So much to say about slow travel last week that I needed an entire new post to share my Harvest Hosts adventures along the way. As I said last week, my idea of slow travel adventures isn’t merely the places I overnight. I want to find road side attractions like I did during my first attempt at slow travel when I stopped at the Cadillac Ranch in Texas. However, I didn’t have any of those this trip. Good thing the Harvest Hosts adventures were so great. I made three stops: Strataca Salt Mine Tour and Museum, Golden Spike Tower and Pine Bluffs Distillery. I learned a lot and had a fun at each place.

Big white rock of salt on a brown wooden table.
Big slab of salt. Because it’s dark in the mine and displays are lit, it was hard to get really good photos.

Strataca Salt Mine Tour

After a very long driving day, I arrived in the large parking lot in an industrial area near railroad tracks in Hutchison, Kansas. I was the only one there all night. Due to heat, I purposely arrived near sunset and quickly settled in for the night.

Strataca museum entrance with the name on the top. Then in big letters it says, "Underground Bound."
The entrance to Strataca Salt Mine Tour and Museum.

The next morning, I woke and visited the salt mine museum when they opened. There are a handful of salt mines in the US. But the one in Hutchison is the only one in the country that allows visitors, making it an entirely unique experience.

Let me start with a little background and the big picture of what’s underground. You might remember from your school days that water covered the earth 250 – 300 million years ago. When the ocean evaporated, it left salt deposits. The underground salt layers in central and southcentral Kansas covers 27,000 square miles. 

In 1922, the Carey Salt Company drilled the elevator shaft. They began operating in 1923. You’ll see photos and artifacts with CSC stenciled, including the feature image with an original 1954 train cart. The Carey family sold it in 1969 and it progressed through several hands. Then in 1992 the Hutchison Salt Company purchased it. They continue to run it today.

An orange box on a rail track. Sign on the side says, "The Carey Salt Co. Plant No. 3." Ropes protect the Strataca display.
By 1925, workers were mining too far away to push the cart of salt by hand. So, Carey Salt bought a locomotive from General Motors for $5,000 (that’s $75,000 today). The locomotive ran on battery as the rails were often needing to be moved which made installing a trolley line impractical. The photo is of the battery box.

Three Businesses

There are actually three different businesses underground. The Hutchison Salt Company mines salt for salting icy winter roads. The second business is called Underground Vault and Storage. More on what they store shortly.

Finally, there is Strataca, the part of the mine I visited which has been opened since 2007. It is a museum and event center run by the local historical society. They got the name from the geologic term strata which means layers of rock. In the mine you can clearly see the layers of salt.

They say the mine is safer than Fort Knox. As vast as it is, there are only two ways in and out, through two elevators. The Hoist is the name of the one we went down. The workers use the same one. The double-decker elevator carries up to 30 people at a time, 15 on each level. I added seeing a double-decker elevator to my list of firsts. Honestly, I never even heard of one before the visit.

We descended 650 feet. For reference, that’s about the height of the St. Louis Arch, more than double the height of Statue of Liberty. It’s far enough that your ears pop on the 90-second ride. At the bottom, we donned hard hats (in case of falling salt chunks) and then self-guided through the first part.

Want to hear something funny? As they were going over the safety rules one of the rules was not to lick the walls. Not kidding. The guy who gave me the Dark Ride repeated the warning. Then processed to tell me the story of his high school class coming to the mine and guess what he did? Yep, licked the wall. He assured me it is the most disgusting taste and it didn’t leave his mouth until he left the mine and got water.

The Strataca Tour

The experience is broken up into sections. You walk through the mine to see the geologic history of salt, history and information about Carey Salt Company, how salt is mined. Next you get on the Salt Mine Express, a little train that takes you to see raw parts of the mine. Then you walk through more displays and items stored by the Underground Vault until you reach the gift shop.  

About six two-person wide seats on a car with no passengers. You can see salt wall on one side of the rail cars of the Strataca salt mine express.
Talk about social distancing. I was the only passenger on the train. Actually they taped off every other seat but I was the only one there so got in the first seat and had the entire ride to myself.
A man in a hard hat and a black shirt that reads, "Strataca." Photo is taken of his back as he sits on a cushion in the "conductors' position on a mine train.
Except for the train driver. He was new, so was looking down making sure everything was ready before dinging the bell and taking us on our way.

Then you get on the Dark Ride, a 30 minute tram ride. You learn about how the Atomic Commission almost decided to store nuclear waste in the mine and, at the end, you get to sift through a pile of rock salt for a souvenir piece to take home. It’s called the Dark Ride because, at one point, the tram is stopped and the lights are turned off. The guide instructs you to put your hand in front of you to see if you can see it. You cannot. Eerie. 

