Author Archives: jlinton77

Trip of a Lifetime:  War Eagle Goes Home

I could not wait to get to the Black Hills of South Dakota!  I didn’t know what to expect, but a part of me felt I was going home.  As a boy, growing up in rural Mississippi, I was a fanatic for cowboy and Indian movies, and in just about every one of those movies, the Indians lived, hunted, and fought in the Black Hills or those hallowed grounds were at least mentioned.  Unlike most other boys, I did not take up the role of John Wayne, James Stewart, or Randolph Scott; I played the part of the Indian.  Although I did not have a clue where the Black Hills might be, my backyard and the woodlands bordering my grandfather’s pastures became those hills.  All I knew was the Black Hills had to be a special place if Indians and buffalo lived there.

With a chicken feather tucked in a worn leather shoestring from my father’s work boot tied around my head, mud war paint smeared across my face and shirtless chest, and strips of an old sheet hanging in front and back of my shorts, I was a Sioux warrior fighting for my home.  I made tipis from ragged towels and the remains of the sheet that lent itself to the loincloths, bent oak saplings into bows with line cut from my father’s spinning reel, and sharpened the points of my featherless arrows with a buck fifty Barlow pocket knife.  My war cries could be heard from my parent’s little acre at the bottom of the hill to my grandfather’s front porch at the top of the hill where he grimaced with each yell, spat Redman chewing tobacco in a pint fruit jar or in grandma’s azaleas, and wiped strings of brown tobacco swill from his chin with the back of his hand.  My cousins said he thought I was a bit touched in the head, but that never deterred the cry of War Eagle.  Grandfather did not concern me, the great white fathers never truly understood the spirit and way of the Indian.

Over fifty years later, I finally saw the Black Hills of South Dakota.  My wife and I, along with our traveling companions, reserved a campsite for five nights at Beaver Lake Campground in Custer, South Dakota, smack in the middle of the Black Hills.  War Eagle had been put to rest years ago, but the urge to strip the sheet off the bed in my travel trailer and tear it into loincloths tugged at me.  I struggled to keep War Eagle contained as I set up the aluminum tipi, fearing my wife and friends would be even less understanding than my grandfather if I broke into a war dance and accompanying cries and chants.  I was like a child in a candy store, or on Christmas morning – my dream had finally turned to reality.

Over the following five days, we drove the main and back roads of Custer State Park watching the buffalo, long prong sheep, and prairie dogs.  We relaxed at iconic Sylvan Lake surrounded by rock formations designed in heaven and tossed rocks across the lake from leather shepherd slings my buddy and I designed and made at our campsites one morning.  The Iron Mountain Road drive with its hairpin turns, cut backs, and tunnels barely large enough for a modern-day vehicle to pass through gave us our first taste of mountain driving.  Mount Rushmore filled our hearts with awe and pride in our American heritage built upon the wisdom and sacrifice of such visionaries as Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln.  From there we drove the Needles Highway made accessible only by the engineering wonders of man!  The grandeur of the highway with its spiraling rock fingers reaching for the heavens, narrow tunnels, and landscapes draped in the mastery of the Maker was possibly one of the most beautiful drives we have experienced on our trip, and we have experienced many.  All that, along with elk and mule deer moving through the evening shadows along the roadways, was more than most people experience in a lifetime.

It did not end there!  The Crazy Horse Memorial erected almost single handed by one man and his family with no government assistance, only private funding, and the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota Indians’ commitment to preserve not only their heritage through the monument, but the heritage of all mankind took the human experience to a level of healing and spirituality that humbled the heart.  Walking the streets of Deadwood, a cowboy town famous for gold and the final resting place for Wild Bill Hickok, the original fastest draw in the West, helped us separate the real West from the movies.  From there, we gave a quick look at the little town that once every year becomes a big town – Sturgis.  The annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally swells the population of the town from 6800 to nearly three-quarters of a million people during every August, and as we witnessed, the preparation and the arrival of motorcycle enthusiasts from all over the world begins weeks in advance.

That was more than enough to fill five days of vacation, but we did not stop there!  After Sturgis, we spent time in Spearfish Canyon enjoying the scenery and the waterfalls, and on our final day, we visited Wind Cave National Park and toured the sixth largest/longest cave in the world.  According to legend, Wind Cave is the birthplace of the Sioux Nation, and if you listen close, you can hear the stories of their beginning whispered from the cracks and crevices throughout the cave.  Walking through underground passages cut by acidic water, I could feel the breath of the Sioux on my neck and shoulders and hear the elders speaking of birth, betrayal, and rebirth.  First came the buffalo, second came the people of the hills and plains, and then their betrayal by the white man and the destruction of their way of life.  There were other voices in the cave as well; voices that had every right to call for justice and revenge, but instead, spoke softly of hope, peace, and understanding for all men and nations – the way of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota.  That, my friends, is the mark of a great and wise people.

Contrary to what some folks back home told me, there was no shortage of things to do in the Black Hills.  We did not run out of things to do; we ran out of time to do everything we wanted to do!  From the base of the Black Hills to overlooks more than 6,000 feet above sea level, every turn held a new discovery and experience.  Every day in the “Ȟe Sápa” (Lakota for Black Mountains) was a new beginning and new adventure.  It was a place where man and spirits walked hand in hand speaking softly to one another of hope and peace.  The wildlife, the rolling hills, rock formations, and prairies made it easy to see why the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota tribes, known to the white man as the Sioux, looked upon this place as sacred.

