The Original Radioactive Desert

Walking the world’s first nuclear ground zero

It makes sense that the military uses New Mexico to practice blowing things up. The state is miles and miles of empty desert, practically a wasteland already.

That’s easy to forget when you live in Albuquerque, a city bursting with turquoise and chile and drivers who cut you off at intersections. When I hit I-25 South on the morning of April 2, I met a fair amount of traffic in the downtown area — signs of civilization.

Within an hour, though, I was in a moonscape of mesas and blindingly blue sky.

Signs of life reappeared briefly when I pulled off the highway in San Antonio, but from there another twelve miles of road unwound barrenly eastward. I might’ve missed the turnoff for the White Sands Missile Range if not for the sudden burst of color and activity at its corner: protesters.

“We are the Tul — ” Their placards blurred past too quickly for me to finish reading them. So it goes in the southern half of the state: Expanses of nothing, then a burst of an event that passes before it’s understood.

Seventy-one years have passed since the Manhattan Project culminated in the globe’s first nuclear blast, which lit up southern New Mexico’s pre-dawn darkness on July 16, 1945. The test was code-named Trinity, mastermind J. Robert Oppenheimer’s poetic nod to that which most Westerners held to be all-powerful.

Theology aside, the name fits. Three sites labored for years as the creative forces in the Manhattan Project. Hanford, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos constituted a powerful triumvirate.

It took a fourth site and a single day to blow it all up. Even as he acknowledged the project’s trio of creators, Oppenheimer declared himself a fourth deity after Trinity’s stunning, history-making explosion: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Waiting in line at the security checkpoint to enter White Sands Missile Range

The Tularosa Downwinders and their unreadable signs disappeared in my rearview as I drove another five miles to a security checkpoint. I’d reached the northern edge of White Sands and was crossing into army land. A guard checked my state-issued ID card and waved me through with a warning: no photography allowed for the next seventeen miles.

Depending who you ask, the Trinity site is either sacred ground or sacrilegious. Either way it’s significant, though you wouldn’t know it at a glance. Yucca and dry grass extended flatly as far as the eye could see, and the terrain didn’t change as I rolled deeper and deeper into the missile range. My tires churned up trails of dust and pinged the car’s undercarriage with a steady hail of gravel.

Only when I arrived at the dirt parking area did a feature appear, a chain-link fence fastened with yellow panels at regular intervals: “CAUTION: RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS.”

Despite a clean-up in the 1960s, this patch of desert is indeed still slightly radioactive. The blast created a 30-foot-wide crater plated with bubbly green-tinged glass, lumps and shards that formed when the detonation flung sand into the air and melted it on the way down. Most of this glass was scraped into barrels and carted away decades ago. The rest was buried under a fresh layer of dirt that blends seamlessly into the surrounding terrain. Nowadays the ambient radiation is about ten times the levels found elsewhere — not enough to harm anyone, just enough to make you laugh nervously.

I parked and the let that slightly-radioactive dust settle around the tires before popping open the doors. The sun was still climbing overhead, but even at mid-morning the place was crowded with visitors.

The Trinity site is located smack in the middle of the nation’s largest military installation, 3,200 square miles used for regular missile tests. For this reason it’s closed to the public 363 days a year. Once in April and again in October the gates are opened to caravans of sedans, pickups, and SUVs. Army staff install a series of port-a-potties just downwind from a concessions stand serving up hot dogs and hamburgers. Park, walk, purchase if you will, take a piss, and you’re all set to visit the blast site.

An aerial photo of Trinity’s ground zero taken 28 days after the blast

Ground zero itself is a short walk down a dirt path that was busy with tourists in all the shapes, sizes, and outfits you’d expect at Disneyland. Dogs trotted along, tongues lolling, as their owners read aloud from free brochures. Others merely spouted what they thought they knew: “So this is where it all happened in 1946,” I heard one man tell his wife. Another, pointing to a mock-up of the iconic Fat Man casing dropped on Nagasaki, leaned close to his son. “See that? That’s the bomb they blew up here.”

