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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We had a day out in Philly on Saturday to celebrate my birthday. Last year I chose to visit a historic cemetery and this year I decided we should consume more local history. I thought it was entirely ridiculous that I had been living in the suburbs of Philadelphia for four years now (as of 17 October) yet had never been to see the Liberty Bell or been inside Independence Hall. That, therefore, was my selection for the first part of my birthday trip.
The lines to get in to see the Liberty Bell – part of the Independence Historic Site – were long but not as ridiculously long as they have been on other occasions when we have considered viewing it. We, therefore, joined the line and found that it moved at a reasonable pace. We all had to remove layers of clothing and place our possessions in boxes to be scanned for security purposes but, even so, it only took about half an hour between joining the queue and being allowed to go and view the bell. There were displays outlining the bell’s history, its symbolism, and how it has been cared for and restored. The boys had zero interest in lingering long enough to read so Mr Pict and I had to skim and scan.
The bell is, of course, famous for its crack. This appeared as soon as it was rung for the first time in Philadelphia. Poor workmanship it seems. It was recast a couple of times by men whose names – Pass and Stow – appear on the bell and then the bell cracked to the extent it appears now in the 19th Century. It was probably one of the bells that was rung when the Declaration of Independence was read publicly for the first time on 8 July 1776 but really the rest of its history was pretty insignificant. Its real importance emerges from its symbolism, particularly for the abolitionist movement. Its use as a symbol is really why I wanted to see it: the bell is used all over the place locally and nationally so I thought I had really better see the real thing.
After our visit to the Liberty Bell, the plan was to go and explore Independence Hall. However, all of the tickets for the day were already gone. Completely bad planning on our part. Tsk tsk. We will have to return another time. We, therefore, had to content ourselves with the adjacent Old City Hall. Its significance rests in the fact that it housed the Supreme Court until the nation’s capital was relocated to Washington DC. We had a quick gander and then we moved on.
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.
We did not have a great start to our final day of vacation. First of all, we discovered that we could not do online check-in for our flight the following morning because our youngest son had been listed as an “unaccompanied minor”. Secondly, we could not pull off our planned trip to the Muir Woods. We expected it to be busy and were not surprised to find the car park was full. However, on scouting for a parking space on the road, we drove for ages without spotting a single space. When we finally found a spot, it was so far from the entrance to the National Park that we would have had to walk on the road for well over an hour. The kids were absolutely not up for walking uphill for over an hour only to walk around another grove of redwood trees. This was especially frustrating for me since this was the second time I had failed to visit the Muir Woods. Third time lucky? Maybe some day. We abandoned the woods and headed towards San Francisco.
Prior to entering the city, we stopped at a vantage point to see the Golden Gate Bridge from up high. The famous San Francisco fog was in dense evidence. Initially it seemed like we would never actually get a glimpse of the bridge. Then, like a spectre emerging from the mist, a couple of bits of distinctive ironwork emerged.
That was the aperitif. Loaded back in the car, we headed across the Golden Gate Bridge. The boys know the bridge not just as a distinctive landmark but also as a location for many movies. They were, therefore, pretty stoked to be crossing the bridge. They were a tad less stoked when we told them we were going to be crossing it again. On foot. I have never walked on the Golden Gate Bridge before. I have driven over it and I have walked under it but I have never walked over it. It was time to tick that item off the travel bucket list whether the kids liked it or not. Plus, it was going to be the eleventh and final National Park of our road trip. It was chilly on the bridge in that way that the damp cold creeps into your pores. The kids pulled their hoods up and scowled. The bridge was crowded. The pathway was divided into a cycling lane and a pedestrian lane. The tricky part, however, was that when bicyclists travelling in opposite directions met, one bike would end up on the pedestrian side to overtake and all the pedestrians, therefore, ended up even more smooshed into their designated lane. Consequently, our walk across the bridge was at the pace of a very gentle stroll. We had promised the kids spectacular views over the bay and city but, alas, the fog was still dense. We could barely see the iron struts of the bridge let alone views. The kids scowled even more. In addition to their other gripes, the 10 year old did not like being up high. Allegedly. Finally, just as we were walking back off the bridge, the fog disappeared and we finally got a great view. We could see the bay, with Alcatraz plonked in the middle, and the skyline of the city. I am not sure the kids were convinced that it was worth it.
When we first booked our flights, our plan for San Francisco had been to visit Alcatraz. Mr Pict and I had taken a tour in 2000 and loved it. It was an incredible experience and one of the highlights of that particular vacation. We knew the boys would love it so we went online to book tickets. There were none. None. I guess to visit Alcatraz in July, one has to book a year in advance. With Alcatraz out of the question and having reduced our time in San Fran down to a single day, we decided to concentrate on Fisherman’s Wharf. First up: lunch. Mr Pict and I had fond stomach memories of eating soup from sourdough bread bowls and the kids loved the idea of trying that so we headed to a chowder place. The eatery itself was pretty basic but the food was utterly delicious. Most of us had clam chowder but my 14 year old had crab chowder and my 10 year old had shrimp salad. We all thoroughly enjoyed our food and were replete for the rest of the day because we had essentially eaten the crockery.
