Road Trip Review

This is not an advice blog.  Nope, it is not that.  While I might sometimes give recommendations and suggestions based on our family experiences, I would never think I was in a position to dispense advice.  I also have a policy of never giving unsolicited advice.  However, upon reflecting on our recent road trip and what I might do differently next time we undertake such a journey, I had some thoughts I thought might be worth jotting down here.  Maybe someone can learn from my mistakes.  Hopefully that person is me.

  • I am a micromanager when it comes to vacation planning.  It is part of my being a major control freak and also part of my desire to cram as much as possible into each travel experience, as much bang for my buck as possible.  I generate spreadsheets of options, lists galore, and sometimes even hand drawn maps.  When Mr Pict and I went to Rome for a short break a few years ago, I drew a map of the city centre that was both colour-coded and number-coded.  I make lists of what needs to be packed and check off the list as each item is added to the specified case (each person having their own to keep things organised).  And yet, despite all of that micromanaging, despite all that researching and organising and list making to the nth degree, somehow my husband and/or kids will throw some kind of curve ball that makes it feel like I failed to manage all the possibilities.  On this particular road trip, I apparently relinquished too much control immediately before setting off on our trip.  As we ushered the kids into the car, it transpired that the 10 year old had left his shoes at his friend’s house the previous night.  Somehow my husband had collected him and brought him home without noticing he was barefoot.  Impolitely early, therefore, we had to drive by the house and pick the shoes up.  And then, absolutely astonishingly, we arrived in Pittsburgh some hours later to discover that our oldest son had gotten into the car without his shoes on.  He had to spend the first hours of the trip in his Dad’s beach clogs and I for once had cause to be thankful that he has massive feet.
  • No matter how I try to dress it up and make it interesting, my children will not be interested in either topography or architecture.  I can try ad naseum to engage them in the subject but I will fail.  They will, however, monologue endlessly about Harry Potter while I try to take in the topography and architecture.
  • Even in this age of electronic payment options galore, we should always travel with more cash than we think we might need – or at least more than $14.
  • On a related note, one should never purchase a one way ticket unless assured of the ability to fund the return journey.
  • I made packed lunches most days so that we wasted neither time or money on food in the middle of the day.  What I learned from this is that my children will moan about the very packed lunches they would usually regard as a special treat during the school year.
  • Booking non-chain motels is a lottery and will reveal that my kids know tropes from serial killer fiction despite never having seen a slasher movie.
  • My children, who normally beg and plead to have sleepovers in each other’s bedrooms, will argue endlessly about having to share a hotel room with each other and will make decisions about who shares a bed with who feel like hostage negotiations.
  • All hotel showers will be engineered differently and have their own idiosyncrasies making each morning’s ablutions feel like STEM learning.
  • On a related note, one bonus of staying in hotels with pools is that it is possible to persuade yourself that your younger children do not need to be showered on evenings when you just want to climb into bed and sleep.
  • One hotel toilet between six people – five of them male – requires the mother of the group to have the bladder of an elephant.
  • At least one child will vomit in the car with not much warning.  Any warning will sound like, “Mummy, I feel a bit blarfbleughslop!”  As such, despite the fact none of my children have worn nappies (diapers) for years, I still travel with fragrant nappy sacks within quick and easy reach in the car and force my sicky children to have one in their hands at all times.  Their aim is improving, I am happy to report.
  • My children can turn anything into a competition including who can fill the most barf bags on any given stretch of winding road.
  • If we give four kids two options for things to do that day there will be a guaranteed 50/50 split and incredibly often four way splits as two children invent options that were not even presented to them.  Note to self that sometimes parenting has to be a dictatorship rather than a democracy.  If the kids are lucky that dictatorship will be benevolent.
  • Kids who rarely appreciate sculpture will absolutely always 100% adore fountains, especially if they can get entirely soaked to the skin.  Conversely, any fountain that they cannot at least dip a finger into will be anathema to them and the absolute “worst thing ever”.
  • I can research and plan and construct elaborate spreadsheets to my heart’s content but the “of mice and men” maxim will inevitably undermine it at some point – spectacularly so when a child breaks their arm.
  • The things the kids end up loving the most about the trip were not the things I anticipated but were instead the random diversions, the time fillers, and the unexpected.  Our youngest son actually declared that his highlight of the trip was spending a night in a “horror hotel“.  Another child stated that the best thing about being away from home was getting to come home to the cats.
  • The car will start out looking more immaculate and pristine than it does for most of the year but will end the road trip looking like a cross between a biological weapon and an experiment in finding the latest antibiotic.  Utterly gross.

So that’s that then.  Those are my immediate post-road trip reflections.  We have already started discussing what route the next road trip might take.  Perhaps by the time we embark on the next epic drive we will have absorbed some of these lessons.  Probably not.  After all, where would be the adventure in that?

