Wednesday, October 20, 2010

All Abooooard! A Stop at Steamtown NHS

Trains greet visitors as they arrive to park at Steamtown National Historic Site.

Where can you find a Park Ranger wearing overalls and an engineer's cap instead of the iconic green uniform and Ranger hat? Where can the magic of the Island of Sodor and the Polar Express be touched by a 4-year-old's little hands? Where can you climb inside the rail cars that most children can only imagine from stories like The Little Red Caboose and The Boxcar Children series?

Only at Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, PA.

If you live outside of Pennsylvania, its very possible you've never heard of this little gem under the National Parks Service umbrella. I know I never had and I have two train-loving boys and only live two states away. And that's truly a shame, because this is one of the most unique National landmark we have yet been to. And it should be on the must-do list for every steam and smoke loving child under the age of 95.

I actually stumbled across Steamtown while doing some pre-trip planning for our short jaunt up to Massachusetts. I was scrounging around the internet looking for something to do or see on our way home that would help make it feel like more of a fun road trip and less of a marathon drive for a quick friend's wedding. Of course, since I have the National Parks Passport, I inevitably ended up on the National Parks website to see if we'd be passing by someplace where I could get my book stamped. There were quite a few participating locations on our route, but when I checked Pennsylvania and saw the words "Steamtown National Historic Site," I knew I had a winner. A park filled with old-style trains would most definitely be more interesting to the kids than walking around a battlefield. Plus they not only had a stamp for my book, but a Junior Ranger program as well. Sounded like a slam dunk to me!

So I told the Hubs a little about the place and that we were going to play the stop by ear depending on how our return trip was going. Scranton wasn't precisely on the route back home, and would require about an hour detour plus a few hours to explore the site. Adding three or four hours to an already 12 hour trip sounded daunting, but I already had my heart set on stopping... for the kid's sake, of course.

About three years ago we were in the Great Smokey Mountains (for another wedding, go figure) and had the opportunity to go see and RIDE the 'real' Thomas the Tank Engine as he traveled across the country on his "Day Out with Thomas" tour. It was awesome. My oldest was four at the time and in full-blown Thomas heaven. My youngest, though, was only about 6 months old at that time, so now with him just a month away from turning four himself, it seemed only fair to give him a chance at an unforgetable train experience.

The return trip was going quite well (shockingly) and so we veered off course shortly after entering Pennsylvania to head towards Scranton. Having spent some of my childhood living in a town outside of Philly, I recognized the look and feel of an old PA city right away. The site was easy enough to get to and located just on the opposite side of a small downtown district. Pulling in to the lot, the kids faces were nearly smushed against the window glass as they took in the trains littering the rails surrounding the parking lot.

By then it was past lunch time, so we diverted the kids eyes as best we could and walked first over to the adjacent mall for a hurried meal in the food court. (Yes, there's a mall right next to the site, and its even named "The Mall at Steamtown." A Ranger joked they were the only National Parks site with a mall named after them!) Then we diverted my eyes from the mall stores and walked back over to the train yard.

Right out front of the site's ticket counter we were greeted by an enourmous engine which we later found out is nicknamed "Big Boy." The boys were in awe of the massive size of him, and that was only the beginning of the fun.

The kids in front of "Big Boy."

Our first stop was the gift shop to be sure I didn't run out of time to pick up patches and pins to remember our visit. The second was to the Park information desk so we could get the Junior Ranger booklet and see if it would be doable on our short visit (it was). Then we hurried off to the next (and last) train ride of the day. Billed as a 20 miute ride for a low cost of $3 per person over 6 years old, The Scranton Limited ride sounded like a great chance to experience what a real trip was like on an old-timey train.

