Massachusetts and Long Island Vacation Smash Book Style

This week’s Documented Life Project prompt was to “add receipts, labels, business cards – smash book style!”  Since taking up art journaling as a creative hobby and especially since joining the DLP, the term “smash book” is something I had read in passing but I had not discerned the definition.  So the first step of the challenge was to figure out what the challenge actually required.  It turned out to be a pretty simple concept: recording events by adding scraps from your life to a page.

Having just returned from our five day vacation in Massachusetts and Long Island, there were pockets in my backpack stuffed with leaflets, cards and even napkins.  I, therefore, had my materials and it also felt like it would make sense to document with found scraps from a week when I had actually done some interesting things and for my journal to contain a page that documented our trip and experiences.

I already had a page in my journal that I had smeared with squelches of blue and red paint.  It was going to be the basis of a different page but then I changed my mind and that page was abandoned.  Now I could finally use it as the base for all my sticking.  The next stage in my planless-plan was to cut out little bits and pieces from the things I had collected over the course of the vacation: a photo of Montauk lighthouse and of a humpback whale breaching, a ticket from the New London to Long Island ferry, a scrap of a napkin from the hot dog stand on Coney Island and a business card from Friendly’s, and various logos and titles from leaflets of places we had visited.  I glued those down haphazardly, trying to “go with the flow” but actually making quite a mess in the process.  I rather think I should have put more thought and planning into the placement and composition.  That done the page was looking decidedly blah.  I decided that the fragmented elements needed to be unified and tied together somehow.  I tried adding some decorative tape to fill blank spaces.  That filled the gaps but did nothing to unify the page.  Think again.  So I got out my cheap tempera paints, which I actually rather like because they are globby and translucent, and stamped on some red, blue and white using the end of a cork, a milk bottle lid and the end of a wooden pencil.  Then – since one of the key things we had done was whale watching – I used a little whale stamp to shove a pod of inky blank whales across the page.  The whale stamp is actually one I have owned since I was at school (I used to use it to indicate which books belonged to me) so I was quite glad of the opportunity to use it once more.

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I am not sure “smash style” is really very me and certainly I don’t think I am very good at it.  I have seen lots of wonderfully creative responses to this week’s prompt but I personally felt my creativity was curbed by using found scraps.  I just couldn’t envisage the end point of my page, what it might look for, and without having something to aim for I was lost in how to approach the page.  The end result was, therefore, not very successful but nevertheless it is always good to try something new and at least now I have a page in my art journal that contains a visual record of our vacation.

Sandy Neck Beach, Cape Cod

After a morning of exhilarating whale watching, we opted for a more relaxing afternoon.  Given that we were not far from Cape Cod and that we had never been to Cape Cod before, we determined that should be our destination.  We had packed all of the kids’ swimming gibbles in the boot (trunk) of the car for just this eventuality so off to the beach we headed.  Mr Pict looked at the map and stuck a mental pin in it and so we headed off to Sandy Neck beach.

Whenever I have to pay to park my car at a beach, I expect something in return.  It’s not just that I am inherently frugal but it also establishes some sort of expectation of a quid pro quo, like well-maintained facilities, fine sand, an aesthetically pleasing beach and somewhere you want to spend a lot of time.  Now, in the interests of blogging integrity, I must admit that I have a life-long loathing of sand.  I despise it.  I always have and always will.  When I was a teeny tot, my parents were able to sit me in the middle of a blanket and know for certain that I would not wander off it as I did not want my chubby baby hands or knees – or any part of my body – to make contact with the sand.  From my perspective, the only sand I like is glass.  I.  Loathe.  Sand.  Even worse than parts of my body having to make contact with sand is when someone encourages me to at least attempt eating something at the beach.  Sand in the teeth.  It’s the stuff of horror.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings, however, all love being at the beach so I have to grin and bear it ever so often for their sakes.  I, therefore, feel qualified to pass judgement on the quality of beaches I visit.

Sandy Neck was not a great beach.  It was not even a good beach.  The sand was of the worst variety, gritty, coarse and solid, it was neither comfortable to stand or walk on or good enough for building sand castles.  The tide was going out but the beach was just a narrow brownish strip sited between the sea and some sand dunes we were not allowed near.  One of our local beaches in Scotland, Westport on the Kintyre Peninsula, had pale, fine sand and dunes we were able to trek across and explore.  My kids, therefore, were disappointed when they learned that access to these sand dunes was forbidden.  I get that some sand dune areas require protecting to prevent erosion but since this beach had nothing else to offer the whole sand dune thing added to the feeling of being cheated.

