(An earlier version of this piece appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. In fact, it’s the piece I used to win the 2012 Column Contest.)

I stole a radioactive rock from the Nevada National Security Site. I know, I know.

The Nevada National Security Site sits in the desert about sixty-five miles northwest of Las Vegas. NNSS is the current cluster of letters used to name the site where the United States detonated most of the atomic tests of the last century. As repeated nuclear tests and an unrelenting sun will do, the entire area looks like what would happen if you put Nevada in the microwave for too long and then let it chain smoke Marlboro Reds for fifty years.

I’ve been on this atomic kick for the last few years, which generally just makes first dates turn into last ones and gets me followed by entities like The Department of the Interior on Twitter. But it’s taken me to some pretty cool places too—even when they look like overcooked bacon.

The NNSS is like a national park, except nuclear. And the first rule of national parks is, you don’t take stuff. In addition to the ban on stuff-taking, you’re not allowed to take photos or record anything at the NNSS either, which is kind of a downer. Anyway, a souvenir I wasn’t supposed to have was just too tempting. While the tour guides were letting us amble about the Icecap test tower, I feigned an untied shoe, and quickly scooped-up a rock and shoved it into my pocket.

So yeah. I stole a radioactive rock.

The next day I tested the rock for radioactivity using one of the Geiger counters on display at the National Atomic Testing Museum, which if you’re inclined to visit, is way out past the defunct Liberace Museum, but an easy bus ride from the nice hotels on The Strip, or even the decaying opulence of Fremont Street. The rock registered a lower radioactivity than the chunk of Radioactive Red Fiestaware on display, but I still managed to coax a few satisfying blips from the device. My rock was indeed radioactive, so I did what any other lady in her early thirties would do—I stuffed it into my pocket and continued exploring the museum.

I watched the atomic blast reenactment from the bleachers in the Ground Zero Theater, paged through the hand-drawn, Technicolor-bright, Certificates of Participation, created for everyone involved in the tests, looked at the Atomic Era bar-ware and games (if you were a lucky, and rich kid in the fifties, you may have had a Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab, which allowed you to “play” with actual uranium ore), and of course marveled at the apocalyptic yearbook presenting pre- and post-blast pictures of J.C. Penney mannequins[1], all with Atomic Era history secreted away in my pants.

I spent the better part of the day at the museum, but this was my third trip, and I was pretty spent from traipsing all over the test site the day before. So, I boarded the bus back to the hotel early in the afternoon. This placed me back on Fremont Street just in time for the opening of my almost-seedy hotel’s dinner buffet. Like most Americans, I simply cannot resist the charm of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Particularly when I have a half-off coupon.

The scene in the dining room was pretty grim. The mid-Eighties Florida florals and gaudy brass chandeliers highlighted the desperation and good old self-loathing of the patrons. It was all a grotesque diorama of Sloth and Envy staged on the set of The Golden Girls. But there was seafood! And a spread of mayonnaise-based salads that would make Paula Deen weep, y’all. And I had a radioactive rock in my pocket! What more could a girl ask for?

I loaded up my plate like I may not ever eat again, as one does at a buffet. Crab legs—lots and lots of crab legs—shrimp, prime rib and “fresh” Gulf oysters on the half shell. Now I live in Louisiana. Where Gulf oysters come from. So I thought it a good idea to get some from a questionable buffet in the middle of a desert, 1500 miles from the Gulf. I could taste the oysters’ non-freshness. Instead of mermaid tears, they tasted like muddy globs of death, or what I imagined a tar ball to taste like. The spread was really sub-par overall. (See my Yelp review.) However, I made up for what was lacking in quality with quantity consumed.

Once I made my way through approximately four plates of mediocre food, I waddled out of the buffet and onto the casino floor. It was very early evening, so I couldn’t very well head to my room for the night without surrendering what cool points I had left after touring an atomic test site. One purpose. For fun.

I found my favorite nickel slot machine, Texas Tea. Texas Tea has been around for years. So long that now it’s generally relegated to worn-out downtown Las Vegas casinos and gambling outposts like Jackpot, NV. The best part of Texas Tea, aside from Texas Ted’s awesome mustache, is the bonus round. In the bonus round, you get to place oil derricks in different regions of Texas. You get to be an oil speculator! As a rule, I always bet on the Beaumont region. It just works for me. Usually. I started playing with $20, which is like a billion dollars in nickels, and by the end of a couple of hours, I was three gin and tonics in, down to $7.15 and sweating profusely. Maybe it was the booze, or the enormous amount of food I’d consumed, or maybe Texas Tea was just a cruel, cruel siren, luring me in with its armadillos and longhorns and smashing me upon the very offshore rig sprouting my Texas Tea bonus. But I digress.

