Available Light: A Series on the Photography of Place
You could miss it easily.
At 11 a.m. on a humid mid-summer Friday morning, I am parked on the shoulder of a gravel road a few miles southwest of Fairdale, North Dakota, population 36, walking the route. A field of canola stretches to the eastern horizon, a few bright purple thistles blooming at the border. Wheat grows to the north and west and south. The sky is low and thick, a dense fog advisory still in effect, though the haze is burning away. Grain bins at a distant farmstead more ghost than real, I can hear killdeer and red-winged blackbirds and robins. I watch a pelican fly by and then a pocket gopher comes to give me a look.
“Good morning,” I say. “I’m waiting for others.”
This morning has the thick silence of open prairie. No road noise. Nothing other than wind in crops and grasses. This is the kind of place where you swear you can hear the size of eternity.
A chain-link fence borders the road, the swinging gate padlocked. Maybe 100 yards inside this fence is another one, topped with barbed wire. A sentry building and another gate are the only way in.
Once upon a time in the Cold War, this was a nuclear missile site. Beyond the sentry building an underground command bunker, hardened against a nuclear strike, two ventilation towers, and then a little farther on, 14 underground silos for Sprint missiles.
I have come to get inside.
The missiles left their silos long before I got here. Sprint missiles—two-stage, solid-fuel rockets, each with a W66 enhanced-radiation thermonuclear warhead—have been raised from the ground and trucked away. The command bunker has been abandoned. The sentry building is a ruin.
And now it’s for sale. To anyone. There was a story in the local newspaper, then on the web, then everywhere, and I found myself curious. I was born in 1958. I grew up in the Cold War. Born in Missouri and now living on the border of North Dakota, I have been near nuclear missiles my whole life. But I’ve never seen the inside of a bunker.
Do You Want To Play A Game?
I called Dave Keller, the realtor, to see if I could get a tour.
“I’m not a buyer,” I said.
“No worries,” he said. “There is a potential buyer who wants a tour next week. You can join us.”
“Wonderful!” I said.
“Bring waterproof boots and a flashlight,” he said. “There’s no power and the whole thing has about six inches of water.”
“How did you wind up owning a missile base?” I ask. I am talking with Leslie “Les” Volochenko, a maintenance person for apartments in Bismarck, North Dakota, a little more than three hours from the site, on the telephone. He is the current owner.
“Well, the GSA Auctions had an auction for the site. They had a showing day and I went up and looked at it. I put a $5,000 bid on it and got it.”
“Why were you interested in the first place?” I ask.
“Just the uniqueness of its being a missile base. I really kinda was going to move up there. Get a job up there.”
“What year was this?”
“2012. I bought it when the Mayan calendar ended. So, it was like a doomsday place. I was going to sell parcels out of it, for doomsday. Something to pay for the thing.”
“What made you decide to sell it?”
“Well, I had been trying to trade it for other properties. I asked Dave to list 10 acres I have in Mandan, and then I thought heck, I might as well list all my properties. So, I went and listed my two houses, and then I told him I had a missile base. He kinda looked at me like: What are you talking about?”
“Are you going to be sorry to see it go?”
“Yeah. When I go up there, it’s my prairie cottage. I’m usually working when I’m up there, just trying to get stuff done. I made a furnace and I put it down in there, but I haven’t finished. I’m pumping water out of the tunnels. Trying to keep it down. They just had four and a half inches of rain up there. I put in a rain gauge. And when I come up, I plant tulips. On the front and the south face of the bunker.”
“You plant tulips?”
“It’s supposed to have my initials. They would bloom in my initials. You’ve seen my tunnel. The tunnel has my name on it. Those letters were, oh man, 40 to 50 feet long. I planted like 580 tulips. Then I planted asparagus. And it’s surviving! It’s over on the southeast corner of the bunker. You go look. There should be 18 plants.”
“I put in a garage door,” he continues. “I’ve started prepping it for a tankless water heater. I go up and look at the stars. Last time I was up, there were fireflies.”
The real estate advertisement read, in part: “Unique opportunity to own a bit of Cold War history! Located in Fairdale ND, this Walsh County Sprint Missile site offers a nostalgic Cold War experience.”
Nostalgic Cold War experience?
“Site needs some repair,” the ad read, “but could provide that extra privacy, security, and protection when needed.”
Fairdale, North Dakota, defines remote. Privacy, security, and protection?
On the phone a few days ago, Dave told me he’s heard from survivalists as well as from someone who wants to establish a server farm. “Mostly West Coast people,” he says.
Soon I hear a car coming from a long way off. It arrives and two men get out. Both of them, it turns out, live near me, three hours away. I ask about names.
