Road Trip 2017 #6 – Point Dume and the Great Kite Caper

The third day of our vacation fell on a Saturday.  LA had been crowded and full of too much hustle and bustle even on weekdays so we decided to get away from the city and go for a nature ramble instead.  J and L suggested that we meet up with some friends of theirs and go for a hike which seemed like just the ticket.  Their friends in turn suggested a coastal hike so that we would benefit from the cooling sea breezes on such a hot day.  We, therefore, headed to Point Dume.  Yes, I too am disappointed it is not spelled Doom.

Point Dume is essentially a cliff in Malibu.  My middle two sons – the comic book geeks – were excited to learn that the promontory was the site of Tony Stark’s CGI mansion in the ‘Iron Man’ movies.  More excitingly for me, the adjacent beach was the location of the climactic scene in ‘The Planet of the Apes’.  Our hike took us along a pathway with a gentle ascent up to the promontory.  It offered us incredible views of the surrounding landscape, from the mansions behind us, to the beaches beyond, and the ocean stretching to the horizon.

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My boys and their wee cousin decided to give me palpitations by scampering down a sandy slope from a viewing platform to a cliff edge below.  Mr Pict and L followed them down to keep a closer eye on them but still my fear of heights was escalating to panic attack proportions watching them inch closer and closer to the edge.  I had visions of the whole cliff face sheering off.  I actually felt giddy and queasy and was glad when everyone decided to clamber back up to more solid, stable ground.  Meanwhile, to try and distract me from the potential for Doom at Dume, the friends pointed out various landmarks in the distance and told me about the grey whales they often see passing in the winter months.   I have never seen grey whales before so that would have been a superb experience.  We did, however, see a pod of dolphins arching in and out of the water and there were sea-lions with their pups galore piled up on the rocks just below us – though looking straight down at them was also triggering my fear of heights.

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Thankfully and finally everyone was ready to move on from the cliff top and we began to snake our way back down on sandy, pebble strewn pathways past cacti in bloom and darting lizards.  We headed in the direction of Zuma Beach.  L and I peeled off to take the gaggle of kids to the beach while the other adults headed off in search of lunch – since we had all entirely failed to pack one.  The kids did not complain as they ended up munching pizza and giant sandwiches on the beach.  You may recall from many a post, however, that I loathe sand.  Between heights and sand, I was having a nerve-shredding day.  Since I was hungry, I tried my best to eat a sandwich despite my 20+ year policy of never eating at the beach.  I regretted even trying.  Not only was I wincing with every bite, expecting my teeth to touch grains of sand, but a ruddy great seagull came swooping down on my head, battered into my skull, and stole my entire sandwich.  I am, therefore, returning wholeheartedly to my commitment to never eat on a beach.

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Despite the sand and seagull thing, we had a wonderful time at the beach.  Zuma Beach is clean and relatively quiet and the boys could go out quite far into the sea while still being at paddling height.  They were loving frolicking in the waves as it was but it made them enjoy the experience even more when a slick and stealthy sea-lion bobbed up between them as it skirted the shoreline.  There were also several pods of dolphins who swam past.  Sadly none were doing aquatic acrobatics but it was magical to see them so close.  We also saw pelicans in flight and built sand sculptures of sea creatures and the kids went scouting for seaweed to outline them.  Little cousin W also enjoyed burying my oldest son in the sand which was all fun and games until a lifeguard didn’t notice him in the sand and stood on him.  Crushed by a lifeguard at the beach.  I don’t think that ever happened on ‘Baywatch’.

