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The Southwestern state was central to the development of nuclear weapons. When the testing ground for the first detonation recently reopened for visitors, a writer decided to confront that difficult history.

They say the sun rose twice over a corner of southern New Mexico on July 16, 1945. The first sunrise was produced by the detonation of a new weapon its makers had nicknamed “the gadget.” The actual sun rose 10 minutes later, dawning on a new era in human history.

The world’s first atomic bomb exploded that morning, launching the nuclear age, and foreshadowing the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki within the month.

Though the creation of the bomb was dubbed the Manhattan Project, much of its development took place in New Mexico, making it the nation’s premier nuclear state, with, today, weapons labs, a cache of nuclear weapons, a nuclear command center and atomic history around every butte. Some of the sites are off limits to the public, but it is possible to tour atomic New Mexico without getting irradiated or arrested.

The detonation site itself is known as Trinity Site, and it lies within the White Sands Missile Range, a 3,200-square-mile area of forbidden high desert, on a plateau of creosote and sand deep between two knife-sharp mountain ranges. The test site has traditionally been open to visitors two days a year, in spring and fall, but the pandemic put a temporary halt to any visits.

This fall, the United States Army announced that it would resume public visits, with the first open house scheduled for the second weekend of October. Against the geopolitical backdrop of the war in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s nuclear rhetoric, there’s no time like the present to think about our nuclear history, and I decided to make Trinity Site my first stop on an atomic tour of the state. The bomb project’s lead scientist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, named it Trinity after a John Donne poem about humanity, faith and submission to God.

The New Mexico landscape is eerily apropos to an atomic tour. Relics of primordial geological violence are everywhere: plunging rifts and canyons, volcanic calderas, ancient lava flow and a vast, surreal, white desert, almost lunar. Before 8 a.m. in the morning, a line of cars already snaked down the one-lane blacktop to the White Sands gate, where soldiers in Day-Glo yellow vests checked driver’s licenses for names on the foreign terrorist list.

A Sunday-market vibe prevailed. Under a cobalt October sky, picnic tables, dogs on leashes, gamboling children. Volunteers grilled hot dogs and brats, and sold chips, candy, soda and water under a tent. Mushroom cloud T-shirts and other atomic swag could be had at another. Everyone ambled toward the precise spot where the gadget, a plutonium core surrounded by TNT, was detonated on a high platform.

All that’s left of the 100-foot tower that evaporated that morning is a 2-inch stub of concrete, but a 12-foot obelisk with a plaque commemorates the date and detonation site. There the crowd coagulated, like at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, awaiting selfie turns.

Between selfies and noshing on brats and chips, visitors rock-hunted, peering down at the sand between tufts of hardy grass for bits of the sage-green substance called trinitite. Trinitite was formed when sand, sucked up and liquefied by the blast, fell back to earth. It is against federal law to take it home, but bits are for sale at a nearby rock shop, for $30 to $60 a gram.

A display of trinitite at a local rock shop in Bingham, N.M., where the sale is legal. Trinitite was formed when sand, sucked up and liquefied by the atomic blast, fell back to earth, and it is against federal law to take it home from the site.Credit…John Burcham for The New York Times

Before detonation, the gadget’s makers were not sure it would work (although calculations calmed concerns that the bomb could ignite earth’s atmosphere). In the pre-dawn dark, scientists and soldiers took up stations 10,000 yards from what they called ground zero, held slabs of welders’ glass before their eyes, and waited for the countdown.

One Army engineer, Roger Rasmussen, speaking to the Voices of the Manhattan Project, remembered the light coming through his closed eyelids. “We stood up and looked into this black abyss ahead of us. There was this beautiful color of the bomb, gorgeous. The colors were roving in and out of our visual range of course. The neutrons and gamma rays and all that went by with the first flash while we were down. There we stood, gawking at this.”

Radioactive fallout plumed over the area but the public was never warned, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a publication founded in 1945 by nuclear physicists concerned about the dangers of atomic weapons. The army publicly blamed windows blown out for 120 miles around on a munitions depot accident. Health data was never collected and descendants of some of the nearby rural inhabitants are still seeking compensation for what they say are generations of cancer.

