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!
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