Perhaps Sandy Neck beach is great for some recreational activities but certainly it wasn’t remotely the best beach I have been on if all you want to do is chill out, play in the sand and paddle in the surf.  The beach was manned by three lifeguards in towers who must have been bored witless since the beach was not remotely busy and no one was anything more than calf-deep in the water.  I wonder if bored lifeguards wish for sharks to appear or someone to get caught in a current just so they have something, anything, to do other than stare at the sea.  Sand and boredom.  I think lifeguarding a beach would go on my list of jobs I am very glad I have never done.

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As an aside, that night at something like 10.30pm, when we were all comfortably ensconced in our hotel beds, cosy in our jammies, the fire alarm went off.  This would not be worth mentioning in a blog entry at all if it were not for the fact that this was actually the fifth – yes, fifth – time that Mr Pict and I have had to evacuate a hotel because of a fire alarm.  The first time was actually my fault.  We were staying in a hotel on the island of Mull and the steam from my shower set off the fire alarm.  Cue dripping wet embarrassment as we all mustered in the garden.  The second and third times happened on consecutive evenings in a hotel in Newcastle.  We were hiking Hadrian’s Wall with our three year old and baby so were pretty exhausted and sound asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow.  Sometime in the wee small hours of the morning, the fire alarm started blaring.  We were in a room on the top floor of a very tall city centre hotel with two small children so there was no time to lose.  In nothing but our pyjamas (though the baby was in a sleeping bag thing) we descended flight after flight of stairs and emerged onto the street on a bracingly cold February night (or morning) in the North East of England.  A man who had just returned from a stag (bachelor) party kindly gave his coat to our oldest son so that he didn’t perish and a woman gave me her leather gloves from her handbag so that I could pop them on my bare feet.  I looked ludicrious, utterly ridiculous, but at least it stopped my toes falling off.  It turned out someone had been smoking in a non-smoking room.  The following night, the exact same thing happened.  This time, however, we were paranoid and so prepared.  We had some clothes lying next to our beds ready for us to quickly grab and shove on plus shoes.  The shoes were critical.  No more gloved penguin feet for me.  That has been our resigned routine ever since.  So, when the same thing happened the following Spring in Glasgow, we were slick in our response.  Warm clothes folded beside the bed, shoes to hand, quick grab and exit and shove on the layers once we had safely exited.  That fourth time was also down to someone smoking in a non-smoking room.

So, yes indeed, this was our fifth time of having to evacuate a hotel in the middle of the night.  Shoes quickly shoved on, layers grabbed, stairs descended and we were safely outside – though I have to confess that at this juncture I am pretty jaded about the level of emergency involved in hotel fire alarms.  At least this time it was warm outside.  In fact it was positively balmy which was handy since our grabbed layers did not consist of much.  It was a bit of excitement for the kids, however, to see the fire engines turn up, sirens and lights blaring in the darkness, and firefighters leap out of the trucks with all of their equipment on.  I write “leap” but actually it was more of a lackadaisical plop as no one moved with any sense of urgency.  This only confirmed my cynicism as to the degree of urgency involved.  Indeed, no one ever took a register to ensure that all hotel patrons had assembled.  It didn’t take long before we were given permission to return to our rooms.  By that point, however, we had four wide awake and excitable kids on our hands.  Now that’s an emergency right there.

Whale Watching

One of the most memorable and incredible things I have ever experienced on my travels around America is whale watching.  On a road trip around New York, New England and South-eastern Canada back in the summer of 2001, we encountered whales just off-shore and even heard whale song from a cliff top.  Then, when we arrived in Gloucester, Massachusetts, we went on a whale watching trip where we saw two dozen humpback whales, including some breaching, and minke whales.  It was simply spectacular.  I was, therefore, keen for my children and parents to experience something similar and as such we had booked to go on a whale watching trip with Captain John’s tours out of Plymouth Harbour.

The area we headed out to is called Stellwagen Bank, a National Marine Sanctuary.  It is a plateau at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay that forms a rich and biodiverse ecosystem.  Due to the wealth of food in the area, Stellwagen Bank attracts marine mammals, including whales, and that is what makes whale sightings so likely.  Everyone was excited and buzzing with the frisson of expectation as the boat left Plymouth behind and forged out to sea.  We passed Duxbury Point lighthouse, which used to be manned but is now automated through solar power.  It stands near the point where the naturally occuring deep water ends and that means that it is very probably the place where ‘The Mayflower’ anchored for the pilgrims to decant from the ship into the shallop in order to make landfall.  We also passed Plymouth Lighthouse, which stands on a peninsula known as the Gurnet, and was the first to ever have a female lighthouse keeper, a lady named Hannah Thomas who took over duties when her husband went off to fight in the Revolutionary War.  Legend has it that it was the only lighthouse to ever be hit by canon during the War of Independence.

