Chrysler Museum of Art

My in-laws had taken the Pictlings to visit the Chrysler Museum of Art while Mr Pict and I were still at home in Pennsylvania.  They, therefore, elected to stay at the vacation house and play on the beach while my husband and I went into Norfolk to visit the Museum.  The basis of the museum is the collection of Walter Chrysler, son of the car manufacturer, which he donated in the 1970s.  It’s an amazing and impressive collection housed in a wonderful space.  What is even more incredible is the fact that admission is free.  It was the absolute highlight of my Spring Break trip to Virginia.

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We started out in the glass galleries.  I am a massive fan of art glass.  I wish I could collect glass but I have kids and cats in addition to limited disposable income so I just have to admire and covet glass.  The collection was beautifully arranged with clear and informative labels.  Mr Pict liked the ancient glass, especially the Roman pieces.  One of these ancient pieces was signed by the maker, Ennion, in Greek.  I thought that was pretty remarkable, to actually be able to know the name of the glassmaker across all those centuries.  I also enjoyed seeing a harmonium with its glasses ready to make music, and a sugar bowl containing coins within bubbles of blown glass, glass pens, and a mustard dish in the form of a bull’s head.  My favourite area in the glass collection was dedicated to the Art Nouveau movement and contained a trove of wonderful pieces.  There were glowing stained glass windows, lustrous vases, intricately designed table lamps, and glass sculptures by the likes of Lalique.  I also loved the 20th Century and contemporary glass area.  There was a window designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Darwin D Martin house, a cabinet of glass curiosities by Steffen Dam that mimicked natural forms, a little glass house, and a wonderfully shimmering circle that really drew my eye no matter where I was in the room.

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After visiting the glass collection, it was time to go and see a demonstration of glass blowing.  We headed across the street to the studio space and took some seats in the front row.  We got to see one of the in-house glass artisans working with an intern under the instruction of the artist Stephen Paul Day.  The process was very complicated and was fascinating to watch.  It involved glass blowing, inserting ceramic sculptures into the glass, building up layers of glass gradually, attaching glass sculptures together, and a whole lot of other stuff besides.  It was a great demonstration since we got to see a number of skills and techniques and the woman who was narrating was very knowledgeable and engaging.  I certainly learned a great deal.

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We returned to the Museum to see some of the non-glass exhibits.  We were too short on time to visit every gallery so we elected to focus on the Impressionists and American Impressionists.  Each room was beautifully curated with every piece given room to breathe and be appreciated in isolation while also communicating with other exhibits in the room.  I was generally very taken with the Chrysler Museum, would have loved to have spent more time there, and would definitely return if I was in the area again.

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That evening we decided to do something together as a gang of eight.  We decided to go to the Commodore Theatre in Portsmouth, a restored Art Deco cinema.  The cinema itself was impressive with its 41 foot screen and incredible sound system.  The sound in particular was very immersive.  We were also seated in armchairs which made it very comfy and the whole place was so massive that we had ample space around us.  What made this cinema trip a new experience for we Picts, however, was that it was a dinner cinema.  We have some in our home area but have never been so this was a first time for us.  We could, therefore, order food and drinks which were delivered to our tables and then we could munch our way through the movie.  I did not actually eat as I was too full from lunch but the others did.  The food was standard junk food – pizza, nachos, chicken strips – but the kids all enjoyed the novelty of eating dinner in the cinema.  The movie we saw – Ready Player One – was pretty mediocre but was made more enjoyable and entertaining by the context.

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Civil War Virginia

Our children had gone to Virginia to spend Spring break with their grandparents, who had flown over from England. On the Tuesday, Mr Pict and I were able to travel south to join them.  As regular readers of this blog will know, my husband is a Civil War nerd.  He was, therefore, relishing the prospect of spending some time mooching around Civil War sites in Virginia, though he agreed to restrict himself to the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 for this trip.  On our journey south, needing a comfort break, he selected the National Park visitor centre at the Tredegar Iron Works.  While I availed myself of the restroom, Mr Pict undertook a warp speed visit of the visitor centre and determined that we should return some time with the kids.  It was largely determined that Richmond should serve as the capital of the Confederacy because of these iron works so it is a significant site.  I did like that the visitor centre was housed within such a historic building.

