Cowboy singing
Singing Cowboy, downtown Wichita

I had some customer visits scheduled in Wichita last week. On the first appointment, I’d budgeted a lot more time than I actually used. Since I’ve never been to Kansas before, I set out to do some late-afternoon exploring. The most intriguing thing I could come up with was to visit the Underground Salt Museum.

For some background, set the Wayback Machine to 2002, when I was at The World’s Largest Online Retailer, trying to come up with product-related trivia questions. In the process of researching questions to refer to Mark Kurlansky’s book, “Salt: A World History”, I learned about the size of salt reserves in Kansas. Now, I had an opportunity to see first-hand the only one of its type in the western hemisphere.

Underground Salt Museum

Dude, I’m so there!

The museum web site recommends reservations, but I just showed up and bet that traveling alone, late afternoon, they’d be able to squeeze me in. If not, the Kansas Cosmosphere was only a few miles away.

Cha-ching, a tour was starting in 10 minutes! While waiting, I picked up a geocache under the base of a lamp post in the parking lot. It would have been much cooler if they arranged to put an ammo box down in the mine. Try using your GPS on that one, buddy!

There were only three of us on the tour, but that didn’t stop the volunteer from going through the rigmarole of mine safety. Not only would we be wearing hard hats, we’d also don a device that — don’t pull the tab off unless it’s an emergency, Jim — converted carbon monoxide to bacon-scented carbon dioxide. Okay, I made up the bacon-scented part.

Carbon Monoxide converters

She helpfully added that the devices had never been needed in the history of the mine, but Just In Case Something Happens, here’s a video demo. It was a lot like the whole oxygen bag deploying from overhead schtick, until the warning that the heat from the chemical scrubbing process would could burn your lips. Huh. At least the seat cushion floatation devices have only smelly passenger butt odor.

Shaft – can you dig it?

In a minute and a half, the elevator took us 650 feet down. The abject darkness was disorienting. When the door opened, we were in an antechamber with electric carts. Its ambiance was like my study, only without the risk of stepping on bicycling, geocaching, camping and photography crap strewn on the floor.

Inside the mine
Where are the Star Trek posters?

A lot of space has been mined out, leading to some enterprising opportunities. The most obvious is secure storage for valuable records and artifacts – the temperature and humidity are constant, and there are only three ways in.

Movie prop from Twister

A less obvious use is as a meeting facility. (Bear with me here…) Participants won’t have the temptation of constantly checking email or web surfing on their Crackberries and iPhones because those devices don’t work through 605′ of earth. The marketers realized that execs aren’t going to want to wear hardhats for eight-hour strategy planning sessions, so extra effort has been made in providing a protective, higher ceiling, making grooves in the shale/salt mixture for integrity (according to our guide).
Fancy conference room ceiling
A special tool is needed to do this grooved ceiling. Speaking of tools, our guide also mentioned that getting equipment down here is tricky – it all has to be disassembled into elevator-sized chunks, hauled down, then reassembled. When equipment breaks, they just scoot it to an unused area of the cave.

I mused this would be a great way to mess with future archaeologists who might find something like this:

Abandoned machinery

and formulate a story of how the subterranean farmers grew hops for use in their magma celebration rituals. Or see this:

This is going to hurt...

and conjecture it’s some kind of, um, medical device. Or for harvesting flying uni-clams guarding the Burns Mansion.

And, finally, the alter where the underground dwellers sacrificed hops and expired uni-clams to the Great Mole Hunt deity:

Electrical box

In one of the chambers, we were given an opportunity to take home a souvenir piece of rock salt. I picked up this palm-sized hunk because it shows the salt-pepper layering well. The dark layers are really shale, not pepper. It didn’t survive the trip back.

Hunk o'salt

The end of the guided tour let us off at … the gift shop and interpretive exhibits. It amused me to no end that the person working the register, some 650′ underground, was checking his Facebook page. So much for the underground meeting idea.

On the way out of town, I dropped by the Cosmosphere. Although it was closed, the outer area was fun to walk around, especially getting up close to the F-1 rocket engine:
F1 engine

Five of these powered the first stage of the Saturn V launching Apollo to the moon. One engine burned three tons of fuel and oxidizer each second for 167 seconds!

After my Friday afternoon appointment, I walked around Wichita. One of the more interesting areas was the Chester I. Lewis Reflection Square, a very tiny pocket park near a former Woolworth building.
This sculpture, The Lunch Counter was the most interesting, especially with the suggested tie-in to the Dockum Sit-Ins some 50 years prior. (Click on the photo for the backstory).

Can I Get Some Service Here?

The Lunch Counter, by Georgia Gerber, downtown Wichita

2 thoughts on “Clickety-click”

  1. You sure make the most out of your trips! Thanks again for sharing. 🙂 Love the mental image of the subterranean farmers. 🙂

  2. @Kiri – I need something to get me through the “bad” parts of business travel.

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