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Air Force Bases

August 25 — West Bound Car

After a sleep deprived weekend running Ragnar Great River Relay I once again performed last minute heroics in planning and packing for a trip, this time to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Even though I did not have to leave until mid-morning, I still departed a couple hours late. I had more starts and stops for errands too but afterwards finally made progress heading west. The drive was expectedly boring and thankfully uneventful. I continued across this dark, windy countryside until late at night, still not making as much progress as originally planned.

August 26 — Exploring the Air Force

I made more movement westward, with some two wheel remnants of the Sturgis Bike Rally passing in the opposite direction. South Dakota had ugly roads, with an unending line of obnoxious billboards screaming at drivers from ever angle.

Minuteman Missile Silo

My first stop was to view nuclear missiles, and I arrived at the Minuteman Missile Silo Historic Site’s headquarters. It possessed a few artifacts, but I quickly discerned this location was mainly an administrative office, so I headed onward.

Nuclear Missile Launch Control

Nuclear Missile Launch Control

Delta-01, a control facility responsible for command of nuclear missiles, was my next site. From the outside it resembled a large house, and as the living quarters from the airmen stationed here served a similar function. The interesting stuff lay downstairs though. In a hardened capsule about thirty feet below ground was launch control for the weapons. At all times two men sat stationed inside, waiting for the order to destroy the world. Contemplating the massive power that lay in the US’s heartland at these people’s fingertips was amazing.

The park service gave a very informative tour of the entire site. The guide was a retired missileer, whose first hand knowledge provided invaluable insight. Amongst other things, he conveyed that although the job was often monotonous, all the servicemen took it very seriously.

At one time upwards of a thousand missile sites were buried across America, although with peace treaties their number has been reduced in half. That means though that even today, around the clock about one thousand people sit in an underground bunker waiting to push the button. Hopefully by having that power they are actually preserving peace. At least they do not have to push a button every 108 minutes.

FedEx-ing a nuclear missile

FedEx-ing a nuclear missile

With the spectacular tour of the central facility complete, I headed further down the highway to a missile silo. The weapons were located several miles from their controllers to make taking out the squadron more difficult in the event of WWIII. Another ex-missileer was at this facility, explaining the site. The silo’s surface was not overly impressive, same as I remember seeing from Amtrak, but the power that lay underneath was remarkable. Learning about the redundancy and security of the site was interesting. Although a military base was nearby, an army of electronic sensors monitored the site, and a lot of concrete protection was on top, the nuclear missiles were for the most part unattended.

The wind howled while standing in the baron landscape admiring the missiles. I do not know how Iowa received all the grants for turbines, when this area had more wind than back home. Perhaps the wind farms just were not near the interstate. At least it would keep any bugs away.

Ellsworth Air Force Base

With the Minuteman Missile Silos explored, I traveled further west for more Air Force history. Ellsworth Air Force Base, which was in charge of the missile silos when they were active, held the South Dakota Air and Space Museum which had displays of old, large aircraft, information on that squadrons accomplishments, and a very good exhibit on the Berlin Wall.

B1 Bomber in front of the museum

B1 Bomber in front of the museum

I took a tour of the base, which was mostly just a small city, but still interesting for someone who did not grow up in a military family. The tour’s highlight though was a walk though the missile silo’s training simulator. We descend into a full scale, detailed replica of a missile silo, as the tour guide explained the facility. I got a sense of how much infrastructure went to support these missiles.

The base also had the trucks used to transport the missiles to their silos, as well as the secure trailer used to transport and install the warhead itself. On our way back we saw B-1s and other plans doing touch and goes off the runway.

Off base I found a parking lot of an abandoned gas station that lined up with the runway. I sat out there and watched several huge planes roar a couple hundred feet overhead. Having that much power soar so close was awesome.

Into the Wilderness

With my semi-touristy activities out of the way, I prepared for the wilderness. At the Black Hills National Forest office the person behind the desk did not seem to posses much firsthand knowledge, but I took many nice brochures and maps to help decide where I might go.

Castle Peak Campground

Castle Peak Campground

It was too late to start hiking so I made my way through the forest to Castle Peak Campground. The roads there were well marked, even as they went from four lanes, to two lanes, to gravel, to a narrow rocky, windy path with a lot of potholes. The latter was slow, and I wondered how well my Chevy would hold up, but the drive through the forest was still great. With the rough drive I almost regretted picking this campground, even if I never thought of turning around. When I finally arrived though, all doubts were erased. It was very remote, with nothing but trees all around and a babbling brook about ten feet from the sites. I setup camp and tired to make a fire, but although I remembered my waterproof match container, I failed to put matches inside. I could not even find the cigarette lighter for my car, so dancing flames would have to wait. Darkness came quickly, so I crawled into bed, ready to catch the rising sun early the next morning to enjoy as much daylight as possible.