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Late in the afternoon as the wind picked up, J decided to get a kite out for the kids to play with.  All was going swimmingly until the kite collided with the telephone wire going into the lifeguard tower and got completely snagged.  Oh dear.  Obviously we had to attempt to retrieve it but it was significantly taller than even the tallest member of our group.  The only option, therefore, was to MacGyver some sort of tool that could be used to unhook the kite from the wire.  Engineering skills were sorely lacking but a tool was nevertheless created.  Mr Pict then plonked our 10 year old onto his shoulders and our son then used the tool to try and catch the kite string and move it off the wire.  They tried different combinations of children on adult shoulders.  At one point, they even had the 5 year old on top of the 10 year old on top of Mr Pict and still the kite remained resolutely stuck to the wire.  Admitting that the tool was probably not going to work, it was abandoned and more simple methods were resorted to – lobbing shoes at the kite in the hopes of knocking it off the wire.  This whole escapade went on for quite some time.  An embarrassingly long time actually.  People strolling on the beach stopped to spectate.  People turned their deck chairs to face the action instead of the sea.  We were their entertainment.  The pressure was on to actually succeed with that many witnesses to the caper.  It got to the stage where other people were volunteering their shoes, thinking their footwear was more aerodynamic or would pack more of a wallop when it collided with the kite.  There was a near constant barrage of shoes soaring across or just below the kite but the odd one that made contact did little to budge it.  Finally, some off-duty military men offered to help.  Maybe it was their army training that did the job, maybe their shoes were the perfect torpedoes for kites, maybe the kite had been budged little by little so that it was finally ripe for the plucking, or perhaps it was just lucky timing, but within minutes of joining in the fray, these chaps had successfully walloped the kite in such a way that it bounced off the wire and was then rapidly caught by our 11 year old before the wind caught it and took it.  Everyone on the beach burst into spontaneous applause, whistles and cheers.  We didn’t provide an encore.

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Road Trip 2017 #5 – Hollywood

My kids and I are all movie nuts.  We love to watch movies for entertainment but we also enjoy analysing the films, discussing the themes and dissecting the details.  We like to draw characters and scenes from films and my kids also like to make their own movies.  My 11 year old currently wants to be a Director and my 10 year old wants to be a cinematographer – or a taxidermist.  It was, therefore, an absolute Must Do that we take the boys to Hollywood so – topped up with energy after our meal at Saddle Ranch – we headed to Hollywood Boulevard.

The streets were absolutely heaving with people and everyone was moving unpredictably as they would suddenly stop to read a name on a star in the pavement (sidewalk) or to pose for a photograph or to quickly dodge someone trying to sell something.  It was the type of crowded situation I would have found quite stressful had it not been for the enthusiasm of my kids.  They were running from star to star trying to find the names of some of their favourite actors and directors.

The Hollywood Walk of Fame is famously a stretch of the street in which pink terrazzo stars have been placed, outlined with brass and with the name of the person being celebrated in brass letters.  To see my children running around, however, you would have thought that the stars were the celebrities themselves.  The Littlest Pict was delighted to find the star dedicated to Mickey Mouse and they all enjoyed finding the collective star for The Munchkins.  My middle two sons are comic book geeks so they were especially thrilled when they found actors associated with superhero or supervillain roles, whether it was Burgess Meredith from times past or contemporary Chris Pratt.

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Observing how enthused they were by stars set in the pavement, I knew they were going to explode with excitement when we entered the courtyard of Grauman’s Chinese Theater (known as Mann’s Chinese Theater during my childhood).  The cinema opened in 1927 and has been the location of countless movie premieres – including ‘Star Wars’ – and a few of the Academy Awards ceremonies.  My kids were not there for that slice of movie history, however; what they were there to see were all the hand- and footprints in concrete slabs in the forecourt of the theatre.  The origins of the tradition are unclear but all versions seem to agree that it was an accident, of someone stepping into unset concrete, that kicked the whole thing off.  After that, movie stars and directors would immortalise themselves in concrete by placing their hands, feet, and sometimes other objects into the concrete and then autographing it.

There must be a couple of hundred celebrity prints in that patch of ground and I am pretty sure my kids visited each and every one.  Upon arriving at the theatre, they scattered to different corners and would yell to each other to come and see who they had found and yell to me to come and take their photos beside the slabs.  As little movie geeks, their cinematic interests are quite diverse.  They were every bit as excited to place their hands into those of Abbot and Costello as they were to see the prints – including wand prints – of the Harry Potter cast or of Harrison Ford or Morgan Freeman.  I had favourites from my previous visit to Hollywood (in 2000) and enjoyed seeing those again.  I always loved watching Harold Lloyd when I was wee and remembered loving seeing that he had drawn his round framed spectacles in the concrete and I was happy to see that his slab was still there.  Other favourites of mine were James Stewart and Gregory Peck.  My kids meanwhile – with their younger cousin in tow –  loved seeing the prints of the likes of Hugh Jackman, Jack Nicholson, George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Leo the MGM Lion, and Leonard Nimoy.

