Travel to the Kansas Underground Salt Museum

The Carey Salt Company bought this locomotive in the 1920s to haul ore out of the mine and later used it to haul personnel. It is on display in the Kansas Underground Salt Museum 650 feet below Hutchinson, Kansas. (Keith Myers, Kansas City Star, MCT / December 16, 2012)

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.

"It will be completely dark," she continued, "what we call pure mine darkness, and you won't be able to see a thing. Your ears might feel some pressure, kind of like when you're flying, so if you swallow, that will pop your ears."

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.

More than 400,000 visitors have made this trip since May 2007, when the museum opened in mined-out caverns of the 920-acre Hutchinson Salt Co. Shortly thereafter the museum was named one of the eight wonders of Kansas, along with the nearby Kansas Cosmosphere.

Perky Patty informed us that the ground we stood on was covered 275 million years ago by the Permian Sea. The sea left behind a giant swath of salt - 30 trillion tons - stretching from an area northeast of Kansas City through Kansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.