I was surprised that my radioactive rock hadn’t brought better luck. So I cashed out—if you can even call receiving a paper printout while the machine struggles with a .wav file of not even real coins clanging, “cashing out.” I headed up to my room.

Once in my room, I carefully placed my radioactive rock on the counter in the bathroom where I could see it from the tub and took a bubble bath. And an Ambien. In the tub I started at my rock and enjoyed a few more pages of Idaho Falls, a book detailing the first atomic disaster in the US, given to me by my mom and dad for Easter. Nothing celebrates the resurrection of our lord and savior like a book about the first fatal nuclear accident.

Now the Country Music Association or some other organized musical shit-kickery was holding an awards ceremony and related festivities during my stay. Lucky for me, most of the action took place on Fremont Street. Even luckier for me, my room was immediately above one of the stages. Like feet above. This configuration all but ensured an awesome night’s sleep, even with Ambien in the mix.

I didn’t sleep well. At all. At one point during the night I woke-up drenched in sweat, trapped in a burrito made out of the greasy Florida Floral polyester bedspread, with a bloody nose, which was not awesome. I was so very uncomfortable.

Finally it was 5:00 AM. My inner old fart decided this was a good time to get up, have a breakfast buffet and get the hell to the airport for my early afternoon flight. I packed, i.e., threw everything in my bag, except for my radioactive rock, which I placed in my pocket for safe transport.

I checked-in for my flight, handed-over my bags and headed to the TSA checkpoint. You know how they ask you to take everything out of your pockets? Well, I didn’t. I mean, I took most of the stuff out of my pockets, but I left the rock safely stowed in my pocket. My plan was to say that the rock must have been left over from the stonewashing process used on my jeans, and I hadn’t noticed it before, and oh my god it was radioactive? That’s crazy. Someone had better tell The Gap. Luckily, the fine folks at the checkpoint didn’t notice my radioactive rock. Good job, America.

Usually flying is the best. I almost always have a window seat and suffer from flight-induced narcolepsy (not a real thing). It’s a good deal. Once the wheels are off the ground, I sleep until we’re taxiing to the arrival gate. Usually. This time, I did not. Airplane seats are not known for their spaciousness, and I have a 38” inseam, but this time, I was more than just tall-girl-on-an-airplane uncomfortable. I felt like my skin was going to burst, kielbasa-on-the-grill style. Something was not right. I became horrifically ill. Definitely the sickest I’ve been in public, and I live in New Orleans, land of Mardi Gras and go-cups.

I used the airsickness bag (check that off my bucket list) and lurched my way to the lavatory, my seatmates practically knocking each other down to get out of my way. I don’t know how long I was in there, but it was long enough for the nice flight attendant came and checked on me.

With her assistance, I made it back to my seat. I was not well. I had a fever, was freezing cold, yet sweating more than I had in my entire life. My stomach was you-have-died-of-dysentery upset. What the hell was wrong with me? I had never in my life had airsickness. This had to be something else. I wanted the flight attendant to bring me the strong sedative William Shatner’s wife gets in that Twilight Zone episode, making her oblivious to the goblin man out on the wing. Instead a passenger noticed my distress and gave me some anti-nausea drugs, which very well could have been meth or crack or rat poison. (Thanks for not poisoning me, fellow passenger!) My stomach settled a bit.

I decided somewhere over Texas that upon landing, I would immediately take a cab to the ER. I went through every WebMD style diagnosis I could think of. Most of the causes were completely reasonable. Highlights include: radiation poisoning, pregnancy, flu, food poisoning, leprosy and yellow fever.

When we landed, I made the decision to die in my own bed. Once home I stripped off my clothes and climbed into bed and slept for 16 hours sans Ambien.

The next couple of days were a carnival of fun, and basically went like this:







Oh my god I haven’t peed in two days.

I decided this was not good.

I went to urgent care. I must have looked terrible. Dr. Peacock (real name) saw me immediately. Trying to pinpoint the cause of my distress, he asked what I’d been up to for the last few days. I told him about my visit to the NNSS, the buffet eating, my time on the plane and other details of my adventure, leaving out the fact that I’d stolen a radioactive rock and had had it on my person for the better part of two days. Despite feeling like I was on my deathbed, Dr. Peacock assured me that I was just severely dehydrated and likely had a stomach bug I caught on the plane, or less likely, from something on the buffet. Bored now.

