In the early 1980s, when I was a fifth-grader at Jefferson Elementary School, in a small town in Minnesota, our teacher, Mr. Odegaard, asked us if we wanted to see something. We did. So he 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!"
Mr. Odegaard was an unusual teacher and one of my favorites. He felt that we should know about the real world, in addition to multiplication and division, geography and grammar. He also explained -- in great detail -- the finer points of the nuclear winter.
"Beta rays," he told us, "those are dangerous, but they can't go very far. Gamma rays. Those are the ones you have to worry about. Gamma rays can go right through anything."
I don't remember how far he said gamma rays could go, but I do remember that it seemed impossibly far. There was no escape. Gamma rays would go everywhere and pollute everything until the end of time. I also remember how it all felt so close at hand, how it only would take a few foolish minutes for the last war to begin.
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.
I stood staring at the place. It was so quiet. Corn leaves rustled in the wind, and crickets sang in the midday heat. I looked up at the blue sky and tried to picture the rockets racing against hope -- the noise, the terror, the end.
But it all seemed far away. The empty place felt like an echo of the future it had once promised.
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.
If not for the security fence and the various antennas on the roof, I might have mistaken the place for just another prairie ranch. In fact, it was the Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility, underneath which lurked a massive survival chamber where two men had sat waiting to turn the keys that would unleash Mr. Odegaard's nightmare.
Oscar-Zero 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.
I could see that interest myself when I walked into the lobby at Oscar-Zero. It was a small room, and all told we were 15-odd nuclear tourists. After we'd each gotten our ticket, we trundled off together into the underworld.
First we passed through the bunkhouse, where the support staff had lived and which remained a kind of museum of 1980s decor, with acoustical ceiling tiles, institutional carpeting and lots of fabric-covered chairs. Sherry Lind, our guide, took us through the mundane existence of the eight men stationed above-ground, which sounded like excruciating boredom. She said before they got a VCR and a Sega Genesis console, they polished the floor for fun.
Sherry directed us to an elevator, and we piled in to begin our descent. Sixty feet down, we entered what could have been Mr. Odegaard's dream survival chamber: two huge rooms surrounded by four feet of reinforced concrete. It was like stepping into a giant petrified cocoon.
We walked past the 13-ton blast door, into the equipment room, and Sherry said there had been enough food, water and generator fuel for both the two missileers and the support crew to survive for nine weeks.
"What was the plan after nine weeks?" I asked.
Sherry shrugged. "I don't really know," she said. "Either starve down here or take your chances with the radiation. You were damned if you did and damned if you didn't."
Across the hall, we stepped into the control room, where two missileers had been present 24 hours a day in case the war came. They sat in red chairs facing a console where they would turn their keys to arm the missiles.
"Now if you look up there," Sherry said and pointed into a corner, "you'll see an escape hatch. Behind it is a three-foot metal tube filled with sand, and it goes to the surface at a 45-degree angle. That's so that if there was a blast, and you were down here for your nine weeks, and your food ran out, and you couldn't open the blast door, you could try that one."
"Where does it come out?" I asked.
"No one knows. Somewhere on the other side of the fence." Around the edge of the hatch door at our end, someone had written, "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter."
"Fascinating," said an old man next to me, as we filed out and began our ascent. "Just glad we never had to use it."
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." I could see it long before I got to it: Its primeval shape grew bigger as I drew near, and it stirred something like awe, as if I could sense the primitive yearning for greatness behind it.
I turned off the highway and down a dirt road that passed alongside the pyramid, which stood 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 invited me to sit down. He offered me some watery coffee, then 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.
"You get many people up here?" I asked.
"We get a few," he said. "Some try to break in, and I'm not a good guy to do that with."
"They cut the fence?"
"They had a ladder. Said they wanted to take pictures. Well, you can take pictures from the road."
"Is the pyramid big inside?"
"It's huge. What you can see, that's just a third of it."
"Nothing. They gutted it. It's tomb now. That's all it is."
- - -
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.
I stopped at the post office, where an older woman seemed to be the only employee. We chatted for a minute before I inquired about the bombs.
"Do you get many people coming through to see the missiles?" I asked.
"No," she said and shrugged. Then she thought about it and added, "No one's ever asked about it."
"Do you remember when they put them in?"
"What did you think about that?"
