CLUI Leads Tour of New Mexico
Bus Ride Orbits the Manmade Sun

717 CLUI photo.IN THE BEGINNING, BEFORE THE bus tour, there was the Big Bang, the explosive birth of the Universe. Then, four or five billion years later, came Trinity, the birth of the astro-techno-anthropo-geomorphological universe. July 16, that day of that most globally transformative year, 1945, could be considered the crux of the fulcrum between the old world and the new; the past and the present; where we came from, and where we are going.

The act of creation of the manmade sun collected the scattered resources of the planetthe tiny radioactive potential in natural rockand processed it through the largest and most technologically complex landscape machine ever conceived, a machine that spanned the nation, from Oak Ridge to Hanford, converting the microcosmic energy that holds the world together into the energy that can break it apart. The energy of the stars. With this shift in scale, human industry becomes galactic.

This cumulative act, the Manhattan Project, was the collective bite of the Big Apple of the knowledge and power of the Universe, and the irreversible transition from not knowing to knowing. This loss of technological innocence marked the transition from the Eden of America as the garden of potential, to the kinetics of the post World War II consumerscape, dominated by the forces of American economics, spending the political capital acquired by winning the war for the world.

This moment of transition fomented across the globe, but its epicenter was in the state of New Mexico. So when the Center for Land Use Interpretation was asked to do a bus tour about New Mexico, we said yes.

New Mexico is a large state, and given the time (the bus had to be back at 6pm the same day), there was no way to really do a tour of the state. That sort of focus would appear in the Center’s exhibit, a few months later. Instead, the tour would head straight to the source of the energy that blasted the Land of Enchantment into the futureto Los Alamos.

But the tour was not only about Los Alamos. We used the attractive energy of Los Alamos as a destination to pull us towards it, then we entered its orbit, using its gravitational field to gain momentum, and to curve around it, then away, into another space. The trip would fall through several layers of context and meaning, then would end up back where we came from (in this case, Albuquerque), though in a somewhat transformed state.

On the Highway
The sold-out bus departed at 9am on June 27, 2009, from the Albuquerque Museum. After an introduction to the tour guide (CLUI director Matthew Coolidge) and the bus driver (Joe Villarobos), it was explained that the tour would, like so much in New Mexico, be research which we would undertake together. Some of the findings would later appear in the Center’s exhibit about New Mexico, opening in August, 2009.

The tour would be driving through the ancient and sacred ground of the Native Americans on a collision course with the place of hypermodern science fiction and fact. The tour would have two thematic parts: Going There, and Coming Back: the attraction, and the fallout; the action and reaction; up and down.

We got on Interstate 25, northbound. The road is an epic span of western motorism with continental connections, linking northern Montana (I-90) to southern New Mexico (I-10 at Las Cruces), part of a continuing Pan American Highway which connects Prudhoe Bay, Alaska with Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.

I-25 has also been called the Atomic Highway, stringing together White Sands Missile Range, in the south, where the first atomic bomb was detonated, to NORAD and Colorado Springs, with their command and control centers for our ICBM arsenal and defenses. And, of course, Sandia Labs here in Albuquerque, where most of the bombs are engineered, and Los Alamos, where the Atomic Era began, and continues.

It would take nearly two hours to get there, a perfect opportunity for preparation. With video monitors above the seats, the bus became a movie theater. First to be shown was the 18-minute film The Town that Never Was, a history of Los Alamos, made for the Bradbury Museum by members of the lab. Then a section of the documentary The Day after Trinity was shown, which described some of the personal history of Robert Oppenheimer, who selected the location for the lab based on his love of the area – his family’s cabin still exists in the hills across from Los Alamos.

Then the bus watched A Sense of Place: Preserving the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, narrated by author and historian Richard Rhodes. This is a recent film that argues for the need for preservation of some of the early lab buildings. In fact, the National Park Service is considering the establishment of a Manhattan Project National Historic Park inside some of the historic parts of the lab, a notion supported by the Atomic Heritage Foundation, producers of the film. Opening up the park to the public, however, would be another issue.

After that we watched Welcome to Los Alamos/Stockpile Stewardship, a lab-made cinematic greeting that describes the present work of the lab, much of which is about modeling existing atomic bombs in virtual space, using the most powerful computers in the world and the most advanced visualization systems in the world, in order to understand their composition and decomposition, since treaties prevent us from making any “new” atomic weapons. Stockpile Stewardship is about how to maintain our weapons by replacing aging parts, and convincing the world that we know these bombs will still perform as they were designed to. Sabre-rattling has moved to cyberspace.

