Assateague Island

The entire focus of our trip was a visit to Assateague Island – everything else we had done as we travelled south along the coast was just grist to the mill.  Assateague is a barrier island that is split between Maryland and Virginia.  We were visiting the National Seashore (this bagging another National Park property) which is wholly within Maryland’s border.  We began our trip, as we tend to do, with a stop by into the NPS Visitor Centre.  We have been to many NPS Visitor Centres but the one at Assateague was among the best.  The information regarding the flora, fauna, and history of the island was presented in easily digested gobbets, amply illustrated with images and objects.  My boys particularly enjoyed a tortoise shell and a horse skeleton.  Best of all, however, there were live whelks and horseshoe crabs in a touch pool tank.  They spent ages guddling around in the water.  I think they may want a pet horseshoe crab now.

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We began our actual exploration of the island with a circular trail through sand dunes.  This afforded the boys ample opportunities to climb things, whether trees or large pieces of driftwood.  There was also a crumbling raised asphalt road dating from the interwar years that appeared at various points on the trail.  That was a weird juxtaposition among the sand dunes and trees.  Mr Pict thought the NPS should have made an effort to completely demolish and remove it but to my mind I think that it forms part of the history of the island and I rather like the idea that it sends a message about humans trying to develop the island but being repelled by nature.

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The next stop was the ocean.  Yes.  The ocean.  In late November.  My kids were adamant that they were not visiting the beach without going in the water.  I had absolutely forbidden it the previous day, when we were on the Delaware Coast, because the wind chill was bitter.  There was much wailing and whining and protesting, chief among the arguments being that we used to let them go into the sea in Scotland on chilly days, albeit chilly summer days.  I was not persuaded.  On Assateague, however, I relented but advised that they just paddle at first while they determined whether they could actually cope with the cold.  They donned their swimming kit, bounded across the sand, and were in the water in no time at all.  I meanwhile wore their beach towels like shawls as I watched them.  They did abide by my ruling and paddled for a short while before they decided to jump around in the waves and inevitably get soaked.  No swimming but plenty of jumping and dunking.

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Of course, what Assateague is most famed for is its population of feral horses.  We had seen one, through some bushes, as we drove onto the island but we were obviously keen to see more.  Once everyone was dried and dressed, therefore, we headed back along the road and had several horse encounters.  We found a safe place to pull over and park up so that the two younger boys and I could hop out of the car and see the horses up close – though not too close, of course, and within the rules.  Nobody really knows how it was that domesticated horses became feral horses occupying the island.  There is, of course, the usual story about them having been survivors of a shipwreck but they are probably just the descendants of the horses pastured there by 17th Century farmers.  Whatever their origins, we were delighted to see them as closely as we did.  My 10 year old loves horses so he was over the moon.  It also meant we had achieved the main goal of our entire overnight trip and we got to end our Thanksgiving travels with a highlight.

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First Time Ice Skating

When we travel, we tend to be so busy from sun up to beyond sun down that we really only need our accommodation to provide us with a clean space in which to sleep.  Not requiring much out of a hotel room beyond it being clean and tidy allows us to travel on a budget and stretch a dime.  We, therefore, had little concern about choosing a super cheap room in a large hotel in Ocean City, Maryland.  The room turned out to be a good size and was clean and tidy. The hotel was a bit dated and could do with a lick of paint and polish but we can overlook such things when just treating the room like a dormitory.  The only real issue was that the walls were really thin and we unfortunately had super noisy neighbours.

As far as the kids were concerned, however, the hotel was a win because it not only had a larger than average indoor pool but also had an ice skating rink.  After filling up on breakfast at a local cafe, therefore, we headed back to the hotel so that our youngest two sons – aged 8 and 10 – could go ice skating for the first time ever.  They donned their ice skates and headed out onto the ice.  At first their legs were wonky and wobbly, like newborn deer, so we gave them some support frames so that they could get used to the required gait and rhythm without worrying about falling or even concerning themselves with balance.  After just a few circuits of the rink, however, they were ready to ditch the frames and skate unassisted.  They absolutely loved it, had a whale of a time, were excited to have learned a new skill, and experienced a sense of achievement as a result.

