Surrealist André Breton recounts, “The Exquisite Corpse was born, if we remember correctly (and if that is the proper expression), around 1925, in an old house at 54 rue du Chateau, since destroyed.” Based on an old parlor game, from the French cadaver exquis, an exquisite corpse is created by a group of people, each of whom write a phrase or passage on a sheet of paper, fold the paper to conceal most of what they wrote, and then pass this on to the next contributor who picks up where they left off.
“What excited us about these productions,” writes Breton, “was the assurance that, for better or worse, they bore the mark of something which could not be created by one brain alone. Finally, we had at our command an infallible way of fully liberating the mind’s metaphorical activity, provoking a vigorous play of often extreme discordances, an impression of bewilderment, but also supporting the idea of communication between the participants.”
Last fall a group of writers from the University of Arizona MFA program traveled to the Nevada National Security Site, located just northwest of Las Vegas, embarking on a nine-hour tour of its 1,300 square miles of range. Between 1951 and 1992, 928 announced nuclear tests were conducted at the site, involving more than 1,000 nuclear detonations, 100 of which were above ground—so-called atmospheric tests. Terry Tempest Williams, among others, has chronicled the effects of the fallout.
During the tour, the group decided a collaboration was in order. An exquisite corpse seemed appropriate, and riffing on the form, these seven writers created a singular essay.
Images by Kendra Mullison
We’ve come for all different reasons. To get away from Tucson. To conduct research. To experience Las Vegas for the first time. But, especially, we have come to tour The Nevada National Security Site, formerly The Nevada Test Site, formerly the Nevada Proving Grounds, where kilotons and megatons were buried, dropped, shot, and swallowed by dry earth. We have bombs, nuclear destruction, and the apocalypse on our minds.
A few hours before reaching Las Vegas, we stop at Luchia’s Resturaunt & Gifts along I-93. We sit down at a table on the veranda behind the restaurant. We are in a circle: Laura, Kendra, Craig, Kati, Lawrence, Andie, and me. Beside us, two peacocks shake out translucent blue and red feathers on a ring of grass. Kendra tells us about being raised in a missionary family. We talk about politics, the upcoming election. Craig orders pie and coffee, and then we all order pie.
Above our table, hanging from a rafter, is a plastic bag filled with water.
“Why do they do that?” someone asks the waitress when she comes to refill our drinks. She nods to similar bags hung throughout the veranda and tells us what she’s heard: That when flies come close enough they see something inside the bag enlarged, distorted, and so they learn to stay away. They are mesmerized, then terrified, by their own reflection.
There are a lot of ways to talk about the Nevada Test Site. We can talk about it metaphorically: We can say that we destroy to protect our own vulnerabilities, or to make real the agony of anonymity. We say look, listen, smell, touch, feel, die like me. Everyone die like me. We can say the test site is a thousand small suicides etched into the land.
“Just fucking know I exist,” says the Nevada Test Site.
If we’re being literal, we can talk about the creosote, the sage, the four-wing saltbrush, the Joshua trees, the sedum or thistle thing that looked like purple fingers and nobody knew what the hell it was.
If we’re being blunt, we can say: really, the land doesn’t much fucking care. It sprouts, births tumble weeds that cyclone delicately inside the craters. The land recovers.
If we’re being honest, we can say that each of us felt responsible for these gestures toward annihilation because we’re not always honest enough with ourselves.
The Sedan crater is what’s left of a 104-kiloton shot within the Nevada Test Site. Our guide Kevin Kinter says the test was conducted to determine the economic feasibility of using nuclear explosives for peaceful purposes. We could use this technology to build canals, to widen harbors.
The July 6, 1962 Sedan nuclear test displaced 12 million tons of earth. Fifty years later, seven of us non-scientists stand at the lip of the 320-foot-deep hole. Our arms and notepads dangle over the railing, off the platform. We pick up nearby rocks. We develop ways to launch them. Some of us get a running start. I find one as large as possible to make up for my size. I want its weight in my palm. I’m sweating. Will my skin absorb the grit in my hand? Before I throw the rock, I think, I should make a wish. As if throwing a coin into a well. A canal. A harbor. This place makes anything metal. My beating heart, my brain, metal. Manmade. My rock goes nowhere. I throw another. And another. And another.
