Straight Outta Scranton

Our third son turned 12 on Monday so the preceding weekend was filled with celebrations for him.  Our oldest son turns 16 on Saturday so our week is bookended with birthday festivities.  We have a tradition that the person with the birthday gets to choose the activity for the closest weekend.  My middle two sons are obsessed with the TV show ‘The Office’ so the decision was that we would go to Scranton and tour sites associated with that show and its cast of characters.  I have only seen the odd episode of the show so I had to do a lot of research and pick the brains of my 13 year old.  I may know next to nothing about ‘The Office’ but I am always happy to support, encourage, and facilitate someone else’s nerdy interests.

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We parked up at the Steamtown Mall.  We had been watching that mall gradually deteriorate into something out of a dystopia during our previous visits to Scranton.  I was anticipating it being even more moribund and empty so was pleasantly surprised to see that real inroads have been made to turning around its fortunes.  What they seem to be doing is letting spaces to small, independent retailers – possibly for a peppercorn rent – which meant there were far fewer empty store spaces and much greater footfall.  An aquarium has also moved in which is presumably a way of pulling people into the mall.  My boys – including Mr Pict – liked a store dedicated to vintage video games.  It was the type of niche business that would never be able to afford a retail spot normally but it had a large space within the Steamtown Mall.  I was most impressed by the makeover of what had been the food court area.  It had been very sad and stale when we last visited – ghastly enough that I would never have thought to eat there – but it had been totally redesigned to provide compact spaces for eateries and artisans.  But I digress….

We started off outside Boscov’s, a department store founded in Pennsylvania.  Apparently this was where the characters Pam and Phyllis bought the same outfit.  Right next to Boscov’s was an Auntie Anne’s pretzel store.  Aside from the fact that a character named Kelly is fond of this brand of pretzel, it is nigh impossible for my kids to travel anywhere within Pennsylvania without snacking on a pretzel so we had to buy pretzel for elevenses.  Birthday boy had a pizza pretzel, the 13 year old had a jalapeno pretzel, and our youngest son had a pretzel dog which is, yes, a hot dog sausage wrapped in pretzel dough.  Our final Office item in the Mall was the “Welcome to Scranton” sign that features in the shows opening credits.  It used to be outside on the roadside but has been moved inside to become a tourist attraction.  My wee nerds were delighted to be able to pose beside it.

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We exited the Mall and headed towards Courthouse Square.  From there, we could see the electrified sign atop the Trade building.  I have yet to see this lit up, which I imagine would be very impressive, but I love the design even without the illumination.  Scranton is named the Electric City because it was the home of the first electrified trolley (tram) system which operated from 1886.  However, the reason my boys were keen to see the historic sign was because the sign and the lyric “electric city” feature in a rap performed by the characters Michael and Dwight on ‘The Office’ – the same rap that gave me the title for this blog post.  There is also an Electric City mural on a wall alongside a busy road so, of course, we had to go and see that too.  While that mural functions as a welcome to Scranton, I actually preferred a colourful mural tucked away in an alley just off of Courthouse Square.  I had to go and see that on my own, however, since it was “off theme” and superfluous to our tour.

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After the Electric City sign, we walked along to the Pennsylvania Paper and Supply company.  En route, we had a detour into a comic book store because apparently it is OK to go “off theme” if you are a child but not if you are an adult.  For those not in the know, ‘The Office’ is about the employees of Dunder Mifflin, a fictional paper company.  The building in which the real paper company is housed features in the opening credits and they have embraced the connection to the show by placing “Dunder Mifflin” on one side of the building’s tower.  As we stood on the street taking photos, a car drove past playing the theme music for us.  We laughed and waved.  It seems some Scrantonians are very welcoming towards nerdy TV tourists.

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Next up was Cooper’s Seafood.  According to my 13 year old, this was the location where Michael and Holly argued about Meredith’s ethics.  I have no idea but I was quite keen on the idea of dining there.   Unfortunately, our arrival there did not coincide with anyone feeling hungry (thanks, pretzels!) so instead we just had to take in the building with our eyes and not with our stomachs.  There is a striped faux lighthouse surrounded by pirates and a gigantic octopus on the roof.  It looked like a lot of fun.  It was definitely the place for purchasing ‘Office’ merchandise.  My 12 year old could have gone bankrupt in there.  They even had things like staff badges for each character and paper with the Dunder Mifflin letterhead.  In the end, he chose to buy a poster for the movie-within-a-show ‘Threat Level Midnight’ and was chuffed to bits with his purchase.

