Laguna Vere in Tbilisi, Georgia, was once the premier aquatic sports centre in the Caucasus.
“How do you explain this?” the man asked slowly, aggressively, his eyes narrowed and his brow folding itself into fleshy corduroy. He looked up at me, looked back at the card on the counter between us, he sighed hard and his fingers tapped out a frustrated, broken rhythm on the desk. Around us the other queues were moving at regular speed and I could sense the people stuck behind me growing impatient.
Back on the plane, I had been asked to fill out an arrival card – not much, just a quick overview of the items inside my backpack as well as a list of the countries I had passed through to get here. Mine read: Turkey, Russia, Cuba.
Now the United States Customs and Border Protection officer was flicking through my passport, and coming across all kinds of colourful stamps from places like North Korea.
“You know you can’t go to Cuba,” he said. I politely corrected him:
“That’s a British passport – we’re allowed to go there.” I considered calling him Sir, then worried it would sound insincere.
The officer sighed, gave an impotent nod and gazed over the list again.
“Turkey,” he said, “that’s the Middle East, isn’t it?”
“Well… part of it is,” I answered, wondering where he planned to go with this. “I guess. But they are members of NATO.”
He glared up at me. “They’ve been your allies for almost a century,” I added helpfully, then immediately regretted it. There was silence as he looked at me through dull, dispassionate eyes. The officer said nothing though, and after a period of uncomfortable staring he turned his gaze back to my arrival card.
“Why the hell would anyone want to go to Russia?” he suddenly asked. His voice quavered slightly and a very human note crept into it – as though sheer disbelief were winning the battle over his forced professionalism. My mind began to flood with all the endless reasons that I would want to go to Russia, and I searched for an example that we both might understand.
“They’ve got some beautiful churches?” I offered, though it came out sounding more like a question. The border officer didn’t respond, and so I showed him the camera case slung over my shoulder. “I’m a travel photographer,” I explained.
In the end we seemed to reach a stalemate. This Customs and Border man had made it clear he neither liked nor trusted me; but I had an explanation for everything, my papers were all in order and I probably looked nothing like a terrorist ought to look.
“How long are you planning to stay in the United States?” he asked, as he slid my documents back across the counter. One week, I told him.
“Alright, one week,” he said, “but no more.”
I nodded and thanked him, while wondering how he planned to enforce this one-week limit; and then I collected my backpack from the carousel, passed through the final customs border and stepped out into the balmy heat of the Sunshine State.
Escape From Miami
Florida is only 90 miles from Cuba, but the travel bans imposed on either side of that stretch of water have allowed propaganda to flourish in place of real knowledge. Nevertheless, in both the US and Cuba the Other retains a certain forbidden appeal: many are the Cuban defectors who’ve drowned at sea while trying to make the crossing; I’ve seen US citizens line up at Havana Airport, meanwhile, to bribe the border staff not to put a stamp in their passport.
As an outsider visiting both for the first time, I have to say that I found Havana infinitely more likeable than Miami.
I checked into a hostel near Miami Beach. The receptionist didn’t look up once, just took my money and swapped it for a key. There was a fan in my room, but it didn’t work. The shower had no hot water. Internet was patchy at best. Later I took a walk, out around the block looking for something to eat. The streets were dirty with litter, not picked painstakingly clean like the pavements in Havana. I bought a sandwich meal somewhere, but I couldn’t eat it – everything was so sweet and artificial, it tasted like lab-grown meat between two slices of cake. I tried to get a beer instead, but the waiter refused me service unless I came back with my passport.
Such were my first impressions of the United States; and I’d spend those initial 24 hours wishing I had never left Cuba. I wondered if Cuban defectors ever felt this way. Then I wondered if Havana would end up looking like this ten years from now – and that thought made me even more depressed.
I found my situation improved however, the further I got from the fashionable parts of town. People warned me about ‘bad neighbourhoods,’ and so I went looking for them. I visited Hialeah after being cautioned not to, and met a Haitian taxi driver who invited me to lunch with his family. I spent an afternoon exploring Opa-locka – where I wandered into a little Dominican café and got chatting with the owners. The more time I spent outside the predominantly white, English-speaking neighbourhoods, the more I grew to appreciate Miami.
Better still, was when I got out of Miami altogether. I ended up staying with a family near Homestead, down on the edge of the Everglades National Park. They were good people – kind, welcoming, everything that had been missing from my first few days in the US. We started going on trips: visiting the Coral Castle one day, and the (awkward, tragic and utterly fascinating) Miccosukee Indian Village another. But it was the Everglades that made me fall in love with Florida.