In the evenings, I sat alone in the dark listening to the hills.  If you listen close, you can hear the song of the buffalo, the eagle, and the elk singing to the children of the earth, “Come to me, lay your head in my meadows, sleep under the sky God has made for all peoples, stand on the pillars of the sun, and give thanks for all you see before you.”  I am thankful I had my time to gaze upon those hills and see what the boy who played with a chicken feather in his hair, War Eagle, always knew – Ȟe Sápa is a special place – a place where spirits soar – a place where a War Eagle can find peace and whoop it up (with the wife’s permission of course) and make dreams come true.  It was and is a place the Indians call home.  War Eagle was home.

JL

©Jack Linton, July 28, 2017

 

Trip of a Lifetime:  Face to Face with a Grizzly Bear

Grizzly

What would you do if you came face to face with a grizzly bear in the wild?  I am not talking about seeing one at a distance; I am talking about looking eyeball to eyeball with one less than fifteen feet away!  It happened to me, my wife, Tricia, and our traveling companions, Dottie and Mike, Glacier National Park, Montana.  If not for the level head of National Park Ranger Rebecca Merritt, the four of us may have become another chapter in Death in Glacier National Park by Randi Minetor.  I am not joking; at approximately 5:10 p.m., Tuesday, August 1, 2017, we came face to face with a grizzly bear, and the only reason I am here to chronicle this event is due to the quick actions of Ranger Merritt.

Our close encounter of the grizzly kind began Monday evening, July 31.  Tricia and I were sitting outside our camper talking about our drive that day over the mountains on Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park.  The drive was exceptionally beautiful, but it also fit nicely into the “white knuckle driving” category.  The road built in the 1920s, climbs over the Montana Rockies to the Continental Divide at Logan Pass and down to Apgar Visitor Center at beautiful Lake McDonald.  The views are extraordinary for everyone but the driver who must keep his attention riveted to the narrow twisting road.  Drivers cannot afford to sight-see on Going to the Sun Road unless they are looking for a quick pass to the hereafter.

The road hugs the side of the mountains at altitudes of 6,600 plus feet and meanders around hair-pin turns, switch backs, and roadways so narrow truck side mirrors must be folded in against the doors.   Failure to fold the mirrors could easily result in tearing the driver side mirror off against oncoming traffic or tearing the passenger side mirror off on rock outcroppings.  There was just enough room for two vehicles to pass.  Although very doable, the Going to the Sun Road has its challenges, and according to a very nice lady ranger at the St Mary Visitor Center, being a little apprehensive the first time you drive the road is normal.  We were exceptionally normal – it scared us to death.  Therefore, that evening, we were pumped after completing the drive without incident.  After driving the Going to the Sun Road, we were certain we could handle anything Glacier National Park threw our way.  Boy, were we in for a surprise!

That evening, Bill and Jane, our camp neighbors, came to visit us from their motorhome – no, condo on wheels – parked across the street from our travel trailer.  Bill was curious about a bucket light I had made from a five-gallon bucket.  He was amazed at the amount of light such a contraption could produce, so I proudly showed it to him and told him how to make one.  From there, the conversation turned to the events of the day.  We talked of our trip to the Going to the Sun Road, and they talked of taking a short hike to a lake to watch moose.  Up to that point, we had seen elk, buffalo, and a grizzly bear in our travels, but not a single moose, so they had our attention.  They told us how to find the lake and the best time to see moose there.  After they left, we told Dottie and Mike about the conversation, and the four of us made plans to go moose watching the next afternoon.

Tuesday, August 1, at around 3:30 p.m. we headed for Many Glacier to watch moose.  The trail was about a ten-minute hike west of Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in an area of multiple trail heads.  We took the trail to Red Rock Falls, but left the trail a few minutes later and walked down to Fishercap Lake where Bill and Jane said they watched moose drink from the lake three afternoons in a row.  As they instructed, we brought our chairs, cameras, and binoculars, and because we thought it made us look the part of real trailblazers we also carried our walking sticks.  We arrived at the lake around 4:10 p.m., and Tricia and I set our chairs about three feet from the water’s edge under some overhanging pine branches.  Dottie and Mike set their chairs two or three feet behind and to the right of us.  We settled into our chairs and readied our camera and binoculars for the moose we were certain we would see.  We were careful to be as still and quiet as possible to avoid scaring the wildlife, especially moose.  Little did we know that “still and quiet” would get us into serious trouble within the hour.

Within fifteen minutes, we saw a buck across the lake (maybe a hundred yards) walk from a thicket to drink at the water’s edge.  I watched through my binoculars while Tricia snapped pictures.   I remember thinking this is heaven.  Life does not get any more peaceful and enchanting than this!  After a few minutes, the deer returned to the thicket and disappeared.  Maybe, five minutes passed, and I heard Tricia say, “Look,” and start snapping pictures.  Across the lake in the same area the buck had appeared, a huge grizzly bear moved from the shadows into the lake clearing.  By now there were several other people at the lake pointing and talking loudly, but the bear either could not hear them across the lake or didn’t care.  I suspect he didn’t care.  He remained in the light of the clearing for a minute before disappearing into the shadows only to reappear minutes later a few feet down the shoreline.  From there, the bear slipped into the lake for a swim.  After a brief swim, the grizzly slowly climbed back to the shore and ambled back into the shadows and vanished.

