Ranger Kathryn's Arches

October 9, 2010

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

I couldn’t quite make it work in my head. Having just come from the interpretive sign that described the Badlands wilderness as a “geography of hope,” I arrived 15 minutes later at the site of our strongest Cold War deterrents: Minuteman missiles in their South Dakota silos. The government decided that it was a good idea to preserve one of the 1960s launch control facilities and an underground silo for posterity, so that we would always remember the threat averted and the ICBMs that accomplished that.

Here I was, looking at a weapon designed to carry a 1.2-megaton nuclear warhead and kill millions of people — while still wrestling with a puzzling turn of phrase that wouldn’t leave me alone. What does fear — the fear that caused people to build personal bomb shelters, and prompted unavailing duck-and-cover drills in every school — have in common with hope? Do they exist simultaneously? Does hope dismantle fear, temper it, put it in perspective?

About fear: we leaked our own secrets to the Soviets. There was such significant concern over their inferior missile safety mechanisms that our government used the straight-up approach and printed top-secret details in Aviation Week & Space Technology, and then made sure copies got into Russian hands. Wanting to minimize the chance of an accidental misfire, we handed them the instructions for improving their own weapons. We also let their satellites observe the construction of the 450 silos across the northern plains, making no effort to disguise what we were building — or how maintenance-free they were once constructed. We WANTED them to know what we had.

About hope: every mother and father hoped they could raise their children in a world free of the threat of nuclear devastation. Our military hoped that the Soviets would notice our powerful missiles and move very thoughtfully and carefully over the knotty political/ideological landscape. I, as a young child during the Cold War, hoped I could jump rope, cut out paper dolls, play jacks and listen to my “Puff, the Magic Dragon” record each day after school.

Could something that travels over the North Pole to its intended target in just 30 minutes, with the equivalent of over a million tons of dynamite, be compartmentalized in my brain alongside the Mesohippus and Leptomeryx that lived here 30 million years ago? Earlier mass extinction scenarios danced around my synapses; I shuddered.

October 8, 2010

Badlands National Park — a geography of hope

 

The Badlands are made of congealed ash heaps.

 

The silly critter had dug his burrow entrance in the middle of the dirt road, but fortunately the sun’s low rays illuminated the prairie dog just before I almost ran over him. As I continued to the next pull-out to walk closer to the prairie dog town for photographs, a herd of bison blocked the road. Most stared hard at me (the horns seem to grow larger when they’re staring, you know?) and then ambled genially off to the side as I inched closer, but a couple of them stood their ground and would not let me pass. Far be it from me to honk at an animal that could probably destroy Olive, and maim me, with one angry charge. I would let them take whatever time they needed. Only a matador should be that close to a large ungulate.

 

Wish I knew what he was thinking when he was eyeing me.

 

As I arrived at the dog town and grabbed my camera, I looked down the road a little to see a massive bull ambling toward me. I quickly calculated the distance to the overlook, my top running speed, the lack of any protective cover, and the mph of a charging bison; I’m a risk-taker, but… no photos today. Today I planned to get home. Intact.

Utter desolation surrounded me. It made me happy that it was wilderness, but it was the kind of wilderness that did not feel very welcoming. Gray volcanic ash heaps lithified into the stony hills millions of years ago; their surfaces crumbled under foot. Erosion proceeds rapidly here, perhaps an inch a year — and every drop of rain that falls carries pieces away. Cairns aren’t useful when they weather so quickly, so iron stakes marked trails. Signs warning BEWARE RATTLESNAKES! were pounded in the ground at every overlook and trailhead, prompting me to wonder how many visitor/snake interactions happen yearly. The harsh beauty that is Badlands felt rather inhospitable to me.

A handsome non-venomous snake called a ‘racer,’ sub-species unknown, lay across my path on the hike to the Notch. Up close and personal — exciting! I got close enough to see the yellow under his throat and then gave him his space. Bighorn sheep (re-introduced after extirpation) clogged the road further ahead, and prairie dogs seemed too numerous to count. On the Fossil Trail are casts of some of the interesting remains found in the park of ancient Oligocene mammals, which were plentiful here.

 

Tell me how 'hope' fits in here.

 

The early explorers of this barren wilderness predicted it would never be good for anything at all; the same things were said about southern Utah’s barrenness. I beg to differ with this opinion! Wallace Stegner, environmentalist and writer, summed it up poignantly when he said:

We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.

I thought about that odd juxtaposition, “a geography of hope,” for the rest of the day. How can landforms supply hope? How can what is on a map rekindle a sense of promise, of expectation? I have my ideas; I’d like to hear yours.

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