Princeton Cemetery and University

Having found myself accidentally “collecting” the graves of American presidents, last year I decided to turn it into a purposeful assignment. Unlike my mission to visit each of the 50 united states, however, this is a much more relaxed and less driven bucket list. I am certain I will never visit all of the graves but it gives me inspiration for trips and gives me another excuse (as if I needed one) to explore cemeteries.

This presidential graves project is why my husband and I took a day trip to Princeton, New Jersey. The teenagers elected to stay home. Our destination was Princeton Cemetery, established in 1757 and filled with notable people, including almost all of the deceased presidents of Princeton University. Knowing these facts, my husband was anticipating a very long walk and an arduous task in finding the graves we were interested in. He was relieved, therefore, to see how compact the cemetery is and delighted when he saw there was a map available in a kiosk at the entrance. It took us no time at all to find the graves – just as well because it was perishingly cold.

The president who was the focus of my trip was Grover Cleveland, notable for being the only American president (thus far, at least) to have served two non-consecutive terms. Another tidbit about Cleveland is that, rather than being conscripted during the Civil War, he opted to pay a substitute to serve in his stead. Thankfully George Benninsky survived the conflict. He was also the only president (so far) to get married while in office. His wife and oldest daughter are buried alongside him. The latter – Ruth who died in childhood – was purportedly the inspiration for the Baby Ruth chocolate bar though timelines suggest it was actually named for the legendary baseball player, Babe Ruth.

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Among the other historic graves we sought out, we visited the grave of Aaron Burr. Burr, of course, was a prominent participant in the Revolution, a Senator, and served as Vice President under Thomas Jefferson. Obviously nowadays he is most (in)famous for killing Alexander Hamilton during a duel. Possibly more scandalous, however, was his involvement in a complicated conspiracy that led to him being tried and acquitted of treason.

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I also visited the grave of John Witherspoon. Like me, he was born in Scotland and emigrated to America well into adulthood. Witherspoon was a president of Princeton but he is probably more notable as being a Founding Father and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.

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After our cemetery wanderings, a short walk took us to the centre of the campus of Princeton University. I have never visited an Ivy League university before so perhaps this will be the start of another collection – but probably not. Talking of which, I had never actually thought to look into the origins of the term “Ivy League”. I had assumed it was something to do with the progeny of colonial families being in with the roots, maybe something about social climbing being like ivy on walls, or maybe just a reference to the very old buildings of such colleges being covered in ivy. Turns out it is because of the tradition of each graduating class planting ivy around the institution’s buildings.

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I enjoyed wandering around all the buildings because I just like architecture (just as appreciation, not as one of the many things I research and read about). The focal building of our excursion, however, was Nassau Hall. It was built in 1756 making it the oldest of the University’s buildings and, at the time, the largest building in the entire of New Jersey. When the Congress of Confederation had to leave Philadelphia in 1783, they reconvened in Nassau Hall and that made it the nation’s Capitol for four months. I had read that it was possible to still see the pock-marks of canon strikes that the building received during the Battle of Princeton but between all the ivy and my eyesight I was unable to spot any signs of damage.

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The majority of buildings were closed to visitors because of it being a federal holiday (Martin Luther King Jr Day) but we were able to get out of the biting cold by entering the Chapel. The word “chapel” led me to believe it would be a more modest building but it was vast enough to be a cathedral. The light was hitting the windows beautifully, highlighting both the stained glass and dappling the walls with wonderful colours. It was a very pleasant space full of wonderfully crafted stone- and woodwork.

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We would both like to return to Princeton as it looks to be an interesting town with further opportunities for exploration – but with milder temperatures.

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And I have now visited ten presidential graves.

Eisenhower’s Farm

This Memorial Day, Mr Pict and I decided to go out for the day without the kids. They were invited to join us but declined so we thought we would take the opportunity to do something they would find tedious. We have been to Gettysburg many times since emigrating to the US. However, because Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd, our focus has always been on the battlefield. This time, therefore, we decided to approach Gettysburg from a different angle and visit Eisenhower’s home.

We arrived a little too early for a tour so we had a wander of the exterior of the property. We saw the limousine the Eisenhowers would take from the White House to Gettysburg and I was imagining this fancy car bumping along the uneven roads for two or three hours. Popping into the barn, I ended up chatting to one Ranger about Scotland generally and specifically about Eisenhower’s suite in Culzean Castle. It has been a long time since I visited Culzean so I had forgotten the Eisenhower connection. It is, therefore, pretty weird that I have ended up visiting two places where he lived given he is not exactly of interest to me. Adjacent to the barn, we saw the cramped cinder block hut that was the base of operations for the Secret Service Agents.

