Harpers Ferry

After our day spent at Antietam Battlefield, we spent Memorial Day at another site important to the history of the Civil War: Harpers Ferry.  We had actually attempted to visit Harpers Ferry last Summer as part of our road trip.  That plan had to be abandoned because of torrential rain.  This was our second chance to visit and we hoped we would not be rained off again.

The whole town of Harpers Ferry (which did once have an apostrophe) is contained within the National Historical Park.  As such, parking is seriously limited and nowhere near the centre of town.  We, therefore, parked up at the Visitors Center (being sure to stamp our National Parks passport) and took the shuttle bus down into town.  It is a system that works well and is no doubt effective in preserving the integrity of the town.  The town is historically important largely because of its geographical situation.  It is built on an area of land where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet.  All of that water generated power and that power could be harnessed for industry.  Upon visiting the area, George Washington determined it should become the site of a Federal Armory and Arsenal.  It was the presence of this facility that led to it become the scene of John Brown’s Raid, an event that contributed to the tinderbox of causes that sparked the Civil War.

Since the shuttle bus had just offloaded a whole pile of people at once, we decided to steer away from the town centre for a bit and instead headed towards the river, following its course around to the railway bridge.  This bridge crosses over to a mountainous area named Maryland Heights.  The bridge is, of course, an example of the town’s industrial heritage.  We learned that – as was true in many places – there was competition between the railroad companies and the canal.  The canal reached the town just one year ahead of the railroad which ultimately led to the demise of the canal.  We walked across the railroad, contemplating hiking up the mountain to take in the breathtaking views.  Tempting as it was, we decided it would eat up way too much time, energy, and goodwill from the children to scale the mountain.  Instead, the wander across the rail bridge was worthwhile to the kids because they found a baby turtle sitting on a tree branch above the water.

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Our first stop in the town was John Brown’s Fort.  The building (originally a fire engine house) is inauthentic, having been relocated and rebuilt on a slightly different site but it illustrated the town’s most famous event.  In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown and a band of men raided the town with the intention of inspiring a slave rebellion.  Not only did the slaves not readily join the group but Brown and his comrades made several strategic errors that doomed them to failure.  They managed to capture the Armory on the first evening but by the following day they were besieged in the engine house.  It all went horribly wrong from there.  The President ordered the Marines in to end the siege.  They were commanded by none other than Robert E Lee – wearing mufti since he was on leave at the time.  That brought the raid to an end.  Harpers Ferry suffered massively during the Civil War.  The same geography that had been advantageous meant it was strategically important to the armies of the north and south and thus it switched between the Confederacy and the Union eight times.  Further, when the Federal garrison surrendered to the Confederates in 1862, it was the largest military surrender in US history until World War II.  In the 2oth Century, poor Harpers Ferry was subjected to a battering from the environment as storms and floods destroyed much of the town that was situated on the flood plain and brought its industry to an end.

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That harsh history was evident in the layout of the town.  The buildings closer to the water and at a lower elevation were preserved for their history but definitely had a worn and abandoned look to them and most of the industrial buildings lining the riverside were nothing more than rubble and rocky outlines.  The buildings that lined the roads that ran uphill, however, were in a much better state of preservation and were still being used as dwellings and as shops and eateries.  I loved the architecture of the place as different strategies had been used to manage the steep incline and the heights of the buildings.  We bought the boys ice cream and wandered up and down the street.

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We then popped into a confectionery shop.  This turned out to be a fascinating little place and another genre of history still – edible history.  The owners had researched historic recipes and had experimented with ingredients and methods in order to replicate candies and other sweet treats from throughout history.  The store was arranged chronologically so it was like a timeline of sweeties.  There was marshmallow root that would have been snarfled up by the ancient Egyptians but most of the goodies dated from the 1700s onwards.  I actually felt pretty nostalgic in the 20th Century section.  Even though I didn’t live through most of that century, my Gran used to take me to an old fashioned sweet shop in Edinburgh so I was familiar with sweet traditions older than me, tastes from bygone eras.  We each picked out a bag of sweeties by way of a souvenir of our day and look forward to sampling them and using our tongues and tummies to travel through time.

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Mr Pict and the 11 year old hopped on the shuttle bus to go and retrieve our car.  Meanwhile, the three other kids and I decided we would walk along the canal side.  It was a pleasant walk – though we did have to tread carefully since there was goose poop and squelchy mud everywhere – and very peaceful since few people were walking that stretch.  The stroll afforded us the opportunity to see more of the industrial ruins of the town.  I would have liked to have crossed over the bridge to Virginius Island to see the ruins there but we were short on time so that will have to wait for a future visit.  The kids were more excited about our wildlife encounters along the Shenandoah Canal.  We saw loads of geese with their fluffy goslings swimming around in the algae covered water and there were turtles sunbathing on branches jutting out above the surface of the water.  The walk was a restful way to end our trip to Harpers Ferry.

