Celebrating Double Digits in the Poconos

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My second oldest son turned ten this weekend.  Double digits is a really big deal so we decided to make a big deal out of it.  Since his birthday fell on a weekend, we decided to whisk the kids off for an overnight stay in a hotel.  We got a cheap – double digits indeed – room in a hotel just outside Scranton that had a swimming pool and breakfast included.

After a morning of card and gift opening, we piled into the car and headed off into the Poconos.  Saturday was a grey day of drizzle and chill winds so we focused on indoor activities.  First up was Country Junction, the general store we seem compelled to visit every time we are in the area.  It is a bizarre and entirely bonkers place and I highly recommend that you stop by should you ever be in the area.  The kids always have a blast wandering around and looking at all the weird and wonderful items of decor, popping in to watch a bit of a movie in the cinema room, pressing all the interactive buttons, collecting eggs for a treat at the end, and visiting the animals in the pet shop area – all by following the yellow brick road.  An indication of the randomness of Country Junction is the contents of my shopping trolley: I bought two non-stick loaf tins, four pots of cheap pick’n’mix and a squeaky rubber pig.  More indoor fun was had when we reached the hotel as the boys jumped and splashed around in the pool until they had built up an appetite for dinner.  There was a restaurant next door to the hotel so we did not even have to get back in the car to go out for the birthday meal.  We were all so stuffed by our main courses and salad bar visits that we did not even make it to dessert.

Sunday was thankfully much brighter and warmer so we were able to take the boys for some outdoor excursions.  First up was the outdoor section of the Steamtown  rail museum in Scranton, which can be accessed via the Mall.  This is a collection – gathered by one man in the 1950s I believe – of steam locomotives, freight and passenger cars.  Mr Pict and I had visited there in April 2014 as part of a day photographing dilapidated and decayed sites but this was the boys’ first time there.  They moaned that they were not allowed to clamber onto every train and that they were not allowed to wander into the carriages but they had fun nevertheless.  They climbed onto trains, scrambled over piles of gravel, got grubby picking up lumps of coal, and raced each other while balancing on railway lines.

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From industry to nature, our concluding excursion was to the Boulder Field at Hickory Run State Park.  Mr Pict and I first went there alone but then took the kids there on Father’s Day in 2014 and it is fast becoming a favourite spot.  The theory is that this unique geological landscape was formed in the valley by successive freezing and thawing processes that cracked the rock and turned it into large boulders.  My kids just love leaping from rock to rock and seeing how quickly they can get from the car park end of the site to the other end, quite a decent distance.  I meanwhile do not feel so confident on my feet.  The instability triggers the wobbliness I normally get from my fear of heights and I am frankly not as swift and nimble as my kids either.  I, therefore, chose to only wander so far out into the field and then find a nice flat rock to sit on while watching my kids becoming brightly coloured dots on the horizon line.

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Our weekend away was full of relaxed fun and worked well as a celebration of being ten years old.

Country Junction and Lehigh Gorge

Wanting my parents to see a different sort of Pennsylvanian landscape, we decided to drive up to the Poconos for the day.  The last time the Pict family visited the Poconos, the kids were disappointed that we arrived at Country Junction just as it was closing.  It was, therefore, determined by those four that Country Junction should be our first destination for the day.

Country Junction is a general store near the town of Lehighton that proclaims itself to the be “the world’s largest general store”.  Whether or not that claim has been verified, and it’s entirely possible, I can certainly testify to it being a quirky and compelling slice of Roadside America.  For Mr Pict and I, some of the fondest memories of our travels around America have arisen from those unexpected encounters, digressions and snippets of Roadside America – such epiodes of seeing a pet bison on Route 66, being given the key to Huntsville by the Mayor over breakfast, seeing the face in the window at Carrollton, Alabama, driving the wrong way through the drive-through liquor store belonging to the sister of Jerry Lee Lewis – so, on that basis, Country Junction really appeals to us.  Unsurprisingly, given that our kids love all things random, it also appealed to them.  Now we were exposing my parents to its wonders to see if they also fell for its strange charms.  The whole place is such a marvel I am not sure that I will be capable of adequately describing it – but I shall try.