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We lucked out when it was time for our tour as we were assigned to a very informative and engaging Ranger. I only possess general knowledge of Eisenhower so I found it all very educational. I learned that the farm house was purchased and extensively restored by the Eisenhowers as part of their retirement plan but Ike kept being called back to serve his country in one way or another so it took many years before they could use the property as their permanent residence. They did, however, use it as a weekend bolt hole and to entertain visiting Heads of State. Only one – Nehru – stayed overnight and we saw the guest bedroom where he slept.

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My major takeaway from my visit was that, while Eisenhower was a man of extraordinary achievements in public life, in private life the Eisenhowers were massively ordinary. Since I am much more interested in social history than I am military or political history, this actually led me to engage with the tour much more than I anticipated because the home was a time capsule of mid-century taste rather than being a grand home. For example, the Eisenhowers loved to dinner eat off of tray tables while watching TV so we saw the sun room where they used to relax and their wonderfully cuboid TV cabinet. We saw the bedroom where Ike took naps and recuperated from his various acute health complaints and the master bedroom where Mamie would issue orders to staff while still in bed in her nightgown.

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After leaving the Eisenhower farm, we headed into Gettysburg. The centre was packed because of the Memorial Day celebrations so we ended up parked a few blocks away. As it happened, we were near a brewery so we decided to pop in for a grown up lunch and some day drinking on my part since I had a cider. That repast then gave us the recharge required to do some extensive wandering in the blistering heat. Most of the historic buildings were closed because it was a holiday but we took in the exteriors and browsed in some fun stores. Mr Pict enjoyed seeing the house where Lincoln had slept the night before he delivered the Gettysburg Address and was also in nerd heaven in a store selling board games and another filled to the gunnels with Civil War antiques. We strolled back to our car along the route of the Memorial Day Parade so we could take in some of the festivities as we went.

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It was a fun day out and we are hopeful for more day trips – preferably with our kids – now that we are officially in Summer.

Ambling in Annapolis

For reasons too tedious to explain but involving leave entitlement, ceaseless winter storms, and rolling rescheduling, Mr Pict and I found ourselves spending a weekend driving to and from Washington DC.  My in-laws had flown in from England and met us there in order to then take our four children on a Spring break vacation.  Mr Pict and I, therefore, found ourselves unexpectedly child-free in Washington DC.

We spent the evening catching up with friends over dinner and wine.  Before I earned that grown up treat, however, I had to trail my husband around some Civil War sites he had never visited.  As I have previously explained, my husband spent his early teens living in the suburbs of DC.  How he managed to live there for years plus have us return from the UK to visit his parents several times without ever visiting these sites is beyond me.  However, as a Civil War nerd, it is on his bucket list to visit just about every obscure Civil War site in the nation so I was happy to indulge him and his bucket list collecting.

First up was Fort Stevens.  I don’t know why I made any sort of assumptions but I had expected the site to be a little more grand or at least cared for than it clearly was.  Instead, what I found were some mounds of earth on a patch of scrappy grass in the middle of a residential neighbourhood, a couple of canons surrounded by litter and broken glass, and the noise of a construction site that abutted the remains of the fort.  Fort Stevens’ significance rests in the fact that it was the site of the only Civil War battle to take place within the limits of the nation’s capital and it was the only time when a serving President came under enemy fire.  The history is that, in July 1864, Jubal Early’s Confederate troops decided to march on the capital following a battle in nearby Frederick.  They encountered Fort Stevens – one of a series of forts protecting the city – and there was a brief battle that repelled the Confederate soldiers.  Lincoln and his wife visited the fort and witnessed the battle, hence his coming under fire.  A rock with a bronze plaque marks the spot where Lincoln stood on the earthworks.

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I was underwhelmed by Fort Stevens but the next stop on the itinerary was a little more my cup of tea in that it was a cemetery.  Battleground Cemetery contains the graves of the 40 soldiers who died in the defence of Fort Stevens and others who fought there – the last to be interred being buried there as recently as 1936.  Again there was a Lincoln connection since Abe attended the burial cemetery and dedicated the land, which makes it one of America’s smallest national cemeteries.  It was indeed a modest cemetery.  There were a few regimental memorials within its walls but the graves themselves were very small and simple and arranged in a circle.  It was well-maintained and a tiny pocket of peace and quiet despite being within a major city.

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The following day we decided to stop off in Annapolis as we wended our way back to the Philly suburbs.  Being a bitterly cold Sunday in March, there was not an awful lot for us to do but wander around and absorb the charm of Annapolis’ historic district.  To give our pit stop a little more focus, we decided to visit the Maryland State House.  Occupied since the 1770s, it is the oldest state capitol in continuous use and once served as the nation’s capitol.





