Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Atomic City

We are at the Elks lodge in Los Alamos, New Mexico (map). We are parked perhaps a hundred yards from the original "technical area" where the first atomic bombs were developed, now part of downtown Los Alamos -- the lab has since been moved to the next mesa south, called, appropriately, "South Mesa."

Due to a routing faux pas, we came in via the old main road, a ridiculously steep grade that forced us to stop twice to let the engine cool down, and allowed us only 20 mph of progress when we were rolling. We later learned there is a truck route which ascends a gentler grade with passing lanes up the South Mesa side. The views, however, were stunning.

At least it is a bit cooler at this elevation, but still not cool enough. Thus we skipped the city park at the east end of town (currently $10 per night for dry camping; pay at the city aquatic center at the west end of town) in favor of the Elks Lodge, which our directory claimed to have three 15-amp power sites for $8 per night. When we arrived, we discovered three 30-amp receptacles along with two 15-amp ones, and, being the only ones here, we of course snagged a 30. Two are on the same post, so three rigs here would be pretty cozy. Since we are all alone, we're using one of the 15's to run our air compressor, which otherwise tends to knock the inverter off-line for half a minute when it starts, about every half hour or so. The rate is now $10, which is more than fair for a power outlet (and a water spigot, of which we have no need).

Last night we walked two short blocks to the Central Avenue Grill, which we figured to be about the nicest place in town. Oddly, they have a sushi bar in addition to serving standard American fare, and Louise and I split our ordering along those lines. The food was fine, and prices were reasonable. In the middle of dinner, we both had engineering-career flashbacks as twenty or so young engineering types filed in and took their places at a long table that had been arranged for them in advance -- we surmised a department dinner of some sort, such as someone's last day at the lab, a scene hauntingly familiar to us from our stints at megalithic engineering laboratories (Varian Associates for Louise, Bell Telephone Laboratories for both of us, and Stanford University for myself).

We managed to stick to healthy dining options, but our undoing came later -- there is a Sonic drive-in right next to the Elks, and we wandered over there to share a banana split later in the evening. They turned out to have a good breakfast burrito, too -- after having to put up with the smell of various carbs cooking there all night long, we could not resist this morning.

Today we took an hour and a half city tour given by Los Alamos native Georgia Strickfaden, owner and operator of Buffalo Tours, whose bright yellow Sprinter van is an unmistakable fixture about town (as is Georgia herself -- many people shouted their greetings as we passed). This tour came highly recommended by several folks at the Elks lodge when I was checking in, and they were right -- Georgia really knows the town and the labs inside and out. She also seems to know everyone here, and that turned out to extend to Louise's cousin (now living in Oregon) who lived here years ago -- small world.

After the excellent tour, we spent a couple of hours in the Bradbury Museum (named after post-Oppenheimer lab director Norris, not author Ray), just a block from our digs here, which is the official museum and visitor center of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The exhibits and films were both fascinating and sobering.

Tonight we rode the scooters over to De Colores, serving traditional New Mexican cuisine -- it was quite good. De Colores happens to be directly adjacent to the aforementioned free city park, and we noted three rigs there, two of which were pop-up campers. No hookups, but the park does have a dump station.

Tomorrow we plan to take in Bandelier National Monument. What we have yet to decide, however, is whether we will ride the scooters for a day trip, or take Odyssey down there and spend the night in the Juniper campground. We'll see what the temperature forecast looks like before we decide.

Photo by distopiandreamgirl. Atomic cookies!


  1. We rode our sidecar rig into Los Alamos a couple of weeks ago....coming in from State Highway 4. A very steep grade coming in. We were immediately lost and ended up going in circles in a residential area after passing through the "Lab' area. A confusing town to get around in. We finally ended up going down towards Espanola and weren't sure if we even saw the main part of town.(?) Very beautiful area. We ended up spending the night at "Ojo Caliente" and somewhat up-beat spa out on highway 285. The camping area was pretty crude and the insects were absolutely overwhelming. Giant ants, misquitoes, and bees by the hundreds.....kinda took the fun out of camping.
    Nice Spa though. Doug Smith

  2. When we went through town, we got creeped out by the full body cavity search done on our rig by the Los Alamos security guards. Did they do that to you too?

    Had no idea there was a FREE city park there though. If we're ever around there again, we'll stop there so we can take the lab tour. Thanks for the info, as always.

  3. @Doug: I read your report over at the BMW Adventurer site -- looks like you had a great trip. Sorry we missed you, timing-wise.

    @Rene: Don't know when you were last here, but you no longer have to go through a checkpoint to access the town. If you come up 502, as we did (not recommended, frankly), you will not be on LANL land at all -- the old road and the downtown was all ceded back to the county.

    If you come in via the truck route, which is south about a mile on 4, then up Jemez road, you will be on LANL land and technically, they can stop you, however if you continue straight rather than turning south on 501, where the new checkpoint sits, the road curves right and takes you over the canyon on the bridge (also technically part of the labs) and into town, again without passing any checkpoints.

    If you come in from the west, instead of turning north on 501, which will take you though a checkpoint, continue east on 4 past Bandelier, then turn left on Jemez (the truck route) to avoid the checkpoints.

    The free park is east of town, just east of the airport on 502. It has a nice view of the canyon and North Mesa, and is right next to De Colores restaurant. My understanding is that you are supposed to "check in" at the aquatic center, which is completely at the other end of town, but it may be possible to just call them.

    FWIW, BTW, we are used to the full-cavity search routine -- after all, random people in campgrounds want a tour, so we are not surprised when law enforcement at checkpoints insists on seeing inside. We almost never get waved through and are always singled out for inspection. If the search thing bugs you, let me suggest that you not cross Hoover Dam (they inspect ALL RVs) on US93, nor visit Mexico, where the ejército will inspect you past the border zone, and US Customs will upon your return. We once had to take all our pets out so ICE could bring their sniffer dog inside.

    I'm sure you've already encountered the Border Patrol checkpoints along I-10 and US-90 where inspections of extremely questionable constitutionality are conducted; we've never been stopped (and we often joke, just with each other long out of their earshot, about how many undocumented immigrants could fit in the scooter bay), but then neither of us has an Hispanic surname -- not that they have ever even asked. Must be my Jedi mind trick... "these are not the 'droids you're looking for; move along."

  4. Update: Sorry, my bad. Just found out that the park on the east end of town is not free, it is, at this writing, $10 for dry camping. Payable, I assume, at the aforementioned aquatic center.

    We are paying $10 here at the Elks lodge, too, but that includes 30-amp electric and water.

    I will update this is the post body as well.


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