Charlie Hilfenhaus and Cynthia Wilson had hiked about 14 miles across an Air Force bombing range en route to ground zero of an underground nuclear test when security guards spotted them from a helicopter Monday morning.
Hilfenhaus, from Las Vegas, and Wilson, a student from Salt Lake City, had a specific goal: Delay Wednesday's scheduled nuclear test, code-named Kearsarge, by marching across the desert until they reached the site of the nuclear device.Wilson said she and Hilfenhaus began the trek knowing it wasn't a matter of whether they would be caught, but when.
"We knew what the consequences would be," she said, reciting stories of six-month jail sentences and $1,000 fines given to other nuclear testing opponents who sneaked onto the Nevada Test Site who were caught and charged with trespassing.
Although their destination was Kearsarge ground zero, the duo could have caused a delay in the test simply by being on the test site. "DOE won't set a test off if there are unauthorized people out there," she said.
Her biggest disappointment was being caught too soon. She and Hilfenhaus were apprehended before actually reaching the test site boundary.
Officials gave them two options: Leave the test site under escort and promise not to return or be arrested. The two chose the first option and were given rides to the nearest public highway.
"It wasn't worth getting arrested because we weren't actually on the site," she said.
Wilson said there is evidence the test site rightfully belongs to the Shoshone Indians, and she and Hilfenhaus obtained a permit to enter the property from the Shoshones before starting the trek toward ground zero. She felt she had permission to enter and was not trespassing.
She did promise to leave the test site when she got caught, but said she would go back again if she felt a strong enough need to return.
The attempt to reach ground zero was likely the high point of her experience in the Nevada desert while living at the "peace camp" situated across the road from the gate where thousands of test site employees enter for work each morning.
Wilson said she has spent about half of her time during the past two years living in the peace camp as a representative of the Utah Peace Test organization. The rest of the time she lives in Salt Lake City where she said she attends the University of Utah.
Every morning the half-dozen or so protesters living in the camp take their signs to the cattle guard at the gate to the test site while commuters enter for work. The rest of the time is spent "surviving" in the desert environment.
"I'm kind of a desert rat anyway, I don't mind it," she said.
Hilfenhaus has lived in the peace camp and supported himself doing odd jobs since 1986. The peace camp is "temporary," he said, but will continue as long as nuclear testing continues.
Anti-testing activists monitor radio communications on the test site using programmable scanning radios. Equipped with a complete set of topographical maps, Hilfenhaus and other protesters are able to pinpoint the location of upcoming tests and make plans for civil disobedience.
Hilfenhaus said he has been arrested for trespassing before and has twice driven other protesters to places on the test range where they started hikes to the location of other tests.
In addition to guiding unauthorized tours onto the test site, Hilfenhaus is also more than one week into a 43-day fast that began Aug. 5 at 4:15 p.m. - the same time locally that Hiroshima was bombed 43 years ago, he said.
In addition to the morning vigils at the test site entrance, the Las Vegas Catholic Workers Association began holding daily anti-nuclear vigils at the Federal Building in 1986 and has been holding weekly vigils on Fridays since, said member Julia Occhiogrosso.
Occhiogrosso said comments from passers-by are more in favor of the anti-nuclear testing cause than they used to be.
On the other hand, the vigils have become so routine there is a question about who notices the protesters.
DOE officials do not hesitate to accommodate reporters by offering the phone numbers for protest groups when asked. A DOE external affairs spokeswoman said last week the protesters had a low enough profile for the Kearsarge test that she hadn't noticed any extraordinary plans or behavior.
Chris Brown, spokesman for the American Peace Test, said the grass roots organizations maintain a presence near the test site and keep national organizations with like interests posted on test schedules.
A Washington-based group called Sane-Freeze is probably the largest national anti-nuclear testing group in the country, said Brown, who is a board member.
Brown said he communicates frequently with the national groups. "They rely on us for testing information. We rely on them for work on Capitol Hill."
Brown, speaking for a coalition of protest groups at Tuesday's vigil called Kearsarge a "political smoke screen for the continued testing of nuclear weapons" and said test magnitude verification could be better accomplished through on-site inspections, rather than by testing the yield of a bomb by detonating it.
"We feel that student exchanges, cultural and economic trade and mutual reduction in conventional and nuclear forces are all much more appropriate steps in reducing the threat of nuclear war," Brown said. "We will maintain our nonviolent resistance to nuclear testing until the testing is halted."