The most terrifying thing about the mothballed missile silo in South Dakota is that it's just sitting there, right off Exit 116 on Interstate 90, a few miles away from the legendary Wall Drug store and about an hour from Rapid City.
If this were any other exit, you might find a gas station or a cheap motel, maybe a mechanic's shop or a McDonald's set on this parcel of land not much bigger than a football field. But on this particular wind-swept patch of prairie, visitors find a deactivated Cold War missile silo, cracked open and covered by protective glass that keeps trespassers out while letting Russian spy satellites peer in to verify that this hole in the ground no longer hides a thermonuclear warhead capable of destroying an entire city.
There are dozens more silos like this one across South Dakota. But this is the only one that's part of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
As the first Park Service property dedicated exclusively to the Cold War, the site offers a simultaneously chilling and comical view of the U.S's recent history, delighting in the geographic trivia that, for example, the area of the plains dotted with Minutemen Missiles is larger than the area of Maryland. Never mind that each of those 1,000 missiles carried a warhead 10 times more powerful than the two bombs that killed an estimated 200,000 in Hiroshima and in Nagasaki.
The disconnect between the mundanity of the lives of those stationed here and the capacity they had to initiate civilization-ending thermonuclear war are in starkest relief on a tour of the launch control facility, a few miles away off Exit 127.
Called Delta-01, the Launch Control Facility is a real-life version of the bunker from TV's "Lost", a spartan barracks with few comforts -- a basketball hoop, a few magazines and board games, cable TV -- and a subterranean command center from which up to 10 Minuteman missiles could be launched on the orders of the president. While the above-ground portion of the facility would be obliterated by a retaliatory nuclear strike, the underground command was specifically designed to ride out a counterstrike, down to the seat belts that would strap missileers into their chairs to ride out seismic shock waves.
Visitors today can tour the entire LCF with National Park Rangers, who offer a wealth of information about the site, from nuclear strategy and geopolitics to more workaday details of lives lived with fingers on the nuclear trigger. (Cooks on site may well have created the concept of the late-night "fourth meal," though it was often just a ration of cold cut sandwiches that on-duty officers had to assemble themselves.) Though the tours are free, advanced reservations are required due to the confined nature of the facility.
All visits to the site should begin at park headquarters off Exit 131, where visitors are introduced to the park with a short film about the Minuteman missile program. The curious can also page through countless copies of Cold War-era civil defense pamphlets that, like the facilities themselves, seem simultaneously divorced from the realities of nuclear holocaust and all-too-serious about the reality of the Soviet threat.