Los Alamos, NM – The birthplace of the atomic bomb is a mere 20-miles southwest of Española, yet the two cities are worlds apart. You won’t find in Española any million-dollar homes perched atop the mesas. I haven’t met any residents in Española who hold Ph.Ds. The foods sold at the grocery stores are of different qualities. And the roads and parks in Los Alamos are pristine and well maintained while the poverty of Española is inescapable.
Residents of the two cities aren’t particularly fond of each other, but are linked by the 69-year-old Los Alamos National Laboratories, which has allowed Los Alamos to prosper and has given Española an economic lifeline, albeit a precarious one.
Española’s economy is heavily dependent on the Lab, which employs around 9,000 people total. Many residents in and around Española fill the Lab’s low-security jobs, making the Lab the largest employer of city residents. The city’s small business community is also in large part dependent on the salaries earned at the lab, not only from Rio Arriba County residents, but also the wealthy Los Alamos County residents who visit Española to dine at its restaurants or buy food from its farmers.
When the government cuts the Lab’s funding, as it has many times in recent years, it isn’t the scientists who lose their jobs, but rather those low-level workers from around here. The announcement earlier this year of massive lay-offs at the Lab was just the latest blow to Española. Worsening the problem is that throughout the recession, wealthy citizens of the Atomic City have patronized Española less frequently, further hobbling small businesses already operating on the margins.
As someone put it the other day: Los Alamos sneezes and Española catches a cold.
The Lab’s high-level employees will tell you, if asked what they do at the Lab, that they’re engineers. Everyone is an engineer. That’s what they’re told to say. Their security clearances, and consequently their livelihoods rest on their ability to keep mum. You’ll never know the mathematicians from the theoretical physicists, the nuclear engineers from the quantum mechanics.
That is, assuming you ever have an opportunity to ask.
Aside from its remote location, this site was handpicked by Robert Oppenheimer to discourage employees working on the Manhattan Project from interacting with local populations, who back then spoke little English. To this day, Lab staff keep largely to themselves.
Some of Española’s older residents who worked at the Lab long ago will sometimes tell wild stories. I met an 84-year-old guy a few weeks back whose job it was in the 1960s to calibrate the Geiger Counters, which measure radiation. To do this, he explained, he had to open a lead box full of radioactive isotopes to get a reading. Over time, he developed lesions on a lung and had it most of it removed.
The Rio Grande River as seen from White Rock, a bedroom community for Los Alamos National Laboratory workers.
The Lab is divided into numbered Tech Areas that stretch across 36 square miles. As you cross the bridge onto U.S. Government property, motorists are greeted with a big sign that reads: Visitors Welcome. Yesterday, while tooling around, my girlfriend and I decided to take the Government up on its friendly invitation and scoped out the campus.
There wasn’t much to see. On the surface there are many boxy, non-descript structures that appeared to be remnants of 1950s and 1960s. Most of them were surrounded by chain-link fencing with barbed-wire along the top. Most of the sensitive parts of the lab are rumored to be located underground, burrowed deep into the mountains, with many of the surface structures serving at one point as decoys, allegedly. Really, it was kind of a creepy, unsettling place, being a wellspring of so much death and global turmoil.
Being a Saturday, the parking lots were largely empty and there seemed to be no one around. Upon approaching a sign reading LANL BADGE HOLDERS ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT I turned around, but got out to take the only pictures I’d taken of the campus.
It was a simple shot of the sign. In the background was an ominous-looking security checkpoint that seemed as though it sat at the edge of a cliff for which you needed a security clearance to drive off of.
As we headed back toward Los Alamos city limits, a white SUV with U.S. Government plates raced up to me, tailed me for a quarter mile, and then lit me up just before I got to the bridge. As I pulled over, four more of those white SUVs rolled up, two of them blowing passed us and whipping sharp U-turns some distance away. The drivers then spied us through binoculars.
And, if that weren’t enough, two military vehicles resembling small gunless tanks flanked us. Through the side and rearview mirrors I saw the two Agents who lit us up exit the vehicle and slip into a crazy-looking vests that I can only assume would’ve protected them had I exploded Purple Thunder upon their approach.
An Agent approached the passenger side and asked if I had taken any pictures. Aware that he knew I had, I didn’t bother to lie. I told him I’d taken a picture of a sign. My nerves were calm until he demanded to see my camera, unsettled by the thought of him confiscating it and my very expensive lens.
“You took a lot of pictures of that sign,” he said.
“I had to get the shutter speed right,” I replied.
He asked us to step from the vehicle, which we did with haste.
As he inquired further about what we were doing there, the other Agent looked through my vehicle.
“The sign said visitors are welcome,” I explained. “So we were just driving around.”
I emphasized that I hadn’t attempted to enter any of the restricted areas, to which he replied I’d gotten a little to close to them for their comfort.
“We get a lot of foreigners here on the weekends taking pictures of things they don’t need to be taking pictures of,” he said.
I told him they ought to put up signs informing visitors photography isn’t allowed.
“There’s a lot of things I’d like to do,” he said.
I also told him the Visitors Welcome sign is very misleading.
He wrote down our information and had me delete the images from my camera. Over all, they were very respectful. They didn’t search our phones and the Agent who searched the van didn’t do anything more than poke his head inside and look around.
The Agent returned my camera and let us go about our day.