I started out my visit there by stopping by the statue of Thurgood Marshall.  It depicts Marshall as a young lawyer at the start of his career and behind him are pillars reading “Equal Justice Under Law”.  The sculpture also contains three other related statues: one of Donald Gaines Murray, whose case was one of Marshall’s early victories in the fight to desegregate schools, and two children who symbolise Brown V the Board of Education.  It used to be the case that a statue of Roger Taney stood on the grounds but his statue was removed last year.  I personally was glad to see Marshall celebrated at the State House and to see Taney’s absence.




Once inside, we explored the various rooms on a self-guided tour. We had the whole place virtually to ourselves so it was very relaxing and informal.  We had a peek into the current Senate and House chambers.  Mr Pict enjoyed seeing the voting buttons on each desk whereas I was enamoured of the Tiffany skylights.  The Caucus room was very dark but was filled with gleaming silverware.  This was a service from the USS Maryland which is designed with lots of references and symbols relating to the state.  I like things that are shiny but the silverware was all a bit fussy for my taste.  I wouldn’t want to keep it polished either.  Just as well I will never own a silver service set then!  Probably the most historically significant room in the State House is the Old Senate Chamber.  It was in this space, in December 1783, that George Washington resigned his commission as Commander of the Continental Army thus establishing an important precedent for America’s democracy.



Back out on the cold streets, we wandered around and poked our noses into the odd shop.  We spent a lot of time rummaging in a very cluttered, very musty, but entirely wonderful book shop.  We then wandered down to the Dock area.  There I found the statue commemorating Alex Haley, author of Roots, and Kunta Kinte, the fictionalised African ancestor of Haley’s that is the starting point of his saga.  We sat there and people- and duck-watched for a bit before walking back through the old streets and back to the car.

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This was my first visit to Annapolis since I first visited in 1995 and I had forgotten how quaint and attractive it is.  At some point we will have to return with the kids, in warmer temperatures, and when there is more to do.

The Liberty Bell

We had a day out in Philly on Saturday to celebrate my birthday.  Last year I chose to visit a historic cemetery and this year I decided we should consume more local history.  I thought it was entirely ridiculous that I had been living in the suburbs of Philadelphia for four years now (as of 17 October) yet had never been to see the Liberty Bell or been inside Independence Hall.  That, therefore, was my selection for the first part of my birthday trip.

The lines to get in to see the Liberty Bell – part of the Independence Historic Site – were long but not as ridiculously long as they have been on other occasions when we have considered viewing it.  We, therefore, joined the line and found that it moved at a reasonable pace.  We all had to remove layers of clothing and place our possessions in boxes to be scanned for security purposes but, even so, it only took about half an hour between joining the queue and being allowed to go and view the bell.  There were displays outlining the bell’s history, its symbolism, and how it has been cared for and restored.  The boys had zero interest in lingering long enough to read so Mr Pict and I had to skim and scan.

The bell is, of course, famous for its crack.  This appeared as soon as it was rung for the first time in Philadelphia.  Poor workmanship it seems.  It was recast a couple of times by men whose names – Pass and Stow – appear on the bell and then the bell cracked to the extent it appears now in the 19th Century.  It was probably one of the bells that was rung when the Declaration of Independence was read publicly for the first time on 8 July 1776 but really the rest of its history was pretty insignificant.  Its real importance emerges from its symbolism, particularly for the abolitionist movement.  Its use as a symbol is really why I wanted to see it: the bell is used all over the place locally and nationally so I thought I had really better see the real thing.



After our visit to the Liberty Bell, the plan was to go and explore Independence Hall.  However, all of the tickets for the day were already gone.  Completely bad planning on our part.  Tsk tsk.  We will have to return another time.  We, therefore, had to content ourselves with the adjacent Old City Hall.  Its significance rests in the fact that it housed the Supreme Court until the nation’s capital was relocated to Washington DC.  We had a quick gander and then we moved on.


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Sticking with the theme of America’s founding, our next pit stop was to see the grave of Benjamin Franklin.  There was a charge, however, to enter Christ Church Burial Ground.  Despite the modest fee, we decided not to pay so I had to content myself with a glimpse through the railings.  Oh dear.  Our planning for the day was really not going too well at all.  Happily none of this was the main event for my birthday day out.


Fort McHenry

While our oldest two sons were still gallivanting in central America with their grandparents, Mr Pict and I decided to take the younger two on a weekend trip to Baltimore.  It takes less time to drive to Baltimore than it used to take us to drive to Glasgow from where we lived in Scotland and that was a journey we used to make just to buy shoes.  Despite its relative proximity, however, we had only visited Baltimore once since we emigrated to America.  It was, therefore, time to go and explore the city a bit more.