For me, the grown up, though, I was slightly dissapointed in the fact that A) it wasn't a steam engine pulling the train (it is called Steamtown, after all), and B) the ride was just a quick back and forth on a small section of track contained within the park site's boundries. The Ranger explained that to go off the park's portion of the track meant they had to pay the company that owned the other portion, and that just was not feasible for such a short, cheap ride. Well, I could understand that problem, and the boys didn't seem to care at all that we hardly even went anywhere. The bouncy seats and views of even more dilapidated and antique trains in the back of the yard were enough to make the boys happy, so it was worth the small price to see their smiles. P.S. - Other, longer rides are available for a higher cost if you have time, and also special excursions for things like fall foliage viewing, Halloween rides and the extremely popular Polar Express rides. Don't bother to look at the Polar Express ride for this year though, they're already sold out! If we had more time I would have gladly paid for a longer ride through the countryside!

Train bliss for a nearly-four-year-old.

With all the important business out of the way, we then proceeded to begin our exploration of the various buildings and exhibits around the area. Most of the public portion of Steamtown is contained within an old fasioned roundhouse, one of the few left standing in the country. We even got to see the turntable actually turn when a steam engine puffed into the roundhouse toward the end of our visit and was turned so it could be put to rest in its shed for the night - just like Thomas!

Different sections of the roundhouse had been converted into themed exhibit/museum spaces. I must say the park's designers really knew their audience, becuase nearly everything in the exhibits was hands on. There were buttons to push, levers to pull, wheels to turn, and fun things to look at everywhere we went. Far from being a stuffy museum with lots of boring photos and explanations of trains (though it does have those too if that's what you're interested in), Steamtown encourages kids and adults to naturally be involved in the history and technology of trains by immersing you in them as much as reasonably possible. Pull up a crate and watch a short movie inside a real box car. Lay down on a cot inside a real red caboose. Take a walk through a long mail car and see how you might sort the mail in days of old.

A steamy steams into the roundhouse
for a spin on the turntable.

The boys try their hands, and arms, at a real working hand car. Not easy!

Perhaps the most surprising experience to me, though, was the walk through the original 1907 portion of the old roundhouse. It was dark, it was dirty, it was smokey, it had huge engines looming eerily in the dim light, one of which was still quietly steaming from its recent trip into the shed. Try as I might, I couldn't imagine ever happily working in such a place. Even with the windows and electric lights, there seemed to be no stopping the sence of gloom in that other-worldly place. And amazingly, people still actually do work on the trains in there!

A Percy look-alike inside the 1907 portion of the roundhouse.

My oldest train enthusiast thouroughly enjoyed finding the answers to the Junior Ranger work book all throughout the buildings and was excited to be sworn in (again) as a Junior Park Ranger. Now he has another badge to add to his growing collection, (and I have another stamp in my book!). Though our stop was somewhat short, we had a great time exploring one of the lesser known National Parks and it was reasonable to get all the important sights in to our brief couple of hours. Some extra time would have been welcome so we could have taken a longer train ride and explored the trolley museum at the opposite end of the parking lot (and maybe shopped at the mall?), but with the time we had it was an afternoon well spent. Both boys had a wonderful time and were sad to leave such a neat place.

Working on the Jr. Ranger booklet in
one of the cabooses and learning how
people would live in that little room.

Though it hasn't been in any book on National Parks that I've picked up so far, even the ones listing the best parks for kids, Steamtown is a must stop place for anyone young or old who has ever longed to hear the whistle of a steam engine and the hoarse cry of the conductor as he yells out "All Aboooooaaard!" Make a stop at Steamtown on your east coast to-do list. Say hello to Big Boy and revel in the sights, sounds and smells of America's railroad heyday.

The boys pretend to buy a ticket to ride.

Friday, October 15, 2010

October Mountain: Plugging ourselves in to nature for a recharge

So, yesterday you spent over twelve hours in a cramped SUV with two kids, your husband, mother-in-law and two frustrating Tom-Tom GPS's that didn't seem to agree on which route you should be taking. It was a L-O-N-G trip. Today you wake up in the hotel (with hubby and kids, M.I.L. got her own room!) with a sore back and not much sleep, and you have one of your best friends weddings to go to at 1pm that afternoon.