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Exploring History on the Delaware Coast

Having visited the Air Mobility Command Museum as our first stop, we moved further down the Delaware coast to another military history site.  This was Fort Miles on Cape Henlopen.  When we decided that we would be travelling along the Delaware coast, I thought it would be great to visit Cape Henlopen to see the lighthouse.  I have a bit of a thing for lighthouses which I have steadfastly prevented from evolving into a proper obsession (because I have enough of those).  Thankfully I thought to google it because the Cape Henlopen lighthouse fell into the sea in the 1920s.  Oops.  Bit late for that one then.  It reminded me of the time we thought to seek out the Coney Island elephant.  So no lighthouses for me but another dollop of military history instead.

Fort Miles dates from the Second World War and was built to defend America’s eastern coast against a potential German invasion.  We started exploring the site at an observation tower.  These observation towers were used to triangulate the position of any vessel that came into view and looked suspect.  Mr Pict and the boys climbed a spiral staircase inside the tower and popped out on top.  I decided to not put myself through the acrophobia to take in the views given it was mostly flat and uninteresting.  No regrets.  After a period of tree climbing, we wandered towards the shore.

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Our walk brought us past empty buildings that were once in use as barracks.  These buildings, which once housed over 2000 military personnel, had no doors so we could wander into them and have a nose around.  The low afternoon sun created interesting shadows inside many of them.  Mr Pict and the kids liked sitting on the 8 inch guns that were in the vicinity of these buildings.  We also saw a 16 inch gun which was apparently fired just the once in order to test it.  The gun we saw was not original to Fort Miles and had instead been removed from the USS Missouri.  The gun appears in famous photos of the signing of the Japanese surrender which happened on board the battleship.

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We stopped for a late lunch / early dinner in Rehoboth Beach and chose to eat in Arena’s Deli.  We had read good reviews of it and liked that it had a casual atmosphere plus the menu seemed like it would have something for everyone.  We all opted for comfort food and not so healthy options but it was our only meal of the day so we gave ourselves a pass.  Any excuse.  The food was all delicious and very well cooked and satisfied our hungry bellies for the final leg of the day’s travel.  The sun was setting as we headed towards Ocean City so we pulled over at a beach to watch the sun sink below the horizon line.  The sunset was gorgeous but what most thrilled the boys was finding horseshoe crabs on the shore line.

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After that, we checked into our hotel in Ocean City, the boys went swimming in the large hotel pool, and we headed to our beds to rest ahead of the next day’s adventures.

Air Mobility Command Museum

We decided to use the time over Thanksgiving break for a spontaneous family trip.  We found a cheap as chips hotel room in Ocean City, Maryland – because really not many people are clamoring to hang out at the coast in late November – which determined our trajectory.  We, therefore, spent the Friday following Thanksgiving moseying down the Delaware Coast.

Our first stop of the trip was at the Air Mobility Command Museum in Dover, Delaware.  Located next to Dover Air Force Base, it proved to be a vast showroom (split between a hangar and an airfield) of military aircraft.  Now, I am not someone who is into military history or militaria and nor am I interested in vehicles so this blog post is not going to be replete with technical information.  I honestly don’t think I can recall what the majority of the aircraft were even called even though I asked Mr Pict to refresh my memory yesterday.  This will, therefore, be a more impressionistic account of the time we spent there.  I will state, however, that despite my lack of knowledge or enthusiasm for the subject, I thought the Museum itself was really excellent.  The variety of military aircraft was impressive, of course, but there was also ample information accompanying each exhibit, there was space to move around each plane, helicopter and glider, and they were not so reverential that they prevented visitors accessing all the planes.  This latter point was somewhat critical for the success of our visit since my kids tend to baulk at visiting plane and train museums that take a “look but don’t touch” attitude.  And I have not mentioned that access to the Museum is entirely free.  We gave a donation but there was no pressure to do so.

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We started in the hangar and I was able to hook the boys’ interest right away.  There was a glider on display, one side of which had been removed to reveal that it contained some sort of military road vehicle as its cargo.  The kids found this sort of aircraft autopsy interesting.  We also learned that these gliders became rather sought after following the Second World War not because of the gliders themselves but because of the crates they were shipped in.  People would build houses from the disassembled crates.

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War II plane.  They knew about ball turret gunners and their perilous placement on war planes but seeing one up close actually drove home the vulnerability of the poor gunner.  They were even able to peer inside and see how terribly cramped the space was.  A separate replica demonstrated, through use of a dummy, how the gunner would have been positioned inside the ball turret, tucked up like a fetus in a mechanical womb.  It made me vividly recollect Randall Jarrell’s poem ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ and I felt very squeamish just thinking about the intense claustrophobia let alone the imminent danger.

