Road Trip 2017 #27 – Armstrong Redwoods

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

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



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









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


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.




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.





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

Spring into Nature (at last!)

I was beginning to feel like Spring was never going to properly arrive.  It’s been a right wee tease this year with some days of warm sunshine and blue skies immediately followed by the return of chilly, damp air and grey skies and flat light.  At last, however, it seems as if Spring has finally and fully-fledged arrived.  Not a moment too soon either as I was beginning to feel like a hermit and really felt a need – not just a want but a need – to get out and wander around in nature for a good chunk of time.

The kids were vehemently opposed to a long car journey so we stayed local and went for a wander in one of our usual haunts.  It felt good to be among the trees and see the sunshine beating through the leaves, plants beginning to bud, and insects buzzing around.

We played Pooh sticks – increasingly competitively and with a little bit of cheating here and there – and the boys climbed trees and clambered across fallen logs.  We saw wildlife too.  I only managed to capture a turtle on camera but we also saw birds galore, lots of insects, and a running groundhog – which was one of the cutest things I have seen in a while.










The boys were able to get manky and be freely feral and I was able to complete relax allowing them to do so.

Spring is freedom.


Frog Hunt

Yesterday morning we set off on an expedition to hunt for frogs.  While we have all manner of other wildlife wandering around our garden, we have not yet had any amphibians so we have to go elsewhere in search of them.  We know a spot where, at certain times of year at least, we are guaranteed to see frogs.


My oldest son was also hoping we would encounter a snake, as we have found them in the same woods before, but we had no luck.  My kids have yet to comprehend that the more noise they make, the less likely they are to meet any critters.  Their constant scampering and foghorn voices give any animal within range ample notice to scurry and hide.  For instance, we saw the flash of a white tailed deer’s rump as it fled from us a nanosecond after my youngest had bellowed something about climbing a tree.

We were, however, entirely successful in our mission to find frogs.  My ten year old must have the best vision out of all of us as he was quickly able to spot frog after frog after frog among the green pond weed.  We could hear the bellow of bullfrogs all around us.  We managed to spot one particularly chubby chappie sitting on a fallen branch, sadly too far away for a clear photograph, but there were some smaller specimens swimming around in the water or sitting just out of the water.



Some of the frogs were very bright green, blending perfectly with the pond weeds, but others were darker brown with mottled patterns on their backs and rear legs.




We left the pond and wandered off in search of other interesting beasties.  We saw birds and dragonflies galore – including some stunning neon blue ones with black wings – and some nonchalant squirrels.  Everyone was getting a bit mopey and hot and fractious, forgetting that this was the proper outdoors and not a zoo park.  I could sense a rebellion beginning to foment.


Happily we found a stream that was safe enough for pootling about in.  The boys liked having fish swimming around their feet but they liked the cooling effect of the water and the shade of the trees even more.



Then, much to everyone’s delight, we spotted another frog and this one was in hand’s reach so they picked it up out of the mud to have a brief closer look before letting it hop off back into the water again.  I think it may be a juvenile green frog but I am not confident in my identification, not being much of a herpetologist.



Much cooled down, a little rested, and buoyed from the unexpectedly close frog encounter, the boys’ spirits lifted again and we continued on our stroll around the woods like a band of Merry Men.

















Locust Lake State Park

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

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

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



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





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





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

Evansburg State Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pounding Pavements or Stomping Sidewalks

I did warn you I had a compulsion to alliterate.

Whether I call it a sidewalk or a pavement, there just aren’t enough of them around here.

I’ve always known that America doesn’t really town plan for pedestrians.  During my first trip to the US, back in 1995, my now husband and I went to the Independence Day fireworks on the mall in Washington DC, our bums getting slowly but certainly numb on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. At the finale, we were carried in a wave along with the rest of the crowd and deposited into Foggy Bottom Metro Station.  At the other end of our metro ride, the streets were pitch dark and empty.  We had a half hour walk to get to the place we were staying and every step was precarious.  The streetlights shone onto the road, not the sidewalks, because obviously cars with headlights need more visual assistance than pedestrians stumbling around, and the pavements were so uneven that we had to adopt a hobbling gait and almost face-planted a few times.  And that was when there were any pavements to walk on. 

I had a smidgen of hope that the leafy suburbs of Philly would be at least a little more geared up for pedestrians but, yes, even my smidgen-full of hope was in vain.