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We then drove to an industrial estate on the fringes of Scranton.  First stop there was a bowling alley in which there is sited a bar called Poor Richard’s Pub.  It’s a favourite hang out spot for the characters.  I couldn’t take the kids into the bar so we just dipped into the building to claim it and snap some photos of the outside.  Nearby is a pizza restaurant called ‘Alfredo’s Pizza Cafe’.  Apparently there is a joke in the show that involves confusion between this pizza place and one called ‘Pizza by Alfredo’s’ that serves “hot circles of garbage”.  The smells wafting out of the restaurant were deeply appealing and had me drooling but we took a vote and again the kids declared that they were not hungry enough.  Gah!  So frustrating.  I love pizza.  We will need to try it out next time we find ourselves in Scranton.  I spotted a Rite Aid at the corner so we quickly nipped there for another photo op because, again, it is tied into the show since characters purchase a cologne from there called “Night Swept”.  Rite Aid is also part of Scranton’s economic history since it was founded there in the early 1960s.

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Having done all the major ‘Office’ themed stops within Scranton’s limits, the boys then decided we should go see Lake Wallenpaupack.  This lake features in an episode called “Booze Cruise”.  While it uses the name of the real lake, it was actually filmed in California but the kids were up for the idea of a lake visit regardless.  Unfortunately, at least from the direction we approached Lake Wallenpaupack, we could not find a public access route down towards the water or even a place to park up and walk down.  The lake is vast – Pennsylvania’s third largest indeed – so we decided to give up on the plan instead of wasting time circuiting the lake.  We turned around and gradually started working our way along very windy rural back roads towards major roads that would take us home.  That route took us past an abandoned motel so, of course, I had to quickly brake, pull the car over, and leap out to take photos.  I was way “off theme” again so everybody else refused to get out of the car.

By this time, it was very late in the afternoon, we still had a long drive home, and everyone was famished with hunger.  Having not eaten at either Cooper’s or Alfredo’s, we had one last attempt at eating “on theme” by opting for a Chilli’s, a chain restaurant that is the favourite of Michael’s, the main protagonist of ‘The Office’.  The boys even ordered the Awesome Blossom – Michael Scott’s favourite dish – though they were disappointed it was only petals and not a full onion blossom.  The service was excellent and the food so plentiful that we took home several boxes.  The birthday boy was well-fed, happy, and delighted with his ‘Office’ day out.

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Steamtown and Jim Thorpe

I am pretty sure Scranton is not a place that features highly on most people’s Travel Bucket Lists.  Somehow, however, this Summer I ended up going to Scranton for the third time within three years.  The recent visit was inspired by my in-laws, visiting from the UK, since my Father-in-Law is a lifelong, massive railway enthusiast and he very much wanted to visit Scranton.  This is because Scranton is home to Steamtown, a National Park site dedicated to the history of railways.

On our previous visits, we have wandered the adjacent yard and nosed around the freight cars and locomotives parked there.  This, however, was our first visit to the actual National Historic Site museum. The museum buildings circle the periphery of a working turntable and roundhouse.  It was to the turntable that we wandered first.  There was a locomotive that the kids and their grandfather were able to climb aboard complete with a rope to make the whistle blow.  We had tickets for a train excursion so, after an impatient wait in the blazing sun, we clambered aboard some carriages from the 1920s and headed off on a short jaunt pulled along by a steam locomotive.  As it had only been a short while since our last steam train journey, the older kids were not remotely enthused or engaged: the 10 year old decided to nap while the 13 year old had his nose stuck in a book for the entire journey.  I have to admit with struggling to engage myself.  Industrial and infrastructure heritage just is not my thing so, while I could recognise that the young man acting as tour kid was incredibly knowledgeable about the history of this particular railroad and railways in general, I really did not absorb any information or at least none that stuck for more than a short while.  The route took us out to a gorge which was the location of an event that was really the beginning of the end of this railroad company as a commercial venture.  A storm had damaged the line at that spot and, already struggling due to the region’s failing economy, the rail company collapsed.

