Bruce Springsteen, the Plague and Nuclear Armageddon: South Dakota

Woman from North Dakota: We enjoy roughly the same climate as South Dakota, we took in $73.7 million in tourism revenue last year. They took in $1.2 billion. They have the word “south”.

Donna: Also Mount Rushmore.

– The West Wing, S03E21 “We Killed Yamamoto”

Mount Rushmore

Yep, let’s get right into it. A few miles from Rapid City is Mount Rushmore. The construction took roughly 14 years and began after the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, was inspired by the Richie Rich live-action adaptation. The area chosen for construction was originally known to the Lakota Sioux as “Six Grandfathers”; blowing it up into the shape of four white dudes, in hindsight, seems like quite an in-your-face move.

Washington Profile

Mount Rushmore is the only thing I’ve seen on my trip that’s exactly how it looks in the pictures. Everything else I’ve been to has been worth seeing individually, whether because it seems smaller, like with the shuttle, or because it’s so vastly huge it’s impossible to capture, as with the Grand Canyon. But Mount Rushmore is exactly what it is. Perhaps that’s because you can’t get terribly close to it. Not that I need to give Jefferson a wet willy or anything, but if you never have the chance to see it in person, just take post card of it and hold it to your face.

Downstairs in the info centre, we learn that the carvings were actually going to be much grander: fully fleshing out the heads and adding the torsos and arms. Ongoing carving was halted due to lack of funds, and because of how difficult it is to draw hands.

I know what you’re thinking, by the way. Sure, doesn’t Mount Rushmore look a little incomplete? Couldn’t it do with just a little addition of someone who, I think we all agree, has become a vital part of American history and culture?

Mount Bertiemore

Yes, Bertie’s back. When last we saw him, all his bad-doings had finally caught up to him and he had been locked away in Alcatraz. I don’t know what he’s been up to since, but I wonder if it’s just the chance to become immortalised in rock that has brought him to the … … The Mount Rushmore State. That’s South Dakota’s official nickname. I would like to apologise to Connecticut for mocking their “the Nutmeg State”, at least they were trying.

Mount Bertiemore isn’t the only grand-scale rock construction going on in the state, however. Nearby, there is the ongoing construction of the Crazy Horse Memorial:

Crazy Horse Memorial

Proposed by a Lakota elder, the design is by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who worked under Gutzon Borglum. Blasting for the project began in 1948 and, when completed, it should look like:

Crazy Horse Model

As you can see, there’s some work left to go (but, in fairness, that is one crazy looking horse). There are several reasons why this project has taken so much longer: firstly, it’s based entirely on donations and visitors, having turned down federal funding on multiple occasions; secondly, it’s huge. To try and give you appropriate scale: the heads on Mount Rushmore are 18 metres tall. The intended height of the memorial, when finished, is 172 metres. Because if you’re going to blow up a mountain, don’t half-arse it. Here’s a rough comparison:

Crazy Horse Mount Rushmore Comparison (Source)

There’s some contention over whether or not another mountain should be blown to smithereens for another memorial, with points of concern amongst the Lakota over whether it should have been commissioned in the first place, if the money raised is being used properly and the damage to the mountain itself. I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to see the completed carving (especially with my Wine Gums and … wine diet), but at the moment it does seem a very strange thing. I suppose Mount Rushmore has had time to settle in the collective mind that it doesn’t seem that bewilderingly crazy anymore, in spite of being the same blight on the beautiful mountains.

Having come successfully to no conclusion, I head back on the road. The path takes me back through Rapid City and there’s something that stands out as I’m driving through it. I’m everywhere:

Boyds Spirits

Boyds Drugs

Well, I’m everywhere that will get you blitzed. I guess some of my far distant ancestors must have settled in this place. Wait, if they settled here, they couldn’t be my ancestors. My uncestors, then. And actually that makes everything I’ve seen so far make a lot more sense. Mount Rushmore? The Boyds probably just got wasted on a Friday night, woke up on a Sunday morning surrounded by chunks of rock and whatever dynamite was left.

There’s another building of note to talk about before I roll out. Back in Washington, my friend was excited to show me these little drive-thru espresso booths, a proud and integral part of the Evergreen State (see, South Dakota? It doesn’t take a lot work). I neglected to take a picture of one and was a little sad that I’d never see one again. But then:

Espresso Booth

I’m not sure how it found its way to these southern (ish) climes, but I’m grateful that it allows me to correct my picture database. Also, South Dakota, how about “the Badlands State”? That gives you street cred with the kids. They love that film. I thought maybe North Dakota had stolen that one, but they’ve got, ahem, the “Roughrider State”.

Boldly Social Security Oh my

Speaking of one of those things (the Badlands), I’m heading east to visit the Badlands National Park.

