The Very Large Array

The Very Large Array has, at the same time, an incredibly descriptive and totally unhelpful name. The array in question is a Y-shaped network of radio telescopes that sit in the New Mexican high desert. They’re turned to the sky, listening to the sounds of worlds light years away from earth.

Unless you’re New Mexican or move in space science circles, the Very Large Array (frequently called the VLA) is likely foreign to you except for the vague feeling that you’ve seen it somewhere. It’s got a surprisingly large pop culture presence. Carl Sagan drove it into the public eye when he included it in Cosmos. The VLA is highly recognizable – movies like Contact, Independence Day, and Terminator Salvation have been shot here. Heck, Bon Jovi even shot a music video at the VLA.

Jodie Foster's character from the film Contact listens to a headset at the Very Large Array.
Jodie Foster’s astronomer from Contact listening for sounds of alien life at the Very Large Array. Although the VLA isn’t used for SETI projects, it is certainly capable of picking up alien signals buzzing around the universe.

Even if you’re not super into space or Jodie Foster movies the VLA is still worth visiting. Its hugeness and remoteness mean it’s awe-inspiring even without context. While it takes some driving to get to, it’s open from 8:30 – sunset every day for self-guided tours, making it an accessible day trip. I made the trip from Albuquerque one very cold afternoon in January. (That’s another thing to be aware of: not only is the VLA remote, it’s cold in winter. The woman in the gift shop told me it had dropped to -2 F with windchill the day before.)

The gift shop has shorter hours than the grounds, so if you’re interested in getting post cards or asking questions, come before 4pm. There’s a small theater where a short documentary plays on demand, which I’d recommend you watch to get acquainted with what you’re about to see. There’s also a small museum to wander through. I got in for free, but I can’t remember if it’s because I had a student ID or because I attended UNM.

After that it’s out into the cold! (Or heat, depending on when you go, I guess.) There’s a short walking tour that should probably take about half an hour. It took me about ten minutes because – have I mentioned this yet? – it was so cold. The tour takes you past a small dish, a few interpretive labels, and then right to the base of the closest working dish. From there you can walk up onto the balcony of one of the science buildings for a fantastic view of one of the VLA’s branches.

The closest dish. It moved when I was there, which was spectacular.

I was very much by myself this trip. Apart from the lady in the gift shop, I only spotted two other visitors and one scientist.

After you finish the walking portion of your tour you can drive a short distance to see one of the dishes in the massive service shed. Once it’s all fixed up they’ll roll it out onto a special set of train tracks and drive it very, very slowly to its new home.

If you’d like to visit the Very Large Array, check out Roadside America’s entry. Make sure to peek at the official website for up to date information about visiting hours and other logistical concerns.

Visiting the Trinity Test Site in New Mexico

The Trinity Test Site at the White Sands Missile Range marks the site of the very first atomic bomb test.

Ever since I moved to New Mexico for college, I’ve wanted to visit the Trinity Test Site. After my visit to Hiroshima, I felt like I needed to go, as a pilgrimage of sorts. This was easier said than done since it’s only open to the public for fifteen hours a year, for seven and a half hours a day on the first Saturdays in October and April.

A view of the whole ground zero site, taken from the perimeter of the site and looking towards the parking lot. The memorial obelisk is visible in the bottom left corner.

For a site that’s only open twice a year, the Trinity Site is structured well for tourists. There are educational materials on the perimeter fence, educational staff on site, a booth where you can look at trinitite and uranium artifacts, and a pop-up gift shop set up by the folks from White Sands National Park.

Before you ask: no, it’s not dangerous to your health to visit. While there is more radiation in this area than average, it’s less of an issue than, say, being a frequent flier.

 

Trinitite. It’s illegal to collect the rock formed from melted desert sand, but there’s plenty around to look at.

There’s also food (cooked fresh, but mostly baseball game sort of fare) and enough portable toilets to easily handle the crowds. BRING WATER. I never go anywhere in New Mexico without a liter of water on my person, and I keep at least a gallon in my car. Bring twice as much water as you think you’ll need, and snacks if you don’t want to eat overpriced sausage dogs. Besides water, the only real issue I had was with parking: due to the bottleneck caused by ID checking, I had to sit in traffic for half an hour to get into Stallion Gate, and I hit some more traffic before I reached the final parking lot.

 

 

Would I recommend checking out the Trinity site? If you’re in town at the right time of year, absolutely. It’s interesting for history and science folks alike. Because of what happened here, our history and science have been forever changed. That, at least to a lot of you, will make it worth the trip.

When to go: The first Saturday of October or April (check ahead of time – it’s possible they’ll go back to a once-a-year schedule). If you want to learn about New Mexico’s nuclear history and you’re not in town when the Trinity site is open, you can check out the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, or visit the memorial near Stallion Gate.

Further reading: The Atlas Obscura article is a useful resource, as is the official Army open house page.

How to get there: Don’t use Google maps. Navigating between cities in New Mexico is easy, and you’ll want to use the Army’s official directions to navigate once you get close to Stallion Gate. There is also an option for joining a convoy from Almagordo.

Pin it!

Visiting ground zero of the first atomic bomb detonation near Soccorro, NM.

Albuquerque: An Overly Opinionated Guide

Picture of a road receding into the distance with the text "Albuquerque: An Overly Opinionated Guide"

(What the heck is an Overly Opinionated Guide?)

