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Our next stop was the Beaumont Hotel in Kansas, about 50 miles east of Wichita. No fuel is available at Beaumont, so a little flight planning is needed. The idea is to take off light at Beaumont (the runway is long enough, but not extravagant), but to have enough fuel on board to make it safely to the next stop. Atchison, Kansas, was a good fuel stop to satisfy that purpose. The airport is named for a famous aviator who was born in Atchison. It's a very quiet place. Besides our plane, this Tri-Q was the only plane outside.

Beaumont is one of those places that's special to pilots. After you land, you're greeted by a sign that instructs you to obey the stop sign while you taxi down the main street to the hotel. This is the pilot's view as he leaves the airport to taxi to the hotel. The airstrip was built in the 1950s, while Beaumont was still a cattle trading town. It was for the convenience of brokers who could fly in and make their deals there. At the time, there was still a railway station across from the hotel.

The water tower was built in 1885 to serve the Frisco line, which carried cattle between Ellsworth, Kansas, and St. Louis. Beaumont was the highest point on the line. After climbing the hill from Piedmont ("foot of the mountain") to Beaumont, the locomotive had used so much water that it needed to stock up for the rest of the run. The cypress water tower still functions, and is believed to be the last of its kind remaining in the United States. Renovated in 1989-98, it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

When itinerant railroad crews stayed in town, only white men slept in the hotel. If you were not white, you could sleep in the yellow building behind the store, or you could sleep outdoors.

In Beaumont's heyday, there were holding pens for 9000 cattle across from the hotel, eight trains passed through every day. 1500 people lived here, and the place was a typical old western town. Then cattlemen started moving their livestock on trucks rather than by rail.

Time passed Beaumont by, and the railroad didn't survive. Now there are fewer than 100 people living here, and the hotel is the town's only business — not even a grocery store. The "Beaumont" sign is still there, but the tracks have been torn up. The circle shows either the beginning or the end of the line, depending on how you want to think about it. In the background, barely visible, hundreds of ties that will never be used are stacked by the tracks. The Elk River Wind Farm now stands where the cattle pens once were.

Not counting the state highway north of town, there are only three paved roads. It's hard to imagine that this was a boom town just sixty years ago. The street sign marks the intersection of 116th and Wildgrass. 116th Street? The town has six streets in one direction and five in the other. I wonder where they started counting streets.

As we walked around one corner, the house seemed to be in pretty rough shape.

The hotel, however, is in fine shape. It was completely renovated in 2001. Every room has all the amenities you'd expect of any big-city business hotel, including wireless internet access and a refrigerator. A sign in the parking area advises caution, but reasonable pilot technique is plenty good enough. The reward is to tie down for the night, directly opposite your room in the hotel. I might not have bothered with the tiedowns, but the wind was steady over 20 knots southerly when we landed. The forecast, and actual, wind for the next morning was over 15 knots northerly. So I put the tiedowns in.

Three gatherings were planned during our stay. Two of them happened. There was to be a fly-in breakfast, but the weather was too low for any VFR activity until almost noon. A Gold Wing club and a Corvette club from Wichita both showed up, and the Beaumont Hotel's dining room was full.

Here we are, representing the fly-in that got rained out. It's The Thing To Do in Beaumont, getting a picture with the water tower. Just before we left, some Boy Scouts rode into town and expressed an interest in the airplane. Two of them were working on the Aviation merit badge. We let them occupy the front seats while we chatted for a bit. The weather still wasn't really good enough to give them a sightseeing ride. Maybe they'll come back on a nicer flying day.

Near the airstrip, we saw dragonflies of a type we don't have in Connecticut. This is as good a place as any, to tell about the Beaumont Hotel's ghost. In the words of the present proprietor, one of the early hoteliers "worked downstairs, while his wife worked upstairs" - meaning she was in the skin trade. In an old-West boom town, this kind of relationship was not unusual. But the hotel man didn't like one of her customers because he thought she was getting attached to him. One night, that customer was somehow shot to death, and his ghost is said to inhabit the room where it happened.

It's a short flight from Beaumont to Hutchinson, 40 minutes or so. We took advantage of a break in the weather to hop over there, but the controller did not want to admit me to his class-D airspace unless I called Wichita Approach for coordination. He had one airplane already using his airspace, and that fellow was practicing an instrument approach. When it was time to leave the next morning, I got equally poor service from a different controller there. I'm very glad that's not my home airport.