"You know, we didn't have much to say about it. Just like we don't have much to say about this new railroad they're putting in for the oil. Can't do much about the government or the railroad!"
Outside, I looked at the maps I'd printed out. 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. It was meant for protesters who wanted to bang a hammer on a silo or make some other quixotic gesture.
In addition to the locations of the individual missiles, it also gave the nicknames of each. They were mesmerizing. Some were literary: Farewell to Arms, Naked Lunch and Grapes of Wrath. Others were ironic: Sod Buster, Harmful if Swallowed and Guided Gas Oven. And others were straightforward: Cancer, Just War, Eisenhower's Sorrow and Omnicide.
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 went on to a third, High Tech, and my heart leapt a little when it came into view. This happened every time I spotted a new one, not because there was anything to see, but because it felt as if I was doing something wrong, seeing something I shouldn't.
I eventually found all 10. At one -- Guarded -- I saw a farmer standing by his car on the road next to the security fence. I rolled down my window. He walked over.
"You live around here?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said, "just south here." He pointed down the road.
"Doesn't it bother you to live next to this?" I asked, looking over at the missile.
"No," he said. "That's our security is how I look at it."
"You ever get any protesters?"
"No, not here. There was one up by Minot a couple years ago. Guy crawled across a fence. That's a federal offense."
"Seems like there used to be more protesters in the '80s."
"Yeah, those long-haired hippies who don't want to protect the country."
He seemed a little suspicious of me, so I said goodbye and I drove on.
The last missile -- Meadowlark Song -- was set farther back from the road than the others. I got out of my car and sat on my trunk. Out there away from all the politics and history, the whole thing seemed both so real and so unreal. It was out there, among the growing things, with so much violence hidden away, that I felt most keenly the two poles we're balanced between: our vast capacity for both creation and destruction. It's no wonder scientists say the earth has emerged from the Holocene, the geological era that began after the last ice age. They call this new period the Anthropocene, which means that instead of being covered by ice, the earth is covered by us: Our species has become a geological force. To what end that force is applied, however, remains to be seen.
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.
Back on the freeway, I drove west a few miles. The sharp peaks of the Badlands were on one side and the rolling grassland hills on the other. At the next exit, I got off and pulled into the parking lot of the Delta-01 Command Center -- once the hub of its nuclear wheel, and one of the two remnants of the 44th Strategic Missile Wing.
Inside, I joined up with a tour group just as it was headed underground. As we got out of the elevator, the difference between the two was clear. Delta-01 was part of the second missile wing built; it had just one room, about half the size of the control room at Oscar-Zero, the sixth one built. Here there was no equipment room with power, water, food or air filters. I asked the tour guide, Signy Sherman, about this.
"These guys," she said, "had about 24 hours of oxygen down there. Pretty much when they turned that key, they were . . . expendable. There's an escape hatch they could get out. But once you get to the top, what are you going to find?"
Perhaps this was just a more honest post-apocalyptic scenario. But it seemed to me that we had better odds at Jefferson Elementary School. Signy could see my concern, which she thought misplaced.
"We know from declassified information," she explained, "that there was a 10-megaton nuclear weapon pointed at this facility. Ten megatons would have created a mile-deep crater. It would have destroyed everything from here to Kadoka, 20 miles that way, to Wall, 20 miles that way. If this capsule managed to survive, it would have fallen a mile."
After we came up from below, I thanked Signy and drove on to the final place. On the freeway, I rolled down my window, felt the summer air, and tried to imagine this whole area becoming a crater 40 miles wide and a mile deep. Mr. Odegaard had never said anything about that. Maybe he didn't know. Maybe that was for the best.
Somehow, though, seeing these places made me feel slightly more at ease, as if it was all a bad dream from which we had mostly awakened. Calling it history seemed to put it more firmly behind us, as if these sites were a kind of mausoleum where our past insanity was now safely preserved.
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.
I walked over to the silo, looked down and took a sharp breath. Till now, all the missiles I'd seen had either been miniature reproductions or old photos. But this one was life-size and just a few feet away. It took me by surprise: It didn't look like a machine. It didn't look terrifying. It was smooth and white. It looked like something cared for, something feared and loved. It was -- and there's no other word for it -- beautiful. It looked like something waiting to be born.
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 mile-deep craters, of escape hatches, of gamma rays, and I wondered if turning terror into tourism might not be our greatest achievement after all.