Saturday, May 18, 2013


We arrived home on Thursday evening, after enjoying some very refreshing changes of scene. We head west at this time of year, for our wedding anniversary treat trip, in an attempt to avoid tornado-type weather while on the road. The tornado season is often at its worst in May in tornado alley, roughly covering the central area and points east in the US. Tornado warnings are bad enough when ensconced at home, but on the road in the middle of nowhere they'd become way too scary - if we were, in fact, even aware of potential danger ahead. Diving into a ditch ain't my style - or his! Our caution paid off this time, we heard that ten tornadoes had hit an area of central north Texas on Wednesday night. We were in the north-west "panhandle" of the state at the time. The photograph? No idea. That's Texas for ya!

After a brief stay in the romantic-sounding city of Amarillo in the Texas panhandle, and a rummage around the antique stores of its "historic" 6th Street, we headed over into Mountain Time and New Mexico, a state known, and correctly so, as "Land of Enchantment". We've explored much of the state already - love it, love it! As well as its gorgeous scenery, so beloved by artist Georgia O'Keeffe, New Mexico has such a weird and wonderful connection to so many intriguing topics: Roswell and its UFO stories; the Carlsbad Caverns with their other-worldy scenarios; the unearthly beauty of White Sands, their amazing expanses and spine-chilling connection to atomic bomb experiments; the space port just now coming into being near peculiarly named Truth & Consequences; the Very Large Array (see blog header photo); the space museum in Alamogordo, just to name a few of the state's attractions.

Los Alamos and its surrounding region is an area we'd passed through before - during a snow storm, and always intended to return in better weather. (Photograph is from the National Laboratory website.)
Los Alamos, Spanish for "the aspens" or "the cottonwoods" depending on source is located in a high valley where aspen trees are common but cottonwood trees, which live at lower altitudes, are not. There used to be a spring in the valley where a grove of cottonwoods grew. The area got its name on maps from those trees to make for easy identification of the area (see Answers). The town sits among mesas of the Pajarito Plateau below the Jemez Mountains, and is famous for its connection to the top-secret (in the 1940s) Manhattan Project. In those days the area was remote, quite unreachable by the general public. The region housed a site originally purchased in 1917 by a Detroit entrepreneur, Ashley Pond. He had established The Los Alamos Ranch School there as a place where "privileged eastern boys might become robust learned men".
26 years later the infrastructure and roads to the area made it ideal to fill the United States government's need for a secure site for their Project Y. The ranch school closed in 1943, and immediately some of the world's greatest scientific minds arrived, their task was to unlock the secrets hidden within the atom. J. Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist at the University of California, led the research which concluded with the world's first atomic bomb. The name of the town, during that time, was not allowed to be spoken or written, it had to be referred to by its postal code only - even among local people - so tight was security.

The rest is part of mankind's darkest dark history.
"We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another."
(J. Robert Oppenheimer)
End of history lesson - more at Wikipedia.

We were keen to look around the Bradbury Science Museum sited in the centre of Los Alamos. As it was Monday the museum didn't open until 1pm, so a slow walk around town in the thin, high altitude air was in order, then a light lunch at The Dixie, a cavernous busy-busy, very noisy cafe. The menu offered some interesting options. I chose their "Hippie" sandwich - vegetarian burger with all manner of tasty additions piled on....high and deep. Anything at all "veggie" is a real treat for us. In Texas and Oklahoma uttering the word "vegetarian" is liable to get one frowned upon at best, run out of town at worst!

We arrived at the museum doors around opening time. All very interesting it was, though many of the exhibits and explanations were way over what my non-scientific brain could process efficiently. The two 20 minute films on offer in separate studios were excellent though, and, thank goodness, all in layman's language.

Below: scale models of two bombs Fat Man (top) the atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, by the United States on August 9, 1945; and Little Boy dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 by the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay.... Himself looks on.

Husband said the thingie above my head reminded him of "the cone of silence" often referenced, and used to comic effect, in an old TV comedy series called Get Smart. He said he might find a use for one....hmmm...likewise, I'm sure, sir!

You could, if you cared to scare yourself, add up your total exposure to radiation to date using this list as guide:

Most of the wartime buildings in Los Alamos are gone now, but the house where Oppenheimer lived, on the corner of Peach Street and Bathtub Row, still exists, and is still lived in by someone. It is quite unmarked by plaque or notice, just a modest house with a straggly garden. Bathtub Row was so-named because the old Ranch School masters' cottages had cast iron bathtubs, the only bathtubs around at the time; the old residences were considered suitable for leaders of the important new research project.

A modern town supporting the Los Alamos Scientific Research Laboratory has sprung up, and grown over past decades, now it is easily reached by good roads through some of the most glorious scenery in the state. The Bradbury Science Museum is the only part of the National Laboratory in Los Alamos open to the public. The National Laboratory itself is one of the premier scientific institutions in the world, it has a budget of over $2 billion, employs around 11,000 people. The core mission of the Laboratory is national security: "the reliability of the US nuclear deterrent; reducing global threats; and solving other emerging national security challenges."

I'm mainly a "ban the bomb" kind of person myself, but there's no denying that if the US/UK hadn't developed the horrendous weapon when they did, Russia would have done so first. I guess one has to look upon it as a necessary evil and a powerful deterrent - necessary at least until humans learn their lessons. We are, apparently, very slow learners.

Later it was back through the lovely landscape to Las Vegas where we were based - not THAT Las Vegas, there's one in Mew Mexico too, without the gambling and the glitz!

We stayed in Amarillo again on the return drive home, and took an extra day to explore a couple of sleepy towns in the Texas plains: Pampa (once called Glasgow), and Borger. Originally these were settled by farmers but gas and oil discoveries in the area in the early 20th century set the towns a-booming. With boom-times long over, both towns have settled back into a quietly dusty routine existence with little evidence of former glories.


R J Adams said...

Sounds like you had a good time. You were right to escape tornado alley, though I hope you haven't arrived home too soon. The forecast for your area over the next few days is not good. Take care and stay safe.

James Higham said...

Gee, you really went into the guts of it, didn't you?

Twilight said...

RJ Adams ~ We enjoyed it a lot, yes!
Thanks, RJ - tornado time is here again and I'm keeping a wary eye on the forecast.

Twilight said...

James Higham ~ We did - it brought on a few eery feelings too.