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We also had a treat just people-watching as we fought our way through the crowds.  There were lots of people dressed up in costumes, earning money by posing for photos with tourists.  A Spider-Man who was definitely not a teenage Peter Parker beneath the spandex was especially keen to latch onto my kids but happily they were not biting.  There was also a Yoda looking as if Yoda had spent his exiled years on Dagobah eating nothing but pizza, chugging beer, and smoking 60 cigarettes a day.  Best of all, however, was Wonder Woman.  What made Wonder Woman wonderful was that we saw her get into a fight with an elderly chap on the street.  This elderly chap had been making my kids snort with laughter as he was carrying a placard advertising “booty slap massages”.  Well, Wonder Woman was having none of his misogynistic nonsense and set to informing him how to market his questionable massage skills without being condescending, intimidating, or belittling towards women.  Of course, the old sexist decided to argue back and the whole things became quite the entertaining spectacle.

We had planned to extend our Hollywood day into the evening by letting the kids go feral in Griffith Park and taking them to the Observatory.  We jumped in our cars and started the ascent up the hill, however, only to discover that the entire route up was one massive traffic jam.  Just a little further up and we noted that people were parking on the sides of the already narrow road and were then trudging up to the summit.  With cars parked on both sides of the road, there was no opportunity for even a U turn when we reached the point where official notices informed us that all the car parks were full.  When I had been to the Griffith Observatory before, there had been maybe a dozen other visitors.  I can only assume, therefore, that some special event was happening.  Either that or the place had become incredibly popular in the intervening 17 years.  So we slowly snaked our way up the hill and then we slowly wound all the way back down again.  No Griffith Observatory for the kids on this trip.  It was not meant to be.  Instead, we took a meandering route back to Venice via Mulholland Drive and Laurel Canyon, as low fog rolled in from the sea and the lights of the city sparkled and shimmered in the darkness.

Road Trip 2017 #3 – La Brea Tar Pits

On our first full day in California, we headed – with the extended family – to the La Brea Tar Pits.  This was something I had always wanted to do in LA yet had never actually gotten around to doing so I was really looking forward to it.  The Tar Pits are actually free to visit but we paid for entry tickets so that we could also visit the on-site museum.  It is, therefore, a bit like visiting a very cool, unique public park.

The tar pits are a result of natural asphalt rising up from the earth and seeping through the surface.  These same tar pits have been bubbling and oozing in this way for millennia.  Back in prehistoric times, this gloopy tar would trap animals who got too close and found themselves stuck.  It was explained that while herbivores might become stuck, they would then be joined by carnivores who were opportunistically hoping to devour the trapped beasts but would then themselves become trapped.  In my mind, I envisaged a pyramid of Ice Age creatures all glued together with black sludge.  The black lakes of asphalt would then swallow these corpses down only to burp them back out again millennia later as fossils.  Because the oils would be absorbed into the bones, they acted as a preservative.  This means that not only has La Brea provided paleontologists with amazing finds of large mammal bones but it has also provided them with tiny fossils of rodent bones, plants, and seeds.

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While people were obviously aware of the tar pits during that whole time period – the local indigenous people using it to seal their boats and ranchers losing livestock in them – it was not until the early 20th Century that any effort was made to excavate the pits and record the fossil finds.  We were able to visit one such excavation pit and could also spectate as volunteers picked through sludge from barrels of tar searching for fossils.  I thought it was pretty cool to be visiting a site still being actively excavated and researched after a century.  Little me had considered being a paleontologist until I spent a day with a paleontologist and learned how much science was involved in the process.  I did not and still do not possess a scientifically wired mind.  I still find the whole subject fascinating though.