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We saw simulators and training aircraft, mid-air refuelling vehicles, fighter jets, and helicopters – including a Huey which even I could identify – and a machine for making dog tags, which was somehow both fascinating and poignant.  The boys especially enjoyed the airfield exhibits, however, because they had space to roam and even run.  Best of all, however, was the fact that several of the aircraft were open to visitors meaning they could actually clamber aboard and experience the interior of the planes.  Having seen the troop seating with all the webbing on the interior walls in movies and documentaries, it was interesting to be able to experience something of its discomfort for ourselves.  It was also interesting to see how cargo would be stacked up inside planes and to learn about the incredible capacity of some planes, including one that could fit several fully assembled Hueys.  A tour guide demonstrated how strips in the floor could be flipped so that regular passenger seating could be clipped into place.  The boys also got to clamber around inside a Hercules (see: I know the name of that one) and sit in the cockpit.

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Military museums always have to go a long way to win me over because, as stated above, I really have pretty much no interest in the subject of military history.  As I possess only very general knowledge of military transport, I admit to having had low expectations of this one.  But win me over it did.  It was accessible, provided information that worked as an “idiot’s guide” for the uninformed (me), spacious enough that we never remotely felt harassed or harried by the presence of others, offered variety, and allowed the kids to actually engage with what they were looking at.  It was a really good museum and was a great start to our trip.

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Concord Point Lighthouse and Elk Neck Park

We had started our second day in Baltimore so early that we found we were leaving the city before noon.  We, therefore, decided to do something spontaneous as we drove through Northern Maryland and head to the Chesapeake.

We first stopped in Havre de Grace.  I have driven past the small city several times before but have never actually been in.  It looked quaint and picturesque, the type of place that would be pleasant for a stroll.  We went straight to the Concord Point Lighthouse, which is sited where the Chesapeake meets the Susquehanna.  During the War of 1812, the British attacked the city and, during that attack, Lieutenant John O’Neill manned the cannon single-handed in order to defend the town.  Injured and captured, the story goes that his 16 year old daughter rowed out to the British vessel and plead for her father’s release.  She was succesful and her father was released and the British Admiral awarded her bravery with an expensive snuffbox.  When the lighthouse was built in the late 1820s, O’Neill and his family were made its hereditary keepers as an expression of gratitude.  The granite lighthouse is 26 feet high with the lantern bringing it to 36 feet.  Although we could not go inside, apparently it is a rope ladder that allows people to ascend through a trapdoor to the lantern.  The keepers did not have to be accommodated within the lighthouse itself as there was a separate dwelling nearby.

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After our visit to the lighthouse, the boys were keen for a dip in the water.  We, therefore, headed to a town named North East – which also looked very pleasant – and Elk Neck State Park.  The kids immediately donned their swimming gear and rushed down to the shore.  The beach was rough, scrubby, and pebbly but the kids said that it turned to finer sand once they were further out in the water.  The incline into the water was gentle and the kids could get really quite far out while standing.  Beaches are not my thing but the kids had a blast swimming, splashing, and floating around.  It was a good way to burn off their energy before the rest of the journey home.

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Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore

Our second day in Baltimore was dedicated to all things Edgar Allan Poe.  I have been a fan of Poe’s writing since I was a tween – not a super-fan by any stretch but his work is something I have returned to frequently through the years.  Poe was rather itinerant so Baltimore was only one of many cities where he lived and worked.  Indeed, there is a Poe house in Philly that I really must visit some time soon.  It was, however, in Baltimore that he died.  If you have read my blog enough then you will know me to be an avid wanderer of cemeteries and graveyards so the prospect of visiting Poe’s grave was an opportunity I could not pass up.

Westminster Hall and Burying Ground is a charming little spot in an otherwise not so charming area.  The small graveyard predates the church building by over half a century and, as such, the Gothic Revival building straddles the ground below by being placed on top of piers.  The result is a sort of crawlspace under the church.  We could get under it by stooping.  It was pretty fascinating to see since I have never seen anything quite like it.  My kids enjoyed exploring all of the nooks and crannies the space had to offer which was fine by me as it gave me more time to read the memorial inscriptions and study the grave architecture.

Poe, in fact, has two grave sites within the burying ground.  We visited them in reverse chronological order as the second site is imposing and just inside the entry gate.  Poe died in 1849 at the age of just 40.  His death was rather confounding as nobody could figure out why he was in Baltimore and he was in too delirious a state to explain.  He was also wearing clothes that did not belong to him.  Even his cause of death has been lost in the mists of time.  In the end then, Poe’s death was as mysterious as one of his stories.  Apt but sad really.  Anyway, in 1875, with Poe’s literary reputation posthumously established, a group raised enough funds to establish a more impressive memorial in the graveyard.  Poe’s remains were exhumed and he was re-interred at the site, a large block of pale marble on a granite base and a medallion portrait inserted into its face.

