Alibi V.24 No.18 • April 30-May 6, 2015 

Feature

Nuclear Pilgrimage

There’s nothing to see at the Trinity Site, but much to consider

Jesse Schulz
In the predawn dark of July 16, 1945, the barren plain of the Tularosa Basin in central New Mexico was lit by a sudden explosion of light. A burning cloud spread outward from the top of a metal tower that was quickly incinerated in the intense heat. The explosion roiled up into the sky, touched by green, red and orange, brighter than the sun itself. It was Trinity, the world’s first manmade nuclear explosion, and soon the power it had unleashed would level two cities, win a war and change the world forever.

Seventy years later, there is hardly anything to see at the site of that hellish detonation, not even a crater. Yet the Trinity site has become a strange tourist attraction. On the two days a year when it is open to the public, thousands of visitors line up in RVs, family sedans and motorcycles to enter a restricted military base, drive a half-hour through the desert and finally stand in the center of a flat, mostly empty circle surrounded by fences and signs warning of harmful levels of radiation.

On April 4 of this year, a windy spring Saturday, Alibi staffer Mark Lopez and I made the two-hour drive down to the turn-off to the site and then waited in an endless line of vehicles for over an hour to enter White Sands Proving Ground’s Stallion Gate. After an interminable crawl to the gate itself, soldiers perfunctorily checked our identification and waved us through as protesters with signs memorializing family members who died of cancer stood silently nearby.

Ty Bannerman
After another half-hour of driving through the range, keeping our eyes open for the antelope that live there, wondering aloud about the purpose of the abandoned bunkers and other military structures we saw scattered about, we came to the parking lot for the site. Hundreds of people milled about, taking pictures of the radiation signs along the outside of the fence that marked ground zero of the explosion, and examing the remnants of “Jumbo,” a gigantic metal cylinder that had been built to hold the Trinity device, but was never used. It reminded me of a music festival without music as families talked and joked, and bikers pulled in on their roaring hogs.

Inside the fence’s perimeter, at ground zero, however, the crowd spread out over the area, moving between the few “attractions” at the site: an obelisk of volcanic rock memorializing the detonation, a few scraps of melted metal that remained from the original tower, a replica of the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki and a series of historic photographs posted along the fence. Some people bent over and hunted through the dust for pieces of Trinitite, shiny green rocks created when heat from the explosion fused the sand into glass. Beyond that, there was nothing.

I wondered who they were, these people who, like myself, had driven into the desert to stand on an empty plain. Tape recorder in hand, I began to ask.

I approach two women, one middle aged, the other elderly. They tell me their names are Leticia and Josie Duran and they drove up from Las Cruces. I ask them about what they think of the site. “Just the history, just to see it,” Leticia says. “It’s ... impressive.”

“What do you think of the fact that we used a nuclear weapon on the Japanese?” I ask her.

On the two days a year when it is open to the public, thousands of visitors line up in RVs, family sedans and motorcycles to enter a restricted military base, drive a half-hour through the desert and finally stand in the center of a flat, mostly empty circle surrounded by fences and signs warning of harmful levels of radiation.

Josie and Leticia Duran
Josie and Leticia Duran
Ty Bannerman
“Before I came here, I thought, well, it was for our safety,” she says, then thinks for a moment. “But then you see the protesters and it makes you think of the negative aspects of it. So I have mixed feelings.”

I ask Josie, her mother, if she was alive during World War II and what she thought of the bomb at the time.

“It was exciting! We were all so happy,” she answers eagerly. But she tells me that her thoughts have changed with time. “When you are young, it’s different. But then you start to think about it as you get older, and it becomes kind of scary.”

I continue to talk to people. Some have come from Mississippi, Georgia, all over the US and other parts of New Mexico. Others have come from overseas. I talk to bikers and families and members of the military.

The word “underwhelming” comes up again and again. And it is true, the site itself is underwhelming. A flat spot of ground on an endless flat plain. There are mountains rising up on the horizon, but they are miles away. Here, at the site itself, there is hardly anything but people searching for a way to connect to a moment that occurred 70 years ago.

The second thing that comes up with everyone I speak to is a somber undecidedness about the use of the bomb itself. No one I ask is utterly in favor of the Japanese bombings, nor is anyone completely opposed. Instead, they offer nuanced and uncertain views.

Ty Bannerman
We stay for perhaps an hour, then make our way back to the dusty parking lot. As we drive away, the road is quieter now. The entry gate is closed for the day; the protesters have gone home. A short line of cars follows us out, including a police SUV.

Both Mark and I are quiet as we make our way back to the road. “It’s heavy,” Mark finally says. “It’s hard to believe that we used a nuclear bomb. I don’t know what to think of it.” We discuss the pros and cons of the bombings, and like those I spoke to at the site, it’s hard for us to wrap our minds around it, and impossible to come down fully on one side or the other.

Suddenly, the cop car behind us turns on its lights. “Dammit,” I say. It’s my brake light, I know it is. We pull over to the side of the road, and a policeman soon appears beside Mark’s window. He’s early middle-aged, freshly scrubbed with a crew cut and glasses. Yes, it’s my brake light, he says. He has followed us from the Trinity site and just wants to let us know. Then he asks what we thought of what we saw.

I’m taken aback by his question, but he seems earnest. “We were just talking about it,” I say. “It’s pretty heavy stuff.”

“Well,” he says, “I didn’t get out there; I just drove into the parking lot and looked at it. It’s interesting, you know. I started thinking about the bomb and Hiroshima.” He pauses a moment. “I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t say this. But I just find myself wondering about Hiroshima. People say it ended the war and saved a lot of American lives, but I just don’t know if it was right.”

Ty Bannerman
We talk for about 10 minutes about Hiroshima, about Trinity, and about nuclear weapons in the modern world. I’m surprised at how eager he is to talk about it, and how he is clearly wrestling with the same thoughts that affected us as we drove away. Finally, almost as an afterthought, he writes us a warning and we head out. I halfway wonder if he pulled us over just so he could talk to someone about his experience there.

As we drive away, I am struck by how this “underwhelming” site can be so moving. Objectively, there is hardly anything to see, no interpretive center, no documentary film playing on an endless loop, none of the hand-holding, museum-style exhibits we associate with places of such import. Instead, the site is one of pilgrimage. And much like a religious pilgrimage, I think, its power comes from how it encourages us to internalize its meaning, to stand at a spot and consider the events of yesteryear that formed the world we now live in. To think about the things we take for granted, to ask questions about them, and to come up with our own answers.

“Are you glad we went?” I ask Mark as we stop for a hamburger on the way out.

“Definitely,” he says.