I was dozing in the front seat, the scenery slicking from arid Nevada to salt ‘n’ violet Utah on the journey from Mustang Monument back to Salt Lake City.
The early morning sun seemed breathless, as though struggling to keep up with the pace of our speed and my friends and colleagues behind me fell fast asleep.
The driver had not said a word for many miles come hours.
And then he asked if I was interested in history.
Related: what is home anyway?
To which, of course, came the reply.
“Then you might be interested in this,” he said, pulling off the all American freeway into a dusty track complete with water cooler towers and more than a hint of aviation heroes Maverick and Goose.
It was too early for any movement. No trucks, no people, no flights in the sky.
Just a tall wire-mesh fence and an unobtrusive sign.
I slipped out of the truck, heavy camera in hand.
This was Wendover Airfield, a name you probably don’t know.
It serves as a private and military airbase now and its training flights trace all the way back to the heavy bomber squadron days of World War Two.
And while you may not know the name Wendover, I can guarantee other names that you will know.
Little Boy. Fat Man. Enola Gay. Hiroshima.
The aeroplanes glistened and sparkled as the sun found its stride but the quiet, oh the still, still quiet remained.
It was from this airfield, these very tracks that pilots trained for the morning of 6th August and the flight to Hiroshima. Here, too, the bunkers involved in the preparation for Nagasaki.
And as it happens, I’ve been to those cities on the other side of the world.
Hiroshima, a pulsing, crowded city with little evidence of death and destruction save for a twisted dome of metal and an overwhelming message of peace.
And Nagasaki, a cauldron shaped city with eyes on the outside world. During Japan’s 200 or so years of enforced isolation, Nagasaki was the one port that foreigners could access.
Both have inherent beauty and character.
Both are busy, busy, busy. Both have moved on, although poignant memorials remain.
Here, though, my boots crunch on the ground, each step kicking dust into the arid, still air.
The only sound beyond that is the click and whir of my camera.
And not for the first time, I have to stop and wonder just what I am doing here. Why I agreed with the driver and wanted to see this place.
Does standing on earth and seeing with our own eyes make events seem more real, more connected, more important? Or does it just feel surreal, jarring and almost fabricated.
What went through those pilots’ minds as they walked across this land. What did they think by their return?
It is at once as though we are bound by common humanity and separated forever by the differences of war. How can we navigate through the fog and thunder of hindsight, of the well-rehearsed political debate and the reality that each momentous action in the world ultimately takes place at the hands and feet and eyes of just one or two people.
A dog barks, metallic chains rattle and I startle. Uncertain at the wisdom of photographing US military apparatus alone and in the early hours of the morning, I scoot back toward the van.
The driver looks slowly at me, before quickly pulling away.
Half an hour later, we stop in a roadside café from the movies. There are restrooms, Twinkies, Hershey bars and people who urge me to have a nice day.
And then, the sweet scenery and stories of truckers rejoin our journey. The sunshine heaves itself fully over the horizon in a lazy, melting, golden, mist-tinged kind of way as the salty lakes begin to glitter and glisten with intensity on the horizon.
Like the day so far, it is a powerful sight.
And somewhat surreal.
Recommended reading: Why do people travel? 25 Reasons or is there just the one?
PS – On a completely different note, another surprising fact about Wendover, Utah is the tower on the airfield and its place in history…It was built as a prop for the film Independence Day…
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