The Everglades National Park is basically just a massive river: a very shallow, marshy one, 60 miles from bank to bank and filled with alligators. It was like no terrain I‘d ever seen before. We visited a ‘gator sanctuary and took an airboat safari out across the sawgrass marsh; later, I got to see one of the prehistoric brutes up close and in the wild.
I was stood on a grassy bank when someone pointed it out, a grey-green shadow moving slowly beneath the surface of the water. It was impossibly large, and I was mesmerised – then suddenly I had the overwhelming urge to touch it.
Crouching down on the bank, I reached towards it: floating now with its eyes and nostrils above the water. I was within touching distance of its back when the alligator signalled its disapproval. The soft underside of its neck puffed out, inflating like a bullfrog, and then it let out a long, deep sound somewhere between a belch and a subdued roar. You should have seen how fast I scrambled back from the water’s edge.
But even that was not to be the highlight of my trip.
Back in Havana, I had seen the (since deactivated) missiles that played a starring role in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis; and since then I’d been reading stories about the US response, about an arsenal of defensive positions built around the coastline of South Florida. Before my week was up, I decided to investigate – heading down to the Florida Keys, in search of an abandoned Nike-Hercules missile site constructed just across the water from Havana.
Rings of Supersonic Steel
In December 1958, a Cuban Douglas B-26 Invader made an unauthorized – and perhaps more concerning, undetected – landing at Daytona Beach Airport, Florida. The pilot was one of Batista’s men: the Cuban dictator against whose armies the Castro brothers were waging their revolution. (The pilot later pleaded for asylum, explaining, “I don’t like to bomb cities and kill innocent women and children.”)
The undetected arrival of the craft at a major airstrip highlighted the very real vulnerabilities of the United States’ southern frontier. It had been largely overlooked until now, but soon enough the Cuban Missile Crisis brought a sharp focus to the need for improved air defences.
The Missile Crisis reached its boiling point on 14th October 1962 – and the US immediately responded with a build-up of troops and anti-aircraft missiles along the Florida coast. The 6th Battalion, 65th Artillery was the first to arrive, reaching Key West by 26th October to establish an Army Air Defence Command Post (AADCP) with four firing batteries of ground-to-air Hawk missiles.
This position was to be reinforced with a complement of newly developed Nike-Hercules missiles – the 2nd Missile Battalion, 52nd Air Defence Artillery Group received their orders on 22nd October to establish defensive firing positions around Miami and the Homestead Air Force Base. It took until 14th November for these Nike-Hercules sites to be operational though, missing the Crisis itself by a wide margin.
The Nike-Hercules was an improvement on the former Nike-Ajax model, using solid fuel instead of dangerous and unpredictable liquid fuels; it was also capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The problem was, at 41 feet in length and weighing 10,710 pounds, these cumbersome missiles just took far too long to mobilise.
As a result, the Missile Crisis had caught the US unprepared; but they wouldn’t be making the same mistake again. The order was given to dig-in – and Washington began to construct what authors Mark Morgan & Mark Berhow would refer to as Rings of Supersonic Steel around the United States’ major cities.
Hundreds of permanent Nike missile sites were built across the US in the years that followed. Each of them consisted of two facilities, linked by underground cabling – the Launching Area, and Integrated Fire Control (IFC) site.
The launch area featured missile storage vaults, usually built underground, as well as missile maintenance and assembly buildings. Just inside the launch area was the ‘Ready Room’ – where troops were housed on standby, ready for an emergency launch against incoming bombs or aircraft.
The IFC area would typically be located around a mile away from the launch pads. A Nike-Hercules IFC installation featured five radar towers – HIPAR (High Power Acquisition Radar), LOPAR (its Low Power cousin), as well as Target Tracking, Target Ranging and Missile Tracking Radar. A sixth, small-yet-crucial antenna provided the ‘IFF’ system: Identification, Friend or Foe.
The HIPAR had a range of over 150 miles, and was contained within a protective geodesic fibreglass shell: its ‘radome.’ The LOPAR served mainly as a backup system and as it operated on a different frequency, it could still be used even if the HIPAR radar was jammed.
Around all that meanwhile, was an area designated as a drop zone. These Nike bases, each one of them came with a package of roughly 120 acres attached: to ensure that when a propellant booster rocket disengaged and fell away from the missile, it fell not onto houses but into empty, military land. Scale that up by 265 Nike missile sites, and that’s 31,800 acres of US soil that was dedicated to the project.
