Friday, August 19, 2011

The Badlands and the Doomsday Machine

The Badlands are exposed layers of silt, mud, ash, clay, sand, and goop that have been semi-compressed into a soft stone. These layers were once the bottom of a vast inland sea that covered much of the central USA many millions of years ago. Due to geologic forces these layers have been thrust upward here, in the area of Badlands National Park, and are eroding away at the rate of about an inch per year -- quickly in geological terms. In a few hundred thousand years what's visible today will all be gone.

At first glance it all looks so desolate and lifeless. And it's true... these are tough conditions for life. But on closer examination life is everywhere. Small plants shoving aside a shard of crust and poking up through the soft rock... a little pine tree clinging to a crevice on a vertical slope... burrowing animals. When viewed carefully and up-close, it's rewarding to find these small footholds of life... and to marvel at their adaptations to this harsh environment.

Thursday, we drove and explored the loop road through the middle of the park. Stopping at almost every pull-out and overlook, soaking in an experience that is so different from your run-of-the-mill walk in nature. The way these layers of material were laid down over the eons of time provided perfect conditions for preserving evidence of early life, plants and animals that have long since gone extinct but are preserved here as fossils in soft eroding stone. Both paleontologists and vacationers (even kids) have found fossils freshly uncovered by the process of erosion.

The day was slightly hazy and thus not all that great for photography. But we did our best and our photos are mostly for the record and probably won't be in a fine art gallery near you any time soon. No delusions there.

As we exited the park through the north gate, a late lunch sounded good so we checked the map for anything nearby. Hmmm. The only thing that popped up was the town of Wall. Yes, that Wall! Thinking back, we believe it was 1974 when we were here last... 37 years ago. (Yikes... time screams by!) We stopped at Wall Drug at that time and about all I remember was seeing shelves full of jackalopes. (if you don't know... google it)

Well I'm here to testify that Wall Drug has been taking steroids. I really don't remember much from 37 years ago, but it certainly wasn't the full city square block sized retail monstrosity that we witnessed that day. I had no idea. Free parking surrounded for blocks around. Cars and motorcycles and RVs and trucks and people were everywhere on this Thursday afternoon. Clearly, the old formula of advertising free ice water alongside the nearby hot dusty roads must still be working. Wow.

Yes, we did find our way to the cafe inside, had a quick sandwich and requisite free cup of ice water... and then left.

From Wall we drove I-90 eastward. At exit 116 we pulled off and took a gravel road to the right, which wound around to a nondescript and unsigned fenced in area about the size of a football field. There was very little parking and the gate was slightly ajar -- just enough for a person to slip in. No one was around. A pamphlet holder on the gate contained an info-sheet that diagramed and described what we were seeing. We slipped in.

On one end of the area was a small flat concrete thing covered with glass panels. We approached and looked in... and down... at a Minuteman II missile in it's silo. This was Delta-09, the only preserved and open to the public Minuteman II silo that remains of the 150 that were strewn around just South Dakota during the cold war. There were hundreds more in other surrounding states. After the signing of the START treaty in 1991, 149 of the South Dakota silos were "imploded" -- deactivated and destroyed. This was the only one preserved, according to the info-sheet, "to tell the story of the Minuteman's role in deterring a conventional war and preserving the peace." There was no going down into the silo as it's sealed. All we could do was look down at the sleek machine it contained and wonder... were they right?  Did these devices preserve peace by assuring total annihilation?  Where we looking at an element of a doomsday machine? You've also gotta wonder, now that technology has advanced another 50 years from these 1960-ish gizmos, what threats and challenges are in our future?

Down the road a few more miles, at exit 131 was the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitors Center -- not much more than a couple portable buildings next to a Conoco gas station. There a visitor can sign up for a tour of the one preserved underground launch control facility that's a part of the historic site. They were sold out for the day, but my interest was marginal anyway.

From there it's just a few miles south to the Northeast gate of the Badlands National Park and back to our campsite at Cedar Pass.

Dar has many more photos from our day in our online photo collection. Check 'em out if you'd like.