A road trip through New Mexico’s atomic past

As nuclear tourism booms in the Land of Enchantment, histories of violence are packaged, sold and consumed.

Luna Anna Archey/High Country News


Refueling sixteen-wheelers, a cloudless blue sky and an asphalt parking lot that blurs into the brown scrub beyond the intersection of two highways: If you’re headed north from White Sands National Monument up to Santa Fe, as we were, you’ll hit the Clines Corners rest stop. For a hundred miles, billboards prime you: “Souvenirs,” “Indian Pottery,” “Fireworks,” “99-cent Coffee.” At the junction of Interstate 40 and U.S. Route 285, the iconic gas-station-diner-gift shop is an oasis of respite and kitsch. “Worth stopping for since 1934,” the signs say. We needed gas, coffee, restrooms, a chance to stretch our legs. It was Black Friday.

The gift shop is the size of a warehouse. Its walls and aisles are bursting: hundreds of hot pink and neon-green dreamcatchers, Minnetonka moccasins, “I Want to Believe” posters from the X-files, “Zuni jewelry,” Mexican blankets woven in every imaginable color, T-shirts, bumper stickers declaring: “Police Lives Matter,” “Heritage not Hate,” “One Nation under God.” For $1, you can have a fortune generated by a stern-faced Medicine Man in a glass case. Even if you don’t buy anything, the fever dream stays with you, living out a half-life under your skin.


We settled on a chocolate bar and two massive cups of coffee and were back on the road. We were on an “atomic tourism” road trip. Our rented Kia Soul was strewn with camping gear, groceries and lots of sand. We’d wanted to get out of the Bay Area for a little while, away from its tech fantasies and housing crunches. Leaving the birthplace of the microchip and Google, we came to see where the atomic bomb was born. Both of us were intrigued by New Mexico’s nuclear past and with how that legacy has been branded, packaged and sold. That history seemed a dark undercurrent to the “Land of Enchantment” celebrated on the license plates in front of us. As we accelerated back onto the highway, a trio of military jets flew overhead, out over the desert.

Tourism and destruction aren’t easily separated here, especially after the invention of the atom bomb. From the road signs marking pueblos and Indian reservations, to patches of radioactive rabbitbrush in Bajo Canyon, New Mexico’s cracked and cratered landscapes are riddled with violent histories, nuclear secrets, veins of turquoise and silver.

The farther you drive, the more it fuses together in the Sangre de Cristo mountain light, a place where alien conspiracy theories on the radio are as eagerly received as the sacrament. Where thickly forested landscapes are punctuated with dusty arroyos, and linear particle accelerators are built on plateaus above centuries-old Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings. It was this enchanting mess that pulled us to the place where the atom was split, to create the world’s first nuclear weapon. As we squinted down the highway, we saw a chain reaction of violence, ricocheting across the desert of history.

June 1598. Juan de Oñate leads a group of Spanish conquistadors north along the Camino Real, across an unforgiving stretch of the Jornada del Muerto desert. When they reach the desert’s northern edge, they receive food and water from the Piro Indians of the Teypana Pueblo. They rename the pueblo Socorro, meaning “help” or “aid.”

January 1599. Oñate and his conquistadors kill 800 men, women and children at Acoma Pueblo, 60 miles west of what is now Albuquerque. Those who survive are sold into slavery. On Oñate’s orders, the right foot of 24 male prisoners is amputated.

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We had just come from White Sands National Monument, an unending, undulating terrain of blindingly white sand dunes. To the west, just over the San Andres Mountains, lies the Jornada del Muerto, or “Journey of the Dead.” It was in that desert, just 60 miles from where we camped at White Sands, that the U.S. Army conducted the world’s first detonation of a nuclear device on July 16, 1945. The test was code-named “Trinity” by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” director of the government’s Los Alamos Laboratory and Manhattan Project.

It happened at 5:29:45 a.m. Mountain War Time, just before sunrise. From our tent, the fireball would have been blinding, and we would have felt the shock of the blast, coming some seconds later. Witnesses described the explosion in terms of both beauty and terror, as brilliant, thunderous and menacing. Many saw the light turn from yellow to green to red to purple. Some experienced flash blindness. Oppenheimer recalled a verse from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.”

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Within milliseconds, the bomb liquified the sand into little chunks of greenish glass; in a flash of divine violence, trinitite — the first human-made mineral — was born. A reporter for Time magazine described the bomb’s crater as a lake of green jade, shaped like a splashy star. First reporters, and then the general public, flocked to the site (now only open two days a year) to collect these irradiated keepsakes. Today, it’s illegal to take pieces home, though you can find a small chunk online for $35.

There’s no trinitite in the White Sands National Monument gift shop, but you can buy vials of white sand. You are encouraged, as a visitor, to participate in the American pastime of pocketing land. And the land, as the National Park Service never tires of pointing out, is vast. White Sands National Monument sits on “the largest gypsum dunefield in the world,” spanning 275 square miles of “dazzling white sand dunes.” It is, according to the park’s website, “the perfect setting for commercial filming, photography, and various other art forms.” It’s disturbing to think that what happened in the New Mexico desert was somehow sanctioned by the desolation and awe of the landscape itself — a limitless canvas of swirling sand and searing light.

