My experience with Hutchinson had previously been limited to our annual pilgrimage to the Kansas State Fair and visits to the Cosmosphere whenever out-of-towners visit. I had no idea Hutchinson has been nurturing a vibrant downtown redevelopment, nor that its civic and business leaders are embracing social media. Janet Regier, Director of Marketing at the Cosmosphere, and LeAnn Cox, Director of the Greater Hutchinson Convention/Visitors Bureau graciously invited nine bloggers to visit Hutchinson on a Blogger Fam ("familiarity") tour. Most of us were from around Kansas but others came from Oklahoma, Iowa and Texas. We were whisked around for in-depth tours of some of Hutchinson's most popular attractions and I think it's safe to say that we all had a wonderful visit.
I knew I would like the Cosmosphere, having been there before, but being able to tour their education department and archives was really impressive. As the nearsighted progeny of two generations of pilots, I am embarrassed to admit that the flying bug never really hit me and I grew up with space travel as a reality, not a dream. As we received a VIP tour from Cosmosphere President and CEO Chris Orwoll, I realized just how cool the concept of space travel is. The magnitude of it. The wonder of it. Getting to touch the hatch from Apollo 13 was really phenomenal. To see the mission journals with chicken-scratched calculations and contemplate how totally awesome it was for these astronauts to travel to outer space in a non-digital era… (they used sliderules, people!) Just mind-blowing.
Everyone who works at "the Cos" seems to genuinely love the place and its mission. Joel Walker, the VP of Education, showed us around and even tethered us into the multi-axis trainer and stuffed some of us in the teeny tiny Soyuz. He also told us more about the educational programs at the Cosmosphere and now I honestly can't wait for Roo and Jasper to be old enough to attend some of them. All of the programs espouse three core values: teamwork, communication and leadership and the levels range from daycamps for elementary school kids to more in-depth programs for older kids and teenagers. There are overnight camp-outs, an Intergenerational Elderhostel program for grandparents to attend with their grandchildren and even a "Girls Night Out" program that tries to keep Girl Scouts engaged in science. The crown jewel of their educational series, the Future Astronaut Training Program, is in its 24th year and sounds absolutely amazing:
Campers train in the Cosmosphere's camp simulators - the Space Shuttle simulator, 4-G centrifuge, multi-axis trainer, Soyuz trainer and stress simulator. They also build and launch rockets, tour the Hall of Space Museum and explore the night sky. Advanced campers perform underwater scuba exercises, conduct ropes course team training and travel to Johnson Space Center in Houston and Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Many campers also make life-long friends.Joel and his colleague Howie G also host an online show called What's Up @ The Cos? that has one of the most amusing theme songs I've heard in a while. We spent a lot of time at the Cosmosphere and it was like a second home in Hutch. Getting to watch the IMAX projector being loaded and seeing an after-hours show was such a treat. And the reflection of the Blackbird was just too good to pass up, even with my point and shoot…
Another fantastic destination was the Kansas Underground Salt Museum, which takes you 650 feet below the rest of Hutchinson. No matter how windswept the prairie is, it is always cool and comfortable down there. I don't think I have ever experienced such total darkness! The history of the mine is interesting and the subterranean labyrinth holds government files, Hollywood archives and memorabilia and a 250 million year old bacteria found trapped inside a salt crystal that just may be the oldest living organism on the planet. Who knew?!
I loved visiting the Indian Creek Bison Ranch. I've actually bought buffalo meat from owner Jerry Schmidt at the Farmer's Market in Wichita so it was really interesting to see the herd up close and personal. They are beautiful animals and I couldn't believe how close we were to them. I felt the carnivore's guilt about munching on a delicious pepper jack bison jerky stick while snapping pictures of them. But they are free range, hormone and vaccine-free, happy looking critters so that is something, right?
Even the hotel we stayed at was pretty remarkable in its own way. The Grand Prairie Hotel & Convention Center is gigantic. My room was huge and clean and had space-themed carpet that added to its kitschy charm. I was totally floored by its indoor pool area, which also has a space theme. It was kind of like a tiki bar atmosphere, but space… I will definitely have to bring the kids back for this since the main pool is one foot deep and I suspect they would have a blast.
The beauty of Hutch is that ordinary citizens love their town so much that it's contagious. Case in point: What's Up Hutch (WUH) is a website that acts as sort of de facto online bulletin board for the city. It seems refreshingly community-driven. I love the self-deprecating humor in this mission statement: …we thought Hutchinson, KS really was cool enough (not the coolest ever, just cool enough) to have a magazine, a place for discussion, a place to share thoughts and opinions, a place to find out SOME of the cool stuff that just happened and maybe get a heads up on SOME cool stuff to come.
Third Thursday nights are hopping in downtown Hutch, thanks to some intrepid business owners. Artist Jennifer Randall's Gallery 7 is the epicenter of the Third Thursdays which seem to bring out a cross-section of Hutchinsonians. It was really inspiring to see young girls riding their bikes down the street and people of all ages and walks of life milling around on a spring evening. I could see community in motion, from the brisk business at the Anchor Inn, a bustling Mexican eatery, to the laid back vibe of Metropolitan Coffee and the many boutiques and antique shops that stay open late to cater to the hometown crowds. I bought a bunch of gadgets at Apron Strings, a sort of hometown Williams-Sonoma or Sur La Table with a gorgeous cooking demonstration facility and just about anything you could want for your kitchen.
It's easy to eat well in Hutch. I was only there for a day and a half but we enjoyed some incredible meals. The Airport Steakhouse is actually in the airport and has fabulous steaks– a no-brainer recipe for the perfect dinner. Carl's Bar has been a local institution since 1945 and recently moved into the old Strand Theater building. It's sort of a swanky dive with build-your-own sandwiches and pizzas. And shuffleboard, of course!
Speaking of old theaters, I almost forgot to mention our tour of the lovely Fox Theater, which has been restored to its full art deco glory. I know I am probably missing something! Believe me, our two day tour of Hutchinson was a whirlwind of activity. I had no idea that there was so much to do and see. It makes me want to go back. And also take a closer look at my own "boring" community…
Special thanks to Cody Heitschmidt, Hutch's social media savant, for including me on this tour.