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What was great about the tar pits being in a park was that my feral kids could run around and climb to their heart’s content while we adults moved more slowly from pit to pit (which are safely fenced off) taking time to read the information boards and really look at things.  In one area, the tar was really bubbling.  Cousin J and I found ourselves staring, mesmerised by the continuous formation and popping of gloopy black bubbles on the shiny surface of the tar pond.  I think if I owned a tar pit, I would find it rather calming.  The kids meanwhile were rather enjoying clambering all over the full-size statues of giant sloths and other prehistoric critters.  They also found areas of grass where tar was seeping through the surface.  Immediately, all five kids would find sticks to poke into the tar.  If they thought they might pull out a mammoth femur, they were sadly disappointed.  Simply poking the sticks into the black sludge seemed to occupy and entertain them, however.

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One of the big features of the La Brea Tar Pits is a lake.  From a distance, it looks like an ordinary lake, albeit muddy and unappealing looking.  Up close, however, it is clear that the oil and asphalt beneath the surface are mixing with the water to create a slick and bubbling pool.  What was interesting to me was the way the slick scum of the surface would gather at the edge of the water, creating rippling rings.  There were models of adult mammoths and a baby at the shoreline to illustrate the “nature red in tooth and claw” point about creatures getting sucked in and mired in the tar, stuck there for eternity – or until a paleontologist scoops them out of a barrel millennia later at least.

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After a quick lunch of fresh fruit, we headed into the Museum.  The kids enjoyed a 3D movie about the tar pits, showing mammals getting gulped down as they wandered across the treacherous landscape.  For me, however, the highlight was getting to see so many reconstructed fossils from the site.  There was a colossal mammoth (if that isn’t a tautology), a giant sloth, prehistoric horses, sabretooths, a cave lion, birds, some sort of archaic bison, and dire wolves galore.  If memory serves (which it possibly doesn’t, not reliably anyway) then I think I read that more dire wolves have been discovered at La Brea than any other mammal.  This is perhaps because wolves hunt in packs so if one wolf ran into the tar then probably a whole lot of its chums did too.  There was a neat diorama showing dire wolves running as if on the hunt with the wolves depicted in different stages of reconstruction, from bare fossils to fur-covered, taxidermy style.  There was also a vast wall of brightly coloured, lit boxes each showcasing a single dire wolf skull.  While there, a museum docent let the littlest Pict touch the skulls of a coyote, a modern wolf, a fox, and a model of a dire wolf skull.

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I am so glad I finally made it to the La Brea tar pits.  It was a really cool and interesting place to spend a few hours in LA.

Road Trip 2017 #2 – Venice Beach

Having arrived at Santa Ana airport and picked up our rental car, we headed directly to Venice, Los Angeles.  Mr Pict’s two cousins work in the movie industry and both live in LA.  Unfortunately, one was out of state during our visit but happily the other was still at home base.  Indeed, cousin J and his family were kind and generous enough to let us stay with them at their property in Venice.  J, L, and their son W have a beautiful home – as warm, eclectic, creative, and inspirational as they are – and we were delighted to take them up on their offer while also having the benefit of them as tour guides and wonderful company.

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After so many hours spent in cars, planes, and in airports, we all desperately needed to stretch our legs and get some fresh air.  The kids were also very eager to experience the beach.  The house was only a few blocks from Venice’s famous boardwalk and beach so all nine of us got togged up and set out for a stroll.  First stop was a bite to eat at a taco place.  The setting was a bit rough and ready but the food was completely delicious and we all felt in a better mood post-munch.

Venice was founded by a chap named Abbot Kinney at the beginning of the Twentieth Century and quickly established itself as a tourist destination, offering a wide variety of entertainments.  By the middle of the century, some dereliction had set in and the area was known for its slums but also for being a centre of creativity and particularly of counterculture.  Venice today reflects all of that history.  It was impossible to overlook the homelessness and crime in the area but it was also clear Venice remains a vibrant community full of buzzing activity, creativity, and diversity.  I loved seeing all of the interesting architecture fronting the boardwalk.  Many of the buildings were brightly coloured and painted with fabulous murals.  There were also street artists and performers to catch our eye and entertain us as we wandered along the boardwalk.  We stopped for a while to spectate skateboarding and were particularly impressed by some of the young kids.  I never had any skill whatsoever with skateboards so to see such small kids doing incredible things was pretty absorbing.

