I’ve written about Florida’s Key Lime pie and Massachusett’s Boston Cream pie, both declared their official state’s dessert, but New Mexico was the first to have a state cookie: the bizcochito (bees-ko-CHEE-toh). In 1989, New Mexico lawmakers passed House Bill 406. They didn’t the battle over the adoption, but how to spell the cookie’s name. Several lawmakers of the House floor desired an “s” others a “z” and eventually the stalemate resulted in the cookie’s press credentials as “bizcochito”.
According to my limited research, the first Christmas celebration in Mexico took place back in 1538, when a Fransican Monk, Fray Pedro de Gante invited the native tribe surrounding the mission to celebrate Christ’s birth. Over the years many pueblo people were converted to Christianity and began to incorporate the holiday customs into their culture.
The stunning Jemez Mountains of Northern New Mexico were created by volcanic activity over thirteen million years and once stood higher than Mount Everest. An eruption, estimated at 500 times greater than the 1980 Mount St. Helens event, caused the super volcano to collapse. A 12-mile wide crater formed, known as the Valles Caldera, and gradually filled with about 5,000 feet of ash and debris.
The Grand Valley existed as a home to Pueblo people for centuries until they eventually fled. Between 1860 and 2000 it functioned as the privately owned Baca Ranch. In 2000, Congress purchased 94,000 acres, deeding 5,000 acres to the Santa Clara Pueblo and designating the remaining 89,000 as the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Under the terms of the Act, the Preserve is managed by a trust and must produce sustaining income, a new and demanding policy as opposed to being protected as a National Park.
On a recent trip to New Mexico, my group explored Bandelier National Monument in the morning (see previous blog post here) then headed, by car, up a pass into the Jemez Mountains. Upon partial descent an enormous field of gold suddenly appeared. The 180 degree head turning sight was so unexpected and vast, it justifies the term jaw dropping gorgeous. Everyone in the van gasped with oohs and aahs. The hollowed out valley looked like a former test site for an atomic bomb now overgrown with grass resembling melted butter. Unfortunately rain started to fall and low lying clouds and fog crept in, limiting the visibility and photo opportunities.
Nonetheless, we met with guides who shared their telescopes permitting us to spy on an elk herd of 2,500-3,500 in the distance. Seeing hundreds of animals as tiny specs put the enormity of the area into perspective. The majestic acreage including Redondo Peak at an elevation of 11,254 feet encompasses forests, grasslands and wetlands which are open to the public.
We drove down into the Preserve through a flourishing grove of ponderosa pine and seized the opportunity to get out of the rain and picnic inside a three bedroom bunkhouse.The rustic but upscale rental property felt log-cabin cozy and the living room offered panoramic views of the valley. The bunkhouse, another lodge which sleeps sixteen people, as well as primitive campsites can be reserved- think family reunion.
The Valles Caldera Trust is experimenting with methods to use, sustain and fund the Preserve with activities and events such as: cross country skiing , snowshoeing, sleigh/wagon rides, fly fishing, turkey hunting, equestrian trail riding, hiking, van tours, photography workshops, mountain biking, marathon races and archery contests. They also run educational workshops and camps while continually watching for ecological change.
Rob Dixon, Recreation Program Manager said, “We keep the numbers of visitors small so you’ll feel like you have the place to yourself. This means you can really experience a sense of solitude. I’m sure you’ll find the visit unlike any other you’ve had in a park or national forest.” I was impressed with the park and the dedicated staff. Let’s hope this type of national preservation program works.
In 1943 the private Ranch School for “privileged boys” was forced to close and the government appropriated the property for the home of the Manhattan Project. Today, a story like that might raise some sort of investigation, but in the war-torn forties, everything stayed hush- hush. The isolated New Mexican plateau, Los Alamos, was chosen to become headquarters for research and development of the atomic bomb.
Many of the world’s greatest scientific minds accepted the southwestern assignment and were led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist, from 1942-45. They understood the significance of the endeavor and believed the power of a nuclear bomb would end World War II. They also worried that the Germans were developing nuclear warfare and wanted to beat them.
Army administrators, technicians, and all other workers, however, were expected to take jobs in this unknown place for an unknown purpose. Not even their spouses were told where they were sent or why. The name Los Alamos became forbidden for security reasons and the area became known as “the Hill.”
A hastily built “Secret City” sprung up with nameless streets. Drivers licenses, auto registrations, bank accounts, income tax returns were issued to numbers rather than names. Outgoing mail was censored, long distance calls monitored, all incoming mail was addressed simply to “PO Box 1663, Santa Fe, NM.” No one was permitted to mention titles or occupations of fellow residents, give names of nearby places or describe the view to prevent the location from becoming known.
As work progressed, the intensity of the project continued to expand, as did the number of employees, many of whom labored twelve or more hours a days to reach the goal. They pushed forward and successfully assembled and tested the first atomic bomb, approximately 200 miles from Los Alamos, in Alamagordo on July 16, 1945. By early August, President Truman gave orders to drop the powerful new bombs on Japan and shortly thereafter, the Japanese surrendered on September 2, 1945.
I recently visited the New Mexican region and learned the details and importance of this historic endeavor, something essentially unknown to today’s children. Fortunately two museums in Los Alamos keep the story alive.
The Los Alamos Historical Museum, housed in one of the guest cottages from the old Ranch School, highlights the region’s lifestyle changes from ancient to modern. The collection includes personal artifacts and memorabilia such as native pueblo pottery, old driver’s licenses and envelopes addressed to the Santa Fe PO Box, post-war board games toying with nuclear destruction and 1970’s anti-war bumper stickers.
The free Bradbury Science Museum informs visitors about the war days, the Manhattan Project and its covert mission through a timeline using newspaper headlines, photos, news reel footage and documents. Their must-see movie portrays the obstacles faced by the U.S. team in trying to create the first atomic bomb. The exhibit area features replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man, the nicknamed bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
A second film in the Bradbury explains the on-going national security mission of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Even though the lab also engages in genetic research, it remains a place of secrecy as the official “stockpile steward, ” ensuring the safety and reliability of US nuclear supplies.
Since the lab is the area’s major employer it’s not surprising that a study conducted by The Social Explorer in 2019, reported that Los Alamos has the highest percentage of people with doctorate degrees in the nation, at 17.7 percent.
To me, the town exudes a mysterious aura, it feels tight. Roadblocks still exist, but are seldom used. A guide told me not to point my camera or photograph the exterior of official lab buildings, not even from across the street. Los Alamos seems torn between touting its historical title, “The Atomic City” or presenting a more peaceful modern face. Who knows if the culture can or should be separated from science and technology?
The bomb created on this New Mexican mesa might have ended a war, but it sparked a global obligation to respect its power. One we should not forget.
For further information please listen to Tom Wilmer’s radio interview:Los Alamos Labs2