Road Trip #21 – Natural History Museum

It has been our experience that the first and last days of any vacation with the kids are the most trying.  With the first day, it is all about navigating the transition out of routines into some degree of chaos and about managing expectations; with the last day, it is all about fatigue causing crankiness and an unconscious or conscious desire to return to familiar routines, a need to retreat back into the family cave for some hibernation after all the stimulation.

We, therefore, kept our final day of the road trip pretty low key.  We were travelling back to the Philly suburbs that day anyway plus had arranged to meet a dear friend for lunch so we only had the morning to fill.  We selected the Natural History Museum, part of the Smithsonian.  Actually, Mr Pict was keen for us to try a second visit to the Museum of American History since our first family visit there had been less than stellar.  I had cause to reference the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in my blog post about it.  In the hopes that those issues had been resolved, we first headed to the Museum of American History, picked up a map, and discovered that absolutely nothing had changed since our last visit two years before.  Half the museum was still closed off due to renovation work.  We decided to jettison that plan (actually I was keen on jettisoning it as soon as it was the plan since our last visit there had been so cruddy) and move next door to the Natural History Museum.

We had not chosen the Natural History Museum for our last morning in DC simply because we had visited the Field Museum in Chicago just the week before and it felt like a repetition.  However, for that very reason it turned out to be a good choice.  As parents, we felt we could just relax and take a step back since we did not feel that same pressure to educate the kids.  We could just let them wander and engage as they saw fit rather than trying to guide them and focus their interest.

We started with a genuine Easter Island moai statue.  The boys had seen a plaster cast of one of these in February 2014 when we visited the Natural History Museum in New York city but this was the first time they had seen a real one.  It turns out this is because the Smithsonian owns the only two moai in America.  We then ascended the stairs around a group of spectacularly carved totem poles.  The boys enjoyed looking at the carved characters and reading the stories behind them.  The first gallery we visited was one exhibiting National Geographic photographs of Africa.  I love photography and the kids love animals so we spent some time admiring the images.

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Our first proper destination in the museum, however, was the hall of gems.  As I have explained before, our 10 year old loves anything sparkly or shiny.  He has magpie DNA.  We, therefore, thought he ought to see the Hope Diamond.  This blue diamond is one of the largest and most famous precious stones in the world.  We told the kids it had a long, interesting and intriguing history to the point that it had been associated with a curse.  And then we took them in to see it.  And they were underwhelmed.  I think their vision of a large diamond was one the size of the palm of a hand or larger.  It was a failure of reality matching expectations.

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The rest of the gem and mineral collection, however, was a massive hit with the kids – and not just the one who likes sparkles.  They found the diversity of the minerals to be really fascinating and they wandered from case to case choosing favourites.  There were big chunks of quartz that contained bubbles like sedate lava lamps.  There were rocks that looked like Doozer constructions from beneath Fraggle Rock and shards that looked like they came from the Dark Crystal.  There were chunks of gems encrusted with other stones or minerals, such as a chunk of calcite sparkling with a thick seam of chalcopyrite.  There were other lumps of calcite that looked like elaborate desserts encrusted with sugary confections.  There were geodes on display that had been split open to reveal their colourful, sparkling contents – and I could see my 10 year old wanting to take a rock hammer on every nature ramble now.  There was an otherwise unprepossessing rock that had a wide mouth split to reveal lots of rows of white fuzzy mounts inside and which looked entirely like something Jim Henson would have imagined.  There were formations that looked like chunky frost or snowflake clusters.  A geometric piece of purple-red fluorite made my kids think of a set design for Tron or else something from Minecraft.  By contrast, there were pastel hued pieces that looked like petrified clouds or bubbly candy floss.  One enticing display case was filled with forms of gold and silver, thought it was a blobby chunk of copper that I liked best.  When the boys saw the case of glowing willemite calcite, the green glow made the boys think of it as having been spattered with Predator blood. The 10 year old was ecstatic about getting to touch a massive chunk of amethyst and now wants a chunk of his own.  I had never seen that child go as full Gollum as he did in that room full of gems and jewellery.

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Next up – mainly because it was near the restrooms – we popped in to visit the dinosaurs.  We looked at the large fossil specimens of a T-Rex and a triceratops but otherwise, between the Field Museum and the Creation Museum, the kids had experienced quite enough dinosaurs for one vacation.  We, therefore, found ourselves a spot in the insect section.  The boys enjoyed seeing the cockroaches since we used to have Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches as pets back in Scotland but they also got to see a tarantula up close and some butterflies hatching out of their cocoons.  And then we were all museumed out.  Partly it was because our friend had arrived and it was time to head for lunch, partly it was because the museum was very crowded, but mostly we had just absorbed as much in the way of experiences as we cared to absorb for the fifteen days of our road trip.

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And so, after a tasty lunch with great company, after heading back to NoMa to pick up our car and luggage, a few hours’ drive to collect the cats from their cat hotel – to much excited squealing from the kids – we finally emerged from the car that had been our mobile home and tour bus for a fortnight and we were home.  And we were glad to be home.

