This page of my art journal was inspired by my very own ruby slippers. I bought a pair of red, sequinned, cosy, comfy slippers a couple of months ago and I premiered them on my feet on Oscars night. Nowadays I watch the Academy Awards while wearing my jammies so the sparkly slippers were my nod to red carpet glamour. I love ‘The Wizard of Oz’ which was why I had to have the pair of ruby slippers for my feet in the first place. Oddly, however, Oz only crops up ever so often in my art work. Possibly my favourite illustration in my altered book was of one of the Witch’s flying monkeys wearing ruby slippers. Anyway, that was the inspiration for the page. It does not show very well in the photograph but there is metallic red on the shoes to make them glint and glimmer, as close to a suggestion of rubies as I could muster with my supplies. I framed the illustration with text and regret that I did not map it out before I started writing because, clearly, I got the spacing and composition of the typography out of kilter. But that is OK because I am only playing in my art journal.
Just a brief drive from our hotel was the Beckley Exhibition Mine. I have been in several coal mines but never an American one and the kids had never been in a coal mine at all. West Virginia is famously a coal mining region so it seemed like the ideal place to go and visit.
We started with a mine tour led by a brilliantly engaging former miner named Roger. He had immense knowledge about coal mining, of course, but also wonderful patter, anecdotes galore, and great regional idiom. I could have listened to Roger talk for hours on end. We clambered aboard rickety trailers and were pulled through the chilly dark mine. At various points, the trailers would come to a halt and we would be shown and taught some aspect of the mines. For instance, we were shown the various and evolving methods for monitoring and managing deadly gases and oxygen levels in the shafts and seams. We also learned about kettle bottoms, pieces of petrified wood that might fall dangerously from the roof. Having seen petrified wood (and I own some as a memento of my visit to Arizona’s Petrified Forest) I had never considered that the below surface wood might present a subterranean hazard. The kids also learned about piece work payments and the pittance payed being reduced further by being issued partly in scrip that could only be used in the company store, over and above the rent for tied housing. We also learned about mining accidents and the fact that widows had five days to find a new miner husband or else be evicted. We saw scooters that were used to ride the rails and were later used by miner’s children as toys. Roger also showed us an example of a miner’s metal lunch pail, all compartmentalised like a bento box, with water in the bottom to slake thirsts. We were advised that putting granny’s false teeth in the pail would stop the water being pinched.
The site contains – in addition to the mine – authentic buildings from mining camps around West Virginia relocated and reconstructed on site. We first visited the Superintendent’s house. It was surprisingly spacious and looked quite comfortable. While the contents were sold as vintage and from a bygone era, I smiled in recognition at many of them since my Grandad was still using a mangle, for example, well into my childhood. The boys were particularly taken with the one room school house. The volunteer docent in that building was vivacious and bubbling with information. The boys chuckled at her tales of dipping girls’ pigtails into ink wells, getting the paddle, and the dunce corner. They also liked seeing the quills, water crock and heating stove. As a former teacher, I had to have a go and being the mining camp teacher while my kids played the role of school students. It was great fun.
Next we headed to the tiny bachelor house. It really was no bigger than a decent sized shed. It looked comfy enough in a compact bedsit sort of a way but one could appreciate the incentive to marry and graduate to a larger property. This was represented by the adjacent three room miner house which was decorated in 1930s style. The kids had fun playing house and swinging on the veranda. We finished our tour of the mining buildings in the church. I liked it for its simplicity. The kids pretended to deliver sermons and play the organ.
Also on site, housed in cabooses, was a Children’s Museum. We almost skipped this, mindful of time, but were very glad that we decided to pop in because it was an absolute hoot. For some reason, the theme was the Wizard of Oz. I have no clue what the connection to either mining or West Virginia was but as Oz fans the kids and I cared not. There were loads of fun activities for the kids – they could act out the Oz stories using puppets or costumes (scripts supplied), click their heels in magic slippers, create a tornado, do target practice with flying monkeys, rebuild the scarecrow, and play with mirrors – and the latter had everyone howling with laughter.
The Beckley Mine was one of the highlights of our road trip. We had actually rather expected it to be a bit of a detour between other activities but it was thoroughly interesting and engaging. We all got something from it and we all had immense fun. My 10 year old even made an inchworm friend.
Our whole road trip really pivoted around the idea of driving to Chicago and back. Last November, when Mr Pict surprised me with a trip to Mexico, he had considered a city break in Chicago. November in Chicago? He made the right choice with Mexico. I was, however, eager to see Chicago and not just because I had never been to Illinois before. Chicago was also the fulcrum of our trip since it was the furthest west we were going to be travelling before looping back towards Pennsylvania. I had so many plans for Chicago – way more than were ever going to be possible in the two days we had planned but plenty of options to choose from. Of course, as my fellow Scot Robert Burns wistfully observed, “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley”. The broken arm was the plough to our mouse nest and we lost pretty much an entire day in Chicago as a result. Sigh.