First stop was Fort McHenry.  Even if you don’t know much about the War of 1812 (like me!) you will likely know of Fort McHenry through association because it was the defence of that fort that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, the rousing song that would later become the national anthem.  Fort McHenry is positioned on Baltimore’s harbour since it was that waterway it was built to protect and it is in the shape of a five pointed star to maximise the vantage points for each bastion.  Built at the close of the 18th Century, the Fort was in constant use by America’s military from then until the end of the First World War.  It is, therefore, a very historic place of national significance.  Want to hazard a guess how thrilled our 8 and 10 year olds were to be there absorbing all of that history?  See if you can spot the point at which they disengaged.

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After an introduction in the Visitor Center and the youngest Pictling signing up to do the junior ranger activities, we headed out into the swampy humidity to tour the fort.  There were reenactors demonstrating something about firing cannons and cooking at the fort but the kids had no interest in engaging with any of that so we didn’t pause.  Once inside the thick walls, we found that some young men were demonstrating different drum signals that were used to signal different messages.  I think there might have been one rhythm that was beat out on the drum skin to signal whose turn it was to peel potatoes.  But I may also have just imagined that because I wasn’t paying adequate attention.




We not only saw a reproduction flag flying above the fort but also saw the original wooden cross brace from the famous defence.  It had been preserved as if it was a religious relic.  I confess that I don’t particularly understand America’s near worship of its flag but, of course, this flag has much more historic significance than most.  It was, therefore, pretty cool to see the crumbly old wood.  The defence of the Fort took place over the 13th and 14th of September and it didn’t really end in a victory for either side.  It was more a withdrawal by the British naval vessels because the great defence of the fort had depleted all of their ammo.  If memory serves, the whole War of 1812 similarly concluded because everyone just sort of gave up and decided to pack it in.  Anyway, the flag that was flying during that 25 hour period of conflict had been sewn by Mary Pickersgill and it was seeing the flag emerge through the smoke the next day that told all the onlookers – including Francis Scott Key – that America had prevailed and still held the Fort.  So that it what the national anthem is all about.  We had taken the boys to see the original Star Spangled Banner way back in 2014 so we were gradually piecing together its history in a scattershot way.



As a Civil War nerd, Mr Pict was much more keen on the Fort’s history from the Civil War era.  During that conflict, the fort had been used as a military prison and some prominent prisoners had been held there.  One building told the story of that period of history and we were able to step inside one of the very pokey jail cells.




It was a sticky hot day and the kids and I are not much into military history so we didn’t look at every single space or exhibit in detail.  We walked around the ramparts and took in the views and we pottered around in the various barrack buildings.  Each building exhibited a period of the fort’s history, including its use in the First World War as a military hospital and its use in the Second World War as a coastguard base.  There was a room filled with barrels to show what the gunpowder stores would have looked like and there was a collection of cannon outside one building.







The boys had had more than enough of visiting the fort, especially because it was so similar to Fort Mifflin, so we decided to depart before they spontaneously combusted in a combination of frustration and heat.  They soon cheered up on the walk back to the car, however, since they found dozens of shed cicada skins stuck to the bark of trees.



Road Trip 2017 #23 – Bodie

The thirteenth day of our road trip fell on Independence Day.  We were staying in Mammoth Lakes at a ski lodge hotel.  Our suite had two large bedrooms, two bathrooms (which is a boon when you have six people sharing a space), and a spacious living room and kitchen-diner.  It was a welcome slice of domesticity after a few days of being crammed together into hotel rooms with regular proportions.  Despite having access to kitchen facilities, however, we decided to go out for breakfast as our 4th of July treat.  The hotel receptionist recommended a place in town named The Stove so it was to there that we headed.  It was a quaint little place, clearly popular with locals and tourists alike, and we enjoyed a pleasant breakfast to set us up for the day.  The diner was on the street where the town’s Independence Day parade was happening so we saw fun runners come jogging past and poked around at some of the stalls that were set up, including one where my younger kids obtained some new reading material.  We decided to get out of town before the parade, however, as we feared we might end up stuck by all the road closures.

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Our first destination for the day was Bodie, a ghost town I have wanted to visit for a very long time.  It was a long drive up a winding, narrow, rubbly road to reach Bodie so – even before we set foot in the town – I was struck by how challenging life must have been for those who lived and worked there before the days of motorised transport.  I had assumed the national holiday might mean that people were at home with family and friends, doing the home town celebration thing, but when we pulled up to the entry booth the ranger informed us that the car park was full, the overflow car park was full, so we ought to just find a space on the road somewhere and park on the right.  I thought maybe that all of the visitors might detract from the sense of isolation and abandonment – those qualities one really wants from a ghost town – but the site was so vast that actually it wasn’t problematic.


Bodie was a mining town founded after a chap named Bodey found gold there in 1859.  The town gradually grew and peaked in the late 1870s, booming after a rich seam of gold ore was happened upon following a mine collapse.  During that period, Bodie had an incredible 30 mines and 9 stamp mills, where the ore was processed.  The population ballooned to about 8000 people but rapidly declined with mine closures.  Fires, the climate, and the passing decades destroyed many of the structures in the town and then the state park service stepped in and decided to preserve Bodie in a state of what they refer to as “arrested decay”.  Apparently what remains represents a mere 5% of what was once there so it really had been a massive town at one point in time.