As the Cold War rolled on though, even these state-of-the-art missile systems would survive long enough to grow obsolete. Soviet weaponry improved, new US weapons were developed to combat them and eventually these hundreds of Nike-Hercules missile facilities became redundant.
The majority of them were closed by 1974; and though a few lingered on in military use towards the end of the decade, the rest of them were decommissioned and turned towards new purposes. They were offered to federal agencies, or retained as army training grounds. A handful of sites were sold off privately – being turned into wrecking yards, communication facilities or Airsoft arenas.
Some of the Nike missile sites were wiped off the map altogether – their storage silos were filled in, hydraulic launchers were damaged to prevent operation, and in many cases the launch sites were completely buried beneath fresh concrete.
These forgotten missile bases melted into parks and wilderness; and such was the case at the place where I was headed, the rotten remains of the HM-40 Nike-Hercules missile site that lay festering somewhere in the tropical vegetation of Key Largo.
Nike Missile IFC Site HM-40, B Battery
When I first arrived in Florida, all I knew was that these places had existed once; and that a few of them, just maybe, might be worth a visit. So I did some research, read some reports, and found that of the former ‘Homestead-Miami Defence Area,’ only three sites still remained.
One of them had been preserved more or less intact: the Nike Missile Site HM-69, which had fallen under the care of the US National Park Service. Guided tours were available, and the missile shelters even featured a restored Nike-Hercules missile. It wasn’t exactly the experience I was looking for, though: time frozen in a cold, museum setting and with guards guides shepherding tourists from one carefully curated photo opportunity to the next.
Another location I considered visiting was the former Nike Missile IFC Site HM-95, constructed just off Krome Avenue due west of Miami. From what I could find online however, there didn’t appear to be a lot of it left – no more than a graffiti-tattered shell of broken buildings. (Since then, an August 2015 article in the Miami Herald announced that the HM-95 site had finally been demolished altogether.)
That only left HM-40.
The plot at North Key Largo was purchased by the military in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1965 the Key Largo site was re-designated HM-40, as it welcomed the arrival of Battery B: a unit whose Nike-Hercules missiles had previously been involved in atmospheric nuclear tests as a part of ‘Operation Fishbowl.’
The base at Key Largo was in service from June 1965 until June 1979, during which time it never launched a single missile. After closure, the launching site was largely torn down: the missile maintenance barns were demolished and the launch pads buried beneath three feet of concrete.
According to reports however, the IFC site was still there – and disappearing beneath the rapidly returning foliage of the Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park.
It didn’t take me long to find co-ordinates for the HM-40 IFC Missile Site on Key Largo. Although as I placed it on a map, I couldn’t help but notice that it sat awfully close to a body of water known as ‘Crocodile Lake.’ I did another quick search, and found that the area around the launch site was now in the hands of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, as a protected breeding and nesting habitat for the endangered American crocodile.
I’d already met a ‘gator, and though the experience was certainly memorable I had no more desire to run into giant reptiles in the wild… and certainly not broody, nesting crocodiles.
I decided to contact a local expert for advice, so I sent a message to David Bulit – author of Lost Miami and the Abandoned Florida blog. I asked him if I should be worrying about crocodiles on my visit to HM-40.
“No,” David wrote back. “Just snakes.”
A little more reading, and I found that South Florida is estimated to be home to tens of thousands of Burmese pythons: a snake that can swim, climb trees, grow to as much as 18 feet in length and swallow alligators whole (or at least die trying, like this one).
Guard dogs. Razor wire. Electric fences and security patrols. These were things I knew, things I could mentally prepare for; but the prospect of being eaten alive by reptiles was new and terrifying. I still had a few hours to kill before setting off to the Keys. I packed my camera, then started Googling ‘How to fight a snake.’
Urban Exploring in the US of A
The waves shone white, every ripple a reflection of the Florida sun as we flew over Card Sound Bridge with the windows rolled right down. The wind tore at my hair, it roared through the vehicle and destroyed any hope of conversation; so that all we could do was look out at the view, the bright bays that opened up to left and right of us and ahead, the island: where the long, humpbacked causeway curved down like a rollercoaster to disappear into a tight-knit burst of waxy green forest.
My Homestead hosts hadn’t joined me on that trip. Rather I’d got talking to one of their neighbours – Shawn – and when I mentioned the rumour of Cold War ruins down at Key Largo, he was right onboard.
