I knew that when I passed the easy-to-miss sign for Carrizozo, New Mexico, I’d be approaching the latitudinal zone where the Trinity bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945. Just under a month later, a US pilot dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Days later, another pilot dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, which my grandfather said he saw in the air.
“I was there,” he insisted. My grandfather told me a group of men from the government interviewed him to be the pilot to drop “the bomb.” After his death, I discovered a photograph of the atomic cloud spreading out over Nagasaki in his war album.
When he gave this album to my mother, he told her, “This was classified.”
But there is no evidence to back up his story. I lose hours and hours staring into the screen of my laptop and wade into the vapor of his claims, until I find myself staring into buggy websites once maintained by aging veterans. I’ve ordered flight rosters from interlibrary loan. I do not find his name. He said he was part of the mission, yet I’ve combed through USAF records in the National Archives database and keep finding nothing. Because of his aunt’s address book, I know he trained as a pilot in Alamogordo, New Mexico before shipping out to the Pacific Theatre.
Alamogordo is a military town at the edge of the White Sands missile range and the powdery dunes of the White Sands National Monument. I was heading there because I wanted to drive along the eastern perimeter of the weapons test site as I headed south. I wanted to understand what it might have been like for my grandfather to be stationed so close to the gypsum dunes, so close to where the first atomic bomb would be detonated. I imagined I might also learn about his connection to the Manhattan Project and his role in atomic history.
In his other photos in the album, you can see the shadow of the planes on the ground above thatched roofs. There are blank squares in the album where a few of my cousins pried out pictures of my grandfather posing in the cockpit for his funeral. But no one touched the picture of the mushroom cloud.
My grandfather liked taking photographs in motion from the plane. In one, the runway looks like grooves in snow as the plane touches ground. The wings are behind you, behind the lens.
Why did my great-aunt cross out the addresses of her seventeen-year-old nephew instead of erasing them?
“Gadget,” the nickname for first plutonium device ever detonated, became a code name in the lab. When it went off in the Tularosa Basin of the Chihuahuan Desert, physicist Kenneth Bainbridge turned to J. Robert Oppenheimer and said, “Now we are all sons of bitches.”
When I traveled to Alamogordo on the barren stretch of winter highway, I felt like I was transgressing a hidden boundary. The atomic pit nests inside the White Sands Missile Range like a heart in an anatomical drawing. In my memory, the site stretches out in a silvery slab. On Google Maps, it looks like a gray box.
My memory is surely affected by the black-and-white photo I took with a disposable camera when my car crossed the area approximately perpendicular with the test site. It is not a “good” photo. I extended my arm out as far as I could. My other hand firmly on the wheel, I locked my eyes on the gray streak ahead of me. No cars ahead. I was concerned about ice on the road. I wanted the camera to record what it saw independently of me.
Here is the blur of landscape. Here is the relative self, moving—moment to moment—through the world. Then, out of the corner of my eye, as the expression goes, I glanced at the land. The edge of my eye saw what the lens saw. This. Or not quite this.
Chills raised the hairs of my arms. But after a while, my body stopped reacting, and I drove on, numb. On Google Earth, you can see the obelisk marking the very first nuclear test, which ushered in—a phrase that makes me think of funereal suits—the nuclear age. When you zoom in, the monument looks like the monoliths that gave the primates in 2001: A Space Odyssey the knowledge to murder one other.
It was like being at the bottom of an ocean of light.
We were bathed in it from all directions.
– Joan Hill, physicist, on observing the Trinity explosion.
Days before my journey, I looked at my route down the east perimeter while the TV glowed. My laptop warmed my legs. I zoomed in and out of Google Maps and dropped the little yellow guy—why are we supposed to imagine a man entering unknown territory?—down into areas of the weapons test site not grayed out. Perhaps this NSA-authorized view of the site is meant as a kind of compensation for the secrecy that for so long cloaked the atomic explosion thirty-five miles from Tularosa, New Mexico.
The mayor of Tularosa has said, “I don’t think there’s a family in this community that hasn’t had a loved one die of cancer.”