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Our guides for the day were two naturalists who explained what we were seeing and experiencing over a tannoy.  There was an intern named Sam and an experienced naturalist named Krill.  Krill was her nickname, of course, but I am not sure it is a good omen to be out at sea with someone named for whale food.  Furthermore, there was a chap on board wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Call me Ishmael”.  All we needed was an Ahab, Jonah and Gipetto on board and we would surely all be destined for Davy Jones’ locker.  The naturalists were very knowledgeable  and described the differences between the different whale species we might see on our trip and indeed the fundamental differences between tooth whales and baleen whales.  The kids even got to touch some baleen and a tooth, which they all loved.  It didn’t take too long, however, before Krill pointed out a pair of Finback whales in the distance.  Finbacks are the second largest creature to ever live on the planet, the biggest obviously being the blue whale.  I had never seen a Finback whale and didn’t get to see one on our trip either as they were too far away for me to spot by the time I got to the correct side of the boat.  Never mind.  That was a mere aperitif for what was to come.

Our first close encounter was with three Humpbacks – two adults and a calf – who were logging not far from the boat.  Logging is like napping while part of your brain is still active.  Oh how I wish I could do logging!  I could achieve so much and still feel rested.  Why have humans never thought to evolve this ability?  We were obviously hesitant to stay around the resting trio for too long so the boat scooted off a little further and that was when we encountered our first active whale, a Humpback named Dyad.  We saw her surfacing, her thick, dark back and fin slick and glistening with water, and then dive, including some deep dives which resulted in her presenting her fluke (tail).  All the passengers rushed from one side of the boat to the other in order to spot Dyad, scanning the surface for the green bubbly water or a dark shape breaking from the water.  Back and forth we rushed, as if intent on recreating ‘The Poseidon Adventure’.  We all gasped and oohed in unison each time Dyad appeared.  She never came too close to the boat but was close enough for us to observe her behaviour and see the detail in her fluke, marks as unique as a fingerprint which assist the naturalists in identifying individual whales.  We all thought this was as good as it was going to get and were pretty pleased with the experience.

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And then Samara appeared.

When Samara first joined Dyad, we were able to hear some trumpeting sounds.  Apparently this indicates excitement but I don’t think the whales could be anywhere near as excited as we were.  Samara proved to be a very inquisitive, sociable and perhaps somewhat reckless and impulsive Humpback.  For quite some time, she swam around the boat, coming so close that my Mum and seven year old got sprayed by the air emerging from her blowhole.  She swam under the boat and we all ran from port to starboard and back several times trying to be the first to glimpse her as she reappeared, looking for that bubble-filled green water or a flash of white fin.  It was an experience beyond our most hopeful and optimistic expectations to see a whale so close.  Samara’s proximity also served to emphasise the whale’s vast scale and yet she was graceful and gentle despite being so massive and powerful.  Breath-taking.  Krill explained that Samara is just six years old and that, through their observations, they believe that Humpbacks live to be anywhere between 60 and 80 years of age so perhaps Samara was just a playful child and that was one of the reasons she was delighting in playing around the boat.  Krill also told us that the most famous whale in this region is named Salt.  She was first observed in 1975 and is probably in her mid-40s.  Salt is the mother of 13 calves since whales typically produce offspring every two to three years, losing 40% of their body fat through nursing each baby, hence the need for recovery gaps.

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It was an utterly incredible experience.  We were all awe-struck.  We may not have witnessed the spectacular breaching displays that Mr Pict and I had seen back in 2001 but back then only one whale ever came close to the boat, albeit so close that an extra foot on my arms would have allowed me to stroke its head.  This time, however, we got to see more whales closer to the boat and to see Samara so close and for such an extended period was so utterly exciting.  I guess we got very lucky on both our whale watching trips.  My parents, who had expected to just see a few whales bobbing on the horizon, were gob-smacked and my animal-daft 7 year old was so over-excited his voice was a high-speed helium squeak.  Indeed, it made such an impression on him that he has been setting up his cuddly toys to go on whale watching tours ever since.

If, dear reader, you have never been on a whale watching tour I urge you to consider doing so.  I am sure you will not regret it.  I know I am just hoping that I don’t have to wait another 13 years before my next expedition.


PS  If you want to read the blog entry about our particular trip, written by the on-board naturalist, you can do so here.