Road Trip #20 – Monuments at Night

After a restful and cooling break in the hotel, we headed back out for the evening.  Our plan was to show the boys some of Washington DC’s monuments by night because they look quite different when artificially lit compared to how they appear in daylight and also because it is less busy at night and you can sometimes get a better view as a result.

After a bit of a kerfuffle that caused a delayed departure, we emerged from the metro station late enough in the evening that rats were scuttling all over the place.  From journeying on the London Underground late at night, I am familiar with seeing manky rodents on the tracks but these rats were confidently barging past travellers.  While everyone else was recoiling, my kids thought it was so cool to see such big rats.  They wanted to stay near to the metro station to study them and befriend them.  Nope.  Move on.

First stop was the Washington Monument.  It was positively glowing against the night sky. The kids had seen it during the day two years before but agreed it was quite different to see it at night.  Mr Pict and the kids lay down on the ground with their legs leaning against the Monument’s sides in order to achieve a worm’s eye view.

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Then we tramped across the grass of the Mall, which was not the best idea actually since it was very boggy and uneven underfoot and I managed to fall into a hole.  We popped out at the National World War II Memorial, one we had also visited two years before.  It really did look different at night.  The granite pillars were somehow more assertive when lit against the night sky and the fountains seemed to sparkle and dance.  I noted on my previous visit and it was the case again on this visit that people were permitting their children to wade in the water of the Memorial and even some adults were sitting on the side with their feet dangling in the water.  While I can appreciate the temptation on a sultry, sticky evening, a Memorial to those who fought and died in the Second World War is truly not the place to cool off.

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We emerged from the World War II Memorial and headed off to visit Abe Lincoln.  We were being eaten alive by mosquitoes hovering over the reflecting pool so were disgruntled as well as tired by the time we reached the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  The littlest Pict’s energy levels were flagging so I stayed with him while the older boys trekked up the steps to see the statue, my 10 year old taking my DSLR so that he could take some photos of his favourite President looking thoughtful and wise.

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Next up and just a short stroll away was the Korean War Veterans Memorial.  This was particularly haunting to view at night.  The main feature of the Memorial is a triangle of juniper bushes containing steel statues of 19 military personnel on patrol.  Something about them being surrounded by pitch darkness, their feet being consumed by a dense carpet of foliage, their expressions alert and pensive, made the Memorial even more arresting.

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The plan had been to take the boys to see the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which I have actually only ever visited at night, and then out to the Jefferson Memorial.  The latter was always ambitious and had been pretty much written off by the delay in embarking on our evening foray into the city centre but sadly we also had to jettison a visit to FDR because the kids were sapped of energy, the little one was half asleep and was shambling like a zombie, and we wanted to call a halt to things before they all started snarling and grumping.  We were, therefore, about to set off back to the metro station when Mr Pict suggested we get an Uber back to the hotel.  My thriftiness made me argue for a return journey on the metro but the prospect of an air conditioned car journey meant I was outvoted by all the male Picts.  I, therefore, got to experience my first ever Uber journey and experience my kids falling asleep in the car of a random stranger.

Road Trip #19 – National Zoo

I first visited the National Zoo in 1995 when living in Washington DC for three months while my then-boyfriend-now-husband was working as an intern.  As a UK national, I was not employed for those three months so was footloose and fancy free during his work hours and could explore all over Washington DC and its suburbs – essentially anywhere the metro system or Shanks Pony could take me.  I saw a lot of the city that summer, worked out where had the best water fountains (DC, certainly back then, had atrocious drinking water so this was very useful knowledge), and visited almost all of the major tourist attractions.  One of these was National Zoo and I will state that back in 1995 I thought it was one of those zoos that needed to be closed down.  The enclosures were too small and there was inadequate stimulus for the captive animals.  I have an especially vivid memory of a condor being cramped in a cage so small I doubt it could fully extend its wings.  It was pretty depressing.  I went once and never returned.

My kids, however, were eager to visit the National Zoo and the fact that entry is free (yes, a zoo – usually one of the most expensive things a family can do – that was free!) persuaded us to give the National Zoo another visit 21 years on.  I am very pleased to report that the zoo we visited this summer was almost unrecognisable from the one I had visited in 1995.  The intervening two decades have evidently been spent on a great deal of remodelling and the zoo not only has a better flow and organisation to it but also has appropriate enclosures with stimulation for the animals.  I was, therefore, free to enjoy our day at the zoo as guilt-free as it is possible to be when staring at captive animals.