“Anonymous, yes,” the one says.
“I’m anonymous’s pal,” the other says.
“Anonymous and Pal,” I say. “What’s your interest in this place?”
“I’m a history buff,” Anonymous says, grinning. Pal just looks at the fences.
A pickup truck arrives and Dave gets out, greetings all around. He has instructions on how to find the key to the padlock, but they are not very precise and we all go looking in the weeds. When we find it, we’re in.
“This space between the fences,” Dave says, “would have been lit up like a star.”
Two more padlocks open and we get into the sentry building. There would have been a desk here, a revolving security turnstile, soldiers in uniforms with guns. Farmland and wetland and wilderness on one side. Armageddon on the other.
Today there is trash. Lots of trash. Clothes and tools and buckets and mattresses and blankets and the debris of a building falling down into itself—ceiling and wall and floor material everywhere. Crutches and a hard hat. Garden hose and box fan.
I try to imagine how this disorder came to be. This is not the wake of departure. This is not a more recent shelter for anybody. This is, at best, dumping. Entropy. All things tend toward chaos.
And there are animals in the walls. We can hear them rustle and scurry away from us. In my imagination at least, they are not small.
Back outside, but inside the second fence, Pal notes one of the doors has been welded shut. Another mystery.
We walk to the bunker entry, a concrete tunnel that leads into the earth. A small forklift and two old tires hold the doors open. Les has painted his last name, Volochenko, on the roof, large enough to be seen by Google Earth. A nice touch, I think.
“Boots and flashlights,” Dave says.
We descend into darkness.
The missiles were extraordinary. They accelerated at 100G. Zero to more than 7000 miles an hour, Mach 10, in five seconds. Plasma formed around a heat shield. They glowed white in the sky.
These missiles were never intended to attack the Soviet Union. Their operational range was only 25 miles. Their flight ceiling was only 19 miles. Their warheads did not produce much of an explosion.
Instead, these were the defensive missiles. These were the missiles that were supposed to defeat the incoming Soviet missiles that made it through an earlier defense. And these missiles were not supposed to protect people, either. These missiles were to protect the other missiles we would launch in counterattack. Complicated and confusing, and very expensive, the whole system was part of a large complex of similar sites in the northeast corner of North Dakota, the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex. The site became operational on April 1, 1975, and then the U.S. House of Representatives voted to decommission it on October 2, 1975. The site was deactivated on February 10, 1976, after less than a year and only 24 hours of full operations.
Portions of the whole complex, notably the “backscatter radar” site in Nekoma, a concrete pyramid and ventilation shafts rising out of the ground, what looks like an entry to the Morlock world in H.G. Wells Time Machine, were sold to a Hutterite Colony and to the Cavalier County Job Development Authority, who planned to remodel the main site into a historical interpretive center. That never happened.
Here is how I imagine it would have happened if the Soviets were to launch first: One of our satellites would pick up the heat trail of a launch. Someone at NORAD in Colorado Springs would pick up a phone. A DEW (distant early warning) station with over-the-horizon radar would pick up the signal. The President would be involved. Backscatter radar would acquire the targets. When the Soviet missiles were still in outer space, we would launch Spartan missiles to intercept them. Some would find their targets. Some would not. When the Soviet rockets reentered the atmosphere, heat and friction would tear away decoys and reflective defenses. The Sprint missiles would launch. Total flight time: five to 15 seconds. Their explosions would include a neutron flux, which rendered the Soviet warheads useless. Then our own Minuteman missiles, if not already underway, would launch.
In Missouri, or Illinois, I would be sitting under a schoolroom desk, hands over my head, waiting.
The ramp leads down into the earth, to a hallway filled with ankle-deep water, sometimes deeper. Darkness. Only the beams from our small flashlights and the occasional burst from my flash illuminate corners. I’m surprised there are no bats.
Anonymous spots the first blast door, heavy steel, tucked away like a pocket door in a fancy home. Rollers still in place. The whole thing rusted solid. Cables gone. A line halfway up the door shows how deep the water has been, and the fact that it was that deep for a very long time.
Past the second blast door, we are soon separated. Each corner reveals a new room, each new room a mystery. Rust. Pads for generators. Cut wires. Pipes. Telephone equipment. Large rooms. Closets. Peeling walls. Somewhere there would have been food and beds and consoles with dials. Telecom equipment. We have a set of drawings, plans from another site supposedly identical to this one. The rooms have names. Filter room. Cable Vault. Personnel Entry. There is a space for contaminated clothing next to a shower. But the plans are impossible to read in the darkness and it’s difficult to get our bearings. Every now and then I can hear Anonymous explain what room he thinks he’s in. Every now and then, when I turn a corner the beam from my light cannot find the far wall.
