The Trinity site is where the first atomic bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945, three weeks before the weapons were used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Manhattan Project had been working at a feverish pitch in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and needed a nearby test site, so the aptly-named Journada del Muerto (route of the dead man, named after a German, probably Protestant, who died here fleeing the Inquisition in the 17th century) was chosen for the test.
Now, you can’t just drive up and look at the Trinity Site – it’s smack in the middle of a large military installation. White Sands is very much an ongoing concern – Highway 70 through the middle of it is periodically shut down and you have to sit at a roadblock for an hour or two while strange hardware flies around overhead. On the first Saturdays in April and October, though, you can actually drive in and walk around on the spots where the bomb was assembled and detonated.
We showed up at the Stallion Gate, about 20 miles east of Socorro, NM on Highway 380, assured the folks at the guardpost that we didn’t have any weapons or alcohol, and drove onto the White Sands Missile Range internal road system. There are African oryx running around on base, introduced from the Kalahari desert and proliferating in the absence of large predators and the ban on hunting on base. They get up over 400 pounds, and it’s disconcerting to see such large animals appear suddenly on a road you’re trying to drive on. I used my moose-dodging skills honed in Newfoundland to safely navigate the terrain.
As you approach the site itself, you arrive at the parking area, administered with military precision by the military, who tell everyone exactly where to park. I got exiled to the back row with the large RVs and trucks, and saw another Roadtrek there already parked. They were gone when we got back, so I never got to meet them.
Boarding a shuttle bus driven by some enlisted man young enough to cause me concern about his driving experience, we arrived at the McDonald ranch house where the bomb was assembled. It’s hard to create a clean room in an abandoned house out in the middle of the desert, but they managed to assemble the core and haul it over to the tower for the test. All this was going on in July in the middle of the desert, so the large water tank in front of the ranch house served as a swimming pool for the scientists when they got too overheated. There are outbuildings there you can poke around in – it’s a strange feeling to see broken glass from the windows lying where it fell that early morning in 1945.
The blast site itself is just a large fenced-off area with an obelisk at ground zero, the stubs of the tower footings, and the occasional glimmer of a piece of trinitrite, the slightly radioactive greenish glass formed from sand blown into the air by the blast and heated to amazing temperatures before it rained back down onto the surface, still molten. Radiation at the site today is about ten times background, not much risk if you’re only staying an hour or two. We didn’t stay long.
Nearby are the remains of Jumbo, a giant steel container designed to contain the conventional explosive blast in case the atomic one was a dud – they felt confident enough not to use it, disappointing the poor logistics people who had dragged this two hundred ton monster across the flats from the nearest railroad 15 miles away. It sat a few hundred feet away from the blast and survived it. The army later blew it up with conventional explosives after being driven mad by boredom sitting out here the 1950s. The desert will do that to you.
Unfortunately, our visit in 2011 was the last time you can make this atomic pilgrimage for free. Like the rest of the Federal park system, they’re jacking up admission fees during these times of fiscal austerity. It’s $25 a carload from now on. I retired just in time to catch the final free access day -excellent timing on my part, if I say so myself.
Sharon and I had always wanted to make this journey, but our mad dashes out west on vacation while I was still working never coincided with the two-days-a-year access permitted by the military.
We lingered in southern New Mexico at Elephant Butte State Park as March turned into April and the desert became hotter and grittier, waiting until this opportunity opened up. I’m glad I went, but still haven’t sorted out my feelings about my visit here. It’s curious in a way to be drawn to such a destructive technology, even though you admire the resourcefulness necessary to create it.
What’s done is done, and here we are in the Atomic Age.