A Month of Writers, Day Seventeen: Jay Lake
If you laughed uproariously and pointed when I wore the Campbell Tiara a year and a half ago, one of the people to blame (or praise, since it was a lovely tiara) for that is Jay Lake, who with fellow Campbell Award alum Elizabeth Bear decided the Campbell awardees needed something more than the cheeseboard-like plaque we get at the moment. That’s just how Jay Lake’s mind works. Suffice to say it works differently than most people’s. Which is good by me, because then we get super-nifty world-building exercises like the one in Mainspring, Jay’s latest, in which he builds out the idea of a clockwork universe and takes it to a logical and fascinating conclusion.
Here’s another example of Jay’s brain going in a different direction: His Month of Writers contribution is trip to a place there the beginning of the end of the world could have happened — but thankfully, didn’t.
JAY LAKE: They build machines that they can’t control, And bury the waste in a great big hole
Yesterday tillyjane, the_child and I went missile silo hunting. I’d pulled some map references to the old silo complexes at the long-abandoned Larson Air Force Base in Adams County, WA, near the town of Moses Lake. These are Titan I silos from the early days of ballistic deterrence, long since decommisioned, and now on private land.
The first site we wanted to check out was just north of Bruce, WA, right at the line between Adams County and Grant County. We made a pretty direct drive there, four and half hours to go up the Gorge, through the Tri-Cities, across the Pasco Basin and onto the Palouse. (For those of you who don’t spend time in the Pacific Northwest, that’s quite a stunning trip, with views of heavily forested hills, catastrophically flood carved cliffs, several major volcanoes, arid high desert, and loess hills.) The leaves were in, where leaves could be in, and the weather was gorgeous. We stopped for a Chinese lunch in Othello, WA, then headed up toward the site, guided by Christian, our South African-accented Nokia GPS.
Nearing the site, we did get briefly distracted by a Pullman car. After that, Christian announced, “We are here. Your cell phone hopes you had a good trip,” and delivered us to an empty stretch of gravel road.
The only thing visible besides crops was a berm perhaps a hundred yards north of us. You can see it past tillyjane‘s head in the above photo. We figured perhaps the site had been decommissioned and filled in or scraped over. (All I’d pulled from the Internet was locations, not descriptions, so we were running on minimal data here.) We’d determined in advance that we wouldn’t cross a fence line or violate posted no trespassing sign, but this was just open land, so we felt it worth our trouble to see what could be seen. We sorted ourselves out and walked up the boundary between two fields, hoping to learn more at the site of the berm.
The walk itself was pretty strange. Loess under stable ground cover is soft but will hold weight. Plowed loess is like walking in white flour. It’s even looser and slippery than beach sand. Every footfall kicked up dust clouds, every step was laborious because of the sliding.
The berm was overgrown with thistles and several kinds of weeds sporting prickly seedpods at this time of year. Casting about the base, we found bits of metal and concrete that lent support to our theory that the site had been plowed under. When I climbed the berm, things turned out to be a bit different.
From that distance, the complex looked like a run down equipment yard. I didn’t realize what I was seeing yet, and interpreted the open blast doors from the silos as either machine sheds or agricultural trailers. My scale was completely wrong, of course, but that was difficult to assess while still a quarter mile or so away.
On inspection, it was pretty obviously a Big Heavy Object that had been placed there to block a hole in the ground. Evidence!
Then I looked up at the equipment yard again, and realized that I had not been seeing trailers.
It’s been capped with a large sheet of metal, and some minimal railing installed to keep people from just wandering over the edge. Given that these are almost 200 feet deep, that’s probably a good idea.
I was struck by one of the strangest sounds I’ve ever heard in my life as I approached the silo. It was if something large were weeping deep beneath the earth. It took me a few moments to sort out I was hearing a large number of pigeons cooing in their roosts down inside the flame duct and the silo itself, their noises magnified by the incredible echo chamber in which they lived. By the time I realized I could record this with my camera, I’d made too much racket and the pigeons had either fallen silent or flown away.
There’s something profoundly poetic about that image — the birds which fill the very cities these missiles were meant to destroy were now nesting in the abandoned cradle of nuclear fire. The wind was capricious as well, whipping and whining around the silos like the ghosts of lost missilemen still carrying their twin launch keys, reaching out across the span of two arms wondering if this time it was not a drill.
tillyjane and the_child caught up with me at this point. We had a discussion about safety and etiquette — no touching or climbing, don’t take anything, don’t go near any holes without close adult supervision. All the usual sorts of things one covers when trolling abandoned nuclear sites with a ten year old.