Nope. A series of signs set the record straight for those who cared to read them: the Trinity explosion of 1945 occurred in a “gadget,” a great metal sphere with external wiring mounted on a 100-foot steel tower. Its plutonium core went critical with such power that it blew out windows and collapsed ceilings in the ranch house where its hemispheres had been assembled two miles away.

In fact, per that free brochure, “The shock wave broke windows 120 miles away and was felt by many at least 160 miles away.”

I thought of my morning’s drive from Albuquerque 130 miles to the north. Even at highway speeds the trip took over two hours. A nuclear blast’s shockwave would blow back at the speed of sound and break my home’s windows in less than ten minutes.

I am become Death, the destroyer…

Buried beneath our feet were the scraped-out remains of that glassy green crater; all around us, the air carried hints of alpha radiation. But there was no tangible evidence that a bomb had detonated here. All we visitors could do was mill around in the wide-open dirt. That, and line up to snap photos with the twelve-foot black obelisk that now distinguishes ground zero from the ground around it.

Visitors pose with the twelve-foot obelisk that marks the exact location of the blast

I chose not to pose with it. What would be the point? Instead I watched others. Some were solemn, holding up family memorabilia for the camera, but most just flung an arm around a spouse and grinned as if they were mugging with Mickey Mouse. Click. There go my windows back home. Another pair shuffled into position, and in the ten seconds they took I imagined a purple-green cloud mushrooming up around us, roaring outward and roasting the scrubland.

Back at the parking area a fleet of white buses lined up to shuttle visitors to the McDonald ranch house, whose windows and ceilings have been restored to their pre-blast state. A crew of young, clean-cut soldiers in desert fatigues directed foot traffic. Queen and David Bowie jangled tinnily over the sound system as we slowly rumbled along those two miles from ground zero to the assembly site.

The ranch house is small and empty aside from a few signs captioning black-and-white photos. Floorboards creaked as people paced from room to room.

When I reemerged on the front porch an elderly man was hobbling his way up the ramp, huddled over his walker. A woman in the yard called for him to turn at the top and smile for a photo. That’s when his baseball cap caught my eye: a deep navy blue with the words “WWII Veteran.” The pale flesh around his eyes crinkled up, merging liver spots and revealing a toothy grin. She snapped the picture and jogged up to join him.

In this man’s lifetime the world entered the atomic age, shivered through a Cold War with ever-hotter nukes, and negotiated an uneasy stalemate of stockpiles. For years in the middle there many Americans were sure they’d meet their doom in a hail of Soviet thermonuclear missiles. How would it have felt to visit the Trinity site forty or sixty years ago? Would civilians have smiled dumbly by the obelisk? Would vets feel fiercer or more afraid walking this sacred/sacrilegious ground?

These days atomic detonations feel more like a novelty to visit than a real threat. Fat Man bombs seem oafish alongside drones’ precision strikes and hackers’ cyber-attacks. Wars are fought in labs and offices now, controlled long-distance by calculated clicks.

Compare that to the brawn and bulk, heft and sweat of the workers depicted in the photos at ground zero and the ranch house. Compare that to the heat and dust we inhaled as we traipsed around this slightly radioactive site for an hour and a half, a road trip removed from civilization’s fragile windows.

Military vehicles surrounded the site’s visitors on the ground and in the air

There’s only so much to see at the cleaned-up Trinity site, and soon I packed it in. After driving the seventeen miles back to the edge of army territory and another five to the turnoff, I passed the protestors a second time. Most of them had dispersed. Some of their signs were stacked face-in against the side of a pickup. I did catch a glimpse of the words “COMPENSATION ACT” in passing, but no one waved them aggressively my way as they had when I arrived.

Back to the desert highway, then. Back to civilization and the comfortable opportunity to put all this out of sight, out of mind once more. So it goes as time passes: Clouds and crowds alike disperse, dirty glass is scraped from dirt and clean glass is re-fit into window frames. I drove the many miles home, carrying a touch of old radiation in my bones and a few new photos in my phone.