Saturday, April 19, 2014

Black Hills - Minuteman Missile, Badlands, Wall Drug

We spent our first day in the Black Hills thawing out from our 4" of snow, but on Friday, April 18th, we had quite a full day of adventure.

We rose early, ate breakfast in the car, and drove two hours northeast to the Badlands area of South Dakota.  But our first destination wasn't the Badlands; first we stopped at a newly-formed national park called Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

Here's an irony:  in 1997-1999 we used to live at Ellsworth Air Force Base, right in this area.  As a matter of fact, our 16yo son was born there.  But back then, this historic site didn't exist.  Well, it DID exist, but not as a historic site!  This makes me feel old!

This site is the only park in the National Park Service devoted to telling the story of the Cold War.  Ellsworth AFB used to be one of the country's several missile bases, and the fields of South Dakota were discretely littered with ICBM silos.  (ICBM = intercontinental ballistic missile)  This park was established in 1999 to preserve two 1960's missile sites:  the Delta-09 missile silo, and the Delta-01 launch control facility.

We were so fortunate to receive a private tour of the launch facility given to us by a NPS volunteer who used to be a missileer at that very launch facility.  He definitely knew his stuff!  First we toured the entire "visible" part of the building.

Then we took the elevator underground to the launch control pod.  The door was massively thick, and it was so strange to think that for forty years someone sat in those chairs 24/7, just sitting and waiting for the command to turn the keys.

Later we drove a little distance to see the missile silo itself, one of 450 missile sites nationwide that now sit vacant.  (There are still 500 active nuclear missiles deployed in the upper Great Plains.)  There inside the ground sat one Minuteman II missile, a lonely remnant of the Cold War.  On July 31, 1991, President George Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which began the reduction of nuclear arms stockpiles.

This was truly a unique field trip for the kids, and I know all of us learned a lot.  Even Steve and I, who grew up during the Cold War and remember as young adults when the Berlin Wall fell, learned quite a bit.  The park movie was geared toward kids, so even the younger boys understood what the Cold War was about by the time we finished.

After we finished touring the Minuteman Missile Historic Site, we drove only a couple miles away to explore the Badlands National Park.  The native Lakota people knew this land as "mako sica" which means "bad lands".  Indeed, it is difficult to see how any life can prosper in this dead terrain, yet it does have a human and natural history.  This area used to be the bed of an ancient sea, one which extended from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada and from western Iowa to western Wyoming - essentially, most of the area known as the Great Plains.  Fossilized animals have been found in the park, and both Lakota and homesteaders shaped this land in more recent times.

We started our time at the visitor center by eating our packed lunch at one of the picnic tables.  Then we wandered inside to watch the park movie and explore the museum displays.

Afterwards we drove to the trailhead parking lot and walked an easy trail called the Window Trail.  This trail took us to a lovely overlook above the badlands valley.

Then Steve took three older boys on a strenuous trail (the Notch Trail) while I took three younger boys along a moderate trail (the Door Trail).  I can only speak on my own experience, but Steve shared some of the pictures he took on their hike.  One highlight was a log-ladder that they had to climb to get to the top of a cliff.

As for us, we took the boardwalk until it ended, then followed the markers among the rock formations until we reached the end of the trail.  By the time we were done, we seemed to be in the middle of complete wilderness!

By this time, everyone was worn out.  (It was hot! Can you believe it hit 80 degrees when only one day earlier we had 4" of snow?!?)  We got back into the car and drove the rest of the way through the park, stopping at some of the many scenic overlooks along the way.

One unique area was the Yellow Mounds.  For some reason, this area has yellow rock formations, which really stand out against the otherwise drab scenery.

We left the Badlands National Park right around dinnertime.  The way that we exited the park dumped us out in the very small town of Wall, home of world-famous Wall Drug.

Wall Drug is a phenomenon in and of itself.  In 1931, Ted Hustead purchased the drug store in the small town with a population of only 231 people.  Business was slow at first until his wife had the idea of offering free ice water to thirsty tourists on their way to Mount Rushmore 60 miles to the west.  Business picked up, and today it is an international attraction bringing in more than 2 million visitors and $10 million each year.  They still give free ice water to travelers (and yes, we did have the free water with our dinner!), as well as offer free coffee and donuts to honeymooners, veterans, priests, hunters, and truck drivers.

Wall Drug is probably best known for their billboards, for which they pay $400,000 annually.  They claim to have billboards on every continent, including Antarctica.  The other things they are famous for is their legendary "Jackalope" and their roaring T-Rex.

We stopped in just before they were closing up for the day.  We ordered our dinner - bison burgers, of course! - then wandered around the 76,000 sqft mall of Wall Drug.

By the time we left Wall Drug and drove the two hours back home again, we had had an exhausting day, but one that we will remember for a long time.