We had a guide book to the town which was useful in identifying buildings and in breathing life into the old bones of the place by telling some of the stories of the people who lived and worked there.  We happened to be parked near some mining equipment so it was there that we started our tour of the 100+ buildings still standing in Bodie.  This equipment had been relocated from the Red Cloud mine and included the head frame and the cages that hauled miners and ore out of the mine shafts.




From there we wandered among the residential and commercial buildings and the wonky outhouses.  Many of these still had their contents inside.  We could peer through the windows and see dust-laden rooms containing busted furniture, plates and bottles on tables, blankets on beds, layers of wallpaper peeling.  As we did so, we learned about some of the residents of the town.  We learned about the schoolteacher whose father was a Sheriff killed in a shootout near Mono Lake, about a very naughty schoolchild arsonist who burned down the original schoolhouse, the murder of one man and the lynching of his killer, the one-armed manager of a baseball team, the women of the red light district, and those of Chinatown, and we saw coffins propped up against the wall in the morgue.  We were able to step just inside the Methodist Church so we could view its interior and were able to enter and wander around one home.  It was fantastic.












The Miner’s Union Hall is now a museum and we had fun looking in the display cases at all the personal items, photographs, hearses, and glass bottles.  We also loved finding random rusty objects lying in space between buildings, old vehicles standing like sculptures among the long grass, and gas pumps.









We took a wander past the lopsided hotel and the fire station and headed towards the stamp mill.  It was here that iron rods, mercury and cyanide, were used to separate the gold from the rock.  It was through being superintendent of this mining company that President Herbert Hoover’s brother Theodore lived in Bodie.  It would have been very interesting to tour the stamp mill but we knew the kids would rail against the idea so we didn’t get tickets.  We took a route past some more houses, the schoolhouse, and the hydroelectric substation, and then sadly it was time to return to the car and leave Bodie.






I absolutely loved visiting Bodie!  It actually exceeded my expectations, which were high.  I could have stayed there for hours and hours, maybe even days.  I especially would have loved seeing it at night to see if it made the place feel eerie at all.  I am so glad we were able to fit a visit to Bodie into our road trip.



Road Trip 2017 #22 – Manzanar

Travelling north from Death Valley, we stopped in at Manzanar.  We felt it was important to connect the boys to a tangible reminder of how ugly and inhumane a great democracy like America can allow itself to become.  Manzanar was one of ten camps where Japanese-Americans were interned during the Second World War, having been forcibly removed from the communities they were residing in.  Being the best preserved, it has come under the protection of the National Park Service.

We started in the exhibition area that adjoins the Visitor Center.  The displays were informative and engaging and really helped the boys grasp what had happened in wartime America and what unchecked intolerance can lead to.  They were staggered to learn that even Japanese American soldiers, returning from fighting for America, were subject to abuse simply because of their heritage.  They could not comprehend the degree of prejudice that would lead to a democracy legislating in order to subject men, women, and children to such treatment.  They understood the history and the placement of Manzanar in a wider context of historic examples of a nation legislating in favour of intolerance but they could not comprehend the inhumanity.  Sometimes it is simply impossible to explain hate.  Because they could most relate to it, they were most moved by the section dedicated to the history of children in the camp.  These children included orphans who were removed from institutions and relocated to the camp because somehow tiny orphaned children were seen as a threat to national security because they happened to have Japanese heritage.  All of the exhibits were incredibly emotive.  It was impossible not to be moved.  It was impossible not to be provoked into asking questions.  How did people allow this to happen?  What do we need to do to ensure it can never happen again?



Most of the fabric of the camp was destroyed in the couple of years immediately following its closure.  An attempt at erasing the past, perhaps.  What we saw when we stepped outside, therefore, was really a reconstruction of some of the huts and an indication of where the others would once have stood.  We found we were walking around in almost complete silence as it seemed neither we nor our fellow visitors could find the ability to absorb what we were taking in and articulate our response.  The huts had been furnished to illustrate how the internees lived.  It must have been so horrendously difficult to go from living in private houses to living in these flimsy bunk houses with little or no privacy.  Further, the temperatures during the warm months must have been completely awful and in winter they must have been bitterly cold.  The furnishings and personal items in the reconstructed huts really breathed life into the place.  It brought the political and national history of the place into personal, individual focus.  Seeing a tiny pair of shoes tucked in beside a bedstead has rarely been so poignant.





