Los Alamos, New Mexico, is the home of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and is the birthplace of the Bomb. It makes for an interesting place to visit, and a surreal place to inhabit.
Los Alamos is located in northern New Mexico, atop a mesa in the Jemez Mountains. Altitude is around 2250m (7400ft), and the air is thin and will take several days to get used to if you come in from sea level (the local flora may make this difficult). Water boils at 93°C (200°F).
Los Alamos enjoys a temperate mountain climate. The air is dry and the nights are cool. Highs in the summer reach 38°C (100°F), and lows in the winter drop to around -10°C (15°F). There is some snow between December and April, and the monsoon season brings heavy rains in July and August, if it brings them at all. Droughts are common; it is a desert after all. Remember to drink lots of water, as it is very easy to dehydrate. In this way, it is similar to Santa Fe.
The scenery is stunning. To the west lies Pajarito mountain, to the east is the Rio Grande Valley and the Sangre de Cristo mountains. At sunset, you should look east to see why these mountains are named after the 'Blood of Christ'. The town itself is partly on the slope of the mountain and partly on the many-fingered mesa below it. Where the fingers meet is a road that contains the local college, hospital and which leads to the Lab. The fingers then spread east, and are separated by deep canyons. Standing at the edge of one cliff you will face another residential neighbourhood that is not so far away as the crow flies, but a long way as the hiker hobbles.
An hour's drive east is Santa Fe, by way of the Indian towns of Pojaque and San Ildefonso. To the north are Espanola, Taos, and Santa Clara.
Pueblo Indians lived on the mesa centuries ago, but then moved down to the valley. They continued to hunt in what is now Los Alamos, so one of the mesas is called Deer Trap Mesa. For more on them and the history of the general region, see Santa Fe. By the time of World War Two, there was a boarding school for boys on the mesa, called the Los Alamos Ranch School. Once the American government decided they needed a place to do all sorts of secretive work, the school was confiscated, the boys kicked out, and work begun on the Bomb.
The government moved in large numbers of scientists to work on the atomic bomb, first filling up the school's dormitories and then building a lot of ramshackle housing. For some of the Lab's work, they hired people from the nearby Indian villages and from the town of Espanola, showing preference for workers who were illiterate. The veil of secrecy around the town generated plenty of speculation in the surrounding area.
The close camaraderie of the scientists during the Manhattan Project is best detailed in the autobiographical works of Richard Feynman. After World War Two, the town remained closely guarded but over the decades the secrecy relaxed and the town became what it is today; an almost ordinary town, plus the Lab. The Lab now performs a great deal of public research, and the town is open for visitors.
Apart from classified work on maintaining the American nuclear arsenal, there are research projects in the lab in just about every field, in the Lab's 43 square miles and among its 12,000 employees. So, many wind up there for short graduate student stints.
Los Alamos is inhabited by those who work for the Lab, those who serve those who work for the Lab, and one man who is here to protest what the Lab does. Many of the scientists are only there for short stints, so there is a constant influx and outflow in the rooms local residents rent to boarders. The town of White Rock, on the other side of the Lab, has the same demographics, but not as much to do at night. Most Christian denominations have churches here, together with a Jewish synagogue and a Wiccan coven.
There are city minibuses, but this is still a very 'automobile' town. Because the town began as a conclave of scientists, some oddities are still around. The street layout in some parts also includes a system of pedestrian walkways between people's yards, which has an effect on social interactions. This is one small touch that could (possibly) make the typical American suburb liveable. What is not so liveable is the 'shoebox', one of the many hastily built houses made of Lustron (walls of sheet metal panelling). What they lack in liveability, Lustron homes make up in odd quaintness. For example, these homes have kitchen cupboards that are actually structural.
The main road to Los Alamos is a twisty two-lane highway up the side of a cliff that will give you the best introduction to the sheer insanity of New Mexico drivers. The steep grade and the curves are a stern warning to drive slowly. This warning is ignored. No matter how fast you drive up or down this road, someone unsatisfied with your velocity will catch up to you and tailgate you in those ten minutes or so up that stretch. Ignore them and enjoy the view. It's all you can do.
There's the Fuller Lodge, now used as an art gallery, and the Bradbury Museum, which has a permanent exhibit on the town's history.
Los Alamos began as a boys' boarding school, and not even an English boarding school. A theory believed by many of the New Age adherents in nearby Santa Fe is that the karmic effect of the school and the school's closing ensures that no intimate relations between human beings ever take place within the town's limits. The town's population of children is not sufficient evidence to refute this theory. In short, if you plan to stay here a while, either come married, and with your spouse, or plan to do a lot of reading, hiking, and visiting nearby towns.
To drive this point further, it is worth mentioning that the Los Alamos town library is open until 9pm on weekdays, and has a drive-by drop-in box for books. On the other hand, in the summer there is an open air concert every Friday in the parking lot outside the town's supermarket.
There are primary schools, a high school, and a branch of the University of New Mexico. Needless to say, the Lab is where most of the education takes place here.
The Lab, when it gives organised tours, is a must see. Then there's the Bradbury Museum, which teaches about the Lab and is more interesting to a visitor than the Lab itself. The Puye Ruins and the Bandelier National Monument are a must for the archaeology buff, and they and many other areas provide splendid hiking. In winter, there's a ski slope. Finally, there's the Omega Peace Institute. This is a church built by a former Lab employee and current Lab critic. It hosts Bomb Unworship Service every Thursday, and you can contribute to the upkeep by patronising the owner's scrap shop next door, known as the Black Hole. This is a paradise for hardware hackers. The thunderstorms of July and August are in themselves an attraction. Don't be tempted to watch them in the outdoors. The lightning gods will smite you.
Food and Lodging
Nobody comes to Los Alamos specifically to be fed or lodged. You will find several cafés, restaurants, and fast food joints with which to fill up. Worth mentioning is the Chile Works shack, offering a variety of New Mexican cuisine good for Masonic initiation tortures. Also, there's Viola's. For fast food, you should try the Sonic Burger just once. Late night food can be found only at the one 24-hour gas station. Beware of that. However, if you're in the area, you absolutely must stop by at the Roadrunner Café in Pojaque. They make the best huevos rancheros1 you'll ever have.
As for hotels, there are plenty, and they almost always have a room at an hour's notice, except when the Lab is hosting a conference. It is advisable to phone first. Enjoy your stay!