Wandering along Fisherman’s Wharf, we stopped to watch a very impressive one man band perform. He had an electric instrument, rock and roll twist on the traditional format. The kids were keen to see the famous bay sea-lions at Pier 39. Annoyingly, the sea-lions had decided to park themselves on a little floating dock that was as far as possible from the pier which made them difficult to see in any great detail. Nevertheless, the kids were entertained by watching the sea-lions jiggle around, slipping in and out of the water, and wobbling over each other.
Fourteenth day of our road trip and we visited our tenth National Park. The entrance to Yosemite is just north of Mammoth Lakes so we were able to arrive pretty early in the morning. We were still at a high elevation at that end of the park and the mountains we passed had snow drifts tucked into their crevices and there were chunks of ice floating on the surface of the water. We wound our way along the road, past rock faces lashed with small waterfalls and fast running creeks glimpsed through the trees. Every time we turned a corner, we were met with a new, beautiful, striking vista. One scene reminded my husband and sons of Rivendell, where some fancy elves live in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies. We also saw the famous sights of El Capitan and Half Dome but only from the car. There was no free space to park anywhere close that would have given us the opportunity to get out and have a look.
Yosemite has been protected land since the time of Abraham Lincoln – and thanks in large part to my fellow countryman, John Muir – and it really does have that feeling of wilderness to it. It is also incredibly vast. We had lots of choices for places to hike to and in the end we plumped for the Yosemite Falls. It was an easy walk that led us through woodland. The route was paved the whole way but the younger boys and I chose to wade through some shallow water anyway, just for fun and to cool our feet. It was not long before we could hear the strong rumbling of the waterfalls and a little further on we could feel the spray even before we could catch sight of the falls.
Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in the park and falls, in two drops, a total of 2425 feet. Our walk brought us to the bottom of the lower falls where we could watch the water pounding into the pool and flowing out into the creek, hear its roar, and be cooled by its spray. Despite the noise, despite the crowds, there was something restful about watching the falls, something mesmerising about it. We spent some time taking in the view of the falls.
I wanted to cram in a visit to the Ahwahnee Hotel, as it’s interiors were used as the inspiration for some of the decor in the Overlook Hotel, the setting of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’. As a big fan of the movie, it was a big pull for me. However, Mr Pict was keeping a better eye on our timings than I was and pointed out that we still had a very long drive ahead of us. Sadly, therefore, I had to accept that on this occasion I would have to abandon the film nerd bit of our visit to Yosemite.
The drive north was indeed long. Long and boring. Boring largely because it was relentless. The landscape outside the car was actually fairly interesting, so it was not like the cabin fever boredom that sets in when driving through featureless desert. There were rolling hills, golden grasses dancing in fields, and clouds in the sky. Actual clouds. I think they were the first clouds we had seen on our entire road trip. Our route took us up and down steep mountains, on twisting roads, through areas devastated by wildfires with trees turned to charcoal. What we did not pass was anywhere we could stop to eat. By late afternoon we were ravenous but the only towns we passed through were too tiny to have a grocery store or place to eat. This was not good planning on our parts. We had water and the kids had access to some snacks but we were hungry enough that the cranky moods were kicking into gear. The long stretches of nothingness somehow seemed longer because of our hunger. We passed through Calaveras County, a place I had heard of because of Mark Twain and his jumping frog. Having heard of it, I had some hope we would pass through a place big enough to at least have a convenience store we could grab some sandwich fixings from. Alas, no. We must have been in the depopulated part of the county. We kept on trucking. Finally, we reached civilization in the form of a truck stop. We ate there – nothing special but we were grateful all the same – and then headed to our sleeping quarters for the evening, a hotel just north of Santa Rosa.
Travelling north from Death Valley, we stopped in at Manzanar. We felt it was important to connect the boys to a tangible reminder of how ugly and inhumane a great democracy like America can allow itself to become. Manzanar was one of ten camps where Japanese-Americans were interned during the Second World War, having been forcibly removed from the communities they were residing in. Being the best preserved, it has come under the protection of the National Park Service.
We started in the exhibition area that adjoins the Visitor Center. The displays were informative and engaging and really helped the boys grasp what had happened in wartime America and what unchecked intolerance can lead to. They were staggered to learn that even Japanese American soldiers, returning from fighting for America, were subject to abuse simply because of their heritage. They could not comprehend the degree of prejudice that would lead to a democracy legislating in order to subject men, women, and children to such treatment. They understood the history and the placement of Manzanar in a wider context of historic examples of a nation legislating in favour of intolerance but they could not comprehend the inhumanity. Sometimes it is simply impossible to explain hate. Because they could most relate to it, they were most moved by the section dedicated to the history of children in the camp. These children included orphans who were removed from institutions and relocated to the camp because somehow tiny orphaned children were seen as a threat to national security because they happened to have Japanese heritage. All of the exhibits were incredibly emotive. It was impossible not to be moved. It was impossible not to be provoked into asking questions. How did people allow this to happen? What do we need to do to ensure it can never happen again?
