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When Christopher Nolan was doing research for "Oppenheimer," he quietly joined a walking tour of the grounds in Los Alamos, N.M., the epicenter of the Manhattan Project.

The director was so impressed that he decided to turn this tucked-away town of 13,000 into a Hollywood lot. For two weeks in spring 2022, celebrities including Matt Damon and Emily Blunt shot in local locations, including the former cottage of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the key figure in America's quest to build an atomic bomb and win a war.

That house probably won't be open to the public until later this year. But Los Alamos is already worth exploring.

In June, I started with the free Bradbury Science Museum, named after Norris E. Bradbury, who replaced Oppenheimer as head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Fortunately, the gregarious security guard didn't evict me for assuming the center would be a tribute to science fiction writer Ray Bradbury.

The exhibits detailing the lab's work on stuff like algae biofuels and nanotechnology went over my head. But the film "Racing Toward Dawn," which chronicled how Oppenheimer and his colleagues picked this city for its secret experiments, was geared toward dimwits like me.

It was the perfect prep for the $25 deluxe walking tour that embarked from the Los Alamos History Museum gift shop, just three blocks away.

Before my group of seven took off, I had time to check out a few displays. My favorite nugget: a copy of the daily "secret" newsletter from Dec. 22, 1943, which warned readers to recycle their Coca-Cola bottles and to avoid burning their Christmas trees. It also let folks know that the featured movie that evening would be "Old Acquaintance" starring Bette Davis.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.

The Albuquerque Journal via AP, File

History tour

Our tour guide, Kathy, preferred to serve up history in chronological order, which meant our 90-minute walk started with a stop at an 800-year-old ancestral Pueblo site. She soon jumped centuries ahead to the period in which Los Alamos played host to the all-boys Ranch School, whose students included future Sears, Roebuck president Arthur Wood and writer Gore Vidal.

Kathy nearly spat on the ground when she pointed to the former site of the school's dorms, now one of the most unattractive strip malls this side of the Mississippi. A military team led by Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves shut down the school in 1942, so it could be adapted for the needs of its incoming residents.

Many of the buildings were torn down, but Fuller Lodge, the school's dining hall, remained. The scientists would also use it for meals, as well as for late-night activities that no teenage boy should ever attend.

Architect John Gaw Meem used wood from more than 700 Ponderosa pines to construct this marvel that's part barn, part palace. If the super-wealthy ever got into square dancing, this would be party central.

Just outside the lodge stands bronze statues of Oppenheimer and Groves. Kathy pointed out that the replica of the military commander isn't entirely accurate. His family asked that designers not show off his impressive pot belly.

Next up was a walk down Bathtub Row, so named because its residents had the only tubs in town. During the stroll, Kathy entertained our group with tales of Russian spies and how Oppenheimer's security clearance was eventually revoked.

She also shared how excited she was about the "Oppenheimer" movie. She guaranteed that it would be better than 2014's "Manhattan," the locally shot TV series so inaccurate that her husband, who worked for the laboratory at the time, screamed at the TV for 10 minutes.

All we could do once we arrived at the Oppenheimer house was peek through the windows. I was surprised to see pristine furniture in the living room that looked like it was part of a movie set. That's because it was.

The History Museum is planning to keep the house furnished with movie props rather than stock it with Oppenheimer's original couches and tables, a decision that should delight film fans and irk history buffs once it's open to the public.

You can go inside the neighboring house of Hans Bethe, who headed up the Manhattan Project's Theoretical Division. It hosts a history lesson on the Cold War, just one of the many attractions that force you to contemplate whether what these geniuses made here was a blessing or a curse.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility and the lab’s largest building.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility and the lab’s largest building.

Jane Bernard, The Albuquerque Journal via AP, File

In and around Los Alamos

There are many ways to get to Los Alamos. I caught a flight to Albuquerque, arriving just in time to enjoy a late dinner at Frontier Restaurant, a hangout for college students and diners who think food tastes better under portraits of John Wayne.

Take your time making the 90-minute drive north to Los Alamos. I stopped at the Walatowa Visitor Center at Jemez Pueblo the next morning for hot coffee and a history lesson on some of the Native Americans who developed this area.

For those seeking a more relaxing pit stop, meander around Jemez Springs, a village crammed with inns, spas and art galleries. Drivers skittish about the winding road ahead — it's a roller-coaster ride that may make your stomach your churn — may want to book a massage.

Or you can steady your nerves after you arrive in Los Alamos with lunch at Blue Window Bistro. The spacious restaurant serves a tart strawberry lemonade and a New Mexico dip sandwich so tender that the au jus seemed redundant.

Before making the 90-minute drive on to Taos, the tourist town where folk art is treated like Michelangelo, I paused at Ashley Pond, across the street from the Oppenheimer sites. It's a picturesque park that wouldn't be out of place in a Frank Capra movie. It doesn't play a significant role in history, but it's a pleasant place in Los Alamos to clear your just-blown mind.