718 Two bridges, spanning different times, over the Rio Grande at Otowi Station, the transition into Los Alamos Country. CLUI photo.Otowi Station
Our arrival into the orbit of Los Alamos began when the bus crossed the Rio Grande at Otowi Station. This is the place described in the book The House at Otowi Bridge. Edith Warner, a Pennsylvanian spinster, moved to this remote spot in the 1920s, and opened a small wayside teahouse where the road met the river. When the lab started up, her teahouse became a favored meeting, eating and socializing place for Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, General Groves, and other select VIPs and scientists from the lab. Among them was the author of the book, Peggy Pond Church. She was the daughter of Ashley Pond, the founder of the Los Alamos School, and she was the wife of the headmaster when the government took it over in 1942 to begin the work on the “Gadget.”

As the bus began its climb up the mesa, the group was reminded of some general Los Alamos history. The Manhattan Project was led by General Leslie Groves. It involved many other locations, but the final step, to assemble and test the first nuclear bomb, was conducted at Los Alamos Lab, under the direction of Robert Oppenheimer, who arrived at Los Alamos to start the program in March, 1943.

Los Alamos was chosen because Oppenheimer had visited the Los Pinos Ranch in the nearby Sangre de Christo Mountains, north of Santa Fe, with his friend Herbert Smith as teenagers in 1922, the summer before he entered Harvard. This was his first independent trip away from his family’s socially progressive, but oppressive, upper-class Jewish New York City social environment. The sickly, depressive, but brilliant kid had a really good time in Los Alamos, riding horses and camping out.

That summer too he visited the Ranch School of Los Alamos, a private prep school, where at that time 25 or so similarly sickly privileged kids from back East and the Midwest were undergoing similar transformations. This exotic and liberating land, Los Alamos, no doubt, felt a bit like an ideal and idyllic place to him. Over the next few years Oppenheimer goes from Harvard to Cambridge to near suicide. Somehow reading Proust’s Recherche du Temps Perdu in Corsica gets him out of depression. He studies in Germany with the leading scientists of the new quantum physics, and returns to the States a star physicist, and takes a plum job at Berkeley. For vacations, he rents a cabin near the Los Pinos Ranch, site of his first teenage encounter with freedom, and New Mexico. He calls the cabin Perro Caliente (“Hot Dog”) and goes there nearly every summer through the 1930s, often with his brother Frank (also a physicist, who later founds the Exploratorium in San Francisco). While there he rides horses on long trips into the mountains for days on end, eating peanut butter and drinking whiskey. He famously says, at this time, “My two great loves are physics and New Mexico – what a pity they can’t be combined.”

When the war starts, and the Germans are suspected to be developing a bomb, Oppenheimer is tapped to run the American effort to beat them to it. He suggests the Los Alamos Ranch School as a site to establish a lab. General Groves visits the site with him, likes the security that the remoteness provides, and agrees. Oppenheimer later regrets not just the creation of the bomb, but having ruined a beautiful place.

In the winter of 1942/43, a year after Pearl Harbor, the Ranch School property is taken over by the Army. School shuts down and bulldozers move in. A Van de Graff generator was shipped from the University of Michigan, and a cyclotron came from Harvard. In March 1942, Oppenheimer and other key scientists arrive, to help set up the lab. New arrivals check in at 109 East Palace Avenue in Santa Fe, then disappear, and are listed simply as residing at “P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe.”

By the fall of 1943 a few thousand people would call this P.O. Box home, while working at the lab thirty miles away in the hills. Most people in wartime Los Alamos were under the age of 30. They generally worked all day six days a week, and recreated on Saturday night and Sunday. This continued for two years, until the summer of 1945’s Trinity, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.

After the war, many scientists left, some disappointed by the use of the bomb. When the motive was to stop the Nazis, it was different. But the work continued after victory in Europe – the momentum just too great to stop. Oppenheimer is outspoken about his regret, and leaves Los Alamos soon after Nagasaki. He famously has his security clearance revoked years after the war.

Many of the lab scientists, even Edward Teller, form the Association of Los Alamos Scientists, ALAS, and draft a statement arguing for international cooperation and sharing of bomb technology in order to prevent an arms race and perpetual political instability. President Truman responded by classifying the document.

Norris Bradbury became the first director of the lab after Oppenheimer. His main task was to make bigger and/or better bombs. And that has been the main purpose of the lab ever since. In 1949, Sandia Lab was founded at the Air Force Base in Albuquerque, to focus on new weaponizations of the bomb. In 1952, Ed Teller founds the third of the trinity of national nuclear labs, Lawrence Livermore, to develop thermonuclear/hydrogen bombs, and to provide compelling competition for Los Alamos. And so it goes, still to this day.

