The Town That the A-Bomb Built

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Outside magazine, April 1996

The Town That the A-Bomb Built
By Lawrence Burke

Last summer’s 50th anniversary observances of the trinity blast, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki understandably focused on the world-historical transformation brought about by the atomic bomb. Considerably less was said about the here and now in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the small, high-desert town that has become synonymous with humankind’s fears, illusions, and deterrence-minded hopes
about nuclear weapons. For us at Outside, Los Alamos is a near presence: As the MIRV flies, it’s only 20 miles from our back door, and weekend excursions into the surrounding Jemez Mountains invariably take one past the scattered, tangibly worrisome installations of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The federal government has acknowledged that well
into the 1950s, it routinely dumped radioactive leftovers into surrounding canyons–according to recently declassified documents, more than 1,300 pounds of plutonium waste are buried at the lab’s “hot dump” on the Pajarito Plateau. Los Alamos’s history, secrecy, and sorcerer’s-apprentice purpose make it the ultimate spooky neighbor, a mysterious presence whose activities seem
alternately terrifying and fascinating.

As Alex Shoumatoff writes in “Bomb City, USA,” a compelling look at the identity and future of the bomb’s birthplace, Los Alamos is also a company town–one with a fierce dedication to its mission, which has been clouded by the end of the Cold War. Still, despite this thumbs-up self-image, Bomb City’s
legacy carries a toll. As local psychotherapists discreetly informed Shoumatoff, quite a few “labbies” turn up seeking counsel on their work’s moral complexities. “Underneath its face of resolute patriotism and unwavering confidence,” argues Shoumatoff, “is the repressed psyche of a guilt-ridden town.”

Meanwhile, on an equally far flung assignment, editor-at-large Tim Cahill saddles up in Asia, riding horseback across the storied steppes of Mongolia–breeding ground of Genghis Khan and the world’s greatest riders. Did the man who’s been everywhere encounter anything new? Yep. More scenery than any one person can take in and the unsettling fact that there’s no Mongolian word
for whoa. See, A Good Hair Week in Mongolia.

Elsewhere in this issue: To kick off a footloose spring, two stirring evocations of the bipedal spirit. In a package celebrating the 100th running of the Boston Marathon, the oldest and still greatest American 26.2-miler gets its due with a bracing look at its history, its many, many mishaps, and its
reigning royalty. Joshua Hammer, Newsweek’s Nairobi bureau chief, profiles Kenya’s Cosmas Ndeti, who will seek his fourth title this year, and John Tayman interviews Germany’s Uta Pippig, two-time defending women’s champ. Field-marshaled by managing editor Tish Hamilton, who plans to run her third Boston this spring. In “America the Hoofable,” senior editor Leslie Weeden and a platoon of boot-clad writers serve up a 50-state roundup of America’s finest hikes. According to Weeden, any list of hiking dream states has to include California, Colorado, and Vermont. “But the surprise for us,” she says, “is what we found in places that
one doesn’t normally associate with great hiking. Every state has a hidden jewel.”

Finally, an unabashed plug for another of our own: contributing editor and Out There columnist Randy Wayne White, whose novel Captiva, the fourth in his series of Doc Ford thrillers set in south Florida, will be published this month. Fast boats, eccentric fishing guides, island intrigue, guns, explosions, and hard-to-believe slapstick–these, of
course, are the things that Randy’s readers have come to expect from his nonfiction. Wait’ll you hear what he sounds like with the muffler off.

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