The First Atomic Bomb Blast at the Trinity Site
I was born a few months before it all happened: On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was exploded at the north end of the Jornada del Muerto, that desolate extension of the Chihuahan Desert that forms the south central portion of New Mexico. This summer, I will be driving on U.S. 380 just north of the Trinity Site, which is open only two days a year. I’m surprised that it is open even that much given that there is still a lot of radioactivity lingering in the area.
According to Alan Boye in Tales from the Journey of the Dead: Ten Thousand Years on an American Desert (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), some 15,000 people in the vicinity died of cancer from the radioactivity, and some 20,000 people suffered non-fatal forms of cancer.
Much of the area around the blast is covered with a green glass-like mineral called Trinitite, which in many cases still makes Geiger Counters tick, though samples for sale can be found in rock shops around the area.
When J. Robert Oppenheimer was interviewed about the blast, he quoted from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Now that power is in the hands of Donald J. Trump. Doesn’t that make you feel safe?
This Camino Real Was Nowhere Near the Ocean
If you drive north on U.S. 101, you will see scads of quaint mission bell markers identifying it as El Camino Real—and so it was! But it was not the only one. There is another one, every bit as picturesque but far deadlier, through the heart of New Mexico. It is called El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, “The Royal Road to the Interior Lands.” These interior lands consisted primarily of the city of Santa Fe together with its constellation of pueblos.
Picture New Mexico as being divided into six roughly equal size vertical rectangles, three in the north and three in the south. The south central one is the northern reach of the Chihuahuan Desert, usually referred to as the Jornada del Muerto, the Journey of the Dead. The Chihuahuan Desert proper extends for 1,200 miles south to the Mexican State of Zacatecas. The rightmost two-thirds of the rectangle is occupied by the White Sands Missile Range.
The leftmost one-third of that rectangle includes the Rio Grande River, the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, and a lot of desolate, searing nothingness.
The Jornada del Muerto
Martine and I will probably intersect the Jornada del Muerto from East to West as we travel along U.S. 380, right past where the first atomic bomb explosion occurred at the now (mostly) closed Trinity Site. We will be leaving Capitan, New Mexico, and heading northwest to Albuquerque, where we will stay for a few days.
I am now reading Alan Boye’s Tales from the Journey of the Dead: Ten Thousand Years of an American Desert (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), which examines the route along the Rio Grande to Mexico throughout history from Clovis and Folsom Man through to the Manhattan Project. In addition, the author describes his own jaunts through the Jornada today in an effort to give a feeling for the fierceness and beauty of the land.