A muted  photo, dark because taken with limited light on Strataca Dark Ride. A wooden rail card on rails with a salt wall in background.
This was a dark photo that I had to photo edit so you could see it. I took it on the Dark Ride tram. You can see the salt walls and make out the layers of salt (strata). The rails and cart give you an idea of what the miners are working with. At one point on the Dark Ride, the ceiling was so low, there was only about a foot’s clearance above me.

Reminded me in the Cathedral Caverns when the tour guide shut off the lights to give us an idea of what early cave explores experienced.

After it was over, I returned to the gift shop where I purchased a few postcards, my favorite souvenir to send to friends, family and blog readers.

Underground Vault

Okay, let me tell you about the Underground Vault company. I thought for sure, I was going to hear about wine and computer servers stored with them. No matter how hot or cold it is outside, that far underground, the temperature remains a consistent and cool 65 degrees. Perfect for wine and electronics.

I’m sure there is tons of other stuff, but you know who is their big user of the space? Hollywood. Yep, the movie industry. Tons of old film canisters are stored as well costumes and other memorabilia from movies. They had a display on the topic which was kind of fun. There were several super hero costumes on display but I liked the military uniform Matt Damon wore in Monument Men. Did you see that movie? It’s a great little piece of World War II history I’d never known of until I saw the film.

All in all, I am glad I made the effort to stop and visit the salt museum. If you are in Kansas, think of doing the same, regardless of whether you do it as a Harvest Host member or not. I spent two hours underground. However, I moved fairly quickly through the museum. It promised to be a hot day and the cat was in the trailer. Easily, the tour could take double that amount of time if you enjoy reading info boards.

Green army uniform on a mannequin in a glass case. Behind the case and shelves of film reels as part of Strataca museum display.
In addition to the uniform worn by Matt Damon, do you see the shelves of film canisters behind the glass case?

Golden Spike Tower

In North Platte, Nebraska, I visited the Golden Spike Tower at the Bailey Rail Yard, the world’s largest rail yard. The 8-story tower was built after the original platform started to crumble. The bottom floor has info boards and a gift shop. The 7th and 8th floors have displays, info boards, and great views. I’m not entirely sure what’s on the floors in between.

Sign surrounded by red and white bricks. Reads Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center. The sign has a train on it.
The welcome sign.

Learning About The Canteen

Up on the 7th floor, you can go outside on the observation deck. Unfortunately, I skipped the observation deck because when I tried to open the door the wind nearly took me out. See last weeks post to learn about the wind advisory that was in effect during my visit. On the inside of the 7th floor, though, there was a display about The Canteen. It was fascinating and something I’d never heard of before.

During World War II, the military transported soldiers and other military personnel across the US by rail. Trains transported four million each month. That’s a lot. At North Platte, a woman who worked with the Red Cross canteen during World War I knew the Union Pacific Railroad Depot had an unused lunchroom. In a matter of days, a committee created The Canteen and on December 25, 1941, they opened for business.

Black and white photo of a train filled with young men hanging out the windows.
Photo of the first soldiers pulling into North Platte station to receive sustenance. It was on a timeline display that’s why you see the 1950 year marker.

Many times, each day trains stopped at North Platte and volunteers would serve an average of 3,000 – 5,000 people daily. They served coffee, sandwiches and much more. All free. All provided from donations by 125 nearby communities. Toward the end of the war, they served 8,000 people a day. To give you an idea of what that looks like: in March 1945, they served 40,161 homemade cookies, 30,679 hardboiled eggs, 6,547doughnuts and 6,939 cakes. And that doesn’t include the gallons and gallons of coffee.

Volunteers served soldiers every single day for 51 months. The last day it was open was April 1, 1946. In total, they served six million servicemen during those years.

Isn’t that incredible?

A poster from Union Pcific Railroad that shows farmers in a garden and a woman in front of a lot of cans. It reads, "Grow a Garden. Produce all you can. Can all you can. Store all you can. For information consult your county agriculture agent.
I loved this poster. In order to be able to feed all those men, local people were asked to plant as much as they could and donate the leftovers to the effort of The Canteen.

Orphan Trains

The 8th floor is the top of the tower with a 360-degree view through big glass windows. The 8th floor is staffed by a volunteer who used to work in the rail yards. The man I talked to retired after almost 40 years. My favorite part of this floor was the display on the orphan trains, which I didn’t realize was really our earliest foster care-type system.

They had some good info boards but they also ran an episode of the PBS American Experience titled Orphan Trains. It sucked me in. I sat and watched the entire one-hour video. Did you know that between 1854 and 1929, more than 100,000 homeless, abused, abandoned children boarded orphan trains for rural America?

