There’s a secret in the swamp and it’s a big one. Roosting in a 180 foot-deep hole is the largest solid rocket booster ever built. When I say large, I mean big – really big: 10 stories tall and about 20 feet wide. This was a rocket that was originally intended to carry men to the moon, but it never made it out of the tomb that still conceals it.
Take a walk with me and be prepared to see something truly amazing. It’s a long walk, about 10 miles. And no, we can’t drive. There are steel barricades across the road and they are securely locked. I know who has the key. I’ll tell you about him later. For now, we have to hike it because he’s nowhere in sight.
It’s going to be a hot walk, and maybe a wet one judging by the thunderheads building not too far away. Tread carefully and keep your eyes on the road. There are rattlesnakes and alligators around here. The alligators are easier to spot, but they’re surprisingly fast on land. If you see one, keep your distance. If he’s in the middle of the road, we’ll just have to wait him out. At times, there are also turtles and tortoises crossing the road. They’re obviously not dangerous, but the gators find them tasty, so if you see one, there may be a very large reptilian predator nearby. Get used to the mosquitos, flies, no-see-ums and other flying friends; they’ll be with us the whole way. I hope you’re not allergic to bee stings, because even if we had cell service out here, an ambulance couldn’t make it past the barricades.
If you look off to the east, you can just about make out some buildings. That’s not where the rocket is. As impossibly far away as that appears, it’s only the halfway point.
Putting one foot in front of the other, we slowly eat up the miles. How did a rocket come to be out here, 10 miles from the middle of nowhere? That’s a good question, and there’s a good answer, but it’s too hot to walk and talk at the same time, so I’ll keep that part of the tale to myself. You’ll just have to do your research when we get back.
Finally, the halfway point. See those buildings? The ones behind the barbed wire, covered in vines? Those are the labs, factories and assembly facilities where they made the solid fuel and various components that went into the rocket. Keep walking because we’re not going in there. Those buildings are in a dangerous state of disrepair. Florida weather, which includes hurricanes, is relentless. A Category 5 monster named Andrew rolled through here back in '92 and these buildings took the brunt. They’re also not very interesting, and we still have a long way to go.
Almost there. That giant shed off in the distance is our target. I know it looks like it’s in the middle of the actual swamp, but it sits on a road perpendicular to this one. We’ll know which road it is because there are no others.
Yes, it’s much bigger than it looks when you get here. See those tracks in the asphalt? Those allowed the building to be rolled out of the way while they test-fired the rocket. Yes, they did fire it. Three times. Can you imagine the awesome sight that must have been? It was surely visible for miles. That’s why this place is so far out here. The rocket builders thought it would be un-neighborly to burn tons of rocket fuel near someone’s backyard, or to incinerate the neighbors if something went awry.
The doors look open but there’s some fencing across them. Whoever is in charge of this piece of space age history doesn’t try very hard to keep people out. After, all why should they? Who cares about a 40-something rocket rusting away in a hole? Well, besides us. And there’s the whole distance thing. You have to really want to see this thing to walk 20 miles round trip. Be careful as you squeeze through the chain link; there’s barbed wire threaded in with it. Well, here we are. Were you expecting more than a rusty shed with a rusty door in the floor? Of course you were. That’s why we kneel here and have our first look at the behemoth slumbering in its giant hole.
This, by the way, is the largest man-made hole in the state. Beware – do not step on the door. It’s rusty and unstable. If you crash through and land 180 feet down there, you will likely never see the light of day again. Plus there’s about 40 feet of rancid, stagnant water with who knows what living it. So, was it worth the trip? Yes, it’s quite a sight. I can pretty much promise that you will never see another one like it. Ever.
Take as many pictures as you like, but hurry. I hear thunder and I can guarantee that the walk back won’t be nearly as pleasant if we have to do it in the rain.
In the beginning, I mentioned a man with a key. During my visit to the rocket, I was incredibly lucky to run into someone official who had a key to the barricades. I won’t mention his name or even why he had a key. I wouldn’t want to jeopardize his position. When he pulled up, I was pondering the long walk. As he unlocked the gate, I took a chance and asked him about the rocket. He eyed me warily and said: “There’s no rocket anymore. It’s been removed.” I knew this wasn’t true, or at least I hoped it wasn’t. I had driven a long way to see it so I pleaded, “But I drove all the way from Tampa to see it.” He considered this for a moment and relented: “Okay, follow me.” I jumped back in my car and did just that. He led me to the rocket and proved to be a wealth of information about it and its history. It turned out the rocket had a very proud and conscientious keeper watching over it as it inexorably decayed deep in the swamp.
Read more about “The Swamp Rocket” in the author’s book The Forbidden Tourist.