Over Fifty Nuclear Explosions

an endless, desolate dirt road through Idaho

Photograph by Matt Levine


Surely, here if nowhere else, the hills have eyes.

That movie was fucked up. Excuse me, but it was. Who thinks of stuff like that? And who puts it out into the world? If I thought up crazy stuff like that, I’m sure I’d be wearing white and extra long sleeves wrapped around my back somewhere.

But yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s where I was. Atomic City, Idaho is one of those places that has about five streets and if you were to push a riderless bicycle through it, the bike would ride on its own long enough to make it through town before falling over.

The bike would also have more tires than, it seemed, there were people who lived in town. So when Bern, the hitching buddy I picked up two weeks ago in Utah, told me that this part of Idaho had more nuclear explosions set off than anywhere else in the world, it was pretty obvious we’d be eaten or beaten or significantly worse.

Walking through town, admittedly, didn’t feel much different than walking through any other town. I swore I saw some mutants in an empty barber shop window, but I’ll admit it, I was still kind of high and the window was really, really dirty.

Just outside of town Bern, not quite an “old hippie” but certainly no spring buck and every day with that Grateful Dead shirt that for some reason had the Denver Broncos logo inside of the skull where the lightning bolt should be…anyway, just outside of town he said, “We’re good, let’s thumb.”

“We’re barely out of town, what’s the difference?”

“It’s okay here, we’re on our way.” I had no idea what he was talking about. He was the one who suggested we get off in Atomic City. He was the one who told me the town’s brief history.

“I used to live here,” he smiled with every tooth in his mouth save the top front two. “Listen, everyone who was ever born here is now dead. The few guys who still live in town are retired, and by that I mean they make due with trailers and no electricity.”

That was his story, but the point wasn’t really driven home until he asked his next question. He rarely asked questions. “You ever see that movie Hills Have Eyes?”

A car approached, an old Buick Skylark, maybe late 1980s, light blue and the hood rusted orange. The plates read Montana. So obviously, as he pulled over and we climbed inside, I knew this was the end. Luckily, I climbed in the back and saw all of the beer cans scattered across the floor, the driver smoking Camel Lights and a pair of barely worn skis strewn across the rear dash. Anyone with enough money to own skis, I thought, surely isn’t a mutant.

I never got a good look at the guy’s face. I didn’t care too, really. I was in the back seat, and therefore relieved of all obligations toward small talk. I stared out the window as Idaho passed by. It looked nothing like what I’d remembered. The northern tip of the state is a mountainous, forested wonderland. It’s like a virtual brochure for Alaska, I thought. This stretch of US Route 20 was about as flat as an elephant’s sandals. Mostly oblivious to the conversation just ahead of me, suddenly my ears tuned in.

“You ever eat pig?” the driver asked. The question was phrased so strangely, I guess my ears couldn’t ignore it. Not pork, not ham, not bacon, pig. And the way he asked it, like there’s a question as to whether most people have eaten it. Like, “have you ever eaten alligator?” or, as I took it, “I mostly eat other humans, but have you ever tried pigs? They’re great, too!”

Then I saw the sign out the window.

Idaho National Laboratory

That’s weird, is Idaho claiming the nation, or is their a National Laboratory in every state. Then another sign for the same building.

Idaho National Labratory
Formerly National Reactor Testing Station
Next Right

I could see the mushroom cloud in the distance. Why not test nuclear bombs out here? No one lives here now, so assume an even smaller population in the 1950s. I laughed a little, maybe out loud as the guy who referred to some of his food as “pig” glanced over his shoulder. Maybe he just didn’t want me stealing his cans and getting that sweet refund money. I jest, but I admit I thought of it. Before any of this could get much further along in my brain though, I saw another sign.

Experimental Breeder Reactor I

Okay you’ve got to be shitting me.

“I’ve got to pee,” I tapped Bern on the shoulder, slightly harder over six times until he chimed in.

“Better let him out,” Bern told the driver. They obviously had become fast friends. The driver pulled over, Bern leaned forward, and I got out. We weren’t good friends, but we’d been on the road long enough to know what was up. I looked at him and he nodded back. The car pulled away. I looked across the street, down the road where a bigger, more informational sign indicated I could walk right up to this Experimental Breeder Reactor, indeed even inside.

I knew it was a trap. Whether of the tourist or mutant type, however, was uncertain. I still to this day feel like the whole area just had a “thing” to it, a sensation that something wasn’t quite right. Like all of those nuclear tests and tinkering with energy in a way we weren’t even supposed to be able to see had left things a little off.

I won’t ruin the surprise of the Experimental Breeder Reactor. If you’re ever up this way, you’ll probably be either bored enough to need to explore it for yourself, or boring enough to not really be worth the time.

Some people say we were put on this planet by aliens. That we’re just different enough from animals to make us seem impossible. That we’ve got this edge or whatever. You know, the thing that makes us live in cities and care about the color of the car we drive and not wallow in our own muck. I can’t say for sure, but after wandering around mutant country, coming upon a nuclear reactor that’s free for the public to enter, and then a few miles later ending up in Craters of the Moon, I don’t argue much with those folks anymore.