The pyramid at the end of the world
Only the last is true and not completely. The Pyramid is part of the Stanley R Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, a long decommissioned military base in the middle of practically nowhere. Once armed with dozens of nuclear warheads, it’s been sitting abandoned for 40 years, now a place of interest mainly to Cold War tourists, urban explorers and conspiracy theorists.
If tensions between the U.S. and Russia had continued to escalate in the 1970s, fifteen of these uncanny structures would have dotted the country, forming the largest defensive nuclear complex in the world. But thanks to the SALT Treaty between the U.S. and Russia, Safeguard would turn out to be the only one ever completed.
A forgotten relic of the nuclear arms race might seem just a strange curio from the distant past. But the threat posed by nuclear arms never truly went away, not even in the wake of non-proliferation. In 2016, presidential nominee Donald Trump is talking about deploying nuclear weapons, advocating for countries including Japan and South Korea to be armed, and hinting that the U.S. might drop nukes on ISIS strongholds.
Forget the past, as it goes, and we are condemned to repeat it.
Nekoma is in Cavalier County (population: 3896) in the heart of North Dakota’s lush farmlands. A quiet, agrarian community with harsh winters and brutally hot summers prone to tornados, not a whole lot out of the ordinary happened there until April of 1970. That’s when the U.S. government decided it was the best place from which to defend America from Russian nuclear attack.
Welcome to the deranged thinking of mutually assured destruction.
North Dakota and South Dakota were home to America’s mighty Minutemen nuclear missiles (“holding the power to destroy civilization”), all aimed at the USSR; Safeguard was built to defend the Minutemen from Soviet attack. Nekoma was in the geographically perfect position to host a base with radar array to intercept missiles if they were launched over the North Pole. Its warheads would intercept and destroy Russia’s incoming missiles in the atmosphere, clearing the way for the Minutemen to destroy Russian civilization.
Welcome to the deranged thinking of mutually assured destruction. The terror of the existential nuclear threat—to destroy vast swathes of the planet and wipe ourselves out as a species with tools of our own making—kept the world teetering in an uneasy stalemate through the decades of the Cold War.
Mercifully, Armageddon was somehow avoided and non-proliferation treaties were signed between the superpowers. That was good news for the future of the planet, but bad news for the Pyramid on the Prairie. It had cost the U.S. government $5.7 billion to build it, but in February 1976, after just three months of full operational capacity and a year of active work, it was decommissioned.
The Doomsday Clock, a symbolic timepiece created by the Board of the Atomic Scientists to track the planet’s proximity to destruction, was then set to twelve minutes to midnight.
Per the limited armament agreement between America and Russia, the Pyramid’s weaponry was carted off to El Paso and destroyed, its silos poured with concrete and welded shut, and the hundreds of people who worked there reassigned or dismissed. Contractors stripped the Pyramid of anything inside of value, leaving an empty concrete shell. Its blast-proof perimeter fence was locked, sealing the whole place firmly in the past.
For forty years it stood decaying. Its drainage pumps turned off, the site slowly filled with water, turning it into an environmental wreck. The missile silos had been lined with lead paint and were brimming with poisoned water needing to be dredged.
For a short time in the 1980s the barrack buildings on the site were turned into a youth camp until the Reagan administration cut the funding.
Then in 2012, Safeguard was auctioned off by the federal government. Decommissioned military bases are popular among wealthy preppers—people who believe the world as we know it will imminently end, and that they will need ultra secure safe holds in which to wait out the collapse of society.
But no preppers won the auction. Instead the top bidders were Cavalier County, which offered $500,000 in hopes of preserving history and turning the town into a revenue-generating tourist destination; and a Hutterite community, an insular, pacifist religious sect living 250 miles away in South Dakota, largely cut off from the modern world. The Hutterites’ offer of $530,000 for the Pyramid won.
Sweetening the deal, after the Hutterites signed ownership of the site, the U.S. Army after forty years agreed to come and clean out the lead paint and stagnant water in the silos—doing for free a job that could have cost the new owners up to $6 million.
The County was extremely disappointed to have lost the auction. But then, almost immediately, the Hutterites offered to sell it to them. For $3.5 million.
“That’s just not at all realistic,” Shannon Duerr explained over the phone. “It’s not worth anywhere near that amount of money.”