The last location we visited at Manzanar was the cemetery.  I think I read that over 140 people died while held at Manzanar.  Most were buried elsewhere but a few were interred on site.  The remains of many of those were then relocated after the camp was closed in 1945.  I love cemeteries.  They are among my favourite places and I always feel comfortable when wandering around a cemetery.  This cemetery, however, was haunting not because of the dead but because of its wider context.  The whole of Manzanar was haunting.  It was just that the isolated cemetery, scratched out of the desert dust, the snow capped mountains looming in the background, seemed to encapsulate the utter awfulness of Manzanar.  Never again.


Road Trip 2017 #9 – Walnut Canyon

After the astronomy and geology science of Meteor Crater, we headed off to do something that was very much more my cup of tea: Walnut Canyon.  It was another place that Mr Pict and I had visited in 2000 and it was a place I was keen to return to as it had left a strong impression on me.  I was also keen to ensure that the kids had some sense of the history of the indigenous people of the region during our road trip around the Southwest states.

Walnut Canyon is the site of pretty sheer cliffs in which, 800 years ago, a group of indigenous people made their homes.  They created dwellings in the face of the canyon from natural hollows in the rock, sheltered by overhanging rocks, and successfully eked out an existence hunting, gathering, and even farming.  It is an astounding achievement that they managed to flourish there because even now – with modern access and trails – the place is pretty remote, inaccessible, and terrifying to anyone who (like me) experiences a fear of heights.  It is not clear what led these local people to relocate to the canyon nor is it clear why they left. They only lived there for about a century.

The National Park visitor centre is positioned at the top of the canyon so we spent a fair bit of time in there preparing ourselves for the hike in and out of the canyon.  I have a new appreciation for cold water fountains and air conditioning so we took advantage of those before we headed out into the heat.  There was a small but effective education area for the kids.  They especially liked being able to feel the pelts of local mammals, from bears to skunks.  Just outside the building, they encountered some actual wildlife as there were lizards basking themselves and our youngest son made friends with a squirrel who followed him around for a while.



The descent into the canyon was easy.  The pathways have been upgraded since our previous visit and feel much more stable underfoot and, though narrow, there was enough room to pass people without fearing being knocked off the edge, which was lucky since the canyon was very busy.  The scenery was breathtaking and as soon as we dropped below rim height we could see some of the cave dwellings in cliffs across the canyon.



Before long we had reached the dwellings that were accessible on the trail loop.  At this point, I assume to preserve the authenticity of the place, the pathway was very narrow and there were no railings or fences.  This presented my kids with the opportunity to freak me out.  Even when they had ample space on the path – given we were walking single file – they would walk perilously close to the edge.  I, therefore, had to transform into Bad Cop Mother and constantly police and chastise them.  Our middle two sons were in a cranky mood as it was.  They had this notion in their heads that the whole walk would be boring since they were certain (despite being told otherwise) that they would not be allowed inside any of the dwellings and that the whole purpose of the trek was therefore pointless.  Seriously annoying.  The 10 year old perked up when we reached the dwellings and he was proved wrong.  The 11 year old, however, stubbornly refused to emerge from his cocoon of annoyance.  At one point he even declared, “I do think this is cool but I am in a bad mood”.  Sigh.  Sometimes as parents we just have to have faith that as some point our offspring will appreciate and value the experiences we are giving them no matter how resistant they are at the time.





Anyway, we all (maybe even the 11 year old) enjoyed exploring the dwellings, most of which were open to visitors.  It was actually quite easy to imagine people living in the spaces, cooking food, laughing together, bringing back food from the rim level farmland, mothers shouting at their children to stay away from the edge of that ruddy path …. Each little recess also offered us some very welcome shade and cool because by then the sun was high in the sky and the air temperature was oven-like.  What comes down, must go up when it comes to canyon hikes.  We started the return walk and realised just how long the ascent was going to be.  Walking uphill in immense heat is pretty exhausting and gross.  We stopped for rest breaks wherever there was a patch of shade available.  On some corner turns, we could see the visitor centre sitting nest-like at the top of the canyon and for a long time it seemed like it was never getting any closer.  By the time I made it out of the canyon, my mouth felt like dry dust and I was so glowing that you could have toasted marshmallows on my cheeks.  That fountain’s ice cold water was like the best drink ever in the world ever.

