Craters from nuclear explosions at the Nevada Test Site in a 1996 image. (Emmet Gowin )
There was a time when a mushroom cloud billowing over the Nevada desert was celebrated as a symbol of American strength — and, about 75 miles southeast in Las Vegas, as a terrific tourist draw.
In the 1950s, casinos threw "dawn parties," where gamblers caroused until a flash signaled the explosion of an atomic bomb at the Nevada Test Site. Tourism boosters promoted the Atomic Cocktail (vodka, brandy, champagne and a dash of sherry) and pinups such as Miss Atomic Blast, who was said to radiate "loveliness instead of deadly atomic particles."
Sixty years after the first atmospheric tests here, the 1,375-square-mile site continues to be a tourist magnet, though of a far different nature. Thousands of people each year sign up months in advance to see what is essentially a radioactive ghost town.
The tourists ride in an air-conditioned bus through part of the site, but it might as well be a time machine. The era feted is one of Soviet bad guys, grade-school air raid drills and warnings delivered in capital letters: Visitors are welcomed by the sign ACCESS LIMITED.
There's no mention of the thousands of "downwinders" poisoned by radiation, or the 1.6 trillion gallons of water under the site that have been contaminated. In videos, the end of testing in 1992 is spoken of in near-mournful tones. The tour's intent, said spokesman Darwin Morgan, is to explain what unfolded on the site, not the fallout from it.
Today, 1,000 or so employees — down from the 10,000 who once worked here — mainly carry out less exotic tasks: training first responders, burying toxic waste. The tours wend through these areas, but the bomb refuse remains the star attraction.
The outing has changed little since it was launched in the 1980s, when the tour was sometimes canceled due to "program activities" (as in, explosions).
That may explain its rigidity, beginning with the packet each tour-goer is mailed. No cameras, it said. Or cellphones, BlackBerrys, binoculars, laptops or recorders. If contraband is discovered, THE TOUR MAY BE TERMINATED.
One morning last month, a tour bus departed about 8 a.m. from Las Vegas for the 90-minute drive to the site. En route tourists watched a low-budget video, which included a shot of a human arm disappearing into the side of a steer.
Four test site steers were "fistulated," or given a surgical opening so scientists could reach in to take samples from their stomachs. One of them, named Big Sam, often appeared at fairs.
When the bus pulled up to what is now called the Nevada National Security Site, guide John Robson pointed out two pens where protesters had been detained. They resembled the pens out at bomb sites where pigs had been corralled to test the effects of radiation.
Robson, a retired test site engineer, stepped off the bus to grab some paperwork. "Several of the places we go want records of who's been there," he said. Then a guard in desert fatigues walked through the bus to check tourists' badges. He was armed.
Soon, the bus rumbled into an Atomic Age graveyard. At the dry lake bed Frenchman Flat, where "Priscilla" was detonated in 1957, a warped railroad trestle stood as a testament to the 37-kiloton bomb's power.
Some concrete domes had crumpled like eggshells. The blast peeled off the outer layer of a bank vault set up for the test. As for the money and papers workers had placed inside, Robson said they were "mighty warm" but safe. The group was too overwhelmed to respond.
By the time the bus veered toward Bilby Crater, one of the many thumbprints from hundreds of underground tests, the group had regained its sense of irony. A tourist spotted antelope. Someone else said he was surprised they didn't have two heads.
Then the bus dipped into the 80-foot-deep crater formed in 1963. "Whee!" passengers shouted, as if on a rollercoaster. The bus kicked up dust and heaved past a sign: CAUTION RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL.
Later, tourists clambered out for lunch at Sedan Crater, a 1,280-foot-wide, 320-foot-deep, tumbleweed-filled dent whose creation released as much seismic energy as a 4.75-magnitude earthquake.
For much of the remaining drive, the group watched the video "Operation Cue," which explained the genesis of "Doom Town." Homes were built and adorned with furniture and smartly dressed mannequins ("to represent Mr. and Mrs. America," the narrator chirped) to figure out what might survive an atomic Armageddon. The answer: not much.
Most of the debris from a 1955 detonation had been cleared away, but the bus halted at a two-story home with a red-brick chimney and a drawing of Garfield in an upper room. No windows remained, and the frames sagged. Before the explosion, Robson said, a worker entertained himself by arranging two mannequins in a "compromising position."
The last stop was Mercury, a sort of town square for the site, where some workers lived during tests. On a corkboard in the cafeteria, a grandmother offered rides to schoolchildren. A wall was covered with athletic contest plaques (the test site team had been victorious in archery and horseshoes).
But a yellow sign reminded visitors that the site could never quite shake its origins: The adjacent steakhouse doubled as a SHELTER-IN-PLACE.