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The next morning, with the four boys and my in-laws in tow, Mr Pict took us on a tour of Civil War sites.  We started at Yorktown.  Yorktown is more strongly associated with the War of Independence and so it proved to be at the National Park.  The focus was very much on Revolutionary history with just a slight nod to its place in the Civil War.  At the risk of muddying the waters of the boys’ learning for the day, we subjected them to the film about the history of Yorktown.  I write “subjected” because it had not been updated since probably the 1980s and the quality of performances and production values were pretty tragic.  I am not sure, therefore, that the boys engaged much with the film but hopefully some learning stuck and they at least took away from it that it was the place where Cornwallis surrendered.  They did, however, enjoy the various canons outside the visitor centre.  There was to be a lot of clambering on canons that day.

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Our next stop was the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.  As regular readers will know, I absolutely love cemeteries.  While I personally enjoy just wandering around and appreciating the memorial architecture and funerary sculpture, it is always useful to have some famous burials to search out and provide focus to the wanderings.  Turning a cemetery visit into a “treasure hunt” also helps engage the kids.  The reason for our visit was because the cemetery, while a public cemetery rather than a military one, is chock full of confederate graves.  It, therefore, formed part of Mr Pict’s Civil War tour.  We started with a massive granite pyramid erected to commemorate the confederate dead.  It was in an area where the confederate dead of Gettysburg had been interred following their recovery from the Pennsylvania battlefield.  Can you imagine the grim task of locating all of the remains on the battlefield and preparing them for transportation to Virginia?  Nearby was the grave of George Pickett, he of Pickett’s Charge.  We also saw the grave of JEB Stuart.

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I have no political, ideological difficulty with the commemoration of the confederate dead within the context of a cemetery.  The confines of a cemetery’s walls makes it about the living processing the grief of lost loved ones.  I can think that these are people who chose to fight on the wrong side of history, who were fighting to uphold an appallingly horrific system, who may even, particularly in the case of the military leaders, have been loathome, morally bankrupt individuals.  But I can square that against them being someone’s father, someone’s son, someone’s brother, and therefore deserving of being buried with dignity and not left on a battlefield to moulder.  What I have real difficulty with is when commemoration moves into the realm of celebration.  That is why I support the removal of confederate statues from public spaces.  Again, while tricky in the context of a cemetery, there was definitely something that troubled me about the grave of Jefferson Davis.  The fact that some workers were placing new cobbles around Davis’ statue, in order to make the whole area look polished and smart, seemed to me to underscore the fact that this was a site that was being venerated.  Then there were all the flags.  Those flags always make me feel uncomfortable.  This was not simply a place where family members could come and pay their respects to a departed love one, gather their thoughts about their experience of loss; this was a space that was bigger than that and was imbued with more political meaning than that.  It was weird.  Just weird.

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Hollywood is also the final resting place of two American Presidents.  They are buried within the same attractive circle in an area of the cemetery that is elevated and provides a striking view over the river.  James Monroe, fifth President, had a very unusual tomb, an elaborate and fancy cast iron structure, reminiscent of a gothic church, surrounding his granite coffin.  I read that it was known as the “birdcage” which is entirely apt.  Just a hop, skip, and a jump from Monroe’s grave was the monument to John Tyler, tenth President.  Tyler famously became President when William Henry Harrison died just one month into his presidency.  He also has two grandsons still living.  Imagine having a grandfather who was born in 1790?  His grave was marked by an obelisk with a bust built into its front facade.

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After Hollywood Cemetery, Mr Pict took us to visit battlefield after battlefield.  The first was Gaines Mill and it was only slightly more interesting than the sites that followed because of the presence of a house.  Mr Pict and his father were very interested in a creek that ran through some woods that flanked the fields and went off for a wander there but to my mind the site was pretty featureless except for that house.  I read that the house was home to an elderly widow whose slaves carried her out of the house on the day of the battle.  She was never able to return home because the house was all but destroyed during the conflict.  I think the next stop was named Glendale Crossroad or Frayer’s Farm but I didn’t even bother to get out of the car for that stop and cannot remember what my husband told me about it.  As far as I was concerned, it was literally a crossroad and there was nothing to see.  The last stop was at a spot named Malvern Mill.  Mr Pict was very keen on this spot and explained why but I did not absorb the information.  To me, these were literally just fields filled with scrub or the stubble of old crops.  The only thing that indicated it was a place of historic significance was the presence of canons lining the field.  The boys enjoyed clambering on the canon and seeing a whole car lot filled with fire trucks as firefighters were running a controlled fire nearby.

