We land in Albuquerque, dazed and exhausted, which is what travel now always feels like. In the airport, a tiny cowboy walks toward me, barely five feet tall. His face is invisible under an enormous black hat, except for the tips of his moustachios. Wrangler jeans and lizard-skin cowboy boots. Silver belt buckle. Black shirt embroidered with roses and ropes. Everything about him is small, exquisite. Except for his hands. These are large, gnarled and dark. The hands swing by his side. Boot heels click off into the distance.
I know I’m in a different place.
The planet is burning, part 1
On our shuttle ride to Santa Fe, we watch a plume of smoke rise from a distant mountain — first sign of the wildfires we’ve been told to watch out for. We later learn that it’s a small one, as New Mexico wildfires go. The big ones, to the east and west of Santa Fe, will limit where we can travel on the weekend in our rental car. Tourist sites have shut down, evacuations begun, farms dating back hundreds of years are burning to the ground. Every so often, on the streets of Santa Fe, cellphones explode with yet another amber alert. If you’re in the path, get out fast.
Santa Fe Farmer’s Market
When we travel to a new place, and there’s a farmer’s market open, that’s where we always begin. In Santa Fe, we’re surprised that no one is selling bananas from Costa Rica or apples from South Africa. Instead, actual farmers selling only what’s in season, so we don’t find the tomatoes we wanted. Instead, tables are piled with fresh salad greens, radishes, spring onions, dried beans from last year’s harvest, bags of spices, fresh and dried grass-fed beef, and enormous bunches of dried peppers suspended, here everywhere in Santa Fe, like chandeliers.
Behind the tables are mostly Hispanos, descended from the first Spanish settlers coming north, hundreds of years before American settlers arrived from the east. Husbands in jeans and straw hats, wives in flowered skirts, kids helping out, grandmother resting in striped lawn chairs.
On the way back to our rented place, a guy in a long red beard is handing out slips of paper. He might be Irish, except that he wears a dark-blue turban decorated with sequins, and reminds me of the Hare Krishnas that used to populate downtown Montreal: pale, pink-cheeked kids chanting in saffron robes.
He asks for my vote. “KHALSA FOR MAGISTRATE.” I politely decline and keep walking, as I assume he’s running for Magistrate of Pneumatic Weirdness, especially as he’s handing out invitations to a fundraiser featuring Jake Jones Band and the Atomic Tourists. But I’m instantly ashamed of myself and turn back.
Actually, his full name is Devatna Khalsa, he’s a lawyer, works for the District Attorney, and has been a Sikh since 2007. Serves me right.
The planet is burning, part 2
Further on, we pause beside a 1941 Dodge pickup mounted on a concrete block. We learn that nondescript half-ton pickups just like these were used to transport secret supplies from the Santa Fe rail-yard, where we’re standing, to an ultra-secret team of scientists and engineers in Los Alamos, 50 kilometres northeast of here.
The Manhattan Project got a first taste of its strange fruit on July 16, 1945. The Trinity Test bomb (nickname, “Gadget”) was detonated near Alamogordo, New Mexico, as a dress rehearsal for Hiroshima, 24 days later.
The Trinity Test, 1.5 times bigger than the Hiroshima bomb, was so bright it was visible hundreds of miles away, in Texas. Ten schoolgirls, at a summer dance camp 50 miles from ground zero, were thrown from their bunks by the blast. Soon after, they saw white flakes descending from the sky, like a gentle snowfall. The girls danced under this new weather, rubbed the flakes into their faces.
Only one of these girls made it to age 30, and she was afflicted throughout her life with a variety of cancers. Across large parts of New Mexico, cancer and infant mortality rates spiked. But the veil of secrecy and official denial continues.
Taking a Greyhound bus to the States, when I was a kid, I remember fallout shelters in every bus station along the way, in post offices and public buildings in towns and cities. You might remember the logo. Yellow and black, the colours of a hornet.
I’ve always wanted to visit Los Alamos and see where it all began, but it’s closed to visitors until further notice. The planet seems to be burning up.