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Antietam

Last weekend was Memorial Weekend here in the United States.  Memorial Day commemorates members of the country’s armed forces who have died in service.  As such, it seemed apt that we spent Memorial Weekend touring Civil War sites.  Our first stop was Antietam, in Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Confederate General Robert E Lee moved his army from Virginia towards the north and into Union territory.  Around the same time, Union General George McClellan moved the Army of the Potomac into Frederick, Maryland.  On 17 September 1862, these two forces collided on the Antietam Creek in what would be the bloodiest single day battle of the Civil War – and indeed the bloodiest day in American military history.  Of the approximately 100,000 soldiers involved in the battle, there were 23,000 casualties.  Ultimately Lee was repulsed back into Virginia and the Union held the area.

We started our tour at the Visitor’s Center where we chanced upon a small reenactment group marching and firing guns.  The Visitor Center itself offered a useful synopsis of the battle as there was a short movie to watch and some exhibits.  I found both to be particularly handy since – as I have explained before – I am not all that keen on military history.  The documentary fixed the broad stroke events of the day in my head while the exhibits in the small museum helped me engage with the subject through seeing things like medical field kits, uniforms, and drums.  What I learned (or relearned since Mr Pict has told me this several times) is that Antietam was a pivotal battle in the Civil War and not just because of the Union victory.  It was also significant because it led to Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and prevented Britain and France from getting involved in the conflict.

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Mr Pict decided to lead us around the site according to the chronology of the battle.  We, therefore, started at what was once woods and cornfields.  I look at the landscape of a battlefield and really cannot engage with it.  It’s just landscape to me.  I need features and clear narratives.  I need the human side of things rather than tactics.  I, therefore, left Mr Pict and the kids to wander around the fields while I headed into the Dunker Church.  The Church, belonging to a pacifist German sect, had been on site for just ten years before it became a focal point of the bloody battle.  Being inside I was reminded of what I had read of the townspeople.  They hid in basements and caves during the battle and emerged to find their properties destroyed (one deliberately) and scenes of horrific slaughter.  While there was not a civilian casualty in the battle, the soldiers malingered in town long enough to spread disease to the civilian population.  Always finding the social history angle on the military history.

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Our next stop was the dramatically named “Bloody Lane”.  This was a sunken road that cut through the farmland.  The Confederates were using the built up land around the road as a parapet and were able to fire down upon the Union soldiers who were moving across the farmland and were funneled into the narrow sunken road.  The result was absolute carnage as illustrated by the photographs of Alexander Gardner.  Knowing those photographs as I do, I found it quite haunting to be walking along Bloody Lane.  I could actually visualise the horror of the scene.  We emerged from the sunken road at an observation tower.  As much as I appreciate a good view, I took one look at the narrow and open iron staircase inside and decided against ascending.  Instead, I waved from the bottom at my husband and children at the top.

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I would have loved to have moved on to the National Cemetery because I love cemeteries.  However, it started to rain hard.  We were wearing our raincoats so were largely protected from the rain but the grass was slippy under foot and it was muggy and sticky which feels gross when wearing waterproof layers.  And everyone was protesting about visiting a cemetery so there was that too.  We, therefore, hoofed it back to the car and drove to the next destination and battle point: the lower bridge, also known as Burnside Bridge.  Once there, 50% of our troops refused to trek down to the bridge so Mr Pict, the 10 year old and I plodded on with our reduced numbers.  On the day of the battle, the bridge was being held by Confederate troops (from Georgia if I am remembering the video accurately) who were able to pick off the approaching Union soldiers with ease from their position on the bluff overlooking the bridge and the road approaching it.  After being in the sunken road, it would appear that the theme of the day had been carnage in narrow spaces.

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The highlight of my 10 year old’s trip to Antietam was “befriending” a millipede.  At least, unlike his brothers, he actually saw all three key sites.  I have decided that one day they will look back and appreciate that their father and I dragged them on all of these trips to historic places.

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Hershey Park

On the day of my oldest son’s 14th Birthday, we decided to visit Hershey Park.  After the previous day’s hike, we thought that he and his brothers would prefer a busy day at a theme park by way of a birthday celebration rather than further explorations of Pennsylvania state parks.  His birthday happened to coincide with the first day that Hershey Park was open for the 2017 season.  This meant that tickets were half-price (since not all areas of the park and rides were open) but also meant that it was thronging with people.