I didn’t make a wish at the Sedan crater.
Squinting into the crater, I ask Kinter, How did those, those… Are those tires? They look like cheerios stuck to the bottom of a giant cereal bowl. You rolled tires down there?
Kinter responds, I did not roll those tires down there. No ma’am, not me. He looks to the other side of the crater’s lip. Then to the cloud that seems low because of all this. I don’t do that anymore.
I’d promised myself I wouldn’t pick up any rocks, or pocket any stray objects to bring home with me, but I can’t resist digging into the ground just a little. As soon as I do my nose begins to itch and I scratch it without thinking, and then upon realizing there is a fine powder coating my fingernails I wonder if I will now get cancer, or rather if I do get cancer, will that cancer simply be my comeuppance for that impulsive digging and scratching in the dirt?
I ask Kevin if he worries about radiation. He’s been working here since 1983, and is resolutely unconcerned. “If there was enough radiation to warrant worrying, there would be signs up,” he says.
As we drive between sites, Kevin listens to his colleague speaking over the common band on the radio. “That’s a stupid way to do a tour,” he says.
The road is cluttered with signs—semiotic to Kevin, hypnotic to us. We are told that the sign for Detour 700 is the way to Area 51. Some signs are signified by other signs: Historical Sign. There are signs warning of asbestos and radiation. The signage of the military-industrial complex is nauseatingly bureaucratic. In an era of nuclear non-proliferation, it seems that the sign maker is the only one with job security.
I am unsure if the signs serve to delineate or obfuscate. What I crave to see at the Nevada Test Site is what is strategically hidden. I want Kevin to barrel through the classified zones, to cavalier headstrong into the epicenter of UFO conspiracy theories, exotic propulsion systems, and weather control experiments. I want to slalom the receptacles of fenced-in, classified waste in the process of being buried in Area 5, which contains the Mixed Waste Disposal Unit, and the Radioactive Waste Management Site, which we drive through.
I look at the Joshua trees, signifying nothing.
Rebecca Solnit’s book Savage Dreams convinced me no one would survive a nuclear apocalypse. We all think we will, but we won’t, and so in the face of it, rather than stock up on canned goods and ammo, the rational response is to work to prevent such a thing from happening in the first place. She writes about attending a protest here at the test site in 1989, people hand-cuffing themselves to the cattleguard at the entrance, blocking traffic, playing Tiananmen with the workers’ buses coming and going. I don’t think about this book much while we’re at the site, but it comes back to me later, in the shower, as I wash off the day’s grime.
While we’re at the site, I admit, I’m more than a little enamored by the technology. I catch myself wishing I could witness a shot, feel the ground ripple beneath me. Such power. Maybe I could push the button.
We are standing in the middle of the Frenchman Flat, a dry lakebed tucked deep in the Nevada Test Site. I am standing beneath the rusted-out remnant of a bridge. I am standing beneath the bombed-out, rusted remnant of a bridge, a piece of a bridge really, a piece of a metal bridge still somehow fixed atop two concrete supports.
More than anything we are captivated by evidence of vandalism. Across one of the bridge’s girders, ten feet overhead, someone has scrawled in black spray paint: B.B. Bobby Sucks. But sucks what? Or whom? We don’t know. Someone has tried to paint over the graffiti, or wash it off, but the cleanup attempt only draws more attention to the message. Kevin is clearly embarrassed. He shakes his head, “That’s like tagging a temple.”
I am mostly just thinking about that thermos of coffee I downed during the hour-long drive out here, which is to say, things are getting wicked primal: I really need to pee.
I waddle away from the group, past the van, and across the road where I shield myself behind another massive concrete buttress. Presumably, the bridge used to extend over here, too, but this section must not have survived the blast. Now it is just a concrete wall. A convenient wall.
