Nemours

We had four guests visiting us over the Thanksgiving holiday: my in-laws and Mr Pict’s oldest friend and his partner.  After a day of over-indulging in feasting, we all felt the need to get some fresh air and burn off some calories.  We, therefore, headed to Valley Forge to hike around the site of the encampment and the surrounding fields.  I have blogged about a previous visit to Valley Forge, back in Spring of 2016, so will not repeat myself here.  Suffice to say it was a fair bit colder than it had been during that first exploration.  The wind was so biting that I lost feeling in my ears.  I also tried to recreate a previous “gargoyle” photo but had misremembered which son was the model.

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The following day, the six adults went on a child-free trip across the border into Delaware.  Our destination for the day was Nemours.  This is a French chateau style mansion that Alfred Dupont built for the woman who would become his second wife.  We learned that Alicia was not easily wooed and that the mansion was Alfred’s final pitch at winning her affections.  She agreed to marry him but I am pretty certain he did not win her affections.  Indeed, the subtext of our entire tour of the property was how problematic and dysfunctional Alfred’s marriages were – and obviously he was the common denominator – and how suspicious a few events in the biographical timeline were, including sudden deaths that removed the necessity for a divorce or the mysterious advent of infants.  I basically had my own little dramatic soap opera playing in my head as I moved from room to room and learned more about Alfred and his wives.

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After a quick pootle around the grounds, we embarked on a guided tour led by an enthusiastic young woman named Kat.  She started the tour in the mansion’s basement and that turned out to be my favourite part of the house.  I have visited hundreds of stately homes, palaces, and castles in my time and the public rooms tend to be much of a muchness.  What set this home apart from the others that I have visited was that basement level.  Since he had built his mansion from scratch in the early 20th Century, Alfred was not having to cram modern technology into a much older building or try to couple the old and new.  He also seemed to be especially enthralled with engineering and with the cutting edge of mod cons so there were lots of fascinating gizmos, gadgets, and gubbins going on beneath the surface of the building.  As someone who spends too much of her life doing laundry, I especially liked the spacious laundry room – housed in an exterior building but connected to the mansion through a tunnel so that undies need never be exposed to public view.

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Each room in the house had been decorated for the Christmas season.  The chosen decorations were on a theme connected to the space in which they were sited and I enjoyed the festive sparkle and the attention to detail.  Again, my favourite trees were to be found in the basement level – a steampunk tree in the boiler room and a bottle tree in the bottling room.

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The house is beautifully decorated and immaculately maintained.  I found myself admiring the skill of the people who must remove every speck of dust from the surfaces in advance of doors being opened each day.  There was a lot of opulence on display but it was not so lavish as to be garish or excessive.  My favourite room was the conservatory closely followed by the kitchen.

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After completing our tour of the house, we wandered over to the garage – which was larger than my house – to see the family’s collection of very shiny luxury cars.  We contemplated having a walk around the grounds, which are laid out in a French style, but it was far too cold and we were too hungry to tolerate the cold.  We, therefore, bid farewell to Nemours and its muffled tales of familial dysfunction.  Since we have also visited Hagley Museum (way back in 2015), we now need to visit Delaware’s other open-to-the-public DuPont property at Winterarthur.

 

Canada Trip #1 – Hyde Park

Last year’s road trip (which saw us drive from the Philly ‘burbs to a corner of Montana and back) was a stretch for our tolerance of each other’s company in the confines of the car and the ratio of miles in a car to miles covered by foot.  We, therefore, curbed our ambitions this year and decided to try a different pace of vacation.  In comparison to our previous family road trips, our plans were extremely modest: Quebec, Montreal, and Lake Charleston, Ontario.

The first day of our trip took us through upstate New York.  Determined to achieve at least one thing beyond getting from A to B, we decided to stop off at Hyde Park, the Hudson Valley home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  This is the site of FDR’s presidential library and of Springwood, his family home.  Although the property was older, it had been owned by Roosevelt’s father since the 1860s and had been expanded and extended over the decades.  Roosevelt was born there in 1882 and, when Roosevelt married Eleanor in 1905, they moved into his boyhood home.  They lived and raised their family there and continued to visit even after FDR became president and the White House became their primary digs.