When you first enter the store proper – past a serenading scarecrow and a barrel that laughs at you – you arrive on a yellow brick road.  The instruction is to follow this yellow brick road around the store which is sage advice since I am sure it is entirely possible to get utterly lost in the cavernous space and amid the higgeldy-piggeldy aisles.  Related to this theme, the movie of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ plays on repeat at the entrance to the store.  My kids were spellbound by the store in that instant.  Indeed, throughout the store there are things along the way to keep kids amused and entertained, including a singing cow, to an egg treasure hunt that leads to a reward and a cinema showing animated movies in the centre of the shop.  My boys all settled down on the comfy seats to watch some ‘Beauty and the Beast’ during our visit.  Immediately at the entrance, there is a counter where some of the best fudge I have ever tasted (and I have tasted a lot) is sold.  There are also pickles, pretzels and preserves, eggs pickled in a variety of hues, and varieties of meat jerky.  There are small kitchen appliances and there are kitchens.  There are handbags and a hardware section.  In what other store could you buy – all under one roof – a taxidermy diorama, a pet stingray, pickle jars, a full scale model Bigfoot, a mop and a mirror?  It is the diversity of stock that makes wandering around Country Junction such a treat as a tourist and actually I have always found something I needed while there so even I have been a customer rather than a tourist.  My kids loved it because every twist of the yellow brick road brought them to a new trove of potential treasures.  What I also love about Country Junction is the quirky logic that has determined where to locate items.  Perhaps you want to buy a new lampshade and you think to yourself that you should head off in search of the home decor section in search of a shelf full of lampshades.  But that is not how Country Junction works.  Instead you have to consider whether you want your lampshade to have a rustic, farmhouse style in which case you should rummage around the farm themed area; but if a nautical style is more your thing then you should search for that lampshade between the full-scale pirates and the wooden seagulls.  Every shopping trip becomes akin to a treasure hunt or magical mystery tour.  It really is quite brilliant.  And the fun does not even end at the checkout and the exit.  No.  Because opposite the store there is a small petting zoo and playground.  My kids loved feeding the goats and alpacas and introducing my turkey-phobic Dad to the large turkeys.  They also love playing on all the play equipment and guddling in the sand.  A giant statue of a gorilla (who they think of as King Kong) is a particular favourite.  Truly, the place is a marvel.

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After a quick bite to eat at Country Junction, it was time to go and explore nature.  We had been to Hickory Run State Park fairly recently so opted to go and check out Lehigh Gorge State Park instead.  This was probably an error on our part, which we put down to inadequate research, since it is a less scenic area and is not really designed for strolling or nature rambling in.  Instead it is definitely geared up to be more of a recreational area.  There were scores of people white water rafting in either inflatable dinghies or canoes.   As we strolled along the riverbank, catching glimpses of the people in the water through breaks in the trees, I couldn’t help but have “Duelling Banjos” start playing in my head but I did resist saying “Squeal like a pig” out loud*.  We decided to trek to see the waterfall, which is named Buttermilk Falls I assume because the flow of the water makes it look creamy-white to some.  We had to park quite some distance from the regular car park but that was fine because it afforded my kids the chance to explore a cave we passed on the way.  They were able to walk through the dark tunnel and pop out on the other side which they thought was fun.  The Falls were actually just a short and easy walk from the regular car park.  We tried to do some nature spotting along the way but it was too busy and the noise from the people in the water so loud that there were not many critters or birds to see.  I did see some beetles, dragonflies and caterpillars along the way.

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Buttermilk Falls is rather picturesque because of its double-drop and my children liked the fact they could really get quite close to the water because of the rocky plateau below.  Of course, they all then took things to far because my 11 year old, who was wading in the stream, slipped and got mud up the back of his shorts and t-shirt and then the 8 and 7 year olds also had a bit of a wobble which resulted in their new toys (bought from Country Junction) getting grubby.  Maybe next time they might follow my instruction to leave things in the car…

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*  I seem to be prone to recommending 1970s films lately, but if you have never seen ‘Deliverance’ then I think you should check it out.  Aside from the lurid details I alluded to above, it is actually a much smarter film than you might think if al you know of it is that most notorious episode in the movie.  The movie is actually an intelligent examination of machismo, primitivism, male camaraderie, and definitions of wilderness and civilization containing haunting images and disturbing ambiguities.

Poconos Day 3 – Shades of Death

We got up early and packed up so we could fit in one more Poconos excursion before heading back to the Philadelphia suburbs and our four kiddliwinks.  Since there was so much more to see and do in Hickory Run State Park, we decided to head there and do a different trail.  The one we chose was called Shades of Death.  Thankfully the gloomy, doom-laden name was not indicative of the trail itself.

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I was initially disappointed as the trail was very close to the road, and even had us skirting along the side of the road at one point, but then the trail began to curve away from the roadside and we lost the traffic noise at the same time the walk became far more scenic.  The rocky trail meandered along the banks of the Sand Spring Run.  The rock formations created lots of attractive waterfalls and there was an appealing dam weir at the midway point of our hike.  Logging and tanning were once undertaken in these woods and whether from that period in time or some other, we could see the remains of various stone built structures.  These included a narrow flight of steps.  Despite my initial reservations, it was actually a very picturesque hike.

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Driving through a town named Lehighton, we came across Country Junction, “The World’s Largest General Store”.  Well, how could we pass up the opportunity to partake of that gem of Roadside America?  We parked up and entered.  When we entered, there was a fudge stall on one side and a screen playing ‘The Wizard of Oz’.  This was my kind of place!  It transpired that Oz was a theme throughout the store.  The instruction was to “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” which was useful advice because I am pretty sure I could have become lost in the store amid all the amazing clutter had I not clung to the painted yellow bricks on the floor.

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The store was crazy.  It sold anything and everything.  Hardware and DIY items, elaborate taxidermy, garden sculptures on every scale and for every taste, jewellery, hand bags, pickles and jams, toys, pets …. Anything and everything you could think of.  There was even a petting zoo but we skipped that until a time when we would return with the boys.  It was ludicrous, brilliant, awesome and bizarre.  It was the perfect conclusion to our getaway in the Poconos.