The US Department of Energy Nevada Operations Office published a bulletin in 1994 that was revised in 2000 called “United States Nuclear Tests, July 1945 through September 1992.” The cover of this document shows two photographs: an explosion of sand that looks like alive coral blooming upward, and then the resultant crater, half in shadow. Reading the bulletin, we learn that the crater is called “Sedan Crater.” We see, on the copyright page, that, “Sedan Crater was formed when a 104 kiloton explosive buried under 635 feet of desert alluvium was fired at the Nevada Test Site on July 6, 1962, displacing 12 million tons of earth. The crater is 320 feet deep and 1,280 feet in diameter.” Where did the “12 million tons of earth” shooting into the sky of the first photograph go? The red soil and robin egg sky make the radioactive earth something beautiful.
The report organizes the names of the nuclear tests in a variety of ways. You can read them according to date, according to location, according to purpose. And you can read them alphabetically by their names. The “T” names begin on page 142. I am relieved not to find my name there, after “Tweed,” detonated in the Nevada Test Site on May 21, 1965, and “Tybo,” also detonated in the Nevada Test site, but ten years later, on May 14, 1975. Trinity, one of three tests conducted in New Mexico, appears in this section. The other two tests in New Mexico exploded near Carlsbad and Farmington.
According to the US Department of Energy’s report, “Unless otherwise noted, all nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site or the Nellis Air Force Range (NAFR) to September 15, 1961 produced radioactivity detected offsite.”
I appreciate the following “Caveat” paragraph of the report:
The information contained in the document has been gleaned from multiple sources over time. Some of the data has been updated to reflect the most recent analysis conducted by the national weapons laboratories. When discrepancies were encountered, every attempt was made to use the most acceptable or verifiable information.
When discrepancies were encountered, every attempt was made to use the most acceptable or verifiable information.
Why did I go in January when I could have visited ground zero in early autumn, when the leaves scatter in the street? Or I could have stood in the spring air, warmer to the south, the pink light filtering into my hair. Visitors attend the biannual “open house” on the White Sands Missile Range in early April or early October on the two days a year it is open to the public. The reason was that I wanted to experience the boundary of the missile range as I drove and see what anyone might see on any other day. Instead of being walked into the White Sands Missile Range as a guest and looking at the lava monument to the blast where “Gadget” dropped from its hundred-foot tower, I wanted to explore the eastern perimeter of the missile range. I wanted to think about boundaries and who decides when they are permeable. When are you allowed to cross inside, as a guest? What becomes of you, inside that boundary? I would go through two checkpoints and enter the White Sands Missile Range, still an active weapons test site, on a weekday. I would go to the warhead museum.
Cows had recently frozen to death in the scraggled fields near where I started my journey. I had been living in a former railroad town on the Southwest Chief Amtrak line. Trains still come and go, their wails drifting over the boarded-up buildings and scrap yard if the wind is right.
I heard about the winter deaths on the radio while I zipped my snack bag for the drive. Bring water. Bring sandwiches. Bring blankets. The squall came fast. Ranchers didn’t have time to bring the animals in.
The January sun emits a certain kind of light that promises darkness—the sky purple sky at 4 p.m., any lingering warmth pulled away from the desert with it. The brilliant glitter touches you with cold light.
Before my trip, I imagined myself parking my car on the highway and crossing into the weapons site on foot “to see how far I can get.” But as I drove, and drove, the invisible line punctured now and again by “no trespassing” signs became as real as a glass wall.
Some friends in Chicago wanted me to download a “Find My Friends” app so they could tap the icon on their phones designed to look like a piece of leather sewn onto the heel of a hiking boot and see me—the glass-head pin of me—edging south.
“The app won’t track me,” I tried to explain. My cell phone would break connection with the nearest cell tower.
If they checked in while they rode the Blue Line out of the Loop, or hopped off the Western Avenue bus to Quencher’s I would disappear. Then I would reappear. Then disappear.
Have you ever seen a feathery shadow at the edge of your eye? Was it a figure? Did it cross into your vision, like a hummingbird there and gone?
My grandfather is not on any of the official rosters of the Nagasaki squadron planes: not Boxcar, not The Great Artiste, not Big Stink, not Enola Gay, not Laggin’ Dragon, and not Full House.
