Longwood Gardens and The Last Days of Pandemic Summer

And so our summer has officially drawn to a close with the return to work (me) and school (my sons).  It has been a very peculiar summer, of course.  I am sure most people reading this have had a very different summer from the one they anticipated and planned for.  We, for example, were supposed to fly back to the UK for a few weeks to spend time with our families and attend my youngest brother’s wedding.  Instead, my brother contracted Covid 19, his wedding was postponed and we obviously did not travel to Britain.  We have tried to make the most of our family time, being stuck together pretty much 24/7, but – again, I am sure in common with everyone else – it has been fatiguing and dispiriting.  I think, however, that the transition back to work and (distance learning) school is going to be far tougher than anything we have experienced so far.

We decided to have one last family adventure of the Summer.  Having spent six months avoiding being anywhere peopley, we thought we would brave going somewhere a bit busier but which would still afford us the opportunity to social distance and be safe.  After considering at least a dozen options and discarding them as not having robust enough safety measures, we hit upon the idea of Longwood Gardens.  Not too far from home, largely outdoors, and lots of procedures to mitigate the risk factors.  Mr Pict and I had visited Longwood two years ago but a) I was suffering with some post-op complications and b) the kids had never visited.  We spent a lovely few hours there, felt completely safe throughout our visit, and were glad we went.

In case you were wondering, one of my sons decided when we went into lockdown that he would not cut his hair for that whole period; now he has decided he won’t cut it for the duration of the pandemic.  I suspect his hair is going to get very long.  And my oldest son is not dressed appropriately for the climate because he prefers to wear a “uniform”.  It is slightly crazy making but, as the parent of two autistic children, I have to choose which battles I am going to go full Viking on and which I am just going to wave the white flag at.

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We continued to return to trails we had not visited in years.  Some of these walks were more successful than others.  For instance, we made the poor decision to revisit French Creek State Park in the aftermath of a very nasty storm.  The ground was hard going, sticky and slick, which combined with the steep terrain at points made it very exhausting to walk and I found I was having to concentrate so much on my footing that I was not remotely enjoying my surroundings.  It was also disgustingly humid.  I felt like I was breathing in water.  I just felt muddy and gross and mosquitoes the size of zeppelins were devouring me and making me swell up.  I completed the walk, about 5 miles because we abandoned our intended trail for a shortcut, looking like a parboiled lobster cosplaying as Rambo.  So gross.  We did encounter a lot of frogs on our trek though.

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We have also been playing a lot of board games.  I really like board games but my husband is really fanatical about board games and has amassed quite a massive collection over the years so we always have lots to choose from.  One of the games we have been playing is Pandemic, thematically apt, a co-operative game we don’t often win.  We, however, had a stonking win one afternoon and defeated all of the diseases.  Let’s hope that is a portent of things to come in real life.

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One of my big summer projects was to tame the chaos of our converted garage space and turn it into an organized storage space, including a space for my teaching materials and a larder for all the things I tend to buy in bulk.  I should have thought to take a before photo because it really was a mess.  Things had been hurriedly and thoughtlessly dumped in that room first when we had our basement flood and then when we had to reorganize household spaces with everyone learning and working from home.  Since shelves had become inaccessible during that period, things that actually permanently belonged in that room had not been put in their correct place.  Necessary changes at work due to pandemic mitigation mean I also have to store all of my teaching resources at home and, of course, the only place I had to store them was also the garage.  You will just have to take my word from it that it was an overwhelming mess.  I have spent this summer working on it bit by bit because it was a time consuming project.  It does not look like much and certainly is not going to win any awards for being aesthetically pleasing but the chaos is no more, everything now has a place, and everything is so organized that I can put my hands on any item in that room in an instant.  The shelving unit of square cubbies contain my lesson plans, teaching materials, toys, and books.  It still needs a fair bit of finessing with better storage solutions for some items but it is a functional and much more efficient system.

