There are several places in our country that all Americans should visit, we can call them Patriotic Pilgrimages. Not necessarily to show how patriotic you are, but to see, touch, feel, and even smell our country at its greatest, at its lowest, and some in-betweenests.

At least three of those places always come to mind: Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Gettysburg. I can’t argue with any of them.

But there’s another place that most Americans have never heard of except perhaps in some documentary on the History Channel, and that’s Los Alamos, New Mexico. It is must see for every American and if you don’t believe me, read on, perhaps I can change your mind.

It’s a strange town, no doubt about it. It is high on a mesa west of Santa Fe, accessed by three roads, one from the north out of Espanola, one from the south out of Bandelier, the other from the west that eventually leads to Valles Caldera and points beyond. The mesa is criss-crossed by a deep canyon or two, forcing the construction and maintenance of some pretty long bridge spans. It is home, if you’re interested, to one of the highest-altitude Olympic-size indoor swimming pools in the world.

The population is only a few thousand, mainly because most of the land in and around Los Alamos is owned by the U.S. government; very little is privately owned, and a goodly part of that is owned by only a few individuals. That means that towns below the mesa such as Espanola serve as bedroom communities. At one time, Los Alamos was considered the wealthiest town in the town as measured by salaries to per capita population. That’s because of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, LANL. Thousands of PhDs and folks with masters degrees are employed there, that means they get paid a lot. Los Alamos still holds the distinction of having one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country: 95%. PhDs expect a lot from their kids.

The Manhattan Project, that super-secret World War II experiment, came to town in early 1943. Contrary to some stories, the site was not selected by Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, but by an associate who knew about the area because his sons had attended the Boy’s Ranch School, which was about the only thing in town in the early 1900s. He knew that the remoteness and limited access would made an ideal location for a super-secret project. The U.S. Army and Oppenheimer agreed.

Oppenheimer is the Father of the Atomic Bomb and in Los Alamos that is nothing to either be ashamed of or hide from. His name evokes a heroic image wherever you turn. Schools, streets, buildings all bear his name. You don’t Diss the Opp in the Los. And that’s OK. When you’re there for a while, you start to see the reasoning. The bomb made Los Alamos what it is today, the Ultimate Shrine of the National Labs.

I worked at the Los about six months in 1996 helping to test stuff for hazardous materials. The stuff was in old barrels that had been buried decades before, barrels filled with vials, bottles, glass jars, whatever. “Back then” they did a crummy job keeping records of the stuff they buried in various ravines, crevasses, and holes. This isn’t just a Sandia or Los Alamos problem – it’s a problem everywhere.

Like most of the Labs, Los Alamos is not concentrated in a building or two, rather dozens of ‘sites’ or ‘areas’ dotting the canyons below the mesa and on the mesa top. Some of the sites have small buildings, some have quite large buildings, and many are top-secret. Our team worked in only one site on the south side of the mesa, occasionally we might have to go to another area, but only to areas that were less than top-secret. A lot less.

More than once we would be working away and would hear a huge “BOOOM!” and the earth would shake a bit. The first time or two we stood still, figuring we’d hear the sirens of emergency vehicles roaring up or down the mesa, but that never happened, so after a while we figured it was all part of some experiment, business as usual, no big deal. Whatever was going on was in the Top Secret category.

I spent some time in the Los the first few weeks when I realized that there were a LOT of Chinese food restaurants for such a small town. By a lot, I mean something like 15 of them, with only about 4 Mexican food restaurants. Think about it: we’re in N-E-W  M-E-X-I-C-O! I asked a LANL manager who had lived in the area for several years about this and I’ll never forget his answer. “Well,  there are a lot of Chinese nationals working here at the Labs. Mostly men, so maybe their wives need something to do? Running a Chinese food restaurant might seem a good idea. And, it gives the Chinese spies somewhere to hang out.”

The way he said it was so matter-of-fact that I had absolutely no response, witty or otherwise.

Los Alamos has two of the best museums I’ve ever visited. Museums are great when you remember them and I’ve been to a few that kind of left me with a shrug. Not the ones in the Los.

If you take my advice and visit Los Alamos, make sure you visit both museums because you really need both of them to get the picture of not only the War and the atomic stuff, but also how the Labs have actually shaped this country for the last half-century.

The “local” museum is run by the Los Alamos Historical Society and is in one of the original buildings still standing from the Ranch School. Like many local museums, the building isn’t new or fancy, a log and rock structure (it has recently been remodeled), you have to walk single-file, to see the objects in rough-hewn glass boxes. But what’s in those boxes is incredible. From toys to everyday household objects, the Nuclear Age was a pop phenom. An Atomic Lunchbox for the kiddies? They got one. Posters declaring how the atom is our friend, will cure all of our ills, and make America Master of the Universe. The museum is literally packed with thousands of items.

The museum also chronicles the people who lived here before the war and of course the people who made the Lab what it is. The photographs, art work, and archives are amazing and well-preserved. This is a history that haunts us still and this is a side of that history that should be taught and remembered.

The other museum – the Bradbury Science Museum – is more of an “official” museum, sanctioned and sanctified by the government, with snazzy displays and a futuristic look. It’s professionally done, with lots of plexiglass and large areas to walk around in. It tells more of the “official” story of the Lab and the bomb-making, with emphasis on World War II. It also has high educational components for school kids.

As I mentioned, I was there in 1996, the year after the 50-year memorial of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was quite a controversy with Bradbury and other museums about the way the War and the way the Pacific part of it had ended, were being portrayed. Japanese families and officials, and many Americans, felt that failure to mention the devastation wrought by Fat Man and Little Boy was an injustice; WW II vets and others completely disagreed.

After a lot of publicity, both pro and con, a compromise of sorts was reached; Bradbury dedicated a small corner of the museum to the Japanese sympathizers, with several pictures of the two cities, as well as the physical destruction of civilian survivors, in the weeks and months after the bombings. The display was still up when I visited in 1996. (Later that year, coincidentally, I was in D.C. and visited the Smithsonian’s version of the Japanese compromise, much larger, of course).

Two more things about the area: Bandelier National Monument and Valles Calderas.

Bandelier lies on the southern foot of the mesa, a superb collection of pueblos and cliff dwellings. I’ve been to Mesa Verde, of course, but

Bandelier National Monument, photo by the author

Bandelier is just as interesting if not more so. The dwellings are in a tight canyon and you can get a very good understanding of how these early natives lived and toiled.

“You have to go up to the Valley!” I was told time and again by several locals, so one Saturday I drove the twisted road west of Los Alamos.

You can’t miss the Valles – it is thousands of acres of flat mountain, the result of a collapsed volcanic crater. There seemed to be a traffic jam. I pulled my car over to the side of the road next to other cars and noticed a nearby forest ranger. He was watching us – as we were watching a huge herd of elk cross the road. I had never seen so many elk in one place before except Yellowstone, there might have been 300 of them. The ranger was helpful in his information. Valles Calderas was home to one of the largest elk populations in the lower 48; he had no official stand here since at that time the Valles was still in private hands but there was an active interest in preserving the area, known as the Baca Ranch (yes, a legacy remnant of a Spanish Land Grant). A few years later, in 2000, I was pleased to read that indeed the efforts had paid off and Valles Calderas became a National Preserve.

Denver      Idaho Falls      Albuquerque       Los Alamos