In the album that my grandfather gave my mother, the photograph of the Nagasaki detonation—”Fat Man”—shows an aerial view. This photograph does not duplicate the famous aerial image of the cloud cap detached from the stem. But it isn’t an amateur image either. I can’t be certain how he acquired it, but I don’t think this cloud came from his camera.
His photo shows the bomb blast a fraction of a second, or a full second—a breath, a heartbeat—earlier. The blackened column hasn’t split. It opens into a puffy top. The image looks solid. As a form, it evokes unity.
A photograph cannot even come close to representing what it is like to see an atomic explosion in person.
Scientists who witnessed the nuclear tests of 1946 in the Bikini Atoll couldn’t adequately describe the Operation Crossroads detonations.
“One reason why observers had so much trouble in retaining a clear impression of the explosion phenomena was the lack of appropriate words and concepts. The explosion phenomena abounded in absolutely unprecedented inventions in solid geometry,” wrote William A. Shurcliff in an official report.
Photography isn’t allowed on the White Sands Missile Range. I stole a couple of shots of the warheads. I remember going to the gypsum dunes—white in peaked mounds like granulated sugar that look like slopes of beach sand—of the White Sands National Monument before I stood in the field of bombs. But the episodes happened in reverse. From White Sands, you can see San Andreas Peak, 8,235 feet, and Gardner Peak, 7,533 feet. The brochure I picked up at the national park’s visitor center promises that the landscape will “shimmer.” It does. When the sun strikes the sand, it looks like a mound of finely crushed diamonds. (I have never seen a mound of finely crushed diamonds.)
The White Sands National Monument became a consecrated space in 1933. In 1942, the land around it became a “large military land presence,” according to the timeline provided by the National Parks Service. In 1945, the first atomic bomb ever exploded detonated in this “large military land presence” all around the park.
The sand feels cool, even cold, when you bend down and press your palm to the seemingly bleached surface.
The moment I stepped out of my car, I needed to touch the impossibly white grains because I felt like I stood before a screen. I stepped into the screen, becoming part of the foreground. Sand verbena and skunkbush sumac scratched into the static I felt extending all around me.
“Do not tunnel into the dunes; they can collapse and suffocate you,” warns the brochure you pick up before you drive into the white silence that almost tingles in your ears.
The imprint of the sea is still here. Your nose detects water. As you spin around slowly, you see more and more of the dunes that roll on like sun-white waves. The dunes become imitations of themselves, molding into more and more forms. The eye searches past these iterations for sheets of water.
The boundary around an active weapons test area—a governmentally authorized dangerous place—presents a narrative. Outside of it (even just outside of it), you are safe. No one can hurt you—or, at least the thing inside the boundary can’t. The boundary might be a fence with barbed wire. It might be marked with signs but otherwise seem like an empty, sloping landscape along a highway. You might not see anyone or anything for miles as you drive along it. You might not even see the fence itself as it edges further inward, as though the hand drawing the box of it in a plan bumped—as though the person drew it into existence on a piece of paper while riding inside a combat vehicle.
Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge.
– Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera
A recent report in the Wall Street Journal of all places reproduced a diagram to show “Radiation levels after 1945 Trinity Explosion.” The visual graphic looks like a topographic map with concentric bands of color. Yet the shapes do not represent altitude. The colors represent Roentgens, the unit of measure for gamma or X-rays. A Roentgen measures the energy in a cubic centimeter of air. Ground zero of the Trinity explosion in New Mexico looks like a red, oblong shape. Exposure? Ten Roentgens per hour. An orange oval around it? Two Roentgens per hour. I notice that Alamogordo is not on this map, even though it is the closest city to the detonation center. The graphic also lacks a black tick to represent the Holloman Air Base or the area where pilots and their families live. Las Cruces, the next nearest city southwest of the testing area, is also not on this chart. But Las Cruces was not downwind of the explosion like the town where I was living, Las Vegas, New Mexico. The ranching and former railroad town sits in the top tip of the .1 Roentgen exposure area. Albuquerque and Santa Fe? They are in the .01 exposure area.