Before we embarked on any excursions on the eighth day of our road trip, however, we had to get some breakfast. We plumped for a cafe on Michigan Avenue where the menu looked appealing. The portions when they arrived were astounding. I ordered waffles with fruit and what appeared before me was a platter containing three full size waffles each covered in a generous dollop of a different fruit compote, namely blueberries, strawberries, and bananas. Mr Pict had a corned beef hash breakfast he would later declare was the best breakfast of the trip. The kids had various crepes and fruit platters with yogurt. We were all very replete at the end of breakfast and did not have to eat again for almost the entire day. What took the gloss of this breakfasting experience, however, was that the service was pretty abysmal, indifferent and lackadaisical at best, yet the server had added a generous service charge to the bill and had still left room for us to add an additional tip. We are generous tippers but I consider that poor etiquette.
Anyway, bellies full and ready to face the day, we headed off to the Shedd Aquarium. The boys had voted unanimously for that to be our activity and I did nothing to dissuade them since I love beluga whales and the Shedd Aquarium has some. However, as we approached the Aquarium, we saw an incredibly long queue snaking away from the building. The first section of the queue was provided with some shelter and shade but seven eighths of those queuing folk were baking in the sun. And it was hot that day. Super hot. The temperature was approaching triple digits and the humidity was so great that breathing was laborious. As dutiful parents, we asked the kids whether they still wanted to visit the Aquarium. In unison they declared no. They did not want to melt into a puddle like tallow candles. Happily, right next door was their second choice activity: the Field Museum. As we walked through the doors and were blasted with wonderful air conditioning, we knew we had made the sensible decision.
We were just going to purchase the basic entry tickets for the Field Museum but our youngest two looked all pouty and pointed to a poster about a special bug exhibition so we stumped up the extra funds and in we went. As per those pouts, we started with Underground Adventure. The concept was that we would all be shrunk down to minibeast size so that we could learn about the detailed and compelling world that is a soil ecosystem. Forget learning about the importance of soil and its inhabitants to the environment, however; for the kids this was all about the B movie sized monster bugs and pretending to be Ant Man leading an insect army.
Next up was Ancient Egypt. The three older boys have all studied Ancient Egypt at school, whether back home in Scotland or here in America, so they enjoyed seeing the Egyptian artifacts up close. We have been in Egyptian sections of museums in many places, including the British Museum, and I have to say that this was one of the best organised I have visited. It really placed the items in their context and offered clear, absorbable explanations. My favourite item in the exhibit was a large wooden boat as I had never seen anything like it before. Predictably, the kids liked the unwrapped mummies, though they were a bit sad about the one that was a wee boy, and a series of dioramas demonstrating the process of mummification.
Of course, no natural history museum is complete without galleries packed full of cases of taxidermy and the Field Museum was no exception. While the Egyptian section had been fresh and contemporary in its approach to display and turning artifacts into narrative, the stuffed critters section was distinctly tired and musty. I would suggest that the actual taxidermy was completed some decades ago. Everything looked just a bit moth-eaten and, well, derpy. I don’t know how to express that any better way. A whole bunch of the stuffed beasties just looked plain derpy, with goofy facial expressions. It actually made me enjoy it more. The marine mammals had even been relegated to the packed lunch area of the museum. My kids absolutely loved seeing the narwhals and gigantic elephant seals but I did not see anyone else even looking at those cases. From the looks of it, nobody had dusted them for a while either. My 13 year old penguin enthusiast loved seeing the case full of ex-penguins – including one called a jackass – but my 10 year old despaired at seeing stuffed pandas.
The main draw of the taxidermy section, however, was the man-eating beasts. We had seen the “Man-Eater of Mfuwe” elsewhere in the museum. This was a maneless lion that had attacked and killed several people in Zambia in 1991. The legendary lions on display in the Field Museum, however, where the Tsavo Man-Eaters, the subject of several books and movies. These lions (again maneless males) were reputed to have killed 135 workers constructing the Kenya-Uganda railway in 1898. That number was provided by the hunter who finally killed them so exaggeration is understandable. Recent isotope analysis of the stuffed lions suggests that between them they actually killed 35 people, which is closer to the 28 workers killed reported by the railway company. At first the skins from the lions were rugs on the hunter’s floor but then they were given to the Field Museum and the stuffed skins have been on display ever since.
