Most recently updated on December 29, 2021
Originally posted on March 23, 2021
In old cartoons, there are numerous moments when Bugs Bunny pops out of a hole in the ground only to discover he is lost.
In each instance, he checks a map and then declares, “I knew I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque.”
That’s what we’re doing leaving the city this morning and heading north on Interstate 25.
On the agenda for today is a trip back into the beginnings of our nation’s Atomic Age as well as the eerie landscape in the middle of this state that has led to a culture of UFO believers.
Interstate 25 travels slightly more than 1,000 miles from southern New Mexico near the Mexico border all the way to northern Wyoming near its border with Montana.
We’ll be on this freeway for only an hour today, cutting through open land in north-central New Mexico. As we near the state capital of Santa Fe, we take another left to head north on Highway 599 before connecting to Highway 84.
We make one more left on Highway 502, heading into the mountains of the Santa Fe National Forest before reaching our first destination.
Los Alamos doesn’t look like a place where a secret project was hatched to build the world’s first atomic weapon.
But that’s exactly what it is.
The first permanent residents were Puebloans who arrived around 1200 and built homes on the cliffs and farmed in the valleys below.
A second migration occurred around 1300 with Native Americans from the Four Corners area.
By 1550, those settlements had disappeared due to drought as well as attacks from Navajo, Utes, Apaches and Cherokee.
In the 1800s, Spanish settlers established villages on the plateau. The Santa Fe Trail and the Rio Grande Railway brought in homesteaders who built log cabins and raised livestock.
In 1918, the Los Alamos Ranch School was established by entrepreneur Ashley Pond. The school was an outdoors-focused program for boys. The campus included 27 homes and 27 other buildings that included the school, a small sawmill, barns and an arts and crafts building. Pond named the town Los Alamos after the Spanish word for the area’s cottonwood trees.
In 1942, everything changed.
The U.S. military chose Los Alamos as one of three locations in the country for the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb because of the site’s isolation and inaccessibility. The military also liked the school buildings and the way the town was set up. So, they snapped up all the property and moved everybody out.
A community for lab employees was hurriedly built. Everything was top secret.
When they left their homes from across the country, the 6,000 lab employees couldn’t tell their family and friends where they were going. The town name did not exist on driver’s licenses, birth certificates or mail. All the employees’ addresses were listed as P.O. Box 1663.
The community was self-contained with homes, a hospital, schools and theaters.
The secret facility was known as Site Y by the government and The Hill by the people in nearby towns.
That lab was where the first atomic device simply known by lab engineers as “The Gadget” was slowly and carefully assembled from materials developed by the other Manhattan Project locations. Those experimental bombs were tested in remote areas in other parts of the state. We’ll visit one of those places later today.
The lab was supposed to be closed after World War Two. The town, in fact, declined in the late 1940s.
Then, the Cold War with the Soviet Union happened.
Los Alamos was revived in the 1950s as scientists again crammed into the renamed Los Alamos National Lab to help the United States keep up with the Soviets in the arms race.
The hydrogen bomb was developed here.
The town was restricted to lab employees until 1957 when it was opened up again.
Today, the lab still sits south of downtown in an isolated area. It consists of 300 buildings on 77 square miles. Scientists work on solar and nuclear research. The lab employs more than 11,000 people. About 45 percent of them live in Los Alamos County.
The salaries paid at the lab are the main reason Los Alamos’ median annual household income is more than $121,000, higher than any other place in New Mexico and well more than twice the state average. The town of 12,000 also has one of the highest concentrations of millionaires per capita in the United States. The median home price is $325,000, more than $100,000 higher than Albuquerque. Only 5 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
There was a price to pay for all this success. Radioactive waste from the lab operations over the decades has leaked underground in Los Alamos and other nearby towns. There are also 2,000 sites around the lab where trash, including washing machines, were dumped.
The Los Alamos History Museum tells the history of the town from its Native American beginnings to its atomic lore.
And the Bradbury Science Museum, named after Manhattan Project Director Norris Bradbury, has been welcoming visitors since 1993. It has three main halls that specialize in history, research and defense. Among the artifacts is a 1939 letter from scientist Albert Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt about the power of fusion.
One of the town’s well-known public figures is New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, who was born in Los Alamos and graduated from high school in Santa Fe.
We retrace our steps back through the high desert mountains as we head toward New Mexico’s state capital.
As we drive along Highway 502 east and Highway 84 south, we pass by communities that are quite different from Los Alamos.