August 1680. Inflamed by decades of colonial treachery and abuse, Pueblo Indians from across Nuevo México rise up against the Spanish conquistadors. One of the main organizers is Popé, religious leader from the Tewa Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh. Popé’s Rebellion succeeds in driving out the Spaniards, who do not regain control of the province until 1692. That year, Diego de Vargas promises protection to the Pueblo Indians if they swear allegiance to the king of Spain and the Christian God. 

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Leaving White Sands, we passed through the Mescalero Reservation en route to Roswell. On the drive, we listened to a podcast that featured a “UFOlogist” who claimed that the famous 1947 Roswell UFO incident was not about extraterrestrial aliens at all. The aliens, he argued, were actually disabled Japanese patients who were used as test subjects. They’d been interned at Fort Stanton, a little over an hour outside Roswell, during World War II.

With so much of New Mexico’s military history classified, it’s hard to know what is true and what is not. But the state’s tourism department builds its own version of truth, under its own official brand, “New Mexico True.” The state’s website calls it an “authentic” experience, one that “isn’t about plastic replicas, papier-mâché attractions, or contrived adventures.”

But much of what we found was indeed contrived, papier-mâché’d replicas. Roswell — consistently voted one of the worst tourist traps in the U.S. — epitomizes this. One of the state’s poorest cities, it relies on its world-famous UFO industry. Driving up Main Street, you pass the International UFO Museum and Research Center, and a string of storefronts with vaguely extraterrestrial-sounding names: “Stellar Coffee,” “Cosmic Salad,” “Alien Invasion Tee Shirts.” The streetlights have slanted eyes and glow green at night. At the Roswell Walmart, cartoonish aliens painted on the windows beckon you in with long spindly fingers. 

July 1942. Two Japanese Americans, Toshiro Kobata and Hirota Isomura, are killed en route to the Lordsburg Internment Camp in New Mexico, where some 1,500 Japanese and Japanese Americans will be held by the end of WWII, shot in the back at close range by a sentry who sees them wandering off the road. It is possible that the two 58-year-old men were going to relieve themselves, since they had been denied the use of a restroom. The sentry is later acquitted of murder charges.

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We felt the change from Roswell to Los Alamos as we drove the 230 miles between them, finding up the mountains, ears popping with the elevation, temperatures dropping fast. We cranked up the heat and reached into the backseat for our jackets.

Perched over 7,300 feet above sea level, on four mesas on the Pajarito Plateau in northern New Mexico, Los Alamos is quiet, remote and beautiful — almost transcendental. It was the sublimity of Los Alamos that drew Robert Oppenheimer back to the area. He’d spent time here as a teenager — hiking, camping, riding horses, breathing in the clean mountain particles — to convalesce from a long illness. Years later, when the Manhattan Project needed a secluded location to create the first nuclear weapon, Oppenheimer returned.

Today, its fame as the birthplace of the atomic bomb makes Los Alamos seem like a likely hub of nuclear tourism. But since the Los Alamos National Laboratory is still fully operational, a rarefied air of secrecy and reserved professionalism persists. There are still gates, checkpoints and badges. As our tour guide, Georgia, would later explain to us, there is a deep ambivalence about tourism in the so-called “Secret City.” It hasn’t fully commercialized its past. It doesn’t need the money: The city is one of the wealthiest in the U.S., with the highest concentration of millionaires. Nested high up in the mountains, Los Alamos feels like it belongs to the sky.

We entered town on the main drag, Trinity Drive. It was around 8 p.m., and we were starving. But the streets were deserted and every restaurant closed. Even the local wine bar, UnQuarked, was … well, quarked. A quick search on Yelp revealed that the “Atomic Bar & Grill” was our best bet. We found the bar in the middle of a Smith’s grocery store, brightly lit, wedged between the deli and the produce. Three men were there drinking beers, watching Monday Night Football. We read down a list of sandwich names that included the “Manhattan Project” and “America the Flavorful,” but the place was no longer serving food. Instead, the bartender nodded toward the prepared foods — we could grab sushi and eat it at the bar.

In the morning, we visited the Los Alamos History Museum. Its first room tells the city’s history through a timeline, starting with the Ancestral Puebloans and ending with contemporary Los Alamos. There are two dates attached to the Puebloans: the 1150s, when they arrived on the plateau, and the 1550s, when, due to a drought, they left.

There was no other mention of the Ancestral Puebloans in the museum, let alone any reference to Indigenous people, aside from the expensive Native jewelry and pottery in the gift shop. Yet Los Alamos occupies land that was loaned to the U.S. government during World War II by the San Ildefonso Pueblo, with the agreement that it would be returned once the war ended. Obviously, it was not. This has been a source of distress and anger among neighboring pueblos, not only San Ildefonso, because the land is widely recognized as sacred. It is now toxic from decades of the lab dumping untreated radioactive waste and other materials into the Los Alamos canyons that flow into the Rio Grande. The timeline conceals other acts of violence, too: There is no mention of bombs actually being dropped; no Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Only 1943 — the start of the Manhattan Project — and 1945 — the end of World War II — are noted. The timeline segues right into the Cold War, when Los Alamos became “a thriving, internationally known town.”