Just before the top of the mesa, the bus pulls off at an overlook. On the valley floor to the east is the Rio Grande, and Otowi Station. On the other side of the valley is the Sangre de Christo Range, where Oppenheimer once wandered, innocently (his cabin still exists out there, near the campground at Iron Gate). Next to us is a remnant of the old road up the mesa, the last of a series of switchbacks, where in the old days trucks loaded with equipment for the lab had to be pushed up by bulldozers. As we crest the mesa in the bus, we enter into the exotic land of the past and present nuclear druids.

719 Overlook approaching Los Alamos, looking back across the valley towards the Sangre de Christo Mountains. CLUI photoOn the Mesa
The mesa is a landmass flowing like a tattered doily draped over the Valles Caldera, with edges that crumble into canyons, leaving long peninsular fingers of high ground between them. Arriving on the main road to town, one rises onto one of these mesa-top fingers, with a canyon on either side. The first active parts of the lab are visible on the left, while areas of the civilian town begin next to the road, on the right.

The lab’s land is divided into 74 Technical Areas (TA’s). On the left is TA 53, visible on another mesa-top finger across the canyon. TA 53 covers 750 acres, and has approximately 400 buildings and other structures, where about 800 personnel work. The principal facility in this technical area is the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center (LANSCE), once known as the Meson Physics facility. It is one of the largest research accelerators in the world, and an important part of the lab’s capabilities.

The road soon comes to the former gate of the lab, with an unused guard tower on one side, and guard house on the other, which is now a restaurant. Between 1943 and 1957, all traffic stopped here and passed through security. Today, traffic flows by these remnants, and enters the open town. A sign past the old gate mentions Los Alamos’ Cold War sister city, Sarov, Russia, 200 miles east of Moscow, which was the site of the All-Russian Institute of Experimental Physics. That town disappeared from maps in 1946, only to reappear in 1994.

After the gate, another lab facility is visible on the left, Technical Area 21. Known as the DP Site, it is one of the most contaminated sites at the lab, and the only recently active lab site immediately adjacent to town. Facilities at the DP Site were used for early research with plutonium and uranium, and it was here that the physicist Cecil Kelly was killed handling plutonium in 1955. Plutonium work stopped here in 1978, and moved to the more secure TA 55, where it continues today. Tritium research was conducted here from 1984 to 1999. The first gram of americanium was isolated here, in a 120 foot long structure, known as Building 3 North, which was torn down in 1996. Due to obsolescence, contamination, and proximity to town, most operations at TA 21 ceased by 1996. The site is being remediated now using Federal stimulus funds, some of the $212 million of which has been allocated for the decontamination and demolition of 28 buildings at LANL.

Los Alamos, the town, is located where the World War II lab site was, before everything was moved years later. The downtown that grew up to support the modern lab has two parallel roads of commercial establishments that emerge from a fork as you enter. The left fork says “Lab” the right says “Museums.” We take the latter, for now. The interpretive layer, which is pretty thick here in Los Alamos, is at its thickest at the Bradbury Museum, our first stop on the tour.

Named for the first lab director after Oppenheimer, the Bradbury Museum is a public visitor center operated by Bechtel for the lab. It resembles a science museum, with interactive three dimensional and computer displays, though one that stresses the nuclear sciences. There are some truly remarkable exhibits in this museum, such as a ten feet tall sculptural cone that represents the volume of all of the plutonium created by the United States, and a large model of a nuclear test equipment rack of the type that was lowered into one of the hundreds of drilled holes at the Nevada Test Site during the underground nuclear testing days. Other displays talk about the history of the lab, the town, and nuclear technology, radioactive safety, and other work conducted by the lab. 130,000 visitors a year come to this museum, which is adjacent to the independently-owned Otowi Station bookstore, which has a great collection of titles on subjects related to the lab.

After we visit these two places, the tour continued through town, looping around the historic core to point things out, before making another stop to let people out for a closer look. Among these sites is Fuller Lodge, the restored former main hall for the Ranch School, built in 1928 in a romantic rustic style, not dissimilar to the rustic camps of the Adirondacks and New England.

The Los Alamos Ranch School was a college preparatory school established here in 1917 by a businessman from Detroit named Ashley Pond. The school was small, though academically and physically rigorous. Several hundred students were educated there over its 25 years of existence, among them some future corporate presidents, as well as the writers Gore Vidal and William S. Burroughs.

During the Manhattan Project, Fuller Lodge was the executive dining and meeting room for the lab, and its pillared porch is an icon of the Los Alamos of that time. It is now a community hall, used for civic events and meetings.

Next to Fuller Lodge is Bathtub Row, the remaining faculty cottages from the school, which became the housing for the main scientists when the lab moved in. Other housing during the WW II days of the lab were trailers, dormitories and simple apartment tenements, so these faculty bungalows were considered luxurious for having things like bathtubs (prefabricated bathtubs were not made during the war, and these buildings had them because they predated the war.) Today one house has been converted into the local museum, but the others are private dwellings, including #1967, which was Oppenheimer’s residence.

