Edging West

Adventure + Culture + Environment

Tag: Desert

Lessons from the Manhattan Project

I have an entrenched bias: I believe that a critical study and evaluation of history is necessary for understanding and grappling with where we were and what we aspire to be. Although  nuanced in countless ways and perceived and debated to serve whatever purpose, our history breaks and flows in a constant direction of almost scientific quality. The evolutionary spirit bends towards justice, peace, and democracy.

Current times seem violent and conflicted, but we should take solace knowing the days of long, epic wars of world powers clashing (hot or cold) seem over. That evolutionary spirit is one of progress. Children grow up today not fearing nuclear annihilation as they did in the 50s and spend less time hovering under desks. Gone too, the era when nuclear testing was a sideshow attraction where tourists rented top floor rooms in Las Vegas hotels to gawk at mushroom clouds glowing and rising in distant deserts of sand and glass.

And we should keep learning. Today NPR reported that the US Congress considered national park designation for three sites pivotal to the Manhattan Project. This too should be viewed as a sign of progress-an indication that we transcend a darker past. Although the initial bill failed, proponents hope for a retry. There is a chance these sites will become a national park in the future and it should be designated so, not as a means to glorify or sanitize our history (as was stated by critics), but as a call to action-an opening for healthy debate on how to engage and reconcile our past. Or maybe a reminder of how we came so close to losing it all?

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Years ago, traveling the dry side of the Sierra Nevadas, I visited the Manzanar National Historic Site in California, one of many designated Japanese internment camps used during World War II. American citizens spend long winters in this high desert locked away without Due Process. American citizens!

A shack of Manzanar

A shack at the Manzanar National Historic Site.

Today much of Manzanar is left for ruin. It is a dilapidated, shadow city of abandon, rundown shacks in perfect rows,  beaten hard against long years of open sun, wind, snow, and sand. Rusty metal scraps scatter the site, along with occasional broken shards of glass from old windows.

Metals scraps left in the yard.

Metals scraps left in the yard.

Despite the standard visitor center, the National Park Service leaves much of the site, by design, to decay slowly, untouched. They strike a perfect balance and succeed, reverently, in managing this site and commemorating a wayward era of compromised principles  I suspect that the National Park Service would do the same with the Manhattan Project National Park. And we should keep learning.

Near the visitor center.

Near the visitor center.

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Reminded of Aqua Prieta.

The Devils Hwy: A True Story, by Luis Alberto Urrea, is not a new book; it was released in 2004. For whatever reason it was unknown to me until seeing a recent interview with the author on Moyers & Company. Ergo, I read the book and am glad I did.

In January of 2005, on a rock-climbing trip to Cochise Stronghold, Arizona, my friends and I drove across the border to explore. It was raining, the desert was wet for once, along with the large granitic domes, and our climbing on hold.

Getting into Aqua Prieta was simple: you drove in. No checkpoints, no customs. No one is worried about those heading in. This remote corner of the west is far removed from the resort complexes; we found industry instead, along with rows of shops with trinkets and boarded, broken liquor stores and motels. The local tavern keepers were curious as to our situation, especially after learning we were not off-duty Border Patrol. They were friendly. We were an oddity.  Few Gringos travel to the northeast corner of Sonora.

The cross back was complex: you waited. Long lines of cars, longer searches, with rickety concession stands and zealous salesman to pass the time. Open market. Small boys, on foot, pattered the dusty way, trying to sell candies and snacks, their version of a lemonade stand, except the stakes were higher. One boy even went for it, in front of dozens of cars and a small army of Border Protection Officers. He ran and he climbed a fence and landed in a narrow, dry drainage made of concrete. It was the void between. He raced higher towards the next and final fence. He did not get far. It was a daring act. He was barely a teenager, but old enough to understand urgency. He made a choice.

Sonora/Arizona Landscape

I still wonder if he ever crossed. Maybe he ventured (risking his life) deep into the deserts and through the mountains and canyons that transcend this political line? I hope he found what he was looking for. The landscape and our desires have little to do with our structure; it is the same on both sides. In The Devils Hwy: A True Story, Luis Alberto Urrea looks, importantly, beyond the borders and conditions we create and into the human condition-that universal search for a better life.