Day 24: From Badlands, to Missiles, to…

Today was an early start, which turned out to be our last.  We were on the road by 7:15 AM because we had kitsch to inspect, animals to spot, and a 10:00 appointment to examine a decommissioned missile command center.  We had a lot going on.

Wall Drug

Our first stop of the day was to Wall Drug, the “famous” and somewhat obligatory stop everyone seems to make as they travel through western South Dakota.  And, hey, it was just down the street from our previous night’s lodging, so why not?  With a bit of anticipation to get to the bottom of what the fuss was about, we strolled into Wall Drug shortly after they opened only to be amazed, simply amazed, at how they must sell kitsch by the crap ton.  Or is that a crapload of kitsch by the ton?  Or a ton of crappy kitsch?  Or… you get the idea.  Anything logoed with South Dakota that you think you might need for posterity can be found here.  Anything.  And in keeping with their history, they still hand out free Wall water, which is how this little drugstore in little Wall garnered national attention in the first place.  We didn’t stick around long, as we didn’t need any (more) crappy kitsch but we were enticed by the handmade donuts sign and picked up a chocolate and vanilla donut for later.  By the way, they are cake donuts that are delicious but the chocolate frosting won out by a hair.  I think they put lemon in the vanilla icing, which makes it too healthy for my taste.  Also, don’t get the coffee – it’s horrendous.

Our Badlands welcoming committee

Wall Drug checked off the list, we headed a short distance to enter the Badlands National Park, where just before the entrance were a couple herds of pronghorn.  What a nice welcome!

Bighorn Sheep and his lady friend

The term “badlands” is given to any dry terrain that is full of giant sedimentary rocks and is a nasty piece of business to cross, or something like that.  Badlands National Park is one such formation right there in the middle of the otherwise flat prairie grasslands of South Dakota, making the rock formations a welcome diversity of sight.  However, the summers are long, hot, and dry while the winters are long, cold, and dry.  Oh, and there is constant wind.  Maybe this is where the phrase, “Go west, young man” originated.  The good news for us was that we weren’t homesteading, we were only driving through in a heated car so we loved the Badlands.  Part of why we loved it was because it’s a vast expanse of open space inhabited by all sorts of moving things and that instantly makes it a keeper in our books.  In fact, it seemed the Badlands had more animals per rock than any other national park we’d been in, including the aforementioned pronghorn, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and prairie dogs.  I think they have bison, too, but they must’ve been hunkered down somewhere else, and I can’t blame them as it was cold and blustery outside.

Don’t you just love mule deer ears?

As much as we loved our time in Badlands National Park, we needed to move on because nearby was the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and they offered a tour at 10am that we didn’t want to miss.  We arrived at about 9:50 and noticed we were the first ones there.  Uh-oh, did we miss the tour?  If we hadn’t missed the tour, would we be the only ones?  The latter turned out to be true, and we ended up getting what amounted to be a private tour given by a lovely young woman named Liz (who is so well-informed about the subject she has been tasked with writing the official National Park booklet for the site.  If Liz didn’t know it, you didn’t need to, either).

The dining/rec room for Minuteman II staffers

The Minuteman II Missile Site isn’t as beloved by the masses as, say, Yosemite, and it didn’t come with any bear sightings but it was sure highly interesting.  The D-01 Launch Control Facility and actual D-09 Missile Silo (located a few miles away and available for viewing without a tour) are the only two sites left to see out of the entire network of Minuteman II missile sites, as all others had to be destroyed to be in compliance with the arms treaty with Russia.  Liz’s official tour is supposed to last 30 minutes but since we were the only ones – and had her ear – it took over an hour.  We learned all sorts of things, including the fact you are not supposed to touch anything on the tour, and that includes leaning against the walls or stepping your feet off the dark carpet.  Some of us learned this more quickly than others (ahem, Jim), as some of us are naturals at following instruction and others like to toe the line.  It was a good thing he had two women looking after and micro-managing him that morning, as it took both of us to keep him in line to avoid any sort of international incident.

Short, to the point

We first toured the “topside” and learned all about a day in the life of the men and women who manned these stations, what security protocols were in place, where they slept, what they ate, and how they kept themselves entertained.  It reminded me of camp.  Next, we were taken past the (no longer) heavily passcode-guarded door to an elevator that took us 31 feet underground to the actual Launch Control Center, the business end of this entire facility.  This is where the missileers lived and were ready at a moment’s notice to retaliate should things go horribly wrong in the world, particularly with the Russians.  Liz explained the various systems that were in place to assure that no single person could have ever launched one of the extremely deadly missiles (inadvertently or otherwise) and how, if warranted, one or all of the 150 Minuteman II missiles located in South Dakota alone could be delivered to their target in under 30 minutes anywhere in the world.  Whoa.

Where the big red Launch button was

This facility was fully operational for about 30 years, manned 24/7, and deactivated in 1991 following the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.  The terms of the treaty means that any time of day or night the Russians are allowed to just show up unannounced and perform a surprise inspection to make sure there is no funny business going on (such as reactivation).  The US holds the same liberty, and apparently both sides have availed themselves of this clause.  Evidently there is no such thing as trust when world-ending projectiles are involved.

Our enlightening and captivating tour came to an end and I think Liz was sad to see us go, as we’d asked a lot of questions.  Jim especially had a lot of questions, including a rather obscure one about the elevator button that Liz said she’d never been asked before but assured him she would put it into the FAQ section of her new booklet.  She and I then exchanged a knowing look while Jim seemed pleased with himself.

Ready to launch

Our next stop was to backtrack a few miles to see the D-09 Missile Silo on our own, as you can’t tour a launch facility without seeing what they’d be launching.  This site only took us a couple minutes to visit because you just look at the missile in the ground through a glass top, but nonetheless, Jim declared he was going to touch everything he wanted here.  He’s a handful.

It was after noon now and we needed to hit the road because our next stop was home.  Like home home, the trip was over home.  We were still over 12 hours away and had a big stretch of South Dakota ahead of us that neither of us were relishing all that much.  Listen, it’s not just us in our aversion to a lot of South Dakota – why do you think they loaded up a fair portion of the Minuteman II missiles here even though that meant South Dakota was now a direct enemy target?  Mmm-hmmm.  And if you still weren’t convinced, we passed a billboard for a campground in South Dakota that advertised it had shade.  Shade?  Most campgrounds tout their state-of-the-art Wi-Fi, or clean showers, or full hook-ups, or a water feature, or proximity to a landmark, but shade?  I guess the good people of South Dakota don’t take shade for granted and they are very proud when they have it.

The last picture taken on the trip

So we set out for home, one mile at a time.  We did manage to make a pit stop in Mitchell, SD, to view the Corn Palace, which is Moorish in style and has to get a new façade every year because the birds eat the old one.  However, we did not have a chance to stop in Blue Earth, MN, to view the Jolly Green Giant statue or in Austin, MN, to call in on the SPAM Museum, home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of spiced pork artifacts, because it was dark by the time we reached Minnesota and we wanted to keep going.

We arrived home just before 2:00 AM and I was unpacked by 3:00 AM (I needed something to do while the heating blanket on the bed warmed up).  Both Jim and I had the time of our lives on this trip and, yes, if we could, we would do laundry and head out for another trip immediately.  But, boy, did it sure feel good to sleep in our own bed.

(I’ll be putting up one more post very soon with a wrap-up of trip statistics and other fun farm facts)

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