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There having been no challenge in locating Poe’s memorial, the boys then scuttled off to see who could find the original grave first.  In such a small space, it again was not difficult to find.  This burial spot had a much more modest headstone with a carving of a raven on it.  This had been a family plot so the grave of Poe’s grandfather was nearby and his brother was also buried in the vicinity.  Poe’s cousin/wife and aunt/mother-in-law had also once been laid to rest in this spot but – like their famous relative – had been relocated to the memorial site.

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Poe is not the only famous resident of the graveyard, however.  Tucked against an exterior wall is the grave of James McHenry.  He had served as Secretary of War under Washington and Adams, had signed the US Constitution as a delegate representing Maryland, and Fort McHenry named in his honour.  Also of particular interest to me was the grave of Philip Barton Key.  Key, an attorney, was an attorney and the son of Francis Scott Key.  See how niftily I managed to tie up so many of the elements of our Baltimore trip!  He was having an affair with Teresa Bagioli Sickles which very much displeased her husband, despite his own notorious philandering.  The husband, Daniel Sickles, shot Key repeatedly after confronting him on a Washington DC street.  Mr Pict’s ears pricked up at that part.  Not only was the murder victim somewhat famous but so was the murderer.  Dan Sickles was a New York politician and lawyer who later became infamous for almost causing a Union disaster at the Battle of Gettysburg when he moved his troops without orders and with catastrophic results.  The Civil War nerd was, therefore, suddenly interested in the grave.  The murder, however, is interesting for another reason: it was the first time in US legal history that a defence of temporary insanity had been attempted and by gum it worked because Sickles was acquitted.  This was in 1859, before Gettysburg and the loss of his leg, and before his congressional career.

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There were other interesting graves in the grounds too, including several more people of historical significance.  One area of the burial ground, very near the underside of the building, was covered in graves belonging to one tragic family.  They were the graves of John and Sarah Brown and four of their children.  Six of their ten children died young, many in early infancy, and Sarah also died prematurely in one of the city’s epidemics.  It was a poignant reminder of the high mortality rates in times past.  There was also a bowed grave, marking the resting place of a veteran of the Revolutionary War.  The raised slab of marble, which was atop four pedestals, had been eroded by the elements and by pollution in such a way that it had buckled into a curve.  I had not seen anything like that before in all my visits to cemeteries.  There were also large, above-ground vaults for various families.  They had fancy looking facades to them but it was interesting to note that the rest of the vault looked rather like a large pipe.

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Having seen both of his grave sites, it was a hop, skip, and a jump to go and visit one of Poe’s houses.  The house in Baltimore is actually the earliest surviving house in which Poe lived.  It almost did not survive as it was slated for demolition in the early 1940s but was saved thanks to a Poe society.  It was, therefore, preserved and stands at the end of a terrace of 1930s houses.  It was quite the juxtaposition.  Among the stories Poe wrote while resident in the house were ‘M.S. found in a bottle’, ‘Morella’, and ‘Berenice’.

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The house was rented by Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, who lived there with her mother (Poe’s grandmother), her daughter Virginia (who Poe would marry when she was just 13), her son Henry, and nephew Edgar.  It was a very small house to have accommodated all of those people and it was explained to us that the women would all have slept in one of the rooms while Edgar and Henry shared another room.  The rooms were decorated as they would have been in the 1830s but there was no furniture as part of the reconstruction.  This was probably fairly lucky as there was very little space in each room as it was.  The room the males would have slept in did contain some items linked to Poe, including a chair and his lap sized writing desk.  From that room, a tiny, narrow, winding staircase led up to an attic garrett room which contained a bed, chest, and chair.  The spaces inside the house were dark, gloomy, and more than a little claustrophobic but that actually felt completely apt for Poe’s house.

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I was thrilled to have visited one of the three remaining houses that Poe once lived in.  I was even more thrilled that the visit inspired by youngest sons to become interested in Poe.  They have subsequently watched a series of animations of short stories and have read the pop-up book of Poe writings we own.

