April 7, 2023 | FEATURES | By Zeke Lloyd
I’m not qualified to write this. It’s a tough sentiment for me to accept. It’s especially difficult considering that I have a prompt, a deadline, and a small period in which to turn the former into something which will qualify for the latter.
I suppose this is a true introduction to the world of writing.
But it’s not the time-crunch that worries me. What frightens me is my own incapacity, my lack of the necessary insight to share, explain, and fully articulate this story as it needs to be told.
Yes, there are moments I remember. There are even facts which cannot be challenged. A group of eight students, a paraprofessional, and an administrative assistant really did go on a trip through New Mexico. There are photos which show us at locations which, when considered collectively, indicate the focus of our trip – the impact of atomic research and nuclear testing on the communities who were displaced or disadvantaged by the Manhattan Project.
And I have notes about some of the interactions that occurred. For instance, our group was frequently asked what class we were in. Throughout the entire trip, we explained and reexplained that this was a trip through the Southwest Studies Department. It wasn’t part of a course; there was no professor with us.
And most importantly, there was no main takeaway. That is, if it actually had been a class, there would have been absolutely no way to test us.
The trip was open ended. Each day we’d visit cites, but none of the excursions were mandatory. We explored as we wanted. Each day’s atmosphere is perhaps best described by an email excerpt from the trip’s organizers, paraprofessional Lucie Raphael and Administrative Assistant Buzz Katsev, which was sent to us a day before we embarked.
“Please remember to bring a driver’s license or other state issued ID if you want to enter the Trinity Site,” they wrote. “Otherwise, just bring some clothes for warm days and chilly nights, your favorite art supplies, a water bottle, and some good walking shoes.”
And so, as we ventured, none of us found the same answers at each of the cites we visited. We weren’t asking the same questions.
There were 10 takeaways. And I can only tell one story.
For instance, this was the first day of the trip, Wednesday, March 29, according to my notes.
We drove until the sun began to set on the Los Alamos horizon. Looking out from the town, it’s evident you’re on top of a mesa. To the east, tall mountains loom from an otherwise empty horizon. It feels like you’re on a cloud. Even the ascent is somewhat gravity-defying. Running along a steep rock face, the road is built on switchbacks and ledges just wide enough for two lanes. As you go upwards, the desert landscape expands beneath you.
We didn’t spend more than 90 minutes in Los Alamos before we were off to Santa Fe. The two cities are nothing alike. In Santa Fe, the horizon stretches out in all directions around you. The city sprawls, forever fading into the surrounding drylands. When we arrived in the late afternoon, the rolling hills were cast in golden light. By the time we walked back from dinner, it was dark, and the city was quiet. There was a chilly desert wind, and when we returned to the hotel, there was a unanimous vote for rest.
In just one day, I had experienced a tiny sliver of New Mexico’s diverse array of natural majesty.
But my notes end there.
I decided to stop taking them after a conversation with the group that night. I can remember the moment just as well as I can recall the drive up to Los Alamos. Here’s the story of that conversation as I recollect it.
We were roughly 36 hours in, everyone knew everyone’s name. We talked in the van. Some of us had gotten closer over dinner the night before. Random groups of us had cohabited in hotel rooms. We weren’t strangers, but we weren’t much more. We were in Albuquerque now. When we got to the hotel, a lot of people were tired; only six of us decided to do anything other than sleep. Those of us who stayed awake collectively decided the hotel atmosphere was too Seussian not to be investigated.
The long, U-shaped “Hotel Zazz” was painted various shades of purple. There was a ubiquitous banana-theme, including hand-soap imprinted with the fruit. Hotel Zazz had all the essentials – a small but inviting pool, funky yet sturdy outdoor furniture, and a 10-foot by 10-foot chess board with heavy plastic pieces. The speakeasy could only be entered after a guest tapped an innocuous golden banana at the hotel’s front desk.
It was in that tiny lounge, illuminated only by a harsh blue light, that my companions explained the unique nuance of narratives. My notes were incapable allies. Even my photos and my recordings led to a simplified (and essentially inaccurate) representation of our journey.
But one thing became immediately obvious – that conversation was the most impactful part of my journey.
I realized it then, sitting in a sea of neon-blue light, I was faced with two options – write my story or don’t write one at all.
So, this is my story. When I look back on this trip, I will remember components of that narrative. A banana entrance and a blue-light and a conversation about objectivity.
This is the second occasion, just in the last two blocks alone, that writing for this newspaper has challenged my interest to pursue a career in journalism. The irony is not lost on me, and as a student passionate about that field, it terrifies me. Does working in news make a person question their career-choice every month?
But here I am. And the deadline approaches. I have a few odd records of the trip, but it’s not enough.
I can’t take you there, sit you in the speakeasy within the walls of Hotel Zazz, and let you experience that conversation as it really happened. I can’t show you a photo that wasn’t taken through my lens. I can’t put you anywhere without putting you in my shoes.
Still, some things are simply true. The Southwest Studies Department funded the trip. Lucie Raphael and Buzz Katsev planned and curated each adventure. I’m just not qualified to tell that story. All ten of us had our own project. This article is only a small part of the picture.
Just wait until our zine comes out.