Soon afterwards, a second young buck stepped from the edge of the pine forest into the light.  The deer appeared to be nervous, which I attributed to a talkative group of people about ten yards east of us pointing across the lake to where the bear had been and the young deer now stood.  At that time, I noticed Ranger Merritt at the edge of the lake to my left.  She said she had been watching the bear and us from the trees behind us.  Her job was to make sure the bear was not a threat to people and people did not do anything stupid like approach a bear.  We assured her we had no intention of getting anywhere near a bear.  She commended us for staying put, and said she had been showing her uncle around, nodding to a gentleman with a walking stick at her side, when she spotted the bear across the lake at about the same time we did.  She spoke to some other people at the lake edge, and satisfied everything was in good order and people and wildlife were both safe, she and her uncle headed back up the trail toward the trail head.

Approximately, four minutes later, I heard a commotion on the main trail to my left and behind us.  At first, it sounded like a bunch of kids yelling and making noise, and I remember wondering why parents would allow their children to ruin such a peaceful setting.  The young buck across the lake suddenly looked up and momentarily froze before darting into the shadowed undergrowth.  Instantly, the noise on the trail was on top of us, and we realized it was Ranger Merritt yelling.  None of us could make sense of what she was saying until Mike said, “Bear!  She said bear on the trail!”  The four of us wheeled around, and the first thing we saw caused the hair to stand on our necks – not one, but two bears were running straight for us.  I yelled, “There they are!”  Dottie and Mike bolted from their chairs.  The grizzlies stopped, apparently surprised by the sudden movement of people in their path.  Tricia and I stood and stepped back to the water edge face to face with grizzlies not more than fifteen feet from where we stood.  I grabbed my hiking stick (Not that it would have done much good).  However, Tricia, being Miss Cool to the Bone, Nothing Bothers Me, stooped below the pine limbs we had been sitting under and took the most fabulous grizzly bear photo of the century.  I pulled her toward me to the edge of the water, but by that time she had her picture, and needed no coaxing, guidance, extra weight to tie her down, or anyone in her way to prevent her from getting the hell up the bank and away from the bears.  As she would say later, at that point, it was every man for himself.

At that moment, a strange set of events occurred.  Ranger Merritt yelled at me not to leave my backpack, so I started back to the chairs we had just vacated.  The grizzlies were still on the rise a few feet above us.  Tricia yelled at me to leave the backpack, but the ranger yelled again for me to grab my backpack.  Ranger Merritt later told us that if a bear even sniffs a backpack, the trail is closed to everyone for at least a week.  The closure is a precaution to keep bears from associating backpacks with “easy food” when it sees someone with a backpack on the trail.  I did not know that at the time, so the significance of retrieving the bag escaped me.  Caught in a crossfire between two strong willed women yelling orders at me – I am very accustomed to one, but two was simply too much to handle – I did something I still do not understand.  With my backpack leaning against my chair not three feet away, I took off my favorite hat in the world, my genuine Stetson Royal Flush, and set it in my chair.  It seemed like the logical thing to do at the time.  I left the hat in the chair and backed away keeping an eye on the bears.  Maybe, I thought I was leaving the bears a peace offering; I honestly don’t know.  Both women went speechless until Ranger Merritt who by that time was back at the water’s edge looked at me strangely, and said, “Well, alright, leave the backpack.”

In the meantime, by far the scariest part of the whole ordeal was taking place.  Our friends who were to our right and slightly above us when everything started unraveling, were in a dilemma.  When the four of us first turned to see the two grizzlies literally breathing down our necks, Dottie and Mike were closer to the bears by two or three feet than we were.  Somehow, in the commotion they became separated from each other.  Tricia, Mike, and I reacted to the bears by moving to our right away from the bears angle of travel, but Dottie was confused and ran to our left directly into the path of the bears.  Thankfully, she had the presence of mind to jump behind a tree, which the ranger later said was a good thing.  However, her mistake focused the bears attention on her, which placed her in grave danger, but by the grace of God the grizzlies did not go after her.

The bears continued to look around as if disoriented by the flight of humans in their path.  The sight of humans on either side of their path temporarily paralyzed them.  With coaxing from Mike and Tricia, Dottie retreated from behind the tree to the water’s edge where she quickly made her way to Mike’s side.  The moment she left the tree to her husband, the grizzlies broke for the water as if after her.  However, they had no interest in her or anyone else in our party.  They hit the water and immediately started playing like two playful puppies.  The grizzlies swam to the other side of the lake stopping to play two or three times while crossing.  Once on the other side they disappeared in the lengthening shadows most likely unaware they had left four rattled and badly shaken humans on the other side of the lake.

The whole ordeal lasted maybe thirty seconds.  Ranger Merritt explained to us afterwards the pair of grizzlies were two-year-old siblings the mother had forced out on their own about three months prior to our encounter.  Although only two years old, the bears probably weighed between three and four hundred pounds each; they were not small by any stretch of the imagination!  According to Ranger Merritt, the bears were never aggressive on the trail where she first encountered them, or even after they stumbled upon our group.  They were as surprised and confused as we were!  Tricia later read grizzlies have a keen sense of hearing and smell, but poor eye sight, which explained the behavior of the bears that day.  Due to a strong westward wind putting us downwind from the bears, they did not smell us.  That coupled with our being quietly hidden beneath the pines prevented them from hearing us as well.  They did not detect us until they almost ran us over.  Personally, I believe they were amused by the frantic humans scrambling for their lives, and did not feel threatened in the least.  Seriously, I do not think the bears ever intended to harm us.  We just happened to get in the way of their play.

