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Peacekeepers, Prairies, and Presidents (Minuteman Missiles NHS, Badlands NP, Mt Rushmore NMem)

Updated: Oct 7, 2022

... or title it Missiles, Meadows, and Mount - that works also.

Wednesday, 22 June 2022, Custer SD

Peacekeepers: It seems every generation has their bogeyman, their existential enemy. In the 2000's it was Al Qaida and Osama bin Laden. In the 1980's we had Iran and the Ayatollah. For the 1960's? Russia and the Cold War.

The 60s predates most people today, and they must rely on old movie clips or stories to bring that era alive: the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Backyard bomb shelters. Those concerns echoed across the country back then - nuclear proliferation presented a real threat to society. To deter attacks - the MAD approach - the U.S. placed a thousand Minuteman missiles in silos throughout the Great Plains. They were not kept secret, but advertised as our response to any attack.

Times are different now, and due to arms reduction treaties, over half of those thousand silos were deactivated and dismantled. To present the history of the Cold War, though, a few structures near Wall, SD, were preserved. In 1999, Congress established Minuteman Missile National Historic site, consisting of a Visitor Center, a silo, and a launch control facility.

We started our tour at the Visitor Center. The center has a well-organized exhibit on the Cold War, detailing events, concerns, and approaches. I had to shake my head at the photo of kids practicing Duck and Cover - did people really believe that hiding under a desk would provide any protection from a nuclear blast?

The theatre showed a film giving more information on the era. (Sergei Kruschev - Nikita's son - appears as an expert.) It mentions two close calls that happened over the years that could have resulted in calamity: In the U.S., alarms sounded that missiles had been launched from Russia - but they discovered in time that a training simulation had been left in a cassette player and turned on. In the U.S.S.R., a Lt. Colonel in the launch loop didn't think the warning sounded right, and he delayed sending it on - at the cost of his career.

Not only does the park teach you about history, it demonstrates the economics theory of supply-and-demand. The NPS runs tours of the launch control facility, but due to its small size, each tour is limited to six people. A regular business would jack up the prices - but these are people's parks! To accommodate the crowds that haven't reserved the scarce tickets, they offer a virtual tour in the center. The narrator guided us through the various rooms on the screen, cracking jokes as he went along. "So you're stuck in this small room for hours on end, with nothing to do but read books. Not a good job if you have claustrophobia and dyslexia." Wall Drug served as the butt for several of his jokes. "We tell people to fear the Russians - they'll come over and kill the giant jackalope... If the missiles start flying, the best place you can hide is behind a Wall Drug billboard. Wildfires happen in this area, but I've never seen a Wall Drug billboard charred by fire."

When we left the Visitor Center, we headed two exits west to the Delta-09 silo site. This site is basically a concrete pad surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire, plopped onto the prairie with Badlands formation visible to the south.

It offers a cell-phone audio tour to tell the story of the site - call the number and listen in. What I found most interesting was seeing an actual missile - an inactive training missile - inside the silo, pointed to the skies.

To think of the damage a real missile could wreak...

Since the time neared lunch, and we would pass right by it, we stopped at Wall Drug for a quick burger (and free ice water!). Now onto ...

Prairies: So far, we had spent our time in the North Unit of Badlands NP, which only contained about one-quarter of the park - the only part that most people see. The Stronghold (which I drove through decades ago) and Palmer Creek Units were not on our route, but we did want to visit the Wilderness Area. This park contains the largest expanse of mixed-grass prairie in the National Park System - may as well get to know it!

We headed south from Wall to enter the park (the route we exited by yesterday), then turned west on the gravel Sage Creek Rim Road. It ran along the rim for a few miles, with overlooks into the valley. At the first stop, a bison on the road held up traffic for a few minutes, before stepping away to scratch its itch.

Across the road, we passed a prairie dog colony.

(With the park's population of p-dogs, it made sense for the park to re-introduce black-footed ferrets here, with their favorite prey in abundance. So far, the re-introduction has gone well.)

Soon, our road dropped into the Sage Creek drainage,

bringing us to the lower prairie lands. We took the spur to Sage Creek campground, where campers occupied a number of the sites. After parking near the main shelter/restroom, we applied our sunscreen and struck off an a short jaunt into the wilderness. Being wilderness, no official trails existed. However, a social trail beckoned, and we took off in pursuit of adventure.

A philosophical question: Does following an unofficial, unlabeled trail highlight a degree of trust ("Other people have taken this, so it must lead someplace worthwhile!"), or does it indicate a lack of imagination ("I can't be bothered trying to figure out where I want to go, so I'll follow the crowds.")? In my case, neither fit. The trod-out trail headed toward a copse of trees that I thought looked promising, so the trail provided ease of passage.

After clearing the trees, it followed along Sage Creek a short while.

After crossing a slight ridge, it then petered out, leaving us free to blaze our own course. Yes, we could have safely returned the way we came, but our legs had not yet had a long enough break from sitting, so I set off toward a dead tree nearly reclaimed by the land.

After a few more minutes, we came upon another well-worn footpath. Knowing we still had an hour of driving and another stop ahead of us, we turned back toward the (unseen) car. Soon we crossed the slight ridge, and the car came back into view. So much for our teaser of a wilderness hike! Now it's on to ...

Presidents: Mt. Rushmore is THE site intimately associated with South Dakota;

it even graces their license plates. Over two million people make a pilgrimage to the memorial every year, seeing 60' tall heads of Washington, Jefferson, T. Roosevelt, and Lincoln. Those driving there (as we did) will see all manner of kitschy billboard advertisements for such 'attractions' as Cosmos Mystery, Reptile Garden, a helicopter tour, wax museum, zip line, and more. At least the memorial itself is free of such distractions.

An avenue of flags leads you to a viewing platform, and to a paved path through the woods to Gutzon Borglum's studio (he was the designer/sculptor of the presidents' heads). Interpretive signs reveal details about the monument. One such trivial fact:

About 90% of the 'excess rock' was removed by dynamiting, but 10% (the details work) came off through jackhammers. The pneumatic engine that powered the jackhammer still sits in its building below the base of the mountain. While the work proceeded, the man in charge of the engine noticed that every Monday morning, they engine suffered from a drop in power. An investigation revealed that on Monday mornings, housewives in the nearby town of Keystone did their laundry. The electricity they used lowered the output available for the pneumatic engine.

Inside Borglum's studio, I found a picture of Mt. Rushmore prior to the carving.

Interesting to see what they had to work with! The studio also had an artist's model of his vision for the memorial - besides the heads, it also included clothing and hands of Lincoln and Washington.

We took the paved path (which included many steps)

to get the whole experience.

Afterwards, we had to experience one more piece of tasty history: a sign had said that Thomas Jefferson had co-authored the original recipe for vanilla ice cream, and the ice cream shop sold scoops made with that original recipe. Definitely worth the calories!

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