Ranchers whose families have lived and worked in Otero County, New Mexico, for generations continue to live outside the edge of the missile test site where the first atomic bomb exploded. Their animals graze on the “safe” side.
“For years, residents of the rural, heavily Hispanic villages near the test site have claimed that a mysterious wave of cancer has swept through this dusty stretch of south-central New Mexico, decimating families,” writes Dan Frosch in the Wall Street Journal.
People drank radioactive milk from the cattle that grazed in the fallout zone.
Alfalfa growing in the field edging the White Sands Missile Range becomes food for the ponies standing in shiny clusters nearby. The young animals look like ellipses dotted with a calligraphy pen onto a paper bag.
Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.
– Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities
One section of land in New Mexico, the White Sands National Monument, is a “great natural wonder,” claims the National Park Service website. Adjacent to every edge of it is another area of land, the White Sands Missile Range, which is so huge that it touches five counties in the state and serves as a government-sanctioned space for test rockets and explosives. The border between pristine space and trash space is not visible to the eye other than a sign here or there as you cross it. On a map, it looks like one box sits inside another box.
The communities that live around the White Sands Missile Range and downwind from the “Gadget” epicenter, did not count as being worthy of the truth the day fallout showered the earth. The “accidental” explosion had been planned for a place near the poor, the non-white. It is as though these communities simply hadn’t been imagined at all in relation to the “safe” / “unsafe” boundary by those in power. That is the same as being imagined disposable.
At 2 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon in January, I travelled White Sands Boulevard out of Alamogordo. Motel 8s and Holiday Inn Expresses lined the road. The motels are for pilots hookups, but also for family members when the base opens for visitors. White Sands Boulevard becomes 70 and takes you to the checkpoint for the Holloman Air Base, where I saw an F-16 darting through the fabric of the sky.
I hadn’t prepared myself for the language of the sign I saw when I exited 70 and entered the access road for the White Sands Missile Range at the southern edge of the entire test site.
“ENTERING ACTIVE TEST RANGE,” I am warned.
“AREAS POTENTIALLY CONTAMINATED WITH EXPLOSIVE DEVICES.”
“STAY ON ROADS.”
My plan, which I had written down in a notebook as though that made it official somehow, was this:
You will drive with the White Sands Missile Range to your right. Somewhere between hour two and three, you will cross the longitudinal point where the Trinity Test detonated. You will get as close as you can.
But this plan emptied out and became a gray, monotonous shape once I crossed the region and continued driving to Alamogordo and then onto the access road to the weapons test site.
You will get as close as you can would mean navigating a boundary. I would experience the perimeter as an edge I would see out of the corner of my eye, and I crossed it at the point where such a crossing is possible.
“During World War II, the US military tested weapons in the dune field beyond the park,” reads the Exploring White Sands brochure. The test site’s and the park’s histories are intertwined. The “Operating Hours & Seasons” page of the White Sands National Monument website designates a section for missile tests still conducted there:
Due to missile testing on the adjacent White Sands Missile Range, it is occasionally necessary—for visitor safety—to close the road into the monument for periods of up to three hours. US Highway 70/82 between Alamogordo and Las Cruces is also closed during times of missile testing.
I imagine my grandfather bombing the dunes.
The sand had long blown over his footsteps.
Visitors are not supposed to touch any debris. It can still detonate.
“Bring a coat out to the dunes,” the college student working in the visitor center warned me. “The temperature drops twenty degrees out there.”
As I walked down the first path, the Primrose Picnic Area, I laughed to myself. I was wearing all black, absorbing the brilliant sun. Even the insects that live in the gypsum sand become powdery white. I must have looked like a shadow in my black pants, black boots, black coat, my pale hands and face disappearing.
At each trailhead, visitors are supposed to sign a book housed in a wood hutch. A string attaches the pencil to the pedestal so it doesn’t blow off. Rangers check for missing hikers at sunset.
I didn’t sign my name in the log because I thought I’d wander out and only climb one dune. I also liked the fantasy of losing myself. Of never having been there.
As you turn around, you might forget where you started. You might walk away in the wrong direction.
I find myself doing this again and again with this project. I turn around, and as I do, I encounter what I can only describe as the sense of the infinite. What ends, and where?