National Aquarium, Baltimore

After a morning spent travelling from the Philly ‘burbs and looking around Fort McHenry, we headed around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to visit the National Aquarium.  That was really the focus of our trip to Baltimore as it was the thing the kids really wanted to do.  The Aquarium has timed entry so, when we reached the front of the ticket line before 3pm, we were issued tickets for a 4pm entry.  That gave us time to have a scout around that area of the Harbor.  We saw some interesting vessels moored up, including a large coastguard ship and a submarine, we saw ducks paddling around among flotillas of trash, and we saw some interesting buildings, including an old power plant that has been converted into a retail space.  It was a bookstore so we headed in there to benefit from their air conditioning and peruse books on the shelves.

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Before long it was time for us to return to the Aquarium and go in.  The timed entry system works well I think as it meant we did not waste time queuing and it meant the exhibit spaces of the Aquarium rarely felt too crowded.  We started at a large pool and the kids were instantly enchanted.  Our 10 year old is shark daft so he was super-duper-excited to see sharked slipping through the water.  There were also large rays covered in spotty patterns and we all squealed with glee when a large green turtle appeared and came to the surface.

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The touch pool was a huge hit with all of us.  There were the usual rays and horseshoe crabs for us to pet and we enjoyed that.  Another touch pool, however, was filled with charming little moon jellyfish.  We were told that we could stroke their curved bodies using two fingers.  It was marvelous.  I adore jellyfish anyway (it helps that I’ve never been stung by one) but I have only ever touched dead jellies.  I was smitten as soon as I felt the jellyfish, cool, rubbery, slippery, soft.  It was a delightful experience.

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Another favourite area of the Aquarium was a tank full of puffins.  Is there any other bird as cute as a puffin?  Despite living near some colonies of puffins in Scotland, I had sadly never managed to see any in close proximity.  I love their plump monochromatic bodies and those brightly striped beaks.  They did not disappoint with their antics either.  We saw them bobbing around in the water, swimming beneath the surface, and flapping their wings.  I could have watched them for ages and ages.  It made me wish I could have a pet puffin.

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There were, of course, tanks galore filled with interesting fish.  I was particularly drawn to all the brightly coloured fish.  My 8 year old was obsessed with all the different species of catfish because he is obsessed with cats of all kinds.  He was also drawn towards any of the over-sized fish, of which there were many.  Meanwhile, my 10 year old was all about the stars of the show: the sharks.  The Aquarium is renowned for its large shark tanks and we were not disappointed.  I failed to get a decent photo of any of the sharks but there were scores of large sharks in a vast, deep doughnut shaped tank that surrounded we visitors.  We could get right up to the glass so could feel almost immersed in the water with them and really appreciate the scale of the sharks.  There were nurse sharks resting on the floor of the tank, sand tiger sharks with their needle sharp teeth, sandbar sharks, large rays, and a largetooth sawfish which was an entirely bizarre looking beastie.

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There were areas dedicated to rainforest environments and to Australia.  The latter was a very small area and we did not manage to see all of the birds or the flying foxes that were apparently in the room.  We did, however, see some stunning birds with bold plumage and lots of interesting reptiles, including a freshwater crocodile.  The rainforest area was more successful in terms of spotting critters.  We even managed to go crazy bananas excited when we spotted a sloth among the foliage dangling from the ceiling.  Mr Pict is one of those arachnophobes who is fascinated by spiders so he enjoyed seeing the tarantula.  There were also some amazing birds in that area, including scarlet ibis and turquoise tanagers.

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Another room was just filled with tanks full of jellyfish.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings took a rest break while I spent time in there looking at all of the details of the jellies.  I love their variety.  Some had stubby little tentacles that looked a bit like crinkly coral or brains while others had long, thin tentacles that moved elegantly in the water.  I found it mesmerising to watch their bodies pulsate as they propelled themselves around the tanks.  I think I would find it quite soothing to have a tank full of jellyfish.

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The kids rallied when it came time to visit the dolphins.  They are a colony of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins who were all born in captivity.  I am not generally in favour of large marine mammals being kept in captivity but obviously it is not possible to release captive born dolphins into the wild.  There is also an argument that getting to see dolphins up close inspires people to care more for the ocean environment.  In any case, they had just completed their final show performance of the day so we wondered if they would not be keen on being on show for visitors.  However, they were swimming around being very playful, leaping, and chasing each other.  I think it must be pretty impossible not to love dolphins.

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It was evening by the time we emerged from the Aquarium but still very hot and humid.  We decided, therefore, to stop into a nearby ice cream parlour for some cold, sweet treats.  It was a delicious way to end a great day in Baltimore.

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