The End of the Plains

Today it was finally supposed to cool down. And indeed, when we woke up it was grey and cloudy – which would help. We breakfasted and mounted our horses for another day’s riding east.

We stayed with Highway 200 and for a long while we just had more of the same North Dakota: flat-to-rolling grasslands and wheat fields (mostly now harvested) with basin ponds scattered throughout. There were so many of these that they didn’t even bother routing power lines around them. They just plopped the poles down into the water and kept on going. The ducks and other various inhabitants of the ponds didn’t seem to mind.




On a completely different but geographically-related subject, after the U.S. shocked Japan into submission in 1945 with the two 20-kiloton nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the military world’s attention was focused on nuclear weapons. Research was done in many places, and scientific publication as well as espionage spread the knowledge further, of how to build reliable, effective mass destruction weapons and delivery systems. The U.S. and the Soviet Union emerged as the world’s top military dogs, and, fearing each other, poured great efforts into developing nuclear arsenals. The amount of destructive power amassed by each side was ludicrous, estimated by many to be capable of wreaking sufficient havoc to snuff out the human race, if not immediately, then by side effects such as fallout and so-called “nuclear winter”.

Dangerous as this was, it at least captured the attention of the press and the common people so that there was painful awareness of the problem. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were said to be in a “cold war”, which is to say a protracted passive-aggressive build-up, as opposed to an actually fought “hot” war. It’s fairly safe to say that no one was really happy with the situation, aside from the military contractors getting rich off it. Books and films like Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove graphically portrayed the ridiculously high risk to which humanity was subjecting itself.

Then came the “thaw” of the Cold War. Mikhail Gorbachev, one of the greatest leaders in recorded history, played the heroic and courageous role of making the first steps, and forging bonds with other world leaders and building their trust to reciprocate. The first agreements in the 1980′s were the start of a process that has continued in fits and starts in the years since then.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal consisted and consists partly of bombs and partly of warheads on long-range missiles. Approximately two thirds of these missiles are on nuclear submarines, which prowl the ocean continually, in limited, coded contact with higher military command, as the ultimate indefusible threat. The other third are housed in silos scattered throughout the Great Plains of the continental United States. November-33 was one of these, holding a nuclear armed Minuteman missile a few miles outside Cooperstown, North Dakota. It was ultimately decommissioned in the mid 1990′s as part of one of the START treaties. The Federal government was just going to destroy the site and remove all traces of its existence, but, so that we might remember our follies, the state of North Dakota acted to preserve this and several other sites.

November-33 was a missile launch site only. A silo buried in the ground, a protective cover, and automated machinery to allow the missile to be launched from a remote command center controlling several launch sites. The cover consists of around three feet of steel-reinforced concrete, and is built to withstand a nuclear blast. It has a track and a chain connected with a winch motor allowing it to be opened for servicing. The motor is powerful and the cover can be ratcheted open in a few tens of seconds. But for launching the missile, this was felt to be too slow, so a complex system of compressed gas and explosives was installed, doubtlesss at great cost, to allow near-instantaneous (but permanent) opening of the hatch. The government-produced sign at the site reports that 250 silos similar to this one have been destroyed to date under treaty. It also reports that 450 such silos still remain. The report here corroborates this information, and also states, as I mentioned, that this is just one third of the missile-deployed nuclear arsenal, and there are more than a thousand missiles on nuclear subs.

Let us continue to pray these weapons are never used. But regardless, we are paying for this insanity. Unimaginable billions of our tax dollars are building and maintaining submarines, buried launch facilities, missiles, and the nuclear explosives carried by them. And yet somehow, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the fear of nuclear war has gone. Terrorism, chemical weapons, and Islamic extremism capture most of our military-related attention, and Chinese posturing and rogue proto-nuclear states the rest. But the nuclear amassment remains even though the Cold War has supposedly gone. We the people are asleep at the wheel, and who knows how trustworthy the people and systems in charge are. Worrisome.



At any rate, back to the trip at hand. Eventually as we started getting towards Minnesota we started seeing stands of trees here and there. Much of this was highly regulated due to this being completely reformed farmland, but I supposed this area must have been like the Aspen Parkland in Alberta, a kind of battleground area where grassland and trees are both partially favored by the conditions and compete for space. (In fact I later found that I was not far off.) The resulting mixture of grassy areas with groves of trees ends up feeling much like a park to such humans as may meander through it, hence the name.

Finally as afternoon as getting towards evening, the grassland gave up altogether and we were left riding through trees. As before with the transition from the mountains to the plains, we were simultaneously glad and regretful of the change; prairie is not the most common terrain in the western world, and we were not sure when we’d be coming across it again.

We rolled in to Itasca Lake State Park to spend the night. We’d just picked this place randomly as being at a convenient spot along our particular road of travel, but it ended up being pretty interesting. A few miles before the park we crossed over a bridge over a small creek, maybe 10 feet wide. The sign on the bridge said, “Mississippi River”. We both did double-takes, but later checking up verified the truth. Itasca Lake is the officially-accepted origin of the Mississippi River. (Although several tributary streams flow into the lake, there’s no way to adjudicate amongst them, so the lake itself takes the title.) Also interestingly, we were only at around 1400 feet here, but over 2500 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. If that’s not an efficient use of gravity to move water, I don’t know what is.

276 miles.

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