However, that does not make the incident any less serious.  Thanks to Ranger Merritt’s warning, we moved just in time to prevent a tragedy or tragedies.  Without the warning, the bears would have run directly over the four of us resulting in possible serious injuries due to the size of the bears alone.  If a collision had taken place, the bears would have done what any wild animal would have done – become aggressive and defensive, which would have been deadly for one or more of us.  The bears were in their home environment; we were the visitors who unknowingly became intruders in their domain.  It was our responsibility to watch out for them, not the other way around.

Fortunately, thanks to Ranger Rebecca Merritt, we survived and in the process learned some valuable lessons.  First, there is a reason, hiking literature says make a lot of noise when hiking.  We went to the lake to see moose, so we thought by being quiet and still, we would increase our chances of seeing one.  We forgot moose use the same trails and habitats as bears, so being quiet was not smart.  Second, we learned we were visitors to the world of the animals; therefore, it was our responsibility to stay alert to everything around us.  We were so transfixed on the animals on the opposite side of the lake that we forgot animals lived on our side of the lake as well.  Third, short trails should be treated with the same awareness, preparation, and respect afforded much longer trails.  All trails can be potentially dangerous if the proper precautions are not taken.  Fourth, never hike in bear habitat areas without bear spray at your side or if possible a ranger, and fifth, never hike any trail, especially in National Parks without first taking part in a ranger led hike or sitting in on a trail wise safety class conducted by a ranger.  Failure, to do any of these could possibly put your life and the life of wildlife in danger.

We were lucky and fortunate our guardian angels as well as a well-trained National Park Ranger, Rebecca Merritt, was there to watch over us.  THANK YOU Ranger Rebecca Merritt for being there for us Tuesday, August 1, 2017.  THANK YOU and all rangers for all you do daily to keep wildlife and foolish humans safe.  Your alertness, professional knowledge, and quick thinking most likely prevented a terrible tragedy!  THANK YOU for giving us a second chance.  You are greatly appreciated, and you will always be a hero in our eyes.

Forever humbled believers, Tricia, Dottie, Mike, and Jack.

JL

©Jack Linton, August 2, 2017

©Photography – Patricia Linton, August 1, 2017

The Trip of a Lifetime:  Close Calls and Shady RV Dealers

The morning after visiting the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, we continued our journey west toward The Black Hills of South Dakota.  However, the night before we left our campground in Wall, South Dakota, I was making final checks for the next leg of our journey when I discovered my right front trailer tire once again had very low tire pressure, so I pulled out the air compressor and filled the tire for the second time since the start of the trip.  By the next morning the tire pressure had dropped from 50 psi to 35 psi, so I pumped air into it for a third time, and told my wife we needed to get it checked soon.  Obviously, the tire had a slow leak and needed to be repaired or maybe, replaced.  My friend was also having some minor problems with his tow hitch, so he called Camping World in Rapid City, South Dakota, and made an appointment for both of us.

Camping World took care of the hitch issue for my friend, but after inspecting my tire, they found a small split in the corner of the tire tread and the side wall that could not be plugged or replaced since they did not have the size tire my trailer needed in stock.  As it turned out, that was a blessing.  I drove the camper to Dale’s Tires a couple of exits down Interstate 90 from Camping World where they graciously worked me into their busy schedule.  The manager of the store was a hoot!  He joked and made wise cracks the whole two hours my wife and I were in his store.  Jim was by far the best part of our day.

Two hours later we were on our way to Custer, South Dakota.  Two hours to change a tire?  Well, as it turned out I didn’t need one tire – I needed four new tires.  In addition to the right front tire being replaced, the old hippie (literally an old hippie) working on my tires called me to the shop to show me the condition of the other tires.  The right rear tire had splinters of steel protruding in several places from the rubber on the inside tread.  Both tires on the left side of the trailer were rounded rather than flat and bulging.  It was a miracle we made it as far as we did on those tires.  That one or more of those tires had not blown was a testament to a guardian angel watching over and traveling with us.

Although I was thankful we had not been stranded on the side of the road or rolled over in a ravine, I also felt anger.  Prior to leaving for the trip I took my camper to the dealership where I bought it for a complete check over.  I specifically asked them to inspect the tires and replace any of the tires that showed undue wear or stress.  The dealership gave the tires a clean bill of health, and said there were no problems.  I asked the old hippie if the problems he found with my camper’s tires could have developed over maybe 1500 miles, and he said one tire failing or even two was possible, but the probability of all four tires going bad during that span was slim.  Based on the tire evidence he saw, he said the tires should have been replaced before we left home, and whoever inspected them should have made that recommendation.  The dealership did not, which chalked up yet another point in my growing suspicions that many RV (recreational vehicle) dealers do not take the safety of their customers seriously.  Get the customer in, take his money, and get him out as quickly as possible seems to be a growing trend in the RV world.  On the other side of the coin, I am as much to blame as the dealer.  I should not have put so much faith in the word of the dealership and paid closer attention to the tires!  Fortunately, luck and my guardian angel gave me a second chance to take care of my own backside and not depend so much on others.  Next time, I will trust my travel trailer tires to places like Dale’s Tires (Firestone) or Goodyear for inspection and service.  In the future, if I am going to trust anyone, it will be the experts.

