Wednesday, December 26, 2007

New York City

We left Pennsylvania Sunday evening, drove through New Jersey and on to New York City. After crossing through the Holland Tunnel, we were in Manhattan. A couple of missed turns later, we made it to our friend Max’s apartment in the West Village.

We’d already eaten dinner, so Max took us to a chic place for cocktails. We discovered that the cocktails are twice as expensive and half as big as in other places – we’d never paid $12 for a beverage before. It was quite tasty, but given the choice, Brian would take a 12-pack of beer instead.

After the cocktails, Max gave us a walking tour of New York City in the rain. Particularly memorable was a bar that was opened by Tim Robbins and built and decorated to look like a 1920s speakeasy. The bar was down an alley, and the gate into the alley had a sign on it indicating that the business inside was a toy store. Inside the speakeasy, the drinks are all served in teacups, and if you get bottle service, the bottle comes in a globe on a stand, where the globe flips open to access the bottle. And there’s a bookcase that opens into a secret back room. The bar was closing when we got there so we didn’t stay, but it was pretty neat! Max was a great tour guide, and eventually we went to bed around 4 a.m.

We’d found a great parking spot outside the apartment when we arrived in Manhattan, but we had to move the car by 8 a.m. the next day, since parking wasn’t allowed on weekdays. So on Monday morning, we got up at 7:15 to move the car, thinking that if we got a little bit earlier start than other people whose cars had to move by 8, we’d have a better chance of finding something. Many of the parking spaces in that area of Manhattan have parking allowed 24/7 except for a preset time when street sweepers come through, which is typically an hour and a half on Mondays and Wednesdays, or on Tuesdays and Thursdays, depending on the neighborhood and the side of the street. So we thought we might be able to find a parking spot where the streets get swept on Tuesday/Thursday, and then we could leave the car until we left the next morning.

At one point we found a spot that looked good – the only problem was that it was 10 or 12 feet away from a fire hydrant. That seemed OK to us, but to be sure, Sarah ran back to the apartment to look up New York parking laws on the internet. It turns out that you have to be 15 feet from fire hydrants, so we moved on. We drove around for another hour with Sarah navigating and Brian driving and had absolutely no luck – every seemingly valid parking spot was either close to a fire hydrant, in front of a driveway, or signed for no parking on all weekdays or for part of Monday.

Eventually, we decided to take a break, so we found a parking spot that was OK until 11:00 and walked back to the apartment. Some of the parking spots were scheduled for street sweeping from 9:00 to 10:30, so we started driving around again at 10:15, thinking if we found a spot a little early, we’d just park and hang out until 10:30.

A left turn put us behind a garbage truck on a street that was too narrow to allow passing, so all we could do was watch the garbage men do their work. They’d throw bag after bag into the back of the truck, which would periodically get full, so they’d have to compress the trash. The big jaw of the garbage truck would squeeze the bags, which would pop one by one like inflated balloons, spewing this gross dark gray liquid in all directions, including on the nearby cars. After 15 minutes of this disgusting show, the truck finally moved enough that we could get clear, but by now we’d missed our parking time so all the 9-10:30 street-sweeping parking spots were full.

You might think that at this point we’d give up and pay to park in a parking garage. The problem with that wasn’t the crazy parking rates, but the fact that parking garages in NYC aren’t like parking garages in other areas of the country. Because space is at such a premium, all of the garages are valet lots, which allows them to not only double park cars, but park cars on vertical lifts as well. Since we’ve been traveling for awhile and had stuff in our car, we weren’t comfortable handing over our keys to a random person working in a parking lot. So we parked again in a metered spot for an hour and got some donuts and coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. The next street-sweeping timeslot was 11:00-12:30, so this time, we decided to start looking around noon, to allow time to recover from any mishaps of the garbage-truck variety or any other. This time, we didn’t get stuck at all, but all of the parking spots that opened up at 12:30 were already occupied! People were just camped out, waiting in their cars for 12:30 to roll around. A couple of drivers had gotten out of their cars and were just chatting with each other, passing the time until 12:30 rolled around. Apparently, this parking spot search is highly competitive sport! After driving around a little longer, we finally got lucky and found a space that was one of the Tuesday/Thursday street-sweeping spots, so it was OK all day on Monday. It was now close to 12:30 – we’d spent five hours parking!