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The kids were eager to get into the water so we headed into the sand and towards the shore.  Our youngest son has never been in the Pacific so he ticked off an item on his travel bucket list when he bounded off into the waves.  The number of surfers in the water testified to the power of the water.  The current was pretty strong and the waves were formidable so we insisted that our children did not swim out too far from the shore.  They did not mind because they had a complete blast crashing around in the waves and burying each other in the sand.  It was the perfect, most refreshing way to start our vacation.

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Road Trip 2017 #1 – Flights and Fury

Last year’s Summer vacation comprised driving – in a big circle – from the Philly ‘burbs to Chicago and back, taking in 8 states (six of which were new to me) plus the nation’s capital.  This Summer, we decided to undertake another road trip.  Our journey would take us from LA to San Francisco via Arizona, Utah and Nevada.  Clearly, therefore, this time our road trip involved flying and then renting a car.  Normally I would not bother relating any details of the flights because those are pragmatic journeys and not really part and parcel of the vacation.  However, especially given it has been a while since I had a proper rant on my blog, I am going to share the stress that bookended our vacation.

Perhaps because our flights had been purchased with air miles, the airline felt it was acceptable to keep changing our flights right up until the week before we were due to travel.  We ended up with a very early morning flight out of Philly (one of the first flights of the day) and a very (almost too) brief stopover in Chicago before catching the next flight to Santa Ana in California.  When we arrived at the airport at stupid o’clock, we found that there were no staff on any of the check-in desks.  Or anywhere else for that matter.  It was like a ghost town except for the long, snaking queue of increasingly frustrated passengers.  When some personnel did finally clock in – very slowly and while chatting among themselves – they were among the most singularly unhelpful group of people I have yet encountered at an airport (and I have a lot of airport horror stories).  None of the electronic self-check-in machines were fully operational – either the screens were off, were glitching, or the printers kept jamming – yet every single passenger was told they would have to check-in that way and that they could not approach the desk until luggage had been tagged.  Of course, the printing of the luggage tags was the final step in the self-check-in process that was not working.  It was one of those “snake eating its own tale” circular arguments trying to get any member of staff to intervene in any way.  My children have been able to taunt me with the phrase, “But did you tag your bags?” ever since, knowing it will elicit the Pavlovian response of making my blood boil.  Meanwhile, the clock was ticking down and getting closer and closer to our departure time and we had not been able to either check in our luggage or get through security let alone make it to our gate.  When I pointed out this time pressure to one member of staff, she sneered at me.  Verbally and visually.  I had no blank poker face at that point as I mentally envisioned poking her in the eyes.  Finally, one of the bone idle staff members decided to reduce the ever-lengthening queue of disgruntled, stressed, and fizzing passengers by assisting at the few self-check-in machines that were operational.  Luggage finally tagged and dropped off, we sprinted to security.  That rigmarole took as long as it usually does and then we were sprinting again to our gate.  We just made it to our gate in time for boarding.  Stressed and puffing was not how I wanted to start my vacation.

