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2012 Road Trip Notes on the Go, Day 8: Salt, Space, and Route 66

Today was the day we found out exactly what Kansas had to offer besides flatlands and landfills. Our first two stops were in Hutchinson, each a few miles from our hotel.

The name may not engender instant excitement, but the Kansas Underground Salt Museum is a mother lode of hidden treasure to the right people and the right corporations. We thought it optimistic of them to offer advance reservations, but were surprised to see a formidable crowd amassed in the lobby when we left.

The basic tour begins with an elevator ride 650 feet underground to a cavern of salt, salt, salt. Exhibits include a three-ton brick of salt; a list of animal fossils discovered occasionally on the grounds (several small species from assorted families, plus dimetrodons, the only ex-denizens larger than my head); partly corroded surface vehicles used underground by the miners to traverse the passageways (all run on B100 soy biodiesel fuel for several years now); and a salute to a 2007 episode of Dirty Jobs in which star Mike Rowe tried his hand at Hutchinson salt mining.

The second half of the basic tour was the most fascinating to me, all about Underground Vaults & Storage, a company that uses several underground square miles as a secure facility for data storage, since the mine environs are ideal for slowing decomposition and preserving fragile media. In addition to stacks of paper files and boring computer records, since 1963 UVS has housed a significant collection of celluloid film reels for the noble purpose of preserving motion pictures for future generations. Exhibit stats claim that as many as 50% of all films made before 1950 have been lost to the mists of time, and that less than 20% of all silent films are now irretrievable and will never be seen again, and not necessarily just the really awful ones. UVS has spent nearly five decades doing their part to keep those percentages shored up.

To that end, Salt Museum visitors are treated to a variety of related sights. A retrospective about storage devices is mounted above an old IBM System/38, a 20-foot-long computer that cost $91,780.00 in 1979 and held a whopping 64 megabytes of storage. Stacks of sample film reel canisters showcase examples of fine art meant to be safeguarded for the ages, such as The Shawshank Redemption, Waiting for Guffman, Before Sunrise, The Spitfire Grill, Young Guns II, and Striptease. (Many canisters still bear labels with the 1990s-era addresses and phone numbers of the producers and studios who paid for the service.) Also stored safely by UVS by request are actual props from works as diverse as Men in Black II, Ali, Charlie’s Angels, and for some reason Batman and Robin.

A few miles northwest of the Salt Museum is Hutchinson’s other accomplished facility, the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. Similar to other places we’ve visited such as the Kennedy Space Center and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, the Cosmosphere presents genuine space-race artifacts for astronaut fans. Rather than focusing exclusively on Team America, their curation enncompasses the Russian side of the competition as well, not to mention a candid exploration of the vital role that Nazi engineers (willing or otherwise) played in rocket science during and after WWII. Especially eyebrow-raising are recounts of Wernher von Braun sneaking some of his space-travel concepts into ongoing U.S. military projects so that they wouldn’t be immediately rejected by an uninterested President Eisenhower. Next-best of show: quotes from Josef Stalin expressing his outrage at how Russia’s WWII spoils largely included entire new countries to rule, while America’s spoils included all the best German scientists.

Relics — some simulated, many real — include:

* A Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird hanging in the lobby
* An imitation lunar module that was used as an example on a 1969 Nightly News broadcast, then reused in the filming of the IMAX production Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon
* Photos of famous cockpit interiors, such as the Enola Gay, the Space Shuttle Columbia, and a sample Vietnam War Huey
* German craft such as a V1 Flying Bomb, a V2 rocket, and the engine of a Me 163 Komet, whose special hyperacidic fuel could disfigure or kill its pilots upon contact
* A Redstone warhead assembly
* An outdoor enclosure for the Titan II with simulated rumbling
* A Vanguard I, America’s failed answer to Sputnik
* One of the five Luna mini-spacecraft ever produced by the Soviet Union
* Wreckage from the Mercury-Atlas 1 launch failure
* Disturbing blooper reels from other unmanned launch misfires — a parade of airborne explosions, booster collapses, and premature parachutes
* Two preserved panels from the Berlin Wall
* A small room touting the current state of private space travel, including the headline-grabbing SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic

With two successful Kansas attractions to our credit in one day we rewarded ourselves accordingly for lunch: Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers encore!