Duerr, 32, is Cavalier County’s jobs development director; she’s spent spent a good chunk of the last four years trying to buy the site back from the Hutterites, to no avail. She said that if I wanted to know why they wouldn’t come down on the price, I’d have to ask them. “But good luck,” she said brightly.
Shannon gave me the number and email address of Hutterite elder Samuel, who is one of the few members of the colony to have contact with the outside world. He is in charge of colony finances and had placed the successful bid on the site.
Over the last four years they’ve owned the Pyramid, the Hutterites haven’t done anything with it except plant a few crops of soybeans and alfalfa at the land’s perimeter. The Pyramid is standing in as much ruin and decay as ever, despite a condition of sale having been the upkeep of the site.
As Hutterites largely shun outsiders I was not surprised when my months of calls and emails went unreturned. To untangle this odd piece of atomic history, and to understand the lasting impact of boom/bust cycles left in the wake of a collapsed Cold War, I would need to go out to The Plains.
Source: Library of Congress
The building that is now the bar used to be a mile away on the Safeguard site, where it was one third of the building that housed the Corps of Engineers. A sign out front informs visitors that Mexico is 1583 miles south while Canada is 30 miles north. The original Army sign that once announced Safeguard hangs inside along one wall.
There I meet Duane, lifelong resident of Nekoma, county council member and, for the last few decades, the unofficial caretaker of the Pyramid. Duane is somewhere in his mid-70s, a trim man of few words whose short hair is white. He is also the unofficial go-between for the county and the Hutterites. He will spend the next five days trying to get in contact with Samuel for me.
Duane goes to the Pyramid almost every night to pump out the thousands of gallons of water that continue to fill its bottom floor. This is a huge job for one person with only a small, jury-rigged pump at his disposal.
“I’ll show you now,” he says, “if you like.”
I had imagined that getting inside the Pyramid complex was going to be tricky. Something of an urban explorer’s Holy Grail, there aren’t many photos around of the inside. It’s also not entirely safe; a few years ago on a council tour, a man fell through a wooden floor partition 65 feet to his death on the concrete below, a story I hear repeated more than once.
But all you need is keys, which Duane knows the hiding spot for. We drive through the gates that would have once been one of the most highly secure entrances in the U.S. and pull them closed behind us.
Inside weeds are standing as tall as grown adults and grasses sprout unruly and wild through the cracks in the paved roads. We drive past a collection of beehives the Hutterites have set down in the middle of one of the old parking bays. Bee farming is popular in the Dakotas, stacks of white hives are a common sight in the fields, though less so in the middle of the ruins of an old nuclear missile complex. “Let’s not get out here,” Duane suggests helpfully as we scoot past thousands of angrily buzzing bees.
The complex adjacent to the Pyramid was once a thriving town within a town. In the five years it was built and staffed, it was a fully operational military base catering to the thousand workers who called it home. There were barracks, an enormous mess hall, a gymnasium, a large church, a cinema, a bowling alley, a barbershop, a beauty parlor and a bank, where the weekly queues for Friday checks would stretch for hours.
All of it now stands derelict, given over to the elements and the Plains’ vast quiet. Doors are propped open and windows smashed, letting in freezing snowdrifts every winter. Bored kids and vandals successful at breaking in over the years have taken everything that wasn’t already gone, but not too long ago pins still stood in the bowling alley. There’s a huge hole in one wall where the bank safe was torn out.
Mosses cover the floors and surfaces are grey with dust, the air dank, cold and thick. The church has been stripped of its pews, so that I feel, standing under its vaunted ceiling of spruce beams, like I’m in a giant, upturned wooden ship. Light streaming in through an atrium window falls on a weathered plastic Christmas tree, still decorated, that’s been standing there for who knows how long. “Probably about thirty years,” Duane says.
The social scene buzzed. There was the bowling league, the square dance club, the ‘Teen Parties’ for the personnel’s kids at their specially built high school, a marching band that twirled on Main Street every Friday night, all of it faithfully cataloged in the site’s own monthly newspaper, The Guardian.
One evening a square dance was held in the tunnels connecting the Pyramid to the missile field, dozens of partners dancing at the end of the world.