On the return flight, it was a similar situation redux.  On attempting to check-in online the previous evening, my husband discovered that only five of us were booked on the flight.  We checked our booking online and in hard copy to confirm that there should indeed have been six of us booked on the flight.  The one who had been skipped was our youngest son.  A tedious phone call later revealed the problem – some glitch nobody bothered to explain meant that our youngest child had been assigned a different record number from the rest of us but we were assured we should still be able to check him on to the flight at the airport since we had now been furnished with two booking numbers.  Lies.  All lies.  Back to dealing with those self-check-in portals again and, while San Francisco airport actually had ones that functioned, we could not check our son onto the flight.  The reason we could not check him in was because he had been designated as an unaccompanied minor.  Yup.  Having been separated from the rest of us by some sort of computer glitch, the airline had decided that an 8 year old was flying alone – despite five other people with the same unique surname travelling on the same flight, despite no record of him being booked as an unaccompanied minor.  We joined the queue for customer assistance.  It was another early morning flight and the clock was again ticking and adding pressure to the situation.  Staff managing the queue asked why our bags were not tagged yet.  I think I burned a hole in someone’s forehead with my laser stare.  Once at the head of the queue, we were directed to a particular desk.  Alas, the staff member on the desk refused to help us because she was only processing actual unaccompanied minors, not fake ones.  We were told to rejoin the queue.  Imagine that my face has turned a shade of puce, that my teeth are gritted, my jaw clenched, and my fists balled and you will be spot on for my demeanor at that point.  I somewhat loudly and angrily pointed out that this whole mess was a problem they had created and that they therefore needed to present a solution.  We were whipped across to another desk where someone checked us in, accepted our baggage (with labels she printed), and then we were on our way.  More sprinting to security.  More sprinting to the gate.

Now, firstly I am aware that this rant is very much about “first world problems”.  Secondly, neither of these challenges with flights curtailed the enjoyment of our vacation.  In all instances, we made our flights on time and our luggage arrived at the same time as we did (its loss was a risk given the tight turnaround time in Chicago).  However, all of the stress and friction was completely unavoidable had some people just done their jobs with greater diligence, had the front line members of staff presented themselves as helpful and flexible.  We happened to be funding the tickets with air miles but, regardless, flying for most of us is still a luxury and seats on an aeroplane are big ticket items.  We expect some degree of service in return for that financial investment.  Instead we are crammed onto flights like battery chickens and treated like a nuisance when something goes awry.

Deep breath.  Rant over and out.  Moving on.

*PS  My husband thinks my moaning about this is disproportionate and that I should choose to focus on the positives of having made all of our flights on time and them all taking off and landing on schedule.  This is because he travels frequently for work and a flight actually being on schedule is a very rare occurrence.  He, therefore, suffers from low expectations and gets to experience the thrill of things actually going right.  I, on the other hand, as someone who is not a frequent flyer, expect the service I have paid for.  Nothing more and nothing less.  I, therefore, stand by my rant as justified.*

Road Trip Review

This is not an advice blog.  Nope, it is not that.  While I might sometimes give recommendations and suggestions based on our family experiences, I would never think I was in a position to dispense advice.  I also have a policy of never giving unsolicited advice.  However, upon reflecting on our recent road trip and what I might do differently next time we undertake such a journey, I had some thoughts I thought might be worth jotting down here.  Maybe someone can learn from my mistakes.  Hopefully that person is me.

