20 years ago in April, I did a life-changing 28-states-in-22-days road trip in a 1988 Toyota pickup, listening to one of the greatest cassette road-mix tapes ever created and having numerous memorable adventures, good and bad. One of the bad— or at least disappointing— adventures involved getting 86'd from the White Sands Missile Range by angry soldiers when we tried to visit the Trinity Site (via unmarked dirt road) a few months before the 50th anniversary of the world's first nuclear explosion. Just about exactly 20 years later, I finally drove a Toyota truck to the Trinity Site and stood on Ground Zero a few months before the 70th anniversary of Trinity. Here's the story of that trip.
Ever since I made the mistake of picking up and reading John Hersey's Hiroshima as a seven-year-old at my grandparents' house, I've had a terrified fascination with nuclear weapons and the likelihood that we'll all end up burned and/or irradiated to death for no good reason. Growing up a few thousand yards from one of the biggest naval bases on the West Coast, having to do (obviously pointless) duck-and-cover atomic-attack drills in grade school, and being shown the nuclear-weapons storage area on an aircraft-carrier tour ("I'm not supposed to show you kids the bombs, but we got lots of them right behind this door!" whispered the USS Coral Sea sailor to my sixth-grade class), books like Fail-Safe and On the Beach were total fear-porn for me (I'd have really freaked out if I'd known as a 17-year-old just how close we came to nuclear combat toe-to-toe with the Rooskies in 1983). Later, I fell in with activists who hoped to stop or at least slow down the nuclear madness (we were unsuccessful), and Idevoured every book I could find on the subject. With all of this going on, I knew I had to visit the place where it all started (actually, one could make the case that it started when Leo Szilard crossed a London street in 1933), and it had to be done in a Toyota truck.
So, after driving three-quarters of the way around the perimeter of the United States, we were crossing New Mexico on April 23, 1995 and I started looking closely at our stack of AAA maps (yes, kids, we used paper maps back then, and one of the reasons to belong to AAA was that they gave you unlimited free maps). It appeared that there was nothing stopping us from taking little side roads all the way from I-40 right to the very spot where Oppenheimer uttered his famous words on July 16, 1945. Well, it turns out that the Trinity Site is right in the middle of a super-high-security US Army base, and if two hairy freaks in a beat-up Toyota pickup go driving down some dirt road on that base a few days after some asshole blows up a federal government building, a couple of Humvees full of soldiers will be sent to act as bouncers to keep us from crossing the velvet rope into the VIP area. After a tense discussion with very stern and heavily-armed troops, we were allowed to turn around and head back to civilian territory.
My plan was to leave Denver, head south on I-25 until I got to Socorro, New Mexico, spend the night there, and then head to the Trinity Site first thing in the morning. The site is open to the public exactly two days per year, and I expected to find only a few dozen die-hard atomic tourists there.
Since just about all of this trip would take place on pavement, it would have made more sense to have done it in a somewhat more luxurious member of the Toyota family (better still, in the King of Toyotas). But my first failed attempt to reach the Trinity Site was in a Toyota truck, and I wasn't going to give up on my goal any more than Enrico Fermi would have given up on his dream of self-sustaining nuclear fission. As it turned out, the 4Runner is quite civilized on the highway, for a genuine full-frame, off-road-ready Warlord Grade truck. The naturally-aspirated 270-horse V6 ran out of breath a bit on steep high-elevation grades and the suspension wasn't in its element on twisting mountain roads, but there's nothing at all punitive about an 8-hour road trip in this machine.
I'd assembled a playlist of atomic-themed music and some ads for Survive-All Bomb Shelters on my smartphone, and the 4Runner's Bluetooth audio interface worked very well. Such an upgrade from the tinny junkyard-cassette-player sound of my Hilux trip in 1995 (though I did include a playlist with all the tunes from my 1995 "Orange Tape" mix cassette). Nuclear… holocaust… is… possible!
Early the next morning, I turned the 4Runner into White Sands Missile Range, where I joined a long line of atomic tourists waiting to be allowed admission to the Trinity Site. I had expected this place to be of interest only to a handful of nuke-obsessed freaks like me, but in fact it's a big tourist destination. Hundreds and hundreds of middle-aged suburban Harley riders (including some on those maddeningly road-clogging three-wheelers— hey, get a real bike, guys!) were there to experience a patriotic rush over having nuked Japan. They were a little unclear about the role of the Trinity Site in all this confusing historical stuff, but they knew that we were about to visit a monument to ass-kickin' America.
When you visit the Trinity Site, soldiers guide you to a parking space in a huge lot, and then you have the choice of taking a bus a couple of miles to the McDonald Ranch House, where "the Gadget" was assembled and which survived the blast pretty well, checking out the remains of Jumbo, or walking a quarter-mile down a dirt road to visit Ground Zero. I opted for the latter choice right away, of course.
The scene at Ground Zero was pretty hectic, with barking dogs and tourists shouting at each other and shooting photos in front of the obelisk that stands in the spot where the first fission explosion took place. The atmosphere was festive, not in keeping with the end-of-the-world feeling I get when in the presence of atomic history.