The parking situation solved, we were exhausted but relieved, and our day could begin. We found a nearby Metro station and took the subway to Central Park, planning to walk through the park and work our way back south toward Midtown. After meandering around a bit, we wound up in the Ravine, in an area of Central Park called the Northern Woods, which had a pretty waterfall.

After an hour or so of walking, we realized that Central Park is way bigger than it looks on the map, and since it was drizzling out, walking all the way down to the southern end didn’t seem so appealing. So we got back on the subway and took it south a couple of stops. By now it was mid-afternoon, and due to our parking debacle, we hadn’t eaten much more than a donut each, so we stopped for a quick slice of pizza each before continuing to walk around. Midtown was decorated up nicely for Christmas, and we liked these monster-sized ornaments in a fountain, set amongst the skyscrapers:

Then we passed right in front of Radio City Music Hall, advertising the Rockettes’ show:

Next we came to Rockefeller Plaza, which is packed with thousands and thousands of people every Thanksgiving weekend for the tree lighting. It was crowded on this day, too, but it was really neat to see the ice rink, the statue of Prometheus, and the tree towering above.

Brian must have looked like a serious photographer, because two groups of people stopped him to have him take their picture.

Next we came to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a full-block-sized cathedral right in the middle of Manhattan.

A life-sized manager was inside, and Sarah had to explain to Brian why baby Jesus was missing – Jesus doesn’t show up in the manger until Christmas.

Then we walked to Times Square, and as the daylight faded, the lights of Times Square became brighter and brighter.

Even early on a Monday evening, Times Square was a hub of activity, with mobs of people walking around. We agreed that although searching for a parking spot for five hours had been a hassle, it would have been a nightmare if we’d had to thread our way through Times Square!

At one point we saw a guy dressed like a toilet, greeting people and posing for pictures. Turned out that he was a Charmin toilet paper advertisement, drawing people into their free Times Square bathrooms! Brian didn’t especially need to go to the bathroom but just had to check this out, so he went inside, where he was greeted by more Charmin representatives in red and blue costumes. A long escalator led upstairs, and then to a large room with 20 or so individual bathrooms at one end. The room was brightly lit and populated by more of these red and blue characters, and a cheery song about Charmin toilet was paper playing incessantly in the background. As Brian waited in line for a toilet, a man came out of one of the bathrooms and shouted, “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You have the cleanest toilets in New York! My mother would be proud to use your bathrooms! My *grandmother* would be proud to use your bathrooms!” One of the blue characters, embarrassed, thanked him quietly for his glowing praise, so enthusiastically delivered.

After a short wait, Brian was directed to a bathroom. It turns out that after each use, the bathrooms get cleaned by one of the red or blue characters, so they’re always immaculate. It was truly an outstanding public bathroom experience, if there is such a thing. Brian later learned that the red and blue represented two varieties of Charmin toilet paper, a “Strong” type and a “Soft” type, and bathroom-goers could vote on which they liked better. The current tally was somewhere around 73,000 to 67,000 in favor of “Soft”. A few days later, Max pointed out an article on the internet, showing photos of a wedding that had been held in this very Charmin Times Square bathroom area with the bride wearing a gown fashioned out of Charmin toilet paper! What a place for a wedding!

Here’s a photo, although photos can’t do justice to this spectacle. The red and blue characters are probably frowning because they have to listen to the unbearably cheery Charmin song all day long. We hope Charmin allowed the couple that got married there to select their own music.

After our walk around Times Square, we boarded the Metro one more time to head back to Max’s apartment. We went out to dinner at a cozy French bistro with a fabulous BYOB policy with free corking. People were packed into the tiny restaurant, even on a Monday night, and we learned why – the food was delicious, and the BYOB policy made for an extremely inexpensive meal by New York standards. Since we’d only gotten 3½ hours of sleep the night before, we were exhausted after dinner, so we headed back to the apartment and went to bed.

The next morning, we got up early and retrieved our car, which was exactly where we’d left it, with no parking tickets. Next stop, Boston!