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We kept our visit to perambulating in the grounds as the kids were not enthused by the prospect of a tour of the house.  I acquiesced because I had visited previously and had vivid memories of the house and the presidential library.  It was not until the end of our visit, however, that Mr Pict revealed that he thought he had never been there before.  He seriously had zero memory of ever having visited.  I started rattling off details of the interiors and finally something stirred in his memory banks and he recollected that he had at least been there.  Therefore, we probably should have forced the kids to submit to a tour.

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As you may recall, I have a new domestic travel bucket list which is to visit every presidential gravesite.  I love to visit cemeteries, I am keen on history, and I am enthusiastic about travel (trifecta!) so I think it’s an eminently sensible ambition.  I have a good few checked off already and had obviously previously visited this particular grave but I want my husband and kids to “opt in” to my scheme so I was happy to have the opportunity to see the grave of my favourite US President and First Lady.

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After departing Hyde Park, we had no plans beyond getting to Burlington, Vermont. We were by then thinking of food.  Our road trips often involve thoughts of food because we are always either famished or indulging.  We seem to have no mode between.  I, therefore, foolishly googled best places to eat in Burlington and, after a family discussion, booked a table for early evening.  In doing so, I utterly jinxed us.  Almost instantly, our journey went off-piste.  We had no signal for GPS and no map operating at the detail required for our cross-country hypotenuse.  We must have taken a wrong turn but, when we double-backed, we couldn’t identify the road we should have taken, so we triple-backed and forged on.  And then we realised that we had no choice but to cross Lake Champlain by ferry.  We crossed near Fort Ticonderoga on a chain ferry that could thankfully take enough cars that we made it onto the next available crossing.  Still, it set us back.

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Thankfully, when we got back into phone reception, the restaurant was willing and able to push our booking back to accommodate our late arrival.  This was just as well because Mr Pict and the Pictlings were salivating for barbecue food and would have been despondent about a change of dinner venue.  The restaurant was Bluebird Barbecue in Burlington.  We ate in a screened in porch area that was lovely in the early evening air after a day inside a stuffy car.  Barbecue is not really my thing so I cannot judge the quality but my carnivorous husband was happy, my oldest son got to try out the fusion of barbecue and ramen, and I was happy because I had an absolutely delicious lavender flavoured mocktail.  It was a great way to end the first day of our road trip.

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Road Trip 2018 #18 – Skyline Drive

My in-laws used to live in the suburbs of Washington DC and Mr Pict and I would fly out to visit them there and use their home as a base for exploration.  Now, of course, I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia, also on the mid-Atlantic coast.  It is, therefore, actually a bit ridiculous that I have never visited Shenandoah National Park.  I really don’t know why we have never gotten around to it.  Always something else to see that was placed as a higher priority I suppose.  Navigating our route home through Virginia on the very last day of our road trip, I spotted an opportunity: I could at least do the Skyline Drive element of Shenandoah since it took us in the right direction.  I discussed my plan in quiet code with Mr Pict as I knew I would be met with resistance from the kids.  He agreed and we took the twisting turn to start ascending the mountains.

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The kids were on to us immediately and were not best pleased.  This was the fifteenth day of our road trip and they just wanted to get home.  I could understand their motivation but, at the same time, I wanted to cram one more experience into our trip.  One of the things I love about America’s National Park system is that its parks result from someone just deciding that something is beautiful or unique or historic or any combination of the three and that it should consequently be preserved and protected.  In this case, said person was President Hoover who decided that a road should be built so that more people could access and appreciate the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The views were indeed breathtaking.  The boys, however, were not appreciating them.  They were just doner than done with tourism and were 200% over road tripping.  Other than when we stopped at a ranger station, the older two even refused to get out of the car on any of the stops.  To be fair, the little grouches were also complaining about how twisty turny the road was and how queasy it was making them feel.  I too was feeling nauseous.  And the going was very slow.  I admitted defeat.  We exited the park at Swift Run Gap, rejoined major roads, and focused on getting home.