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Montauk, Long Island


Having travelled up to Massachusetts via the edges of New York City and Connecticut, we decided – for several reasons – to change up our route back.  Thus, on Day 4 of our three-generational vacation, we headed to New London, Connecticut, to catch the ferry to Long Island.  This was actually replicating the same journey Mr Pict and I had made almost exactly thirteen years earlier as we concluded our road trip with a meander back to JFK airport.  Having been ushered onto an earlier ferry than the one we had booked for, we arrived on Long Island in early afternoon.  Our chosen destination for the afternoon was Montauk Point.  It was chosen by my boys and me.  Mr Pict and my parents just went along with it.  The boys wanted to go there because they are fans of the Percy Jackson series of novels by Rick Riordan and Montauk Point is the setting for a pivotal moment in establishing the central concept of the series.  Slight spoiler alert here but said scene also features a minotaur.  My kids love minotaurs.  So that is why Montauk was on their “must see” list.  As for me, I love American lighthouses.  I actually recognised a good few years ago that I could easily become obsessed with lighthouses, visiting, collecting, photographing them, and add that to my long list of nerdy passions.  However, I am successfully resisting the temptation of becoming a lighthouse geek and instead maintain a normal relationship with them.  However, when my kids suggested Montauk, I  was in full agreement with them because of the presence of the lighthouse.  All things in moderation.

As I have confided before, in advance of any vacation, I construct a spreadsheet that outlines the pertinent details for all of the places we might possibly visit as part of our travels.  For one holiday, in Rome, I even constructed a colour coordinated map and key.  I had, therefore, undertaken quite a lot of research for this trip.  Montauk Lighthouse, however, was my first ever failing as a travel researcher.  Apparently I had misunderstood the rules regarding access to the site: I had thought that the lighthouse could be accessed for free and that there was a fee only for entering the museum and ascending the tower; the reality was, however, that we had to pay the entry fee to even get to the base of the lighthouse building.  Sigh.  Fee paid, we entered the site.

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Though perhaps not the most picturesque American lighthouse I have ever seen, Montauk Point Light is nevertheless one of the most historically significant.  Set as it is at the easternmost point in the state, it was New York’s first lighthouse and one of the oldest active lighthouses in the country.  Construction of the lighthouse was authorised by George Washington in 1792, when America was still in its infancy.  It was also the first ever public works project in America.  Of course, it now little resembles the original lighthouse since height has been added to the tower and other additions and modifications made.  It also ceased to be manned by civilian keepers when the Second World War led to it coming under the responsibility first of the Navy and then of the Coastguard.

We began our visit with the ascent up the 137 iron stairs to see the actual light.  For someone who has vertigo and a moderate case of claustrophobia, this ascent presented quite the challenge.  As per instructions, whenever we encountered someone descending, we had to step to the right and let them pass.  As you will know, the right hand side of a spiral staircase is the thin end of the wedge.  Thus, we had to balance our weight on our tip toes and pads of our feet.  I don’t know about anyone else but I also had my fingers locked onto the tread of the steps and my right arm wrapped around the central stair column.  I am not entirely sure why I pushed myself to do it since it was a foggy day which precluded me obtaining any decent photographic views from the top.  Once inside the platform area, we were instructed to climb another short flight of steps in order to view the actual lamp.  Once upon a time, this had been a lamp burning whale oil but it had gone through several evolutions since then and the boys were amazed to learn just how small the lightbulb is that generates the light nowadays.

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Views not seen, we rapidly descended and were back on solid ground.  My parents and I decided to have a quick look in the museum while Mr Pict supervised the boys playing outdoors.  The museum was like travelling through a time warp.  One end had probably not been updated since my childhood, with labels generated by an old ribbon typewriter and a mannequin representing one of the lighthouse keepers.  However, the rooms in the other section of the museum were completely contemporary and well-designed.  As well as displays outlining the history of the lighthouse and its various keepers, there were also displays about the local tribes, the Montaukett and the Naragansetts.  There was also information about the slave ship ‘Amistad’, an episode in history that was symbolic to the Abolitionist movement.  The ‘Amistad’ connection was because the fugitive slaves who had taken control of the ship made landfall at Montauk, having been deceived into thinking they had reached the African shore.  There, they were discovered by a US Revenue and Customs ship and were taken into custody.  This then precipitated the celebrated trial which concluded with the deliberation that the slaves should be set free and returned to their homeland.  Since I am never one to not mention a Family History connection even in passing, I shall add the detail that John Quincy Adams represented the slaves when their case came before the Supreme Court.  Both the Adams Presidents and Mr Pict and our sons are all descended from John Alden and Priscilla Mullins of ‘The Mayflower’ which makes them distant cousins.

The boys needed some time to wander, roam and be generally feral so we headed down to the shore beneath the lighthouse.  There they scrambled around among the rocks, searching in rock pools for sea-dwelling beasties, held crabs and studied interesting rocks.  My oldest, who is Minecraft obsessed, set himself the challenge of finding rocks that resembled all of the different rocks that feature in the Minecraft universe.

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Long Island is a difficult place to find dinner on a budget.  As we traveled from Montauk Point towards our hotel, we stopped off several times in search of some nosh.  There were dining options galore but nothing that represented good value, even among the ones we could enter with four grubby kids.  Eventually we plumped for a diner which appeared like manna in the wilderness on the roadside and devoured the food we ordered as if we were wolves after a lean winter.  Finally replete, it was just a short journey to our hotel.  Our beds for the evening were in a Ramada.  We had adjoining rooms with a door between them which was ideal for the kids who could wander between grandparents and parents until bedtime.  The mattress was much too firm for my liking but at least there was no fire alarm to contend with.