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Theme parks are not my thing at all.  As I have had cause to state several times on this blog, I have a terrible fear of heights.  I also dislike things that move too quickly in a way that makes me feel out of control.  So, yes, theme parks are not the place for the likes of me.  Happily, Mr Pict, while not an adrenalin junkie, is quite happy to accompany our kids on any and all rides they might wish to go on.  I, therefore, get to sit back and watch them without any pressure to participate in any rides that make me freak out.

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I expected there to be more of a chocolate or candy theme to the park but, while present on and off, for the most part the park was like a gigantic fairground stuffed full of thrill rides and traditional rides.  We were there before the park opened so were among the first people in and, for the first couple of hours, it was not overly crowded and the queues were not unbearable.  It also helped that the morning was a little overcast and the temperatures not too hot.  That meant that the kids were able to get onto a good few rides they were really keen on doing without much hassle.

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After noon, temperatures steadily grew and so did the crowds and – with that combination – so did fractiousness and frustrations.  The lines started to get insufferably long for the kids.  For them, there has to be an acceptable correspondence between the length of time waiting to get on a ride and the duration of the ride itself.  They felt that every ride they did was super fun and worth doing but not necessarily worth the time and energy spent queuing.  Standing still can be more tiring than walking.  They started to get frazzled.

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There were a couple of rides left that at least some of the kids were keen to do.  However, when they saw the length of the queues, they decided it wasn’t worth the wait.  Mr Pict and I have been parents for 14 years now but have only recently become veterans enough to recognise when to call it quits, taking our lead from the kids’ moods, rather than push things to the point that it risks undermining the success of the whole day.  So we quit while the going was good but not before feeling as if we had got our money’s worth from our day at Hershey Park.

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Pole Steeple Trail

The Pict family had two birthdays to celebrate within six days of each other.  My oldest son turned 14 and my 9 year old entered double digits.  Since both birthdays occurred during Spring break, we decided to take a couple of days off to travel and explore a little further afield.

Our first destination was the Pole Steeple Trail.  The trail is in Pine Grove State Park and abuts on to the Michaux State Forest and all not too far from the Appalachian Trail (which we really should have a wee wander on some day).  The trail is pretty steep and, with the sun blazing, I realised fairly quickly that I have gotten a bit too mushy over Winter with my lack of outdoorsy rambles.  It was pretty exhausting ascending by clambering over rocks.  At least, it was pretty exhausting for Mr Pict and I; the kids were sprinting ahead without much difficulty and were even burning up extra energy by jumping from rocks and climbing up trees.

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It did not take too long, however, before we reached Pole Steeple  This is a dramatic rocky outcrop that dangles over the landscape.  I had been very much looking forward to the view from the summit.  The view was supposed to be my reward for huffing and puffing my way up the trail.  Unfortunately, I was way too scared and anxious to get close enough to the edge of the slanting rocks to take in the view and appreciate it*.  Sometimes my fear of heights is very limiting.  Of course, as soon as my kids realised that I was having palpitations moving around on the rocks that were not even near the edge, they decided it would be funny to jump around, run, scale up and down different gulches, and at least make it look as if they were teetering on the edge and might fall at any instant.  They had a whale of a time.  I think the area would be beautiful once there are more leaves on the trees, especially so during Autumn.

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Once everyone had finished leaping around like mountain goats and flooding me with cortisol, we headed downhill again.  Downhill was so much easier and quicker than uphill.  On our descent, we stopped not to catch our breaths but to have a “sasquatch off”, a contest to see who could best replicate the famous Bigfoot pose.  Sadly there were no random strangers around who could adjudicate and it made all the squirrels run away.

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* As a result of my wimpiness, some of the photos in this blog post were taken by Mr Pict and our kids.

Battleship Sleepover

A couple of weekends ago, my two youngest children got to experience sleeping on board the USS New Jersey.  It wasn’t that I had tired of their antics and decided to ship them out to learn some military discipline; it was an event with their Scout troop.  I did not actually go with them.  I happily and wholeheartedly volunteered to stay home with the older two boys.  In the past, I have spent the night in a historic prison and an abandoned farming township but this time I felt that Mr Pict should have the sleepover experience.  This was not just because I wanted to stay home cosy in my jammies but also because I would have been the only mother on the trip and – quite frankly – because I did not fancy trying to sleep in a situation where I felt uncomfortable and claustrophobic.

