In the early 1980s, when I was a fifth-grader at Jefferson Elementary School, in a small town in Minnesota, our teacher, Mr. Odegaard, took us down a little-used stairway, through a door and into a tunnel beneath our school. He flicked on the lights. The sound of our shuffling feet echoed down a long, dark corridor.
"The walls down here are solid concrete," I remember him telling us, "and you need three feet to stop gamma rays. When the Russians launch their missiles, this is where I'm coming!"
Another day around that same time, I was sitting outside with my best friend Jon discussing this when he told me that after the missiles were launched, his dad was going to drive them to ground zero, because he didn't want them to die slow, painful deaths. I had no idea what my family's plans were.
Such were the dilemmas of the Cold War, which seems so strange and distant now. I was thinking about this recently when I stumbled across the mention of an abandoned missile facility south of Minneapolis, where I live. So I drove for an hour and finally turned down a dirt road that rolled through cornfields until it came up onto a high, wide hill, where I could see for miles in either direction. There, sequestered behind a high barbed-wire fence, was a series of low concrete buildings, with doors hanging off their hinges.
The ruin was one of four Nike missile sites that had been positioned around the Twin Cities. It was developed as an antiaircraft system, and limited antimissile function was added in the early 1960s.
When I got home, I started looking for other places like it and discovered that there are many more and that they're becoming popular tourist destinations. Every day, the Cold War gets a little colder. And as it does, interest in these nuclear relics heats up. So, with a mixture of grim fascination and nostalgia, I pulled onto Interstate 94 and drove northwest to the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site in the hamlet of Cooperstown, N.D.
The Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility was one of 15 command centers in the 321st Strategic Missile Wing -- one of six such missile wings built across the Great Plains in Missouri, Montana, South Dakota and other states between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. This one had 150 Minuteman missiles spread across an area the size of New Jersey, but all together, they contained 1,000 of these ICBMs, which could be launched in minutes and reach Moscow in half an hour. The Minuteman was a quantum leap from the previous generations of missiles, such as the ponderous, liquid-fueled Atlas and Titan, in whose abandoned, cavernous silos a few doomsday preppers have recently built their survival chambers.
The Minuteman missiles were a cornerstone of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which once numbered 32,000 warheads (and ultimately cost $5.5 trillion). But with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the climb down to the current 5,000 or so weapons began. After the START treaty was signed in 1991, three of six Minuteman wings were shut down, including the 321st. At each, a control center was marked for historic preservation, and they began their bureaucratic trek toward public use.
In 2009, the State Historical Society of North Dakota opened Oscar-Zero for tourists, along with the topside of a Minuteman silo two miles east of town called November-33. Site Supervisor Mark Sundlov told me he expected about 6,000 visitors this year but said interest is growing. The Griggs County Museum, in Cooperstown, N.D., for example, recently opened a new Cold War wing with an eye toward that traffic.
Almost a hundred miles north from Cooperstown sits one of the strangest ruins of the nuclear era. Technically, it is known as the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard facility, but it is also called "Nixon's Pyramid." Standing several stories high, it had operated for just eight months in 1975 as a radar facility armed with Sprint and Spartan missiles to defend the 321st missile wing from a Soviet attack. The pyramid had a large white circle on each side facing the sky, like eyes.
The gate to the facility was open, so I drove into the sprawling, empty complex. Buildings sat vacant, and weeds grew up through the cracks in the parking lot. There was one building with a car next to it; I walked inside and found the caretaker, an imposing man named Neil "Buzzy" Holman, who informed me that I couldn't go see the pyramid without Army permission, though I was welcome to drive down the gravel road next to it and look all I wanted.
The United States' weapons of mass destruction -- unlike Saddam Hussein's or Kim Jong Il's -- are not hard to find. There are 450 land-based ICBMs still active, still on alert, and there are street signs that show where they are.
I decided to try to find some of these. I drove a few hours east from the pyramid, to a dying prairie town called Drake, full of empty, run-down homes and boarded-up shops. Drake was also home to 10 Minuteman missiles from the 91st Strategic Missile Wing, based out of Minot Air Force Base.
Ten missiles were positioned around Drake, and it seemed as though they would be easy to find. I double-checked the maps with a book called "Nuclear Heartland: A Guide to the 1,000 Missile Silos of the United States," put out by Nukewatch in the 1980s.
In addition to the locations of the individual missiles, the book also gave the nicknames of each. They were mesmerizing. Some were literary: Farewell to Arms, Grapes of Wrath. Others were ironic: Sod Buster, Harmful if Swallowed. And others were straightforward: Just War, Eisenhower's Sorrow.
Across the highway south of town, I turned down a dirt road, past a small lake, through some fields, and then I saw it on the left. A large patch of gravel that you wouldn't even notice if you passed by it on the highway. It had a small satellite dish and a few odd poles sticking out of the ground. From the road, I couldn't see the 100-ton door that would open to the sky to let out the missile inside -- this one named Sigmund. Yet it still made my stomach lurch to know that 90 feet underground was a Minuteman III with a nuclear warhead sitting on top, quietly awaiting orders. This was the place where all my young nightmares began.
I drove on. Down the road I found the next missile -- Cossack -- which sat on a rise where I could see its blast door clearly from the road. I eventually found all 10.
There was one more stop on my post-pre-apocalyptic Cold War tour. A few hours from Drake, down the Missouri River and west along Interstate 90 sat the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, run by the National Park Service. Its main office was situated in a mobile home at the exit to Badlands National Park. That was where people could stop to get directions to both the Delta-01 Command Center and the Delta-09 missile silo, several miles to the west. Next year, however, a much bigger headquarters and interpretive center was scheduled to break ground across the highway. Still, it was the first National Historic Site dedicated to the Cold War. Even though there were no signs for the site, Chief Ranger Pam Griswold told me they'd had nearly 60,000 visitors the previous year. Once the new visitor center opened, and the signs went up, they expected 100,000.
Terror into tourism
Back on the freeway, I drove west a few miles to the Delta-01 Command Center -- once the hub of its nuclear wheel, and one of the two remnants of the 44th Strategic Missile Wing.
After an underground tour, I drove on to the final place. There was no one at the Delta-09 missile silo when I first pulled in. It was as quiet as it had been all those years it was in use. Unlike the active silos I'd seen, this was wide open and had a glass cover over the top. Inside was a training missile they'd used for practice loading -- a replica in all but its payload.
After a few minutes, other cars pulled in, and tourists poured out. Kids ran and climbed on the blast door, while their parents stared down at the missile, unsure what to say. A man talked on his cellphone. A couple discussed other things.
As the crowd grew, so did my sense that history was becoming entertainment, that something deadly serious had been made into a diversion. Normally, I would feel a kind of loathing at that notion. But as I drove away, with the sun nearing the jagged horizon, I thought of blast craters, escape hatches and gamma rays, and I wondered if turning terror into tourism might not be our greatest achievement after all.