Back in 1887, Ben Blanchard, a land developer from Indiana, set out on a mission to find oil on his land southwest of Hutchinson with hopes he would make a fortune from land sales. However, rather than something black coming from his discovery, his drilling led to the discovery of one of the largest salt deposits in the world, which has since shaped Hutchinson in so many ways. The town itself has the nickname of Salt City, and Hutchinson High School’s mascot is the Salt Hawk. From the Salt City Bowl, an NJCAA football bowl, to Salt City Splash, the aquatic park here in town, to many other businesses and places that have the word in their title, salt is a big thing here in Central Kansas, and it is also here in Hutchinson where people can take a 90 second elevator ride 650 feet underground and see the fascinating world of Strataca, an amazing underground salt museum that is part of a still very much active salt mine.
Around the same time I arrived in Hutchinson a little over ten years ago was when Strataca opened to the public. To say it is extremely nifty would be an understatement. My living in Hutchinson has led to being able to easily make it to some of the many great events they have offered over the years. Some of my favorites have been watching a free screening of the documentary Happy underground and the Hunt for Red Rock-tober which involved their taking a group to another part of the mine where beautiful pieces of salt with red hues can be found (and we were able to fill a bucket with as much salt as we would like to take home with us). Plus, the fact it is always an extremely comfortable 68 degrees makes it a great escape from the extreme heat during the summer months and extreme cold during Kansas winters. One of their events I have been wanting to do for the last couple of years is the Tour de Salt, the only bike ride of its kind in North America where cyclists get to explore the salty terrain of the mined caverns and see areas not normally part of the regular Strataca tours.
For the previous years, commitments took me out of town the day of those bike rides. While my calendar had me in Hutchinson for Tour de Salt this year, my UNL tuition payments had managed to get the better of my disposable income once again, so it had looked like it would be another year for the event to pass me by; however, an invite from a great fellow cyclist to serve as one of the group leaders for this year’s ride led to some more fantastic memories being made underground.
Despite my having visited Strataca multiple times, I had no idea what to expect from the bike ride, but I will simply say any of my expectations were blown away and then some. As part of training for the guides, we brought our bikes to Strataca last Sunday morning to get a feel for the ride. A mix of excitement and nervousness was with me as I rode the double-decker elevator down to the starting line while holding on tightly to my mountain bike that had taken me on some great adventures in the Flint Hills back during my Emporia days long before the Dirty Kanza was a thing.
It took a few trips for the elevator before the group of volunteers and staff were all together for the training to begin. As we stood there with our bikes in anticipation for what awaited us in the mine, we learned about the blue rope on the ground we would follow and the fantastic reflective arrows carefully placed along the route, both of which would keep us safe from getting lost in the 160 miles of tunnels. Each leader would also have a Strataca expert who would talk about different parts of the salt mine at the different stops along the way.
That excitement and nervousness stayed with me all through that first ride of the route. To put that bike ride into words is really beyond me besides its being a magical experience of sorts. My bike light would catch the salt all around is, leading to parts of the floor, ceiling, and walls to sparkle at times as we traveled over smooth and bumpy sections and through large and narrow passage ways. The loose salt in certain parts caught me a bit off-guard at first and inspired my buddy Jason, who was also serving as another group leader, and me to make plans along that first ride for codes we would share with our riders on the day of Tour de Salt.
The first ride finished with everyone coming together for a recap of what we experienced with the Strataca crew to make sure the ride was the best it could be for the next weekend’s riders. The crew of group leaders, led by the Fontaine brothers who had served as lead riders before, talked more about ways to alert our groups to the loose spots, railroad tracks, and anything else that could be a bit tricky for those who would be joining us for Tour de Salt. And then we were off for a second and then a third ride, so we could continue to get a great feel for the route. Each of us took turns in the lead to get an idea what it would be like the following Saturday to cycle, armed with only with a small but mighty light, into pitch darkness.
I left that day amazed and thrilled for the coming Saturday morning. Throughout the week, that excitement only grew as I talked to some of the other group leaders, Terry, Daniel, and Jason, about adjustments we were making and our quest to find the best lights (and back up lights) to take with us. Each of us were excited for the adventure but also nervous as well as we hoped for safe and smooth rides for all of our cyclists. We were all worried about what we would do if a flat tire would happen or if someone were to fall, for a scrape would literally be salt in the wound. Thankfully, Tour de Salt did not disappoint. The whole morning itself flew by with our arriving before the sun even started to rise so we could head down to take a safety lap and get a good feel for the route one last time before the groups started arriving at 8:00 AM.
Fortune had once again smiled upon me with my getting paired with Galen, who was fantastic and an expert on everything related to the salt mine and museum. We kicked off our first group at 8:30 before taking our second group out at 10:00 and finishing with our third group at 11:30.
People came from all over to take on the adventure underground. A huge group drove down from Minnesota just for the event, and Galen and I had cyclists in our groups from the Hutchinson area, Wichita, Winfield, Topeka, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, and Dallas. For some, it was their second or third time to take on the ride, and for all, we left amazed at what we saw from this surreal experience of cycling far below earth’s surface. At each stop and with each pedal forward, there was a sense of wonder unlike any I have had before as my mind tried to wrap around the very idea of where we were. This was even more so when I heard from some of our riders about the crazy rainstorm that was happening far above all while the weather conditions stayed perfect for us far below.
We rode by floor heaves, empty dynamite boxes, train tracks, a beautiful crystal pod, a trash pile complete with a calendar in perfect condition from 1953, wheel tracks and footprints from over 60 years ago that looked like they were made just the day before, and so much more as we too became part of the fantastic history of this great treasure in the heart of Kansas.
After finding salt rather oil, Blanchard left Hutchinson, upset, disillusioned, and broke. His whole focus on getting rich quick led to his not seeing his discovery as something amazing but rather as a failure. It was that “failure” though that has led to a series of fortunate events that have transformed the lives of so many in Salt City for the better through the creation of many jobs through the multi-million-dollar industry of salt mining and through the experiences one can have in Strataca, the only museum of its kind in the Western Hemisphere where one can have great adventures, as I just had this last weekend, 650 feet underground and surrounded by salt.