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This post then concludes all of my blogging about our 2018 road trip.  Ten new states visited in just two weeks bringing me to a total of 40 US states visited.  That was an awful lot of driving (4550 miles!) and I think we probably – definitely – pushed ourselves to the limits of our tolerance for driving trips.  I don’t think I would undertake a trip involving such massive distances across just two weeks again – especially not with kids in tow.  It was too exhausting and the ratio of fun per miles was inadequate on this particular trip.  That is not to say that it was not worth it.  I would just learn from it and not push ourselves quite so far next time.  It was worth it because I loved seeing how different the landscapes of the Plains states were compared to those I had already visited.  Visiting a whole new region of the country underscored just how vast and diverse America is.  The focus of our road trip had been reaching the Dakotas – everything else just slotting into place as the route there and back – and the Dakotas did not disappoint.  In particular, I could probably have happily spent two weeks just travelling around South Dakota and exploring.  I was glad we spent more time there than anywhere else.  The trade off for that, of course, was that we barely touched the surface of some states.  I will need to go back and explore those properly at some stage.  But maybe not for a while.  I feel like I need a relaxing vacation now in order to recover from my vacation.

Road Trip 2018 #17 – Stones River National Battlefield

The final two days of our road trip were really just about covering distance in order to reach home.  Both were, therefore, slogs of days with no real time available for exploring.  On the penultimate day, however, we did indulge Mr Pict’s Civil War geekery by opting to stretch our legs at Stones River National Battlefield.

Having been to Shiloh in 2002, this was actually my second Tennessee Civil War battlefield.  I feel like I am collecting Civil War sites by association.  Confusingly, Mr Pict talks about this place as Murfreesboro, the name of a nearby town, which makes it even more difficult for me to retain the information.  We were greeted at the Visitor Center by an incredibly chipper Park Ranger.  He provided a summary of the site’s history and I, therefore, learned that this was the first place that the Emancipation Proclamation was enforced.  Furthermore, it was also on the route of the original Trail of Tears in 1838.  However, because the road charged a toll for each Cherokee, the government baulked at the expense and a different route was taken from then onwards.  Mr Pict also informed me that Stones River had the highest percentage of casualties of all the major battles of the Civil War.  And that is the extent of everything I learned during my visit.  Sometimes my brain is just too exhausted to absorb any information I am not keenly interested in.  This was one such time.

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After the Visitor Center, we took a driving tour of battlefield sites.  It helps that the modern day Pike and railroad are in the same positions they were in 1863 when it comes to interpreting the battlefield landscape and understanding the focus of the conflict.  Mr Pict took a stroll through the area of rocks and woodland known as the Slaughter Pen.  A series of attacks in this spot meant that the bodies started piling up and blood was everywhere.  Staying on that theme, we also visited Hell’s Half Acre, which had ended up covered in Confederate dead.  The battle counts as a Union victory only because they managed to repel two Confederate attacks which led to the Confederates withdrawing.  And that really is the limit of my osmosis-gained knowledge.

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Road Trip 2018 #10 – Mount Rushmore at last!

Finally – after two failed plans and on our final day at the Log Cabin near Lead – we managed to make it to Mount Rushmore.

We had been a bit tardy leaving the house and had driven a slow going, not always properly surfaced, cross-country route to get there which meant we did not arrive early enough to beat the crowds.  The place was absolutely hoaching*.  We joined a queue that began on the actual roadside just to join one of the queues to drive into the multi-level parking lots.  It was crazy.  However annoying our experience of waiting to get parked might have been, we were still lucky we arrived when we did.  By the time we left, the queue to enter the parking lot was so long that it took us ten minutes of driving to even see the end of the queue.

The National Park itself was also thronging with people.  Because I hate crowds, I sometimes find myself getting annoyed that so many other tourists want to visit the places that I – also an annoying tourist – want to see.  Of course, the sculpture is on such a massive scale and is at such a high elevation that there is really no risk of the view being obstructed by all the masses gathered below.  I, therefore, don’t really have any cause for complaint.