After that, we finally exited Hutchinson and had a few hundred more miles of Kansas “scenery” to abide. I noticed we crossed our old chum the Arkansas River three more times. We were at a loss to interpret the handmade sign we saw in the town of Niotaze that proposed all US flags should be kept at half-staff until both Obamacare and the Patriot Act are repealed. I wrote a haiku to recap the rest of that drive:

Plains, glorious plains
“Glorious” is the wrong word
I meant to say AAAAAAAUUGH.

To indulge my wife once again, I left the highway several miles west of Independence for a detour to the Little House on the Prairie Museum. The house on the grounds is a recreation of a domicile allegedly used in the vicinity by the Ingalls family for about a year. An adjacent schoolhouse is more of a nineteenth-century item in general than an Ingalls-specific remnant. Most authentic display is a well (now sealed) believed to have been dug by hand by the original Charles Ingalls himself. I was surprised that the wooden bathroom facility was well-kept and provided motion-sensor paper towel dispensers. I was dismayed to watch some other parent’s teenager knock a section of the fence out of place when he tried to climb over it.

If you select the right highways out of Independence, you can work your way down to the remains of the original Historic Route 66, America’s favorite nostalgic roadway and inspiration for the movie Cars. We missed Baxter Springs by a few miles, but we stopped in Galena to view a proud replica of the inimitable Tow Mater that used the exact model of tow truck and added eyes just like his. My son was annoyed that Faux-Mater had no buck teeth and still had his hood in place. I was disappointed that the store behind Faux-Mater was closed, with a Post-It Note reading “SORRY NO A/C” as our only clue as to a possible reason why. Most of the rundown “main street” was just as dispiriting, resembling the destitute Radiator Springs from the beginning of Cars. This part of Galena looked like a town that needs a Lightning McQueen to save it.

Due west of Galena was our final destination for tonight, across the border in Missouri, where we have family in Webb City that we don’t have opportunities to see nearly often enough. After such long days on the road, despite any and all fun to be had throughout, hanging out with loved ones is the next best thing to being home.

As a stark reminder of how blessed we are, after fabulous homemade dinner our host offered us a personal driving tour of a little town south of Webb City named Joplin. You may remember their name appearing in last year’s news when an F5 tornado left dozens of residents dead, countless more of them homeless, and many of their businesses instantly obsolete on Google Maps.

A year-plus later, the south end of Joplin is now made of reconstruction. Many longtime properties are now comprised of old, struggling lawns topped with new-model homes in various stages of assembly. Other random buildings that were only partly damaged are still undergoing repair. Long stretches that formerly held apartment complexes are now replicas of Kansas. A branch of Commerce Bank has continued operation with only a trailer and a flagpole on their premises. A major hospital was rendered condemned and is now in the process of being demolished to eliminate the unusable portions that refuse to fall on their own. We’re also told the tornado wiped out their only Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers location.

Much recovery and reaffirmation has occurred in the intervening months. Many teams from all over descended upon Joplin to help restore what nature tore asunder. A billboard on Route 66 announced the recent reopening of the formerly decimated Home Depot. The nearest Wal*Mart was reportedly replaced from scratch in a matter of months. Hundreds of families are still living in FEMA trailers on the north side of town. The folks from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition even joined the cause and not only provided new homes for several survivors, but also refurbished what appeared to me a very lovely playground.

I’m tremendously grateful for our hosts for the night. Just the same, ever since I saw those FEMA trailers, I’ve been preoccupied with one thought: when we return home tomorrow, I really hope our house is still standing.

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2012 Road Trip Notes on the Go, Day 7: Toto, I Think We’re in Kansas Forevermore

Leaving the Rocky Mountains behind was no cause for celebration. Spending the entire day on the plains of far-east Colorado and half of Kansas was minuscule consolation.

Friday morning we had no choice but to depart Pueblo and suffer the pangs of beautiful-scenery separation anxiety. As the miles passed, the horizon behind us swallowed the mountaintops and the horizon before us maintained a flatline status with only a few isolated blips of cranial activity to interrupt the monotonous despair of bleak, blackened vacation death.

Okay, it wasn’t quite that dark. To be fair, because of a few specific locations we wanted to access in southern Kansas, it was our own decision to brave mile after mile of plains, more plains, still more plains, plains upon plains, and plains wrapped in plains inside other plains. If you’ve ever seen Manos: the Hands of Fate, imagine reliving those initial non-breathless minutes of stuporific driving footage that was shot through someone’s car window, except with the laughable narration removed, then placed on infinite “Repeat” mode. When a trip reminds you of Manos, something clearly went wrong in the planning stage.

