habitat, free of the history of their home.
The world seemed different over here. Far paler, yellowed, less defined than the Tularosa basin, somehow bleaker. The Oscura Mountains, which ran like a spine between the Jornada and Tularosa, now curved away to the right. Below us, more bunkers dotted the scape. One road sign read: “Hardhat Area Beyond This Point,” and then another: “High Explosive Test Area.” Uneasiness settled over me, as well passed vintage observation bunkers, Quonsetesque structures bulldozed under half a century ago and all but buried in red sandy soil, like toy train tunnels. Firing and instrumentation bunkers were similarly constructed, here and there, with shedlike frames buried under earth, into which dozens of communication lines once fed, from low T-poles that webbed the terrain. Some observation towers that likely were used during the test still endured, wobbly on their rotted pins, way off to the southeast. Wild oat grasses in virginal stands caught gusts of wind and flinched, as we drove farther into the Jornada. Globemallow, small coral flowers on soft green stalks, decorated the road shoulder, and out desertward was a tamarisk grove. Tiny birds, black-throated sparrows, bounded over their habitat, free of the history of their home.
By eleven we neared the MacDonald Ranch House. This was the place where Trinity began, really. In this old stone and stucco dwelling they assembled the core of the bomb—the Gadget, as it was called–painstakingly inserting the initiator between two hemispheres of marvelously warm alpha-dispensing plutonium, then fitting the unit, a nickel sphere, into a plug of tamper, deep in the center of a highly explosive shell. The pit-assembly team, in dusty white lab coats, gathered over there on Friday the 13th, July 1945. Once the Gadget was assembled, it was transported, slowly, carefully, from the ranch house over to a tower, and hoisted above ground into final position. As we passed the last observation bunker before reaching Ground Zero itself, I couldn’t help but remember how, back in 1945, just after detonation, while the mushroom cloud rose heavenward, Trinity Project director Kenneth Bainbridge turned to Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer and made his well-known remark, “Now we are all sons of bitches.”
One wonders what thoughts were running through the scientists’ minds during those several days before critical mass was achieved in the ugly metal contraption fixed atop the tower near
here, when none of them could be certain whether the test would fizzle or else ignite the atmosphere and destroy all life on earth. The hard reality of finally arriving at the Trinity site, and this disquietude I could not avoid, it seemed, surely gave me some grasp of the tenor of those unknowable thoughts.
Later, an Army bus would take us the short distance from Ground Zero to the restored MacDonald Ranch House. Its Aeromotor windmill, its timeworn stables, the watertank where Project personnel swam, all stand in tranquil abandonment. Walking along the trail to the house with White Sands public relations director Jim Eckles, I will mention we are only two miles from Ground Zero and ask, “How did the ranch house survive the blast?”
“Well, some of the windows were blown out,” is what he says.
“From all the footage I’ve ever seen of atom bombs, I’d have thought the shock wave would have blown this place to smithereens.”
A tall, lean, affable man, Eckles says to me, “Well, it wasn’t that big an atom bomb.”
Trinity site, where the Manhattan Project came to fruition. We are finally here. The military police direct us to park in rows—more rows, rows again—on the flats outside a fenced area. Next to a concession stand and a long, yes, row of latrines lies a rusty iron cylinder, twelve feet in diameter and over twenty feet long. This is Jumbo, which was to be used as a containment device to recover precious plutonium if the test failed. It cost millions upon millions of dollars to fabricate and transfer here, and now it lies on its side, a broken piece of junk, desert breezes flowing back and forth through its hollow center.
All sun, not a tree in sight. Hot now and weirdly quiet, the sound swallowed by the engulfing desert. We walk through the first gate, past a triangular weather-faded “Danger Radioactive Materials” sign. Two women hike ahead with pastel parasols, odd splashes of Impressionist color against the powdery beige and sage. Our procession is suddenly so grave, hushed. It reminds me of Good Friday on the road to Chimayó, up north of Santa Fe, though rather than thirty thousand believers making a religious pilgrimage, here we number in the hundreds and the quiet is not worshipful.