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I would like to claim that I learned something new or interesting about the Civil War that day but honestly I did not.  I am none the wiser about the Peninsula Campaign than I was before because I just could not absorb the information my husband was sharing with us.  My brain just is not that keen on military history, what can I say.  Still, the cemetery was attractive and Mr Pict was very happy so it was a day well spent.

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Road Trip 2017 #30 – Musee Mechanique

During our time at Fisherman’s Wharf, we visited the Musee Mechanique.  Housed in a dockside warehouse, this is essentially a museum of huge numbers of mechanical arcade games.  It is run by a family who have been collecting the games for generations and it is indeed an impressive collection.

One of the first items we encountered was a creepy thing called Laffing Sal.  This is a papier mache figure inside a glass case that was apparently designed to drum up interest in entering a carnival or sideshow.  When activated, it would move and laugh.  We chose not to activate it.  Ultimately, it was the weird creepiness of so many of the mechanical entertainments that most engaged me.  I rather liked that things were macabre and grotesque.  I cannot really explain why but I am a fan of horror movies so that may be a factor.  There were many such creepy things to be seen: a troop of freaky monkeys with dead eyes, dancing figurines with swollen heads and spindly legs, machines that acted out executions by hanging and guillotine (which my little kids adored), an organ grinder with a sinister overbite, and a drunk leaning on a lampost that looked like a Gerry Anderson puppet that had fallen on really hard times.

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The kids thoroughly enjoyed all of the good old-fashioned fun.  These boys have grown up with technology like video games but they were completely entertained by simple pinball machines, whack-a-mole, love testing machines, and fortune tellers – including one that had been updated to feature the Hogwart’s Sorting Hat.  There were also self-playing pianos – something I have always loved – and peep shows, mutoscopes, and dioramas – including, bizarrely, one depicting an opium den.  In the centre of the museum, there was a huge diorama depicting a carnival complete with sideshow.  Mr Pict got very caught up in the nostalgia of the place.  He found lots of arcade games that he had played in his youth and, of course, had to have a go on each and every one of them.  It was a great place to spend a little time and a small gobbet of money.

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Driving out of the city, we had a scary moment on one of its notoriously steep streets.  We had to halt at a stop sign while on some kind of extreme gradient.  We could barely see if there was anything coming from either direction on the cross street, which was one problem.  The bigger problem, however, was that Mr Pict – who I am so glad was the one who was driving – found he could not get the car to move forward when he put his foot on the accelerator.  Instead, the car insisted on rolling backwards.  We realised that – having spent most of our lives driving manual cars – we had zero idea how to manage a hill start in an automatic.  Mr Pict tried to find that catch point between brake and accelerator but it just wasn’t happening.  We were at a stand-still.  There were soon two cars lined up behind us.  This was pressure for two reasons: those drivers were getting frustrated because we were blocking their way and, if the car rolled back again, it would now smack into another vehicle.  Bum-clenching, jaw-tightening, stress.  I thought worst case scenario was that we were going to have to call on the police to help us out of the situation.  I was trying to google a solution when frazzled Mr Pict decided just to do a full blown Dukes of Hazzard move and accelerate to the max, straight into the cross road, where luckily we were not met by other cars.  I was so stressed that I could actually hear my own pulse.  We decided to avoid going up any other steep roads.  In San Francisco, that is a total ordeal.  We took the most circumlocutious route but we successfully avoided any repetition of that completely terrifying episode.

We were staying at a hotel near the airport so as to be as convenient as possible for our early morning flights.  By happy coincidence, we arrived to find that there was a happy hour event happening in the reception area, with free drinks and nibbles.  Free sangria was a welcome tonic for the stress of that drive out of the city and a pleasant way to end the fun of our 2700 mile road trip.

