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Day 60 – Ghosts of the Desert

If you are searching for WMDs, Arizona is a good place to start.

The area around Tucson is home to the Pima Air and Space Museum, the Air Force boneyard, and the only underground ICBM silo that you can take a tour of.

I heard about the ICBM at the Titan Missile Museum while driving from Winslow to Phoenix. NPR played a segment about the museum, and mentioned that it was about to receive its one millionth visitor.

After a relatively early Saturday morning start in Phoenix, I headed toward Tucson to find the WMD and hopefully become the 1,000,000 visitor to the top-secret facility. I wondered what kind of door prizes they would give to someone visiting an ICBM.

The Titan Missile Museum is south of Tucson, on a road where the exit numbers are based on kilometers, not miles. It seemed the highway department had already ceded the southern part of Arizona to Mexico.

I found the museum with little difficulty, and entered the building with a noticeable lack of fanfare. Obviously, I was not the one millionth visitor. As I paid the entrance fee, I asked the woman at the register if they had reached the 1 million mark yet. “Not yet,” she replied.

“Just curious, but do you know what number you are up to?”

She quickly counted the dozen or so names written on the morning’s visitor log. “Looks like we need 31 more.”

#999,969. Too bad I hadn’t slept in for an additional 30 minutes or so.

An hour-long tour was just starting, so I entered the small auditorium where the tour guide showed a video and went over some of the history of the missile program. He also instructed a couple of the men in the room to grab hard hats for safety—only the tall people were required to wear the hats. I was not asked to wear one.

The Titan II missiles were the biggest ICBMs in the US arsenal during the Cold War. There were only 54 of them, compared to more than 1,000 Minuteman ICBMs, but the Titans still amounted to 30% of the overall ICBM firepower. Each Titan II carried a 9 megaton warhead. That number did not mean much to me, until put into context: 9 megatons is more than all of the Allied bombs dropped during WWII combined, including the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan. 53 of the Titans were scrapped during the 1980s as part of a SALT agreement with the USSR; the Tucson museum holds the last remaining Titan silo and missile.    

After the history lesson, we were led outside to the surface level of the ICBM site. It was a fenced area with assorted pipes and machinery sticking out of the ground. Semi trailers and small shed-like buildings surrounded the huge, feet-thick, 100-ton door that covered the top of the missile silo. I might have expected the silo to be a bit more incognito, but it seems the missiles are kept underground more for protection than secrecy. The idea was that the Russians could strike first, and the Titans could survive the blasts (as long as it was not a direct hit) and still launch in retaliation.

It was MAD, the tour guide reminded us: Mutually Assured Destruction. Both sides knew there was no way they could win. Even if they struck first and managed to wipe out the opposing country, the buried missiles would survive and destroy their country in return.

Happy thoughts.

The silo door was half-open, with the opening covered by a glass top so that visitors could see down inside. The mechanism that could have opened the blast door fully had been visibly and permanently disabled. Having the door stuck half-open both allowed the missile to be seen from the air, and prevented the missile from being launched.

“Every few days, a Russian satellite flies overhead and snaps a picture,” the guide informed us, “to make sure it is still disabled.”

“We do the same to them.”

The crew quarters at the silo were also underground, though not immediately next to the missile silo. A service tunnel connected the two subterranean capsules.The tour guide took us down the stairway to the crew quarters, explaining the security process as we went. Of course the launch procedures were kept under the absolute highest security, but just changing out crew shifts each day was a complicated procedure. It included several locked gates and doors that could only be opened from the inside, and multiple ever-changing passwords—one of which was written on a sheet of paper that had to be immediately burned after reading it. And the new crew had only a certain number of seconds to get from the locked main gate to the first of the locked doors. If they took too long, or if any of the passwords or procedures were incorrect, the site would go into lockdown and anyone on the surface would be facing some very unhappy MPs.

We visited the mission control area, which looked exactly like what a high-tech mission control from the 1960’s would be expected to look like. Lots and lots of dials and blinking lights on large banks of computer equipment. The guide told us that one piece of equipment was upgraded about 30 years ago, replacing one refrigerator-sized computer with a small box. I imagine that today the entire thing could be run with my cell phone.

The tour guide recruited a little old lady to help him launch the missile—or go through the motions, anyway. It was an activity that the missile crews probably practiced every day as part of their job. Due to the seriousness of the job, I am sure that they were more practiced and better-prepared to do a task they never ended up doing than pretty much everyone else is prepared for the jobs they do every day. They were masters at it. They were like world-class professional athletes in a sport that has never been played.

I imagine they are fine with that. No one really wants to play the game of MAD.


