We roll into Atomic City, population 24, to a sight so sad that I couldn’t even bring myself to take pictures. We drive past a block of abandoned buildings and closed shops (not of the union kind). At the end of the block stands the last remaining open establishment in the town, a bar whose only apparent update since the time of the nuclear energy boom is the addition of a pro-police blue striped American flag at the entrance. We immediately sped away on another desolate gravel road lined with more DOE trespass warning signs.
Eventually we came upon a sign not issued by the DOE that denoted a historic sight ahead. We took a quick left turn down another lengthy road that seemed to lead to nowhere, only to discover the remains of the “world’s first nuclear power plant.” Now converted into a museum, the old brick building is still gated off with a tall metal fence, and machinery once used to conduct neutron diffusion remains intact. We were quickly disturbed and bolted out of the historical sight, anxious to reach our next camping destination, but before we can fully recover, we roll into the town of Arco, Idaho, home of the Idaho National Laboratory and “the first city in the world to be lit by atomic power.” It seems as if this little section of Idaho never received the news that WWII, let alone the Cold War, ever ended. The first sight upon pulling into Arco is a restaurant promoting its “atomic burgers,” and just when we thought things couldn’t be stranger, I looked across the street to see little children climbing across a metal sculpture of an atomic bomb. As we drove deeper into the city, a time-worn marquee displayed an advertisement for the “Atomic Days Festival” and a historic marker highlighting Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech and program were proudly displayed. While I would normally commend a community for being so enthusiastic about their carbon emission-free energy system, I must say that I didn’t think that a carbon neutral world would look so dystopic. The cultural normalization of nuclear reactions was beyond absurd, and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that this place actually exists. All I can affirm is that my quota for desert sun-staind metal business signs, dilapidated buildings, and war-indoctrinated children (and children of any kind) has reached capacity.
After another 30 minutes of westward desert driving, we finally came upon Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. Located on the site of a volcanic eruption that took place ~2000 years ago, the preserve is entirely composed of igneous basalt, yet another strange sight to witness. The dark basaltic rock is literally everywhere, and my inner geologist could not contain my excitement, as I learned that the volcanic eruption was a result of the preserve’s location on the Great Rift (where continental plates are diverging), and that another eruption will likely happen again. After drinking enough water to overcome some desert heat exhaustion, we were able to relax in the splendor of millions of visible stars that night, which helped to ease the distress of atomic celebrations and probable radiation exposure (thanks government!).
The following day was adventure-packed, as we hiked around and above craters and calderas in the preserve. We learned of park rangers’ failure to manage the land, as at one time they purposely killed trees that regrew out of the volcanic disturbance. Today, there remains skeletons of trees and a few desert flowers that have managed to re-populate among the rocks. It was a sweltering hot day, especially as we trudged a few miles along the desert to witness the excavation of “lava trees” that were destroyed in the volcanic activity. However, the nasty heat was countered by one of the neatest features of the area: caves! Five caves remain open for visitors to explore (actually only four because one was deemed too icy and dangerous at the moment), which were formed by lava tubes. Despite the heat (nearly 102 degrees Fahrenheit), upon venturing only a few meters into the caves, sheets of ice became visible on the floors and ceilings as temperatures fell below freezing. My thoughts went out to the American Indians of the area who once camped out in the caves during summer escapades to collect the igneous rocks, which were used to fashion weapons. The caves are now colonized by tourists such as us, as the state has appropriated their shelter as a commodity that people pay to consume on account of their own leisure. At the same time, we were better able to learn about and understand these oppressed cultures through the experience, so maybe cultural appropriation isn’t always as bad as my college experience made it out to be. Regardless, I was left feeling that the remaining tribe members should be able to run the preserve as they see fit, but who am I kidding?
After that totally useless analysis and thought process, we returned to the visitor center, watched a short film about the park, analyzed our sunburns, and promptly fell asleep. We woke up the next day to find that my sunburn had tanned while Patrick remains a dirty red Communist to this day. After taking a gravelly detour on the OG Oregon Trail, it was time to hit up Boise’s Walmart for some aloe.
This is where the story hits peak sadness. Boise was once a bastion of hope in the confines of my mind: How could any place go wrong whose main features were mountains and potatoes? I dreamed of gallivanting through potato fields and starting a folk punk band in a Walmart parking lot in Boise, where I would remain eating hash browns for the rest of my life. But alas, that utopia doesn’t exist. We quickly discovered that Boise Walmarts do not allow overnight parking and instantly felt a stab of rejection and yearning to get outta this strange state. But first, we saw the Tupac movie because it was discount Tuesday and we needed some AC in our lives.
Maybe one day we’ll overcome the pain of discovering that Boise is not a Safe Space for us travelers. We already took the first step toward recovery by purchasing the book, Dinosaurs and the Bible. But until then, our journey west will continue.
Part of the world’s first nuclear reactor. Now they hang out outside Arco near a museum.
Craters of the Moon is a desolate place.
Patrick in pain from the sunburn.
Patrick is tired of being photographed.
Jade on a stump.
Both of us on the crest of an old cinder-cone volcano. Pre-sunburn.
This lava formed around an ancient tree. The tree died, but the lava retains its footprint today.
A cave in Craters of the Moon.
Patrick is balancing on a rock.