Otherworldly Experiences in Hutchinson, Kansas: Part 1

If you grow up somewhere that a majority of the population has decidedly labeled "uncool," it's important to have at least one interesting fact or unknown tidbit to be a part of any "You don't know where I grew up, but it's 'famous' for this" conversation you may happen upon in life.  For those of us who originally hail from Hutchinson, Kansas, it was two things:  1.  Our fair town is home to the NASA-approved Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center (post to come), and 2.  The original movie reel of the Wizard of Oz (among others) is stored below the depths of our fair city in one of the salt mines.

Salt mines?  In Kansas?  Yup, they're there, folks, and they're a lot more interesting than you'd think!

Before moving out to the sticks, I grew up close to the Carey Salt Company in Hutch.  In fact, our neighborhood, Careyville, was built from the 1930s to 50s originally as a company town for the miners and their families.  Ahh, Careyville...the neighborhood where my rollerskating and New Kids on the Block dreams were fulfilled...

But I digress.  Fast-forward to 2007, and parts of the old Carey Salt Mines 650 feet below the earth's surface were converted into what is now one of Kansas's coolest (literally) attractions: the Underground Salt Museum (new side note: it appears the museum has just rebranded itself with the definitely less-museum-y name of Strataca!)

Of course, I could not be from this area and not visit one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas!  Actually, if you're not from this area, you should still visit the place--it's the only museum of its kind in the entire Western Hemisphere!  

Although the visitors' center is a nice modern building above-ground, your museum experience doesn't really begin until you are swallowed by taken deep into the earth.  Before heading underground, we were first briefed with a safety video and instructed on how to use the camera-sized rescue breather that each person has to carry.

"In the unlikely event that you will have to use your rescue breather, pop the top off and put the device in your mouth.  The chemicals released may burn your lips, but do not remove the device from your mouth."

Burning lips or suffocation?  Kansas museums are getting more edgier than I thought!

After getting outfitted for the excursion, it's a 90-second trip down--what else--The Shaft, in complete darkness to the actual museum.  This is where you hope the guy standing next to you is not known for his wandering hands.

I can see hardhats becoming a thing.  No, really.

Once down in the cool 68-degree caverns of the mine, you're given really the only two rules of the space:  no lickin' or pickin' (the salty walls, that is...it's not that kind of museum).  It's an open, self-guided tour and you're free to wander about the informational plaques--which, as my love for highway historical plaques goes to show, I spent a little too much time absorbed in.  For those of you not into learning how the 270 million year old deposits got their groove on in the central Kansas area, well you can just skip ahead to the Permian Playground and the hands-on salt-rubbing wonders that lie ahead.

Everything that was taken down into the mine back in the day could not go back up again (except, of course, for people--I think), so things were used to their maximum shelf-life.  Many of the larger pieces of equipment and vehicles had to be completely taken apart, hauled down, and reassembled below.

Reiterating the theme of what goes into the mine stays there, a nice collection of trash from the 1940s and 50s is on display and, as we were informed, considered a relic.  What miner could have predicted that his 15¢ bag of Fritos would one day be photographed by gawking tourists?  Is it saying something about me that I enjoy photographing old trash?  What's going to happen to that empty bottle of orange juice I threw out yesterday?

Important questions.

Remember the claim to fame of the original Wizard of Oz film being stored here?  Well that and thousands more of original movie reels straight from Hollywood make their home now in the mines in the secure Underground Vaults & Storage section.  Right under the prairie of Kansas.  It's like there's a super-secret Fort Knox 650 feet underground smack in the middle of the USA (leading me to the obvious question:  Why aren't more action movies set here?).

Although we aren't allowed access to the UVS part of the mine, they have an exhibit showcasing some of the things that they securely store, including movies and artifacts from Hollywood, important business documents from all over the world, priceless artwork, newspapers and historical documents, and more.  I wanted to ask if any bodies were stored there, but there were children in the vicinity (probably wondering the same thing, actually).

Not sure if all of these contestants wound up in the UVS or not, but it's a nice photo anyway.

One of the first "modern" computers, with a storage capacity of only 64MB (an iPod Nano has 8,000MB) and a 1979 cost of $91,780 ($274,000 in today's money--yowza!)

A newspaper from the day after Lincoln was assassinated--1865!!

If you happen to get the Salt Blast Past (NO, wait--WHEN you get the Salt Blast Past...DO NOT skimp out on the Salt Blast Past!), you get to take the dark train ride and the regular dark ride...a bit confusing, but remember, one's on rails in the older part, and the other goes off-roading (mining?) in the newer parts so to speak.  They're both done in complete darkness with random lit attractions along the way of things that were left or found in the mines.  They both remind me of Ye Old Mill ride at the Kansas State Fair, only without the hands and ghost sheets reaching out for you (for now).

Double-thumbed gloves...when one side wore out, workers turned them over and used the other side.  

Mounds of old, preserved trash again...fascinating.

Of course, there's more than one reason why we're told not to lick or pick the walls...at least on the train ride we got to witness a lonely commode; however, the place is huge and although we saw many random piles of toilet papers, this here was the only actual pisser!

At the end of the dark ride, you get to scrounge around in a pile of salt crystals to get a small share of the hauling.  Go for the red ones if you can...they have bands of iron throughout them and you'll have a bit of fun fighting young children for them.

After your final shaft experience and the de-helmeting is complete, you step out into the hot, sunny Kansas afternoon (or rainy, snowy, windy, tornado-y afternoon, depending on the hour) remembering how thankful you are that you don't have burning lips or crushed lungs.

And that is how you do museums right in Kansas.

Part II of Hutchinson's otherworldly-ness coming soon...