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On the subject of work, I have also been spending time going into my classroom and getting it ready for a new batch of students and, of course, a new way of operating.  I have had to strip out so much fun stuff from my classroom and my lesson planning because of teaching in the context of a pandemic so it is a bit deflating and dispiriting but I am excited to meet my new students and create fun learning experiences for them.

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I continued to bake my way through the stress of this situation.  I will never be an applicant for a baking show but I have definitely improved my skill level and confidence when it comes to baking.  I have had the odd failure – such as a sunken chocolate cherry cake – but my successes have outnumbered the failures and even the failures were tasty enough.  Like Pavlov’s dogs, however, my boys have become way too accustomed to having a sweet treat available on an almost daily basis.  Since I will not have time for daily baking when I am back at work, it is going to be an adjustment for them and may involve some sugar withdrawal.  Incidentally, that cake in the photo is supposed to have a crack in it as it is an orange Madeira cake.

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All of these summer blog posts have ended with portraits of the cats so here are some portraits of Peanut (ginger) and Satchi (grey) doing their feline thing.

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And here is one of our “bonus” pets.  When our basement window wells flood, frogs move in.  Here is a photo of one who brought his packed lunch slug with him.

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Road Trip 2017 #27 – Armstrong Redwoods

After our morning in Calistoga, we headed to the nearby Armstrong Redwoods.  We were intending to visit the Muir Woods the following morning but thought that the Armstrong Redwoods would serve as a gentle introduction for the boys and would give them an opportunity to be a bit feral.  On a hot and sunny day, it was lovely to wander in the shade and cool of a grove of gigantic trees.  These type of sequoias are native to the Pacific coast and would once have covered a much greater expanse than they now do.  This species of trees are the tallest living organisms on the planet and it is possible for them to grow to be two thousand years old – though most are bright young things at just several hundred years old.  They can be 16 feet in diameter and can be over 300 feet tall.  It is impossible to convey the scale of the trees and my photography could not capture it accurately either.  I found it very peaceful to walk among these towering giants – well, as peaceful as a mother of four can ever feel – and looking up towards the canopy made me feel dizzy from the perspective.

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We visited the Colonel Armstrong tree.  At about 1400 years old, it is the oldest of the trees in the grove.  It takes its name, of course, from the man who decided to preserve this woodland and for whom the park is named.  The tallest tree in the park, meanwhile, is the Parson Jones tree.  It stands at 310 feet.



There is an easy trail to follow around the park and which led us past the most notable trees.  The icicle tree is one that has unusual burl formations on it.  Strangely enough, these burls – which are apparently incredibly heavy – grow in icicle shapes.  These are a way for the tree to grow downwards, I think, though I am far from certain.  People like to saw them off and use them to build furniture, though obviously the ones in the park are now protected.  The icicle tree is fenced off precisely because vandals have made off with its famous burls in the past.  We also found a few trees that had “goosepens”.  These are little caves inside the trunks of the gigantic trees.  The boys loved that they could all climb inside the interior of a tree.  It’s the type of place they would make into a gang hut if we had redwoods in our garden.  They got their name because apparently early settlers could keep their geese and other domestic animals inside the caves as natural enclosures.  The caves form when the trees are damaged, including by forest fires.  Since redwoods are fire resistant, they smoulder in unusual ways and I guess these hollows are the result if a tree already has a “wound”.  There was also a slice of tree with the rings marked for various historic events to illustrate just how many hundreds of years these redwoods can grow for.  There were also a number of trees that had fallen down and been left to become a different part of the ecosystem and massive stumps where trees had been felled.  These trees gave my boys ample opportunity to climb and jump.









Hungry after our walk outdoors, we ate a mundane meal with indifferent service in a nearby town.  It had looked like such a promising place to eat too so that was disappointing.  Still, it filled a hole and stopped the children from getting hangry and it set us up for our final trip of the day: Bodega Bay.