After the hitch and tires issues, our trip continued without further mechanical problems until we reached Great Falls, Montana.  While in Great Falls, my friend’s camper developed a pooper valve issue (black water tank).  The valve handle stripped and the black water tank began to leak nasty stuff, so once again, we found ourselves seeking a place for repairs.  My buddy, located a local RV center that would work him in on a busy Saturday morning.  The valve issue turned out to be a minor fix, but the mechanic discovered the camper’s running lights were not working.  A travel trailer without running lights is a serious problem and must be addressed immediately, so the mechanic spent two and one-half hours working on the issue.  Finding the cause of the problem was not easy, but finally, he found a short in the camper wiring and applied a temporary fix until we get home in early September.  My friend and his wife were elated the issue had been resolved – until they saw the bill.  The cost of no parts and two and one-half hours of labor was a whopping $590.00.  Luckily, my friend’s camper is still under warranty, and he will get at least a portion of the bill reimbursed.  However, I couldn’t help but wonder if the exorbitant bill was just another example of shady practices by a RV dealer.  I mean is $590 for two and one-half hours of labor reasonable, or did this particular dealer stick it to an out of town traveler, or was the dealer simply milking the warranty?  I can’t help but believe it’s one of the latter two if not both.  Either way is just as shady as not properly inspecting my camper’s tires as requested.

There are three guarantees when camping in a travel trailer that can lead to close calls or worse: shady dealers, the unexpected, and RVers who depend too much on others for their safety.  A great lesson the four of us have learned is to look out for ourselves and each other.  Now, we check and double check everything before taking to the road: hookups, rollups, put-ups, engine service, hitches, tires, and lights.  We are no longer in a rush to break camp; we check behind one another before leaving.  To have a successful and safe road trip, we have learned we must be our neighbor’s keeper or at least constantly looking over his shoulder.  The more eyes looking for potential problems the better.  Lesson learned!

JL

©Jack Linton, July 26, 2017

The Trip of a Lifetime:  The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

The third stop of our trip was unbelievable!  We journeyed a couple of miles up the road from The Badlands National Park to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.  What we found there was one of the most fascinating adventures anyone in our group has ever experienced.  The Site is comprised of a not to be missed visitor center, a missile silo (Launch Facility Delta 09) with a missile still in the silo (It has been defanged), and a command center (Launch Control Facility Delta 01) just down the road.  Although the visitor center and the missile silo are must visits, the highlight of the historic site is the Delta 01 tour.  The tour of the once top secret underground command center, the center from which the fate of the world lay in the hands of twenty something year-old kids (trained young men, but kids nevertheless), was eye opening, frightening, and one of the most remarkable tours I have seen.

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site tour is a relatively new tour, and it is by reservation only.  People who stop at the site expecting to book a tour on their day of arrival are likely to be turned away.  The tour is usually booked solid for three to four weeks in advance and sometimes longer, so anyone wishing to book the tour should do so weeks, preferably months in advance, to ensure a spot on the tour.  Why is the tour so popular?  First, it takes you thirty feet underground to visit a Minuteman Missile operation center that few people have ever seen; second, you get to enter the small command module buried thirty feet underground where teams of two men worked three-day shifts waiting for coded orders authorizing them to insert their individual keys into the doomsday machine that would have launched Minuteman ballistic missiles and ignited World War III.  It is a little disconcerting to think encased inside eighteen inches of steel and concrete layers designed to survive earthquakes and nuclear blasts you are standing in a place that once held life, as we know it, and the end of time in balance; three, the tour is conducted by veterans who were there and know the inside details; and fourth, the tour is limited to six people per tour, which provides easier access to the guide to clearly hear what he says as well as to ask questions.

Having scheduled our tour three months in advance, we drove straight to the tour site as directed.  The tour began the moment we arrived at the gate of a desolate yellow-tan building hidden in plain sight off South Dakota’s Interstate 90 down a dirt and gravel road.  Surrounded by chain-link fence topped by barbed wire, we found ourselves in the world of a Tom Clancy novel, only this was not fiction.  This highly secret command center was once home to a contingent of eight security and maintenance men above ground, a cook, and two teams of two men who alternated three day shifts thirty feet underground with the fate of the world in their hands.  These two men held the keys to launching up to ten Minuteman missiles, each with a 1.2 megaton thermonuclear warhead anchored to its top.  This one site had the capability to launch its missiles with pin-point accuracy anywhere in the world the moment it received the proper orders, codes, and firing sequences from the President of the United States.  Thank God, such orders were never given although the fabulous exhibits at the Minuteman Missile Historic Site visitor center show how close we were to nuclear war on more than one occasion.  It is chilling to think we were almost never here!

As ordered, we arrived at the tour site at 10:10 a.m., thirty minutes prior to our tour time.  At precisely 10:40 a.m., our military escort/guide appeared at the ten-foot chain-link gate.  Air Force Colonel (retired) Brad Riza, a regular visitor to the site during its heyday in the 1960s to 1990s, was our commanding officer for the tour.  After a brief debriefing outside the gate, Colonel Riza led our party of six, the four in our group and a couple from California, inside the building to tour the facility.

Colonel Riza gave a masterful tour, and his pride in his country and the role he played in the Minuteman Missile era was unquestionable.  He spoke in detail of the Cold War between the United States and Russia (Soviet Union), and how the missiles acted as a line of defense for the nation and as a deterrent to the Soviets or any other aggressor who might threaten a nuclear attack against America or its allies.  The missile field was scattered across the central and northern Great Plains of America next door to ranchers, farmers, and small towns.  Their purpose was to protect the freedoms and posterity of the American people as well as allied nations around the world.

