Freeway Free in New Mexico: The Town that Wasn’t There
The road to Los Alamos is paved now, and there are comforting stone barriers separating the driver from the precipitous drops edging the switchbacks as you climb from the valley of the Santa Fe River. There are even scenic viewpoints provided so that you can look out over the valley of the Rio Grande as it carves its way toward El Paso. It’s a long way from those days in the early 1940’s when the town was as isolated and exotic as Narnia, its only entrance through an inconspicuous door of an old adobe on the Plaza in Santa Fe.
In those days the inhabitants of Los Alamos were divided, like Narnia, into two very different groups, but unlike Narnia, they were putatively on the same side. The town had been created by the US Military, and its routine labor and its decidedly non-routine security were provided by the Army. But its purpose was to probe areas of science that had never been explored – to create the weapon that would end World War II, killing hundred of thousands of people, but by doing so save a million other lives which would have been lost through hand-to-hand combat, disease, ritual suicide, and other causes in a drawn-out battle for Japan.
Perhaps the uneasy alliance was more like that of Elves and Dwarves in the battle against the Dark Lord of Mordor. Certainly there was an elfin quality about Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the scientists, and a foursquare dwarvish solidity about his military counterpart, General Leslie Groves. And there were ordinary people at Los Alamos, too; there were cleaning women and secretaries and nurses and teachers, who played their roles without ever quite knowing what was going on.
Now the town looks quite ordinary. There is a struggling downtown area with some small shops and restaurants, and a new shopping mall. There is an excellent sandwich shop, Daniel’s Café (sharing space with Mary’s Gelato) . I recommend the Tuna Melt.
There is a high school which had been originally funded by the Atomic Energy Commission and still gets 22% of its funding from the FEderal Government. Since the principal employer in Los Alamos is still the Laboratory, it is not surprising that the sons and daughters of physicists have gained national recognition for their school’s academic program.
And there is a wonderful museum, the Bradbury Science Museum, which tells the story of the Manhattan Project from the point of view of all three groups who worked there, as well as revealing as much as can be told about the lab’s current activities
For more about Los Alamos and the Mahattan Project, you can’t go wrong reading Day of Trinity by Lansing Lamont, and then watching “The Day After Trinity”, a fine documentary about Robert Oppenheimer. And when you walk the sidewalks of the Town that Wasn’t There, you’ll hear history echoing in your footsteps.