The USS New Jersey is a battleship with a long and interesting history – well, interesting if you like military history which I don’t but which Mr Pict does (another reason why he was just the parent for the job).  It was launched in 1942 and not completely decommissioned until the early 1990s so it saw action in World War 2, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War.  I really cannot accurately relate any of its detailed history, however, as I was not on the tour and – though I did listen to my husband’s report – I did not absorb and retain the information.  That’s what Wikipedia is for.

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The USS New Jersey became a museum ship in 2001 and is permanently docked in Camden, New Jersey.  It can be visited during the day by members of the public but getting to stay overnight was only possible because of the kids being Scouts.  Soon after they arrived, the troop was taken on a guided tour by knowledgeable volunteers.  They got to see a wide variety of spaces on board the ship and learn about the different eras of its history.  Our youngest son even got to sit in the Captain’s chair, a position he apparently rather enjoyed.  After the tour, the group dined in the mess area.  My kids are cheese snobs so were not impressed by the box mac’n’cheese on offer but having to eat food you don’t necessarily love probably added to the whole naval experience.  They were lucky they didn’t get hard tack.  Their bunks for the night were the exact same bunks the navy personnel would have slept on when the battleship was active.  The photos of the kids slotted into the narrow beds made me feel queasy so I was very glad that we had made the choice to have Mr Pict act as chaperone.

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After breakfast the next morning, they got to have a daylight wander around the ship, look at the Philadelphia skyline from the vantage point of the deck, and then it was time to head home.  As lukewarm as I a about military history, I think it’s a pretty cool thing for them to be able to say that the slept overnight on a battleship.

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Robots and British Nosh

Having used the Franklin Institute as an indoor playground for a couple of years, last year we took a break from our membership so that we could return with renewed enthusiasm.  In retrospect, President’s Day was not the smartest choice for becoming members again and reintroducing the kids to the joys of science museums.  The place was absolutely jam-packed and every gallery and area was heaving with people. I do not do well in crowds at all – it’s like an instant recipe for stress and anxiety – but I also feel harassed by the behaviour of other people when places are so busy.  For example, there were way too many children pushing and shoving there way into taking turns with interactive exhibits.  My kids have a tendency to hang back and are too polite to challenge others who queue jump but they still get irked and frazzled by the rudeness of others and, of course, we then get the pleasure of dealing with our annoyed kids.  While the parents of the pushy-shovey kids seemed to be nowhere in the vicinity whenever their kids were misbehaving, conversely there were other parents who were attached like limpets to their kids which also made it nigh impossible to manoeuvre in some areas.  Imagine experiencing epic levels of irritation while trying to cheerfully engage children in science even though you are completely an Arts and Humanities person.  That was the experience I had in the Franklin Institute on Monday.

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While we stopped by our favourite sections and did what activities we could, we also visited a special exhibition called Robot Revolution.  It was, strangely enough, all about how modern robotic engineering is being applied to different aspects of life.  For instance, there was a large surgical apparatus and the woman standing next to me explained that her father had actually been operated on recently by just such a machine.  There were also robotic prosthetic limbs and robots designed to assess dangers in conflict zones.  There were, however, also robots playing soccer and one that could unicycle.  A big hit with my youngest son was a robotic seal pup, designed to provide therapeutic comfort to people who can’t interact with real animals.  They also enjoyed an area where they got to clip together various cubes, each of which served a different function, in order to construct their own robots.

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We did not stay at the Franklin Institute for an extended period simply because the crowds were unbearable.  It was good to be back after our year long break, however, and we were reminded about all it has to offer.  We look forward to more trips there this coming year but hopefully with much smaller numbers of people crammed into the space.

We decided to treat ourselves to a little luxury by dining out in the city.  Mr Pict selected The Dandelion, which he has eaten in several times with colleagues.  We were actually supposed to go there for my birthday celebration but there was a stuff up with the booking so it did not happen.  I think, therefore, that it was my Unbirthday dinner.  The Dandelion serves British cuisine.  For many decades, people scoffed at the idea of British cuisine, regarding it was an oxymoron, but British food can actually be really very good.  The restaurant is housed in what looked to have been a residential building and was decorated in a very eclectic way, a sort of ramshackle chic.  It reminded me of a mixture of junk shops and cafes from my childhood.  Of course, we loved the tastebud nostalgia of the whole experience too.  Our children immediately ordered glasses of Ribena – a blackcurrant squash from the UK – and I had a Pimm’s Cup.  There were several things I could have ordered but I plumped for the fish and chips as I was eager to see if they could make chips the way they do in Britain, crisp on the outside and fluffy in the middle, and I am happy to report that they were a very tasty success, as was the beer battered fish.  I usually only manage one course of food but I pushed my limits because there was Sticky Toffee Pudding on the menu.  I have not had a Sticky Toffee Pudding since we emigrated (I really ought to make it but never do) so I just could not resist the temptation.  Not only was the cake delicious and light and deliciously treacly, but it was also served with date ice cream.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings all loved every morsel of their two courses of food too.  Indeed, Mr Pict declared that the short rib was the best he had ever consumed.  The luxury of delectable food in a pleasant setting with great service went a long way to mitigate against the stress of an overcrowded museum and ensured that our President’s Day trip to Philly was a success.

