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 V.23 No.20 | May 15 - 21, 2014 

Feature

New Mexico's Least-impressive Legend

The end of the first video game boom and E.T.’s final home

The idea of New Mexico is as sprawling, light-dappled and hazy as the land itself, so it's no surprise many intriguing legends have risen from it. Some of these are epic and expansive. Others are not, at all. Take, for instance, the story of Alamogordo's Atari landfill. Long ago, well, not that long ago, the legend says, in, uh, 1983, a video-game company made too many units of an unpopular product and then dumped them all in a landfill. The End.

That's the basic story anyway. The longer one starts in 1982, yet another typically strange year to be alive in America. The President of the entire country was a man known for acting in a movie with a pants-wearing monkey, and popular for his ideas about over-feeding the rich in the hope that crumbs would fall from their tables onto the peasants below. Michael Jackson was pretending to be a dancing vampire-werewolf-zombie on MTV. The thought that the USSR might destroy the entire world was assuaged a bit by the thought that we could destroy it too, so maybe no one would actually do anything. And E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was in theaters and making more money than any movie ever.

Decades later, the title remains a popular target for the gaming world’s most intense loathing. Many gaming magazines have even declared E.T. to be the worst video game ever made. It was a disaster, and according to then-CEO of Atari Ray Kasser, “Nearly all of them came back.”

E.T., perhaps the classic story of interplanetary astrobotany, childhood alcohol abuse and fun times on a bicycle, was soon singled out by Atari, Inc. to be adapted into a video game. With only six weeks before Christmas, the game was rushed into production. Atari made 4 million copies of the cartridge and quickly sold almost half of them. Buyers took the game home, put it in their machines, and soon discovered that E.T. sucked. 

Decades later, the title remains a popular target for the gaming world’s most intense loathing. Many gaming magazines have even declared E.T. to be the worst video game ever made. It was a disaster, and according to then-CEO of Atari Ray Kasser, “Nearly all of them came back.”

At the time, Atari owned a manufacturing plant in El Paso, Texas, where most of the millions of unsold and returned copies of E.T. were stored, and in September of 1983, those games were loaded into 14 industrial dump trucks, driven north to Alamogordo, N.M., and dumped into what was then a remote landfill outside of town.

Mike Smith
Atari told the dump the games were being destroyed because the company was about to introduce an upgraded console, but the truth was that Atari was losing money rapidly and E.T. had become a major embarrassment for them—one they literally wanted buried. Atari faded from popularity, and E.T.’s desert burial became a symbol to America’s media, investors and consumers that the video game boom was, at least temporarily, over.

So that's the slightly longer story. There are much longer versions too. There are other details to uncover, but as legends go, it's fairly ordinary. There's just not much to dig up. However, when my friends and I heard that someone was finally going to excavate the infamous landfill ... we wanted to be there.

Impressions of a windswept landfill

Mike Smith
But maybe some legends are not so much stories as they are clouds—dreams, hazes, milieus. Not plots but settings, tones, feelings, places in which to set your own stories, your own inquiries, your own imaginings. In this case, a cloud of sleeplessness, caffeine anxiety, dust, wind, and filth. Sense impressions. Flickering visuals. Smells. Albuquerque Journals in a metal box, just delivered, and a headline, “SEARCHING FOR E.T.”

A carload of people, awake in Albuquerque, awake in the dark. Four adults. One child. Coffee from a gas station. Mountains whipped away by the windows of cars. Talk of 4 million video games buried in a landfill. Talk of 4 million video games being dug up, today. Talk of Zak Penn, director of a new documentary about Atari and the reason the landfill's being excavated. Visions of diving into a sea of only slightly dusty plastic cartridges, like Scrooge McDuck diving into coins.

A carload of people, awake in Albuquerque, awake in the dark. Four adults. One child. Coffee from a gas station. Mountains whipped away by the windows of cars. Talk of 4 million video games buried in a landfill. Talk of 4 million video games being dug up, today. Talk of Zak Penn, director of a new documentary about Atari and the reason the landfill's being excavated. Visions of diving into a sea of only slightly dusty plastic cartridges, like Scrooge McDuck diving into coins.