  • I am a micromanager when it comes to vacation planning.  It is part of my being a major control freak and also part of my desire to cram as much as possible into each travel experience, as much bang for my buck as possible.  I generate spreadsheets of options, lists galore, and sometimes even hand drawn maps.  When Mr Pict and I went to Rome for a short break a few years ago, I drew a map of the city centre that was both colour-coded and number-coded.  I make lists of what needs to be packed and check off the list as each item is added to the specified case (each person having their own to keep things organised).  And yet, despite all of that micromanaging, despite all that researching and organising and list making to the nth degree, somehow my husband and/or kids will throw some kind of curve ball that makes it feel like I failed to manage all the possibilities.  On this particular road trip, I apparently relinquished too much control immediately before setting off on our trip.  As we ushered the kids into the car, it transpired that the 10 year old had left his shoes at his friend’s house the previous night.  Somehow my husband had collected him and brought him home without noticing he was barefoot.  Impolitely early, therefore, we had to drive by the house and pick the shoes up.  And then, absolutely astonishingly, we arrived in Pittsburgh some hours later to discover that our oldest son had gotten into the car without his shoes on.  He had to spend the first hours of the trip in his Dad’s beach clogs and I for once had cause to be thankful that he has massive feet.
  • No matter how I try to dress it up and make it interesting, my children will not be interested in either topography or architecture.  I can try ad naseum to engage them in the subject but I will fail.  They will, however, monologue endlessly about Harry Potter while I try to take in the topography and architecture.
  • Even in this age of electronic payment options galore, we should always travel with more cash than we think we might need – or at least more than $14.
  • On a related note, one should never purchase a one way ticket unless assured of the ability to fund the return journey.
  • I made packed lunches most days so that we wasted neither time or money on food in the middle of the day.  What I learned from this is that my children will moan about the very packed lunches they would usually regard as a special treat during the school year.
  • Booking non-chain motels is a lottery and will reveal that my kids know tropes from serial killer fiction despite never having seen a slasher movie.
  • My children, who normally beg and plead to have sleepovers in each other’s bedrooms, will argue endlessly about having to share a hotel room with each other and will make decisions about who shares a bed with who feel like hostage negotiations.
  • All hotel showers will be engineered differently and have their own idiosyncrasies making each morning’s ablutions feel like STEM learning.
  • On a related note, one bonus of staying in hotels with pools is that it is possible to persuade yourself that your younger children do not need to be showered on evenings when you just want to climb into bed and sleep.
  • One hotel toilet between six people – five of them male – requires the mother of the group to have the bladder of an elephant.
  • At least one child will vomit in the car with not much warning.  Any warning will sound like, “Mummy, I feel a bit blarfbleughslop!”  As such, despite the fact none of my children have worn nappies (diapers) for years, I still travel with fragrant nappy sacks within quick and easy reach in the car and force my sicky children to have one in their hands at all times.  Their aim is improving, I am happy to report.
  • My children can turn anything into a competition including who can fill the most barf bags on any given stretch of winding road.
  • If we give four kids two options for things to do that day there will be a guaranteed 50/50 split and incredibly often four way splits as two children invent options that were not even presented to them.  Note to self that sometimes parenting has to be a dictatorship rather than a democracy.  If the kids are lucky that dictatorship will be benevolent.
  • Kids who rarely appreciate sculpture will absolutely always 100% adore fountains, especially if they can get entirely soaked to the skin.  Conversely, any fountain that they cannot at least dip a finger into will be anathema to them and the absolute “worst thing ever”.
  • I can research and plan and construct elaborate spreadsheets to my heart’s content but the “of mice and men” maxim will inevitably undermine it at some point – spectacularly so when a child breaks their arm.
  • The things the kids end up loving the most about the trip were not the things I anticipated but were instead the random diversions, the time fillers, and the unexpected.  Our youngest son actually declared that his highlight of the trip was spending a night in a “horror hotel“.  Another child stated that the best thing about being away from home was getting to come home to the cats.
  • The car will start out looking more immaculate and pristine than it does for most of the year but will end the road trip looking like a cross between a biological weapon and an experiment in finding the latest antibiotic.  Utterly gross.

So that’s that then.  Those are my immediate post-road trip reflections.  We have already started discussing what route the next road trip might take.  Perhaps by the time we embark on the next epic drive we will have absorbed some of these lessons.  Probably not.  After all, where would be the adventure in that?

Road Trip #21 – Natural History Museum

It has been our experience that the first and last days of any vacation with the kids are the most trying.  With the first day, it is all about navigating the transition out of routines into some degree of chaos and about managing expectations; with the last day, it is all about fatigue causing crankiness and an unconscious or conscious desire to return to familiar routines, a need to retreat back into the family cave for some hibernation after all the stimulation.

We, therefore, kept our final day of the road trip pretty low key.  We were travelling back to the Philly suburbs that day anyway plus had arranged to meet a dear friend for lunch so we only had the morning to fill.  We selected the Natural History Museum, part of the Smithsonian.  Actually, Mr Pict was keen for us to try a second visit to the Museum of American History since our first family visit there had been less than stellar.  I had cause to reference the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in my blog post about it.  In the hopes that those issues had been resolved, we first headed to the Museum of American History, picked up a map, and discovered that absolutely nothing had changed since our last visit two years before.  Half the museum was still closed off due to renovation work.  We decided to jettison that plan (actually I was keen on jettisoning it as soon as it was the plan since our last visit there had been so cruddy) and move next door to the Natural History Museum.