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By the time we hopped off the train and toured a section of the roundhouse with several locomotives on display, three of the kids had had enough and went to go and play outside the museum under the supervision of their grandmother, who readily volunteered for the job.  To be honest, the only reason the 10 year old stayed with the remaining three adults was because of the air conditioning though I think he actually quite enjoyed the museum.

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Much of the museum’s contents were the result of a seafood millionaire collector and was originally housed in New England. For various reasons, the collection was relocated to Scranton in the 1980s and eventually won National Park status.  Nevertheless, the place struggles financially.  I guess there are not a high enough proportion of railroad enthusiasts in the country who are intent on visiting Scranton to make it economically viable.

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Regardless of its woes, however, we found the museum to be organised and well considered.  I actually quite enjoyed wandering through historic carriages because they represented an aspect of social history.  It was interesting to see how cramped the sleeping conditions were within a Pullman carriage, for instance, but the lounge area and dining area on the same carriage were pretty spacious.  My favourite, however, was a mail car.  I loved the rich patina of the wood and all the little shelves.  It appealed to my love of organising things.  I could actually imagine myself rattling along the tracks while placing the mail into the appropriate pigeon holes.

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The museum had clearly figured out that it needed to appeal to people like me who were into social history more than industrial history as one whole area was dedicated to displays about people of the railroad.  As well as there being a vintage ticket booth and waiting room – where my 10 year old did an outstanding method acting job of “imagining” he was sick and tired of waiting – there were displays revolving around different types of people.  We could, therefore, learn about the role and history of such folks as conductors, telegraph operators, hobos and the little kids who sold newspapers, snacks and drinks to passengers.

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My Father-in-Law thought that Steamtown was absolutely terrific so clearly it is the perfect place for railway enthusiasts to visit.  I, therefore, highly recommend it to people who fall into that category as even I could recognise it was a great collection.  The rest of us, however, were less enthused and had to really work hard to find an engaging angle.  While I saw plenty of other kids who were loving the whole experience, including a fair few who were dressed up like tiny railroad engineers, my boys were totally not digging the the place at all.  They were relieved when it was time to move on to other things.

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After a quick snack and a run around the Boulder Field at Hickory Run State Park – a place we always enjoy visiting – we visited Jim Thorpe.  Our first stop was at the Jim Thorpe Monument.  Jim Thorpe is celebrated as the first Native American to win a gold medal in the Olympics.  While the medals he won were for pentathlon and decathlon, Thorpe was an accomplished athlete in several sports, including American Football, baseball and basketball.  The memorial statues at the site represent Thorpe in two of his fields of sporting success: football and athletics.  Apparently the grave monument includes soil from Oklahoma, Thorpe’s home state, and from the site of the stadium in Stockholm where he won his Olympic golds in 1912.  It is also inscribed with the words of Gustav V proclaiming Thorpe to be “the greatest athlete in the world” which actually does not seem ridiculously superlative given Thorpe’s multitude of achievements.

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The town of Jim Thorpe was one we had often driven through since emigrating to Pennsylvania but had never wandered around in.  We, therefore, decided to get out and have a stroll in the late afternoon sunshine.  Jim Thorpe actually never sat foot in the town that bears his name.  The story of how it came to be named for the athlete is actually quite a sad and somewhat sordid one.  Upon his death in 1953, his widow (his third wife) made off with his remains, apparently without the knowledge or consent of any of his children, and made her way to Pennsylvania where she had struck a deal with a town regarding memorialising her husband.  Thus the town purchased the body and Mauch Chunk was renamed Jim Thorpe in his honour.  Thorpe’s children pressed various courts to order the repatriation and reinterrment of their father’s remains to Oklahoma, specifically on Native American land, but all attempts failed and so they continue to remain in a small town in the Poconos.  Told you it was sad and sordid.

The town itself is rather quaint and picturesque, a cluster of streets nestled in a mountain valley, lined with interesting buildings.  Mauch Chunk was founded, as with most places in the area, because of the mining industry and it was an important hub for the railways transporting coal from the Poconos to the region’s cities and across the nation.  As such, the town’s prosperity very much follows the familiar curve of boom and decline.  It’s the variety of 19th Century architecture there, however, that probably gives it a bit more of a boost than most places in the vicinity because it makes it visually appealing and that attracts tourists and tourism businesses.