Now, I’m the first to admit I’m weird. And when I’m sick, the weird shines all the brighter. As Dr. Peacock wrote out my prescriptions, I casually asked, “So…do you think it’s possible I have radiation poisoning?”

He gave me the strangest look, i.e., you’re crazy, but I know you don’t feel well, so I’m not going to say that, and said, “I really doubt it.”

I filled my prescriptions, went home and made my way through an industrial sized bottle of grape Gatorade. I actually kept the liquid in my body and felt a tiny bit better. And I peed! That scare-the-hell-out-of-you greenish color that happens only when you drink grape Gatorade, but thankfully I remembered that at the time, and I peed! Quite possibly because of my over-exposure to post-apocalyptic literature, I still wondered if I could possibly have radiation poisoning, because you know, they feel better right before the end. With these thoughts in mind, I fell asleep.

I was jarred awake by an electrical storm of such power that I thought the port a few blocks away had been bombed. Or there was a horde of paparazzi in my backyard with incredibly bright flashbulbs. Either way. I’d fallen asleep without turning on any lights in the hours and the storm had made it all very dark. After realizing that I wasn’t in fact in the middle of The Blitz or a Hollywood premier, I took a chance and went to the bathroom. And guess what? I was almost okay! Green pee notwithstanding. I completed my bathroom business and started back to my bedroom, realizing that I should probably check to see if the front door was locked, because who knew if I’d had the brain power in the last few days to do so.

I started for the front door. Then I saw it.


This is the real, actual photo I took in that moment.


There was a green glow on my mantle. Like ectoplasm green. G-L-O-W-I-N-G. Shit. It was my radioactive rock and I totally had radiation poisoning.

Thoughts collided in my brain. I immediately thought to write everything down. I would surely die in a few agonizing days if On the Beach, Alas Babylon and all of those other books had it right. And that episode of NCIS where Ziva falls in love with that guys she sees on her morning runs in the orange stocking cap only to have him die of radiation poisoning before things can really even start? That is so romantic. Maybe my prince will come out of the fallout shelter because of all of this. My parents are going to kill me. This is totally an Anne move. I should probably tell someone about the rock. I should totally tweet this. I wonder if it’s affected my neighbors? Maybe they’ll turn the house into a superfund site like in The Radioactive Boy Scout? Maybe I’ll pull through. Should I take some iodine or something? I don’t think I have any. I should go to Walgreen’s and get some. This sucks, for sure, but is kind of awesome.

I was standing in the doorway a good distance from the mantle during my mini meltdown. It was dark. I didn’t have my glasses on. I was sick. I had to get some pictures of the radioactive rock and Instagram the shit out of them before I died. I’d probably get a ton of new followers for this one. I grabbed my iPhone from my bedroom and, still in the doorway, took a picture. I needed more pictures and moved closer to the mantle. I figured, what the hell? I was already going to die. I got really close to the mantle and WTF—the rock wasn’t glowing. At all. The glow came from the power button on my iPod dock.

The radioactive glow was the stupid power button on my iPhone dock.

I felt an incredible wave of disappointment mixed with relief. My radioactive rock was sitting peacefully, rock-like, next to the dock laughing at me.

I did not die of radiation poisoning.

A few weeks later, the doctor’s office called and told me that I most likely had had E. coli. Apparently there had been an outbreak a few weeks earlier, and I fit the profile perfectly. I had to go all the way to Las Vegas to eat one of the tainted buggers, but I still managed to do so. E. coli just isn’t as sexy as radiation poisoning.

[1] Yes. J.C. Penney mannequins were really used in atomic tests. The mannequins were placed in human situations, donning fashions of the day to test the durability of various, mostly synthetic fabrics in the face of a thermonuclear blast. Think Betty Draper hosting a dinner party, and then BOOM! And get this: if a mannequin survived the blast, it was returned to J.C. Penney and quite possibly reused in a store.


  1. Heather Hamann (Capell) says:

    I loved this article! I was actually just talking about it last weekend with my husband (who thought it was great, too). We went to Craters of the Moon National Monument and they are big on not taking rocks either! You are awesome!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anne says:

      Thanks Heather! You’re so sweet! And Craters of the Moon is one of my favorite places in the world. It’s so weird and beautiful! 🙂


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