Towns such as Pojoaque, Cuyamungue and Tesuque have 2,000 or fewer residents, the vast majority of whom are Hispanic. The citizens here earn about half the annual household income of their counterparts in Atomic City. That still puts them at $50,000 or more per year with poverty rates of less than 20 percent.
After 40 minutes on the mountain highways, the city of Santa Fe spreads out before us.
The 84,000 residents here also earn about half of what their neighbors in Los Alamos make, but this community isn’t like the ones we just passed.
Santa Fe is not only a state capital, it’s a thriving community for both artists and writers.
It’s also been around a long time.
The first residents were Pueblo tribe members who established settlements along the Santa Fe River around 1050.
Spanish settlers eventually arrived, officially establishing the town in 1607. That makes Santa Fe the third oldest city founded by European colonists in the United States, behind St. Augustine, Florida, and Jamestown, Virginia.
The town was named as a province capital in 1610, marking Santa Fe as the oldest state capital in the country. It achieved that status 20 years before the next state capital, Boston, was selected.
Santa Fe’s altitude of 7,198 feet is the highest elevation of any state capital. It also is home to the nation’s oldest community celebration with the Santa Fe Fiesta, which began in 1712 and is still held every September.
Shortly after New Mexico’s statehood in 1912, Santa Fe became a tourist attraction as well as a haven for artists because of its beauty and dry climate. A writers’ colony also sprung up between World War One and World War Two.
A more dubious part of the city’s history emerged during that second world war. Between 1942 and 1946, more than 2,000 Japanese Americans were housed at an internment camp here. They were part of the 117,000 people of Japanese descent who were put in these isolation centers. Most of them were U.S. citizens. Canada and Mexico had similar programs, although not nearly as many people were affected.
After the war, that episode seemed to be quickly forgotten as Santa Fe’s tourism industry continued to expand. Today, more than 1 million people visit in a typical year.
The city’s architecture draws some of the travelers. In the 1920s, the city developed a Spanish Pueblo Revival look that is evident in the downtown’s main plaza. In 1958, a law was approved that requires new and rebuilt buildings to reflect that style.
The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum opened in 1997. The museum features the works of the Wisconsin-born artist who lived in New Mexico from 1949 to her death in Santa Fe in 1986. The collection contains more than 3,000 of O’Keeffe’s works, including 140 oil paintings and 700 drawings. The museum association also oversees two of O’Keeffe’s homes as well as one of her studios, a research center and a library.
Gene Hackman enjoys life here. The 91-year-old Oscar-winning actor has lived in Santa Fe with his wife, Betsy, since 1991.
Ali McGraw, the actor best known for “Love Story,” also lives here, moving to Santa Fe 25 years ago after her house in Malibu burned down.
And actor Robert Redford owns a 250-acre ranch outside Santa Fe.
Out of Santa Fe, we turn southward to begin a long drive through the middle of New Mexico.
Highway 285 takes us through vast stretches of open land punctuated by small towns such as Lamy, a community of 200 known for its train station, and Young Place, a community of 100 that in contrast to its name has a median age of 56.
An hour after leaving the state capital, we stop at Clines Corners, a 30,000-square-foot retail center that greets travelers where 285 intersects with Interstate 40 about an hour east of Albuquerque.
The center was started in 1934 by Roy Cline, who opened a gas station and a café near here. He moved his business to its current location in 1937 after Route 66 was realigned. Cline sold the operation to S. Lynn “Smitty” Smith and his wife in 1939. The center prospered and the Smiths expanded it over the years. When Smith died in 1961, his wife sold the property. It’s had three different owners since.
You get an appreciation for just how big New Mexico is when you drive across it.
We continue south from Clines Corners on Highway 285 through more of the state’s highlands. There’s almost three hours of virtual driving before we stop again.
We glide onto Highway 3 south for a short distance before we join Highway 54 and head in a southwesterly direction. An hour after leaving Clines Corners we zoom through the town of Corona.
This community of less than 200 people was settled by Spanish ranchers who raised sheep and cattle on the open range land here.
It became a stop for stage coaches and then a depot for the railroad. The rail line helped develop the mining industry in the nearby Gallinas Mountains.
The railroad and the mining industries have all but disappeared, but Corona remains a ranching community.
What marks Corona on our map, however, is the fact the community was the closest inhabited area to a mysterious 1947 crash that helped start the UFO culture in New Mexico.
