Monday, April 09, 2012

A Trip to Trinity Site

It’s about a two and half hour drive to White Sands’s Stallion Gate from my home in Santa Fe. I wasn’t sure of what to expect, so I brought reading material, having heard stories of long waits to get in. I left about six-thirty, got there about nine, and the dozen or so cars in front of me moved through the gate expeditiously, drivers showing a picture id to the security people.

From the gate, it’s another fifteen miles to Trinity. The site is on the beginnings of a mountain elevation, and as you approach, you can see the roughly circular cleared area. You also pass the control bunker before you enter an immense parking lot, directed by young soldiers dressed in camouflage mimicking the creosote-bush vegetation that surrounds the gray gravel lot.

Nothing was as I expected. Far more people, but I guess I couldn’t expect the personal attention I got on my trip to Opytnoe Pole, the site of the Soviet Union’s first nuclear test of essentially the same design that was tested at Trinity. We had maybe a dozen people in two vehicles. I would not be surprised if there were (literally, yes!) a thousand times that at Trinity on Saturday. The car license plates were from all over the United States, and I heard, besides English, Japanese and a Scandinavian language.

Everything is, of course, very trampled. The desert is delicate, but lichens and other small organisms form soil crusts, easily destroyed. So the path to the site and the site itself are dust, what you get when you destroy those soil crusts.

One area of the blast site has been covered to preserve the trinitite pavement. I was surprised to see some trinitite still outside that area. A foamy green piece begged to come keep my Opytnoe Pole spherule company, but I sublimated that need into buying a souvenir windbreaker to be part of my Nuclear Diner wardrobe.

What is left of Jumbo has been moved to the parking area. It was smaller than I expected. Explanatory photos are mounted by the blasted cylinder and on the fence around ground zero, but many people didn’t seem to get it. A couple of guys were looking at a picture of Jumbo on its many-wheeled truck and saying that it was built at Los Alamos. I told them it was built in Pittsburgh and transported by train and truck. Why? They wanted to know. So I told the story that General Groves didn’t want to spread his billion dollars worth of plutonium over the desert and the three possibilities they tested at Los Alamos. I recently was told, by someone who has better connections to that very specialized rumor mill than I have, that the reason Jumbo wasn’t used was the concern that if the explosion went as planned, it would scatter giant shrapnel from Albuquerque to Las Cruces. I take that with a grain of salt, but I passed it along to my listeners.

There was a model of Fat Man on a flatbed truck in the ground zero area. It looked smaller in the crater than the Fat Man model does in the Bradbury Museum.

A nice surprise was a bus out to the MacDonald Ranch. Again, much too walked over.

I did manage to step aside and get alone with my thoughts, although it was much harder than at Semipalatinsk. Both areas have a stark, open beauty. The steppe is greener, and in many places the ground was paved with houseleeks, impossible to walk without stepping on little plants. It may simply be that I am more accustomed to the New Mexico flora. In many places, not just at Trinity, the creosote bushes had died but were coming up again from the roots. I hadn’t seen that before and am wondering if it is from last year’s very dry winter, followed by our recent rain.

The most impressive part to me was the depression, a very shallow crater, formed by the explosion. According to one of the signs, it is eight feet deep, little enough that you almost don't notice it. The stone marker is at precise Ground Zero, under where the device was mounted on a tower.

Stallion Gate is ten miles or so further east on US 380 than the famous Owl Bar and Grill, which seemed to be doing an enormous business as I was leaving, so I decided not to have a chile cheeseburger there. I turned south at that corner. Many years ago, I spent a lot of time at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge photographing birds. Someday, when I have nothing else to do, I will digitize those ten thousand slides.

That was before there was a visitor center and before it cost $5 to drive around the refuge. It was before Socorro’s Festival of the Cranes, and there were times when no other people were on the refuge, even during crane season. Lately I have learned that some people don’t realize that there are any other kinds of birds there.

It was the first time for this camera. I played a bit with the coots, just to get a feel for what might be worth photographing. And I did get lucky: ibis and egrets. I posted one photo yesterday. Here are more.

Great heron with a snack.

White-faced ibis.

White-faced ibis coming in for a landing over snowy egret.

There have been a lot of improvements since my last visit, and lots of water.

Coming back from my Texas trip a couple of weeks ago, I stopped at Bitter Lake NWR and was disappointed. The roads seemed to be fewer than I recalled, and practically all of the cover was gone. I got some really wonderful bittern photos at Bitter Lake a long time ago. In contrast, Bosque is developing some very nice rail and bittern habitat.

If you go:
White Sands opens Trinity Site twice a year, on the first Saturdays in April and October. Information can be found here. A lot of walking is required, perhaps a half-mile from the parking lot to Ground Zero, and just as much to the toilets. People transporters are available. Bring a jacket; the temperature when I arrived was in the sixties, and some people were shivering in shorts. Food is available, along with souvenirs. Looked like mostly burritos, along with various non-alcoholic beverages.

Alcohol and firearms are not allowed on site. Photography is allowed only at Trinity Site. The radiation levels are minimal.

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