There are any number of reasons why a city, town, or even an entire empire goes from thriving to nonexistent: climate change, urban development, and war are just a few of them. For Wade Davis – an ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker who has spent decades traveling the world and immersing himself in indigenous cultures to learn about everything from hallucinogenics to zombies – the answer is simpler than that: "You know the old expression, 'If you don't study history you're doomed to repeat it,'" says Davis. "Undoubtedly, when Pachacuti built Machu Picchu, he had no idea that within less than a century, the convulsion of the Conquest would flood upon him."
From the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu to a tumbleweed-ridden ghost town in Death Valley, the element of surprise is a recurring theme in the abandonment of a town-turned-tourist destination. And whether a place is taken out by enemy forces or Mother Nature, the lesson in visiting any abandoned city, according to Davis, is "to realize the ephemeral nature of power." Including our own.
"The Roman Empire lasted for five centuries," says Davis. "Five centuries ago, people hadn't even come to America. We look back and say, 'Well the Mayans weren't quite as big as they thought they were.' By the same token, the global civilization that we have – based on hydrocarbons, if you will – could be snuffed out just as the Incas, the Mayans, the Egyptians and every other empire." Consider yourself warned.
Nevada National Security Site
A former nuclear testing site may not be everyone's idea of a good time, which is just fine by the United States Department of Energy which operates the 1,360 square miles of desert and mountains that were previously known as the Nevada Test Site. Its public tours (which are free) happen only once a month, offer an extremely limited number of spots, and fill up quickly. If you do manage to snag a reservation, you'll venture about an hour outside of Las Vegas and cover 250 miles of NNSS terrain, including Frenchman Flat, site of Able, the area's first atmospheric nuclear test on January 27, 1951. Just don't expect to bring home any souvenirs; cameras, cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices are not allowed, nor are shorts, skirts, or sandals.
Getting there: Though all 2014 tour dates are already full, you can add yourself to the wait list by completing an official "badging form," which can be downloaded online, then faxing or mailing it back to the Department of Energy's Nevada Field Office.
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