Corona residents learned about the incident 30 miles to the southeast when a farmer came into town talking about some chunks of metallic material he found on his property.
A team from the Roswell Army Air Field retrieved the wreckage. The military initially said the debris was from a weather balloon. Eventually, they admitted it was from a spy balloon from a secret espionage project known as Project Mogul.
Some conspiracy theorists, however, weren’t buying the explanation. They were adamant that the debris was from a spacecraft with extraterrestrials whose alien bodies were taken to a secret base near Roswell known as Area 51.
Their theory was fueled in the 1950s by the discovery of an initial military press release that described the scattered metal as a flying saucer and from the “dummy drops” conducted in the region by the military to test the effects of pilot ejections from high-flying aircraft.
Interest in the conspiracy expanded after the movie “Star Wars” hit the theaters in 1977. A 1980 book, “The Roswell Incident,” furthered interest even more. The phenomenon was captured in a Time magazine cover story in 1997 during the height of “The X=Files” television show.
The town of Roswell, an hour and a half southeast of Corona, has embraced the UFO culture.
There’s also an annual UFO Festival held in July that includes a costume contest, an Alien Chase road race and a UFO festival light parade.
Even the minor league baseball team gets into the act. The Roswell Invaders players wear lime green uniforms in recognition of the town’s UFO reputation.
Another hour south on Highway 54 brings us past the village of Tularosa.
The town was established in 1863 on 1,400 acres as a 49-block farming community. The original irrigation ditches are virtually unchanged today. The original settlement and its 185 buildings were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
On July 16, 1945, the range was the site of the first detonation of a nuclear device. The explosion was known as the Trinity Test, which was a piece of the Manhattan Project.
Two similar bombs were dropped on Japan less than a month later.
The missile site was designated as a national historic landmark in 1965. The area still has 10 times the amount of natural background radiation found in most places. Nonetheless, public tours are conducted during the first week of April and the first week of October.
The people who lived near the missile range in 1947 reported seeing a bright light and hearing a loud explosion the day “Gadget” was unleashed.
Residents who now live in the area say their communities were contaminated by radiation for years, causing a number of cancer clusters.
In 2005, Tina Cordova and Fred Tyler formed the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium to investigate the long-term health effects of the explosion on their valley.
Cordova, who grew up in the Tularosa Valley but has lived in Albuquerque most of her adult life, told 60 Days USA that she had just finished treatment for thyroid cancer in 2005 when she read an editorial in the local newspaper by Tyler about his family and his community’s problems with cancer in the shadow of the Trinity test.
He and Cordova met and formed their group.
The organization’s main goals are to compile a database on diseases as well as get New Mexico residents added to the federal Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act (RECA) for victims of the atomic testing we discussed on Day 2 of our trip. The program now only includes Nevada, Utah and Arizona.
Cordova and others testified before the House Judiciary Committee on March 24, 2021, about the need to expand eligibility under the compensation act. In September 2021, a bill was introduced in Congress to amend RECA to include New Mexico in compensation programs. That legislation has not yet been voted on.
So far, the basin residents haven’t received any compensation.
A report issued in September 2020 by the National Cancer Institute didn’t actually clear things up. The organization said there were probably some New Mexico residents who developed cancer due to the atomic explosion. However, they said the exact number can’t be determined. They also noted that the radiation exposure to New Mexicans was probably lower than the exposure suffered by people in Nevada and Utah.
Cordova says there’s no question this region has suffered from the fallout of the 1945 Trinity explosion. She says there were tens of thousands of people who lived within 50 miles of the blast, some as close as 12 miles.
She said the Trinity device was poorly constructed and detonated on a raised platform, sending radioactivity in all direction but especially in the downwind direction of the Tularosa Valley. The region had no running water then and most residents grew their own food, so the residents basically breathed, ate and drank microscope radioactive particles.
“Our entire environment was destroyed,” Cordova said.
Cordova said her family and virtually every family she knows developed illnesses in the decades following the explosion. Her father was among them, dying of cancer in his early 70s.
So, she and Tyler established a registry of personal stories from people who have lived in the valley since the nuclear test.
“We decided if the government wasn’t going to do anything to account for this, that we were going to keep track and make sure people’s stories were documented and people were recognized for their suffering,” Cordova said.
The consortium is also working to secure compensation for New Mexico residents affected by the test much like their neighbors in Nevada, Utah and Arizona.