720 The house that the Oppenheimers lived in during the Manhattan Project is still there, on Bathtub Row, and is now privately occupied. CLUI photo

On the other side of Bathtub Row is Central Park Square, a town center built by the Federal government during the early postwar lab days to serve as the commercial and social hub for the lab. Built in a functional modernist style, the city center may be one of the earliest examples of the postwar modernist shopping plaza, but it is now just one of a few similar-looking beige shopping plazas around town, with remarkably plain signage that make it difficult to deduce the character of the retail spaces they contain.

Lunch at Ashley Pond
The bus pulled to a stop next to Ashley Pond, a pond named after the founder of the school, to let people visit the museum, look around, go to Starbucks, and eat lunch. In the WWII days of the lab, Ashley Pond was the center of the lab, completely surrounded by tech area buildings. In the 1950s the lab started to be moved across Los Alamos Canyon to the adjacent mesa fingers to the south, where by the 1960s the lab occupied the roughly 40 square miles that it covers today, leaving the town of Los Alamos to officially become a town, and privatizing its land starting in 1962. Today the pond is a pastoral park, with little visible evidence of the chaotic and toxic work done around it.

At 7,200 feet the community atop of the mesa feels a bit like an Indian Hill Station, with much of the exotic elitism of the early days still intact. With a population of around 12,000, the town is said to have the highest concentration of PhDs in the nation, with two thirds of the population having earned at least a bachelor’s degree. Though there are few fancy houses, the average household income is one of the highest in New Mexico, a state that is usually ranked as the poorest in the nation. It is still a company town.

After lunch the bus headed north past Acid Canyon, behind the Aquatic Center, where the main tech area’s untreated waste was dumped from 1943 to 1953. Unfenced for many years, the site is adjacent to the town’s high school. But the bus was headed further down the road, to a place that the owner was proud to proclaim was a “nuclear waste site,” a place known far and wide as The Black Hole of Los Alamos. The Black Hole is a jumble of laboratory cast-offs, purchased at auctions and otherwise acquired over decades by the owner of the Hole, Ed Grothus. Set up as a used and junk equipment store, the Black Hole is really a curated collection of surplus material, representing the “waste” that Grothus felt was endemic at the nuclear lab. Grothus, who died in February, 2009, once worked at the lab, but quit due to ethical concerns around the time of the Vietnam war. He remained in the community as one of the most outspoken and humorous critics of the lab.

721 Gazing into the Black Hole of Los Alamos. CLUI photo He established a church on his property, the First Church of High Technology, where he held “Critical Mass.” His most recent project was to build a memorial to the Atomic Age, but authorities never allowed it to be installed in a public place, so the two 32-foot carved granite obelisks sit inside shipping containers, more surplus at the Black Hole. His children are slowly selling the remains of the stock of the surplus store, while hoping to create a museum in his memory.

After this stop – the closest thing the lab has to a souvenir shopthe bus headed for the lab itself. Though accessed only by passing through new high-tech toll-both like guard stations, public access to the lab property is permitted, but only in certain areas. The most secure areas have their own additional gates and guards. The roads through the main administrative area of the lab, Tech Area 3, are visitable, but taking a full tour bus of non-lab people on site is another matter, we were told. Negotiations with lab representatives and the CLUI continued for weeks, until finally, with the support of a number of lab personnel and representatives, including the governor’s science advisor, it was determined that it would probably not be wrong for us to drive on lab property, and the security officials did whatever they did to prepare, and did not say no. A detailed plan for the route was submitted, and not disapproved. Though no one welcomed us there, and no one said it would definitely be okay, people seemed to be resigned to the fact that we were coming, and we had the highest hope, though no guarantee, that we would be allowed both through the gate, and to visit a few sites around TA 3.

After passing TA 43, the Genome building, where some of the work sequencing the human genome was performed, we crossed over the Los Alamos Canyon Bridge, and entered the awkwardly looping access road to the gate known as “the colon.” After a brief inspection, armed guards leave the bus and we enter the lab grounds.

Entering the Lab
Despite the ending of the Cold War arms race, nuclear testing, and the establishment of international treaties banning the development of new nuclear weapons, Los Alamos Lab is doing very well. The current annual budget of $2.2 billion is twice what it was just a few years ago. 12,500 employees, plus 3,300 contactors, do the work of the lab, which includes an increasingly diversified range of activities. In order to survive when the Cold War ended, the lab had to be seen as more than a bomb factory.

