WCWS Roadtrip: Los Alamos, New Mexico

After I left Chimney Rock, I headed south through Chama where we stopped to stretch our legs and then continued south towards Los Alamos. I’d never been to the Atomic City but it seemed as good a time as any to check it out.

I started at the Los Alamos History Museum first thing the next morning. I knew a little bit about Los Alamos but only in the vague sort of way where I remembered that it was important from AP US History and what I gleaned from Elizabeth Church’s excellent novel The Atomic Weight of Love.

I certainly knew nothing about the history of the Los Alamos Ranch School and my New Mexican history in general is pretty shaky. I was pretty shocked by the pretty impressive list of alumni and other attendees.

Even though I knew a little bit more about the development of the bomb, it was really interesting to learn more about Oppenheimer and the rest of the scientists as well as how the social order worked in the early days. The museum gives an excellent concise but powerful picture of Los Alamos’s role in ending the war and the development of the atom bomb.

After I finished with the history museum, I headed down to the Bradbury Science Museum. Affiliated with Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Bradbury is free but honestly, I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as the history museum. The displays felt really busy which made reading them and following the story difficult. It was loud and I really just couldn’t focus so I decided it was time to move on.

Among the serious things I learned at the history museum I also learned this fun fact: Oppenheimer, called “Oppie” by peers, made a mean martini. I made sure to get a photo with him.

Topaz Museum and Historic Site

A cursory Google of my intended route had turned up the (free) Great Basin Museum in Delta, Utah. I figured I could use a leg stretch when I arrived after driving across the state so I pulled in behind the visitor center and walked around the corner.

Before I reached my intended museum, I noticed the Topaz Museum sign. This gorgeous building, with its exterior clad shou sugi ban style, stood out in the plain western Utah town. I’m a little embarrassed but I wandered inside partially not knowing what to expect and partially expecting a rock museum.

It only took me a few minutes of wandering around the lobby to understand what this museum was about. I was confused about whether there was an entry fee and about where to go. Eventually, a woman came out and ushered me into a group with a docent that had started just minutes before me.

We watched two films before the docent ushered us into the start of the exhibits. The first was about the history of Topaz and how it fit in with the rest of the internment camps in the western United States. The second was footage actually shot in Topaz by someone who was held in the camp. An administrator had helped him acquire a camera but didn’t fully give him “permission” to film. This is one of only two home movies to be housed in the Library of Congress.

I was nervous about taking photos of all of the museum exhibits but within minutes of entering the museum I had a sad sinking feeling in my gut. I attempt to not be overtly political on this blog but it is clear that our country has elected someone who is unclear on how much internment is in conflict with true American values and that underscored how important it is that we recognize how we failed ourselves in the 1940s.

The Topaz museum is astounding. The exhibits are incredibly well designed. Housed within the museum is a residence for four people and outside the backdoor is a recreation hall moved from the site. There is furniture from the site that was constructed from found wood and photos showing how Topaz interacted with Delta once it was realized that the internees were not actually a threat to our country.

The last piece of the museum is a discussion of how the internment was handled in the courts after it happened. This didn’t feel like the end of the story to me so I decided I should head out to the actual site of the camp, just outside of town.

I only made it to the memorial before I sat down on its sunwarmed granite and cried. I hadn’t even entered the site yet. The museum had so well laid the foundation for an understanding of how the internment of Japanese-Americans fit into our history and into our present that I couldn’t help but feel the moment so acutely.

While I was in the museum, one of the docents commented how terrible it was that they were confined to such an ugly place. I couldn’t help myself when I responded, “It’s only ugly if you’re stuck.” On the very edge of the great basin, I was struck by the mountains and the sky. But to imagine being trapped in such a space was unthinkable.

I grew up near the Puyallup Fairgrounds which had been an assembly point for those of Japanese ancestry while waiting to be sent to their permanent camps further inland. In elementary school, we’d had a presentation by the author of Baseball Saved Us, Ken Mochizuki, and we learned about internment camps and how important baseball had been.

Standing behind what had been the backstop of one of the baseball fields, I finally started to feel some peace. I’m not sure if its the idea of baseball being “America’s game” or if its just that my long association with the game makes me feel closer to people or what. I sat on the hard dirt and looked out to the northeast, just like ball fields are supposed to, for a bit and collected myself to move on.

 

While my visit to Topaz wasn’t expected and it certainly wasn’t easy, I really recommend a stop. The museum is located in Delta, Utah right on the main highway and the camp is a relatively short drive outside of town.