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Road Trip 2017 #29 – Foggy Morning in San Francisco

We did not have a great start to our final day of vacation.  First of all, we discovered that we could not do online check-in for our flight the following morning because our youngest son had been listed as an “unaccompanied minor”.  Secondly, we could not pull off our planned trip to the Muir Woods.  We expected it to be busy and were not surprised to find the car park was full.  However, on scouting for a parking space on the road, we drove for ages without spotting a single space.  When we finally found a spot, it was so far from the entrance to the National Park that we would have had to walk on the road for well over an hour.  The kids were absolutely not up for walking uphill for over an hour only to walk around another grove of redwood trees.  This was especially frustrating for me since this was the second time I had failed to visit the Muir Woods.  Third time lucky?  Maybe some day.  We abandoned the woods and headed towards San Francisco.

Prior to entering the city, we stopped at a vantage point to see the Golden Gate Bridge from up high.  The famous San Francisco fog was in dense evidence.  Initially it seemed like we would never actually get a glimpse of the bridge.  Then, like a spectre emerging from the mist, a couple of bits of distinctive ironwork emerged.

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That was the aperitif.  Loaded back in the car, we headed across the Golden Gate Bridge.  The boys know the bridge not just as a distinctive landmark but also as a location for many movies.  They were, therefore, pretty stoked to be crossing the bridge.  They were a tad less stoked when we told them we were going to be crossing it again.  On foot.  I have never walked on the Golden Gate Bridge before.  I have driven over it and I have walked under it but I have never walked over it.  It was time to tick that item off the travel bucket list whether the kids liked it or not.  Plus, it was going to be the eleventh and final National Park of our road trip.  It was chilly on the bridge in that way that the damp cold creeps into your pores.  The kids pulled their hoods up and scowled.  The bridge was crowded.  The pathway was divided into a cycling lane and a pedestrian lane.  The tricky part, however, was that when bicyclists travelling in opposite directions met, one bike would end up on the pedestrian side to overtake and all the pedestrians, therefore, ended up even more smooshed into their designated lane.  Consequently, our walk across the bridge was at the pace of a very gentle stroll.  We had promised the kids spectacular views over the bay and city but, alas, the fog was still dense.  We could barely see the iron struts of the bridge let alone views.  The kids scowled even more.  In addition to their other gripes, the 10 year old did not like being up high.  Allegedly.  Finally, just as we were walking back off the bridge, the fog disappeared and we finally got a great view.  We could see the bay, with Alcatraz plonked in the middle, and the skyline of the city.  I am not sure the kids were convinced that it was worth it.

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When we first booked our flights, our plan for San Francisco had been to visit Alcatraz.  Mr Pict and I had taken a tour in 2000 and loved it.  It was an incredible experience and one of the highlights of that particular vacation.  We knew the boys would love it so we went online to book tickets.  There were none.  None.  I guess to visit Alcatraz in July, one has to book a year in advance.  With Alcatraz out of the question and having reduced our time in San Fran down to a single day, we decided to concentrate on Fisherman’s Wharf.  First up: lunch.  Mr Pict and I had fond stomach memories of eating soup from sourdough bread bowls and the kids loved the idea of trying that so we headed to a chowder place.  The eatery itself was pretty basic but the food was utterly delicious.  Most of us had clam chowder but my 14 year old had crab chowder and my 10 year old had shrimp salad.  We all thoroughly enjoyed our food and were replete for the rest of the day because we had essentially eaten the crockery.

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Wandering along Fisherman’s Wharf, we stopped to watch a very impressive one man band perform.  He had an electric instrument, rock and roll twist on the traditional format.  The kids were keen to see the famous bay sea-lions at Pier 39.  Annoyingly, the sea-lions had decided to park themselves on a little floating dock that was as far as possible from the pier which made them difficult to see in any great detail.  Nevertheless, the kids were entertained by watching the sea-lions jiggle around, slipping in and out of the water, and wobbling over each other.

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Road Trip 2017 #28 – The Birds and Bodega Bay

Regular readers of this blog may recall that I am a movie nerd.  I have successfully managed to inspire my sons into being movie nerds too, especially the middle two kids.  I have not indoctrinated them, of course, but my enthusiasm for film has transferred to them and now we can all enjoy watching movies together, analysing them, comparing them, and obviously being entertained by them.  As a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, I have given my kids a gentle introduction to his movies.  We started with ‘The Trouble with Harry’, then moved on to ‘Rear Window’, and then ‘The Birds’.  When I told them that we would be staying in the area where ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ (which they have not seen) and ‘The Birds’ were filmed, they were eager to go and visit the locations.  I was happy to oblige.  Mr Pict had accompanied me on the same mission 17 years before so was also happy to indulge us this time.