722 Public interpretation within the lab has been concentrated at one single location, this battery of canted plaques outside the Otowi Center, in TA 3. CLUI photo The lab is now engaged in a range of programs related to security, policy, environmental technology, renewable energy, health sciences, and such. But preserving the nation’s nuclear readiness is still the main activity and responsibility of the lab. 80% of the nation’s nuclear weapons were designed at Los Alamos, and most of the nation’s plutonium is stored and handled on site.

Another recent change is in management. A curious legacy of the Bomb’s early associations with the physics department at Berkeley was that both Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore were operated by the University of California for over 50 years. In 2006, a new entity was formed to manage the lab, Los Alamos National Security, LLC (LANS). The University still is involved (it has three of the eleven posts on the LANS board of directors), but it shares management with three companies: Bechtel, the San Francisco-based government and infrastructure engineering firm which also operates other federal nuclear sites; BWX Technologies (also known as Babcock and Wilcox), a famous old weapons and engineering company that is owned by McDermott, the Houston-based oil industry engineering company; and the Washington Group, the Boise-based engineering company (which itself was recently acquired by URS, of San Francisco, an engineering and government contracting company that is also building the spaceport for Virgin Galactic, in southern New Mexico).

Our loop around TA 3 took us through the densely developed hub for the lab, equivalent to several city blocks of office and engineering buildings and warehouses. We passed the main administration buildings, then turned left on Bikini Road, passing the large National Security Science Complex. Left on Mercury Road, and right on Parajito Road, we passed the Weapons Materials and Manufacture, Standards and Calibration building, the old Van de Graff Generator building, and radiation measurements and bioassay office trailers.

Parajito Road is the main artery through the lab, connecting the Administration center at TA 3 with Highway 4 and the bedroom community of White Rock. Along the way, though, it passes by many of the most sensitive parts of the lab, such as TA 55, the largest collection of plutonium on the planet, and TA 54, the radioactive storage facility for the lab. So after 9/11, with the construction of new main gates for the lab at Diamond and West Jemez Roads, Parajito Road was also closed to authorized uses only and manned gates were put in at both ends.

If we continued on Parajito Road, we would quickly end up at the gate, so we turn left onto Diamond Drive, and pass the Material Science Lab, and the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility (involved with research into plutonium metallurgy, superconductivity, and nuclear chemistry). With a right turn on Eniwetok Drive we pass a cryogenic lab and the nanotechnology center, then enter into TA 60, to visit one of the tallest structures at the lab, the Nevada Test Site fabrication facility and test tower known as the Rack.

Until the moratorium on underground nuclear testing in 1992, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore used the Nevada Test Site for large scale nuclear testing (they still operate several facilities there for subcritical testing.) For a typical test, a vertical test rack several feet wide and dozens of feet tall was prepared with the bomb and the experiments packed on to it. It would be lowered into a drilled hole hundreds or thousands of feet deep, at the Nevada Test Site, wired to equipment trailers, and vaporized, sending data up the cables faster than the wave of disintegration. This tower, at TA 60, was used to prepare the experiment rack for hundreds of underground tests in Nevada.

Tour Orbit Apogee
The Rack represented the apogee of the tour, the tipping and turning point. We were as far into the meat of the lab as we were going to get. The road dead-ends in a mile or so, so after pondering the Rack, we turn around and head back to TA 3 and Diamond Drive, and pass the Computing and Integrated Computer Network buildings, which contain some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, used to model tests, deconstruct weapons for stockpile stewardship, and drive digital reconstructions in the visualization labs. West on West Jemez Road takes us past the administration buildings again, then past the Department of Energy building, where 120 or so DOE officials are based, then through the west gate guard station, and back on State Road 501.

We were now embarked on a loop around the edge of the lab’s 40 square miles, on public roads, passing periodically visible forward areas and field test areas of the lab, all off limits. First we pass the road to Two Mile Mesa, a high explosive testing region with historic Manhattan Project facilities, such as a plutonium recovery bowl, and the Explosives Detonator facility, at TA 22, with its rows of explosives bunkers, and the additional high-explosives detonator and shock wave propagation research site, TA 40, at the end of Two Mile Mesa Road.

Next we pass the Anchor Site, an active research site with capabilities to measure explosive dynamics with million volt x-ray machines, in TA 8. Little Boy bomb development also occurred here, in existing buildings from the old Anchor Ranch, which became part of the early Anchor Ranch Proving Ground, with cement blast proof bunker buildings made for tests with explosive guns to trigger a chain reaction. Many of these original facilities are still there. Nearby, at Anchor East, is an explosives storage and stability research area, at TA 9. The road continues past Anchor East to TA 14, a field test area for experiments that are too dangerous to be performed at other parts of the lab, called the Outdoor Chemical Laboratory. The isolated facility has fourteen buildings and five firing mounds for studying new high explosive types, and the wastes and residues they produce. Further down the road, in TA 15, is the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility, known a DARHT, an x-ray facility for studying subcritical nuclear testing as part of the Stockpile Stewardship program. The $350 million facility uses two x-ray machines at an angle to create three dimensional images of the explosive kinetics.

