Saturday, October 04, 2008

New Mexico: Jornada del Muerto


"I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds."
- Baghavad Gita

I grew up during the 1980s. The Cold War. During a time when mutual nuclear holocaust seemed vibrantly realistic. Where followers of Nostradamus predicted the End of the World by nuclear annihilation in 1987 after a war in the Middle East. During those times, the Soviet Union was our natural enemy. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be...

Within a matter of weeks, the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended without any of us being fried to a radioactive crisp. Who knew?

Today, a generation has come of age without ever knowing the fear and horror of The Cold War. Russia is just another country. There is no East or West Germany, just "Germany." If anything, the name "Tito" has more to do with Tito Ortiz of Ultimate Fighting than Josip Broz Tito who created Yugoslavia. In times like these, perhaps it seems odd and a bit strange to travel all the way to New Mexico just to reminisce about what was once our national obsession (or fear).

The long walk to Ground Zero.

I didn't come to New Mexico to eat green chile everything, or check out the Balloon Fiesta. I came for one reason and one reason only: to visit the Trinity Atomic Bomb Site in White Sands Missile Range. I came to get radiated.

In case you are unaware, Trinity is the location where our government and scientists from Los Alamos came together to test the first atomic bomb in history. It was here that they strapped an implosion assembly method bomb to a one hundred foot tower and set the world on fire. In a burst of sunlight, the United States rocketed the world into the Nuclear Age and jump started the Cold War.

Trinity is located, literally, in the middle of nowhere. Out in the midsts of the Jornada del Muerto, or "Journey of the Dead Man", the valley is aptly named because there's nothing out here. From Albuquerque, you take a hour drive south on I-25 to a town called San Antonio (which sells good fudge at the gas station and tasty burgers at the Owl Bar). Then it's a 12 mile drive to the White Sands Missile Range Access Road. Drive about four miles to the range's northernmost gate and then it's a seventeen mile drive to the actual Trinity Site. It really is in the middle of nowhere.

The lava rock obelisk marks the exact spot where the atomic age began.

Pass through the gate and it's a two-lane road through the desert. For a military installation, it looks pretty sparse and the gate seems rather unfortified compared to other military bases I've visited. A chat with a range employee later would reveal that the main gate and the actual post of the installation is actually south of here. About 100 miles south of here. There's a mountain range between us and the main gate. Whoa. This place really is huge.

When we reach the site, it's quiet, but the parking lot is pretty full. The sun is high in the sky and bearing down on us. There's no cloud cover and I wonder just how people of old made it through this terrain. On a horse, wagon or on foot, it would be merciless and unforgiving.

Not to mention it's also radioactive.

Out here, in the middle of the desert, the Trinity Site is enclosed by chain link fence. Despite the government's efforts to clean up the site, it's still radioactive, though they say that exposure here is equivalent to flying on an airplane cross-country, one can never be sure. I am aware to note any metallic taste in my mouth indicating radiation poisoning.

The site itself is quiet and serene. I expected it to be eerie, but it's not. Just quiet and serene. With a cot and some shade, I could take a nap out here. A black lava rock obelisk marks the spot where the bomb was detonated. Along the perimeter fence they've hung pertinent images of the explosion. There's a concrete and steel bunker that supposedly is covering a patch of ground that was preserved as-is from the day of the explosion, meaning that it's full of Trinitite and highly radioactive. The bunker is closed today meaning that everyone wishes it was open and emitting its' deadly gamma rays.

Not too far from the obelisk sits a flat bed tractor trailer with an empty shell of the same bomb. It's pretty big but looks innocuous as far as bombs go. The implosion method required multiple explosive charges to detonate at precisely the same time and precisely equal to each other in order to compress the Uranium-235. The charges would compress the Uranium to critical mass, creating a nuclear explosion. If it was off, the explosion would simply eject the Uranium.

Radioactive Trinitite being held under plexiglass.

Truth is, the United States didn't want to drop a dud onto Hiroshima. That would result in America looking foolish, losing face and probably reinvigorate the Japanese fighting machine. A test detonation was needed and Trinity was the place.

On the morning of July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated at 5:29am. Scientists had calculated several potential catastrophes due to atomic detonation, the most serious of which was the potential ignition of the atmosphere and resultant incineration of our planet. They continued anyway.

The detonation illuminated the surrounding mountains "brighter than daytime" with a mushroom cloud 7.5 miles high and people 200 miles away said they could hear the explosion. The intensity of the heat melted the sand, creating Trinitite, a radioactive glass that is only found at the Trinity Site.

Inside the McDonald Ranch House is where they developed the bomb.

A couple of miles away from Trinity is the McDonald Ranch House, the site where scientists assembled the Uranium parts for the bomb. A shuttle bus takes you there and while the house has been restored, it's just empty rooms with a couple of sign placards detailing what went on in the "clean room." It was here that my Canon G9 digital camera started to go haywire and fail. Later, others would say it was a faulty logic board, but perhaps it was the radioactivity.

Back on the two lane roadway, it's too easy to hit 80 mph or more. The land is flat. The mountains are in the distance. There's very little to telegraph your velocity. I could easily hit 100 mph and think I was just inching along at 30mph. Some lolly-gaggers are rolling along at 55mph and we whiz by them. Since they're the only thing on the road, they come up at an alarming rate of speed.

Leaving Trinity and White Sands, we hook a right turn on the highway for what turns out to be a very long drive across the Jornada, through plains, over mountains and lava fields to the town of Carrizozo, also in the middle of nowhere.

Trinity Site
White Sands Missle Range
New Mexico
Open the first Saturday of April and October

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