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

New Mexico: Balloon Fiesta!

Balloons on the Dawn Patrol

Date: Saturday, October 4, 2008
Time: 5:45am
Location: I-25 Northbound

It's five forty-five in the morning and we're stuck in a major traffic jam.

When the girl at Duran Central Pharmacy said she got up at 4:30am to go to Balloon Fiesta, I figured it was because she lived a ways away. Sitting in traffic on an otherwise desolate strip of highway waiting to get on the exit with 100,000 other people forced me to realize that this Balloon Fiesta thing wasn't some small, isolated event dreamt up by a funky little town but a major event.

Not one to enjoy sitting in unwarranted traffic, I maneuvered our Xterra around the traffic to the second exit and took the open lane to get a little bit ahead of the masses welling up behind us. From there, it would take us over 45 minutes to traverse the 1 mile of roadway to get to the Fiesta. I couldn't believe it. It was insane.


The view from our upper level parking lot was impressive. In the twilight, a number of balloons were taking off for the Fiesta's "Dawn Patrol." With the sun barely peeking over the horizon to our back, the rising balloons illuminated from within by their propane burners. It's a mesmerizing sight in the high desert.

There's a chill in the air as the sun starts to rise but this place is packed. It's Day One at the Balloon Fiesta and the crowds are incredible. This festival is huge. I had always thought Artscape in Baltimore was a big festival but this one easily dwarfs Artscape. Hundreds of acres large, the take off field for the balloons is jam-packed with spectators. And the line of food vendors running the length of the Fiesta grounds are cranking it out trying to battle never-ending long lines of hungry attendees.

Darth in the morning sun.

As we wander the field, we start to pick up the rhythm of the Fiesta. The balloons line up in sequential order on the field and take off in order when the "referees" come by to give the balloons their take off orders. Slowly, one by one, the balloons take off amidst wild applause from those immediately surrounding their take off spot.

Evidently, Albuquerque didn't become balloon central by happenstance. From what I've been told, the position of the city, surrounded by mountains developed a wind pattern that could allow the successful and skilled balloon pilot to fly his balloon in essentially a circle and land at the same spot where he took off. No need for chase vehicles. No need for long drives. Just take off, fly and land. Easy peasy - and it's what made Albuquerque into Balloon Capitol of the World.

A parrot inflates.

We've all seen different kinds of balloons, but chances are you've never seen some of the balloons featured at Fiesta. Sure, there's the standard-looking balloons, but there are also one-man balloons, sport balloons, gas balloons, race balloons and all sorts of shapes. From balloon-looking balloons to pyramid shaped balloons to a Wells Fargo Wagon, twin bees, clown fish, Ronald McDonald, a parrot, and more. Even Darth Vader's helmet is a balloon, not to mention a floating cathedral. The array of balloons is amazing and impressive.

But what's an outdoor festival without food? Nada. And since we got up so early, we're hungry. While Maria goes off to find something, I jump in a line promising Hatch Green Chile Breakfast Burritos. Sounds good to me. They've also got Frito Pie - that ubiquitous and slightly obnoxious New Mexican delicacy that takes Frito-Lay Fritos corn chips and piles them with Texas chili, cheddar cheese, lettuce and tomato.

That's a clown fish, but it's not Nemo.

There's a coffee vendor that looks like it has potential (at least greater potential than the Folger's they're serving at my stand), but I'm not willing to stand in another long line. The line is moving slowly and the wait after order is considerable. Some people are getting grouchy but at least they're making our food to order instead of hot holding in some hot box. I can appreciate freshly made product and can wait for it.

Finally, my number comes up and I've got the burrito in one hand and the Frito Pie in the other. I start with the pie. Years ago, when Bryan and Maria (a different Maria) told me about Frito Pie, I imagined someone going into 7-11, ripping open a bag of Fritos lengthwise and pumping both that crappy hot dog chili and nacho cheese on top. Because of this, I was expecting a sloppy, running and industrially salty kind of concoction. One that would be ideal for late night binge eating and lots of acidic Coca-Cola.

Maria looking for something to eat on the Midway.

Instead, this Frito Pie is almost refined. It's a big mount of stuff in a paper container. I'm a bit put off by the lettuce and tomato, thinking that it's just impeding my enjoyment of the good (bad) stuff. The chili is nice, it tastes real and has actual beans instead of the salty gruel that passes for chili at 7-11. It's very different than what I pictured. The cheese is shredded and their are greens. To eat, just mix and mash it all together then eat. It's good. The flavors start to come together.

Frito Pie reminds me of my favorite breakfast dish: chilaquiles. In fact they share similar traits. Corn chips smothered in a sauce, what more could one ask for? Fried egg maybe? It's a good dish and I try to pace myself. I'm thinking that I'll let Maria try some but I've lost track of her. She's somewhere around here and I've left my cell phone in the car, so much for calling.

Frito Pie.

In the end, I find her but not before I've finished the Frito Pie. I choose to omit the detail that I had a Frito Pie, just in case. Next up is the breakfast burrito, it's ubiquitous in this part of the world and while I've never lived here, it's also a popular order with movie on-set caterers and I've spent many a cold morning eating some tasty breakfast burritos before running off to set up the first shot of the day.

The breakfast burrito here, well, sucks. The tortilla is dry, the scrambled eggs are dry. It lacks flavor and/or distinction. I wish I had coffee to help wash it down. There's some sausage in there but it doesn't help. I dig through it to find the lone piece of Hatch Green Chile and it's bland. Lame. I don't even bother to finish the rest. I just dump in in the bin.

We hang out a little while longer and listen to a children's choral group from Kenya sing a few numbers. I try to check out the apparel tent to see if there are any cool embroidered jackets to buy but the place is just too packed - and I hate crowds. I pass and keep my sixty bucks. Pretty soon we're back on the road heading for our next adventure: Trinity.

The Floating Cathedral.

Balloons take off in order along a line.


Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
4401 Alameda NE
Albuquerque, NM 87113