It’s hard to picture a more incongruous go-go atomic image than the staff on the base clocking off their eight hours diligently listening for nuclear annihilation and, with none forthcoming, crossing the carpark to the bowling alley, or the gym to shoot hoops. One evening a square dance was held in the tunnels connecting the Pyramid to the missile field, dozens of partners dancing at the end of the world.
The Government paid generous tax incentives to Cavalier County to put the base there, making it for those few years in the 1970s a very good place to live. But when the site closed, the population quickly shrank back down to under what it had been before. Its brief time as a boom town over, many of its businesses boarded up and it fell into a decline that took decades to climb out of. All that remained of its time at the center of the Cold War was the Pyramid and a lone, unarmed Spartan missile standing upright in a local park, which now casts a shadow over a children’s playset.
Inside the Pyramid, it’s pitch dark. We don’t have flashlights with us so Duane agrees we’ll come back later that night to go inside the Pyramid itself.
In the meantime, “if you want some good stories,” he says, “you should go and see Buzzy.”
Source: Library of Congress
“Can I speak like an adult?” Buzzy asks while pouring an extremely generous amount of straight bourbon into a plastic cup he offers as I say, Please, of course.
Not everyone had been happy about Safeguard and its enormous cache of live nuclear ammunition making its home in Nekoma. The site broke ground at the height of the peace movement as millions marched against the war in Vietnam and for nuclear disarmament.
Emboldened by their gains in turning public sentiment against the war, the protest movement increasingly focused its attention on pressuring leaders to eradicate nuclear weapons. The sustained, global opposition to nuclear arms would come to play a crucial role in what became the SALT Treaty—the strategic arms limitation talks between the U.S. and Russia—which Safeguard itself helped tip Russia into signing. It became clear that the U.S. would pour unlimited money into building its nuclear arsenal, resourcing Russia could not match, essentially forcing the Soviets into an agreement to limit the number of weapons each nation could acquire.
In Cavalier County in 1970 a convoy of demonstrators from across the country made their way to protest the giant hole in the ground where the Pyramid would rise in a “Festival of Life and Love.” Those gathered included the Chicago Seven; The North Dakota Clergy and Laymen Concerned; Citizens For A Sane Nuclear Policy; a large cohort of curious onlookers; and Buzzy, aged seventeen, with his best friend at the time.
His father had told him on no uncertain terms not to go to the “damn hippy get together,” to which Buzzy had agreed, “No sir.” But he set off first thing in the morning with his friend to walk the fifteen miles to the site. No sooner had they arrived than the full swing of the counterculture smacked them in the face with a thick cloud of dope smoke.
“That was the greatest thing I had ever seen in my life,” says Buzzy, coughing out a laugh at the memory. “People were naked and screwing right there on the ground in front of everyone!”
The two boys quickly discovered the protest movement was as serious about disarmament as it was about partying when the opportunity arose. The festivities continued peacefully and lovingly throughout the day, with not a single arrest despite the Fargo Police Department having anticipated the biggest protest in the history of North Dakota.
The day culminated in a ceremonial planting of a ‘peace tree’ at the bottom of the pit on the site. The planters sat in circles, chanting and singing for peace, before solemnly climbing back out. The Corps of Engineers would quickly remove the tree the next day.
I ask Buzzy if he knows what kind of tree had been planted, as no one else seems to recall.
“The peace tree?” He scratches the whiskers on his face. “Oh yah, that was a dope plant.”
Almost two decades later, Buzzy would work on the abandoned site for several years as a caretaker alongside Duane after being awarded a government contract to do so. He was the one who chopped up the Engineers’ building, carting two parts out to local farms and giving the last to his friend, Bob, to build the Pain Reliever.
Buzzy has the same deep sentimental attachment to the Pyramid as everyone I talked to about it. I ask him what he thinks the Hutterites intend to do with it, or why Samuel’s convinced he can get so much money for it.
“I don’t know,” he says, stopping to light a fresh cigarette. “I think maybe he made a mistake? Now he has to get the money back that he spent.”
I say that everyone seems very frustrated with how things have transpired.
Buzzy says, “Yep. I think that him not being from here, he maybe doesn’t appreciate how much that place means to people.”
