August 9 – The Badlands, a Minuteman Missile site, and Wall Drug (Part One)
If you’re not familiar with an area, it can be fun finding places to visit / explore. Such was the case today, when I rode east to go through the Badlands National Park and discovered the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and a prairie homestead, and then ended up actually visiting Wall Drug!
I decided to get an early start, because I knew it was going to be a long day. Badlands Park is 70 to 100 miles east of Sturgis on I-90, depending on which end you’re at, and I didn’t plan to take the Interstate anyway. I rode down the Vanocker Canyon road I mentioned a few posts ago and followed some other local routes into Rapid City, where I had breakfast (coffee and donuts at a local shop) and then picked up SD 44 east to Badlands. Vanocker Canyon was socked in by low clouds / fog, which made for an interesting, and damp, start to the day.
It was a good ride. The Black Hills are all west of Rapid City, so the land east of the city is pretty flat. About an hour east of Rapid City I rolled through the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, and eventually wound up at the southeast entrance to the Badlands.
My original plan was to ride the short piece of road up to Exit 131 on the Interstate, turn around, and then ride the full Badlands route back to Exit 110, but that got changed quickly when I discovered that the Minuteman Missile site was at Exit 131. I had picked up a brochure for this attraction when I first rode into South Dakota, but didn’t bother to puzzle out where it was – I figured I’d save it for another trip.
But here it was, right in front of me, so I stopped in. The facility at Exit 131 is actually just the Visitor Center, and it’s so new that the permanent exhibits aren’t even installed yet! They don’t go in until September. The Visitor Center is where you get directions to the silo location (Exit 116) and tickets for the guided tour of the command center, which is located at Exit 127.
The silo is one of ten that were originally run by the Command Center. The other nine have been imploded and filled in, but this one (with Russian agreement) was retained as a Historic Site. It holds a training (inert) missile, and the blast door has been partly rolled back and covered with a glass superstructure so you can look down in the silo itself. There is a self-guided “tour” of the site that is handled via cell phone. The number is 605-301-3006, and you can listen to it from any phone, anywhere. If you’re on site and have a cell phone, the tour will describe the various things you can (and can’t) see.
This photo shows the blast door partly rolled back, and the glass superstructure on top that allows you to look into the silo itself. An active silo’s door would be fully closed, of course, and would be blown off just prior to launch if that ever became necessary. The tracks allowed the door to be rolled back to install or remove a missile. The second photo shows the missile in its hole.
After I completed the self-guided cell-phone tour, I rode back to the Command Center for the Ranger-guided tour there. Tours are limited to six people at a time, because you actually go *down in* the “Hole” – the actual command center location where the missiles were monitored and where the keys would be turned. This particular “Hole” is only 30 feet down, because that’s where they hit the water table and couldn’t go any deeper. The Park Ranger said all the other Holes were 70 feet or more below ground.
We got a tour of the facility staff’s quarters – the folks who, basically, lived at the command center location and kept it maintained. The missileers themselves didn’t live there, and weren’t even allowed into most of the surface building. They arrived for their 24-hour tour, checked in through Security, went down to the Hole, and that was it. At the end of their 24 hours, they came up, checked out, and went back to Ellsworth AFB until it was their turn again.
The most interesting thing about the whole tour, in my opinion, is the next photo. Back in WW II, many airplanes were decorated with nose art – paintings of whatever the crew wanted on the planes to individualize them. One of the things SAC (Strategic Air Command, which no longer exists) allowed the missileers to do was to paint their access doors with “nose art.” Since all of the other decommissioned sites have been destroyed, this is the only one that remains. You’ll probably recognize a striking resemblance to a certain pizza chain’s logo, and you may remember one of their slogans, too. Well, because this site is open to the public, the Park Service had to request permission from Domino’s Pizza to leave the door painted as it is, because otherwise it’s trademark / copyright infringement. Of course, Domino’s was happy to say yes. 🙂
One of my good friends from college, who graduated a year after I did, also went into the Air Force. Whereas I did my “four and out,” he went into missiles and ultimately made a career in the AF, retiring just a couple of years ago with four stars on each shoulder. I have always admired Bob for his service, but having seen where he sat (or a carbon copy of it) for years, I have even greater respect for him and all those who still sit in their Holes (about 450 Minuteman III missiles are still active).
Well, I see I’ve about reached my self-imposed limit of around 1,000 words, and I haven’t yet told you about the Prairie Homestead I visited, or the Badlands, or Wall Drug, or the ride back to Sturgis (with the rain). I think I’ll stop here and do those in my next post. See ya! 😀