Locust Lake State Park

Memorial Day weekend seems to be the traditional starting point for all things summer in these parts – outdoor swimming pools open, people crank up their barbecues, people start wearing less clothing, sunglasses are donned – and this Memorial weekend was a scorcher, a welcome dose of sunshine and heat after such a dreich (dreary) Spring.  We Picts decided this was the perfect opportunity to go an explore another of Pennsylvania’s state park so we headed towards the mountains and to Locust Lake State Park.

The area had been deforested in the 19th Century because of mining and lumber operations in the area.  It was reclaimed in the 20th Century as an area for fishing and I assume has particularly recovered since it became a state park in the 1960s.  Now there are trails through woodland, camp sites, and a decent sized central lake where people can boat and swim in designated areas.  It was this latter activity that the boys were especially looking forward to – especially after a long drive in a warm car.

Our first stop off was at a play area in the woods.  After being stuck in the car for quite some time, the boys had energy to burn off so the climbing frame was perfect.  The youngest two practiced their simian skills on the monkey bars and then they copied their ten year old brother in trying to find a route climbing over the frame rather than using it how it should be used.  There were points where they freaked themselves out a bit by getting stuck but they persevered and found a way up, over, and down on their own.  Good confidence building stuff.



A hop, skip and a jump through a wooded glade brought us out onto a stretch of the lake shore that had a beach.  This was not a sandy beach, however.  It was more like coarse grit.  It was not entirely pleasant underfoot but then again I am not the best judge since I generally loathe sand of any kind.  The Pictlings certainly did not mind the gritty sand at all and were soon paddling in the water and enjoying how cool it was.  The area roped off and designated for swimming is pretty shallow so the water had actually been nicely warmed by the sun.  That way it was cool but not chilly.  Perfect swimming temperature actually.  Now that all four of my boys are good swimmers, it is a much more pleasant experience to take them somewhere like this.  Mr Pict and I can just sit back and relax while watching them swim and splash and play rather than feeling like we are in a constant state of high alert, reading to spring into Baywatch mode at any instant.  The kids had a wonderful time swimming back and forth in the water.





Once they had finally had enough of the water, we decided to take the (very) easy trail around the circumference of the lake so they could dry out and we could all stretch our legs before getting back in the car and heading home.  They did their usual thing of complaining and moaning about how boring the walk would be and then absolutely loving it and not wanting to leave.  My kids are pretty feral – you might have noticed – so within reason we let them go bare foot and get off the beaten track.  They, therefore, turned what might have been a brief stroll into a miniature adventure assault course.  There were some outdoor exercise equipment staging posts that they incorporated into their wanderings but mainly it was about balancing along fallen trunks and wading through burns and shallow creeks.  We didn’t encounter any wildlife beyond that which we find in our own garden (squirrels, chipmunks, and birds) but they did find some freshly hatched gloriously blue robin eggs to study.





We had a really lovely day out.  We have not had much time for whole family activities in recent months as there have been so many commitments and schedule clashes and such like to contend with.  We, therefore, really welcomed some uninterrupted time as a family of six, especially since there was no phone reception.  Locust Lake was a charming spot and we will definitely need to return some time, maybe in late summer.

Evansburg State Park

In addition to returning to old favourites and nearby haunts, we have been very gradually exploring more of the state parks in our surrounding areas.  Our most recent trip was to Evansburg State Park, near Collegeville.

This was an area first settled by the Mennonite community.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings are descended from Swiss Mennonites who emigrated to and first settled in Pennsylvania (though not in this area) before migrating north.  That then was an added bit of interest for me, as a family history nerd.  Our trek started off next to a building that I assume dates from that era of the area’s history.  The main feature of the woodland landscape is the Skippack Creek which carves the landscape up into steep ridges and leads the pathways to curve and wind and double back on themselves.

We set off on one of the multi-purpose trails.  It was a lovely, peaceful spot and I enjoyed spotting some definitive signs of Spring asserting themselves in the woodland.  Farewell, Winter.  The boys loved climbing trees and scampering down embankments to watch the water, or throwing small branches into the creek to play Pooh Sticks.  The younger trio then spent some time engaged in imaginative play, orcs and hobbits I think.

