On a map, Mercury sits a little northwest of Las Vegas. There is nothing to suggest that the town is inaccessible to the average tourist, but it is in fact a part of the Nevada Test Site — a nuclear bomb testing facility.
The site was formed in 1950 from land originally granted to the Shoshone Indians. Nearly one thousand nuclear devices have been detonated there between its formation and 1991, when President Bush imposed a moratorium on tests that has been extended by succeeding administrations. One test, the 1962 Sedan test, left a crater a quarter mile wide and 320 feet deep. The 1955 Apple test should be recognizable to many baby boomers; scientists built a village around a 29 kiloton bomb and filmed the resulting destruction.
Fools, like me, might drive for hours out into the desert expecting to visit Mercury, get a beer in a rusty old bar, and just gawk. But that’s not how it works.
I exited Interstate 95 and turned due North past signs declaring the restricted nature of the site, past signs instructing me not to leave the road, past signs that recalled the “loose lips sink ships” posters of World War Two, past signs telling me where to pick up my dosiometry badge. I finally stopped at the security checkpoint, about three miles from the I95 exit. The armed guard wore white and black uniform and stood as solid as the concrete gatehouse behind him.
I approached slowly, realizing the foolishness of my situation.
“This aint no place for tourists?” I asked.
“Nope.” Said the guard firmly, but without any visible effort.
“I’ll just turn around, then.” I offered.
“You’ll just back up” he responded as he placed his right hand on his sidearm and pointed with his left.
But, for the prepared — and patient — tours of the site are offered once a month. Potential atomic tourists must apply and be cleared through a security screening. Once in, the tour rambles about for eight hours and 250 miles. Stopping at the Sedan crater, now a national monument, and passing by the still-too-radioactive Apple site.
What you won’t see on the tours though, are the studios that moon landing denialists believe were used to fake the moon landings. The test site is huge, the security is tight, and the tours are carefully controlled, so few people can say whether the studios exist or not. But there is a large group of people who believe it was all a fake, and to them, Merucry Nevada contains proof. Aren’t conspiracies entertaining?