Why don’t I have enough evidence, a map, a clear narrative? Each dune looks exquisitely the same. Each clue leads me into landscape that is always shifting around me.
A story. A photograph. Dead ends.
I walk out into the snowy sand.
The off-ramp led me to the main gate that loomed ahead like the stage of a music festival: the arch reminded me of scaffolding for theatrical lights. I saw a visitor lot on the right next to the small office building where I knew I’d need to check in. Watch for rattlesnakes, warned a sign.
The United States does not detonate nuclear weapons as tests anymore. But all kinds of chemicals shoot out from rockets and missiles. Another sign warned me against touching anything.
The zip code for the White Sands Museum & Missile Park is 88002. Infinity, infinity. Zero, zero, And then two: me and you.
As I stood alone in my body on this weapons test site with the enormous mountains in the distance and the reddish brown dirt thrown around them for miles in every direction, I felt fear, regret, and panic. I didn’t want to be here, yet it was my plan to come. I couldn’t hold onto the illusion of safety that the area just outside the boundary offered.
I entered the office building of the visitor center. The door opened to a room that reminded me of the DMV: beige floor, beige corded phone on a particleboard desk. Sun filtering through a dusty window curtained the air like smoke.
“Good afternoon, ma’am.”
A man in an “I love Jesus” hat with “love” as a stitched heart greeted me. He had been sitting to the right of the door.
“Hi,” I said, looking around the room. I had brought the various kinds of identification required to access the site, and I had even finally gotten my new driver’s license in the state of New Mexico for this purpose. I hated the new picture, so I kept my old license in my wallet as well. I handed everything over after I sat down. My feet tapped the floor involuntarily.
We made small talk while the man inspected my materials and typed something into the old, beige PC. I remember saying I was here to look at the gypsum dunes. That wasn’t true. I remember saying I was a writer and laughing it off. We talked about sunset.
“Smile!” He took my photograph and printed out a slip of paper I would present at the checkpoint to enter and leave the missile site.
Then his eyes scanned my face—my eyes, my nose, my lips, which I pressed together and quickly cleaned with my tongue—like he was scanning a barcode.
I’m running your numbers now.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I get people talking,” he said. “They forget what I’m doing because I like to ask questions and get them to say things to me. If the FBI wants you, you won’t even know I’m calling the police until they get here.”
Oh,” I said. I tried not to sound unintentionally sarcastic. I had no idea how I was supposed to respond or what affect was expected from me.
“If you have a warrant out on you, you should stop me now.”
I felt my expression going blank. Then I smiled. “I’m wanted in all fifty states!” I joked.
He chuckled and said, “Well, good. We have you now.”
Was he profiling me during our entire conversation? Probably.
Then he flashed me a smile that showed two gold teeth I hadn’t noticed before. I felt guilty of something, but I had no idea what.
“There. Now you’re in the system,” he continued to say as he typed. I let him—type. Put me in the system.
I am in the system, am part of the system—the system that made all of this.
In the photo he took of me, I look half sheepish and half relieved.
I felt empty, with a kind of existential horror.
My mother told me a story her father once told her about the dunes. He had borrowed a military vehicle when he was stationed there and took “a girl” out into the white sands after sunset, which was against the rules. Numerous lipsticked women appear with him in photos. He wasn’t very tall, but his seventeen-year-old face looks rugged and strong-chinned. His eyes either seem sad or filled with mischief.
So he snuck one of the vehicles out. Who was the young woman? I don’t know.
The gypsum dunes stretch out into the desert for 275 miles.
The ring of mountains around you mimic one another, shape after shape, among the white mounds. The forms of the Tularosa basin seem to copy themselves, and then copy themselves again. The gentle sloping dunes pour out around in piles like salt.
Before the sun set completely, when it rubbed the edges of the mountains with pink pastel chalk, my grandfather drove out into the dunes with a young woman and probably a bottle of scotch in his pocket. He drove with one hand on the wheel.
I don’t know at what point he realized he lost himself. That kind of realization comes slowly, as the landscape becomes more and more like a white lie.
