I'm excited, call it Christmas-eve excited. I hastily down my breakfast burrito at the only 24 hour restaurant in Socorro, keeping one eye glued to my watch. I skip the 3rd cup of coffee.
Off interstate 25 and down into the valley towards White Sands Missile Range, the morning fog is gorgeous and almost impenetrable, veiling the remoteness of the place. Nearing the 12 mile mark I'd mentally calculated, a few cars appear, turning down the road towards Stallion gate.
With the fog burned off, we all come to a stop. The guard station is in sight about a half mile down the road. Several dozen cars are ahead of me, and a swiftly growing number sprawl behind. Engines off, we wait, parked in place as the sun heats up. People gather roadside, chat, and crane their necks for the any indication of activity at the gate, signaling the start of this biannual open-house in the middle of nowhere. An enthusiastic man runs down the queue carrying a cardboard box clad with a trefoil hazmat sticker while calling out, "Everyone bring your Geiger counters?! Who wants some uranium ore?" On his slower return pass he concedes how heavy it is. Further down the road a couple of Mexican women and their children set up an ad hoc burrito stand (if only I'd known).
Around 8:20, engines start and we inch forward. One point I’ve forgotten until now surges anxiety up my throat: I wonder if anyone will care about New York drivers licenses not technically being Real-ID Act compliant. I'd accidentally left my back-up documentation in Brooklyn during my habitual last minute packing. A couple of cars are turned away at the gate. Okay, my turn. An anonymous security contractor in black sunglasses holds my ID, puts on a sufficient show of scrutiny, waves traffic forward and wishes me a nice day.
It takes another 20 minutes’ driving from the gate to the site, through similar arid terrain that characterizes much of central New Mexico, though heavily littered with explosive debris (as many signs warn).
Pulling into the parking lot, cars are diverted into neatly arranged rows by a crew of airmen. The atmosphere is akin to a county fair. I pull what lenses I think I'll use, throw the bag on my shoulder and head towards the chain link corral that encircles the ground beneath where the first atomic detonation took place 71 years ago. Notably, there's no crater, just a few acres of flat ground, slightly depressed relative to the its surroundings.
Along the walk to ground zero, the National Park Service, along with several experts (I believe from Los Alamos National Laboratory) have set up camp, answering questions and offering demonstrations. There’s a trailer selling t-shirts and souvenirs.
A lava-rock obelisk serves as a historical marker at the hypocenter of the blast, and attracts a small photo-hungry crowd. Group shots, selfies, serious and not-so-serious. A man meanders around, geiger counter in hand. A few clicks here and there, nothing really note-worthy. I find myself with everyone else, staring at the ground hunting for trinitite like lost change. Similar to catch and release fishing… you find it, pick it up, marvel at it and throw it back. I assume the warnings about jail time if you remove any of the radioactive glass from the site are serious, though I'm sure a few pieces will make their way into more daring pockets.