It’s About Time: Just another adventure in New Mexico |

It’s About Time: Just another adventure in New Mexico

Bill Kight

“Now, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

— Robert J. Oppenheimer, citing the Hindu Bhagavad Gita as the Manhattan Project Trinity site test bomb exploded.

What do you do when your middle-school-age daughter wants to go on a road trip? You go and make it an adventure.

It’s that simple because life rarely, if ever, gives you second chances when children ask for special time to be with you and only you.

It wasn’t just any road trip. My daughter Amber wanted to go see the place where the first atomic bomb was detonated on the White Sands Missile Range, south of Socorro.

The restricted area in central New Mexico is the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. It is also on the north end of the Jornado del Muerto, the most desolate part of the historic Spanish Royal Road from Chihuahua, Mexico to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

What used to be called the White Sands Proving Ground, until renamed in 1958, is only open for visiting the Trinity Site in the spring or fall, on one day only, from 8 am to 2 pm. Amber and I went in the fall. (This fall’s one and only day it was scheduled to be open, October 3, was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.)

The only other time I know of the range being open to the public was when the space shuttle Columbia landed there at the Northup Strip on March 30, 1984. The Northrup Strip is a runway of hardpacked white gypsum. Soon after, the landing site was renamed “The White Sands Space Harbor”.

I was lucky enough to be an official part of that historic event, but that is another story for another day.

The two of us stood on ground zero where the Atomic Age was born, and which is still ever-present with us, lest we forget the lessons history teaches.

This description comes from the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO): Nicknamed the ‘gadget’, the plutonium-based implosion-type device yielded 19 kilotons, creating a crater over 300 metres wide.

When the bomb exploded, it left a strange-looking substance that was the color of green jade, and glass-like in appearance, in the eight-foot deep crater. Called trinitite, it was desert sand melted by the intense heat of the nuclear bomb.

The National Park Service warns visitors not to pick up the material, as it’s still radioactive.

From an abundance of caution, we didn’t stay too long at the Trinity Site, which in 1972 became a National Register of Historic Places site and a National Historic Landmark.

After we came home, I wanted to know more about J. Robert Oppenheimer, Director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during the Manhattan Project. My research discovered Mr. Oppenheimer named the site Trinity, which became the official code name for the site.

John Donne was a poet Oppenheimer liked, and history records that it was from Donne’s poems “Hymn to God, my God in my Sickness” and “Holy Sonnet XIV, Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God” that he came up with the name Trinity.

I then read the book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” to learn more about his genius.

It would be remiss of me to not mention that taking the back roads home, we were heading north on New Mexico Highway 41 when Amber fell asleep.

Near the town of Galisteo I decided to take one of my infamous short-cuts to the old ghost town of Madrid.

It was quite a thrill taking the dirt road uphill, down into sandy arroyos, then uphill again.

The roller coaster motion woke Amber. Looking around, not knowing where we were, she gave me a stink-eye look that conveyed “Not again!”.

Smiling at her reaction I said, “Nothing to worry about. It’s just another adventure.”

Bill Kight is the executive director of the Glenwood Springs Historical Society and writes a monthly column about history. He can be reached at 970-945-4448.

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