Our first saving grace of a tourist attraction was two hours east of Pueblo in the small town of Lamar, the first decently populated town to greet drivers entering Colorado via US Highway 50. Their official Colorado Welcome Center is surrounded by entertaining outdoor exhibits, such as a debilitated old train, an actual GE windmill blade mounted for display (until I read the label, I thought it was a light-aircraft wing), and a grove labeled the Enchanted Forest, possibly in the sense that evergreens are “enchanted” in their ability to resist browning during times of drought. A block north of the Welcome Center stands a former gas station (now used-car lot office) built from wood that petrified over time but retained its structural integrity. A “Believe It or Not!” sign has been hung on the front to belabor the weirdness.

Beyond that point, small towns, Subway franchises, and other markers were intermittent. A few signs advised that much of Highway 50 is part of the Santa Fe Trail. Other signs noted “Historical Markers” but refused to divulge their significance unless you were willing to pull over first on faith or out of desperation. Also infrequently dotting the landscape were election ads, entrances to landfills, farmers performing their daily machinery chores, and a few massive stockyards hundreds of acres wide, filled with thousands of cattle awaiting their fates. Somehow Highway 50 also criss-crossed over our old friend the Arkansas River at no less than five different points.

We were starving by the time we reached Garden City, the first small town to advertise a promise of copious restaurant options — over fifty, its advance billboard swore. We pulled off the main road, wandered aimlessly for a few miles, and found next to nothing except a few dinky, insular-looking establishments. We returned to the main road and drove further in discomfort until the next town after that, Cimarron, produced a modest joint called Richie’s Cafe. It looked like an old American Legion hall or former community clubhouse. We pulled up a few minutes after their posted after-lunch closing time of 2 p.m., but a thankfully benevolent waitress popped her head out the door and offered to serve us anyway. For this timely display of grace, and for my sufficient Frisco burger and my wife’s generous taco salad, we counted our blessings, averted the gaze of the employees pacing and working around us, and tipped generously.

Twenty more minutes of driving brought us to big, famous, totally commercialized Dodge City, crowded with dozens of major corporate fast-food joints, certain to be more crowd-pleasing and less awkward than a small-town cafeteria at closing time. Certain parties in the car gave me such a harsh look for having not pushed us twenty minutes further for lunch.

At my wife’s request we paid an unplanned visit to the Boot Hill Museum, whose grounds include a preserved, backyard-sized portion of the very first cemetery to bear that not-uncommon moniker. We were skeptical as to whether or not some of the wooden-plank tombstones were century-old originals, but decided against putting our hosts on the spot. Most of the grounds are occupied by a recreated block of Old West storefronts (plus one authentic transplant built in 1879), inside which were exhibits devoted to integral themes of the Old West — e.g., weapons, liquor, Native American mistreatment, prostitutes, and TV’s Gunsmoke. Inside an old one-room schoolhouse hung posters for informational and educational purposes, including a pair that listed famous Kansans in the entertainment industry — not just obscure old actors your grandma might recognize, but also recent names such as R. Lee Ermey, Paul Rudd, and Jason Sudeikis.

Sadly, the daily staged gunfight wasn’t scheduled for another three hours. I’m not sure what kind of sissy, photosensitive gunman agrees to a high-noon shootout after dinnertime, but it’s not the kind we felt like sticking around to catch, money’s worth or not. After a brief snack at the local overcrowded Dairy Queen (refuge for tourists who declined the Boot Hill Museum’s six-dollar drugstore sundaes), we spent two last hours on the road to our hotel in Hutchinson, located across the street from a dying shopping mall whose official site lists exactly five open restaurants. Kansas just couldn’t resist the urge to discourage us one more time.

We ventured a little further from the hotel so we could end the day on a brighter note. One successful supper was obtained at an unfamiliar chain called Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers. To describe it for fellow Hoosiers, it’s Steak-‘n’-Shake with better burgers, crisper fries, Chicago-style hot dogs, optional Red Robin fry seasoning, and Ritter’s frozen custard. It was a veritable Frankenstein’s monster of familiar restaurant parts, but at least those parts were chosen wisely, even if none of them belonged to Smashburger.

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