Drive around this dune, and this one, and the ring of mountains marks your spot. And then this one, and the stars rise. Did he tell the woman?
All I know is they spent most of the night driving. At one point, he thought he’d never find his way back. But they did return to the base just before dawn.
One nation, my nation—out of fear of being bombed by another nation—detonated close to one-thousand nuclear warheads on—or in, or over—its own land.
In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag responds to a moment in Three Guineas where Virginia Woolf writes, “War is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped.” Sontag’s response is a challenge in the guise of a question: “Who believes today that war can be abolished? No one, not even pacifists.”
Fear of war has caused unalterable violence. The Bikini Islanders forced to evacuate in 1946 to make way for Operation Crossroads—a series of nuclear tests the US military conducted to see what the effect of atomic explosions might be on warships—still cannot return. Inhabitants packed up their belongings and looked one last time at the topaz surf combing the shore. Commodore Ben H. Wyatt communicated with the islanders in a meeting that their evacuation would “help end all wars.” But even later that same year, there were worries about radiation contamination; in the early 1970s, residents were allowed to return, only to be evacuated from the islands again in 1978 due to radiation contamination.
The present is poisoned by the past in this region that had been governed by the UN but controlled by the US from 1948 to 1996 “as a de facto American colony.” Old data feeds into calculations that spit out numbers that are supposed to provide information about radiation and exposure. But the numbers are much higher than expected. A recent article in Science News states,
Radioactive material such as cesium-137 currently produces, on average, 184 millirems of radiation per year on Bikini Atoll. And some parts of the island hit 639 millirems per year, researchers report online the week of June 6 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Those measurements, made last year, surpass the 100 millirems per year safety standard set by the United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, which controls the island.
What is important here is that the study Science News cites indicates that current radiation levels have been previously miscalculated due to old data and assumptions about what would happen to the radioactive material on the island over time. In depending on a false sense of the past, the present becomes even more dangerous.
The Missile Park open to visitors inside the White Sands Missile Range displays over fifty missiles and rockets that had been part of tests on the site. One reminded me of a ship hull, the paint flaking off the tip. At the edge of my vision, I could see barbed wire, barracks, and flat lands that spread out into hills where rockets and bombs launch into the sky. The White Sands Missile Range Customer Handbook I found online promises that the site allows “visibility greater than 6 miles 311 days per year.”
The day I visited, I couldn’t tell if there had been a missile test. After I was “in the system,” the man in the visitor center told me he was glad I arrived when I did, in the late afternoon, “so I could see things.” He shook his head, “If you tried coming earlier…”
My eyes stung when I walked from the building to my car to drive through the gate. The air smelled like terra cotta and eggs. I blinked. But the corners of my eyes still tingled. It was as though if I looked harder, turning my head, I could see more. See what I had come for. Instead, I walked around the warheads pointing up at the sky and felt untethered to history.
I took my disposable camera out of my coat pocket and snapped some pictures of the warheads. “Restricted Area” reads the sign you can spot from the access road. This means that even sketching interpretations of what you see is not allowed. I slid the blocky plastic camera out of my coat pocket, aimed it at the rockets, and felt my finger press the button as though the action itself belonged to someone else. Until I had actually done it, I didn’t think about what it means to have taken this picture. In taking it, taking it, you become a thief in the eyes of the military. It’s also like you return the idea of photography to its first superstitions. The essence of the thing leaves with you. But it also remains in the world.
My photo emphasizes the vertical. White tubes pointing up, up, up. How ready these missiles seem to be. The blemish striping the center that the photo-processing center left untouched on the print streaks across it as though drawn down from the sky, suggesting an intent that isn’t there.
I told a friend about what it was like to cross into the active missile test site, where off to the east, outside of vision, lies the detonation center of the world’s first atomic explosion. We talked over Google Hangouts. My floating face spoke to her floating face. I felt my mouth losing language—my words becoming more and more vague the closer I got to the heart of the story.
When I told the computer screen floating with my friend’s face about how I took some photos of the missiles, she disappeared. The screen went blank.
“Access denied,” it said. The call wouldn’t reconnect.
When she texted me, she said, “I think they’re listening.”
Photographs provided courtesy of author.