Badlands National Park

And yes, I do have Bruce Springsteen’s Badlands running through my head.

Badlands National Park I’ll wait.

Anyway, somewhat like that earlier encounter with the Grand Canyon, one of the impressive parts of the Badlands is realising the sheer scale of the thing.

Badlands National Park

I do come across a sign warning me that the prairie dogs might have the Goddamn plague. Probably shouldn’t have cuddled all those ones in North Dakota. I accept my impeding fate with the comforting thought that death will be all around easier and cheaper than dealing with the American health care system. Now, like a cat, I just need to find a nice quiet place to crawl out to and die. For this, I have chosen somewhere pleasant, remote and defensible: a nuclear missile silo.

Minuteman Launch Facility Delta-01

I happen to pop into a trailer on the edge of the Badlands National Park to pick up a flyer on this place when I’m told I’d still be in time for the final tour of the day if I ran along. Head a few miles along the interstate, pull off on a nondescript road, bump up a dirt track and come to a fence. This is Delta-01, a Minuteman Missile Launch Facility.

Delta-01 Antenna

The Minutemen were members of a well regulated militia who, during the Revolutionary War, sought to protect the security of the foundling nation by bearing arms—this sounds familiar. Anyway, they were known for their ability to rapidly respond to threats, and so the name eventually got passed on as a name for the US’ collection of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.

The National Park Service volunteer who takes us on the tour is a retired Lieutenant Colonel who served in one of these launch facilities, as well as the aircraft connected with them. These were highly important during the Cold War, as part of the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine, which would ensure that, should Russia launch their nukes against the US, the US would retaliate. The men and (quite a bit later) women serving here had their fingers, quite literally, on the trigger to wipe out mankind. This is why I don’t begrudge them their rooms which are nearly, but not quite, twice as nice as my dorm:

Delta-01 Room

South Dakota turns out to be a good spot to have your nuclear arsenal. It’s not a strategically significant target, and, by taking a path over the arctic, is in a good position to strike at Russia. There are also deer, as we are reminded in the living area, where the men and women could think about what they were truly fighting for, and play Battleship.

Delta-01 Living Area “B6.” “You annihilated the planet.”

As you might imagine, a students’ flat in the middle of a field isn’t the heart of a nuclear launch facility, that part’s underground. And none of the nukes are (or were, as this place is decommissioned) on site. The connections to the surrounding missile silos are incredible for their complexity and redundancy. Obviously, you don’t want someone to just be able to cut the connection between you and the missiles (and one of the connections does, in fact, lie more or less on the surface). Instead you want a mix of cables, VHF, HF and LF radio connections to ensure you have constant contact/control over your nukes. But what if something takes out the facility itself? Let’s assume they manage to get down through the floors of concrete:

Delta-01 Shaft

That’s where the aircraft come in. As our excellent tour guide explained, he also served on aircraft which were capable of flying over the silos and assuming control, if the launch facility was compromised. So, you live on this site, you spend 24-hour days buried beneath the ground waiting to trigger Armageddon and, if the Russians work out where you are, you are absolutely going to have a nuclear missile come crashing down on your head should anything break out. The point is you’d develop a sense of humour:

Delta-01 30 Minutes or Less

That door, by the way, is this thick:

Delta-01 Door

The capsule itself is fascinating. Very cramped, little more than a box with very few amenities: a bunk and a toilet are the closest things to comfort, although it does come with an air-filtration system. The rest is filled with everything you’d need: a status panel to ensure all your connections to the missile are good:

Delta-01 Status Panel

And pre-programmed destinations for maximum nuclear carnage:

Delta-01 Launch Panel

So that’s the launch facility, what about the silos themselves? They’re spread around a wide area and the only remaining one is Delta 09. It’s another quick trip on the interstate and then you… I don’t want to spoil it. Look at the picture below and spot it for yourselves:


Yeah, it’s that little spot, dead centre. I should expect it, really, but it did take me back to realise how tiny total annihilation looks like and how easily it blends into a field. The only thing standing out was that it’s surrounded by a chainlink fence.

Delta-09 Cover

Turning it into a tourism attraction has increased its profile by adding a glass view-port onto the top of the silo and through it you can see:

Delta-09 Missile

I mean, call me crazy, but it seems a bit reckless to just leave one there like that… Yeah okay that one, as you would guess, is a replica. This was the Minuteman II system which was dismantled after an agreement between the US and Russia in 1991. You’ll be reassured to know that Minuteman III, comprising roughly 450 sites, remains active.

And with that glimpse into the meticulous way our race could try to wipe itself out, I’m heading back in the car and continuing my journey east. I pause before getting back on the interstate to look across the field to the silo. The missile itself looks so small, considering the damage it could do in the wrong hands. Speaking of, I haven’t seen Bertie since Rushmore. Still, what’s the worst that could happen?



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