Travelling Back in Family History at Plimoth Plantation

We had breakfast in the hotel each morning.  This was ideal as there were lots of options to  keep everyone’s bellies happy, from scrambled egg to cereal to bagels to yoghurt to self-made waffles, and because it saves on time when you want to get your day trip underway.

It was a short journey to Plimoth Colony, past lots of archetypal New England houses with wood shingles, coloured clapboard against white woodwork, external staircases and widow’s walks along the tops of roofs.  I do love New England style. I very much covet the dusky blue paintwork and the whale weathervanes.

Mr Pict and our boys have a family history connection to Mayflower and Plymouth Colony in that they are directly descended from people who crossed the Atlantic aboard ‘The Mayflower’.  We explained to the kids they would not exist – or at least not as themselves – had Priscilla Mullins and John Alden not survived the Winter of 1620 unlike so many others, including Priscilla’s parents and brother.  This personal connection to such a pivotal episode in American history certainly added an extra dimension to the trip and provided a useful means of engaging the children in what they were seeing at the recreated site.

We began in the lovely visitors centre by watching a video presentation about Plymouth Colony.  This proved to be more of an introduction to the site than an insightful documentary about the history of the place, which was rather disappointing.  Leaving the visitors centre, we started at the Wampanoag village.  This section of the site was populated by Native Americans wearing loincloths and other traditional clothing who could talk to us about contemporary tribal life as well as the history of the local Native American people and their interaction with the European settlers. We saw the winter huts and summer huts and it was interesting to be able to actually see close up and even feel the different construction process and materials used.  The kids found it interesting to see piles of shells and bones near the houses and had fun searching for crab claws and deer bones.  We also saw fishing nets being woven, women making turkey soup and cranberry tea.

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A brief walk along the Eel River brought us to the recreated plantation that demonstrates how the English colonists lived.  It was populated by people in authentic costume, completely immersed in acting the role of seventeenth century settlers even down to their patterns of speech and peculiar accents.  They never once broke character.  It was a most impressive skill while also adding interest and being engaging.  The actors really did bring it to life and add an extra dimension even if it was really quite disconcerting talking to them, as I felt as if I had to translate myself into a more formal, archaic pattern of speech and avoid any modern vocabulary.

The settlement was set up as they envisaged it would have been in 1627.  It was interesting to note just how compact the buildings were.  So much so that only the master and mistress of each household had beds as the other residents, whether children, servants or lodgers, slept on mattresses on the floor.  We went in and out of lots of buildings, including the meeting house at the top of the hill which afforded us a great view over the colony and out to the bay beyond.  We also went into the house that was representing that lived in by the Aldens.  We didn’t meet the “ancestors”, however, as they were “working in the fields”.  Shame.  That could have been goofy, nerdy fun.

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After a nose around the visitor’s centre, a short drive took us to the waterfront of Plymouth where we continued our visit by boarding ‘The Mayflower II’.  Obviously this was a modern replica ship but one that had actually sailed from England in 1957 nevertheless.  As much as there was lots to explore on board, it was not on a large scale so it was incredible to think that 102 people had squeezed aboard and – except for two of them – survived the hard crossing across the Atlantic.  The boys and Mr Pict are descended both from pilgrim passengers and a member of the crew (John Alden was the ship’s cooper) so it was useful to be able to show the boys the ship in addition to the replica colony.  They thoroughly enjoyed scurrying around the deck, below deck, nosing in cabins and dressing up in sailor costumes.  The ship was staffed by contemporary crewmen, who could answer technical questions about sailing such a ship, and people in costume representing the passengers.  Two of them, a young man and woman, even burst into some plain singing at one point which was quite delightful.

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After locating all of our children on ‘The Mayflower II’, we strolled along the shore line pathway to Plymouth Rock.  It is set beneath a grand, Greek style portico but the contents are deflating: the rock looks sad and neglected for all its historical (though probably inauthentic) association with ‘The Mayflower’.  Litter was scattered all around the rock which made it look scuzzy.  Would it really be so hard to get someone to go and clean out the space ever so often?  Another amble took us to see the fountain that serves as a monument to Pilgrim women.

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Back at the hotel, the boys immediately sloughed off their clothes and pulled on their swimming clobber so that they could grab a couple of hours in the swimming pool before heading out to dinner.  We went out to dinner at a place called Dave’s Diner.  This was my parents’ first experience of an American diner.  My Father-in-Law is an expert in diners so we knew it was not an authentic diner but it still had the right vibe to it and it had really great food, very filling, and great service all in a nice environment.  We left feeling beyond satiated and feeling we had had a very good experience.

