After driving about 17 miles, you’ll find an expansive parking lot, often quite vacant throughout most of the year. Pass by the twisted remnants of a 200-ton steel tube named Jumbo, and stand before a stone obelisk hewn from the nearby volcanic rock. The inscription on the plaque informs you of your whereabouts: Trinity Site — where the world’s first nuclear device was detonated on July 16, 1945.
Over time, Trinity has gradually receded from the collective memory, initially overshadowed by the horrifying atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and later fading away as the specter of nuclear threat diminished in the post-Cold War era. Following World War II, the Interior Department endeavored to establish Trinity Site as a national monument, but their attempts were consistently thwarted by the military, which aimed to maintain control over White Sands for its missile testing, far from the public eye.
In reality, Americans have grappled with mixed feelings about Trinity — a paradoxical blend of exceptional technological and scientific achievement, the apex of the Manhattan Project, and the birthplace of the inaugural weapon of mass destruction, where the capability to extinguish millions of lives was first explored and experimented with. It wasn’t until 1975 that Trinity Site achieved designation as a National Historic Landmark, ranking a step below a National Historical Park. Even today, it remains largely inaccessible to visitors, except for two Saturdays each year in April and October.
Anticipate an influx of visitors this upcoming autumn, largely due to the pivotal role of the Trinity test in Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed biopic “Oppenheimer,” which delves into the life of the mastermind behind the Manhattan Project. However, what emotions does one experience while standing at the very Ground Zero, the place where, as General Leslie Groves portrayed by Matt Damon exclaims in the film: “the most momentous event in the history of the world” unfolded?In the spring of 2018, during my research for my book “End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World,” I had the opportunity to visit Trinity Site. Sweating beneath the New Mexico sun, I’m uncertain what I expected to feel. A profound moment of existential insight, perhaps.