She said her state seems to be in a “sacrifice zone” when it comes to uranium mining, storage of hazardous waste and radioactive fallout. She suspects part of the reason is because New Mexico has one of the highest percentages of non-white populations, a condition she labels as “environmental racism.”
“The people of New Mexico are easily regulated to this position of nothingness where we don’t really count too much,” Cordova said.
She said compensation can help make up for the “huge economic consequences” families have suffered when people lose job and rack up expensive medical bills due to illnesses brought on by lingering radioactivity.
She notes the danger to the valley isn’t going to dissipate any time soon. The plutonium used in the Trinity blast has a half-life of 24,000 years.
“This is never going to go away,” Cordova said. “We shouldn’t have to shoulder this burden on our own.”
One of the towns within the umbrella of the radiation fallout was Alamogordo, which sits along Highway 54 just east of the missile range.
Native Americans settled in the area 10,000 years ago. Apache tribes were there when the first Spanish explorers arrived in 1534.
The current town was established in 1898 for people working on the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad. It was named Alamogordo, which translates into “fat cottonwood,” for the trees that are abundant here.
The city was incorporated in 1912 as a planned community with wide thoroughfares and tree-lined irrigation canals. The east-west streets have numerical designations while the north-south streets have state names.
The Works Progress Administration was created in 1935 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to lift the country out of the Great Depression. The agency operated until 1943 when World War Two production eliminated the need for it.
The WPA employed 8.5 million Americans in 1.4 million projects. These included 4,000 new schools, 130 new hospitals, 9,000 miles of storm drains and sewer lines as well as 29,000 bridges, 150 airfields, 280,000 miles of road paving and the planting of 24 million trees. Among its famous projects are Hoover Dam in Nevada and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
During its eight years of existence, the agency spent $11 million on construction projects as well as art projects for artists, writers and musicians. There were 2,566 murals painted and 17,774 sculptures crafted for public buildings.
A 1939 Gallup poll revealed the WPA was the most liked as well as most disliked of the New Deal programs.
Critics said it was inefficient with projects costing three to four times what they would have under private management. They also noted that workers only earned an average of $41 per month.
Supporters, however, say the program was essential. They note that from 1929 to 1933 unemployment rose to 25 percent and family income dropped by 40 percent. In addition, 750,000 farms were lost, 300,000 companies went out of business and 11,000 banks failed.
For towns like Alamogordo, the WPA was a lifeline sent from heaven.
The base continues to fuel Alamogordo’s economy today. Holloman supports 21,000 active duty, reserve and guard members. This base and the nearby White Sands Missile Range have a combined payroll of $200 million and contribute an estimated $450 million to the local economy.
K. Jan Wafful, the film liaison for the office, tells 60 Days USA that the region has quite a history of filmmaking.
She says the first three movies shot here were a trio of westerns filmed in 1911. The first major studio to film in the county was Paramount when it produced the short documentary “Moon Rockets” in 1947.
The 1950s version of “King Solomon’s Mines” was also reported filmed here as was the Oscar-winning “Around the World in 80 Days.” The Clintwood Eastwood epic “Hang ‘Em High” also had scenes shot in Otero County.
There’s a lot more to this history. If you’re interested, you should contact Wafful. She knows all about it.
Despite the film industry, this region has been deficient in keeping up with technology. That is slowly changing. Tularosa Communications is being spotlighted in a new PBS documentary for its efforts to bring broadband connections to rural communities such as the ones in this New Mexico valley. The utility has been installing fiber optic cables in homes as well as increasing Internet speeds. The move came in handy when area schools turned to digital learning during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.
Speaking of science, the city does boast one famous resident along those lines. Alan Hale, the co-discoverer of the Hale-Bopp Comet, grew up in Alamogordo.
Gypsum and Galactic Travel
We’ve descended 3,000 feet in elevation since leaving Santa Fe as we enter the southern reaches of New Mexico where the terrain is a little drier and more desert-like.
A short time later, we take a right and head southwest on Highway 70.
It doesn’t take long to reach White Sands National Park.
Like the Grand Canyon and the Barringer Meteorite Crater, you have to actually see this natural wonder to appreciate it.
The park is exactly what the name implies. It is miles and miles of rare white gypsum sand dunes.
The landscape was formed in prehistoric times when a shallow sea covered the region. When the waters receded, the gypsum was left behind. This basin has no outlet to the sea, so when the water evaporates, the gypsum hardens and crystallizes.