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All four boys like to do this running, leaping, bounding, climbing, dangling escapade in the great outdoors that I can only really describe as “woodland parkour”.  That was when things got messy.  The entire walk was incredibly muddy under foot.  The pathways were essentially “quick mud” and we walked the trail by navigating a route that followed yet did not involve actually stepping on any of the trail paths.  Of course, as soon as the kids started racing at speed through the woods, more focused on leaping and jumping, they started sploshing in the mud, sinking into it, making loud sucking squelches as they withdrew each foot.  My youngest made literal the metaphor “feet of clay”.  My oldest lost his footing on one leap and ended up ankle deep in a stream.  The sticky, clay mud was so unremitting and tenacious that we were all entirely plastered as we trudged back to the car park and, apart from Mr Pict who was driving, we all journeyed home bare foot.  It took me two hours of scrubbing to clean our shoes.

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It was a lovely spot to explore, however, and we will definitely return in a dryer season.

*PS It seems my recent run of bad luck with appliances and electronics has not yet concluded.  During this particular walk, my Nikon DSLR decided to shuffle off its mortal coil.  I am not a very capable phone photographer and, therefore, the quality of photography in this post drops off somewhat at the end.  Anticipate my photos being duff for a while until I can either repair or replace my DSLR.*

Celebrating Double Digits in the Poconos


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.











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 3 – Shades of Death

We got up early and packed up so we could fit in one more Poconos excursion before heading back to the Philadelphia suburbs and our four kiddliwinks.  Since there was so much more to see and do in Hickory Run State Park, we decided to head there and do a different trail.  The one we chose was called Shades of Death.  Thankfully the gloomy, doom-laden name was not indicative of the trail itself.



I was initially disappointed as the trail was very close to the road, and even had us skirting along the side of the road at one point, but then the trail began to curve away from the roadside and we lost the traffic noise at the same time the walk became far more scenic.  The rocky trail meandered along the banks of the Sand Spring Run.  The rock formations created lots of attractive waterfalls and there was an appealing dam weir at the midway point of our hike.  Logging and tanning were once undertaken in these woods and whether from that period in time or some other, we could see the remains of various stone built structures.  These included a narrow flight of steps.  Despite my initial reservations, it was actually a very picturesque hike.










Driving through a town named Lehighton, we came across Country Junction, “The World’s Largest General Store”.  Well, how could we pass up the opportunity to partake of that gem of Roadside America?  We parked up and entered.  When we entered, there was a fudge stall on one side and a screen playing ‘The Wizard of Oz’.  This was my kind of place!  It transpired that Oz was a theme throughout the store.  The instruction was to “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” which was useful advice because I am pretty sure I could have become lost in the store amid all the amazing clutter had I not clung to the painted yellow bricks on the floor.


The store was crazy.  It sold anything and everything.  Hardware and DIY items, elaborate taxidermy, garden sculptures on every scale and for every taste, jewellery, hand bags, pickles and jams, toys, pets …. Anything and everything you could think of.  There was even a petting zoo but we skipped that until a time when we would return with the boys.  It was ludicrous, brilliant, awesome and bizarre.  It was the perfect conclusion to our getaway in the Poconos.

Poconos Day 1 – Big Boulders at Hickory Run

Having just returned from our family adventures in Virginia, Maryland and Washington DC, Mr Pict and I immediately headed out on another trip.  My in-laws generously offered to look after the children while my husband and I had a break away.  We felt a bit bad to be leaving the kids on Easter Sunday, which ought to be family time but, by the same token, it has been an utterly exhausting almost two years since Mr Pict first suggested we emigrate and we have not been away together without kids since March 2012 and we felt it would be beneficial to have some time as a couple so that we can recharge our batteries as parents too.  Am I justifying my abandonment of my children too much here?