What do you do for the next few hours?

Watch some TV, relax, grab some breakfast at the pathetic continental spread in the lobby. Maybe have a short drive around the cute little town to see what's there and grab a light lunch.

Yep, that's what 'normal' people would probably do.

Fortunately for me, I'm not 'normal.'

Early fall in the the Berkshire Mountains near Lenox, MA

First, I wasn't driving all the way up to the Berkshires only to look at the scenery from the car window. Second, I knew that I'd be on the brink of going stir-crazy after such a long trip in such a small vehicle. Third, well, what would you expect two highly active little boys to act like at a wedding after a day in a car and a morning in a hotel room? Sitting still and quiet would NOT be on their to-do list for the afternoon, I can assure you of that.

So a little pre-trip planning gave me a lot of choices for a quick morning adventure. I printed off the info and directions to a few before we left and chose October Mountain State Park the night before, mostly becuase it was close and had such an imagination-inspiring lovely name! Saturday morning we awoke, packed our day packs, strapped on our hiking boots and proceeded to have an incredibly lovely day.

To my surprise and to my kids pleasure, there was another perk to going to October Mountain. The Massachussets State Park system offers a free passport book for kids which they can stamp at every park they visit using a special stamp located near the offices. The boys were thrilled to unlock the box and stamp their new books, and I was thrilled to have a very nice and FREE momento of our trip. And who knows, maybe sometime we'll go back and can get more stamps from other parks!

Our hike was fantastic. The autumn colors were beautiful, the park was lovely, and the trail was exactly what the boys and I needed to recharge ourselves and get back into a good mood after all the crankiness in the car. I opted for hiking part of a trail out-and-back for a total of only about 1.5 miles. We couldn't be late for the wedding! We took our time playing on rocks and in streams and generally having a wonderful time in the woods.

After making it to a set of small cascading waterfalls and racing many sticks and yellow leaves down the natural water slides, we turned around to head back to the campground where we were parked. The kids didn't want to go, but even a outdoorsy-girl like me needs lots of time to primp and try to make myself look fabulous for a wedding. My oldest asked if we could do another hike after the wedding. I could not have been happier with their enthusiasm, even though I knew it'd be too late by then to do so. October Mountain was the perfect way to get outside and have at least one small experience in the beauty of fall in New England.

Family shot while taking a break on the trail.

Getting ready to send that leaf on a ride down the cascades.

The little falls and the park and the trails were all beautiful.

My Jr Explorer and future hiking guru.

Our one and only Massachussets State Park stamp... for now at least.

(P.S. - Where was my hubby? Off doing his Best man duties with the groom of course!)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Reviving the All-American Road Trip

Twelve-plus hours in the car. With two kids.

(Cue the sounds of all parents groaning together)

An extended family car trip. For pretty much every parent I talk to lately, this scenario ranks up there with root canals and proctology exams. It may be an occasional necessary evil, but something to be avoided whenver possible.

Honestly, I'm one of them. But for good reason, I think. There's a bad gene somewhere in my oldest son, and when he was an infant he HATED riding in the car. He was colicky, fussy and quite the screamer. "Take him for a ride in the car!" People would tell us. "He'll fall right asleep." Umm, no. The sreaming only got louder. What a set of lungs a 4 month old can have! So car trips became a torture worse than anything the Chinese military could dream up. Even seven years later, we are still haunted by those memories and feel a sence of dread whenever packing up the car.

My oldest boy as an infant caught in a rare moment
of smiling. Funny, we have no pictures of him in the
car. I must have been holding my ears instead of the
camera at those times.

Fortunately, our second child wasn't affected by the rouge non-car loving gene. He's never been one to fall alseep instantly at the slightest hint of a motor's hum, but at least he didn't make us think we were the most evil parents on the planet for strapping him into a car seat. Still, with two young children in the backseat of a car without one of those fancy DVD systems, travelling more than three to four hours away was almost out of the question for our family.