We decided to focus on Bodega and Bodega Bay since the kids had actually seen ‘The Birds’ and would recognise the locations.   When we reached Bodega, we drove up to the church and parked up.  The kids and I got out and wandered the few yards to the Potter House.  This is a private residence so, rest assured, we were careful not to be intrusive or to cause a commotion.  The house was built in 1873 and originally served as a schoolhouse and it served as the school building in the Hitchcock movie, the set of an important scene in the film and, therefore, featuring prominently.  Of course, we could not resist acting out the film but we wanted to be respectful of the local residents so we acted it out as if it had been a silent movie.  My kids are such ham actors.  St Theresa’s church can be glimpsed during that scene so we took some photos and reenacted some silent action scenes there too.

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The movie creates the impression that the schoolhouse and church are right on the coast but, in fact, Bodega is a short drive inland from the bay.  We, therefore, jumped back in the car and headed to Bodega Bay.  The main focus of our visit to the town was the Tides Restaurant.  It plays a prominent role in the movie and is still identifiable as the key location, despite being remodelled a fair bit since the 1960s.  When I was last there, it felt very much like Bodega Bay barely tolerated the Hitchcock connection.  Apart from one leaflet, there was nothing that declared the place to have been related to the movie.  This time, however, it appeared that the town had embraced the movie as a tourist opportunity.  Inside the Tides there were ample references to the film, from stuffed ravens to a mock up of a building with smashed windows.  More opportunities for ham acting, in other words.  The kids bought some ice lollies and we stepped out onto the back deck to look at the bay.  We could see the spit of land opposite where the Brenner house stood (it was torn down immediately after filming), the road where Tippi Hedren drove out to that house, and the jetty where she rented a boat to cross the bay.

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Once everyone had finished their iced treats, we jumped back in the car and headed along the coastal road to Salmon Creek Beach.  It was early evening by this juncture and the air was distinctly chilly.  There was no way the kids were even going to go for a paddle, let alone a swim.  However, we found a new way to keep them entertained.  The beach was covered with little huts that had been built out of driftwood.  They were really great, really competently built structures.  I don’t know who had erected them and for what purpose but I do know they would fare a lot better than I would if marooned on a desert island.  That inspired my kids to gather up driftwood and build their own structure.  We ran out of time before they got anywhere near completed but it kept them entertained for over an hour.  They also found a washed up, decaying cow carcass.  I am sure most people’s kids would recoil at such a discovery but my kids reacted like they had found buried treasure and studied the corpse, fascinated.  It’s possible I have exposed them to too much Hitchcock after all.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Road Trip 2017 #26 – Calistoga

It is not often that, when travelling as a family of six, there are opportunities to be spontaneous with the itinerary where accommodation is concerned.  However, for a variety of reasons, we decided to stay north of San Francisco for an additional night.  We had to change rooms within the hotel we were staying at but otherwise our plan came together.  This change of plan meant that we didn’t have to rush around on the fifteenth day of our vacation and nor did we have to factor in a long journey to the next destination.  Instead – after the very long drive the previous day – it meant we could stay local and undertake short journeys only.

We were staying in between Santa Rosa and Calistoga so decided to go and explore Calistoga.  Mr Pict and I had been there before as part of a route through Sonoma wine country and redwood forests.  I had eaten the single most scrumptious cake of my life – a chocolate mousse cake – in a redwood forest back in 2000 and hoped we might stumble across the store where I had bought it.  Alas, I did not find the store so could not repeat my edible experience.  Something we could repeat, however, was a trip to the Old Faithful geyser.

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The geyser had certainly built up as a tourist attraction in the intervening seventeen years.  It was very basic back then – just the geyser and a paddock of fainting goats – but now it had been turned into a lovely spot to relax in.  It was even possible to bring a bottle of wine and enjoy a luxury picnic there.  That was not something we did, of course, but I could imagine it being a splendid spot for just such an afternoon of nibbling and quaffing.  Old Faithful is a geothermal geyser that was apparently released into activity by some chap drilling for a well in the late 19th Century.  It earned its name because it reliably erupts every 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the season.  When we were there, it was going off every 20 minutes and each blast lasted about 8 minutes, the water shooting tens of feet into the air and creating rainbows in the sunlight.  Our kids had never seen a geyser before so it was really cool to have them experience one that erupted so frequently.