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The main driver for our visit to National Zoo was that my 10 year old is obsessed with pandas (and zebras but mainly pandas) and National Zoo presented an opportunity for him – for all of us actually – to see a real life panda for the first time.  We, therefore, set off first on the Asia Trail.  Our first encounter was with a Sloth Bear who was ambling about in his enclosure.  I loved his funny lips and his shaggy hair.  We also saw a brace of Fishing Cats, an endangered species.  Both were snoozing and in their languid slumber looked precisely like our pet cats at home.  One briefly lifted its head in feline contempt when a child (not one of mine) knocked on the glass and then it went straight back to sleep again.  The nearby otters were much more alert and were racing around their enclosure as a pack.  It seems likely they were awaiting feeding time as they were clearly trying to spot something and were being very vigilant.  We had a bird’s eye view of the elephant enclosure just as they were being released into their playground and then we arrived at the panda area.

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At first, the kids were a bit deflated.  I think they expected to turn a corner and just see the big pandas all sitting around posing for them and instead they were having to scan a massive enclosure filled with trees, rocks and foliage.  Mr Pict and I spotted one panda up a tree but the kids were having difficulty making it out.  Lips were pouting.  Then we went to view the interior enclosures and it was pandas galore.  Our boys were fizzing with excitement and the 10 year old was about ready to explode with glee.  One panda was curled up in a ball in a corner and the boys were already delighted.  Then we moved to an adjacent area where a panda was flopped over a rock in what looked like a pretty uncomfortable repose.  He would move from time to time in order to adjust his position and he even stuck out his tongue and drooled.  The kids were thrilled.  Then, in the next section, there was a panda playing with a football (or soccer ball if you insist).  Our 10 year old was ecstatic.  He even gained a better view of the panda who was up the tree.  I am not the biggest fan of pandas, truth be told, but even I thought it was pretty magical to finally see real live pandas for the first time in my life.

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Panda Mission accomplished we could wander around the zoo a bit more aimlessly and stop when we wanted to see something and wander past other things.  It was far, far, far too hot and humid to spend the entire day in the open air at the zoo so we knew we would not be able to spend time at every single enclosure or section.  Washington DC can be very muggy and swampy in summer and this was just such a day.  The zoo did have lots of water misters that we could switch on and get a refreshing spray of water to cool us down but the effects did not last nearly long enough on such a sweltering day.  The cheetah was pretty active and was slinking around his enclosure so we spent some time watching him but our next proper stop was the big ape house.

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We all love orangutans (they are the animal my Dad is obsessed with) but we only got a few glimpses of those as they all seemed to be sleeping except for one who was hiding under a bed sheet.  The gorillas, however, were a huge hit with the kids.  One large male was leaning against the glass eating so the kids could really gain a sense of his muscle and bulk and then the same gorilla ran past them right beside the glass and they gained an even stronger sense of his scale and power.  We also erupted into laughter when the large silverback gorilla peed and pooped and then sat back looking smug and arms folded as if to say, “And that’s why I’m the boss”.

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The small mammal building was another big hit with all of us.  We saw porcupines and armadillos which made me squeal with delight, especially when I spotted that the tree porcupines had had a baby who, not yet having hard spikes, looked like an adorable fuzzy tumbleweed.  I have shared before that my 9 year old is hugely obsessed with Naked Mole Rats so we spent some time observing these peculiar wee dudes in their translucent tunnels.  There was actually a squirmy traffic pile up in one tunnel and in another there was a naked mole rat with an itch he just could not scratch as he was wriggling and fidgeting and scratching away, contorting his wrinkly body into peculiar positions.  The kids thought he was awesome.  There was also a sloth (my sisters’ favourites), golden lion tamarins, lemurs with googly eyes, various monkeys, mongoose (mongeese?), and degus all huddled together in a pile on one log.  We also saw a couple of animals I had never seen before, tree anteater things called tamanduas and a tiny little hedgehog thing from Madagascar called a tenrec.

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The reptile house of any zoo is always worth a gander.  Reptiles and amphibians are so varied and interesting.  This reptile house did not disappoint.  We saw several species of snakes, including a massive anaconda.  There were also alligators and crocodiles galore, including a Cuban alligator and a garagal. There were tortoises and poisonous frogs but the kids were most entertained by the turtles.  There was a massive surly looking alligator snapping turtle lurking in a murky tank, a whole tank filled with long-necked turtles who were swimming around with their oddly bendy necks, and a large turtle with shotgun nostrils.

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Our final proper stop was in the Amazon section, showcasing creatures from that region of South America.  There were pink birds that I think were roseate spoonbills wandering around inside and the kids thought it was cool to be so close to these exotic bright birds.  We also saw a tank full of rays and another full of massive fish, including the biggest catfish I have ever seen.  Other tanks contained tree frogs and dart frogs and a tarantula that made my oldest son, an arachnophobe, rather nervous even though it was behind glass and not remotely interested in him.

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I am glad I returned to National Zoo and gave it another try.  The improvements have turned it into a lovely zoo and the inclusion of pandas is clearly a big draw.  Despite the oppressive heat, we spent a really great few hours there and saw plenty of active animals that delighted the kids.

