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TOP: A conveyor carries salt from the working portion of the mine
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BY LISA GUTIERREZ
The Kansas City Star
HUTCHINSON, Kan.--We descended into the belly of the Earth.
"It's going to take us just a couple of minutes to go underground. Does anybody have a problem going down in the dark?" our cheerful guide asked.
"Yes!" I screamed in my head. But I said nothing because none of my fellow tourists did--six senior citizens, including a woman pushing a walker.
"No? OK," the guide said. "We do that because it gives you the first experience of going into the mine. Miners go down in the dark, so we try to do the same as well, kind of get you prepared for being in the mine."
As we descended, cool mine air blasted up my leg through an air hole in the floor, reminding me the whole way down of the depths I had to go for this story. Down, down, metal clanking; down, down, gears groaning, the elevator squeezed its way through the shaft. Did I mention we were all wearing hard hats? And emergency breathing apparatus around our necks?
Did I mention I'm a wee bit claustrophobic? I silently cursed the editor who sent me here.
"The bumpings and scrapings and all that, that is normal," the guide said, voice raised above the clatter. "There are sensors on the sides of the hoist and, um, just a little bit of salt dust. I like to say that you'd probably hear the same sounds in an elevator, but you're in an insulated compartment in an elevator."
She kept up a cheerful patter during the 90-second ride. This tidbit caught my ear: There are only three ways in and out of the mine. We were standing in one of them.
A loud beep-beep-beep saved me from mental hyperventilation. "That sound means we're 50 feet from the bottom already," the guide said.
And just like that, we were there. Our guide pulled the heavy metal doors of the hoist open, and we stepped out into a lighted lobby.
"Good morning! My name is Patty," said the perky, white-haired woman waiting for us. "Welcome to the Kansas Underground Salt Museum. You are now 650 feet below the surface of the Earth."
Six hundred and fifty feet.
We had just traveled a distance roughly the height of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
WHAT: Kansas Underground Salt Museum WHERE: 3504 E. Avenue G, Hutchinson, Kan. WINTER HOURS: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Allow at least two hours for your visit. Last tour each day departs two hours before closing. ADMISSION: $14 adults; $12 seniors, AAA members and active military; $7.50 children ages 4-12. Dark Ride and tram ride cost extra. VISITORS: Between 55,000 and 60,000 a year. July is the busiest month. PARTY UNDERGROUND: The museum has an event space for public and private functions where food and drink are allowed, unlike in other parts of the museum. INFO: undergroundmuseum.org, 620/662-1425, 866/755-3450