May to July 1956. As part of Operation Redwing, the U.S. military conducts 17 nuclear test detonations in the Pacific Ocean, on the Bikini and Enewetak atolls. The tests are named Cherokee, Zuni, Yuma, Erie, Seminole, Blackfoot, Flathead, Osage, Inca, Dakota, Mohawk, Apache, Navajo, Huron. At 5 megatons, the most powerful detonation is Tewa, named for the Tewa people of northern New Mexico. 

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We were the only two people in Georgia’s yellow touring van that day, and though the tour was advertised as one and a half hours, it ended up being closer to four. Early on, she showed us her church, the United Church of Los Alamos, the town’s first, chartered in 1947. It featured some shockingly beautiful stained-glass work — exploding galaxies, supernovas, planets and black holes swirled in cobalt. The panes were made by Robert Brownlee, an astrophysicist who worked at the lab in Los Alamos for 37 years, executing and analyzing nuclear tests at Bikini and Eniwetok and at the Nevada Test Site.

As we stood before a window called “The Second Coming,” our stomachs dropped. In the center of five panels, amid a swirling convergence of blue ribbons of light, pointing upwards toward a white cross at the arched apex of the pane, was the yellow silhouette of what appeared to be the nuclear warhead Fat Man the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Fat Man killed 40,000 people in an instant, a number that doubled in the days, weeks and months that followed. The bomb was code-named Fat Man because of its round, wide shape, exactly the same as the silhouette in the stained glass. The small white circles surrounding it look like ball bearings shooting out.

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In describing the window, Brownlee writes about the Omega Point. In the Book of Revelation, Christ says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Brownlee sees the Omega Point as the final destination, where history and humanity are fated to spiral towards a point of divine unity, making “light from light.” Jesus becomes an “accelerator,” speeding up the complexity of atoms and consciousness, producing enough energy to escape the “heat death” of the universe.

The likeness between the Omega and Fat Man is unnerving. Whether Brownlee, the Christian nuclear scientist, meant to conjure Fat Man, seems impossible to know. We’d seen Fat Man on earrings and pins and hats, but not yet gracing the walls of a church.

August 1945. After attending an evening lecture, 24-year-old Los Alamos physicist Harry Daghlian returns to the remote Omega Site, where he’s been running experiments on a plutonium core. He has an idea that involves stacking tungsten carbide bricks around the silvery plutonium sphere.

Against official procedure, he works alone into the night, placing brick on brick, until one accidently slips from his hand.

It falls down into the core.

A flash of blue light fills the room. Daghlian feels a tingling. He will die 25 days later from acute radiation poisoning. After this and another accident in 1946, the core becomes known as the “demon core.” 

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After the tour, we headed down the mountain to Santa Fe. We were, in a way, retracing the same path that many Los Alamos scientists took back in 1945, after finding out that the Trinity test had been a “success.” Like us, they piled into cars and sped down to the famous La Fonda hotel on the Plaza. There, they drank and celebrated in the afterglow of the bomb. There was no feeling of guilt about Nagasaki or Hiroshima, at least not yet; that would happen later. This is something the museums never mentioned: Einstein’s regret, Oppenheimer’s despair, Otto Frisch’s feeling of “nausea” when he watched his friends in Los Alamos once again rush down to La Fonda, this time with news from Japan.

La Fonda continues to celebrate its role in this history. In conjunction with Santa Fe’s 2018 “Atomic Summer” programming, the hotel offered a one-night package: luxury accommodations, breakfast for two, admission to the nearby “Atomic Histories” exhibition, and a complimentary copy of Oppenheimer’s biography. We missed the special, but managed to book a discounted room with the slightest view of the mountains. As the night wound down and the lingerers at the bar tipped back the last of their martinis, we eyed the bartenders suspiciously. We’d heard that during the Manhattan Project, FBI agents infiltrated La Fonda’s staff. We kept up a spirit of secrecy, peering into empty ballrooms, tiptoeing across the lobby, with its hodgepodge of Mission-era altarpieces and Zuni animal fetishes, half looking for ghosts.

Before leaving town, we visited 109 East Palace, the Manhattan Project’s secret office, where new scientists would check in before making the journey to Los Alamos. The original gate is no longer there — we had seen its ominous, prison-style iron bars displayed in the Los Alamos History Museum. Instead, the new door was wide open. It’s now home to Chocolate and Cashmere, a boutique billing itself as a “celebration of the senses … a room painted like the inside of a chocolate wrapper; color and more color; everything is soft and oh so yummy.”

Outside, there’s a large mural of Oppenheimer. He’s silhouetted with pipe in hand, standing in the desert, a rainbow scarf billowing in the wind. He’s blowing smoke rings: They spell out “Chocolate + Cashmere.” Like everyone else, we took pictures.

Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

LuLing Osofsky is a writer, educator and Ph.D. student in visual studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Key MacFarlane is a geographer and a Ph.D. candidate in the history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Research Fund. 


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