Culling the Cul-De-Sac
MONTHS WERE SPENT SEARCHING FOR just the right place to put the CLUI New Mexico Exhibit Unit. Once found, however, at the end of Los Picaros Road, in the crack in the land formed by the Tijeras, there was no doubt that it had to be exactly where it ended up.
To the north is the southern limit of the great sprawl of Albuquerque, perched on the mesa beyond the airport. The airport (or Sunport, as it is called), is shared with Kirtland Air Force Base, a major nuclear weapons and R&D base, and Sandia National Lab, whose principal testing grounds lie to the east. South of the site is Mesa del Sol, an empty mesa awaiting one of the largest master-planned developments in the West.
The new roadway connecting the Sunport to Mesa del Sol flies over the valley, and over its only artery, Los Picaros Road, without a traffic interchange. The Tijeras is a forgotten eddy, and the CLUI exhibit unit is at the end of that eddy.
To get there from downtown, you have to get onto Broadway, and head south, until things break down. You pass the closest thing Albuquerque has to a refinery, the Western Refining Company’s terminal, which is connected to pipelines, and supplies much of the automotive fuel to the region. Then, suitably perhaps, come the junkyards. The southern end of Broadway has one of the largest concentrations of automotive scrapyards in the country. Before they play out on the fragmenting southern extreme of the city’s periphery, you turn east on Bobby Foster Road (named after a professional boxer from South Albuquerque, who later became a policeman), and pass over Interstate 25, the great north/south artery of the West. Then a left turn puts you at the start of Los Picaros Road, and three miles from its other end.
A boat junk yard is the first place you pass, where dying high and dry fiberglass hulks crack in the desert sun, far from the nearest navigable body of water (at Elephant Butte reservoir, a hundred miles down the Rio Grande.) The road then turns away from the Rio Grande Valley, and heads east, up this dry tributary, the Tijeras, whose periodic drainage floods makes chaotic cliffs out of its unlined bed, like a miniature version of the larger canyon landscapes of the West. In and around the are off-highway vehicle recreation areas, whose tracks and trails denude the hills and dales of vegetation. The road continues, with clean new pavement, provided, begrudgingly and after the fact, by the production company of the latest Terminator movie, which was shot here due to the limited traffic, and post-natural futuristic look.
After passing under University Avenue, the inaccessible access road connecting Mesa del Sol to the rest of Albuquerque, the next intersection is a road that heads north up the mesa, to the back gate of Kirtland Air Force Base and its underground nuclear weapons depot near the airport runway. Before the guard station, a small turn-off eastward heads to a blasted fenced compound of old trailers and truck beds that was once a police farm (whatever that is).
Different government agencies have operated in the over the years. Odd shaped cement pads are scattered throughout the scrub, remnants of former uses and gone buildings. A fenced lot with a large quonset hut is now used as a heavy equipment training center for a journeyman and engineer union. Nearby, a loosely fenced plot of land is a city-run off-leash dog exercise area, with cement tubes and other obstacles for canine play. Next to that is a Frisbee golf area, the Brent Baca Memorial Disc Golf Course, which incorporates concrete and wood debris into that human playground.
The land here at the end of the road is owned by the City of Albuquerque, and managed as Montessa Park, though it remains a land of many uses. Across from the Frisbee golf course is a large waste transfer station, and this is the reason for most of the traffic on the road. Next to that is the City of Albuquerque’s Bio-Disease Management Facility, a few metal sheds and offices hosting operations related to abating mosquito and rodent vectors, like West Nile, plague, tularemia, and hantavirus, including a pond for keeping mosquito larvae-eating fish, which are distributed for free to the public.
Across the way is the Mobilization Center, a parking lot with adjacent meeting rooms used as a staging area for emergencies involving sudden influxes of groups of people, such as wildfires, and whatever else. This facility is part of the fenced compound that houses the offices of the City’s Open Space Division, which manages 28,000 acres of space around the edges of the city. In Albuquerque, which grew quickly and without much of a plan, there is no Central Park. Instead, there is a system of mostly undeveloped city land on the edges of the sprawl that serve as peripheral parks, managed by the Open Space Division. It is this department that has kindly allowed the CLUI Exhibit Unit to occupy a fenced area next to their gate, at the end of Los Picaros Road.