The bus continues rolling south down the hill along the western edge of the lab, changing course where Highway 501 meets Highway 4, and heading eastward, along the lab’s contorted southern flank. Inward at the intersection is TA 16, one of the most developed of the forward areas at the lab. Though in use as a high explosives test area since the Manhattan Project, TA 16 is also now the main tritium site at the lab, with dozens of machining, handling, and storage buildings. Tritium is a radioactive material used in nuclear weapons. Like plutonium it is very expensive to make, requiring manufacture in specialized reactors, like those at the Savanna River Site in South Carolina. It exists in very small quantities, and much of it is here at TA 16.

Heading east on Highway 4, we pass Frijoles Mesa, designated as TA 49, which has a helipad and fire station at the gate. This area was used for 41 small underground nuclear tests between 1959 and 1961, in tunnels extending as much as 150 feet into the ground. The site is also the location of the Laboratory’s Antenna and Pulse Power Outdoor Range User Facility, where a spectrum of outdoor tests is carried out on materials and equipment components that involve generating and receiving short bursts of high-energy, broad-spectrum microwaves. The Laboratory’s Hazardous Devices Team uses the site as a training area and as an isolated location for blowing up suspect packages.

The road continues on the southern edge of the mesa, with little evidence that on the escarpment below is the famous cluster of native dwellings in Bandalier National Park. Soon the main entrance to the park appears, a long curving road that descends into the canyon below. It was on the grounds of the park that a controlled burn, set by the Park Service, got out of control, and spread through this area. Fire has always been a concern at Los Alamos, as anywhere, but the vital resources at the lab, not to mention the possibility of a fire taking radioactive material into the air, makes fire an especially ominous event here. The Cerro Grande fire of 2000, as it became known, burned for weeks, reaching into the hills above Los Alamos, forcing an evacuation of town, where it destroyed 400 homes. The lab shut down for two weeks, and dozens of buildings in the forward areas were burned, though no critical ones. It was ironic of course that the fire was started by an agent of the Federal Government. The Superintendent of the park resigned afterwards.

After the entrance to the park, the highway makes some switchbacks in and out of a canyon, first passing the gate to TA 33. This is the part of the contiguous lab grounds that are furthest away from the more developed areas, so it has been used for things that are especially in need of isolation. A testing area was first established here in 1947, known as the Hot Point Site. Tunnels were made in the cliffs overlooking the Rio Grande to test nuclear weapon initiators. The site has also been used for neutron generation studies, and tritium processing. There is also an intelligence technology group based here, and an antenna of the VLBA, the network of ten radio telescope dishes that extends from New Hampshire to Hawaii.

As we reach the bottom of the canyon, we pass the gate to TA 39, the Ancho Canyon site, a dead-end up a road in the canyon. Because of its isolation, Ancho is more of a self-contained TA than most, with its own machine shops, heavy equipment support, and administrative support buildings. This TA was started as a high-explosive test site in 1953 to extend the capabilities of TA 15 (which is atop Three Mile Mesa), to include larger shock wave studies. The abrupt walls of Ancho Canyon could contain much of the sound and other effects. The dynamics of explosions are still studied here, using high-speed cameras and other means. Pulsed power systems have also been studied here, employing high voltage capacitor banks. The National High Magnetic Field Lab is based up the canyon as well.

The technical areas along either side of the state highway east of Ancho Canyon, TA 70, 68, and 71, are mostly undeveloped, and serve as buffer zones for the explosives areas to the west, and the settlements to the east, which we soon reach. White Rock is a bedroom community for the lab, first established by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1949, but later privately developed into a planned community of nearly 6,000 residents. White Rock is at the base of Parajito Road, which is a main artery through forward areas of the lab, and was closed to public traffic a few years ago. We began at the other end of Parajito Roadit took us an hour or so, but we are nearing the end of the loop around the lab.

The main radioactive and chemical waste area at the lab, in TA 54, is visible on the mesa above White Rock. One of the largest radioactive waste sites in the nation, TA 54 stores high and low-level radioactive materials, chemicals, and other hazardous wastes generated by the lab, including material that has to be disposed of separately for security reasons. Most of the material is now stored above ground in sheds, such as those visible from the highway at White Rock. In the past, radioactive material was placed in unlined pits and shafts, and covered with dirt. Some of this material is being exhumed and contamination is being addressed. 15 nuclear reactors have operated at the lab over the years.

