My career in science has let me visit and live in places I never expected to. While I was a PhD student, I got the chance to work at the famous Complex Carbohydrate Research Centre (CCRC) at the University of Georgia in Athens, GA. Go Dawgs!
Before moving to Athens I’d never even visited the US, and it was a real culture shock. The weather, the people, and the whole lifestyle were so very different from back home. One thing that helped a lot was that I was one of four PhD students who went over there together. This meant I could share an apartment with people from back home – although it was sometimes tough living and working with the same few people!!
To fully take advantage of our time in America, we decided to take a couple of big road trips, journeys far longer than could ever be driven back home in the UK. Almost exactly ten years ago, in October 2009, a friend and I drove from Athens, GA all the way to New Mexico to visit something very special.
My friend had discovered that the White Sands missile testing ground, where the very first atomic bomb was built and tested on the Trinity site, is open to visitors on two days of the year. This is because radiation levels are now low enough that a visit every six months is safe, but no more than that. We couldn’t resist going there to see the bomb site and the lab where the bomb was built, but we had a hell of a drive ahead of us.
We made a route plan, packed a bag each, and got on the road at about 6 p.m. after a long day in the lab. We decided we would just look for motels along the way when we got tired, and we would share the driving as close to 50-50 as possible (although I think I did a bit less). Apart from our final destination – White Sands missile testing range in New Mexico – I don’t remember us having many specific destinations in mind. It was such a freeing feeling.
We stopped at some amazing towns and cities along the way, each with its own unique nature. Our first major stop was Dallas, which dazzled me with architecture and political history. Soon after came Roswell, a very small town carrying a huge weight of strangeness. Alien eyes on every lamppost – perfect!
We stopped at two places in New Mexico that we had not previously heard of. Lincoln, NM is a tiny unincorporated village with fewer than 200 residents, but it contains the courthouse where the infamous outlaw Billy the Kid killed deputy Bob Ollinger, his final victim. Truth or Consequences, NM is another small town famous for a very different reason – it renamed itself in order to win a radio prize in 1950! Where else but the USA.
The main event of our trip was of course the Trinity testing site at White Sands. We got to see the bomb site, and the big crater left behind where you can still see tiny shards of green glass that were formed in the heat of the explosion. The glass was named Trinitite and it is forbidden to remove any from the site. We also went inside the “lab” building where the bomb was built. In reality, this was a tiny residential shack where the windows had been covered with plastic to keep the dust out. Hardly what we’d now call sterile conditions!
After Trinity, we had a long journey home ahead of us. We had dinner in San Antonio, and visited the Alamo the afternoon we were there. We just had time for a couple of hours in Texas and New Orleans, before getting back to Athens and back to our lab work!
The visit to Trinity was incredible. Getting to see where something so scientifically impressive yet socially devastating was a really unique experience. But what sticks with me the most to this day is the feeling of space out on the road. For hours at a time we would drive in a straight line with nothing visible ahead or behind us. Nothing I’ve experienced since has come close to that feeling.