Unfolding the Map
In dry, dusty, remote Hachita, only about ten miles from the Mexican border, we stop for a moment at the Desert Den and ponder old and new and whether we can hope that we will remain a connected people in the face of the wonders and terrors of technology. Whew! That's a lot of pondering! Click on the thumbnail at right to see where Hachita fits on our map.
"Off to the south lay the Big Hatchet Mountains, their backs against the deserts of Mexico; under them, tiny Hachita sat almost squarely on the Continental Divide where it bends east and west....
"Hachita, facing an abandoned railroad trackbed and locomotive water tower, turned out to be a conglomerate of clay bricks and wood and aluminum. In sandy lots between faded trailers and adobe houses, old cars mummified in the dry air. There were two businesses: a small grocery and the Desert Den Bar & Filling Station."
Blue Highways: Part 4, Chapter 11
In a world where we can communicate in a blink of an eye with hand-held devices, a place like Hachita seems almost out of place. Even at the time the LHM traveled through Hachita, this remote place was accessible by telephone - now it is presumably accessible by satellite TV and wi-fi internet. Yet I doubt that Hachita is much different today than it was 30 years ago. If the Desert Den Bar & Filling Station is still in existence, it probably looks much the same as it did. You get the sense from LHM that Hachita is dying, on its way to becoming a ghost town like the ones I wrote about some ways back along our path.
But only a few hours away from Hachita is a place where, in a bright flash, technology took a great leap forward for better and worse. A few paragraphs down in this Blue Highways chapter, a patron of the Desert Den tells his story about seeing the first explosion of an atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert:
"Curled up against a big rock out of the wind. I was still in my bedroll at daybreak when come a god-terrible flash. I jumped up figurin' one of the boys took a flashbulb pitcher of me sleepin' on the job. Course nobody had a Kodak. Couple minutes later the ground started rumblin'. We heard plenty of TNT goin' off to Almagordy before, but we never heard nothin' like that noise. Sound just kept roarin'. 'Oh, Jesus,' I says, 'what'd they go and do now?' Next month we saw wheres they bombed Heerosaykee, Japan. We never knowed what n A-tomic bomb was, but we knowed that one flash wasn't no TNT blockbuster."
Blue Highways: Part 4, Chapter 11
A large part of New Mexico's economy is based on research that culminated in the blast in the New Mexico desert. Los Alamos, New Mexico, like Oak Ridge, Tennessee was one of America's secret cities devoted to atomic research. Once the blast happened, it was almost as if Pandora's Box had been opened. Secrets of atomic research morphed into advances in both military and peacetime technology. Unlocking secrets of the atom made exploration into the world of the very small yield huge results, whether those results were megaton explosions or an explosion in communications, medical, construction, engineering, and computing technologies.
Despite the exciting things that go on in the big cities, despite the bells and whistles of our civilization, some aspects of our human existence still remain constant. In Hachita, it is a bar called the Desert Den (at least during LHM's trip through), and this is replicated everywhere throughout America. What do we really need? At the end of the day, if we forget all the gadgets and the modern conveniences, we need a place to gather, to communicate, to eat and drink and play games and simply be together. Today, we try to put a hi-tech veneer over it all. We socialize on Facebook, we share news through Twitter (in 140 character bites), and we gather more information from the World Wide Web. We use our cell phones and text each other. We buy our goods electronically from online stores and EBay. But what are all these actions nothing but maintaining our connections with each other? What are we doing except coming together to engage with each other? The electronic communication medium is simply a high tech Desert Den. In many ways, this for the good.
The lack of face-to-face contact is a troubling aspect of this technological revolution. People text and e-mail things they would never say to each other face to face. The ability to choose how we present ourselves, always present in the "real" world but now available with all the enhancements of the technological world, has researchers discussing how our electronic gadgets fuel personality disorders, such as narcissism, that might be more controlled in face-to-face social situations. Take all of this communication-by-proxy back to the 1940s, and we can see how dropping an atomic bomb built in secret cities around the US, then assembled and tested in a New Mexico desert region named by the Spanish Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead), contributed to and enhanced an age of disconnected warfare. Back then, the Enola Gay dropped its payload and then made a quick turn. The pilots never had to see the devastation and death their bomb caused. Today, Predator drones operated by technicians in faraway bunkers fire missiles at suspected terrorist gatherings. We are at risk of a paradox - as we become more connected electronically, we become more disconnected as humans in reality.
Hachita, and small communities, should serve as a reminder of a time when a small town functioned as our Facebook, Twitter, Internet, marketplace and every other type of gathering place imaginable. No matter how small, the local watering hole was the place to come when we were lonely and needed company on a daily basis, and some people even made regular trips of a day or more, if they lived quite remotely, to have a few hours of human contact. I love progress, but I am concerned that progress might offer a flashy way to meet our emotional needs but ultimately separate us from what we really need - real, physical interpersonal connection. We only need to remember a mushroom cloud rising over a desert floor and over a couple of cities in Asia to know that once we disconnect from each other, terrible things can happen.
When Pandora's Box was opened, all evil escaped into the world, yet down at the bottom of the box was Hope. I hope that our advances, that do so much good and so much evil, do not take away our greatest assets and creativities born out of our desires to be together.
The Pilgrim Travelers, a gospel R& B group that included a young Lou Rawls, sang Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb. I thought given that New Mexico was the first test site of the atom bomb, the song was appropriate for this post's interlude.
If you want to know more about Hachita
You won't find much else about Hachita unless you visit there. However, I would encourage you, if you are in New Mexico on the first Saturday of either April or October, to visit the Trinity Site on the White Sands Missile Range. This is where the first atomic bomb was exploded, and a rock obelisk marks the site.
Next up: Playas, New Mexico