Road Trip #18 – Stonewall Jackson and Robert E Lee

It was “Unlucky 13” for the thirteenth day of our road trip.  All the plans we had for the day were dispensed with and we scrambled to make new plans for two reasons: the avoidance of any more car sickness and the weather.

We had planned to drive the Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah Valley.  However, all of the winding roads of the previous day had used up all the children’s reserves for tolerance for anything other than straight roads.  I had driven the Skyline Drive back in 1995 so I accepted that I was not getting to do it this time.  Our first replacement event plan was to drive to Foamhenge.  This is a replica of Stonehenge built out of foam.  Since we visited the actual Stonehenge with the kids last summer, we thought it would be funny to visit Foamhenge.  However, when we arrived at the spot there were no foam stones to be seen.  It transpired that, in anticipation of Natural Bridge being bestowed with National Park status, they had evicted hokey Foamhenge from the site and it had yet to find a new home.  Frustratingly, this had all happened in the last couple of months – after I had done all my research and planning for the trip.  This time doing my homework so far in advance had not paid off.

After that annoying waste of time, Mr Pict proposed a plan: we should visit the graves of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E Lee in Lexington, Virginia.  That way he got his Civil War fix, I got my cemetery fix, and – as it transpired – the kids got an opportunity to moan and rebel.

It all started well.  We found the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery with ease and it was impossible to miss Jackson’s grave as it dominated the cemetery.  Despite him being a Confederate, Stonewall Jackson is our 9 year old’s favourite Civil War general.  I think this has rather more to do with his horse Little Sorrel than anything else.  Indeed, we almost went to visit the stuffed corpse of Little Sorrel but ran out of time.  Famously, Stonewall Jackson died as the result of “friendly fire” during the battle of Chancellorsville (and we plan to visit the grave of his amputated arm there some time) and his last words were the beautifully poetic, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees”.  This was quite fitting since Jackson was notorious for sleeping during battles.  Jackson objected to fighting on Sundays but ironically ended up fighting more often on Sundays than any other day of the week.  Another interesting story about Jackson – probably exaggerated over the years – was that he ate lemons before battles.  As we approached the grave, we could see that people had deposited lemons around its base.

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The cemetery itself was rather pleasant, quiet, calm and green and set on a lovely street.  We had a bit of a wander and looked at several other graves, including many other Confederate graves, some of notable military men and others of ordinary soldiers.  These included two brothers killed in their teens.  We may not agree with their politics or the side they chose to fight on but the graves of so many young men were still evocative and poignant.

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A very short drive later brought us to Washington and Lee University.  This was a beautiful spot and I could imagine that the students there find it a very pleasant place to study.  We were there for the Lee Chapel which houses the remains of Robert E Lee and his family members.  The Chapel was built under the auspices of Lee when he was President of the University following the Civil War.

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The building itself was rather pleasant with a red brick exterior and a fresh white interior with a large organ.  Where one would normally find a pulpit was a stone effigy of Lee, lying on his back in his uniform as if sleeping through a battle.  This is not his tomb, however.  To see that we had to descend into the crypt where Lee and his family members are interred.

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The crypt level also housed a small museum.  The museum had recreated the study of Robert E Lee exactly as it looked on the day of his death in 1870.  In another, larger room there was one of those rotating planetarium thingummys and beneath it was a plaque indicating the spot where Lee’s remains had originally been buried.  All around this central feature were items that had belonged to Lee, from weapons to embroidered slippers to a watch “chain” made out of hair from Traveller’s mane.  The basement museum was the precise point at which the boys bottomed out of tolerance.  As so often happens when in a place that requires a degree of stillness and a solemn demeanour, they all kicked off, one by one, toppling like dominoes.  We, therefore, did not manage to view all the artifacts as we had to hurry them out into the open air again.

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At the exact spot where we exited, however, we stopped to pay our respects to Traveller, Lee’s beloved horse.  Our 9 year old is obsessed with horses and for him the Civil War is as much about Old Bob, Little Sorrel, Cincinnati and Traveller as it is about Lincoln, Jackson, Grant and Lee.  Traveller had died the year after Lee, at the age of 14, having contracted tetanus from standing on a nail.  Poor Traveller’s body was not well treated.  At first he was buried in a ravine but then he was dug back up and his skeleton underwent a preservation process that apparently was not very effective.  His skeleton went on display but was vandalised by students writing or carving their names into his bones for good luck in their exams.  It was not until the 1970s that his poor old bones were placed in their current position.

