Assateague Island

The entire focus of our trip was a visit to Assateague Island – everything else we had done as we travelled south along the coast was just grist to the mill.  Assateague is a barrier island that is split between Maryland and Virginia.  We were visiting the National Seashore (this bagging another National Park property) which is wholly within Maryland’s border.  We began our trip, as we tend to do, with a stop by into the NPS Visitor Centre.  We have been to many NPS Visitor Centres but the one at Assateague was among the best.  The information regarding the flora, fauna, and history of the island was presented in easily digested gobbets, amply illustrated with images and objects.  My boys particularly enjoyed a tortoise shell and a horse skeleton.  Best of all, however, there were live whelks and horseshoe crabs in a touch pool tank.  They spent ages guddling around in the water.  I think they may want a pet horseshoe crab now.

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We began our actual exploration of the island with a circular trail through sand dunes.  This afforded the boys ample opportunities to climb things, whether trees or large pieces of driftwood.  There was also a crumbling raised asphalt road dating from the interwar years that appeared at various points on the trail.  That was a weird juxtaposition among the sand dunes and trees.  Mr Pict thought the NPS should have made an effort to completely demolish and remove it but to my mind I think that it forms part of the history of the island and I rather like the idea that it sends a message about humans trying to develop the island but being repelled by nature.

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The next stop was the ocean.  Yes.  The ocean.  In late November.  My kids were adamant that they were not visiting the beach without going in the water.  I had absolutely forbidden it the previous day, when we were on the Delaware Coast, because the wind chill was bitter.  There was much wailing and whining and protesting, chief among the arguments being that we used to let them go into the sea in Scotland on chilly days, albeit chilly summer days.  I was not persuaded.  On Assateague, however, I relented but advised that they just paddle at first while they determined whether they could actually cope with the cold.  They donned their swimming kit, bounded across the sand, and were in the water in no time at all.  I meanwhile wore their beach towels like shawls as I watched them.  They did abide by my ruling and paddled for a short while before they decided to jump around in the waves and inevitably get soaked.  No swimming but plenty of jumping and dunking.

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Of course, what Assateague is most famed for is its population of feral horses.  We had seen one, through some bushes, as we drove onto the island but we were obviously keen to see more.  Once everyone was dried and dressed, therefore, we headed back along the road and had several horse encounters.  We found a safe place to pull over and park up so that the two younger boys and I could hop out of the car and see the horses up close – though not too close, of course, and within the rules.  Nobody really knows how it was that domesticated horses became feral horses occupying the island.  There is, of course, the usual story about them having been survivors of a shipwreck but they are probably just the descendants of the horses pastured there by 17th Century farmers.  Whatever their origins, we were delighted to see them as closely as we did.  My 10 year old loves horses so he was over the moon.  It also meant we had achieved the main goal of our entire overnight trip and we got to end our Thanksgiving travels with a highlight.

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First Time Ice Skating

When we travel, we tend to be so busy from sun up to beyond sun down that we really only need our accommodation to provide us with a clean space in which to sleep.  Not requiring much out of a hotel room beyond it being clean and tidy allows us to travel on a budget and stretch a dime.  We, therefore, had little concern about choosing a super cheap room in a large hotel in Ocean City, Maryland.  The room turned out to be a good size and was clean and tidy. The hotel was a bit dated and could do with a lick of paint and polish but we can overlook such things when just treating the room like a dormitory.  The only real issue was that the walls were really thin and we unfortunately had super noisy neighbours.

As far as the kids were concerned, however, the hotel was a win because it not only had a larger than average indoor pool but also had an ice skating rink.  After filling up on breakfast at a local cafe, therefore, we headed back to the hotel so that our youngest two sons – aged 8 and 10 – could go ice skating for the first time ever.  They donned their ice skates and headed out onto the ice.  At first their legs were wonky and wobbly, like newborn deer, so we gave them some support frames so that they could get used to the required gait and rhythm without worrying about falling or even concerning themselves with balance.  After just a few circuits of the rink, however, they were ready to ditch the frames and skate unassisted.  They absolutely loved it, had a whale of a time, were excited to have learned a new skill, and experienced a sense of achievement as a result.

