Seventy-five years ago, the government detonated the first atomic bomb sixty miles north of White Sands National Park, New Mexico, lighting up the Trinity test site. A blast-containment canister named Jumbo (designed by the Los Alamos lab), made to ride in on a custom-built 64-wheel trailer and save the precious plutonium if detonation failed, cost $12 million but never saw actual service; ultimately, Manhattan Project officials had sufficient confidence in the detonation process. Because 4,000 pounds of bombs couldn’t destroy him when he was no longer needed, Jumbo’s remains now live at the Trinity site, and human civilization lives confident in the power of nuclear detonation. The military still uses the area for various testing.
When I was a sophomore in high school, a teacher assigned John Hersey’s Hiroshima. I can still remember sitting at my table in wood shop waiting for class to start (honestly, dreading class, but that’s a different story), reading about humans turning into something like vapor shadows, and feeling this terrible, physical reaction to the book. Driving past White Sands Missile Range now (too late in the afternoon to make a stop at the museum there worthwhile), I couldn’t help but think of everything this strategically unwasted wasteland means.
The Army’s approximately 3,200 square miles here mean this military installation qualifies as the U.S.’s largest. But at White Sands National Park itself (where we were glad for the relatively late hour and the sun resting a bit lower in the sky), just down the road from the base, this desert of gypsum and alkali means families with little kids, parents purchasing bright plastic saucer sleds to watch little ones race down dunes that resemble either snow or whatever would be left of the world post-nuclear holocaust. Sure, it means warnings not to touch “strange objects” (that could be debris from missile tests) because they could explode (rather, note their location and tell a ranger, a park-website warning reads). It’s wind, unrelenting, unstopping, unlistening, uncaring wind, and vistas that make me wonder how some pioneer from Boston, running from debt and bad choices, would have felt in their conestoga, watching their water supply dwindle and wondering if they had stumbled upon Hell.
It’s a $25/vehicle entrance fee to gaze out and feel very small, very organic, and very expendable. Insignificant indeed. It’s my Bosun running up a dune, taking my picture, laughing ... reminding me that, to him, I’m not.
(Quite the dramatic change of scenery—and temperature—as we drove through Cloudcroft, New Mexico, at something close to 8,500 feet.)