One thousand Minuteman missiles were deployed during the last twenty-five years of the Cold War.  If launched the Minuteman Missile would travel over the North Pole and strike its target in less than thirty seconds.  However, within seconds of the launch, missiles would be incoming in retaliation.  There was only one guarantee if these weapons were used – the aggressor and the target nation would both be destroyed, which made an attack by either side unthinkable.  The greatest deterrent to nuclear war – the only trump card the people on either side of the Cold War could depend – was there would be no winners!  Therefore, why play if nobody could win?

Colonel Riza spoke of the Minuteman missiles as a deterrent not as a weapon of aggression, but primarily he spoke of the rigors and stress the young men (many barely in their twenties) endured while stationed in the missile fields.  They spent long mentally draining hours isolated from family and friends, not knowing if they might have to turn the key that would ultimately destroy the world and all they loved.  These men were forbidden to talk to family and friends about their job with the Air Force.  Faced with protocols that meant strict adherence or immediate court martial, imprisonment, or even death, they lived in a vacuum absent of any normalcy most young men enjoyed.

Part of Colonel Riza’s job was to evaluate the metal condition of the men assigned to the doomsday computers buried deep beneath the yellow-tan building on the surface.  There was no room for error or departure from protocol.  Violate protocol and orders were clear – shoot to kill even if it was the cook, your best friend, or the Colonel.  The survival of the nation was at state; everything else was collateral damage including human life in the bunker or outside the bunker.  There were no second chances!  The fate of the country depended on these young men to execute their orders without hesitation or error.  From 1963 to 1991, the fate of the United States depended on the threat of nuclear retaliation as a deterrent to Soviet Union aggression.  Finally, in 1991, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed by President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to reduce the number of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear warheads effectively ending the Cold War.

Today, there are no active ICBM silos in South Dakota, but 400 Minuteman Missiles are still deployed across the upper Great Plains of the United States.  The Russians have a like number spread across their country.  Even though the Cold War has subsided, nuclear missiles intended as a deterrent remain on alert in the United States and Russia.  The biggest difference is today it is no longer a two-nation dance.  China, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and others have all bought tickets and are clamoring to get on the dance floor.  This escalation means the Minuteman missiles are more important than ever, and they will remain on alert through at least 2050.  Hopefully, by then the world will have come to its senses.

Every American needs to visit The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site!  The story it tells is a story everyone needs to hear.  All of us have one life, one family, and one country; to jeopardize any of the three with nuclear weapons is the sign of a madman.  We have lived as madmen long enough, but unfortunately, the day of the madman does not appear to be over.  Therefore, I take comfort there are men such as Colonel Brad Riza and thousands of young men who give up their youth and innocence in the service of our country to ensure our freedom and way of life.

Thank you, Colonel Riza for your service and for a great tour!  May God continue to bless you, our country, and the young men and women who serve our country 365 days a year, 7 days a week, 24 hours per day.

God bless America!  Americans, if you can, GO visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota.  It might scare you, but it will make you proud to be an American.

JL

©Jack Linton, July 23, 2017

The Trip of a Lifetime:  Wall Drug and Badlands National Park

Our second stop on Our Trip of a Lifetime was Wall, South Dakota where we planned to visit Wall Drug Store, Badlands National Park, and The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.  Although we enjoyed the travel and camping up to this point, we were excited to finally be getting into the meat of our destinations.  Prior to the trip, everyone we talked to about places to visit along Interstate 90 in South Dakota recommended Wall Drug Store and Badlands National Park as neat places to visit although a few people voiced some reservations about the Badlands.  To my surprise, very few people had heard of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, so it became of special interest to our group.

The first of the three we visited was Wall Drug Store.  When we were within about a hundred miles of Wall, South Dakota, we began to see billboards marketing the drug store with such phrases as “As seen on the Today Show,” “As featured in the New York Times,” and “Get your free ice water at Wall Drugs.”  Our anticipation grew!  The drug store began in 1931, and over the years, it expanded to seventy-six thousand square feet of shopping area.  Picturing a traditional old-time drug store setting with a soda fountain counter and a plethora of novelty items to explore, I couldn’t wait to see the place.  Boy was I in for a surprise!

There may have been a time when Wall Drug Store was a traditional old-time drug store complete with sassafras root beer, penny candy, and homemade ice cream, but those days were long gone by the time of my visit.  Basically, I found a string of shops filled with overpriced clothing and trinkets made in China.  The place was what we call a strip mall back home.  The one redeeming factor was the walls and corners of the shops were decorated with unique displays and antiques ranging from a stuffed grizzly bear to a cowboy fortune telling machine.  The wives loved the place, but other than getting free ice water, I say stop at this mini shopping mall disguised as a drug store if you must, but if you really want to see the good stuff, drive out to The Badlands National Park and the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.  If you like nature and history that is so real it will awe you and maybe even scare you, these two places should not be missed.

I am probably being too hard on Wall Drug, but it was simply too commercial for me.  It reminded me of Disney without the Disney magic (again maybe too harsh) – little more than a highly marketed tourist trap.  However, our visit to The Badlands National Park made everything good once again.  I found the Badlands simply breathtaking!  One thing I have discovered about national parks is that each is unique, and unique certainly describes The Badlands National Park.

Located in Interior, South Dakota, a short drive south of the town of Wall, The Badlands National Park is not to be missed.  Rugged, dry, desolate – its striped layers of brown, pink, yellow, and red rock tell stories of millions of years.  Once a prehistoric seabed, the wind worn spires allow you to look back in time when brontotheres (a rhinoceros type animal) and sabretooth tigers roamed the earth.  Set in direct contrast to the South Dakota plains surrounding it, the area may be called the Badlands, but its beauty speaks otherwise.  The Badlands of South Dakota are a tribute to the forces of nature and its resulting beauty.  The Park is a MUST SEE!  Walk the trails, many of them boarded and easy to walk, climb the towering rock formations (be careful), and take time to simply look and imagine this place a million years ago.  There is no “made in China” here.  This is pure America!