Cottonwoods out the windows. Dirt out the windows. Rabbitbrush. Four-wing saltbush. Shovels clanking in the back of the car. Black marks on guardrails. The gradual lightening of the world. Wind against the windshield. Altostratus clouds, a layer across the sky, the sun a white burn behind them. A license plate on a car in front of us: 4GHOSTS. More wind. The appearance of creosote bushes. Socorro, after a time. Las Cruces, after a time. The Organ Mountains, like the bristling teeth of a stone god. A file being passed around, full of research. A print-out, The 10 Worst Games of All Time. A print-out, The Atari Landfill Revealed. White sand dunes spilling down onto the highway. Alamogordo, at last. Another gas station. Cold pizza. A stack of new Alamogordo Daily News, another headline, In Search of 'E.T.', and a picture of a yellow digger.

A text from a friend saying where to go. A dirt road within the little city. Dozens of cars. More wind and dust than ever.. The sky a haze. Small cumulus clouds, shreds, wisps. Men with old-school video-game t-shirts. A few children. A sign saying, NO TRESSPASSING, PROPERTY OF THE CITY OF ALAMOGORDO. A folding-table. Volunteers with lanyards. Papers blowing away. Release forms. Pink wristbands. Portable bathrooms. More wind. A bank of cumulus clouds near the horizon, melting into the sky. A walk up to the digging site. A stench so bad people gag and almost retch. The realization of having driven hours to stand beside a filthy landfill in a windstorm. A few knots of friends from Albuquerque. Inquisitive Alamogordo locals. Orange-vested workers. People dressed like Mujahideen, faces covered in shirts and goggles.

Mike Smith
Camera crews filming anything. An orange plastic-webbing fence. A parked bulldozer on its other side. The yellow digger from the newspaper photo, digging. The sounds of heavy machinery. No sign of anything but a single joystick, says someone. The sounds of generators. Trucks and trailers. A page of found newspaper from 1983. Wind. A child crying. A view of nearby signs for McDonald’s and Papa John's. Perhaps a hundred people standing around, almost everyone questioning their choices in life. A food truck, unbelievably, handing out food, which is immediately coated in decades-old diaper grit. Some people, unbelievably, eating the food anyway. The day growing warmer. Everyone choking on pulverized filth. A chartreuse wooden cut-out of a digital E.T. leaning against the orange webbing. The creator of the video-game, walking around—friendly, amused, dressed in a bright blue shirt and a black cowboy hat.

A child weeping. An escape into the car. An extensive washing-up. The search for a restaurant. A glimpse of a street named Ascot Parade. A memory of a quote from the mayor of Alamogordo, from that morning's Journal. “We're excited,” she had said. “We've been hidden in this beautiful basin, and a lot of people drive on by to get to Ruidoso or Las Cruces. We're grateful the world is finding out about us,” she had continued. “We look forward to people eating our grossest landfill during a near-tornado,” she could have added. “This whole event will be disgusting.” A restaurant. A signed picture of the band Night Ranger. Relief from the wind. Signed photos from the cast and crew of the movie Transformers. A waitress too defeated to stand up while she took the order. Food. Coffee. Fliers for an Earth Day celebration. The waitress falling onto the table and swearing.

A ripple of news. The games have been found. They've found the games. The car again. The landfill again. The filth, still. The debris, still. The garbage-stench, still. But also, now, the games. The gray packaging. The pictures of E.T. and Elliot. Other Atari games. Garbage in a landfill. People excited. But not that excited. No longer all that capable of excitement. No one allowed to touch or take the games. A legend rendered instantly banal. A dawning moral—that behind every legend there is filth. Mundane, disgusting, banal filth. The hope that that's not actually a universal truth. The fear that it is. Altostratus clouds again, the sky a white screen. The car again. The question, What did we expect? The question, Was it worth it? An answer, Sure, why not, but never again. Everyone feeling sick and full from being force-fed rancid garbage-dust by the wind. The child throwing up in the backseat. The child throwing up beside the road. A cottonwood tree beside a road sign, and the wind in it loud, crashing its leaves. Loud, like a paper river. The road again ... Hours. Rare mammatus clouds, hanging like udders in the sky. Everyone's clothes, filthy. The inside of the car, toxic. A legend less legendary. Albuquerque again. The Sandias. A double-rainbow over the city. Daylight going away. Clouds that remain no matter what gets learned. Clouds that remain no matter what.

 

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