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Exploring History on the Delaware Coast

Having visited the Air Mobility Command Museum as our first stop, we moved further down the Delaware coast to another military history site.  This was Fort Miles on Cape Henlopen.  When we decided that we would be travelling along the Delaware coast, I thought it would be great to visit Cape Henlopen to see the lighthouse.  I have a bit of a thing for lighthouses which I have steadfastly prevented from evolving into a proper obsession (because I have enough of those).  Thankfully I thought to google it because the Cape Henlopen lighthouse fell into the sea in the 1920s.  Oops.  Bit late for that one then.  It reminded me of the time we thought to seek out the Coney Island elephant.  So no lighthouses for me but another dollop of military history instead.

Fort Miles dates from the Second World War and was built to defend America’s eastern coast against a potential German invasion.  We started exploring the site at an observation tower.  These observation towers were used to triangulate the position of any vessel that came into view and looked suspect.  Mr Pict and the boys climbed a spiral staircase inside the tower and popped out on top.  I decided to not put myself through the acrophobia to take in the views given it was mostly flat and uninteresting.  No regrets.  After a period of tree climbing, we wandered towards the shore.

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Our walk brought us past empty buildings that were once in use as barracks.  These buildings, which once housed over 2000 military personnel, had no doors so we could wander into them and have a nose around.  The low afternoon sun created interesting shadows inside many of them.  Mr Pict and the kids liked sitting on the 8 inch guns that were in the vicinity of these buildings.  We also saw a 16 inch gun which was apparently fired just the once in order to test it.  The gun we saw was not original to Fort Miles and had instead been removed from the USS Missouri.  The gun appears in famous photos of the signing of the Japanese surrender which happened on board the battleship.

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We stopped for a late lunch / early dinner in Rehoboth Beach and chose to eat in Arena’s Deli.  We had read good reviews of it and liked that it had a casual atmosphere plus the menu seemed like it would have something for everyone.  We all opted for comfort food and not so healthy options but it was our only meal of the day so we gave ourselves a pass.  Any excuse.  The food was all delicious and very well cooked and satisfied our hungry bellies for the final leg of the day’s travel.  The sun was setting as we headed towards Ocean City so we pulled over at a beach to watch the sun sink below the horizon line.  The sunset was gorgeous but what most thrilled the boys was finding horseshoe crabs on the shore line.

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After that, we checked into our hotel in Ocean City, the boys went swimming in the large hotel pool, and we headed to our beds to rest ahead of the next day’s adventures.

Air Mobility Command Museum

We decided to use the time over Thanksgiving break for a spontaneous family trip.  We found a cheap as chips hotel room in Ocean City, Maryland – because really not many people are clamoring to hang out at the coast in late November – which determined our trajectory.  We, therefore, spent the Friday following Thanksgiving moseying down the Delaware Coast.

Our first stop of the trip was at the Air Mobility Command Museum in Dover, Delaware.  Located next to Dover Air Force Base, it proved to be a vast showroom (split between a hangar and an airfield) of military aircraft.  Now, I am not someone who is into military history or militaria and nor am I interested in vehicles so this blog post is not going to be replete with technical information.  I honestly don’t think I can recall what the majority of the aircraft were even called even though I asked Mr Pict to refresh my memory yesterday.  This will, therefore, be a more impressionistic account of the time we spent there.  I will state, however, that despite my lack of knowledge or enthusiasm for the subject, I thought the Museum itself was really excellent.  The variety of military aircraft was impressive, of course, but there was also ample information accompanying each exhibit, there was space to move around each plane, helicopter and glider, and they were not so reverential that they prevented visitors accessing all the planes.  This latter point was somewhat critical for the success of our visit since my kids tend to baulk at visiting plane and train museums that take a “look but don’t touch” attitude.  And I have not mentioned that access to the Museum is entirely free.  We gave a donation but there was no pressure to do so.