More than once, each of us steps into deeper water.
Overhead, conduits of every possible sort reach like stalactites in a cave, dripping water. Banks of old telephone equipment hang open. We discover shock absorbers meant to insulate an entire room. Wires lead into holes with numbers—we assume for the missiles. But there is no way to imagine the people here. I cannot find a way to summon them.
I meet Anonymous at the far end of the bunker. A sign on a bare, large wall says Emergency Exit. There is no door.
“There would have been a large ladder here,” he says, pointing up. I cannot see them, but there are two hatches above us. A way out after the bomb.
How long would they have to wait, I wonder? Would the soldiers in the sentry building have made it in time? Would they have wanted to? Once the blast doors were shut and the missiles launched, then what? The site is self-contained. Food for however long. Power. How long before the soul wanted to come above ground, no matter how blasted the fields had become?
On one wall I discover instruction. “Torch Whole Room.”
Eventually we walk outside and to the silos. Les, or someone, has been parking old farm equipment and other junk here. An I-beam. Dead trees. The fog is still thick. The silo tops look old. None of them are open—no holes in the ground.
“They’re filled with water,” Dave says, though I’m not sure how he knows.
The silos have what look like hard foam tops. There would have been explosive bolts. An explosion-driven piston would have started the missiles up before Stage 1 ignition. Like the steel inside the bunker, though, the silos are mostly rusted. But part of the assembly looks new.
“They’re blued,” Pal says. “Like a rifle barrel. They will never rust.”
I look over the missile field. I’m searching for gravitas. Perhaps humility or arrogance. What I see is decay and junk. Perhaps there is a lesson there, too. Fireflies.
We walk to the ground above the bunker, then back to our cars. Inadvertently, Dave locks the gates while his pickup is still inside the compound. We all laugh. We change from boots back into shoes.
“So how much do you think this will sell for?” Anonymous asks.
“I can’t say,” Dave says. “But I think you’ll be surprised. There is a lot of West Coast interest. That’s where the money is. I can’t guarantee anything, of course, but I think you’ll be surprised.”
Anonymous and Pal leave while Dave opens the gates again and brings out his truck.
“So, was he real,” I ask?
“Nah,” Dave says. “Just a history buff who wanted a tour. But that’s okay.”
A few days later, the auction begins at 10 a.m. in Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota. There are a number of lots up for sale. Residential property, potential civic park land in town. The missile site is the final property to go. Anticipation, I think. Save the best for last.
Some buyers are in the room. More are online. From home, I can hear Dave’s voice in the room but I do not hear Anonymous or Pal and cannot tell if they are online.
The auctioneer’s property descriptions are exact and clear. But when bidding starts, he’s got the rolling tongue of his trade. It’s fun to hear.
Bidding on the missile site begins at 11:58. I hear Dave give a summary of the site. “For all you folks who loved the Cold War,” he begins. “These things don’t come along very often. If you’re in the market for a Sprint Missile base, we have one today. Thirteen thousand, one hundred and fifty feet underground bunker. Fourteen missile tubs. Forty-nine point eight four acres. Lot #20.”
For all you folks who loved the Cold War?
“The opening ask is $250,000,” the auctioneer says. Then he’s up and running.
I remember what Dave said as we were leaving the site. “I think you’ll be surprised.”
No one bids.
The auctioneer encourages.
The auctioneer reduces the opening ask to $75,000.
At 12:01 there is a bid from the room. $20,000.
Someone online bids $25,000.
Then someone else online bids $30,000.
$35,000 from the floor.
The bids come fast, but the increases are small.
$42,500 from online.
$45,000 from the floor.
$47,500 from the internet.
$50,000 from the floor.
$52,500 from the internet.
Then nothing. The auctioneer searches for others. He takes a break for people to think. When he comes back, he gives everyone one more chance to bid. Silence.
Finally, he says, sold.
$52,000 at 12:12 p.m.
I send Dave an email. “I know you can’t tell me who bought the missile site,” I say, “but can you give them my information and ask them to get in touch?”
“It didn’t sell,” he replies.
“The final bid didn’t match our minimum price.”
W. Scott Olsen is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. His most recent book is A Moment with Strangers: Photographs and Essays at Home and Abroad (NDSU Press, 2016). His individual essays have appeared recently in journals such Kenyon Review Online, Crazyhorse, Lake Effect,North Dakota Quarterly, Utne Reader, Frames Magazine, Minneapolis Star Tribune,Lensculture.com, The Forum, Plane & Pilot, AOPA Pilot, and elsewhere.