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.