Abandoned and ruined motel in Mountainair, New Mexico 2007, photo by the author
One thing you get used to seeing in New Mexico is ruins. You encounter them all the time here. There are the spectacular ruins such as at Chaco Canyon, an abandoned Native American trading and religious center turned into national park, and there are the more ordinary ruins of abandoned adobe buildings in practically every town and in the vintage neighborhoods of the one big city, Albuquerque.
Ruins. It’s a fact of being here.
On that note, I’ll mention that twice a year, on the first Saturday of April and October, White Sands opens the Trinity Site to public access and inspection. So I went yesterday, as I have never been, and the weather was glorious, and I needed to do it. Nothing has more strongly affected the lives of my generation than the atom bomb, certainly nothing in the outer world was more elemental to our childhoods than the Bomb and what it would do to us and all those pesky foreigners, mostly Russians, who wanted our stuff.
So I drove out to the Stallion Range Gate, out of San Antonio, and I thought at first it wouldn’t be too crowded because the balloons were mass ascentioning in 'Burque to kick off the Balloon Fiesta, and surely everyone wanted to attend that, yes? Driving the back roads of New Mexico, you’re often the only vehicle in sight, and even on the Interstate, you might be in a nearly traffic free area. So traffic seemed heavy heading out of San Antonio, what with five or six cars visible going my way, and a handful coming back.
When I got to the gate, I was surprised at the back up, and how very, very slowly cars were being let onto the base. One was given some “Don’t You Dare!” literature along with a brochure about the Bomb and the test on July 16, 1945, that took place at Trinity Site, and then one proceeded to the Security Checkpoint where one showed one’s picture ID to the private security guard and declared that one had no weapons or alcohol. Then one was waved in for the 17 mile, not altogether unscenic, drive to the parking lot.
Once there, I was kind of taken aback by the number of people who’d come out to see the sights at Trinity. There were thousands, and it was set up very much like a fair, though without the rides and the exhibit halls.
It was a hike of about a quarter mile from the parking lot to the Site of the nuclear test itself. On the way, I noticed that the test took place nearly up against the mountains, with a broad open plain to the west, which was surprising. I’ve seen films of the Trinity test and many other nuclear tests, most of which took place in Nevada, where the test site is surrounded by mountains. I just assumed the Trinity test was surrounded by mountains as well. But it isn’t. It’s not even that far out in the middle of nowhere. In fact, there were a couple of commandeered ranches within a couple of miles of the test site, at one of which the Bomb was assembled.
I noticed, too, that the streams of people headed to the Site on foot were eager (I think that’s the right word) if not exactly festive, and nearly everyone streaming back to the parking lot had downcast eyes and looked very… contemplative.
A secular pilgrimage that had a powerful spiritual effect on the crowds.
Which was surprising and not at the same time. You hike the quarter mile to the Trinity Site, and you enter a large relatively flat fenced off space, a bowl as it were, where, to your right, you see the lava rock obelisk that marks Ground Zero (here, the term is used properly) with the mountains forming a backdrop, and to the left, some distance away, you see a flatbed truck with a model of the Fatman bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, and further left is a low metal building (that is not accessible) that covers a portion of the original ground surface left after the test explosion. There are some pictures on the fence to the north. And that, exactly, is it. There is nothing else there.
There were many children there yesterday, and none of them were acting up. Think about that for a moment. Some were on their haunches, picking through the dust for specks of “Trinitite” -- the green glassy stuff the heat of the Bomb turned the ground into. They found some but not much. Most of it, says one of the signs, was scraped up and saved by the military after the test. In fact, the site has been extensively altered since the test, and much of what was there or what you might expect to see there is long since gone. It has been graded and scraped, and is kept mowed. It looks barren, in contrast to the landscape outside the fence, which is in a fairly natural desert condition, dry but not at all barren, with considerable plant and (one assumes) animal life. (The landscape all around is highly evocative of parts of the Mojave -- lots of yucca and low bushes, no Joshua trees, though -- which I found interesting…)
As the children picked through the dust to find “Trinitite”, they now and then came across rabbit droppings, which they mistook for the glassy substance, and had to be corrected.
There were many young adults, some of them couples. What a place for a honeymoon. Or what you will. There was a fair sprinkling of coots and geezers, for whom, of course, this place is a kind of sacred ground, but its sanctity is emotionally complicated. I know I felt that way. There were surprisingly few middle-aged people, and those that were there seemed not to know how to connect with the place and what happened there. Which was… interesting.
But the fact is that people leave the barren bowl where the test took place, and they are almost all head-down and silent. Whatever they thought about what they were going to see is changed by what they do see, and moreso by what they feel. The world was changed forever by what happened here, in ways that reverberate and echo to this day, and yet what there is to mark it is little more than dust and rocks and rabbit droppings, and twice a year, you can go see for yourself. And ponder.
You pass the ruins of a bunker on the way out of the base, and near the Stallion Range Gate itself, there is a very odd ruin, what was once an elaborate tent, a fabric covered accessory building, the fabric partially torn away, the metal ribs of the structure stark against the brilliant desert sky. Inside you can see desks and file cabinets, a chair or two, what could be a chart on what’s left of a wall. The whole thing looks very organic, like a huge beached sea creature of some sort. And like so many other ruins in New Mexico, it just sits there. Abandoned. Ignored. Eventually becoming part of the landscape. Not entirely natural, but not entirely not. Obviously human created, and now human forgotten.
Eventually, that will be the fate of the Trinity Site as well.
(10/10/10: Adding a video of the site that I took when I was at Trinity. Camera batteries were failing however, and the sun was so bright I could not see what I was video-ing. Oh well. Some of the feeling of the place is evident just the same...)