Diving into Vacation

For the first time since I was seventeen years old, I went on vacation with my parents.  As this is their first time visiting America, we wanted to give them an impression of the scale of America and the variety of cultures and architecture, landscape and food.  A road trip was necessary.  We picked Massachusetts because New England is tangibly different from Pennsylvania without being too long a car journey.

Mr Pict and I had booked the accommodation months ago, having researched to find the location we needed at a price that suited our budget.  Then, with just days before we were due to set off, we were contacted to say that the boiler in our hotel had packed up and we would have to be transplanted – at the booking agency’s expense – to a more expensive hotel, though it was further away from the coast.   We accepted this.  Then, with under 24 hours to go, Mr Pict phoned the hotel to check that they understood all of the details of our original booking which had  been transferred to them.  That was when he discovered we had been billeted in smoking rooms.  None of us smoke and we certainly did not want to stay in a room that smelled like an ashtray with nicotine-stained walls when we had specifically booked non-smoking rooms.  During one road trip around Canada, we had made the error of accepting a mis-booked smoking room and the experience had been ghastly.  It was so ghastly indeed that a few days later, when we were again mistakenly given smoking rooms, we refused to accept them and had to go off-piste and desperately scramble to find alternative accommodation.  We ended up a a motel where the owner was sitting in reception beneath rows of hanging laundry wearing a grubby vest and yellowed underpants.  When we went to our room, we discovered deep claw marks in our door.  Perhaps from a werewolf.  Despite that experience of refusing a smoking room, we once again refused to accept the booking.  Finally, the evening before we were setting off, the booking agents found us some acceptable accommodation – again with them picking up the tab for the price differential – and we were back closer to the coast again.  Phew.  We could set off on our vacation knowing that we had a bed to lie in at the other end.

You may recall that my rule for claiming a new state is that you have to do two of three things in that state: pee, eat or sleep.  Following those rules, I am able to claim 25 US states and Mr Pict is able to claim 47.  On our journey to Massachusetts, we breakfasted in Cracker Barrel and by using the restrooms, my parents were able to claim New Jersey.  A little later on the journey, we stopped to pee at a McDonalds in Connecticut.  In addition to the bathroom break, my parents and kids had a milkshake which meant that technically they were all able to claim a new state.  No new states for me on this vacation.  That pit stop broke up a long and tedious journey with heavy traffic around New York and at spots along the I95.

Finally arrived at our hotel in late afternoon.  Our accommodation for the next three evenings was the Fairfield Marriott in Middleborough.  The rooms were nice.  We keep busy on our vacation so all we really need is somewhere comfy and clean to sleep and shower and it exceeded expectations on that basis.  My parents had a large room and Mr Pict and I had a room that was smaller but still spacious enough.  There were two double beds in each room so the each pair of kids had to share beds, which was a bit of an adventure in and of itself.  The best thing about the hotel, as far as the kids are concerned, is that it had an outdoor pool.

Within half an hour of arriving, the boys were in their swimming costumes and were splashing around in the pool.  When we arrived, there was a poor guy trying to chill out on a lilo.  He said he was happy to hear the sounds of my kids having fun – and they were very loud – but both Mr Pict and I were impressed by how zen he was, looking entirely relaxed and as if there was no chaos going on at the other end of the pool.  They had a whale of a time in the pool.

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We didn’t want to go far for dinner so we went to a Friendly’s just two minutes along the road.  In all my years of travelling around America, I had never once eaten in a Friendly’s.  This is somewhat odd since they were founded in 1935 so have certainly been around for long enough for me to have had the opportunity.  The choice was actually apt since Friendly’s was founded by two brothers – Prestley and Curtis Blake, aged 20 and 18 – in Massachusetts, Springfield to be precise, so we were eating “local” in a way.  Really, however, the choice was because of convenience.  And because my kids really wanted to have shark drinks.  The younger kids had been taken to Friendly’s by Mr Pict one afternoon a couple of months ago and had been raving about these shark drinks ever since.  It was a cocktail of blue raspberry sprite filled with jelly sharks and then they pour raspberry syrup in to represent blood in the water.  My kids are shark daft and love anything macabre so it was perfect for them.  The kids had food on skewers: cheeseburgers or chicken strips on sticks, served in a metal cone that contained their sides and dips.  They loved the fun presentation of the food.  Dessert was then a concoction named worms in dirt.  My first ever Friendly’s meal was fish tacos which were surprisingly delicious bu quite frankly any eatery that keeps my kids engaged in eating gets brownie points from me.

And now the vacation could properly begin.