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We started in the hangar and I was able to hook the boys’ interest right away.  There was a glider on display, one side of which had been removed to reveal that it contained some sort of military road vehicle as its cargo.  The kids found this sort of aircraft autopsy interesting.  We also learned that these gliders became rather sought after following the Second World War not because of the gliders themselves but because of the crates they were shipped in.  People would build houses from the disassembled crates.

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War II plane.  They knew about ball turret gunners and their perilous placement on war planes but seeing one up close actually drove home the vulnerability of the poor gunner.  They were even able to peer inside and see how terribly cramped the space was.  A separate replica demonstrated, through use of a dummy, how the gunner would have been positioned inside the ball turret, tucked up like a fetus in a mechanical womb.  It made me vividly recollect Randall Jarrell’s poem ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ and I felt very squeamish just thinking about the intense claustrophobia let alone the imminent danger.

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We saw simulators and training aircraft, mid-air refuelling vehicles, fighter jets, and helicopters – including a Huey which even I could identify – and a machine for making dog tags, which was somehow both fascinating and poignant.  The boys especially enjoyed the airfield exhibits, however, because they had space to roam and even run.  Best of all, however, was the fact that several of the aircraft were open to visitors meaning they could actually clamber aboard and experience the interior of the planes.  Having seen the troop seating with all the webbing on the interior walls in movies and documentaries, it was interesting to be able to experience something of its discomfort for ourselves.  It was also interesting to see how cargo would be stacked up inside planes and to learn about the incredible capacity of some planes, including one that could fit several fully assembled Hueys.  A tour guide demonstrated how strips in the floor could be flipped so that regular passenger seating could be clipped into place.  The boys also got to clamber around inside a Hercules (see: I know the name of that one) and sit in the cockpit.

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Military museums always have to go a long way to win me over because, as stated above, I really have pretty much no interest in the subject of military history.  As I possess only very general knowledge of military transport, I admit to having had low expectations of this one.  But win me over it did.  It was accessible, provided information that worked as an “idiot’s guide” for the uninformed (me), spacious enough that we never remotely felt harassed or harried by the presence of others, offered variety, and allowed the kids to actually engage with what they were looking at.  It was a really good museum and was a great start to our trip.

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Edgar Allan Poe in Philadelphia

The main focus of my birthday trip to Philadelphia was to visit Edgar Allan Poe’s house in the city.  We decided to walk there from the Independence Hall area since it was a lovely Autumn day and it was only about a half hour walk.  The only snag was that we had to cross a major road but we did so safely since the traffic was moving slowly.  Still, we returned by a different route.  When Poe had lived in that property, it had actually been outside the city limits so it was interesting to think how much the city has sprawled since then.

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Poe’s house is one of three in which he lived in Philly but the only one still standing.  The property has been administered by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site since the 1970s and has been expanded to include two adjacent properties – which I think post-date Poe having lived there – so that one provides space for the museum and one for an additional staircase with fire doors.  Nevertheless, this Poe house was modest but much bigger than his Baltimore home, which we had visited in August.  A Ranger explained that he had been able to afford a year’s rent there after winning a literary prize.  The rooms were much more light and spacious than they had been in the dark and cramped Baltimore home and the staircases, while steep and narrow, were not as claustrophobic as in that property either.

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The house is kept in a state of “arrested decay”.  The spaces, therefore, give an impression of how Poe, his wife-cousin, and aunt-mother-in-law would have lived but they have not been furnished and there are no personal Poe family possessions on display.  I liked all of the walls covered in layers of peeled paint and the boys loved all of the closets.

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A highlight of the house was the cellar.  Since Poe is associated with all things eerie and creepy, it was fun to be in a dark and dingy cellar in one of his houses.  The Ranger had also sparked the boys’ imaginations by asking them where in the cellar they would stash a corpse.  Worryingly, they identified several possibilities.  Perhaps I should just be glad they are problem-solvers.  It is apparently possible that the cellar inspired the one described in ‘The Black Cat’ which appealed to my cat-obsessed 8 year old.