 

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We focused our stroll on the street named Broadway, knowing the kids were unlikely to tolerate a longer meander than that.  The architecture of the place really is pretty fascinating with, for example, buildings that would not look out of place in New Orleans’ French Quarter given their ornate wrought iron balconies sitting on the same street as buildings with European style turrets.  I particularly liked the red stone library and the old fire station with its arched doors and bay window.  We browsed in the windows of a few shops and even made a purchase in one, a shop that sold nothing but varieties of jerky including ones as exotic as mako shark.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings settled on a sample pack of interesting beef jerkys.

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Ultimately we did not spend much time in Jim Thorpe but I think we will definitely stop off there again and have a more extensive wander and perhaps visit the museums and historic buildings next time.  I think we will steer clear of the railway for a while though.  I think my kids are a bit sick of trains now.

Celebrating Double Digits in the Poconos

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

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

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

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

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

Poconos Day 2 – Rustbelt Decay

I started the morning with a walk along the road from the cottage to see the cemetery that crept up the hillside at the junction with the main road.  The twentieth century grave markers were still legible, and seemed to largely belong to one family, but almost all of the others were too eroded for me to even be able to begin to read them despite the fact that none could be older than 1816 as that was when the cemetery was founded.  What was interesting to me, as a cemetery enthusiast, was the fact that gravestones were erected upon the steep slope as well as the top of the hill and the flatter ground near the roadside.  It made me wonder if the graves were dug perpendicular to or parallel with the gradient of the slope.  The village, Stoddartsville, had been founded to act as the terminal of the Lehigh Canal.  Mr Stoddart apparently saw this as an opportunity to make his fortune but instead he became bankrupt when the canal was terminated a few miles away and all of his investment in grist and saw mills and the like became largely redundant.  That was to set the theme for the day’s activities.

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As a contrast to the previous day’s rambles in the countryside, we decided to spend the day in a town and opted for Scranton.  I am afraid to say that the name Scranton made both Mr Pict and I think of the word “scrotum” which meant we did not have high hopes but were hoping and willing for the experience to exceed expectations.

Since this area was founded on coal mining, we decided to head to the Lackawanna Mining Museum.  The website had stated it was open; notices on the building declared it to be open; nevertheless it was decidedly closed.  According to some men working on machines in front of the Museum entrance, it was opening on Wednesday, despite the statements on the website and building.  We pondered pootling around the nearby Anthracite Heritage Museum but then Mr Pict had the genius idea that we should do some obscure stuff in the area.  We are rather fond of “Roadside America” so we decided we should definitely go and seek out some more offbeat sites to visit.

First, however, we decided to head into Scranton, the county town of Lackawanna County.  We had read there was a second-hand book store there and I absolutely love rummaging through old books so that was the draw for me.  We parked up in the town centre and had a wander around.  The County Courthouse in the centre of town was actually pretty impressive and had all sorts of memorials to veterans of various wars outside, all set in a square.  The main streets were, therefore, huddled around this central square.  Alas, when we arrived on the street where the book store was to be found, we learned it had closed down.  No rummaging through musty vintage books for me then.

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Scranton, it soon emerged, was a rather sad place.   Every third store was empty and there was absolutely no buzz or energy to the place, hardly anyone milling around.  Largely because we were in need of a restroom visit, we wandered into the mall.  It was even more moribund.  Metal barriers were more common than store fronts and either end of the mall was completely barren as the remaining shops had obviously been moved into the centre.  The soulless plinky-plonk piped music echoed around the empty space.  It reminded Mr Pict and me of the mall in ‘Eight Legged Freaks’.  Clearly what this mall needed in order to survive was an invasion of giant arachnids.  I already felt like we were among the mindlessly shuffling zombies of ‘Dawn of the Dead’.

However, as we emerged from the restroom, we spotted that there was a walkway from the rear of the mall out over an old train yard.  We decided to investigate.  It turned out that this was the rear of Steamtown National Historic Site.  We did not enter the museum but spent a diverting hour wandering among the rusted carcasses of train engines, cabooses and other rolling stock, all serried along disused railway lines.  I am not especially riveted by industrial history but something about the rust and decay pleased me aesthetically so I wandered around taking photographs.  I am not ashamed to admit that I have a thing for rust.  It felt like the whole train yard was somewhat symbolic of Scranton: the decaying remains of industry, rusting away, going nowhere.