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It was obvious that part of the the kids’ grumpy attitudes were caused by them being “hangry” so we stopped off for a good, filling lunch.  The plan was to proceed from Lexington to Harper’s Ferry.  Mr Pict and I are always finding ways to sneakily educate our kids and get them to philosophise and interrogate facts by stealth.  The kids had noted that it seemed a little peculiar that two Confederate leaders were so revered given that they had been not just on the losing side of the War but arguably on the wrong side of history morally and ethically.  We tried to explain that, yes, peculiar though it was, history is not always so black and white and people are far more complex than being “goodies” and “baddies”.  For instance, the Lee Chapel museum was clearly presenting an argument that Lee’s pragmatism in fighting for the Confederacy plus his good deeds after the War mitigated against his commanding the Confederate Army.  We, therefore, wanted to extend this learning to thinking about the Union side and their supporters so were keen to teach them all about John Brown and his raid at Harper’s Ferry so they could contemplate the moral complexity from the other side of the War.  It was not meant to be, however, as the rain was absolutely lashing down as we set off on the next leg of our day’s activities.  We could barely see out of the windscreen in order to take in the view and, in fact, having to drive slowly for the conditions meant that we arrived at Harper’s Ferry just as the National Park was closing.  Despite being Scottish and familiar with rain soaked summers, the kids point blank refused to get out of the car and do some walking in the rain.  Harper’s Ferry was abandoned.

Mr Pict, however, did manage to find another Civil War site to visit.  He (suspiciously) always seems to have a Civil War plan up his sleeve.  Not too far away was Cedar Creek Battlefield.  This is a spot – and another National Park – set in the area around the Belle Grove Plantation and the site of a battle in 1864.  It was the culmination of several battles and, when the Union under Sheridan managed to repel the Confederates under Early, it effectively ended the Confederacy’s attempts to take the North and secured Washington DC against attack.  As thoroughly interesting as all of that was to Mr Pict, I could see nothing of interest in the site.  As he was busily reading me information from his phone’s Civil War app, all I could see was rain pelting against the windscreen.  We were also about to experience our own rebellion from the kids sitting behind us in the car so it was a case of quickly dashing out to grab Mr Pict his “I was here” Civil War site photograph and then back into the car and off again.

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After a brief nostalgic tour of two of Mr Pict’s childhood homes, in Chevy Chase, we arrived at our Washington DC hotel in early evening.  It was in the North East area of the city, an area that we used to avoid visiting as much as possible.  We could see that the area was slowly gentrifying but the hotel was right on the border of nice and, shall we say, not so nice.  The hotel itself was very swish and we found ourselves thinking that even a year from now, when the area has completed its renovation, we probably would not be able to afford to stay there.  For now, however, it was a bargain for a Washington DC hotel room.  The boys loved that our room had one whole wall that was just a window overlooking the city, including a view of the Capitol’s white dome.  Looking downwards, we could also see people swimming in the hotel a dozen floors pool below.  That was where the younger Picts headed, the rain having finally stopped.  It was a restful and relaxing end to what had been another frustrating day of wasted time and thwarted opportunities.  After two bum days on the trot, we needed to get our acts together for Washington DC so we could end our road trip with a bang rather than a damp fizzle.

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Road Trip #17 – Cass Railroad & Droop Mountain

On the twelfth day of our road trip, we found ourselves winding up the sides of the Appalachians, flitting between sparsely populated, rural West Virginia and pockets of charming little hamlets in Virginia.  I was very taken with the beautiful wild flowers edging the roads.  Even on the busier roads, the verges were like colourful meadows.

It was just as well it was all so pretty because we spent entirely too long on these winding roads having gotten lost and taken a wrong turn that required us to double back and take an alternative, even more zig-zagging route to our destination.  Two of our children suffer from car sickness so we had to pull the car over a couple of times.  At the end of the day, our youngest was fist pumping in celebration of having beaten his previous record and filled a dozen bags with vomit. Through it all I tried to focus on the  pretty wildflowers.

We also had a couple of wildlife encounters.  The less exciting one was that we found a turtle moseying across the road at an alarmingly slow pace.  Knowing it was likely to get pancaked, we halted the car so I could get out and move the turtle.  As I reached down to scoop it up, however, it decided that was the time to get a wriggle on and it darted from my grasp but in the opposite direction to where it had been headed.  What then followed was a minute or so of me scurrying around after a turtle that was doing the equivalent of handbrake turns and looking like some sort of hybrid of Dr Doolittle and the Keystone Cops.  Far more excitingly, however, WE SAW A BEAR.  We were reaching the crest of a particular steep stretch of road and I was just looking up from the latest bag of puke I had tied up when I saw the dark shape clambering the grass verge to our left.  I yelled, “Bear!” so suddenly and loudly that Mr Pict automatically breaked (which was OK as we were the only car on the road).  And there was indeed a baby black bear scrambling up the slope towards the treeline. By the time I got my phone out of my pocket, the bear was gone and my photo opportunity was missed.  We waited for a good few minutes in the hope that it might reappear or even that its mother or siblings might appear but nothing more stirred and we finally had to move on.  We were, however, all terribly excited to have seen a wild bear.