After I left, I looked up more information on orphan trains. I discovered there are a couple of dedicated museums and research centers for those who ended up on an orphan train (and their decedents). One is in Kansas and one is in Louisiana. They are now on my list. If you’ve ever visited one or have family story about an orphan train rider, please do share in the comments. Adopted at birth, I find myself drawn to stories and experiences of those not raised by birth parents.

Silhouettes of trains and a lot of power poles. Dark clouds in the sky with the sun and sun rays coming through.
After we arrived, the sun peeking out through the dark clouds over the rail yard.

Pine Bluffs Distillery

Leaving Nebraska along I-80, you cross into Wyoming. At the state’s border is the small town of Pine Bluffs. The population sign I passed said the town has just over eleven hundred people. With a town that small, I was surprised by the size of my last Harvest Hosts stop.

Close up of a brown metal sign with Pine Bluffs distilling stenciled on in light yellow.
One of the distillery signs near the front door.

Pine Bluffs Distillery has outside seating, four or five large tables inside as well as a dozen seats at the bar. I arrived on a Friday and the place was hopping, including a BBQ food truck. The distillery gets all of its grain from farms within a 30-mile radius. They make whisky and vodka.

Two other members of Harvest Hosts stayed that night. I ended up parked near one of the couples who’d come up for the night from Colorado in their Class A. It was pretty warm as I arrived about 3 p.m. and I copied their brilliant idea. The guy at the distillery told me to park on the far side of their six giant silos if I wanted to see the sunset. But the couple actually parked on the opposite side and within about an hour of arriving, the shadows of the silos shaded our rigs. And when it’s hot outside, every little bit helps.

A row of tall metal grain silos with their shadows. On the right side of photo is a motor home and the front of a white van.
A Class A and my little van and trailer getting the benefit of the long shadows thrown by grain silos.

I sat next to the couple at the bar inside the distillery (with a seat in between for social distancing, though, I’ll admit it wasn’t six feet). I planned to stay about 30 minutes and ended up sitting, chatting, tasting and cocktailing for over two hours. Good thing the rig was in the shade otherwise I might have cooked my kitty.

Drinking and Not Driving

I ordered a white Russian (though they call it a different name). Then I sampled two whiskeys (too strong for me), two infused vodkas (green olive and dill pickle, also not for me though I did drink the full sample), an amaretto they make themselves (so good that if they sold it in bottles, I would’ve picked one up) and a ginger beer (which I also loved). I loved the amaretto so much that I had a second cocktail, an amaretto sour (again, they call it a different name). It was fantastic.

On a light wood bar top, a glass with brown liquid and a straw followed by a line of tiny shot cups. Most are empty but a couple have liquid in them.
White Russian and my six tasting samples. I couldn’t finish the whisky ones.
A closeup on a drink in a glass. Brown liquid is at the bottom
Amaretto Sour.

When asked if I wanted a third, I replied that the great thing about overnighting on property was not having to drive. Still, I did need to actually be able to walk back to my RV so I passed on a third cocktail.

I easily could’ve stayed longer but, after two hours, I wanted to go back and check on my cat. She was fine as the rig was not too hot. Later, I learned that the owners gave a distillery tour. I missed out. And was a little bummed. But you know what I say? It just means I’ll have to stop in again on my next trip along I-80.

White van hooked up to a white trailer, parked on dirt in front of three tall silver grain silos with a dark blue sky in the background. And a cat in the foreground.
Morning walk with the cat before we get on the road. The 17-year-old girl loves her morning walks.

Harvest Hosts

Just in case you missed last weeks’ post and you don’t already know Harvest Hosts is a membership organization where you pay an annual fee for access to the map of over 1,100 Hosts. Hosts are places you can overnight as long as you have a self-contained RV and include places like the ones mentioned above as well as wineries, farms and other adventure businesses.

If you want to check them out and get 15% off your membership, click HERE. You’ll see a coupon code in a ribbon across the top. Use that at checkout for the discount.

Now What?

I’m glad to be settled for a little bit—visiting friends and family—while I try my best to be patient as I wait to make fall and winter plans. Of course, it’s impossible to make plans and feel confident that they are solid as I’m starting to discover fall events are getting cancelled as well. So many unknowns with how the coronavirus will proceed and what effect that may have on plans and reservations. But we do our best.

What plans have you made for fall and winter? Were those plans effected by the pandemic?

Links to Posts Referenced Above:

To see products recently purchased by readers or to browse and shop at Amazon, follow either of these links. Huge thanks for your support.

Affiliate Link Disclosure. As a result of being an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.