Home of the Atomic Bomb

Albuquerque’s National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

The atomic bomb was born in the State of New Mexico. It was created by the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in the northern part of the state and tested at the Trinity Site in the Jornada del Muerto Desert 35 mile southeast of Socorro. To commemorate the state’s role in our country’s nuclear history, there is a superb museum near Kirtland Air Force Base detailing that history and discussing both the wartime and peacetime uses of the atom.

We had visited the same museum in 2003, when it was located in Albuquerque’s Old Town, near the present site of the city’s Natural History Museum. Now it is even larger and deals with many more ancillary subjects, such as nuclear medicine and nano technology.

Replica of the “Fat Man” A-Bomb That Leveled Nagasaki

Probably what interested me the most was a demonstration of the different kinds of radiation (electromagnetic, particle, acoustic, and gravitational) and how much shielding is required for each. We also had the opportunity to see Trinitite, which was formed by the A-Test at the Trinity Site when the sand was formed into a radioactive green glass-like mineral.

The last time we were in New Mexico, we also visited Los Alamos and its world-class Bradbury Science Museum. We were appalled at the time to see the destruction of so many thousands of trees surrounding it by a wicked pine bark beetle infestation.

Two Weeks of Triple-Digit Heat

Restaurant in Old Town Albuquerque

There was a good chance that this was going to happen—and it did! Each day we were in New Mexico, the thermometer went over 100º (Celsius 38º). I had been hoping that the summer thunderstorms would have started, but they couldn’t because of a gigantic and persistent high-pressure area over the Southwest. It didn’t exactly ruin our vacation, but it made us change our plans frequently. We tended to visit outdoor sights in the cool of the morning, reserving the afternoons for air-conditioned museums, if possible. Thus we couldn’t see the Very Large Array west of Socorro because it involved a 120-mile detour through the dread Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead Man) Desert on a particularly fiery day.

But then, one should always take chance into account. I remember one trip to Yucatán in the 1980s when the temperature in Mérida was super hot and humid, such that I came down with some fever and chills. I called in a local doctor, who made a house call and cured me within a few hours. At that point, I resolved to get out of Mérida and fly to San Cristóbal de las Casas in the Sierra Madre Mountains, where the temp was quite bearable.

Another complication is that the one thing we could have done—namely, to seek higher ground in Colorado—was not an option because Martine started coming down with altitude sickness at around 7,500 feet altitude. So we had to go down to a lower elevation and higher temperatures.

Even so, I had a good time. I cannot say that Martine did. She continues to have a problem with a punched nerve in her back (which first manifested itself four years ago) and cannot get a good night’s sleep on a soft hotel mattress. We took an air mattress with us, but it turned out it could not hold air as one of the valves was broken.

The whole vacation was an exercise in how to survive in difficult situations without falling prey to negativity. The high points were our visits to the Smokey Bear village of Capitan; the UFO Museum in Roswell; the old cavalry station at Fort Stanton; and the town of Lincoln with its Billy the Kid associations. The low point was the steam train ride on the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad, during which the lurching of the cars led to spasms of pain affecting Martine’s pinched nerve.

Off to New Mexico

Ship Rock in Northwest New Mexico

This is my last post until I return a little more than two weeks from now. New Mexico is a wonderful state to visit, as it has its own cuisine (and the best chiles in the world), its own culture (Spanish, not Mexican), fascinating Indian tribes (Navaho, Zuñi, Acoma, plus 20+ other pueblos), fascinating recent history (the A-Bomb), steam trains (the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad), the tomb of Smokey Bear (Capitan) and Billy the Kid (Fort Sumner), and any number of good things.

So I’m signing off for now. Wishing all of you good luck, and don’t let Trumpf bite you!

John Wayne Never Fought Them

Old Photo of Jemez Pueblo Architecture

The Indians we know most about are the ones that appeared in the old Westerns: The Navajo, Apaches, Comanches, and Sioux. There are some twenty Indian tribes in New Mexico and Arizona that, insofar as I know, never appeared in any. John Wayne never fought them, nor did Randolph Scott or Jimmy Stewart or Audie Murphy. I am referring to the Pueblo Indians, most of which are located around Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

We know that the Navajo, Apaches, Comanches, and Sioux have been warlike. But did you know that the only successful Indian revolt against Western colonization was fought by an alliance of Pueblos in 1680. It was not until twelve years later that the Spanish reconquered the territory, but even then with difficulty. Many of the most warlike Pueblos simply united with the Hopis and Navajos.

I have just finished reading The Pueblo Revolt: The Secret Rebellion That Drove the Spaniards Out of the Southwest by David Roberts (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004). The key word in the title is “secret.” To this day, the Pueblos do not choose to discuss the conflict—even one that occurred over four centuries ago. Consequently, most people do not know about it.

