While growing up in Texas meant that fanciful notions of 19th century cowboys acculturated into my head too young for me to recall any sources, I do remember my introduction to the 20th century Atomic West. It was from Tom Lehrer’s 1953 tune, “The Wild West Is Where I Want to Be,” unmistakably satirical even to a child’s ears, wherein he sings: Along the trail you’ll find me lopin’ / Where the spaces are wide open / In the land of the old A.E.C. (yee-ha!) / Where the scenery’s attractive / And the air is radioactive / Oh, the wild west is where I wanna be. I had to ask my father to explain the acronym for the Atomic Energy Commission.
From prospectors to the Manhattan Project to artifacts of Cold War industry, the American West has existed in my mind as a kind of mottled antique, retro-futuristic in those places where it isn’t simply retro. So it was with great interest that I read Ben Mauk’s new longform piece in Harper’s, “States of Decay: A Journey through America’s nuclear heartland.” Ben has visited the wellsprings of the Atomic Age, explored disused mines, talked to the people still inhabiting its ghost towns and superfund sites. It’s a fascinating read, full of resentment, nostalgia, and unhealthy doses of radiation.
Back outside, Lucas held his Geiger counter up to his face. This was apparently a favorite pastime of rad heads, but even Lucas seemed startled by the figure: around fifty times background, the result of the radon progeny that had caught on condensation in his beard. “Wow,” he mused, taking a selfie with the counter against his mouth.
“You might want to think about shaving,” Jennifer said.