723 Notices along the southern edge of the lab, where, even more so, the natural scenery seems at odds with the history. CLUI photo

724 CLUI photo

As we head eastward, leaving the lab behind us, we think lingering thoughts about the waste up on the hill, looming above White Rock, and the broader extent of radioactivity scattered around the planet. This material, the product and byproduct of the atomic age that originated here a mere 65 years ago, dominated our foreign policy, economics, and culture since the moment it was birthed at Trinity, and it will continue to do so, guiding our fate, indefinitely. Our technology and industry has expanded into geologic time, global scale, and galactic resonances. Los Alamos’ lingering legacy will stay with the world for hundreds of thousands of years, likely beyond the life of mankind, cleaving half-lives clicking away under buried mounds and trapezoidal waste pyramids. The end of the process has just begun.

On the way down the mesa, the way we came, we watch Ellen Spiro’s spirited documentary about Atomic Ed Grothus, and his monument to waste, the Black Hole. Everything goes in, and nothing comes out. Grothus’ grave humor is the humanist conscience that short circuits all rationalizing of the Bomb. If only it were that simple. Maybe it is, he says.

We approach Santa Fe, and this time go through town, instead of around it, first passing by graveyards and shopping centers, heading for the core of this historic city. Santa Fe is a spatiotemporal axis, and a three-dimensional American history lesson. It was established in 1609 as the northern limit of the Spanish colonial empire in the new world. This line, extending from south to north, ends at the preserved Plaza in the middle of town, the northern terminus of the Camino Real. Next to the Plaza is La Fonda, now a fancy hotel, which marked the end of the Santa Fe Trail, the historic migratory artery from Missouri established in 1792. This east/west axis of territorial settlement meets the north/south axis of the Spanish, at the Plaza.

The bus snakes through the city to 109 East Palace Avenue, on the other side of the Plaza from La Fonda, in the heart of Santa Fe. It was here where a third axis of American History emerged, maybe the techno-time axis. This was the door that the scientists were directed to knock on when they arrived in 1943, to be checked in by Dorothy McKibben, hired by Oppenheimer to be the gatekeeper of Los Alamos’ rabbit hole. The office is now an art gallery, of course.

The bus heads out of town through the galleries and adobe colonial style homogeny of the city (where it seems Sotheby’s is Santa Fean for For Sale). We travel on the now paved and urbanized Old Santa Fe Trail and the Old Pecos Trail, then back on Interstate 25, the Atomic Highway, northbound, on a stretch of highway that, curiously, goes south. We exit at Highway 285 and head into the countryside, passing the isolated but oddly cosmopolitan town of Lamy, connected by rail to places like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City. Lamy is the closest train station to Santa Fe, where the scientists coming to Los Alamos disembarked. Today the Amtrak stops at a small station that looks like a version of itself, but is the real thing. Amtrak today is favored by foreign tourists, who, coming from places like Japan or Europe or India, think that taking a train is a normal and sensible way to see the country. No doubt when the train makes its brief stop at Lamy, these tourists gaze out the window with a sense that the anachronism of the American West is still intact.

Such is the case as we continue into the Galisteo Basin, where the Old West is sufficiently alive to attract numerous Hollywood productions. Behind the adobe walls of Galisteo and in the hills around town, renowned artists such as Bruce Nauman and Nancy Holt have chosen this place, above all, to live and to work. The sky opens wider here, attracting exotics and visionaries, like the spiritual healer Chris Griscom, who established the Light Institute, north of town, as a center for multi-incarnational exploration.

After winding through as much of the adobe labyrinth of the tiny hamlet of Galisteo as we could with a giant white tour bus (residents no doubt are aware of the value of low trees, electric wires, and weight-limited bridges as defense from such interlopers), we headed south, past the writer Lucy Lippard’s house (author of The Lure of the Local, and other books about place and art), past the fairgrounds where shooting had recently wrapped for Did You Hear About the Morgans, a film about two displaced Manhattanites who make comedic adjustment to living out west. We turn around at the remote and remote controlled gate to the fashion designer Tom Ford’s 24,000 acre ranch, where “New Western” films such as The Missing, Appaloosa, and 3:10 to Yuma were shot, and where Ford is apparently most at home: he commissioned the architect Tadao Ando to design both his house, and his mausoleum.