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In the museum area of the site, in one of the houses that would have neighboured Poe’s one, there was a room set up as a reading room and a book case full of Poe’s works, books directly inspired by his works, and some volumes of Poe criticism.  My youngest son settled at a table and read a picture book.  Outside the property, there was a metal raven statue that we all liked and we also spotted a Poe mural on the gable end of a row of houses nearby.  So that was Poe’s Philly house and now I only have his cottage in the Bronx left to visit.  It is on my travel bucket list.

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We departed Poe’s house and walked back towards the centre of the city.  We stopped in at Reading Terminal Market.  The only other time I have gone in there was also for my birthday trip, back in 2013 just after we had emigrated to America.  That was a bit of a disaster of a day and we had literally walked into one door of the market and immediately out of another because the kids were fizzing out due to the crowds.  It was definitely less crowded on that Saturday evening but the narrow rows between food stalls still made it feel a bit too bustling for me.  I really don’t do crowds.  My kids are mini foodies so their eyes lit up at the possibility of buying some special treat foods.  We came away with Cajun bacon, some fancy type of jerky, and some root beer – none of which are things I consume.  Then – because we were not done being foodies – we went to a restaurant named Indeblue that serves Indian cuisine.  All of we Picts love curries and Indian flavours so we ordered a selection of items from the menu to share as a smorgasbord.  It was all perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious and was the perfect way to end my celebratory day.

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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.

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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.

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Pumpkin Patch 2017

One of the first American things we did upon emigrating just over four years ago was visit a pumpkin patch.  It, therefore, became an important part of our annual traditions, so much so that the kids insist that we return to the exact same farm each year.  This year, however, only five of us visited the pumpkin patch.  At 14.5, our oldest son has outgrown the tradition and opted out.  Sniffle.

We started with the horror barn.  At night, there are live actors inside the barn who jump out at visitors and there are also moving parts and more special effects.  I am a horror movie fan and totally cool with gore but I don’t imagine I would cope with the evening version of the horror barn.  Mr Pict and I once visited the London Dungeon early in the morning which made us the first visitors.  Mr Pict nipped to the restroom, leaving me alone in a dark room.  When one of the models moved, I screamed very loudly and almost punched the poor employee.  Anyway, the day time version of the horror barn contains the fixed props, some of which are very gory, and some sound effects.  My kids love it but we did see a couple of kids crying, one hysterically.

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The Alien barn is another favourite of the boys.  It is all 3D paint effects, black light glowing, and disorienting strobe effects.  And it definitely can be disorienting: in the pitch black, I walked smack into a wall that I thought was a door.

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We also did a lot of the “country fair” type stuff that the farm runs during its Halloween festival.  We shared a funnel cake, which is a must, and the boys used canon to fire vegetables at targets.  A new thing this year was a range of sports ball activities.  My very unsporty boys had a whale of a time measuring the speed of their baseball throws, getting balls through targets, shooting hoops, and scoring goals.

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We also made another attempt at the farm’s corn maze.  My children know nothing of the story and movie ‘Children of the Corn’ beyond the title but still decided to act out being spooky little ghouls among the corn stalks.  The idea of the maze is to visit each of five stations within it in order to paint the fingers of one hand a different colour.  For a bit of fun, the pattern of the colours on each individual’s hand then determines a funny little action each person takes – such as playing air fiddle or shaking your tail feathers.  We have never yet managed to find all five stations.  I think we are officially hopeless at mazes – though we did find our way back out again.

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We hopped on the wagon which took us out to the pumpkin patch.  The boys had wanted to select a small or medium pumpkin each but there were only large ones left so they agreed they would team up to pick and carve one communal pumpkin.  Getting them to agree on a pumpkin was a whole other matter.  Pumpkins were considered and rejected, argued over, discussed and dismissed.  Finally they found one they could all agree upon.  Now we just have to agree on a design and carve the thing.

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