Beyond the Open Space Division compound (a former Forest Service headquarters), are a few shooting ranges, operated by the police department, and by the private Zia Rifle and Pistol Club. As usual, firing ranges represent the true end of the road. The continues eastward, but the road does not. For beyond the ranges (which shoot southward into the edge of Mesa del Sol), is the fence for the edge of Kirtland Air Force Base and Sandia Base.
Kirtland and Sandia are the largest employers and economic entities in Albuquerque. Beyond its role as a nuclear-equipped Air Force Base, Kirtland is one of the principal high-tech R&D bases in the Air Force. Beyond the fence in the are the bulk of the active munition storage facilities for the base, and a number of test facilities used to study the effects of electromagnetic radiation on military equipment such as aircraft, including two adjacent sites known as the Trestle, and ARES. Visible as an extension off the edge of the mesa above the Arroyo, the Trestle is built of wood to limit the interference that a metallic structure would produce, and is the largest such structure in the world. Over 10 million volts of electromagnetic radiation can be generated here, simulating the effect of the pulse produced by a nuclear explosion.
Beyond that, and extending for a few miles east and south of the main base at Kirtland is the R&D field test area for the Air Force Research Lab and Sandia National Lab (Sandia is the third of the three atomic weapons labs, and the one historically charged with making deployable weapons out of the devices built by the two others, Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos.) One of the most unusual and diversified field test sites in the nation, the 25 square mile zone is littered with unusual and singular test structures related to weapons and nuclear technologies. Sandia’s Technical Areas 3 and 5 cover a rectangular area on the west side, where facilities include a 10,000 foot long rocket test track for studying accidents involving nuclear weapons and enclosures. The northeast area is dominated by the former nuclear weapons storage and work site inside the Manzano Mountains. The Air Force’s satellite surveillance facility at the Starfire Optical Range is at the southeast end, and the southern end includes Sandia’s solar energy research area, a small radar cross section range, and a biological lab for Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute (which began at this site as the Fission Product Inhalation Laboratory).
A good, though distant, view of Sandia Base can be had a short distance from the CLUI Field Unit. A road that forks off of Los Picaros, behind the waste transfer station and next to the shooting ranges, climbs the edge of the Mesa del Sol. Arriving at the top of the mesa, the road curves to the right and dead-ends at the gate of Albuquerque Dragway, a dragstrip used on some Saturdays. Before the road curves to the right, there is a gate that is rarely locked, which enters onto publicly-owned land. Turn left once inside, and you pass some FAA antennas, and eventually reach the perimeter fence of Sandia Base, on roads that are rough, but passable to most reasonably high clearance vehicles. Nearby, and a good site to get the full panorama of the land, is the Mark 17 Broken Arrow site.
It was here in May of 1957 that a thermonuclear bomb fell out of an airplane and landed on Mesa del Sol. The hydrogen bomb, a Mark 17 model, was one of the largest and most powerful weapons ever made by the United States. It was 24 feet long, weighed 42,000 pounds and had a design yield of 15 to 20 megatons of TNT, 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bombs used in World War II. The bomb fell through the closed bomb bay doors of the plane, which was approaching Kirtland at an altitude of 1,700 feet. The bomb was destroyed on impact. Though a chain reaction was impossible, as the plutonium pits were stored separately on the plane, the accident spread radioactive parts over a wide area. The Air Force cleaned up the site in secret, though fragments of the bomb—some mildly radioactive still—can be found in the area. It is one of more than 30 known “Broken Arrow” incidents involving the accidental loss or destruction of a nuclear weapon, but one of only a handful of such sites in the USA that can be visited. Little visible remains, except in aerial images that show the spread and the area where soil was removed and replaced. A post from a descriptive marker erected by the CLUI in 1996 remains as a mute version of its former self.
Southward, the mesa continues, until the next sculpts its southern edge. Westward, a few large sheds are the proto-business park of the impending development known as Mesa del Sol. The project, taking place in what was empty space a few years ago, may one day have as many as 38,000 homes, where currently there are none, with a Peter Colthorpe-designed city center. So far two solar panel manufacturing plants have been built, signaling the “green economy” of the Mesa of the Sun. Also up here is Albuquerque Studios, the largest film and television production facility in the state, built as the anchor business for the Mesa del Sol development. Next to it is the information, sales, and administrative center for the project. Though mostly vacant, the shell of the unusual building has been finished, and awaits the future. ♦