While the first silo we came to had the doors dismounted, the other two were intact and gaping open. They were possessed of a brutal, industrial beauty. This is weapons-grade Big Science, with all the shiny optimism abraded by half a century of dusty high plains wind and the shifting realpolitik of the world beyond those lonely horizons.
As we approached the second silo, tillyjane pointed out pigeons flying down into the earth. Their flame duct had no safety rail, so we approached only closely enough to peer within.
The lit square is a reflection of the cap on the surface of the water filling the bottom of the silo. I was sticking the camera through the rail, pointed down, after messing with the setting to photograph in very low light. To the naked eye, that was almost impenetrable shadow.
Looking carefully at the blast doors, it’s obvious the original lifting hardware was salvaged when they were decommissioned. You can see where the anchors were torn out of the concrete of the door. I’m a little more puzzled why anyone bothered to run electric lines out to the decommissioned doors, but there are poles and junction boxes present, long since abandoned themselves. I also think the roughly six foot square metal-and-concrete weights which are scattered all over the site may well have been the counterweights for the blast door lifting hardware.
the_child and I got up on the door’s embrasure for some of these photos. The presence of the 200 foot drop right next to us sparked tillyjane‘s not very latent fear of heights, and she asked us to please come down.
Unable to record the eerie sounds of pigeons in their hypogeal nests, I messed a little with the audio qualities of these spaces myself, with an able assist from the_child.
Finally, we wandered around the rest of the complex, wondering where the launch control and underground quarters had been. We did find a smaller tube or silo which didn’t match the three big ones. I don’t know enough about ICBM launch complexes to understand what that might been used for. It had been almost completely blocked off by those counterweights, so I slipped my camera in through a crack to photograph within. We also spotted the fuel pump, and a some other odd miscellany.
Eventually we hiked back out to the Genre car, then drove around the front of the complex to see what might be visible from the public road. Not much, basically, and you’d be hard pressed to know any of this was on the site if you didn’t come looking for it right at that spot.
The gateway to the property is formed by two of those counterweights, though the casual passerby would not know this. Note the blast door visible along the fenceline, though from this distance it would be easily mistaken for part of a tiltwall construction effort.
We never did cross a fence line coming the back way, but if we’d come at it from the front, we would not have gotten in. I assume this is why the GPS coordinates I pulled off the Internet were so apparently inaccurate — to get us to the accessible side of the property, off the main road.
We drove home via the Hanford Reach, and down US-97 through the Yakama Indian Reservation. It’s a pretty, lonely drive that gave us different scenery and a number of empty miles to think on what we’d seen.
The site was terrifically sobering to both me and tillyjane. My mother grew up in the days of duck-and-cover drills, and basements stocked with government cheese and canned water with which to rebuild the American dream after the cleansing fire had washed over the land. This place featured in that nightmare which lies at the center of the house of memory of any thoughtful survivor of the Cold War.
For me, it was perhaps most akin, albeit distantly, to the time that my family visited Dachau, shortly after my 18th birthday. The bizarre, wrenching history of the Holocaust was given a soul-twisting reality for me in that camp, a memory that has remained sharp for a quarter century since. This missile site was one of the bullets in the gun on the mantle of a second, truly final holocaust; a gun which was thankfully never fired. The rustling weeds and muttering pigeons and open-mouthed blast doors memorialize the darkest side of a superpower’s dreams. The place touched a small, cold scar on my heart.
What will this mean to the_child? I can’t say. For now, she remembers thirteen hours in the car as much as anything. We talked about the missiles, what they were for, how the United States and the Russians had promised each other that if either fought, both would lose. I introduced my ten year old to the idea that people really could kill cities, with a big enough bomb. She wanted to know where the missiles had gone, why the concrete and steel on the site hadn’t been recycled, why anyone would build a bomb so big.
I don’t believe I frightened her. That was certainly not my intent. I know I made her think. I did tell her this:
“When you grow up, and talk about your childhood, I want you to remember you had the kind of dad who took you to see abandoned nuclear missile silos.”