Skip to content
Desert shares its atomic secrets
There's a traffic jam out here in the middle of nowhere, a long line of cars stretching up a two-lane desert road and on over the crest of a low hill. At the head of the line, several uniformed men with guns guard a closed arm gate, and they have us feeling as restless as shoppers outside a department store the morning after Thanksgiving.
We aren't here for the sales, though. We want to see the place of secrets.
Sixty years ago on July 16, a horrendous noise and flash of light boomed across the predawn desert in central New Mexico, breaking windows 120 miles away and rousting thousands of people from their beds. World War II was in its final months, and the military passed off the explosion as an accident in a munitions dump deep in what is now the 3,200-square-mile White Sands Missile Range, some two hours south of Albuquerque.
The explosion was, in fact, the first successful detonation of an atomic bomb, and it happened at what is known as Trinity Site, a flat stretch of scrub desert in the Tularosa Basin just west of the Sierra Oscura. This is the original ground zero.
Having come of age during the Cold War and now living with regular talk of whether terrorists can acquire the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, I've long been curious about the spot where the nuclear age began. Because it is on an active weapons range, the site is usually closed to the public. Twice a year, though, on the first Saturdays of April and October, the gates open to the curious. This year they've added another date, July 16, to mark the detonation's 60th anniversary. (A similar event for the 50th anniversary attracted protesters as well.)
I fly in a day early for the April open house, landing at Albuquerque, then renting a car for the hour drive south along the Rio Grande River valley to Socorro, a drowsy cluster of trailers and crumbling adobe and stucco houses.
This is not touristy New Mexico, the land of Native American artisans, silversmiths and Georgia O'Keeffe's painterly descendants. This is ranch and farm country, where money seems in short supply, restaurants are diners or fast-food chains, and life proceeds at a rural pace. Don't expect a mint on your pillow. The first motel I check into, the Socorro Inn, is so rundown I immediately check out. (It had been bought two months earlier, and the new owner was still trying to renovate.) I wind up at a Holiday Inn Express, happy with functional cleanliness.
On Saturday morning, I grab free coffee and a pastry in the lobby and hit the road. It's a 45-minute drive to the missile range, most of it along U.S. 380, a two-lane road snaking east across the low swale of the Rio Grande Valley, then up through a mountain pass to the Tularosa Basin. The land is empty and starkly beautiful, a landscape of rust-colored dirt, dusty yellow-green plants and mountains in shifting shades of brown that stretch for miles beneath a washed-blue sky. I'm so mesmerized I miss the sign for the entrance at the Stallion Range Center and have to turn around.
At the gate I run into the backup of cars. The wait doesn't last long, though, and soon we're a caravan of hundreds coursing through emptiness.
The impermanence of the Trinity Site is striking, given its profound role in history. It has a gravel parking lot and portable toilets. At folding tables, people sell hot dogs and breakfast burritos; three or four vendors hawk books, posters and T-shirts and key chains that say, "Trinity Site, Ground Zero." The explosion site itself, which seems a little bigger than a high school running track, is surrounded by chain-link fence. Instead of heading for it, I grab one of the free shuttle buses for the two-mile trip to the George McDonald ranch house, where scientists and engineers assembled and armed what they called "the gadget."
The four-room adobe house has been restored to the way it looked in 1945. It's jarringly unremarkable, more like a bandit's hide-out than a bomb assembly plant. The "clean room," where the bomb was assembled over three days, was the master bedroom. It looks like a tinker's workshop, with a worktable the engineers built out of rough boards. A sign over the door warned visitors — back then, not now — to wipe their feet.
Seeing ground zero
Back at the Trinity Site, a name nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer selected from a John Donne poem, I pass through the outer ring of fencing for the quarter-mile walk to the black lava-rock obelisk marking the detonation spot. The land spreads out empty as far as the eye can see, which is of course why they decided to test their theory of an atomic bomb here.
More than 2,000 people usually show up for the open house, and today's crowd is right on target. The demographics are heavily tilted to gray heads, military jackets and National Rifle Assn. patches.
For many visitors, this isn't history so much as personal experience, stirring memories of the end of a world war and the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. And arriving here means revisiting the irresolvable moral question of whether the certain deaths of tens of thousands of Japanese civilians were preferable to the probable deaths of thousands of American troops had the war in the Pacific sputtered on a few more months.
Standing here, it's hard to shake a mixed feeling of horror and awe. The gadget was suspended from a metal tower and detonated 100 feet above ground.
The mushroom cloud went up more than seven miles. In an official history of the site, Hans Bethe, one of the scientists involved, described a "giant magnesium flare" that "grew and after a few seconds became clouded with dust whipped up by the explosion from the ground and rose and left behind a black trail of dust particles."