The other major military relic near Tucson is the Air Force boneyard.

The boneyard is the USAF scrap heap, a multi-billion dollar junkyard of military aircraft. Vast fields of A-series, B-series, C-series, F-series, and any other categories of aircraft the military owns or has owned. Eagles, Falcons, Phantoms, Warthogs, Tomcats, and various other critters are lined up in the rust-free desert to supply spare parts. The collection constitutes the third-largest air force in the world—if you consider a bunch of junk that can’t fly to be an air force.

Tours of the boneyard are offered by the neighboring Pima Air and Space Museum, which also oversees the Titan Missile Museum. Unfortunately, I learned that they do not offer tours on Saturdays. What kind of museum shuts things down on a Saturday?

The best I could do was drive around the major streets that subdivide the boneyard, and catch glimpses of the planes from afar. If you want to see how big the boneyard really is, and try to identify the planes and helicopters kept there, you can check out satellite views from Google Maps. You will have to scroll around quite a bit to see all the different parts of it; the place is really big and rather spread out.


During almost 2 months of traveling, I had avoided going to a single Mexican restaurant.

I like Mexican food as much as the next person. And, several times I had people recommend their local Mexican places as having “really good” food. The problem was, my permanent address still said “Texas”, and Texas is known for having some of the best Mexican food there is. As comedian Mark Lowry puts it, “Texas has better Mexican food than they have in Mexico”. So, though I am sure that your small-town Nebraska TexMex place has great food, there is still a reason why it is called “Tex”-Mex.

Traveling southeast of Tucson, I was close enough to the Mexican border that I decided it would make sense to finally stop at a Mexican restaurant. I stopped in Benson, Arizona, at an out-of-the-way restaurant with a name I could not translate.

The food was very good, by the way. While there, I asked the waiter for some travel advice. I had seen some billboards along the highway that made me curious. One series of ads featured a mustachioed Kurt Russell aiming a pistol at passing motorists.

“What is Tombstone like?” I asked, referring to the town about 25 miles south of the interstate. “Is it worth visiting?”

“Tombstone is a place where grown men go to dress up and pretend they are cowboys,” the waiter replied. “Yeah, it’s worth visiting, though.”

“If you are looking for things to see,” he suggested, “I would definitely check out the Chiricahua National Monument. It’s the place Geronimo hid from the army. You know, Geronimo?”

“Yeah, I know, Geronimo.”

“It’s really beautiful there. Chiricahua.”

“By the way,” I continued, “what do you know about ‘The Thing’? I saw quite a few billboards for ‘The Thing’, but that’s all they really said. I can’t really visit both Tombstone and ‘The Thing’, without a lot of extra driving.”

“Oh, ‘The Thing’? That’s nothing.”

“Yeah, I didn’t expect it to be a big deal. But what is it? I think I saw a Dairy Queen logo on the signs. Is it a special dessert?”

“Don’t worry about The Thing. Go to Tombstone instead. But if you really want to see something beautiful, check out Chiricahua. It has some really amazing rock formations that you won’t be able to believe.”

So, I passed up The Thing and made the trip to Tombstone. Tombstone was a surprisingly big attraction that Saturday. Crowds of people walked around the pedestrian downtown area, which is made to look like an old Wild West main street. I would guess that most of the buildings, which now all house tourist shops, are not original—but it is hard to tell. The grown men dressed up as cowboys yelled out announcements about various live shows, which they were surely the period-costume stars of.

Though nobody was killed in the modern Tombstone, I doubt that the town was ever as loud and rowdy in the Wild West days as it is now. Staged gunfights and saloon shows occur almost constantly, and the shootout at the OK Corral is now a daily event. As promised, this was not the Wyatt Earp Tombstone, but rather the Kurt-Russell-as-Wyatt-Earp Tombstone.

Still not a fan of tourist traps, I moved on.

Since the Mexican waiter had been so insistent, I did visit the Chiricahua National Monument, Geronimo’s old hideout. It did look like a good place to hide, especially if you are 70 feet tall and look like a rock.

Joking aside, it was a very interesting place. The road through the monument was noticeably devoid of good places to stop and view the scenery, so the rock formations there are probably best seen by hiking. I regretted that I did not get there earlier in the day, to hike the trails. It was right at sunset when I reached the base of the main trail.

With night falling, I drove across the nothingness of the desert toward New Mexico.


That night, I checked out two nearby ghost towns in New Mexico: Stein’s Ghost Town and the Shakespeare Ghost Town.

I did not see any ghosts.


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© 2007 by Kevin McConaghy. All rights reserved.