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After our meandering route, being waylaid by the pukers, and the stop for bear spotting and turtle rescuing, it was late morning by the time we arrived at Cass where we planned on taking the scenic railroad.  Our intention had been to take a railroad trip from Cass up to the summit of Bald Knob, a local mountain, but we had missed that train by a couple of hours.  In fact, we were lucky to be able to take any train whatsoever as the last train of the day was due to depart just 15 minutes after we arrived.  The tickets turned out to be pricier than we had expected but we felt we could not very well have gone through all of that palaver just to turn around and go all the way back again.  It transpired the Bald Knob excursion would have taken us 4 hours so it was possibly lucky we did not end up doing that.  The tickets we bought were for a 2 hour trip to Whittaker Station, a recreated logging camp, and back.

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We had no sooner boarded the open sided railcars – converted log cars – and sat ourselves on the benches than we were off on our trip.  Cass was founded in the very early 1900s as a company town serving a lumber operation so the first site that pulled into view was the ruins of the large sawmill.  We were informed that at one time this was the largest double-banded sawmill in the world.  It was so rusty and derelict that I would have loved to have gotten out and explored it but we chuffed on.  We then passed the sheds where we could see two of the Shay engines owned by the railroad.  I know almost absolutely zilch about railway history but we were given the distinct impression that these were a big deal.

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We were being pulled and pushed by Shay engine number 4 and there was one chap shovelling a ton of coal just to get us up and down Black Allegheny Mountain.  I write that the engine was both pulling and pushing us because the standard gauge had two switchbacks to allow for the gradient of the hill.  Therefore, sometimes the engine was behind the railcars and other times it was in front of them.  The gradient was 5% until the second switchback when it became 9%.

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The train emerged from the trees into a clearing which was the site of a recreated logging camp.  The clearing had once been the camp for the immigrant workers who constructed the railway line but it was now being used to demonstrate what a typical logging camp of the 1940s would have looked like – logging having ceased there in 1960.   According to my phone, the elevation at the Whittaker Station was 3280 and at Cass was 2470 so that was the measure of the journey we had made.

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We wandered around and had a look into the wooden shanties.  Some of these were set up as work huts, where the saws were sharpened for instance, and others were set up to show the accommodation the loggers would have stayed in.  There was also a dining car where the workers would have been fed by the camp cook.  There were then several pieces of large mechanical equipment I admit I did not fully understand but which were clearly used for moving massive logs around.  Apparently one of these – a Lidgerwood Tower Skidder – is one of only two left in the whole world.  I know as little about industrial history as I do railroad history so I entirely failed to absorb the information I was reading.

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After some refreshments, we boarded the railcars again and headed back down the mountain.  The boys played on some of the old locomotives and cabooses set up near the Cass station but soon we had to make tracks.

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Back down the mountains we drove with more groaning from nauseous children and more barf bags being filled and no more exciting wildlife to distract and excite us.  We passed the birthplace of the author Pearl Buck. Not even I could muster enthusiasm for that.  We felt like we were on a road to nowhere.  We were all getting fractious, parents included.

And then we were saved by the Civil War.

Although my husband is a Civil War nerd, he had not actually planned this little detour.  It was just serendipity.  We needed some fresh air and to stretch our legs and he got to visit another Civil War battle site.  Win-win.  The Battle of Droop Mountain occurred in November 1863 when Confederate forces attempted to stop Union troops passing through the area to meet up with other troops and destroy Confederate railway lines.  After a brief but bloody fight, the Union forces won the day and consequently pretty much took West Virginia since the Confederates collapsed and gave up.

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Something like 400 men died at Droop Mountain.  Apparently the unknown Confederate dead were removed to a cemetery in Lewisburg.  Some must have remained, however, as there was a small moss covered plot at the edge of the woods containing worn headstones.  There was something very poignant about it, about how remote it was, how untended, the way it was being consumed by nature.

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As dusk began to settle, my feral kids wandered around the site, spotted deer lurking in the dark shadows of the woods, and we climbed up a modern watch tower to get a good view of the surrounding landscape.  The place had meaning for Mr Pict and he was soon deciphering the view in relation to what had happened in 1863 but to the rest of us it was just a welcome break from the car and some respite from the winding roads.

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Our room for the night was a ramshackle motel in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  It was a spacious room and we all had adequate sleeping space but the place was beat up and had definitely seen better days.  The kids moaned about the parsimonious internet but I was more concerned about the fact the air conditioning was preset and could not be adjusted.  Worse still was the fact that the orange blinking light on the phone would not switch off no matter what we did so I felt like I was napping on a helipad all night.  Not good.  It was a cruddy end to a day that had ultimately been a bit of a bust.  The railroad trip was pleasant enough but we had wasted the better part of a day on it so it did not, for us anyway, represent the best utilisation of our time.  We just had to keep reminding ourselves that had we not taken the road to Cass – indeed had we not taken the wrong road to Cass – then we never would have seen the bear.  Bears win.

 

Road Trip #16 – Thurmond

After spending a good few hours exploring Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, we headed a short distance away to visit a ghost town named Thurmond, now in the care of the National Park Service.