Most of the fabric of the camp was destroyed in the couple of years immediately following its closure. An attempt at erasing the past, perhaps. What we saw when we stepped outside, therefore, was really a reconstruction of some of the huts and an indication of where the others would once have stood. We found we were walking around in almost complete silence as it seemed neither we nor our fellow visitors could find the ability to absorb what we were taking in and articulate our response. The huts had been furnished to illustrate how the internees lived. It must have been so horrendously difficult to go from living in private houses to living in these flimsy bunk houses with little or no privacy. Further, the temperatures during the warm months must have been completely awful and in winter they must have been bitterly cold. The furnishings and personal items in the reconstructed huts really breathed life into the place. It brought the political and national history of the place into personal, individual focus. Seeing a tiny pair of shoes tucked in beside a bedstead has rarely been so poignant.
The last location we visited at Manzanar was the cemetery. I think I read that over 140 people died while held at Manzanar. Most were buried elsewhere but a few were interred on site. The remains of many of those were then relocated after the camp was closed in 1945. I love cemeteries. They are among my favourite places and I always feel comfortable when wandering around a cemetery. This cemetery, however, was haunting not because of the dead but because of its wider context. The whole of Manzanar was haunting. It was just that the isolated cemetery, scratched out of the desert dust, the snow capped mountains looming in the background, seemed to encapsulate the utter awfulness of Manzanar. Never again.
The twelfth day of our summer vacation began with our eighth National Park of the road trip. Death Valley straddles Nevada and California, a vast expanse of desert on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Of all of America’s National Parks, it is the furthest below sea level and also holds the records as being the most dry and the most hot. It actually holds the record as having had the hottest temperature ever recorded on the planet. That temperature was 134 degrees. Not my ideal environment but we could not complete our horseshoe route around the southwest without taking the boys to such an (in)famous place as Death Valley. It gained its name from some folks travelling to California as part of the Gold Rush took what they thought was a shortcut from the trail and ended up staggering their way through the valley, barely surviving. Ideal place for a wander then!
Our first stop was at Zabriskie Point. This area was once an ancient lake so its geology is all about sediments. I assume that these sediments along with ashy layers from volcanic activity account for all the variations in colour in the tooth shaped peaks there – but I have a brain that doesn’t do geology so I may be wrong. The elevation gave us a great perspective on the parched landscape and was useful in helping us point out to the boys area of salt flats and places where mines had once operated.
When we pulled into the Visitor Center at Furnace Creek, the building’s thermometer announced it was 114 degrees and climbing. There were also signs posted all over the place warning people not to hike as it was simply too hot to be safe. You know it’s bad when the National Parks Service is warning people to not use its resources. The first thing we did there was to avail ourselves of the cold water from their fountains to glug down and refill our water flagons. Refreshed, we decided to take full advantage of their air conditioning so we had a thorough nose around the museum. This was an exhibition about life in Death Valley – its geology, of course, but also its wildlife, the Timbishu Shoshone way of life and their legal victories to reclaim land rights, the history of European settlement and of borax mining. What my younger boys most enjoyed was an interactive exhibit that challenged them to design, using various body parts, the uber desert creature by thinking about adaptations that would be advantageous in such a harsh environment. We had to burst a gut laughing when most of their imaginary animals either looked distinctly phallic or like winged testicles.
We left the air conditioned sanctuary of the Visitor Center and continued along the road. Only I, however, opted to get out of the car at the next stop. I thought it was an easy hop, skip, and jump to snag some interesting photos but it was so searingly hot by that juncture that even my twenty minutes round trip walk felt incredibly uncomfortable. The spot in question was the Harmony Borax Works. This was where borax was mined from the early 1880s and for just that decade. The works were famous for its “twenty mule team” that hauled the borax overland to the railroad at Mojave. On a day when I could feel myself slowly turning to dust in the intense heat, it was hard to believe that people had actually managed to live and work in such an inhospitable place. It must have been particularly gruelling for the Chinese immigrant workers who lived in tents in the surrounding landscape. I was able to see the ruins of the works and an example of a mule wagon before scurrying back to the car and being ever so grateful for water.
The heat was even more intense by the time we reached Stovepipe Wells and the sand dunes of Mesquite Flats. It was actually unbearable and again I wondered how anyone – whether indigenous people or mining immigrants – had ever managed to survive in Death Valley. Clearly they were much hardier than I am. Though we didn’t spot any mesquite plants, there were creosote bushes galore. There was also a large, dead-looking tree that my kids were longing to climb up but a coach load of tourists were doing just that very thing, taking turns to pose for photographs, and the kids were too hot to wait patiently for a turn. Instead, they kicked around the dunes for as long as they could stand the heat – which was not very long. It was time to leave Death Valley before we cooked.