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The idea of a gigantic carving in the Black Hills was conceived of in the 1920s and the sculptor Gutzon Borglum was hired for the project.  He chose to depict Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln because they represent America’s founding, expansion, preservation, and unification.  Almost 400 people worked under the direction of Borglum and his son, Lincoln.  We learned that workers had to ascend 700 steps to the top of the mountain to start each working day and then they were handling things like dynamite and dangling from ropes.  I can’t help thinking that the shortage of other employment during the Great Depression must have been one of the reasons that compelled people to sign up for the job.  I know I absolutely could not have done it.  In addition to using dynamite, holes would be drilled into the rock to assist its removal with greater precision.  We saw chunks of this so-called “honeycomb” granite lying around among the rocks and trees at the base of the mountain, which was pretty cool to see.  It was pretty amazing to think that such a process resulted in the smooth carvings we saw high above us.

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We took the short and easy “presidential path” to get closer to the heads.  All this really achieved was to move us away from the majority of the crowds because, of course, getting closer to colossal heads is all relative.  After we had had a gander at the presidents, I suggested we poke around in some of the other exhibits on site, maybe take in one of the National Park movies.  The kids, however, were not having any of it.  I also suggested that we visit the (ongoing) carving of Crazy Horse which is not too far from Rushmore.  The kids protested once more.  At present, Crazy Horse is just a face.  The boys claim they will happily return with me once the sculpture is complete.  The sculpture is planned to be almost 600 feet high and has been being worked on for 70 years.  I suspect I may have to return without them if they won’t go until its completion.

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In the end, we agreed we would return to the Log Cabin.  The boys wanted some down time and to soak in the hot tub.  We parents knew we were going to have some real slogs of driving days ahead so were happy to capitulate and let the kids recharge their batteries and their tolerance.  I used the time to do laundry and pack suitcases.  We also had a visit from some deer and a family of wild turkeys.  Later, the two younger boys and Mr Pict took a gentle stroll to see a waterfall in Spearfish Canyon where they encountered lots of downed trees from the recent tornados.  Otherwise we had a lazy time of it and made the most of having room to relax in before hitting the road again.

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*I used a Scots word so better translate.  Hoaching means teeming or swarming, to be very busy indeed.

 

Road Trip 2018 #9 – South Dakota Badlands

The sensible part of our day – as opposed to doing silly tourist stuff – was a visit to Badlands National Park.  The landscape is pretty striking, not just because of the way its rugged peaks and steep chasms differ from the flat plains of so much of the surrounding topography, but also because of the layering of colours.  I am not remotely a geologist but I find the striations of colour to be aesthetically appealing.

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We took a wander into the landscape via the Door Trail.  It was absolutely thronging with visitors but most were staying either on or in the vicinity of the boardwalk.  We, therefore, headed out onto the rocky plateau where there was more space and a greater opportunity to actually take in the scenery.  The Badlands are rich in fossils but we did not stumble across any.  Apparently simply stumbling across fossils is something that still happens here.  A Ranger told Mr Pict that last year a little girl had found a sabretooth skull.  We told the boys to listen and watch for rattlesnakes and to always be aware of where at least one parent was and then let them be free range.  It was just what they needed after so very many miles of being stuck in a car each day for a week.  They were absolutely thrilled to find that they could clamber down into mini canyons that twisted and turned and then pop up and out in an entirely new location.  They also ascended some small peaks to take in some panoramic views and just because they like climbing things.  Our youngest son has almost zero impulse control and never undertakes any version of a risk assessment so he was gamboling around like a mountain goat.  I actually had to stop watching him as he was giving me palpitations.