We had not chosen the Natural History Museum for our last morning in DC simply because we had visited the Field Museum in Chicago just the week before and it felt like a repetition.  However, for that very reason it turned out to be a good choice.  As parents, we felt we could just relax and take a step back since we did not feel that same pressure to educate the kids.  We could just let them wander and engage as they saw fit rather than trying to guide them and focus their interest.

We started with a genuine Easter Island moai statue.  The boys had seen a plaster cast of one of these in February 2014 when we visited the Natural History Museum in New York city but this was the first time they had seen a real one.  It turns out this is because the Smithsonian owns the only two moai in America.  We then ascended the stairs around a group of spectacularly carved totem poles.  The boys enjoyed looking at the carved characters and reading the stories behind them.  The first gallery we visited was one exhibiting National Geographic photographs of Africa.  I love photography and the kids love animals so we spent some time admiring the images.

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Our first proper destination in the museum, however, was the hall of gems.  As I have explained before, our 10 year old loves anything sparkly or shiny.  He has magpie DNA.  We, therefore, thought he ought to see the Hope Diamond.  This blue diamond is one of the largest and most famous precious stones in the world.  We told the kids it had a long, interesting and intriguing history to the point that it had been associated with a curse.  And then we took them in to see it.  And they were underwhelmed.  I think their vision of a large diamond was one the size of the palm of a hand or larger.  It was a failure of reality matching expectations.

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The rest of the gem and mineral collection, however, was a massive hit with the kids – and not just the one who likes sparkles.  They found the diversity of the minerals to be really fascinating and they wandered from case to case choosing favourites.  There were big chunks of quartz that contained bubbles like sedate lava lamps.  There were rocks that looked like Doozer constructions from beneath Fraggle Rock and shards that looked like they came from the Dark Crystal.  There were chunks of gems encrusted with other stones or minerals, such as a chunk of calcite sparkling with a thick seam of chalcopyrite.  There were other lumps of calcite that looked like elaborate desserts encrusted with sugary confections.  There were geodes on display that had been split open to reveal their colourful, sparkling contents – and I could see my 10 year old wanting to take a rock hammer on every nature ramble now.  There was an otherwise unprepossessing rock that had a wide mouth split to reveal lots of rows of white fuzzy mounts inside and which looked entirely like something Jim Henson would have imagined.  There were formations that looked like chunky frost or snowflake clusters.  A geometric piece of purple-red fluorite made my kids think of a set design for Tron or else something from Minecraft.  By contrast, there were pastel hued pieces that looked like petrified clouds or bubbly candy floss.  One enticing display case was filled with forms of gold and silver, thought it was a blobby chunk of copper that I liked best.  When the boys saw the case of glowing willemite calcite, the green glow made the boys think of it as having been spattered with Predator blood. The 10 year old was ecstatic about getting to touch a massive chunk of amethyst and now wants a chunk of his own.  I had never seen that child go as full Gollum as he did in that room full of gems and jewellery.

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Next up – mainly because it was near the restrooms – we popped in to visit the dinosaurs.  We looked at the large fossil specimens of a T-Rex and a triceratops but otherwise, between the Field Museum and the Creation Museum, the kids had experienced quite enough dinosaurs for one vacation.  We, therefore, found ourselves a spot in the insect section.  The boys enjoyed seeing the cockroaches since we used to have Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches as pets back in Scotland but they also got to see a tarantula up close and some butterflies hatching out of their cocoons.  And then we were all museumed out.  Partly it was because our friend had arrived and it was time to head for lunch, partly it was because the museum was very crowded, but mostly we had just absorbed as much in the way of experiences as we cared to absorb for the fifteen days of our road trip.

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And so, after a tasty lunch with great company, after heading back to NoMa to pick up our car and luggage, a few hours’ drive to collect the cats from their cat hotel – to much excited squealing from the kids – we finally emerged from the car that had been our mobile home and tour bus for a fortnight and we were home.  And we were glad to be home.