I have always wanted to stay in a cabin in the woods.  W did not quite find a log cabin, which would have been my dream, but we did find a cottage in the Poconos, a mountainous area not too far from home but far enough into the countryside to function as a nice break from the hustle and bustle of modern life too.

We arrived in the area and went to Hickory Run State Park.  We went to see the massive field of huge boulders that formed there during the last Ice Age.  A pattern of freezing and thawing had broken the rock down into huge chunks that then accumulated at the bottoms of the mountains.  Then the melted ice would, in the summer months, carry these chunks of rock and other debris across the valley, depositing them at their present location.  Over thousands of years, the field of boulders grew and grew.  We hopped from boulder to boulder to get from one edge of the circumference to the other.  The occasional wobble freaked me out a bit because of the height but I could imagine my boys entirely loving it as they appear to be like mountain goats and to not have inherited my vertigo.  This is apparently a geographically unique landscape and certainly I have never seen anything even remotely similar. 





We tried to find the start of a trail in the adjacent woods but without luck.  We also hoped to see more wildlife but all we saw was one chipmunk, some spiders basking in the sun and birds.  We did hear a very loud woodpecker but did not catch a glimpse of it.  Ironically we saw dozens of deer on our drives around the area but did not catch sight of one in the actual woods. 

Having given up on finding the trail at the Boulder Field end because of time constraints, we drove to the beginning of another trail.  This one took us down to Hawk’s Falls, a fairly small but very loud waterfall.  It was a nice, gentle walk through the woods to reach it.  We saw the waterfall from the top by standing on a rocky outcrop and then from the bottom.






We decided it was time to go and find our cottage.  Thankfully we had been given very clear directions from the owners so it was actually pretty easy to find.  It would have been a challenge otherwise.  The cottage was lovely: dark wood and a stone fireplace gave it the feel of a hunting lodge and a large comfy sofa, beaten copper sink and cases of old books added to the snug charm of the place.  It also had a wonderful porch that would be great to sit out on on really hot days.  There were a few other houses around but otherwise the cabin was located in the middle of nowhere.  As darkness fell, it was absolutely pitch black outside.  We loved the remoteness.


We headed out to find food and decided that Stroudsburg was the best bet.  The town looked rather sad and even moribund but the main street was actually rather appealing looking and the town centre was clean and attractive.  Unfortunately it seemed like all the restaurants in the main street were closed because of it being Easter Sunday and, as we travelled in ever wider circles, we found that several places were permanently closed.  So we grabbed some food essentials in Walmart before undertaking a final circuit of town to make a definitive decision.  In doing so, we passed a flaming car in the road and a man waving a flare to warn other motorists and then we passed a fire engine slowly going out to deal with it a good few moments later.  We gave up on the idea of being fed in Stroudsburg so we had to rely on the roadside chain eateries instead.

 As such we ended up in Red Lobster.  I have not eaten in one since 1995 when I had a coupon for a great deal at Red Lobster so we decided to take the Metro and give it a try.  Only when we alighted at East Falls Church did we learn that the restaurant was still a fair hike so we walked for ages in the humid air to get there.  I remembered the trek to get there and the fact I had then glugged my way through a large glass of ice tea within seconds of being seated but I could not remember anything of the food. That was a troubling sign since I have a good memory for great dining experiences and we also knew that the company had gone bankrupt which was another red flag.  However, options being slim, we decided to give Red Lobster another go and actually it was surprisingly good.  The restaurant had a pleasant ambience, the waitress was cheerful and very efficient and the food was well cooked and tasty.  We decided to do a four course special.  I had New England clam chowder with a garden salad, followed by wood grilled tilapia with wild rice and broccoli and then finished with key lime pie.  The waitress also brought us endless cheese biscuits (meaning the scone type) which were delicious and addictive.  She even made us take a doggy bag of them home which was great as they became breakfast for the next morning.  It is always nice to be pleasantly surprised out of cynicism.