Ahh, Albuquerque: home of Breaking Bad, the Southwest’s little Hollywood, frequent butt of jokes because of how difficult it is to spell. (Say it “al-boo-kwer-kew” in your head – we all do.) Interested in visiting this interesting city in the Land of Enchantment? Read on!

CLIMATE:

Albuquerque is two things all year round: high and dry. If you’re not used to the altitude and you let yourself get dehydrated, things will go downhill very quickly. Pack a water bottle and use it frequently, pack chap-stick and lotion or else your hands and lips will bleed, and make sure you have ibuprofen. (Maybe it’s just me, but I get altitude headaches for about a week after I return to ABQ or go somewhere else.)

It doesn’t sandstorm here quite like it does in other parts of the Southwest, but we still get strong winds and dust in our noses.

 

SAFETY:

Albuquerque is not the safest place in the world. Or the states. I don’t want to scare you, I just don’t want you coming to me on twitter yelling “Hey! You didn’t tell me about the weird drunk guys on Central!”

The international district through UNM and downtown goes from safe and charming (Nob Hill, UNM’s Campus) to “yikes” in seconds. It’s unlikely you’ll get bothered. Just use common sense, avoid side streets off Central if you’re by yourself and it’s dark, walk confident, have a cell phone ready, and don’t worry about it too much. That goes for men and women both, by the way. But look. If I could do it at eighteen after growing up in a quiet New England town, you’ll be fine.

 

CULTURE  AND BLENDING IN:

New Mexico is pretty laid back. There’s a huge mix of people – hippies, lots of artists, Diné folks from reservations up north, celebrities in town for filming or relaxing…the list goes on.

This is good! It means you don’t have to work too much to blend in. Clothing tends to be relaxed, patterned, and warmly colored. Cowboy wear isn’t uncommon but tends to be tamer than you might see in Texas. Silver and turquoise are popular among older ladies. Young women tend towards quirkier trends and wear lots of tribal patterns.

WHAT TO DO:

The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is a must-see. Depending on when you visit there might be dance exhibitions and Indian fry-bread, which you must try. Personally, I’d opt for the Cultural Center instead of Old Town.

Sandia Peak Tramway. The ride is a little gut-twisting, but the views from the top are lovely.

If you have kids, check out Explora!, a fantastic local kids’ museum. The botanical gardens are also great for kids.

Breaking Bad Filming Sites. It’s not hard to find these, as the hit television show pretty much included the whole of Albuquerque as a secondary character. You can take a tour or do it yourself. Whatever you do, please don’t throw pizza on any roofs. The White’s house gets a massive amount of visits, and as far as I know is still occupied by people who don’t want to spend hours picking melty cheese off of the roof.

Petroglyph National Monument, for some quick hikes and interesting rock carvings a short way outside the city.

Route 66 crosses the Pan American Highway just a mile or two away from where I lived freshman year of college. Check out the Route 66 Diner if you’re interested in absurdly large banana splits. Along Central there are several old Route 66 hotels. I can’t vouch for any of them, but they’re nice to look at.

Nob Hill is a quirky little section of Central that I can spend hours wandering.

Santa Fe and Tent Rocks are both their own deal, but are an easy day trip north of town.

 

WHAT TO EAT:

Frontier is an Albuquerque classic. When I fly home from school, I always pick up a dozen tortillas on the way to the airport to bring back to family. That’s how good it is. They squeeze their orange juice fresh, and their Frontier Roll is to die for. This is the one place in the city that I’m absolutely floored didn’t make it into Breaking Bad.

The Range (in Albuquerque proper and Bernallio City as well) is my personal pick for good New Mexican food.

Favorite local chains are Flying Star and Satellite Coffee, run by the same parent company. Satellite’s got unique drinks and a great atmosphere. Flying Star’s got a wide selection of great food and is a good pick for keeping a family of vegetarians and omnivores happy. At Satellite, make sure to try the red stuff.

Speaking of coffee, if you’re the kind of person who likes to spend vacations in coffee shops for blogging/working/people watching purposes, Humble Coffee, Java Joe’s and Michael Thomas are all good options.

For something a little different, head to Gatos y Galletas, one of very few cat cafes in the US. I wrote about it here.

There’s a little place off Central called Annapurna that serves Ayudervic Indian food. If you want something healthy but flavorful, stop in!

Classic New Mexico eats include piñon, horchata, and anything with green chili.

 

 

GOOD TO KNOW:

-New Mexican food is NOT MEXICAN FOOD, I repeat, NOT MEXICAN FOOD. It’s it’s own thing.

-If someone mentions Christmas in the context of food, not holidays, they’re referring to a combination of green and red chili. Pretty much every New Mexican dish includes chili, and you can order with green, red, or a combination.

-People give directions using North/South/East/West all the time. This is because the Sandias are dead East. It’s hard to get too lost with this knowledge in your back pocket.

-Public transit exists, but it’s slow and seedy as heck. Stand near the bus driver and keep an eye on your belongings and you’ll be fine.

-New Mexicans really like Breaking Bad. The finale was a huge deal around here, and the Albuquerque Journal published an obit for Walter White. So even if it’s not your thing, don’t smack talk it unless you want to get, well, smacked.