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On the subject of impulse control and risk assessment, as we departed the National Park, I spotted the rusting hulk of a car in a field and asked Mr Pict to pull over so I could leap out and take some photos.  It is possible he assumed that I was just going to take some distance shots but that was not my plan.  Instead, I hiked off across the field of scrub to reach the car.  Before I could stop them, three of the kids followed me.  We found ourselves dodging numerous cow pats, getting scraped by cacti, and bitten by nasty bugs.  We reached the car and had a nose about and took some photos and then headed back towards the car.  That was when we heard the distinctive rattle and that was when I remembered about rattlesnakes.  Oops.  I told the kids to follow exactly in my path and to scope out not just where they were placing their feet but the area immediately surrounding it too.  It actually became advantageous to stand on the cow pats as those acted like stepping stones through the scrub.  We saw the tail end of a snake dart off but otherwise we had no encounters and we made it back to the car safe and sound.  Parenting fail.

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Having missed out on an evening visit to Mount Rushmore the previous night thanks to tornados, we had a plan to visit after seeing the Badlands.  However, the sky grew grey and overcast and rain was forecast.  We worried we would not get a decent view of the presidents if we trucked over to Rushmore for the evening.  We also worried we were running out of time to see Rushmore at all.  Sometimes indecision can be crippling.  Everyone was famished, however, having had nothing but a donut since breakfast, so we pulled into Rapid City to eat dinner and decided we would put off seeing Rushmore again.  Would we ever make it there?

 

Hopewell Furnace

Our youngest son turned 9 over Memorial Day weekend.  He likes to get out and explore new places so, after gfit opening and birthday breakfast, we decided to take a day trip to Hopewell Furnace.  Despite being relatively close to home, it is a National Historic Site we had not visited in our four years of living in PA so it was high time we went to check it out.

As Hopewell Furnace was in operation prior to the American Revolution, it is considered to be one of America’s oldest industrial sites and, therefore, a place of historic significance.  We began our trip in the Visitor’s Centre with a video providing us with a useful potted history of the “iron plantation”.  We learned about the site having been chosen because of a confluence of natural resources, about the evolving treatment of and attitude African-American workers – ranging from slavery to early desegregation and the Underground Railroad – and of female employees, its contribution to the War of Independence, and about the process of manufacturing iron as it was undertaken from the 1770s through to its closure in the 1880s.

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As with all National Parks sites, Hopewell Furnace was beautifully maintained and easy to navigate.  We found that we could walk in a loop and take in all of the buildings and ruins.  Hopewell operated as a charcoal furnace for most of its existence because the price of hauling coal to the site was prohibitive so we saw the area where charcoal would have been created.  We had learned that the furnace could consume as much as 800 bushels of charcoal in one day so it must have been a demanding job.  We all enjoyed seeing the blast furnace, not simply because it was very cool inside on such a hot day.  I normally find it pretty challenging to engage with industrial heritage but I had no difficulty imagining the workers operating inside the furnace as it all seemed so visually clear.  We had seen where the “ingredients” would be dropped into the shaft in order to be super-heated, and then the bit at the bottom of the “chimney” from where the molten metal would flow once the seal was broken.  There was then a nearby area where the skilled workers would pour the iron into sand moulds in order to manufacture various items.  We were all somewhat mesmerised by the water wheel.  Sure it was a nifty piece of engineering and critical to the manufacturing process but I think for at least the boys and me it was really just that there is something aesthetically pleasing and calming about watching a wheel rotate.

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We had been informed that the workers’ houses were not yet open to the public for the season but, in fact, we found that a couple of them were open.  They had been furnished with reproduction furniture and household items which was fantastic as it helped us understand how families utilised the space and also allowed the kids to engage a bit more since the experience became tactile.  My husband and the birthday boy even played a quick card game in one of the houses.  Industrial history doesn’t really do it for me so it was the social history regarding issues like racial (in)equality and the lives of the workers that really helped to anchor my interest in the site.

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After some time spent befriending Maximilian the horse, our final stop was the Ironmaster’s house.  The ground floor is open for viewing, with barriers keeping visitors back from the furniture and other artefacts that bring each room to life.  I think what my kids most enjoyed about the “big house”, however, was the porch complete with rocking chairs.  After months of dismal weather, they have not yet readjusted to heat and sunlight.  They better get used to it, however, as I intend for us to be outdoors a lot this summer after hibernating for months.

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