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The boys also loved that there were friendly animals they could interact with and feed.  There were llamas – one of which flopped onto the ground just like our three-legged cat does – and Jacob’s sheep with four prominent horns, and the famous fainting goats.  Tennessee Fainting Goats are a breed that goes rigid when in a state of panic and often fall over as a result.  Really they should be called Toppling Goats since they don’t really faint.  Last time I visited, I remember thinking it was a bit mean to have a small herd of these goats right next to a geyser.  If startled every time it erupted, the poor wee beasties would be going stiff and falling a few times every hour.  This visit, however, we learned that they quickly become used to their environment so were no longer phased by the geyser at all.  While this meant that we didn’t get to see them do the thing they are renowned for, we felt happy for the goats that this was the case.  With their bug eyes and diminutive frames, the goats are pretty adorable anyway, even without the collapsing antics.

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We decided to chill in those surroundings for a while since we had declared we were having a lazy (or lazier) day.  We borrowed some bocce balls from the ticket desk and had a few games.  Bocce is essentially the same game as boules or petanque so we all knew what we were doing and – none of us having much skill – could play as equals.  We played as teams and got quite competitive.  It was great fun.  There were also games of noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe) set up on shaded tables, and we just enjoyed chilling out in the shade on comfy seats, watching the geyer and the goats.

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Regular readers of this blog will know that I love to poke around in cemeteries.  It is one of my favourite things to do.  Having not had any other opportunities to do so, therefore, I decided we should visit the Pioneer Cemetery in Calistoga.  We used the Google Maps app to find the way and were led into a state park.  We parked the car and wandered through woods until we emerged into a clearing.  The clearing was where a church had once stood and where some graves remained.  Unfortunately, I quickly realised that we were in the wrong cemetery.  How could that be?  It turns out that Calistoga has two Pioneer Cemeteries.  We had chosen the wrong one when we used the sat nav app.  Still, it was not an entirely wasted trip since the youngest Pictling found some great climbing trees and the 10 year old finally found some lizards he had been hoping to see for the entire trip.

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Back in the car we hopped and along to the correct Pioneer Cemetery.  By that juncture, however, I had lost the interest and reached the tolerance threshold of two thirds of the group so only the 10 year old and I got out for an explore.  The cemetery was built on a steep slope so the graves were arranged in terraces, almost like tiered paddy fields.  This way of organising things was handy as it meant that it was easy to map out different sections of the cemetery.  There was a useful map at the entrance that labelled each section and an alphabetical list of all those interred with a number corresponding to the relationship between their grave plot and the map sections.  If only all cemeteries were this organised!  We knew who we wanted to find so we studied the map and headed off.  Two of the survivors of the Donner Party are buried in the cemetery, sisters Lovina Graves Cyrus and Eleanor Graves McDonnell.  They were among a group of settlers who got trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains by snow in 1846 and who famously resorted to cannibalism to survive.  The sisters had been 12 and 14 at the time of the tragedy.  Their father was among those who perished when they set off to fetch help and their mother was one of those who was eaten*.  We found Lovina with ease but could not find her sister, despite the fact she should have been in the same small square of cemetery.  We found another nearby grave marked with the surname McDonnell so assumed that Eleanor perhaps had no grave marker.  Not to far away, we found the grave of Eli Philpott.  He was a stagecoach driver killed in the course of a robbery not far from Tombstone, Arizona.  A posse headed by the famous Earp brothers went out in search of the murderers and apparently this whole event was one of the catalysts that led to the gunfight at the OK Corral.  We were going to have a pootle around some of the many Civil War graves in the cemetery but we were conscious that everyone else was waiting for us so instead we had a quick stroll, encountered more lizards, got our legs badly scratched by thorny vines, and headed back to the car in order to head off for the next location for the day.

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  • If you are interested in the story of the Donner Party, I recommend reading ‘Ordeal by Hunger‘ by George R Stewart.