White Sands Missile Range, N.M. — There's a traffic jam out here in the middle of nowhere, a long line of cars stretching up a two-lane desert road and on over the crest of a low hill. At the head of the line, several uniformed men with guns guard a closed arm gate, and they have us feeling as restless as shoppers outside a department store the morning after Thanksgiving.
We aren't here for the sales, though. We want to see the place of secrets.
Sixty years ago on July 16, a horrendous noise and flash of light boomed across the predawn desert in central New Mexico, breaking windows 120 miles away and rousting thousands of people from their beds. World War II was in its final months, and the military passed off the explosion as an accident in a munitions dump deep in what is now the 3,200-square-mile White Sands Missile Range, some two hours south of Albuquerque.
The explosion was, in fact, the first successful detonation of an atomic bomb, and it happened at what is known as Trinity Site, a flat stretch of scrub desert in the Tularosa Basin just west of the Sierra Oscura. This is the original ground zero.
Having come of age during the Cold War and now living with regular talk of whether terrorists can acquire the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, I've long been curious about the spot where the nuclear age began. Because it is on an active weapons range, the site is usually closed to the public. Twice a year, though, on the first Saturdays of April and October, the gates open to the curious. This year they've added another date, July 16, to mark the detonation's 60th anniversary. (A similar event for the 50th anniversary attracted protesters as well.)
I fly in a day early for the April open house, landing at Albuquerque, then renting a car for the hour drive south along the Rio Grande River valley to Socorro, a drowsy cluster of trailers and crumbling adobe and stucco houses.
This is not touristy New Mexico, the land of Native American artisans, silversmiths and Georgia O'Keeffe's painterly descendants. This is ranch and farm country, where money seems in short supply, restaurants are diners or fast-food chains, and life proceeds at a rural pace. Don't expect a mint on your pillow. The first motel I check into, the Socorro Inn, is so rundown I immediately check out. (It had been bought two months earlier, and the new owner was still trying to renovate.) I wind up at a Holiday Inn Express, happy with functional cleanliness.
On Saturday morning, I grab free coffee and a pastry in the lobby and hit the road. It's a 45-minute drive to the missile range, most of it along U.S. 380, a two-lane road snaking east across the low swale of the Rio Grande Valley, then up through a mountain pass to the Tularosa Basin. The land is empty and starkly beautiful, a landscape of rust-colored dirt, dusty yellow-green plants and mountains in shifting shades of brown that stretch for miles beneath a washed-blue sky. I'm so mesmerized I miss the sign for the entrance at the Stallion Range Center and have to turn around.
At the gate I run into the backup of cars. The wait doesn't last long, though, and soon we're a caravan of hundreds coursing through emptiness.
The impermanence of the Trinity Site is striking, given its profound role in history. It has a gravel parking lot and portable toilets. At folding tables, people sell hot dogs and breakfast burritos; three or four vendors hawk books, posters and T-shirts and key chains that say, "Trinity Site, Ground Zero." The explosion site itself, which seems a little bigger than a high school running track, is surrounded by chain-link fence. Instead of heading for it, I grab one of the free shuttle buses for the two-mile trip to the George McDonald ranch house, where scientists and engineers assembled and armed what they called "the gadget."
The four-room adobe house has been restored to the way it looked in 1945. It's jarringly unremarkable, more like a bandit's hide-out than a bomb assembly plant. The "clean room," where the bomb was assembled over three days, was the master bedroom. It looks like a tinker's workshop, with a worktable the engineers built out of rough boards. A sign over the door warned visitors -- back then, not now -- to wipe their feet.
Seeing ground zero
Back at the Trinity Site, a name nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer selected from a John Donne poem, I pass through the outer ring of fencing for the quarter-mile walk to the black lava-rock obelisk marking the detonation spot. The land spreads out empty as far as the eye can see, which is of course why they decided to test their theory of an atomic bomb here.
More than 2,000 people usually show up for the open house, and today's crowd is right on target. The demographics are heavily tilted to gray heads, military jackets and National Rifle Assn. patches.