Many scientists present at the first test came to rue their invention. The explosion was a “foul and awesome display,” the test director, Kenneth Bainbridge, said to Oppenheimer after the test. “Now we are all sons of bitches,” Bainbridge continued. Generals and politicians did not always share that sentiment. Truman’s Secretary of Commerce, Henry Wallace, wrote: “The guilt consciousness of atomic scientists is one of the most astounding things I have ever seen.”

Historic photos of the 1945 atomic bomb detonation attached to the fence at Trinity Site.Credit…John Burcham for The New York Times

The French philosopher Michel Serres has compared ubiquitous pop-culture images of mass death, like the mushroom cloud and Sept. 11, to pagan ritual voyages to the underworld, surmising that they serve some primal human need. Visitors to Trinity struggle to express its simultaneously prosaic and profound effect, and to extract meaning from the obelisk. Should it be celebrated, mourned or just gawked at?

“Creepy,” “awesome” and “a little boring” were some of the comments I heard. One couple, who met online playing the video game Fallout, had road-tripped from Missouri to get engaged at the site. Richard Cooper, a retired physicist from Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the bomb was invented, said he felt “mixed emotions” at the obelisk. “It is a terrible invention, but it was going to get made. If not us, the Germans.”

The White Sands Missile Range occupies 2.2 million acres and is buffered by miles of private ranch land. It is still used to test weapons, but those of a conventional nature. (There has never been another aboveground nuclear test at the range.) The army pays nearby inhabitants to evacuate for up to 12 hours if they plan a big test. Cows can stay, however. “Cows and missiles are pretty compatible,” said John Hamilton, a spokesman for the range. “Cows don’t bother missiles. Missiles don’t bother cows.”

Visitors wear booties at Trinity Site Stallion Army Airfield to prevent potentially transporting radioactive dust back to their home. Credit…John Burcham for The New York Times

Activities on the test range are as top-secret as they were in 1945. Like Area 51 in Nevada, the missile range has attracted conspiracy theories. Besides U.F.O. sightings, one of the oldest rumors is that thousands of tons of gold are buried in the off-limits mountains. The army has allowed five digs to disprove “the Legend of Victorio Peak.” No gold found so far.

By midafternoon the sun was scorching and the atomic pop-up cafe was running low on water bottles. Road-trippers have two choices on the way out. They can drive north, toward Albuquerque, stopping for a Hatch chile cheeseburger at the Owl Bar & Cafe, an eatery once frequented by the gadget’s scientists. (Hatch chiles are a staple on local menus, incorporated into everything from lasagna and Alfredo pasta to huevos rancheros.) An hour beyond the Owl cafe is the Very Large Array, site of dozens of colossal space-exploring radio telescopes made famous in Jodie Foster’s alien-finding movie, “Contact.”

The White Sands National Park, near Alamogordo, N.M., is naturally staged to appreciate the unique beauty of the landscape. Credit…John Burcham for The New York Times

I aimed to sleep in Alamogordo, a city near the main gate to the White Sands Missile Range, and see more of southern New Mexico, so I turned east into the Tularosa Basin, toward shafts of sunlight piercing columns of cumulus over the Sacramento Mountains, like late Renaissance chiaroscuro. About an hour southeast of the Trinity Site, I reached Three Rivers Petroglyph site, the largest rock art site in the Southwest. Around 600 years ago, the Jornada Mogollon people etched 21,000 images of flora and fauna, people and crypto-beasts into the basaltic rubble along the foothills of the Sacramento. The Mogollon have no known descendants. Standing atop the remains of this disappeared civilization one can look toward the site of our own civilization’s relic, the obelisk, and wonder how, or if, future generations will see it.

Alamogordo is 15 minutes east of the White Sands National Park, 275 square miles of gypsum dunes that form one of the world’s most breathtaking natural wonders. The park is open to camping and hiking for a $25 fee. I walked a half mile into the void as sunset tinted the sand pink, and drove out a few hours later as the whole park glowed under a rising moon.