I am peeing on the concrete wall. Now I am leaving a puddle on the ground. Back to the concrete. Back to the puddle, now a small pool, on the ground. I am peeing in the middle of a wasteland, a legit wasteland, a legit nuclear wasteland, one of the few real nuclear wastelands in the world. As part of Operation Plumbbob in 1957, this concrete buttress, one of eight still standing, survived a 37-kiloton blast—more than twice the intensity of the blast that flattened much of Hiroshima—and here I am, pissing on it. I am sure there is some kind of minable irony in this, if we really want to intellectualize the act.
Our driver, Kevin, rounds all of us up, throws us in the van. We rattle north, stop at a big hole in the ground. Sedan Crater. I ask Kevin if I can climb an adjacent hill to get a better look out over Yucca Flat, even though there are faded signs saying “NO ACCESS PAST THIS POINT.” He says okay. I climb. I look down into the crater, twice as deep from the hilltop as from the observation platform where my fellow travelers are throwing rocks. I look out over Yucca Flat, breathe in the blowing sand, and spend a few seconds trying to figure out what to do with what I see. When I come down again, Kevin tells me I’ve just left footprints on the most radioactive spot in the area.
“Aw, but I used to drive my truck up there all the time,” he says.
This crater I will paint tomorrow could be any crater anywhere, with no yardstick to measure its depth. It is only 5” x 8.25” in miniature. I am no Pygmalion. I cannot breathe depth into my painted crater or give the sand texture with watercolor pigments. There’s simply no way to contain the whole, to make visible the invisible. Kevin’s kind insincerity rasps through my mind, and I think: we will all take this place home with us, broken atoms in our broken bodies.
On the drive back from Yucca Flat, the van is quiet. We are wind-whipped, sunburned. We are out of questions. Heads loll against shoulders, pens tick against lined notebook paper as the van carries us back from the edge of our known world.
Out the window, hard ground hurries past, truffed with blanched grass.
At the security station, we unclip our plastic badges. The security officer nods and takes them, and we pass out of the test site. We cross the part of the road, anonymous now, where thousands of protesters once stopped traffic. Where women chained themselves to a now-disappeared cattleguard. We pass the town of Mercury, long chewed-over by wind and dust. We pass the prison where we were told inmates once took the guards hostage with their shotguns. We burn towards the most infamous city in the United States—What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas—but the real secrets are hissing and whispering 65 miles north, on those pockmarked, man-hollowed flats.
Andrea Francis is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Arizona and a poetry editor for the Sonora Review. She was a 2012 finalist for CutBank’s Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry, and received an honorable mention for the 2012 Academy of American Poets Prize. You can find her recent work in CutBank and The Volta. She grew up in Northern California and lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Adam Kullberg is currently an MFA candidate in nonfiction at the University of Arizona, where he teaches and works as the nonfiction editor for Sonora Review.
Lawrence Lenhart is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona. He is currently finishing a novel about Bangladesh, expatriation, and Islamophobia. He is the recipient of two Foundation Awards, two Taube Awards, and the Laverne Harrell Clark Award in Fiction. He has been published in Three Rivers Review, Collision Magazine, Hot Metal Bridge, and is co-editor-in-chief of Sonora Review.
Laura I. Miller writes fantastic tales about miscommunication and magic. She is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona where she serves as the managing editor of Sonora Review.
Kendra Mullison is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona, where she teaches freshmen how to crack a back door into the mystery of writing, a mystery that she can’t shake out of her waking dreams. She writes nonfiction.
Craig Reinbold is a recent graduate of the nonfiction program at the University of Arizona, and is an Assistant Editor at Terrain.org.
Katherine Standefer is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona, were she writes about the body, consent, and medical technology. Her work has appeared in Camas, The Jackson Hole Review, The Leviathan, and The Longmeadow Journal of Young Writers. She was the 2007 recipient of the Reville Prize for Fiction. She has a yard full of gravel and birds.