Adding to the weirdness was several Japanese TV crews, who appeared to be trying to get the most hair-raisingly pro-nuclear-war quotes possible from the most stereotypically American-looking tourists they could find. Politics in Japan have swung to the revisionist/nationalist right in recent years, and many in Japan find political motivation to cast their country as victims of World War II rather than as the perpetrators of horrifying atrocities against neighboring countries. Commemorating the 70th anniversaries of all the terrible things that happened to the Japanese in 1945 appeared to be very important to the film crews at the Trinity Site, and they got plenty of brutal-sounding "the Japs were askin' for it!" quotes from my fellow tourists. There's plenty of World War II shame to go around, and none of the major players are in a great position to be throwing stones, but such is 21st-century politics. I tried to talk a couple of the film crews into letting me interview them about their opinions of my fine Japanese-built truck, but they shied away in horror.
Of course, the fact that I was brandishing an ominous-looking CD V-700 Geiger counter might have had something to do with freaking out the Japanese TV folks. I'd bought the thing 15 years ago, as part of my obsession with things nuclear, and I'd never managed to find anything more radioactive than the radium test source on the CD V-700's case and the tiniest signal from the americium in a smoke detector. Sadly, my Geiger counter had crapped out after years of storage, and I couldn't get any kind of a reading at Ground Zero.
Fortunately, I found a genuine radiation enthusiast wandering around the site, and he had a half-dozen radiation-detecting devices in action (he told me that his hobby was driving around San Diego and finding radioactive hot spots, which he claimed to find everywhere). Ordinary background radiation in the United States tends to be in the25-to-75 counts-per-minute range; it gets stronger when you live at high elevations (more exposure to cosmic rays) or in areas with lots of radon. This guy's most sensitive detector was showing about 1,000 CPM at Ground Zero, with some hot spots spiking to 3,000 CPM; not enough to be worthy of panic, but also not a place you'd want to live. Interestingly, his Exploranium GR-130 was able to discern that much of the radiation was coming from Cesium-137, which has a half-life of about 30 years; 70 years ago, the Trinity blast had created a great deal of Cs-137, and now a bit less than a quarter of it was still kicking out beta and gamma radiation. This stuff is the biggest problem around Fukushima and Chernobyl.
Even though the Atomic Energy Commission bulldozed and buried most of the Trinitite (glass created by the melting of sand due to the intense heat of the plutonium bomb's fireball) at Ground Zero back in 1953, you can still find bits of the stuff scattered all over the site. It's illegal to take Trinitite home with you from Ground Zero (back in the 1940s it was dangerously radioactive but locals still gathered up tons of the stuff), but it's OK to buy samples harvested before 1953. I was fascinated by being in the presence of actual Trinitite, and I spent quite a while tuning out the sound of Japanese TV interviews and studying these bits of green glass.
After spending much of the day at Ground Zero, I checked out the McDonald Ranch and Jumbo and then headed north to Los Alamos, where Oppenheimer and company had designed and built the Gadget. I'd already seen the National Atomic Museum (where they have the actual casings from the notorious Mk28 H-bombs accidentally dropped off the coast of Spain, among other cool/scary nuclear stuff) during a previous visit to Albuquerque, so I skipped that and spent the night next door to Los Alamos National Laboratory. I enjoyed watching the Top Gear Argentina Special on my laptop while sipping beer made in nearby southwestern Colorado.
I had really gotten to like driving the 4Runner by this time, and I was considering looking for some suitable dirt roads through the mountains into southern Colorado in order to see what this truck was really made of, but the maps programmed into the factory navigation system don't cover much of New Mexico outside of the I-25 corridor. This seems odd in a vehicle designed to take you to trailheads in remote wilderness areas (yes, I am aware that most 4Runner owners will never drive on anything more off-roady than a coating of autumn leaves on their driveways), and I regretted not bringing an old-timey sheaf of paper maps along.
If you were to go crashing down 100 miles of unpaved roads through the woods in this 4Runner— a task to which I am sure it is well-suited, though I didn't test it— and you got all covered with mud wrestling a bear or panning for gold or whatever, the interior is made to be hosed out and scraped clean without much drama. The seats are comfortable, and the whole package feels enough like a comfy pretend-truck CUV that you could commute to your office-park desk job every day in it and not feel like you'd just driven the Khyber Pass in a bouncy FJ40 Land Cruiser full of Stinger missiles (but smug in the knowledge that you could keep up with a mujahideen caravan of ancient Toyota trucks if the need arose).
Soon I was across the border and into my home state. You see plenty of 4Runners here, and some of them even touch their tires to dirt now and then.
1,133 miles after I began, I returned to Denver. 20 years after my first attempt, I'd finally visited the Trinity Site, and I'd had plenty of seat time in a truck that turned out to be pretty good at something off-road trucks weren't really designed to do: long highway drives alternating between straight-line desert roads and switchbacky mountain passes. Perhaps I will take a 4Runner to visit the atomic jet engines in Idaho someday, traveling entirely via farm roads and logging trails.
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