Source: Library of Congress
We are standing at the base of it, craning our necks to look up at its 85-foot-tall face. It is a monolith, like something set down from another world. To its north are five concrete exhaust towers in the brutalist style; they stand as though they might have been arranged by druids from the future. The huge radar array forms a white circle ‘eye’ that once could have picked up a basketball at 1000 miles, or a beer can at 800 miles; everyone tells me something slightly different about how intense the Pyramid’s powers of detection were.
Shannon is done for the day at the county offices and has come along with her husband, Rick, who’s keen to see the inside. “I’ve been hearing stories about this place my whole life and I’ve never been in there!”
Duane has brought an extremely powerful portable Klieg light that throws giant shapes on the walls inside. He jimmies open the door and we gingerly step inside.
Our footsteps clank, echoing on the metal walkway connecting the dank interior. Everything that was once nailed down was wrenched right out of the wall and entire floors were torn out not long after the site was closed, their steel beams sold for scrap along with the miles of copper wiring that powered the computers that took up whole rooms. It’s eerie to think of what could have happened in here, at the turn of the launch keys. The central stairwell is still standing, and we shine our light down the five floors to the bottom level onto the water audibly running below.
We step gingerly around holes in the floor as Rick takes a huge number of photos and Shannon and Duane talk through some of the plans the county had to redevelop the site: Make one of the security buildings into a museum of Cold War history; turn the site into a drone-testing facility; convert it into a server farm for a tech company.
We make our way back outside where the sun is setting low and gold over the fields of soybeans. We see two Hutterite boys tearing around on a quadbike in the distance, goofing off while tending the crops. Samuel sends them up from the colony every so often, but doesn’t often visit the site himself, Duane says, instead leaving it to him to keep an eye on maintenance in their informal arrangement. He quickly checks the pump is still working, but getting a look at the water level in the basement floor makes clear how big the job is; the place is slowly filling entirely with water.
Two days later, Duane calls to let me know that Samuel will speak with me. So the next morning at dawn, I set out on a 250-mile drive past endless fields of sunflowers; most have already been harvested, but there is still the odd field standing, stretching brilliant yellow to meet the horizon. White billboards implore passersby to ‘BE KIND’ and ‘Have A Great Day!’ in black lettering. I pass abandoned brick silos and a one street town, its bank and general store crushed in by vines and trees growing through the walls.
The GPS and cell service both go dark, so I trust that Duane’s hand-drawn map will show me the way.
Source: Library of Congress
Once a colony reaches around 140 people a daughter colony is established by joining two distantly related colonies into one at a new location some distance away. Life in the colonies is regimented and spare, in line with their interpretation of Anabaptist Christianity. There are strict gender divisions; men labor and undertake all physical work while women cook, clean, make and mend clothing, and raise children. If you are gay, or in any way nonbinary, this way of life would likely be excruciatingly stifling and alienating.
Young people are known to leave, usually to study or to follow a career path outside the limited options of colony life. The most common reason they return is homesickness for the only family and way of life they’ve ever known, and nearly as often a profound disillusionment with consumerist society.
Hutterites originally made their way to Canada and the United States fleeing religious persecution in Europe for their pacifist belief in conscientious objection. This persecution has periodically throughout their history threatened to wipe them out as a people. When Samuel bought the Pyramid complex, it was rumored that it was to continue this pacifist tradition, to turn what was once a site of inchoate destruction into one of peace and community.
I pull into what I hope is the right farm as there is nothing else as far as the eye can see. It raises turkeys and pigs, the latter of which announce their presence aromatically long before they are seen or heard. A burly, overall-clad man rides up alongside me in a golf cart, not knowing what I’m doing there. I say that I’m looking for Samuel, Is this the place?
“Oh, yah it is!” he says warmly, asking about my accent.
I say that I’m Australian and he claps his hands together booming, “Australia! Why would you ever leave God’s country?” I’m as surprised to hear my largely secular homeland referred to in this way as I am to be so openly welcomed. He gestures to follow as we slowly wind through the colony grounds, past sheds of dairy cows, farm machinery and rows of neat, identical single-story grey and white houses with chairs and kids’ bikes on their porches.
When we arrive at Samuel’s house, he steps out in the traditional garb of the men in the colony when they aren’t laboring: a black hat, suspenders over a short-sleeved shirt, dark trousers and boots. A grey beard covers his chin.
“You found us,” he says. “Then welcome.”