From the Badlands, we journeyed a couple of miles up the road to the Minuteman Missile Historic Site.  What we found there was one of the most fascinating adventures anyone in our group has ever experienced.  The tour of the once top secret underground command center, the center from which the fate of the world sometimes lay in the hands of twenty-year-old kids (trained young men, but kids nevertheless), was eye opening, frightening, and one of the most remarkable tours I have seen.

 

Next Blog:  The Trip of a Lifetime:  The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

JL

 

©Jack Linton, July 20, 2017

The Trip of a Lifetime:  STOP #1 The Corn Palace

After camping in Batesville, Mississippi; Perryville, Missouri; Platte City, Missouri; and Tea, South Dakota, we finally made the turn west in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  Our first stop was The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.  We had received mixed reviews on The Corn Palace from “A must stop!” to “If you are in the area with nothing better to do, give it a try.”  After four days on the road with little to do but drive, sing along with John Prine, Neil Diamond, and Elton John cds and watch coals die in the evening campfire, we were excited to make Mitchell, South Dakota our first sightseeing stop.  To prepare ourselves for what we would see, we discussed the functionality and structural integrity of corn as a building material.

I should have known something was amiss when we walked up to The Corn Palace and three guys with staple guns and Elmers Glue were gluing and stapling corn cob halves to the building.  I was dumbfounded!  Prior to visiting The Corn Palace, I was like the little girl I overheard telling her mother as they walked through the front door, “But, Mama, you said this place was made of corn.”  Her mother smiled and tried to explain to her disappointed daughter that the murals and pictures on the front of the building and in the auditorium were made of corn.  The little girl was having none of it, “But, is that all there is?” she asked.  The mother stopped, and looked down at her.  “Sorry, Honey,” she said, “but that is all there is.  It is what is.”  I felt bad for the little girl; heck, I felt bad I had dragged my wife and friends to see what I told them was “a building made of corn.”  To be fair, the murals and pictures inside and outside the building were made of corn and its by products, such as the cob, and if you like that sort of thing, you should go see The Corn Palace because there is not much more to the place than that.

After the little girl and her mother were gone, I sat down on a bench in the foyer and reflected on the little girl’s words, “Is that all there is?”  Those words reminded me of a song by one of my mother’s favorite singers, Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?” she sang.  “Is that all there is?” her sweet voice rang.  “If that’s all there is, my friends;  Then let’s keep dancing.  Let’s break out the booze and have a ball,” she warbled.  “If that’s all there is,” she sang with a finality that pushed me ever closer to the door – if I could only find my wife.

Unfortunately, there was no one dancing in The Corn Palace, there was no booze that I could see, and the only ball anyone was having was the stale popcorn balls sold for $3.00 each in the lobby concessions area.  The Corn Palace was not terrible; it served a purpose – from there our trip could only get better!  So, friends, whenever you are in the area, STOP if you must, to say you have done it, but don’t be disappointed when you learn “corn cobs is all it is!”

JL

©Jack Linton, July 19, 2017

The Trip of a Lifetime: Pondering from St. Louis to Kansas City

I am never closer to heaven than when I am camping and television and cell phone reception is poor or non-existent.  Camping is my time to get away to relax, read, write, and enjoy nature.  Other than contact with family, the world can do its thing without me for a few days or weeks.  However, there are drawbacks.  One drawback is poor or no cell phone reception means there is also poor or no Internet connection, and that means it is difficult to impossible to post blogs.  As a result, I have been unable to post updates for my trip as frequently as I had planned, but I am not giving up.   Whenever and wherever I find an open network or hotspot, I will add a new post, so for those of you interested, stay tuned.  After a week on the road, things are beginning to get interesting.

The worst part of traveling anywhere is getting there, and The Trip of a Lifetime has been no different.  Mile after mile of mile markers, billboards, and nondescript highway scenery slowly peeling by leaves both the butt and mind numb.  After a while, just before the wife grabs you by the shoulder and shakes you awake, even Florida Georgia Line begins to sound good on the radio.  That is scary!  FGL has never sounded good on anything.

A week ago, my wife and I, along with another couple, left home pulling twenty-four-foot travel trailers, and thanks to the two wives the trailers are literally loaded with everything but the kitchen sink.  The deal is simple; the guys drive and the ladies feed us every evening.  To some, relegating the men to driving and the women to cooking the meals is a bit sexist, and maybe it is, but we are headed “out west” where men are men and ladies with the culinary skills of our wives make happy men.  Therefore, my buddy and I drive because we want the ladies well rested at the end of a long day, so while we are leveling the campers, hooking up electricity, water, and sewer hoses, they can concentrate on the most important event of the day – the evening meal.  Honestly, there is nothing sexist about it; it’s just how things break down when camping.