In the early 1900s, the fields were threatened by entrepreneurs who wanted to use the gypsum to manufacture products such as plaster of Paris, drywall and toothpaste.
Once you’re here, you can hike on the sand or take your car on the 8-mile Dunes Drive. Or you can simply enjoy the view from the visitors’ center.
We get back on Highway 70 after leaving the beautiful white sand dunes.
You can tell we’re within 100 miles of the Mexican border due to the U.S. Border Patrol station on this roadway. It’s one of many checkpoints that ring the country around our borders on both coasts as well as within range of Canada and Mexico.
We continue southwest on Highway 70 as we near our final destination for the day.
We pass by the White Sands Missile Range Museum, which is basically a park with old missiles and rockets stuck in the ground, pointing skyward.
Highway 70 takes us into downtown Las Cruces.
With a population of 104,000, Las Cruces is the second most populous town in New Mexico, behind only Albuquerque. About 58 percent of the residents are listed as Hispanic and the poverty rate hovers at around 22 percent.
Native American tribes began living here about 20,000 years ago. They had mostly disappeared when Spanish explorers first arrived in 1535. The city became part of Mexico in 1821 and then was annexed into the United States after the Mexican American War in 1848.
The railroads came through in the late 1800s and the city incorporated in 1907.
Today, Las Cruces is where Interstate 25 and Interstate 10 converge.
It’s listed as one of the top 10 fastest growing metro areas in the country.
Agriculture is a big part of the economy. Peppers are the hottest commodity. Chile, cayenne, jalapeno and bell peppers of all colors are grown locally. In addition, Stahmann Farms south of town is one of New Mexico’s largest pecan growing operations.
The city’s manufacturing sector was helped by the NAFTA agreement in 1994 as well as by the 1991 opening of the border crossing near Santa Teresa, just 40 miles to the south.
With 340 days of sunshine a year, Las Cruces also has a growing renewable energy industry.
New Mexico State University is also here, so education is another economic component.
In addition, Las Cruces has had a thriving defense and aerospace industry.
A big reason is the city is the corporate headquarters for Spaceport America. The company oversees a launch facility about an hour north of town along the I-25 corridor. It’s described as the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport.
The FAA-licensed complex sits on 18,000 acres of desert. It was built with the help of a $220 million investment from the state. The companies located here include Virgin Galactic as well as HAPS Mobile, UP Aerospace and Spin Launch. Some of the spacecrafts are the ones that were built and tested at the Mojave, California, facility we visited on Day 1.
Spaceport America was cleared for flight in 2010, but for years it was more a tourist curiosity than an operational space launching pad. However, in summer 2020 it was the site of several successful suborbital flights of futuristic space vehicles. The hope originally had been to send private citizens into space by 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic slowed that progress.
Virgin Galactic announced plans in September 2020 to have company executives ride along as passengers in suborbital flights before blasting off on an orbital flight in spring 2021. In February 2021, however, the company said it was delaying its suborbital flights for SpaceShipTwo by several months to resolve technical issues. In July 2021, Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson joined crew members on a short suborbital test flight slightly above the 50-mile threshold of outer space. Virgin plans two more test flights before starting journeys in early 2022 with paying customers.
The Spaceport complex also hosts the Spaceport America Cup in June with more than 1,500 college rocket engineering students and faculty participating.
Downtown Las Cruces itself is in the midst of a long rebuild. An urban renewal project begun in the 1960s tore down a lot of historic buildings and closed seven blocks of Main Street. A 2008 plan to restore some of the downtown core is now in full gear.
This revival has been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like many New Mexico cities, Las Cruces was deeply impacted by the disease as well as the restrictions on businesses put in place as part of statewide safety protocols.
The city’s school district was hit particularly hard by COVID-19. Seven school district employees died from the disease between November 2020 and May 2021, although none were working in school buildings at the time they contracted the virus.
A number of businesses have also permanently closed. In late May 2021, protesters gathered downtown to remember the stores and shops that have closed as well as to demand that restrictions be loosened on the businesses that are still hanging in there.
One place that’s remained open, with extra safety precautions, is the Hotel Encanto de la Cruces. It’s designed with Spanish and Mexican colonial history in mind. It’s also the place where Virgin Galactic puts up its guests.
Another businesses that remains open is the Pecan Grill, one of the more popular restaurants in town.
We’ll pull up a chair and rest here for today.
Tomorrow, we’ll be busy cruising along the U.S.-Mexico border.