Spring Break Day 6 – Museum of American History



We took the metro into Washington DC having decided that the National Museum of American History would be a good choice of place to visit since the kids had done a Natural History Museum when we were in New York and because we are trying to provide them with an overview of US history and top up their general knowledge of American History.  Disappointingly, however, it transpired when we picked up the map that half of the museum was closed.  Literally half of each floor was unavailable.  Perhaps we should have done our homework rather than relied on our own knowledge to select the venue for the day but still it was incredibly frustrating.  I had last been there in 1995 but had remembered it as being really interesting and full of diverting exhibits and the kids were looking forward to it so we decided to plough on with the plan.  The Museum has, as one might expect, had a major facelift since I last visited but sadly – like many literal facelifts – this one was not beneficial.  It was a case of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good section was that focusing on the Star Spangled Banner.  When I had last visited, I had entered the main entrance and been greeted by the original Star Spangled Banner.  It was an impressive site and an awesome welcome but from a conservation point of view it was clearly catastrophic.  Therefore, in the intervening decades, it has been moved into an atmosphere and light controlled room and is displayed behind a vast glass panel.  The corridor around the flag has been cleverly thought out in terms of the exhibits as it is themed on the national anthem, using Francis Scott Key’s poem “Defence of Fort McHenry” to tell the contextual story of the flag’s creation and significance.  So there was a rocket – as in “rocket’s red glare” – and a bomb – as in “bursting in air” – showcased along with some other military items.  There was also a display case of sewing items as might have been used to create the flag and biographical information about Mary Pickersgill who sewed the flag along with her daughter, two nieces and two African-American women.




The Bad was the Presidents’ section.  The kids were really looking forward to it since they have become pretty obsessed with learning facts about various Presidents as my 7 year old did a school project about George Washington for President’s Day and my 8 year old had to do a research paper on a President of his choice.  Since he loves to be obscure, he chose James Abram Garfield who actually turned out to be more interesting than you might imagine for a president who only lasted 200 days, most of those days being spent on his deathbed – yet not completely interesting either.  The 8 year old is also a massive Lincoln fan and the 7 year old’s favourite is Teddy Roosevelt because he protected wildlife in the US while going around shooting it and also hunting animals in other people’s countries.  My husband and sons are also related to two Presidents – John Adams and John Quincy Adams – so that was another route to engagement in the whole history of the Presidency.  The Presidents’ section should have been fascinating since it was filled with such wonderful items to showcase.  However, it had been organised in such a way as to be a complete muddle.  One might think it would be organised in terms of chronology, from Washington to Obama, or maybe even in terms of the President’s role if the curators were wanting to do something more avant garde.  However, they had opted to organise it in such a way that it was just a hodge podge with no clear thread pulling visitors through the exhibits.  It was like a pot luck supper as we wandered from one area to the next.  We moved from a side section dedicated to Presidents who had been assassinated or died in office into a section about weddings at the White House, surely a strange and awkward juxtaposition by anyone’s standards.  There was just no logic to it at all, as if the people curating it had a junkyard mentality.



The Ugly was the American Stories section.  My understanding was that the items displayed had been chosen through ‘crowdsourcing’, by “the people” deciding by some unclear mechanism which exhibits best represented America.  As much as inclusivity and democracy are wonderful ideals to aspire to, the whole section was evidence of the fact that not all curators are created equally as it ended up just a random “jumble sale” of bits and bobs with nothing properly telling any kind of story about America because there was simply no context, no structure and no apparent point.  I was very excited to see Miss Piggy, Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick, FDR’s microphone from his Fireside Chats and a life mask of Lincoln but I think anyone would be hard pressed to see a connection between any of them beyond their icon status, though that was a theme not supported by the inclusion of dozens of other items.  Furthermore, none of the labelling supported the claim to be telling us stories about America or the American experience.  I subsequently looked at the Museum’s website and read that the exhibits fell into five clusters representing eras in American history but that was not supported by either the layout or the labelling. The whole thing made by brain feel fidgety and, since the kids were becoming increasingly literally fidgety, we decided to depart from the museum.

We walked to Union Station past the sculpture garden of the National Art Gallery.  I think the kids would have liked to have spent more time there but we were on our way to meet up with a friend at Union Station.  That just added to the sense that we had wasted time in the Museum of American History.  We dined at Thunder Grill.  The food was delicious.  I had a catfish sandwich with smoked tomato aoli and salsa which was succulent, full of strong but well-balanced flavours and very satisfying.