In 1967, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory introduced five bison to their grounds. A rumor was spread among some locals that the bison served as an elaborate system of mammalian alarms to warn scientists if radiation had reached dangerously high levels — a “canary in a coal mine” type of situation, the bison calling and bleating when they felt an onset of nausea. This denotes a misunderstanding of radiation, a misunderstanding of bison, or perhaps a base understanding of both radiation and bison, but a misunderstanding of how the two function in relation to each other.
The area surrounding it was mostly populated by farmers and the wives of farmers. They grew corn, they kept dairy cows, they watched from their backyards the construction of a poured-concrete administrative building — the structure of which was inspired by the criss-cross of a DNA strand. Adjacent to that, a multicolored geodesic dome perched on a concrete block — an igloo for neutrinos to live.
Despite the sidelong glances and crackpot theories, people knew the construction of FermiLab was necessary in its own way. The decision to vote an entire township (Weston, IL) out of existence to make room for FermiLab was met with little resistance. The community quietly assimilated into Batavia, IL, and despite the murmurs of confusion and occasionally apprehensive talk, FermiLab was born.
In Illinois, especially in the suburbs, high school aged people drink in each other’s basements until they are old enough to move to Chicago. I did not drink at the time (and still don’t), and I didn’t have an interest in college, so I did not have much to do.
Friends fluctuated in and out of my life, moving away for college and coming back for the summer. I stayed the same, anchored in my parents’ basement.
Having nobody to spend time with, I got stranger and stranger, like a lost mushroom. I was at my worst in the 11th grade. My thoughts got increasingly abstract and I understood myself less and less. I never spent time around people. I wore all silver and sat in the parking lot of the gas station. I collected railroad spikes and listened to my shortwave radio.
My life turned around when I was given a car when I graduated. Having a car allowed me to perceive where I was as being more than the town surrounding my high school. I saw it as a system that I was able to explore.
I spent a lot of time driving around Illinois, driving towards and away from malls but never to malls, to diners and the departure gates at O’Hare airport. I felt something in me slowly turning over and falling away. The sense of stagnation I felt gradually evaporated.
When my parents separated when I was 19, half of my life got uprooted and replanted ten minutes from the entrance of FermiLab in my mom’s new house. I discovered it when I was going for a drive. I remembered taking a trip there in middle school. I have a picture of me in a classroom there, listening to a scientist talk about wildflowers in the area.
I can say with certainty that my life turned around when I rediscovered FermiLab. Its proximity to me was invigorating. The unknown structures excited me. Above all, it became the place I went to run.
I would listen to Beethoven and Gershwin and Stan Getz and stop to eat pretzels out of my backpack. I ran the 4.6 mile Tevatron ring, a now defunct circular particle accelerator that is marked by a massive concrete ring of pavement.
I became intimately familiar with the curves of the roads and the landmarks around the loop of the Tevatron. I ran so often that I was able to take stock of the scientist’s cars. I knew who was where on a given day — green Volvo at the auditorium at 3 PM every day (janitor?), white minivan with BABY ON BOARD sticker in front of the first house in the residential neighborhood for scientists (mother? father?).
One of the last warm days before I moved from my mom’s house to Chicago, I went for a final run at FermiLab. I walked there slowly, stopping at the family-owned gas station on the corner for a bottle of water and a package of peanuts.
They check for your ID when you walk through the gate. You have to tell them what you are doing there, even if it is just “taking a walk” or “taking my dog for a walk” or what have you. They either say “OK,” and they wave you through, or they glance at your photo, and then at you, and then at your photo again, hand your ID back and say “OK”, and wave you through.
It’s a bright and clear day. The sky is wide and blue. My jogging shorts ripple in a strong wind that sparkles with anticipation. The security guard smiles at me and my ID, and asks what I’m doing. “I’m going for a run,” I say. We both laugh. I don’t think we’re sure why. I feel incredible.
The Midwest has a way of turning things into magic. The world I grew up in was devoid of what most people would consider culture, but I know better. It’s there. It’s in strip malls late at night. Churches off the highway with big LED crosses that glow into the early morning. Malls that are getting tired of bustling, empty movie theaters that are too big for the town they’re in, 24 hour diners staffed by tired mothers with pies on platters dusted with glittering sugar. It’s at rest stops on the way to St. Louis or Indianapolis, ticking away all the time with no attendants in sight.
FermiLab is that principle amplified by a thousand. It’s a place that does what is necessary but on a massive scale. It’s the biggest diner in the world, staffed by dipoles and power lines and booster rings and geodesic spheres. It’s the harbinger of the fate of mankind, nestled quietly between a Wal-Mart and a Target.
I don’t warm up today. I bolt so furiously forward that I almost trip. I run past the clusters of technicolor houses where the on-site scientists live, the little concrete whatnots of a grander purpose than I can ever fathom. I run past a man in a jumpsuit holding a white clipboard — I wonder what he’s up to? He stares at the dials at the base of a dipole.
I run past the field I drove to and screamed in when I learned my grandfather died. I run past a terraformed pond stocked with fish that I joked about once with my dad having psychic powers and the ability to fly. I run past the field I got my car stuck in, past the little garden I took a 4th grade field trip to.
I stop and hunch over and breathe jagged breaths in front of the bison. The mother bison looks up at the noise I make. A baby bison at her feet looks up at her mom looking up. Then, they are looking at me both. The neutrino dome regards us all quietly.
I get a text from my mom asking me to pick up some milk from the grocery store near her house. “Sure,” I say. “Be home soon.”
I give everything a last look. Five minutes to the grocery store, and five minutes to my mom. There’s no final goodbye to a place ten minutes from your mother’s bed. I turn to the gates. I run towards them without ceremony.