The drive to Thurmond was beautiful.  In fact, throughout our travels in West Virginia I was struck by just how arrestingly beautiful the landscape was.  Perhaps it reminded me a little bit of Scotland and was stirring some homesickness for hills and glens and thick forests of trees.  The road to Thurmond was also very reminiscent of the single track roads we were very familiar with from living in Argyll for over a decade, winding and bumpy and with a new vista opening up around every corner.  It also took us, however, past scenes of pretty dire poverty. There were lots of run down shacks and trailers, some looking to be derelict to the point of collapse.  I don’t think I have seen poverty like it in America since visiting reservations in the South West.

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We crossed a single track road bridge that was attached to a rusty iron rail bridge and emerged on the other side of the gorge at the railway depot building that serves as the NPS office and small museum.  We chatted to the friendly Park Ranger and had a look around the small museum and saw a three dimensional map of the area, demonstrating the extreme curve that trains have to take around the curve of the gorge and Thurmond nestled on the edge.  Trains still come through Thurmond including Amtrak passenger trains which people can board at Thurmond a couple of times a week.  Thurmond, fact fans, is America’s second least used train station after one in Texas.  Looking at the map again, it seemed to me a bit of a marvel that trains could make that bend at any sort of speed and still keep on the track.

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Thurmond was once a bustling and thriving Appalachian town.  Its economy was dependent on the interrelated business of the local coal mines and the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway.  It was at Thurmond that all the trains from the surrounding mines would be coupled together to form one large train for shipment elsewhere in the nation.  In its heyday, there was a strip of commercial buildings along the line of the railway track and then residential buildings on the hills behind.  A hotel – long since burned down – was famous as the site of the longest card game in history, lasting something like fourteen years.  This hotel, the Dun Glen, had made Thurmond a resort town but when it burned down in the 1930 and one of the town’s two banks failed the following year that was the start of the town’s rapid decline.

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As we set off to explore the remaining buildings, we were warned that the heat had brought out lots of rattlesnakes in the area to bask in the sunshine.  This set up the kids to have high expectations of a dangerous snake encounter.  When none materialised, they became somewhat irked.  This was because they were already annoyed at not being able to access any of the abandoned buildings in the ghost town.  Back home in Argyll, one of their favourite spots had been the abandoned crofting village of Arichonan and then there were all the ruined castles in the vicinity too so they were used to being able to get into places and quite annoyed that Thurmond did not permit that.  The grumps swiftly set in and, in the baking heat, they were soon fractious.

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Then, just when the kids were nearing peak crankiness, a train saved the day.  We heard the train hooter (that’s not what it’s called, is it?) echo long before we saw it but soon a coal train came into view and stopped just beside the depot briefly before setting off again.  Apparently these trains only come through eight times a month so we were lucky to be there to see it during our visit.  It was massively long and the boys enjoyed trying to count the coal wagons as it hurtled past us and one of the boys even tried to race it for a bit.

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Following our visit to Thurmond, I risked inciting the wrath of the children by dragging us on a bonkers detour.  We had noticed on the map that there was a place nearby named Lochgelly.  Since I am from Fife, I knew the original Lochgelly well and thought it would be fun to go and see a town in West Virginia that had been named after a coal mining town in Fife.  A bit of googling reveals that the town was originally named Stuart but a mining explosion in 1907 that killed 85 workers led to a difficulty in hiring miners to the mine there.  The name change was, therefore, a way to remove the taint of disaster.  The mining connection meant it was named for Lochgelly in Fife.  There was really no purpose to our excursion to Lochgelly other than for me to be able to say I had been.  We pulled up at a mulch company which was handily right next door to a frozen custard place.  The kids were plied with frozen custard which cooled them down and put an end to their cantankerousness.

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Having gone as far as Lochgelly, Mr Pict and I decided it was not much further to the New River Gorge Bridge so we should go check it out.  It was once the longest single span arch bridge in the world, is the second highest bridge in America, and stands 876 feet above the New River that runs beneath.  Having got the idea from driving across the bridge, the kids refused to get out of the car to see it.  I, therefore, wandered out to the viewpoint on my own to see a vista of it.  There were steps that would take my down to the bottom for a worm’s eye view but I decided that I had neither the time nor inclination to descend and ascend hundreds of wooden steps just to get a different perspective on a road bridge.

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We ended the day with a challenge.  Dining at a local steakhouse in Beckley, our 9 year old pleaded with Mr Pict to try their steak eating challenge.  Mr Pict initially resisted and placed an order for an entirely different meal.  Our 9 year old loves cookery competition TV shows so he was disappointed.  Between his pleading chocolate brown eyes, pouting lip, and his broken arm, his Dad capitulated and changed his order.  He had to eat a 31 ounce steak plus the sweet potato fries and salad that accompanied it.  Every. Last. Morsel.  And he managed it!  The kids were over the moon and our 9 year old declared him to be his “idol”.

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