June 11-12, 2019 – Badlands of South Dakota
Badlands National Park holds a special designation for me, as it was the first national park I visited in my youth. Since that time, we have been to many places that have similar qualities – particularly the Painted Hills in Oregon. But none of those venues seem to combine the mud-like quality of the formations with the sharp spires that occur throughout this park. Couple that with the fact that they rise from green prairies and you have a true ‘east meets west’ situation. On this particular trip, we found that last reference had much more than one meaning. More on that in a minute…
After setting up camp in Wall, we headed on I-90 to the east entrance of Badlands National Park. This area was known to the Lakota people as mako sika, which roughly translates to ‘land bad’. They were also the first to notice fossilized remains of sea creatures, leading them to correctly assume that the Badlands were once under water. That’s quite the assumption for a tribe that was thousands of miles from the nearest ocean!
Since becoming a national park, those fossils have become a focus of scientific study. Besides the shells and fish bones you would normally expect in a marine environment, species such as alligators and rhinoceros were found here. When we visited in 1990, I found a small jaw fragment while on a ranger-led tour. Hopefully it is still where I observed it.
The park is also home to a wide variety of present day wildlife. Here are several female Bighorn sheep that decided to moon the photographer.
We saw prairie dogs by the hundreds. This chubby guy stopped his meal long enough to pose for a profile shot.
And this trio was not letting us pass until we snapped an image of them for the blog. Consider it done!
As I had mentioned earlier, this trip introduced us to more than one meaning for the name ‘badlands’. When exiting off of I-90, we saw a sign for the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. After questioning the ranger at the Badlands visitor center, we decided to tour there the next day.
Heading east again on I-90 from Wall, our first stop was just off the highway at Exit 116.
Along the side of the dirt road, this fenced-in compound sits in plain sight. Not long ago, this was one of the United States’s hundreds of active missile silos. This small parcel of land held a missile that was 120 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. If launched, the missile would’ve flown over the North Pole to Russia in about a half hour.
This facility was labeled D-9 of the 66th Strategic Missile Squadron. Look closely at the map and you will see the towns of Wall, Sturgis, Belle Fourche, Lead, and Rapid City. Chances are you’ve been within a stone’s throw from one of these silos at some point and didn’t even know it.
At this particular silo, visitors can peer in from the top to see a deactivated Minuteman II missile. These particular rockets were taken out of service and most of the silos were imploded after the START treaty with the Soviet Union. About 150 silos remain in Wyoming, North Dakota, and Montana with the much more powerful Minuteman III missile in each of them.
Growing up just three miles from the massive industrial complex known as the Ford Rouge plant, I was always aware that there was a big Russian target on my head. Not a comforting thing to think about as a teenager, believe me. With that in mind, I peppered this ranger with a myriad of questions about these silos. He was actually a a missile commander back in the day, and was extremely open about the workings of this facility.
This heavy concrete lid covered the silo at one time. It is currently welded partway over the silo, in accordance with the treaty. In the 1983 television movie The Day After, there was a scene showing these lids retracting just prior to the missiles launching to their intended targets. That scene sticks in my mind to this day.
This is actually a hardened communications antenna. Think of it as a nuclear-proof cell phone tower. The ranger informed us that it would have not withstood a blast, even though that was the original intention. When I could think of nothing else to ask, I thanked him for keeping us safe over the course of his career, which he appreciated.
After that sobering visit, we continued to Exit 130 and the Minuteman Visitor Center.
This facility has a museum, theater and gift shop. A gift shop??? Do you really want to be reminded of a possible nuclear holocaust by drinking your morning coffee out of a Minuteman Missile mug? We viewed the movie, which started very much like The Day After, showing peaceful scenes with flyovers of fields of grain and unending prairies. It didn’t take long for it to show images of nuclear weapons detonating, the polar opposite of the earlier idyllic segments. After going through the nuts and bolts of the Minuteman program, they got to the story of one Stanislav Petrov, a missile commander from the Soviet Union. Remember this man.
Seen here during a visit to the Minuteman National Historic Site a few years ago, he is credited with single-handedly saving the world as we know it. In 1983, just before the above-mentioned TV film aired, this commander was alerted by his men of five incoming U.S. missiles on their radar screens. Tensions were high at that time, as the Soviets had just shot down a Korean Air Lines 747 with 246 souls on board. Petrov looked at the images and said “How can this be?” He knew the U.S. would launch far more than five missiles, so he held back from reporting what he was seeing. It turned out to be sunlight reflecting off high altitude clouds over North Dakota. Had he let his superiors know, missiles would have started flying in both directions. That inaction simultaneously ruined his military career and saved us all. He eventually suffered a nervous breakdown from the stress of it all. And if that wasn’t frightening enough, we learned later on in the museum that incidents like this happened twelve times…six on each side. In one of them, someone on the U.S. side inserted a training floppy disk into a computer which lit up the radar screens with incoming Russian missiles. Fortunately, someone discovered the error before the U.S. retaliated to a non-event.
In hindsight, the quote on this display in front of the visitor center may be impossible to achieve, due to the human factor involved with these weapons. After visiting this facility, we skipped the Junior Ranger badges this go around. Personally I went a good half hour before I could say anything, as I had a sizable lump in my throat from that film.
Still, it was a well done historic site worth visiting. Petrov himself stated that never in his wildest dreams would he have thought he could visit such a place on the ‘enemy’ side. Yes we were the enemy to them, as they were to us. Hopefully, the only thing we ever see flying over Wall, South Dakota are rainbows and clouds. Our wish for future generations is that the only ‘bad lands’ are the Lakota mako sica hills that dominate the landscape east of the Black Hills.
Next up, we head east through the remainder of South Dakota into the Missouri River region of the state. Along the way, we found a pleasant surprise nestled along the river’s banks. Be sure to stay tuned for that in next Saturday morning’s post. Until then, safe and happy travels to all!