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Wild in Cape May

In the Summer months, it seems like the entire of Philly and its suburbs decamps to the Jersey Shore.  I actually know plenty of people who also head to the coast at regular periods throughout the year.  It appears that the Jersey Shore is the destination of choice for most of our neighbours.  We, however, have only been a couple of times.  This is partly because I don’t like sand and partly because we are contrary besoms.  However, it is mostly because none of us find we can relax in crowded settings.  This is even more so in beach settings because of the experience of losing our youngest child on a crowded beach several years ago.  All of which preamble is to explain why it is, over three years since moving to America, we have only been to the Jersey Shore a couple of times.  Since we had an unseasonably nice day for February last weekend, we decided we should expand our explorations of New Jersey’s coastline and head to Cape May.

Suspecting the beach would still be chilly, we made the focus of our trip the Cape May County Zoo.  The zoo is free which appeals to my thrifty nature but had me concerned about the welfare standards.  Thankfully I was wrong to be cynical as the enclosures actually seemed well designed and considered.

We headed first to the reptile and amphibian house.  The kids and I always spend a lot of time in these areas at zoos so we wanted to prioritise having enough time there.  We were pleased that so many of the snakes, lizards, and frogs were on display in their tanks as quite often they are tucked away in little hollows and can barely be seen.  There were snakes large and small from places near and far; a variety of turtles, including one who was very crinkly and spiky looking; a large alligator; brightly coloured frogs and a chubby frog squashed in the corner of its tank; axolotls and newts; and an iguana riding on a tortoise’s back.

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With the exception of the tiger, which refused to put in an appearance, the mammals too were all out and about and easy for us to see.  My 9 year old was eager to see marsupials for some reason so was delighted to see wallabies lazing around in the sun, looking like they were watching Netflix on the sofa.  We also got to see a brace of black bears.  Aside from the baby black bear that ran across the road in front of us in West Virginia last summer, it was the closest any of us had been to a black bear since one of them was walking right along the fence line.  Its companion, meanwhile, was lying on its back with one leg up in the air against a fence.  In addition to seeing the lions, we heard the male roar.  It was an incredible sound, only the second time my kids have heard a real life lion roar, though the sight of the lions lolling around like large moggies was a bit less awe-inspiring.  There were also leopards – traditional and snow varieties – and a red panda, zebra, giraffes, ostriches, lemurs, and bison.

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We didn’t see all of the animals that inhabit the zoo (there are apparently over 250 species) but because admission was free we didn’t feel like we had to push things and see every last creature.  I would have kept going but the kids were rapidly escalating their hunger levels from peckish to rampagingly hangry so we decided to leave while the going was good and go in search of food.

After a very tasty sojourn in a Mediterranean diner, we headed for the actual shore.  It would have been cruel and unusual of us parents to take the kids to the Jersey Shore for the day and not actually let them anywhere near the beach.  The coast was decidedly chiller than even a short jaunt inland and the sky was darkening quickly but the kids were still determined to have fun.  We forget sometimes that these kids were used to playing on beaches year round on the west coast of Scotland and are pretty hardy and determined as a result.  They all kicked off their shoes within minutes and, while two of them did a sort of Chariots of Fire run along the sand, two of them lifted up their trouser legs to have a bit of a paddle in the Atlantic.  A bit of a paddle, however, turned into a wade and – before we could even issue a warning they would no doubt have ignored anyway – two of them ended up soaked.  Their answer was to just peel off their sodden trousers and continue playing in the surf.  Our youngest child was, therefore, frolicking in the sea with bare legs and a winter coat.  He looked hysterically ridiculous but he was having an absolute whale of a time.  Sometimes the boys just really need to be feral in the great outdoors.

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I couldn’t come to the coast and not see a lighthouse so our final destination for the day, as day slipped into night, was the Cape May Lighthouse.   The current lighthouse was built in 1859 and is the third incarnation of a lighthouse at that spot.  I guess third time was the charm.  I arrived too late to enter the lighthouse so I just had to content myself with looking at it.  Maybe some day I will return and force myself up the claustrophobic spiral staircase in order to see the view.

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