The blast, instead of heaving up the earth like a mortar shell, dented the ground 8 feet deep and 800 yards across. A small mound of cement and the stubs of metal bars are all that remain of the tower. The intense heat changed the sand around it to a greenish silica dubbed Trinitite. Scores of visitors walk the site looking down, poking at rocks with their shoes, as guards and volunteers warn against picking up the radioactive pebbles.
Site administrators say that an hour or so of exposure here is less than you receive from a dental X-ray or during a cross-country plane trip. Still, it's hard to shake the disquiet embedded from 1960s elementary school civil defense drills. After you've crouched under your desk to save your first-grade buns from the nefarious Soviet missiles, it's hard to stand still here for long. Especially when people in uniform tell you it's unhealthy to touch a stone.
Ears on the universe
About 90 minutes later, I drive back north on Interstate 25 to Socorro, then cut west 50 miles on U.S. 60 through another stretch of stunningly empty land until I crest a mountain pass into a high plain almost 7,000 feet above sea level. In the distance, a giant white beach umbrella seems to sprout from the middle of the range, then others come into view. They are huge, resembling massive satellite dishes, each one nearly the size of a baseball diamond. There are 27 in all, laid out in a Y-formation with each arm stretching 5 miles.
It looks as though Christo's been here.
This is the Very Large Array, a drab name for the National Science Foundation's massive radio telescope. Where the Trinity Site represents the splitting of the atom, the VLA traces radio emissions from the heavens to figure out how atoms came together to form our universe.
It's a tech geek's dream site, a place where questions asked on the guided tour can be a little hard to follow. But the array itself is fascinating. When the dishes are pointed at the same spot, they act like a single 22-mile-wide radio telescope capable of seeing far into the past. Although the movie "Contact" was filmed here, these scientists are not trying to eavesdrop on other galaxies, as their fictional counterparts did in the film. Still, the visit had me contemplating the odds that we are the sole planet in the universe in which chemistry conspired to create life.
By the time the sun sinks to the tops of snow-flecked mountains, I've moved again, back down through the pass and south to San Antonio and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, a 57,000-acre sanctuary on the west bank of the Rio Grande that teems with birds settling in for the night. Given the hour and season, I have the place mostly to myself, and as I drive some of the dirt trails, I spot a great blue heron and several snowy egrets. Roadrunners keep pace with me, and ducks cross the sky on comically fast-flapping wings.
After a half-hour or so of meandering, I park near a wooden overlook at the edge of a pond and walk out to stand still and silent in the cool breeze, listening to the slight lapping of water and the conversations of birds.
As they splash, squawk and trill, I think about the VLA's role in our efforts to understand how this fragile world came together, and the Trinity Site's part in our efforts to blow it apart. This, I think, is what hangs in that delicate balance — the wind, water and reeds, and the quiet setting of the sun.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
From LAX, Southwest offers nonstop service to Albuquerque, and America West, American, Delta, United, Northwest and Frontier offer connecting service (change of plane). Restricted round-trip airfares begin at $252. To El Paso, Texas, Southwest has direct service (stop, no change of plane), and the same airlines offer connecting service. Restricted round-trip airfares begin at $246.
From Albuquerque, Socorro is about 75 miles south on Interstate 25, and the White Sands Missile Range is a 45-minute drive east along U.S. 380.
From El Paso, drive 90 miles to Alamogordo, where the Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce organizes a 170-mile round-trip car caravan to the site. (505) 437-6120 or https://www.alamogordo.com/activites/trinity.html .
WHERE TO STAY:
Socorro has several local motels of varying caliber, and the hotel chains have minimal amenities. Alamogordo has a similar lineup but is more expensive.
Holiday Inn Express, 1100 California St., Socorro; (505) 838-0556 (877) 477-4674, hiexpress.com. Doubles from $77.
Econo Lodge, 713 California St., Socorro; (505) 835-1500, (877) 424-6423, econolodge.com. Doubles from $55.
WHERE TO EAT:
Frank & Lupe's El Sombrero Cafe, 210 Mesquite NE (east of I-25 at the northern edge of town), Socorro; (505) 835-3945. The food is mostly Tex-Mex, plentiful and good. The verde sauce was particularly tasty. Entrees $6.25-$12.95.
TO LEARN MORE:
Trinity Site will be open to the public 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 16 for a 60th-anniversary commemoration. It is regularly open the same hours on the first Saturdays of April and October. No reservations are needed. The White Sands Missile Range can be reached at (505) 678-1134. More information is available at https://www.wsmr.army.mil/pao/TrinitySite/trinst.htm .
July temperatures routinely edge up to 100 degrees, so bring water, hats and sunscreen. You can carry in a picnic lunch too.
— Scott Martelle