This trip is by far the longest camping trip either couple has undertaken.  The most nights either of us have camped consecutively prior to this trip is five nights, but for this outing we will camp somewhere between fifty-five and sixty-five nights.  Therefore, a certain amount of stress is a given on the trip.  In addition to stretching our endurance to the max, this trip is sure to take a toll on everybody’s nerves, especially mine.  For me, the biggest stress factor is backing the camper into a campsite at the end of the day without destroying the camper.  When it comes to backing a travel trailer into a camping spot, I may be the worst “backer upper” of all time.  However, during my years of camping, I have found the perfect solution for backing a camper – pull throughs.  Pull throughs, remarkable campsites where you simply pull your rig onto the campsite – no backing required – were designed by a camping angel.  The campgrounds that get the highest ratings from me are the ones that provide these gifts from heaven.  Therefore, a major part of planning for the trip was reserving pull-through campsites, which we managed to nail down for all but a couple of the campgrounds we will be visiting.  Die hard campers might say that is cheating, but no, that is smart.  Knowing your limitations and preparing accordingly is much better than arrogantly flaunting your ineptness, especially if you are married.  Most women marry a man despite his many areas of incompetence, but that does not sanction a man to rub his wife’s nose in his ineptitude.  There is nothing more trying on a marriage than backing a travel trailer into a campsite without running over the sewer disposal or the fire pit.

When backing my camper, I do my best to refrain from dirty words, nevertheless I tend to foam at the corners of my mouth and spit vilified words through my teeth when confronted by a cantankerous trailer that refuses to understand where I want the dang thing to go.  My wife, bless her heart, tries to help, but invariably she becomes a mark for my slobber casting fits, which creates a coldness that often extends to supper and beyond.  Of course, I could resolve the whole issue, and let her back the “damn” trailer up, which she could do with little problem, but oh no, we are headed out west where men are men, and turning over the reins to a filly is not a viable option.

Another situation that can cause undue stress on a trip is being in a rush.  One of the worst things a person pulling a travel trailer can do is try to get to the destination in a hurry.  If getting to a destination quickly is a priority, take a car or better yet, take a plane, but do not take a travel trailer, motorhome, or fifth-wheel although I have witnessed quite a few motorhomes and fifth-wheels flying low.  Although there are people who pull travel trailers and fifth-wheel campers at seventy-five and eighty-five miles an hour, I am not one of them.  I am much more concerned about arriving safely than I am about getting to the campground in five hours driving eighty miles per hour as compared to six hours driving sixty or sixty-five miles per hour.  Also, I am not one of those “dice throwers” who insists on driving eight and nine-hour days to get to a destination in three days rather than four days.  I am simply not into that kind of needless stress.

It may not be cool or manly, but my friend and I decided to follow a simple travel rule – “three or three-hundred.”  This means we stop for the night by 3 p.m. or 300 miles, whichever comes first.  By following this rule, we increase our chances of arriving safely, we never worry about setting up camp after dark, and we have time to unwind and relax before hitting the road again the next day.  We have just completed the first week of our trip, and this simple rule has proven to be a deal maker for all of us.

I am pleased to say, so far, the “three or three-hundred” rule has worked well. We are fifteen hundred miles into the trip, and we are making steady progress across the United States, we are not yet drained and exhausted, and the four of us are still best friends.  One of the great things about not being in a rush to get where you are going is there is time to observe the landscape and see unique things that at a faster pace you might miss.  For example, while traveling across Missouri, I was intrigued at the pairing of firework stands and adult book/novelty stores every ten miles or so from St. Louis to Kansas City.  If I had spotted a lone firework stand or adult paraphilia store every few miles along Interstate 70, I might have thought little of it.  However, seeing firework stands and adult book stores sitting side by side every few miles started me pondering.  What do these two have in common that would cause their owners to place them side by side?  Was there a connection?  Why this combination?  Why not a bicycle shop and an adult store or a firework stand and a medical emergency facility?  What was the significance of fireworks and adult books and toys sold in the same parking lot?  Did it really matter?  I had a lot to ponder from St. Louis to Kansas City.

There is a lot of pondering time involved while driving three-hundred miles anywhere, but especially hauling a travel trailer up and down the rolling hills of Missouri.  On more than one occasion, as I passed a firework stand and adult book/novelty store sharing the same parking lot, I saw multiple motorhomes and trucks pulling travel trailers parked in the parking lot.  As I approached and passed one of these places, an elderly gentleman with a cane helped an elderly lady climb out of a super large motorhome, and the couple walked arm in arm toward the adult book store.  About ten miles down the road, I witnessed a similar event – an elderly man and woman holding a brown package walked from an adult store to the firework building next door.  What was going on?  What was the attraction of combo firework stands and XXX book stores to elderly RV (recreational vehicle) folks?  Being a trained researcher, I decided I needed to pull into one of these places and conduct a survey.  How else was I going to solve the mystery?  As soon as I flipped the turn signal, my wife slapped me on the back of my head bouncing my forehead off the steering wheel and bringing me back to my senses.  I never conducted my study, but that did not stop me from pondering as I drove Interstate 70.  By the end of the day, I was pondered out.  All I could figure was whatever those old folks were buying in the adult stores gave them reason to also buy fireworks as well.  Maybe, now I am only sharing speculative ponderings, they bought an adult novelty as the result of road fatigue or maybe, to get the hanky panky juices flowing.  If the latter was the case, maybe, they bought fireworks to celebrate if it worked.  From the number of campers parked at those places, it must have been working.

When traveling there is no telling what you might see, but I am happy to say we have finally made it to the Badlands National Park and the National Minuteman Missile Historical Site.  We spent all day visiting both today, and I am overwhelmed, especially with the underground tour of the Delta 1 mission operation center.  I have never been so proud of the young men who serve our country, and scared to death for our nation at the same time.  I’ll tell you all about it soon.  Thanks for listening!

JL

©Jack Linton, July 12, 2017