Acid canyon


From New Republic (February 7, 1994)

by Douglas Coupland

The local oldies station, kbom 106.7 ("We don't glow, but we're radioactive!"), plays Peter Frampton's "Do You Feel Like We Do?" as we skim over a chewing-gum pink road built of gravel hewed from nearby "Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour"-like mesas. Climbing the steep grade of New Mexico Route 502, we pass an unmarked white eighteen-wheeler sandwiched front and back by pairs of Chevy Suburbans with blacked- out windows. The Suburbans are a miniplex of antennas, dishes and wires; communications between all five vehicles crackle almost visibly, like Van de Graaff generator sparks. The bodyguarded eighteen-wheeler is heading up Pueblo Canyon to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, carrying a load of well, er ... [insert the name of something extremely frightening here.]

Los Alamos, population 18,000, eighty miles north of Albuquerque, is a must-see destination for a small, emerging, dedicated band of "nuclear tourists." It is a defense contracting-based town, home of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is managed by the University of California (five-year contract recently renewed). It has to its credit, among an extraordinary number of other nuclear inventions, the honor of being the place where the first nuclear bomb was built. It is part of a travel menu that includes the fabled "Doomtowns" of the Nevada Test Site, the aging plutonium production culture of Hanford, Washington's Tri-city region (Richland/Pasco/Kennewick), the Missile Garden of Alamogordo, New Mexico, and Trinity Site, near Alamogordo, home of the world's first nuclear detonation. The town's main nuclear tourist destination is the Los Alamos Sales Company--probably the world's only dealer in what owner Ed Grothus calls "nuclear waste." (In fact, it sells nonradioactive cast-offs from the Laboratory.) Set atop a lovely hill tufted with ponderosa pines and junipers, the company is housed in two structures: an a- frame that was once a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church and a small supermarket (the "Shop 'n' Cart") that went out of business in 1985.

To tour the "Black Hole," Grothus's affectionate nickname for his facility, is to tour a land of dead technologies and dead ideologies. Old signage hangs from the supermarket's sagging, water-stained ceiling- -aisle 2: soap, bleach, detergents, fabric softener, dog food and cat food. The aisle now contains a jumble of dusty petri dishes, potentiometers, o-rings, microphones, liquified gas dewars, pre-amps, glass piping, vacuum jars and "-o- meters" of every description.

In the church there are four Noguchi podlike lights hanging from the ceiling's apex. The pulpit is stuffed, helter-skelter, with dead adding machines and attenuators. Where pews once sat, there lies a Toyota-sized linguini of black multipair cables. The structure is full to overflowing with the chassis of ammeters, d.c. voltmeters, microfiche reading machines, thermocouples, paper-tape punch control devices. Broken radio tubes, lost shift keys, wire fragments, number plates, transistors, patches of rust and cogs litter the floor. Honeywell seems to have done very well by Los Alamos. Ditto Union Carbide, Polaroid and Kodak. Some of the products and their names and makers have a touching, dated, extinct or nearly extinct feel to them:

  • a vaporizer by Chryo-Chem Inc. of Carson, California
  • a Heiland Strobonar 91B
  • a single-phase insulated transformer by the Square D Co. of Milwaukee
  • the Racal-Vadic va3434
  • a D.T.-360 from the Data Technology Corp.

There is a December 1975 issue of Datamation magazine, covered in pine needles, near a rear door; a date book is opened to September 23, 1980, as if that were the day, in a sci-fi movie, time came to an end.

Los Alamos, like most other defense-based civic economies, is searching for ways to repurpose itself. And as with so many other cold war-era tech towns, its mood is reflexively conservative. President Clinton's swords-to-plowshares speech here last year met with tepid response. As Grothus says, "Everybody turned out, but Los Alamos isn't Clinton country." Santa Fe, thirty-five miles to the south, is looked on as an ideological threat. New Age is pronounced "newage," to rhyme with sewage. The joke du jour is, Q: "Why did the Santa Fean cross the street?" A: "He was channeling a chicken."

Though the new Chamber of Commerce guide pitches the post-cold war Los Alamos as "a superior recreation and tourism destination," the city exudes denial. It has the time-stunted feel of having been constructed sometime between the Rosenberg trial and the year "Bewitched" went off the air. Street names include: Kristi Lane, Scott Way and Tiffany Court. There is virtually no architectural evidence of the 1980s--or even the late 1970s. There does exist, however, an aura of low-grade, Pynchonesque paranoia. High school kids speak easily of "Acid Canyon," a nearby locale where toxics allegedly were dumped, and of "brain cancer and leukemia clusters." Cub Scout badges once touted mushroom clouds.

As for 70-year-old Ed Grothus, he is beginning a slow liquidation of his inventory so he can pursue other interests, most notably a Museum to the Nuclear Age, filled with the best of the best of what he has salvaged over the past forty years.

He'd better hurry up. The newspapers have been flooded with news from Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary's "openness initiative." In recently disclosed Los Alamos experiments of the 1950s and 1960s, people, children included, swallowed or breathed radioactive materials to study the effects of radiation on the body: iodine in the thyroid, encapsulated uranium and manganese in the intestinal tract. There were baptisms by tritium and dinners of zinc and cesium. And in all probability the machines that manufactured these capsules, powders, broths and solutions, these dreadful snacks, quietly sit, covered in dust and perlite, locked in a death-dream of tract housing and dogs in orbit, deep inside the Black Hole.