I am a walker.  Not in a zombie way.  I like to walk.  I enjoy the moderate exercise (just as I really don’t enjoy proper exercise), the fresh air, the thinking time, the opportunity to see things and explore.  I have always walked a lot.  When we lived in Scotland, the kids and I walked everywhere.  It was great.  OK, maybe not so much in the horrible winter weather but otherwise it was great that everything was in walking distance – school, shops, hospital.  Here, on the other hand, things are all close by – indeed more things are close by – but they are inaccessible on foot because of the lack of sidewalks and pedestrian crossings.  It’s frustrating.

I’ve taken to going on little ambles of a morning, once I’ve dropped the smallest Pict at preschool, trying to find a safe route I can walk with the kids, just to stretch our legs and get some fresh air without having to get in the car first.  The options are proving to be limited.  Even when I can construct a circuit, it involves constant criss-crossing of the road in order to access pavement on one side of the road when it has run out on the other.  I can walk on my own just fine because, as an adult with good road sense, I can actually walk on the road around here as there is not a lot of daytime traffic.  But I don’t really want to encourage my kids to walk in the road and it’s also not that sensible to walk along a road in a trail like a momma duck and her ducklings.  I’ve seen duck roadkill.  I actually do walk the littlest Pict back and forth to nursery on the road, very briefly, because the building is literally around the corner from our house and I refuse to drive for two minutes to get there.  The road is wide enough that we can do so safely and he is small enough to be happy holding my hands.

Mailboxes are a related nuisance.  We don’t have one close to home.  I know because not only have I not walked past one but I actually looked up the website to find where our nearest ones are.  They are all a bit of a walk away but still within what I consider to be a very reasonable walking distance, maybe 20 to 30 minutes for the closest two, forty-five for the furthest one.  On adult legs that is.  With kids it would take longer.  However, not one of those mailboxes can be accessed from home along pavements.  Probably the safest walking route is to the mailbox furthest away because it is the quieter road and stretches of it do have pavement on at least one side of the road.  The two closer to home are almost entirely devoid of any sidewalks whatsoever.  It does make me ponder why they chose to site the mailboxes there.  Convenience of collection probably won out over ease of actually accessing the mailbox.  It’s a bit of a pain in the butt for something as simple as needing to post a letter to have to be a kid-free mission.

I’m not going to even get started on the standard of the paving when there are sidewalks either.  Haphazard would be a kind description.  It surprises me that in a country known for its culture of litigation that local authorities would risk having people face-planting and snapping ankles all over the place.  Unless being a pedestrian is considered some sort of extreme sport.

That’s today’s rant then.  Sidewalks and mailboxes.  Riveting stuff.

Nature Walk

We moved to Pennsylvania from a relatively remote area on the West coast of Scotland.  We were surrounded by nature.  We could stroll the banks of a loch, wander a forest trail, scale a hill or potter along the seashore.  A walk of a few minutes from home could have the kids playing in woodland and a short drive could have us lost in the landscape.  It was one of the things I loved best about living where we used to: all that access to nature, the fresh air, the space.

We are lucky that where we have ended up is pretty green.  We have swapped the red squirrels of “home” for grey squirrels who play in our garden – much to the delight of my 4 year old – and instead of rounding a corner of a single track road to find a large deer leering at me we now have a herd of deer who seem to hang out opposite Toys R Us.  We have also seen some lovely birds visited our garden, including a red-bellied woodpecker.  Nevertheless, we were missing our nature walks so we used the Thanksgiving weekend as an opportunity to explore a nearby state park.  




No sooner had we arrived than we saw some a couple of turkey vultures circling above us, using the thermals to drift higher and higher.  Some bird watchers thought one of them might be a bald eagle but I’m not going to claim I saw a bald eagle here until identification is certain.  We did, however, see a whole load of blue jays hopping from branch to branch as we walked along one pathway.  It was a mild and bright day so the sunlight was flashing off their sky blue feathers.

We found a playground in the middle of the walk so the boys could play.









The little Picts like nature when it is red in tooth and clue.  It’s not just a “circle of life” thing with them; they are actually quite fond of the macabre.  I will hold my hands up and admit this is my responsibility as a parent.  I got them hooked on watching animal autopsy documentaries and have encouraged them to study any dead animals we have encountered on our treks.  They still speak fondly of the time when we stumbled across an entire red deer skeleton, picked clean and bleached by the sun.  It’s science.  So the boys were all very excited when we came upon the rib cage, vertebrae and one leg of a deer.  It still had hide on one leg while the rib cage was entirely exposed.  My 6 year old wanted to take it home with us.  Eh… No.  I may have encouraged this fascination in my kids but I do draw the line somewhere.





We only wandered in a small proportion of the park land so we will definitely return there to explore some more and indeed we will visit more state parks as we venture out on weekends and holidays.

It felt good to wander among the trees again.