Pueblo Revolt Scene Painted on a Hide

Why the secrecy? I think it is a cultural trait. Years ago, Martine and I spent the night on the Zuñi Reservation at a time when most of the town and surrounding areas were off limits to non-Zuñis because some tourist had misbehaved at a ceremonial in the distant past. One cannot just waltz into a Puebloan reservation and have the run of the place. You will be referred to the tribal authorities, who most likely will ignore your request as a matter of course. It’s not that they are unfriendly: For them survival involves buttoning their lips, even if it involves a 450-year-old secret that just happens to be none of your beeswax.

Its Own Culture

The Zia, Symbol of New Mexico

Not too many states can be said to have their own culture. I, for one, couldn’t say anything about the state in which I was born—Ohio—except that it’s mostly featureless with some rolling hills. And as for distinguishing it from Michigan, Indiana, or Pennsylvania, forget about it! Even California doesn’t quite have its own culture: It has several of them coexisting within its 164,000 square miles. But New Mexico is a different story altogether. Its capital, Santa Fe, was settled in 1610 and is the highest state capital in the U.S.

When I used to visit New Mexico in the 1980s (with Chaco Canyon my main destination), I was told by residents never to refer to the Hispanic people as Mexicans, but as Spanish. They claim descent not from the people south of the Rio Grande so much as from the conquistadores who quelled them. Their cuisine resembles Mexican food only in certain dishes, most of their cuisine being unique to the region.

Now, as I prepare for my trip there next month, I am beginning to discover it has its own literature. Both Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima and John Nichols’s The Milagro Beanfield War (and no, I never saw the movie) are set in the northeastern part of the state among the rural Spanish population. I am reading the latter book now, and find it marvelously entertaining, as in this passage about the local sheriff and his wife:

The one real fight Bernabé and Carolina had had in their life together occurred because of the saints. It had been an abnormally dry year (every other year in Milagro was an abnormally dry year, alternating with all those abnormally wet years), and so one day, during the Death of the Fruit ree blossoms time, Carolina carried their San Isidro out into the back field asking it to rain on their cucumbers. Well, sure enough, it raines all right, then the rain turned to snow, and the snow turned into a blizzard, so Carolina ran outside with their Santo Niño de Atocha, begging him to queer the blizzard before the cucumbers and the fruit trees were destroyed, and so the blizzard stopped and it began to rain again and the rain froze and tree branches fell down onto everything, and some cows Bernabé had up in the canyon froze to death. Whereupon suddenly, gnashing his teeth so hard little pieces of porcelain literally spewed from his mouth, the sheriff jumped up and grabbed an armload of her saints and threw them into the holocaust. Carolina shrieked, plunged into the storm, retrieved her precious little statues, and cried for three days.

I have been laughing since I started reading The Milagro Beanfield War and look forward to four more days of guffawing.

The Cube from Outer Space

The New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo

Not too many people think of outer space when you mention that State of New Mexico. Yet, in many ways, New Mexico is where much of the future came together. First there was the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, followed by the first atomic blast in the Jornada del Muerto, code-named Trinity. Then there was the nearby White Sands Missile Range. And don’t forget the Karl G. Janski Very Large Array (VLA) of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) just west of Socorro.

When Martine and I last visited New Mexico, we stopped in at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo to view their four floors of exhibits ranging from the early days of rocketry to NASA, the moon, and beyond. The mirrored glass cube seemed to us like a visitor from outer space and put us in the right frame of mind for the two or three hours we spent there.

If we keep to our tentative itinerary, the museum will be our last stop before returning to Albuquerque and flying back to Los Angeles.

What Ever Became of Them?

The Anasazi Ruins of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon

You’re familiar with the patter: These ancient people had an advanced civilization, and they suddenly disappeared. What ever happened to them? Actually, they didn’t go very far: You can find their descendants among the Hopi and the twenty-three tribes of Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, ranging from Taos to Acoma to Zuñi. What made them move from Chaco Canyon and the other Anasazi communities of the Four Corners, such as the ones at Mesa Verde, Betatakin, Chimney Rock, and Keet Seel? Some time around the 13th century, many of the local rivers dried up; and the Anasazi were forced to move.

I ran into the same type of “mystery journalism” in Mexico. What ever happened to the Mayans? These brilliant peoples inherited all those wonderful ruins such as the ones at Chichén Itzá and Uxmal—and now they’re all gone, or are they? All I know is that there are millions of Maya still inhabiting Yucatán, Chiapas, and much of Central America—and many of them still speak Mayan.

One of the reasons I want to go to New Mexico is to see Anasazi ruins. The best site is Chaco Canyon, of course, but I’ll be traveling this time with Martine, who doesn’t like long washboarded dirt roads and sleeping in campgrounds. So I will try to see some of the more peripheral Anasazi cities such as Chimney Rock, Salmon, or Aztec. (No, they are not related to the Aztecs of Mexico.)

No doubt I will be seeing thousands of Anasazi, or at least their descendants.