In addition to the Tsavo lions, the other thing the Field Museum is famous for is Sue the T-Rex. Sue is the largest, best preserved, most intact of any Tyrannosaurus Rex yet discovered and that makes her a dino celebrity. She was named Sue for the paleontologist who found her in the 1990s but I like to think that was her prehistoric name too. She is also the oldest known T-Rex at 28 years old. Don’t ask me how scientific people know that. I am just reporting what I read. We all enjoyed seeing Sue, especially my 7 year old. He was enchanted so much so that he insisted on using a little of his savings on making a derpy looking dinosaur from moulded plastic. He and his 10 year old brother collect squished pennies but this moulded plastic thing was a new twist on that tradition. He was pleased as punch. Even more exciting, however, was when he spotted a T-Rex wandering around. Whereas my older three sons treat anybody in a costume as if they have the plague, my youngest was like a moth to the flame. I think the T-Rex had actually finished his tour of the museum and was going for a comfort break or some such when out of nowhere my 7 year old sped towards him and grabbed him for a hug. I have never seen a dinosaur mask look more surprised. T-Rex was a good sport though and posed for a photo with my grinning kid.
There were many areas of the museum we never made it into. I was keen to see the Ancient Americas section. However, a) there was only so much museum traipsing my kids were going to tolerate and b) we had a deadline for picking up our luggage and car. My 10 year old, however, was really wanting to see the room dedicated to jade so we had a quick dip into there for him to behave like Gollum for a few minutes before we departed.
As soon as we left the air conditioned cocoon of the museum, the intense heat of the day thumped us. It really was not that pleasant, mainly because of the humidity. My Scottish complexion has not adjusted to life with hot humidity at all so I soon looked like lobster thermidor. We all felt entirely gross. The heat also made us grumbly and grouchy. Our plan had been to return to the hotel via the shade of a tree filled park. However, the tree filled park was off limits because of the set up for Lolapalooza. We did, however, pop to see the Buckingham Fountain, my kids entertaining ideas of getting to at least run their hands through the water in order to cool down. They were spitting fireballs, therefore, when we arrived to discover it was fenced off. No dipping anything in that water. The fountain is apparently one of the largest in the world and there are light shows in the evening. I imagine those are pretty spectacular. However, on that sweltering day, as I slowly charbroiled on the Chicago pavement, I was underwhelmed.
Once we had collected our luggage and car, we headed a bit further north in the city to the Lincoln Park area. Our destination was Oz Park. I am bound to have shared before that I am a fan of ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Not a nerdy superfan but a fan nevertheless. One of my favourite paintings I’ve done in this past year is a Flying Monkey. I am passing on my love of classic movies to my kids so they are all Oz fans too. Whereas I read all Baum’s books as a kid, my sons have not yet read the books. I doubt they will. Anyway, L Frank Baum lived in Chicago in the 1890s so I guess the park is a memorial to him and his imagination.
The park is home to sculptures of the main characters from the Wizard of Oz. I was obsessed with seeing them all. We discovered Dorothy and Toto with ease then, while Mr Pict supervised our youngest son playing in Dorothy’s Playlot, I dragged the other three off in search of Dorothy’s travel companions. Scarecrow was only a hop, skip and jump away. The other two – Tin Man and Cowardly Lion – could not be spotted from where we were standing so we just set off on an amble around the park. Now the park is not a large park so the statues should and could have been easy to find. However, I had no bearings or map but did have three increasingly cranky and fractious kids with me. Know what the Wizard would have given them? Patience. That is what they were lacking. Fatigue soon erupted into squabbles and my own tolerance cracked. I had this inner dialogue (which was like a yelling match) between the mother in me who knew I needed to take the kids back to the car and get them something cold to eat or drink right away before they went full Flying Monkey and started ripping each other’s arms off and the movie nerd in me who – with an added dash of OCD and control freakery – really needed to find those last two ruddy statues. The Mother won. She yells louder.
Our destination that evening was somewhere in Indiana. I write somewhere because the actual place was entirely forgettable. It was near a college campus which was in itself plonked in the middle of nowhere. Apologies in advance if you happen to hail from or love Indiana but honestly there was nothing that diverted my attention during our entire drive through that state. Renowned as a flyover state, we treated it the same way but by car. I am sure the people are lovely and there are things to see and do that are not immediately obvious. We didn’t find them though. Spending the night in Indiana, however, meant I got to claim the state – my 4th new state of the trip and 29th overall.
Indiana was also another accommodation mishap. This time the hotel was perfectly pleasant and the staff lovely but it turned out our booking had screwed up. Instead of two rooms that would each comfortably accommodate three of us, we had two rooms containing one king size bed each. Oh dear. The hotel was booked to the gunnels so there was no alternative space. They were even out of foldaway beds. We had to problem solve our way around it. Two adults and a teenager take up quite a bit of space in beds plus we could not cram a kid with a broken arm into a shared bed. The way I solved the problem was to sacrifice the teenager. We asked the duty manager for spare comforters, sheets and pillows and made him up a nest on the floor of one of the rooms. Ironically he probably got the best sleep out of all of us. So that was Indiana then.