North By Northwest: A Solo Motorcycle Adventure from Georgia to Alaska (Day 8)

July 30, 2019

Day 8 – 7/5/19

This was going to be a pretty big day in terms of miles covered and activities, and I wanted to get an early start. I noticed that the air pressure in my front tire was just a bit below spec, and given the fact that I’d be in rural areas once I left Grand Forks, I decided to get some air at the gas station around the corner. Have you ever tried to use one of those long air compressor wands on your spoked motorcycle wheels? I managed to let out more air than I was putting in, and I was about to break out my small electric-powered air compressor but decided to give it one more try. Pro tip: You really have to thread the wand through the spokes at the correct angle to get a good seal on the tire’s valve stem. With both tires filled to the proper cold temperature PSI, I headed northwest to the tiny town of Ardoch (population 67).

While researching ghost towns, I came across some photos of the old grain elevator in town. It was on the way, so I stopped by for a quick photo opp.

Ardoch is one of those towns where they could almost have the welcome sign on the other side of the goodbye sign. I’ve seen a lot of our country on my motorcycle, and these isolated postage stamp-sized communities are in every state I’ve visited. I often wonder what brought people there and what keeps them living there. Maybe it’s a family connection to the land. Maybe it’s a distrust of the outside world. Maybe it’s just the inertia that comes from being in the same place for decades. Someday I’ll have the time to engage with the residents of “Small Town America” and fill in the blanks.

Next was a trip to a mostly forgotten chapter of Cold War history, the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, formerly the lynchpin of our Safeguard anti-ballistic missile program. The genesis of the Mickelsen Complex dates back to the 1950s, when the US was desperately seeking ways to defend against Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Of particular concern was the threat to our own underground ICBMs deployed throughout the country. Advances in radar and missile technology paved the way for the Mickelsen Complex, which consisted of five distinct sites: the Missile Site Radar (MSR) with Spartan and Sprint nuclear-tipped missiles in Nekoma and four Remote Sprint Launch (RSL) sites between 10 and 20 miles away. I’d read that RSL #3 was now under private ownership and open for tours, so I went there first. I arrived at the advertised opening time of 10am, but the gate was closed and locked. I waited about 10 minutes before calling the number on the sign, and the owner, Mel, said he was on his way. He arrived a few minutes later and opened up the site. 

Mel said he purchased the RSL #3 site through a government auction in 2013 for around $64,000 and spends his summers working there. The tour starts with a movie about the Safeguard Program and Mickelsen Complex and then transitions to the missile control bunker and Sprint missile field. After the movie ended, a family arrived for the tour, and we all walked to the bunker together.

Shortly after I’d arrived, Mel mentioned some “breaking news” about a submarine conflict occurring near Newfoundland. I consider myself a news junkie, even when traveling, and I hadn’t heard anything about this potential Red Banner Headline. Mel said his news source described the events as an Israeli-orchestrated effort to provoke a submarine war between the US and Russia. I began to have concerns about Mel's worldview that were affirmed later when he mentioned conspiracy theories involving Sandy Hook, Parkland, and 9/11. I’d already spent much longer at RSL #3 than I’d planned, and I was trying to politely extricate myself from the discussion. Fortunately, his cell phone rang, and I had an opportunity to say goodbye. Although I applaud Mel’s efforts to preserve Cold War history, his InfoWars-fueled conspiracies are divorced from reality, and as we’ve seen in the past few years, can become dangerous when unhinged people act on them.

The primary Mickelsen Complex and MSR site was about 30 minutes southwest of RSL #3. Sometimes called the “Pyramid of North Dakota,” the MSR is visible at ground level from at least six miles away. The Spring Creek Hutterite Colony of Forbes purchased the site in 2012 for $530,000, and the Cavalier County Job Development Authority purchased part of the site from them in 2017 for $462,900. I wasn’t able to find any information about it being open to the public, so I parked down the street and used my drone for some aerial photos and video.

A few final thoughts on the Mickelsen Complex and the Safeguard Program: There are two competing positions on whether it was a colossal waste of money or whether it served as an effective deterrent and forced the Soviets into arms limitation treaties. In reality, I don’t think it’s as simplistic as this binary choice. The Mickelsen Complex represented a tremendous outlay of financial resources (approximately $6 billion at the time) and was only fully operational for between 24 hours and several months, depending on what source you read. But the overarching Safeguard Program was the catalyst for new manufacturing and electronics technologies used in later military and civilian applications. Many factors contributed to the eventual demise of the Safeguard Program, including questions about its effectiveness, inter-service rivalries between the Air Force and Army, and shifts in the geopolitical landscape. In 2019, we find ourselves with plenty of fodder for more in-depth philosophical debates about the Safeguard Program and an incongruous pyramid on the North Dakota prairie.

I backtracked north to the small town of Langdon to gas up and have a late lunch. The gas station was my first of many encounters with gravel parking lots, something I’d been dreading on the big bike. But I remembered my fundamentals, steered clear of the huge potholes, and didn’t have any trouble.

I was originally planning to stop for lunch at the International Peace Garden, which straddles the US-Canadian border next to the port of entry. Based on photos, I thought it would be more interesting than one of the non-descript border crossings. But by the time I got there, I was well over an hour behind schedule, and I didn’t feel like shelling out $20 for what would be a very quick loop through the greenery. I lined up behind other vehicles waiting at the border, answered the usual questions about weapons, tobacco and alcohol products, and pepper spray, and rode into the Great White North.

The secondary roads were in very bad shape, and I felt like I was going through a slalom course trying to avoid some huge potholes and crevices. I started to get worried about my fuel level after not seeing a gas station in the hour since I crossed the border. The distance from my last fill-up to the hotel was going to be about 240 miles, and that’s what my range usually shows with a full tank. This was a rural and remote area with nothing but vast prairies and farmland. My GPS listed two gas stations coming up soon in Reston, but they ended up being cardlock controlled and unstaffed. I had 55 miles of indicated range with another set of gas stations listed 28 miles ahead in Redvers, which looked more promising than Reston’s offerings. The good news: The first gas station in town was a traditional staffed one and accepted credit cards. The bad news: It had a tricky gravel parking lot. But no issues with the gravel, and I got back on the road for the final push into Carlyle.

The hotel's fitness center did have some rather interesting furniture.

Daily portrait challenge: Cold war chills in an old missile control bunker.

As I expected, it was a long day, but I got to see some interesting things and the temperature was in my comfort zone. Tomorrow, another short day and some quality time with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Total mileage: 363.5

Lodging: Ramada by Wyndham, Carlyle, Saskatchewan