725 Tom Ford’s ranch’s well designed gate: a good place to turn a tour bus around. CLUI photo

726 Galisteo River Overlook in Cerrillos, the only plaque in town. CLUI photo

Rather than continuing south on Highway 41, we took the Camino Los Abuelos west out of town. After passing outdoor sculpture studios and outlying homes, the road turned to dirt. Near the house that Burl Ives lived in for many years, we encountered a stream crossing the road, which the bus driver, Joe Villarobos, summoned up the courage to cross. We crossed the tracks for the new Railrunner commuter train which runs between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, then hit highway 14, heading south. We passed more roadside outdoor sculpture, then turned into the town of Cerrillos, looped around, and parked outside Mary’s Bar. The locals scattered at the sight of the bus.

Mary’s is one of those rare ancient places that transcends authenticity. Though there is a bar along one wall, boxes and debris fill most of the space, so just a few people can be in there at once, and it’s usually the same few people. If there is artificial lighting, it goes unnoticed. Mary Trujillo, a local legend, who some say is more than 100 years old, comes out of the kitchen in back to greet us and to sell beer. The rest of the group wanders around this weird anachronistic town.

Cerrillos was a mining town laid out in 1880 by the Santa Fe Railroad. Gold, silver, lead, and zinc, were all mined around here, and later coal. The Tiffany Company of New York operated the largest of several turquoise mines here, and the corridor along Highway 14 is still called the Turquoise Trail, though commercial turquoise operations are now very small. Some call Cerrillos a ghost town, but it is nearly completely occupied, with weekenders and creative types hidden amongst the ramshackle relic of a town with so much integrity that its main street has survived the art department make-overs of the movies shot here, like Young Guns. Cerrillos feels affluently poverty stricken, preserved by obstinance. The families that have lived here layer-on the generations, in modest homes that are now either worth a million dollars or a million cents, with little change, except the world around them.

Back on the bus, and south on Highway 14, we pass yet more outdoor roadside sculpture, and soon end up at a local epicenter of roadside craft and creativity, Madrid. The town was built by the Albuquerque and Cerrillos Coal company in 1906, and once had a population of 4,000 people. When coal was replaced by gas and electricity, the town emptied out. Never completely abandoned, the town, halfway between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, was preserved and became known as a cheap and fun place to live, attracting hippies, exurbanists and creative types. Though main street is now a bit of a local crafts tourist shopping spree, Madrid still has its crazy charm, and wild side. The road house in the middle of town is a favorite stop for bikers, and for movies. From Easy Rider, which was filmed in Madrid, to its mundane update Wild Hogs, shot here a few years ago, this town spans the era of the modern New Mexico cinematic.

The phenomenon of a place becoming a version of itself is the essence and essential outcome of tourism (recall the Heisenberg principle). When the cinematic depiction of place is compounded on top of this, things get even more fuzzy. A new kind of meta-place authenticity can emerge, one that combines self-conscious rehistory and filmic narrative, converging continuities and coalescing into mythic potentials. This is what’s happening all over New Mexico as the film industry moves through it. Through the Sagan-inspired Contact, the Very Large Array becomes a search for a heavenly Father. And here, in Madrid, the slag pile behind town is where David Bowie fell to earth.

When Director Nicholas Roeg brought his all-British film crew to New Mexico in 1975 to shoot The Man Who Fell to Earth, they probably felt like aliens. The film is a kind of cosmic tour through the state, shot all over. The narrative is evocative of the conditions of the place, the high-tech land of enchantment, where the sun burns through the skin.

The movie stars David Bowie as an alien (a few years after Ziggy Stardust). He crashes his spaceship into earth, landing safely with a splash in a lake (shot at Jemez Lake, on the other side of the caldera from Los Alamos), and then stumbles down the slag heap of Madrid, and wanders around, getting oriented. He has a fedora, an angled posture, and a gaunt head, with riveting eyes. He looks, remarkably, like J. Robert Oppenheimer. His character’s name, Newton, is also that of a scientist, though of an earlier era, the discoverer of gravity. Bowie/Newton has special technological knowledge that he brings from the advanced society of his home planet. His home planet is drying up in a blistering sun, and his people are dying from a lack of water. He is here to try to save them, but he fails.

As the bus passes the slag heap of Madrid, we begin the film, with Bowie/Newton crashing into the lake and lumbering down the slag heap of Madrid. The bus lumbered, too, back towards Albuquerque.

Passing the big cement pit on I-40, a source for so much of the construction of the city, and entering the sprawl from the west, a passage is read from V.B. Price’s book Albuquerque: A City at the End of the World, that concludes, “Remote, endangered, at the end of the world, Albuquerque has survived the postwar boom, scarred and diminished, but with an authentic future still within its grasp.”

Then we pull off the highway, heading back to the Albuquerque Museum. The end of Dr. Strangelove plays on the monitors overhead: the nuclear tests of Bikini detonate as Vera Lynn sings the World War II tune, and the bus sings along too: “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when. But I’m sure we’ll meet again some sunny day . . .”