My, how things have changed.

I was recently reminicing a little with a fellow Cub Scout dad. We found we both have fond memories of the family car trips of our youth. A clunky station wagon, silly made-up car games with siblings, maybe some song singing and coloring books. There were no seat belt laws for kids that we knew of, so generally we'd ride in the "way-back" where there were no seats at all, much less belts. My parents would put a couple sleeping bags back there for cushioning and we'd laze the day away, playing and napping and watching the "upside-down movie" by laying on our backs and looking up through the rear window. Those were the days...

Old steel bridge somewhere in New York State.

I guess my rosy-colored memories don't account for the arguing over who-is-on-who's-side that I'm sure my sister and I did, or the frustration of my parents being lost and trying to figure out the map while we kids whined about being hungry or bored or needing to use the potty (or all three at once). The only unpleasant memory I have of a car trip was the extrordinarily hot summer we first went to Cape Hatteras. did I mention our station wagon did not have air conditioning and had faux leather seats? Sticky is a good word to describe that particular flashback. Ewwwwww.

Now, we have done some road trips already with the kids, but not without a certain amount of trepidation. Usually its been for a good unavoidable reason, like a wedding or important family visit. When planning our regular family vacations, I generally try to keep within a four-hour radius unless we have plans to simply fly there. That's been about as much as I can reasonably handle in keeping the whole family from decending into mayhem. This most recent trip of ours was to Massachusetts from our home in Virginia. Over 12 hours cocooned in the car, the longest we have ever yet attempted. And to make it worse, we only stayed in MA one full day, then it was back on the road for a 12 hour drive home. Oh, and I should mention my mother-in-law was in the car too. Talk about crowded. Kill. Me. NOW.

Country road in western Mass.

But to my surprise, the trip really wasn't that bad. In fact, my biggest complaints would be the senceless routes our TomTom took us and the ache in my back after all that time without good lumbar support. Those dumb (read the sarcasm here people) seatbelt laws that keep my kids forceably chained to one place finally didn't seem to affect our two boys much. At ages 7 and ALMOST 4, there is something better than license plate scavenger hunts and upside-down movies to keep the kids occupied. This may be the only time I'll say it, so mark these words: Thank you, Nintendo, for inventing the DSi.

Sorry Mom & Dad, but you were better parents than I. Yes, I resort to plugging in the electronics to enjoy the ride in peace, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Between their DS games and Leapster games and the portable DVD player we (finally) got for Christmas a couple years ago, there was not one instance of "I'm booooored" to be heard. In fact, they didn't even touch the coloring and activity books I brought as backup. Now don't get in a huff, they did not play video games for 12 hours straight, there were breaks. But my sanity was on the line and on *some* occasions, being plugged in can be a real blessing.

Pretty river view from the car window, maybe in Pennsylvania?

Of course, that 12 hours is total kid-trip time. It includes multiple stops at rest areas, a picnic lunch to let the kids have a good leg streatcher, and dinner along the way. On the way back I even dared to plan a real stop along the way. Just like the stops of old along Route 66 to see giant balls of string and other random items of interest, I decided before we embarked that we were going to try and make a real American trip out of this speedy three-day jaunt, and put a big star on the map for Steamtown National Historic Site. For the kids, this was probably the best and most memorable part of the trip, and one stop I am so happy we chose to make. (More about the awesomeness of Steamtown in another post!)

Boy heaven.

So with a successful, lengthy, whirlwind all-American road trip under our belts, I think I'm going to expand our family vacation radius by a few hours. Who knows what kind of fun adventures we'll be having next year as we venture farther away from home near Richmond, VA? Just as long as there's some electronics in the back seat, I think we could even tackle a 14 hour drive to Disney World! Well, maybe. But this time I'll bring a back pillow and a DS of my own.

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