A chill sensation of melancholy stabs through me. I can’t be the only one who feels this, the pure enormity of the thing itself which is now so powerfully present. Something about the sheer desolation, the pure glorious vast forsaken emptiness of the desert, sharpens one’s perception of our shared mortality. One overhears a clichéd joke like, “I’m going to glow in the dark tonight”—sure—but the eavesdropper also hears the confessional words, “My life is kind of twisting me around,” as we all walk down the dusty wide straight track, bounded by sturdy barbed wire on each side, toward the place where the tower once stood. When a baby on her father’s shoulders begins to cry and squirm, her father asks her, “What’re you nervous?” Her mother says to him in a scolding voice, “Oh, she doesn’t know where she’s gonna be,” and though she might not, I wonder whether the solemnity of we walkers hasn’t alarmed her.
Halfway there, a hundred yards or so along, you see it, the blunt crown of the obelisk, where it rises into view from the declivity of the wide, shallow crater. The black monolith in the movie 2001—that moment when Stanley Kubrick’s astronauts venture down into the blindingly illuminated moon excavation—comes to mind. An imaginative, visual image of the bomb’s effect I try with only modest success to superimpose on this tranquil scene. A melon butterfly with black underwing wafts by as if to taunt my efforts.
Ground Zero stands within a circular enclosure of two chain-link fences and barbed wire. A makeshift lean-to off the tailgate of a Chevy van is parked by the entrance. On a card table they have assembled a little display—science-fair style—with Geiger counter, chunks of Trinitite, and other objects. We are invited to pass the copper tube of the Geiger counter over an orange Fiestaware plate, ad when we hear the clicking increase, we’re told that to get this particular shade of orange, the Fiestaware makers use lead and uranium in the finish. It clicks with equal insistence when held above the sparkling, grainy, green chunks of Trinitite.
I tie my jacket around my waist and walk through the last gate into a circular fenced enclosure, toward the obelisk, which stands off to the right of center. Dead ahead is a flatbed with a replica of Fat Man, brownish-red, riddled by rust. To the left is a low shelter, through whose dusty windows you can see the original crater floor as it was after the blast. Bulldozers and wind have long since buried the highly radioactive Trinitite crust, though bits and pieces of it blink beneath our feet. Attached to the fence, off behind the iron mannequin, are some thirty photographs showing the sequence of the first nuclear explosion. We walk over to look, my companions and I, at this sequence of shots.
First we see the dome of pure light at 0.006 seconds, already enveloped in apocalyptic fire over a hundred meters of area. Next, at 0.016 seconds, a ruffled skirt around the bottom of the scalding dome appeared, and the diameter of the fireball had expanded to three hundred meters. A mere 0.053 seconds after detonation, and this torrid, searing periphery embraced over a quarter mile. All of us strolling here this morning would have long since ben vaporized by thermal radiation, transmuted in the shocking spew of heat, light, neutrons, gamma rays. Not one cell of our bodies would have escaped a fiery conversion at the hypocenter of the nuclear storm. As it is, only a small twisted bit of one of the four concrete-and-steel footings of the tower survived the blast.
Vegetation is sparse within the compound, but twinkling in the fine dust are those many specks of Trinitite. I kneel, stare at a little chunk, and against my better judgment, not to mention the rules set forth in that document I read back in Alamogordo, I reach down and take it up into my hand. It sparkles, a twentieth-century mineral, another of the many fantastic progeny our age has spawned.
Huge white puffy clouds populate the sky. The hard beauty, the majesty of the Jornada, rimmed by silent blue mountains, is overwhelming. It invokes the proper scale of man in nature, and strips away in me for one silent moment just at noon any sense of time. As I stand know beside this obelisk at Ground Zero, and reach out to rest my palm against the pocked, charcoal stone of the monument, I notice that spiders have woven webs in crevices of the mortar. I step back and discover that, indeed, the obelisk is decorated with many such nests. Indomitable life goes on, I marvel, even on the very face of what might well be seen as a premature yet cautionary gravestone, this cenotaph for mankind and all our fellow creatures, if ever it came to pass that what this place saw first was used again in war.
THE ROAD TO TRINITY
Photograph by Ernest Dean Morrow