We sit on the front porch where we are joined by his wife, also in traditional clothing: a long tunic dress over a short-sleeve collared shirt, and a navy-blue kerchief over her long, gray-blonde hair. Together they have ten children, six of whom are currently living “Out”, visiting occasionally with their own children. They hope they will eventually return to live on the farm.
Samuel is, along with his brother and the colony pastor, part of a small group of men who exclusively make all the community’s decisions. He tells me he bought the Pyramid because it seemed like a good place to start another colony when the time comes. They’d use the still standing buildings for housing and the surrounding land for crops. But it’s not clear if county regulations would allow for livestock farming so close to a population center, so if someone wants to buy it, Samuel says that would also be good. Either way, it provides for the community’s long-term stability.
“Those buildings there are good. There’s water can be connected, electricity that can be connected. The Church is there. It’s all there when, if we need to, we can use it,” Samuel explains.
The purchase wasn’t a statement about peace and nuclear disarmament. It was just straight commerce, a pure transaction. Samuel won the auction fair and square; the site is his to do whatever he wants with, even if that is just to let the Pyramid continue to decay, breaking the hearts of the people living around it.
“Inside the Pyramid everything was taken out,” Samuel says. “No one could put it back together. We won’t do anything with that part of it.”
He mentions the man who died falling inside it. “It’s haunted.”
Samuel reiterates that if it were to be sold, he’d want it to be the county who bought it because “it means a lot to people who are from up there,” but that anyone who comes up with $3.5 million is welcome to it. That kind of money would bring a lot of security to their future.
I ask if it’s being advertised for sale anywhere.
“No, no we’re not advertising it,” he says. “We’re not anxious to sell it.”
It would seem then that there is no clear end to the detente between the parties. That achieving peace between Russia and the U.S. at the height of the Cold War proved easier than resolving the stand-off over the Pyramid between Cavalier County and the Hutterites.
Samuel gives me a pamphlet on Hutterite history and insists that I eat lunch in the dining hall before I leave. “It’s delicious, believe me,” he says. “We grow everything we eat right here. Everything is organic.”
In the long dining hall, men and women eat separately along opposite sides. Small girls and teenagers file in from outside and gawk conspicuously at the stranger in their midst, asking what the beaches are like in Australia, saying that one day they would like to go there. Small boys with straw-blonde hair and rolled-up sleeves showing brown-deep tans, stare with glassy-green eyes. Everyone is wearing smaller versions of their parents’ traditional clothing.
Meals are a focal point of communal life, and to say it was delicious would not be an adequate assessment. Piping hot chunks of ham that had been slowly roasting for hours, with green beans, sweet roasted carrots and onions, baked potatoes and small, soft, salty dumplings filled with ricotta cheese and dipped in milk. The flavors were so rich and the food so satisfying that never being able to drink alcohol with any meal ever again seemed a small price to pay in contemplating this life for one brief moment.
Back in Cavalier County at the jobs development office that evening, Shannon is keen to know about any new information gleaned from Samuel. I pass on what he said about the Pyramid itself, that he has no real interest in it. This raises the possibility he might sell it alone. The County could have its museum while the Hutterites could continue tilling their crops and planning an eventual daughter colony in the shadow of the Pyramid no longer listening for the end of the world.
Though a few weeks later Shannon will email to say that Duane put this to Samuel and he said no, still not budging from the $3.5 million dollar price tag—all or nothing.
Source: Library of Congress
What is the most fitting legacy for a place like Safeguard and its Pyramid? Is it to preserve it in the hope that keeping the horrors of mutually-assured destruction alive in our collective memory will stop the world from creeping back to the nuclear brink? Is it to allow it to decay, to fall into history as a marker of a paranoid and brutal time the world just barely transcended? Should it be transformed by someone yet unknown into something completely other, stripping a symbol of its power by remaking it as something new? Is the perfect legacy that it wind up in the hands of a community morally opposed to killing another person for any reason, working in the fields that surround it, growing the food they put on their tables?
Whatever the Pyramid’s ultimate fate, it will remain standing out there on the prairie, a sentry watching for hundreds of miles alone on the plain.
The President of the United States has unilateral power over the offensive deployment of nuclear weapons at the touch of a button.
The Doomsday Clock currently stands at three minutes to midnight.
The Pyramid remains for sale.