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The Trinity Site got a boost of fame after ‘Oppenheimer.’ But these history buffs would have visited anyway

Originally Published: 24 OCT 23 12:31 ET

(CNN) — “Oppenheimer” may have given the Trinity Site a boost of fame this summer, but for many history buffs, making a pilgrimage to the area is a journey years in the making.

Nearly 4,000 people flocked to the Trinity Site this past Saturday, according to the White Sand Missile Range Public Affairs Office, waiting hours to visit the infamous ground zero, where the first atomic bomb was detonated.

David Tise, a 33-year-old National Park Service Ranger at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and a self-described “historical nutcase,” took Friday off work to make the 2.5-hour drive to Alamogordo, New Mexico. He then woke up at 5:30 a.m. and made the two-hour drive to the site, where he then waited in line for about 90 minutes. In total, that’s about six hours — all just to see the Trinity Site, a goal he’s had for years.

“The thing that stood out the most was how isolated it was,” Tise told CNN. “Even back then, how they transported everything for the test from Los Alamos without anyone noticing.”

The Trinity Site only opens to the public twice a year, on the first Saturday in April and the third Saturday in October, said Drew Hamilton, a spokesperson with the White Sand Missile Range Public Affairs Office.

Because of the success of the “Oppenheimer” movie, which tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, staff were expecting closer to 5,000 visitors this year, Hamilton said. Still, 4,000 is “on the higher end,” he said, a trend he expects to continue for next year’s April opening.

Tise, who completed his first visit this year, called the experience “sobering.”

“The Trinity test helped win World War II and saved countless American lives. However, the area is still a little radioactive and the test destroyed the environment for years after,” he said. “I’m not a warmonger or anything but I don’t think anyone should have that much power to destroy the world.”

Zach Berkowitz, an 18-year-old high school student from Colorado, also had a long journey to see the site. Berkowitz and his father woke up at 5:15 a.m. on Saturday and drove an hour from their hotel to the Trinity Site, where they then waited almost two hours just to enter.

Berkowitz is interested in nuclear history and has wanted to see the site for years, he said. But his dad needed convincing — only agreeing to do the drive after seeing “Oppenheimer.”

“Seeing the pieces of trinitite on the ground was really interesting, since it really made it clear that I was standing somewhere special,” Berkowtiz said.

Trinitite, the glass-like chunks that appeared on the desert floor following the Trinity explosion, are illegal to collect due to concerns of radioactivity. Based on what other people’s Geiger counters detected, the trinitite was more radioactive than Berkowitz had expected, he said. He tried to pick one up, but was told not to by an Army member.

“If I could have taken a piece home, I would have,” he said. “But doing so is illegal.”

Though this year’s opening doesn’t quite beat the record for visitors – that would be 2015’s 70th anniversary, for which more than 5,000 people made the trek — this year’s event still attracted the usual “wide array of visitors,” Hamilton said, “from those who just happened to be stopping by to those that had planned entire vacations around making it out.”

“Everybody that’s there is excited to be there, just because we don’t open the site up so often, so it is kind of a treat,” he said. “And the majority of visitors are history buffs anyway. So getting out and being able to go to a site that isn’t open very often, and is such a significant historical point on the globe, is a real fun thing for them.”

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