I spent the night in Alamogordo, at an appropriately midcentury motel called the Classic Desert Aire, where T-shirts emblazoned with the atom and “New Mexico It’s A Blast” sell for $25 in the lobby. After a breakfast of Hatch green chile eggs (a word to the wise: pack the Pepcid), I drove an hour west on U.S. 70 to the White Sands Missile Range Museum, just inside the gate to White Sands Missile Range.

The outdoor exhibits at the White Sands Missile Range Museum feature a range of rockets, aircraft, and nuclear missiles. Credit…Prisma Bildagentur/Universal Images Group, via Getty Images

A guard at the gate checked my license then waved me on toward a garden of giant weapons planted in the shadow of the San Andres Mountains to the west. Many of America’s most famous missiles: the massive Redstone, built to house the earliest intercontinental nuclear warheads; the Pershing — credited with nudging the Soviets to negotiations in the 1980s; the HIMARS multiple launch system, now in use in Ukraine; and the obsolete “Hound Dog,” “Honest John” and “Little John.” An indoor White Sands Missile Museum building is scheduled to reopen in December after a multimillion dollar renovation.

New Mexico’s atomic tour continues farther north. At Santa Fe, the state capital, tourists visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, browse art galleries selling native and modern American art, and shop for silver and turquoise jewelry, but are often oblivious to the city’s history as a setting in a critical game of nuclear espionage with the Russians. The former C.I.A. officer Bruce Held has written “A Spy’s Guide to Santa Fe and Albuquerque,” identifying the sites around town (including a bridge and the landmark Spitz Clock near the main plaza) where American spies for the K.G.B., using code names like Star and Bumblebee, dead-dropped papers and notes in invisible ink, or handed them off at clandestine meetings.

Half an hour north of Santa Fe lies Los Alamos, the true birthplace of the nuclear age. Los Alamos today is home to one of the highest per capita percentages of millionaires in America and a great concentration of scientists working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Los Alamos was just a dusty little Western town when the Manhattan Project bought a private boys’ school, called the Los Alamos Ranch School in 1942, and gave it over to scientists and engineers working on the bomb.

The Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, the largest rock art site in the Southwest, features basaltic rubble etched with images by the Jornada Mogollon people more than 600 years ago. Credit…John Burcham for The New York Times

The school’s dining hall, Fuller Lodge, had been designed by a prominent architect in 1928 and built of 200 Ponderosa pines. During the Manhattan Project, it served as a dining and entertainment center for scientists. Today, Fuller Lodge is a community center and historic site festooned with black-and-white photos of the bomb scientists at work. The lodge, along with the house where Oppenheimer lived with his wife and kids, are among the buildings managed by the Manhattan Project Historical Park, which arranges occasional tours.

It’s possible to drive through the Los Alamos National Laboratory grounds with a wave of a driver’s license at the gate. The 34 square miles of rolling yellow hills speckled with giant satellite dishes house scientists working on projects from climate-change mitigation to advanced weaponry, including nukes. The labs are not public (people can drive through but cannot exit their vehicles, walk around unescorted or take photographs), but the grounds are worth traversing for the reward at the far end: the Valles Caldera National Preserve, a 13-mile-wide circular depression created by the collapse of a massive volcano. The catastrophic explosion 1.25 million years ago is now a vast green protected meadow, open to hikers, where wildflowers, animals and streams testify to earth’s resilience in the aftermath of natural, if not man-made, disaster.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

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Nina Burleigh

Nina Burleigh is an author of seven nonfiction books and a national journalist, in residence at WNMU as a distinguished visitor this fall. She serves as chairman of the board of Mimbres Press, which welcomes submissions from the SWWF community of writers.
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We respectfully acknowledge that the entirety of southwestern New Mexico is the traditional territory, since time immemorial, of the Chis-Nde, also known as the people of the Chiricahua Apache Nation. The Chiricahua Apache Nation is recognized as a sovereign Native Nation by the United States in the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Friendship of 1 July 1852 (10 Stat. 979) (Treaty of Santa Fe ratified 23 March 1853 and proclaimed by President Franklin Pierce 25 March 1853).

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