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Before we left Scranton, we popped to a mall on the outskirts of town to lunch at a Mexican restaurant called La Tonalteca.  The interior was very brightly decorated with the vivid paints of South American fiesta, the furniture all painted carved wood depicting scenes of rural Mexican life.  We shared nachos to start with and then my husband had the carnitas and I had chicken enchiladas with a tomatillo sauce.  The food was good but it wasn’t great.  It lacked a bit of additional seasoning or some extra flavour kick to really make the tastebuds sing.  Some lime zest and juice, for instance, would have improved my meal.  We also took some amusement from the surliness of our waiter.  He was efficient enough in his own grudging way but very gruff and his mouth never once twitched into even the beginnings of a smile.  He appeared to be stunned when we left him a tip.

We decided that the theme of the day had been established: urban decay it was.  So we headed south to Wilkes-Barre – which is apparently pronounced Wilkesbury – to see an abandoned railway station.  The Lehigh-Susquehanna station was connected to the coal industry so when it declined and eventually died in the 1970s the station was abandoned.  It had then been converted into a cocktail bar, with abutting Pullman cars providing additional space, but that venture failed and so the station had just fallen into dereliction.  Boom and bust.  As soon as I saw it, I loved it.  It had clearly once been a splendid example of Italianate architecture, with scroll work wood supporting the hanging eaves and a decorative cupola on the roof.  Now, however, it was all smashed glass and plant growth spreading tendrils across and into walls.  We were able to clamber aboard the carriages but I could not find an obvious way into the station building itself.  Probably that is a good thing.  Exploring derelict buildings probably requires some sort of risk assessment.  Nevertheless I enjoyed scurrying around to find new photographs to take of the station’s exterior.

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The next stop on our itinerary was the Huber Breaker in Ashley.  It had operated for eight decades, breaking coal into the right size for domestic and business use.  The company then dyed this coal blue for no other reason than to identify it as their product, a bizarre coal marketing gimmick.  Apparently it could process 7000 tons of coal each day.  Abandoned in the mid-1970s, it was a massive industrial hulk which a group had been trying to conserve as a memorial to those who had worked in the local coal industry but ultimately the site had been sold for its scrap value and was literally being pulled down as we watched.  I, therefore, had to make do with distance shots.

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Our final stop on our themed tour of the day was in the town of Nanticoke, just a short trot down the road from Ashley.  We were there to see Concrete City, a ghost town.  Although there was a historical marker explaining the history of the site, there was no indication of where it was to be found.  Then I had the idea of looking up Google Earth on my phone and the aerial shot provided an indication of where we would find it.  So Mr Pict and I wandered off into the woods, along a muddy track, and soon we could see the ruined remains of houses peeking through the trees.  Twenty two-storey houses stood in a square around a plot of overgrown scrub.  Each house was identical, having been built as company houses for some employees of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Coal Company in 1911.  It turned out that poured concrete was not the most sound choice of building material as the houses were continually damp.  It must have been pretty miserable for the residents.  There was also a tragic story of a boy having drowned in the wading pool.  Ultimately the houses had only been occupied for just over a decade before they were abandoned.  When the Glen Alden Company took over, they didn’t want to invest the money required for sewerage improvements.  Attempts at demolition had failed: 100 sticks of dynamite had not even taken down a single house.  And so there they remained, tucked away in the woods, while houses grew up in the land beyond the ghost town.  Some were missing ceilings and floors; some had basements filled with water which, despite its murk, glinted in the sunlight pouring in through the glassless windows; all were vandalised, absolutely covered in spray paintings and graffiti and some even pock-marked by ammunition.  We were amused by the fact that one vandal had corrected the grammar of another.  It was a very poignant place, post-apocalyptic.  We felt like we were in a scene from ‘The Walking Dead’.

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On the way back to our cottage at Stoddartsville, we took one final diversion when we saw a brown sign pointing to the Francis E Walter Dam.  We thought we might be able to end the day with something a bit more scenic.  Unfortunately the dam was just a concrete carbuncle, doing its job perfectly satisfactorily but without providing any picturesque views of the surrounding landscape.

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