We were in Hutchinson to visit a salt mine. Not long ago, the State of Kansas ran a contest to identify the Eight Wonders of Kansas. Two of the winners are in Hutchinson, the Kansas Underground Salt Museum and the Cosmosphere & Space Center. We only had time for one, so we chose the Salt Museum. There isn't much to do while you're waiting for your tour but look at some samples of salt on display.

Salt, or halite, is usually colorless by the time it gets to our table. In nature, impurities may give it red, blue, or yellow color. Rock salt also contains clay and algal impurities that give it a layered appearance. The Hutchinson salt bed is the largest of several in Kansas. They were formed when the shallow Permian Sea was cut off from the open ocean and evaporated. Later, sediments covered the salt beds, and they were unknown until 1887, when oil men discovered salt while searching for oil and gas.

We had to wait for a scheduled tour because the entire museum is 650 feet below ground, and the elevator only holds 40 people at a time. First, we got some safety equipment and a briefing. Everybody had to wear a hard hat and carry a "rescuer." We were also advised not to lick the salt in the mine.

The Rescuer is inside the black bag. It's a breathing device that converts carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide, and might be needed if the air quality in the mine went sour. Carbon dioxide doesn't help you breathe better, but at least it won't kill you. Our briefer assured us these devices have never been needed on a tour. I sure hope they check them once in a while. The light colored object on a grey lanyard is a camera.

Despite the apprehension of some, the people returning from an earlier tour obviously had a good time.

It takes the double-decker elevator one minute and forty seconds to reach the mine. That time is spent in total darkness. At the bottom, we found ourselves in the underground labyrinth, where we got on a tram for our mine tour. The street signs don't help much. It quickly became obvious that our driver needed a very good sense of direction to find his way around down there. Every once in a while the guide would ask which way we were going - North, South, East, West. Not many people got it right.

As already noted, not all salt is pure white.

This exhibit shows how explosives are set into the mine walls to crack the salt so it can be sawn into large blocks for transport. There was one of those blocks in the earlier photo of the Rescuer.

Some other equipment is also on display. The second photo is the business end of an auger drill. It's a bit to hold the carbide tips.

We were told that "what goes down in the mine, stays in the mine." But not like in Las Vegas. It's just that there was no profit in hauling anything back out of the mine but salt. Before the use of electricity and railways, miners used mules. Once the mule went into the mine, it would never again see daylight. When they died, the miners left them in the mine. Our tour didn't include any mule carcasses, but it did include this truck the miners brought down to make it easier to get around. We were told that this is a 1932 Chevy truck, with 1934 tires. We were not told when the tires were last inflated.

The dynamite boxes were put to good use, to make "gob walls." These walls were built to control the flow of air in the mine.

The surfaces inside the mine are extremely stable. When the government was looking for somewhere to put radioactive waste, it investigated salt mines, including this one. The idea is to find a hole that will eventually close around the stuff, making it unreachable. This mine was too stable. Floor and ceiling move together at a rate of two or three mils per year. That's about one inch every 600 years. The exhibit shows a rod measuring device, with a measurement gap clearly visible on the right-hand rig. Today's measurements are taken with laser equipment.

We got a chance to do a little mining of our own. Well, to do a little gathering, anyway. Does the salt pile look familiar? This is an active mine. Most of its output is used on roads and highways. Its two biggest customers are the State of Iowa and the City of Chicago. There were some gems to be found, though.


The weather never changes underground. It's always 68.5°F (20.3°C) and the relative humidity is always 42%. This is the perfect environment to store things if you don't want them to deteriorate. So the Carey Salt Mine also houses Underground Vault and Storage, Inc., which leases space in the mined-out areas. When Hollywood producers talk about sending a movie to The Vault, they're talking about Hutchinson. There are thousands of films stored here, and other equipment from movie sets as well.

The Daily Planet model was used in Superman Returns (Warner Brothers, 2006). The Superman outfit was worn by Dean Cane in the TV series Lois and Clark (WB, 1993-97).

Natalie Cook (Cameron Diaz) wore this racing suit in Charlie's Angels.

The museum now houses the world's oldest living organism. Last year, Drs. Russell Vreeland, William Rosenzweig, and Dennis Powers awakened bacteria from spores trapped in a salt crystal at Hutchinson. Their research indicates that cells from those bacteria were alive more than 250 million years ago, before the time of dinosaurs. There is an exhibit to put this time scale into perspective. It includes a calendar that represents the total age of the earth, beginning with Creation at New Year's Eve. On that scale, nearly everything we know about happened in the month of December - including those bacteria. Humans first appeared on Earth about noon on the 31st of the month.

Graffiti is everywhere, even 650 feet down.

on to Lucas

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