We hit the island, onto a straight, narrow road that sped off deep into the tropical forests. There was nowhere to go from here but the way ahead, and soon enough I spotted it: a splayed finger rising just above the level of the trees, a stubby tower topped with a rusted platform. It was the former HIPAR structure, long since robbed of its geodesic dome. We had arrived.
So we parked not far off, and made for a path that opened up amongst the hardwood trees. Creepers hung from branch to branch, and webs hung from the creepers. It looked like no one had been this way for a while. As I started to push through the undergrowth, Shawn was worrying about banana spiders. It wasn’t the spiders that bothered me, though; I was on the lookout for giant man-eating pythons.
Along the track we began to pass wreckage – broken machines, old tyres – that suggested we were getting close to something. And then, quite suddenly, our forest path spilled out into a road: bumpy asphalt, its edges already lost beneath an oncoming tide of leaves and humus. A redundant yellow sign read, ‘STREET CLOSED.’ It was peppered with holes that looked a lot like rifle fire.
This road had been the old highway: the original State Road 4A, in operation before the Nike-Hercules missiles arrived at Key Largo. We had driven in on its replacement, and from looking at maps I knew that the base lay in the corner formed by these two tarmac strips. We were very close.
The radar tower was no longer visible, but turning back in what I guessed was its direction we followed the old road for a while… and soon, we came across a chain-link fence hanging rusted from its posts. There were warning signs pinned to the mesh, and a guard hut sat just inside the compound. We ducked under the chain, through the gate, and strolled into the tarmac forecourt of the Integrated Fire Control area of Nike Missile Site HM-40.
Archive photographs of the base show a cluster of low buildings in the centre of a grassy plot, the towering frames of futuristic radar towers, and around it all the treeline trimmed back to a neatly manicured border. It’s incredible what a few decades of neglect can do.
The forest had moved back in: tropical trees burst through tarmac. Plants grew over and inside the buildings. The base was in the process of being dragged slowly into the ground – like a ship at sea, I thought, clutched in the tentacles of some monstrous kraken from the deep.
I tried the door to the nearest building, and it opened with a push. Inside was a festering mess of mould and flaking paint. No dust – the place was too humid for that, but instead the walls were moist to touch and coloured, in places, with strange and exotic moulds.
We walked through the building, sometimes together, other times veering off in different directions. Vegetation covered almost all the windows, so that only a pale green-tinted light could filter through. Most of the rooms were featureless, bare, with little clue as to their prior function; in other spaces though, I’d find tell-tale signs of past lives.
One room was hung with a series of wall mirrors. Another had a drain in the middle of the floor, and the remains of shattered tiles. There were storerooms, with locks on the doors and heaps of broken shelving; a different room, perhaps the former dispensary, was filled with old glass bottles that lay on the floor amongst the leaves and debris.
I wandered from one building to another around the site. There was a hall, a mess hall perhaps or presentation space, where a faded mural framed a row of vine-choked windows. A hard, dry root had wormed its way across the floorboards – I nearly jumped a mile when I glanced down, and momentarily mistook it for a snake.
At the back of the buildings, twisted machine pieces had been dumped unceremoniously at the entrance to a boiler room. Steps led down into the dank space, where a web of pipes and valves and dials converged onto metal tanks. The machinery here was less rotted than elsewhere; paint flaked from metal parts like dead skin, but the grease of gears and levers seemed to be keeping the worst of the rust at bay. I took a closer look at the boiler tank in the corner – the arrangement of pumps and plates on its surface gave the illusion of an almost-human face.
When eventually we headed back towards the old state road, the thing that stuck with me most about HM-40 was the waste it represented. The buildings, the staff, the ordnance and radar towers… and to think, that all of this was built just in case.
According to a 1962 US Defence Department report, the Cuban Missile Crisis had cost the country $183,259,048 (closer to $1.39 billion, at today’s value). That was just the primary, building phase however – the figure didn’t account for the following decade-and-a-half of maintenance and round-the-clock radar operation that went into these 265 missile sites.
All that effort, all that cost, 14 years of use and not a single missile fired from either side of the curtain. But that seems to have been the nature of the whole Cold War fiasco: an insane game of threats and stockpiles and strong words. A meaningless cycle of propaganda and escalation.
Walking back through the forests of Key Largo, insects humming in the trees as the sun began to set, it was difficult to imagine that not so very long ago those mouldy, forgotten huts had been filled with soldiers; that once these mangrove swamps had echoed with engines, and gears, and whispers of mutually assured destruction.
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