Saturday, December 22, 2007


On Saturday morning, December 8, we left Cuyahoga Valley for Pennsylvania. First stop: Gettysburg. Scene of the a key Civil War turning point, the bloodiest battle ever on American soil, and Lincoln’s famous address, we were excited to learn about its history.

We arrived at the visitors center to find out that there would be a bus leaving for the Eisenhower farm in about an hour, so we bought tickets for that and toured the Soldiers National Cemetery in the meantime. In the heat of the moment, after the battle of Gettysburg was over but the wounded were still being attended to, no one had the time to properly bury the dead, and thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers were laid to rest in shallow graves. Starting in October, three months after the battle, the National Cemetery was begun, and 3,555 Union soldiers were reburied in proper graves. The bodies of Confederate soldiers were removed after the war and buried in southern cemeteries.

When we got out there, we noticed that there were actually two cemeteries side by side and found out that the Evergreen Cemetery next door was where Lincoln gave his famous address. It also contained a small memorial and American flag erected for Mary Virginia “Jennie” Wade, a 19-year-old woman who was the only known civilian gunshot death at Gettysburg:

At the center of the National Cemetery sits a beautiful, massive memorial, the Soldiers’ National Monument. Its cornerstone was laid in 1865, and the monument was dedicated in 1869.

The statue at the top represents Liberty. The four statues situated around the base symbolize War, History, Peace, and Plenty.

The soldiers’ headstones are small and simple, nearly flush with the ground. 979 soldiers were never identified and just received small numbered squares for headstones.

Since the Civil War, over 3,000 soldiers who died in other wars have also been buried in the cemetery, and many received engraved headstones.

Now it was time to board the bus for Eisenhower’s farm. We learned that Dwight Eisenhower and his wife Mamie had spent most of their married life bouncing from place to place, living in over 35 different locations during his military and political career. In the early 1950’s, they bought this nearly 200-acre farm in Gettysburg as a place that they could call home and where they could retire.

The Eisenhowers decided to leave their farm to the National Park Service, with three stipulations. First, they could continue to live there for the rest of their lives. Second, no parking lot could be constructed on the property. Lastly, the land should continue to be farmed. That explained the bus we were on now – the Park Service runs periodic shuttle buses that take visitors the short distance from the visitors center to the Eisenhower property.

Here’s the Eisenhower house:

If you look carefully, you can see that the rightmost windows are smaller than the others. The Eisenhowers had bought the farm thinking that they’d be able to do some interior renovations of the farmhouse and preserve the exterior. After they bought the property, though, they realized that the brick exterior was just a façade over a rotting log frame, so preserving the structure wasn’t feasible. They did manage to preserve one section of the exterior façade, which is the rightmost section, and they rebuilt the rest of the house, matching the colors and style for the rest, but using larger windows.

Just a 35-minute helicopter flight from Washington, D.C., and a 10-minute helicopter flight from Camp David, the farm was host to many foreign dignitaries during Eisenhower’s presidency, and the success of Eisenhower’s famed diplomatic style was due in part to the atmosphere there. Touring the farm with Nikita Kruschev or chatting with Charles de Gaulle about the grandkids, who were often playing in the house, were great ways to break the ice before sometimes-heated policy discussions.

This room was the Eisenhowers’ porch and sitting room:

Today, the curtains are drawn to protect the interior of the house, which is virtually all original and as the Eisenhowers left it. But with the curtains open, this room got plenty of light through its floor-to-ceiling windows. The comfy, informal furniture made it a great place for the Eisenhowers to hang out and for Ike to meet with visitors. In retirement, Ike became quite a talented painter, and Mamie hung his paintings around the house. In the sitting room, you can see a painting on a canvas – that’s a replica of a painting that he was working on when he died in 1969. Mamie lived another 10 years, and the farm has been managed by the Park Service since then.

Here’s a room that’s night-and-day different from the sitting room:

This is the formal dining room. The high, straight-backed chairs, the elaborate chandelier, the china shelves and extensive silverware place settings and serving containers – all combine to make for an impressive room, and one that the Eisenhowers didn’t use much, except for entertaining. A knowledgeable husband-and-wife volunteer team told us about the Eisenhowers and the property, and one point that they made clear was that the Eisenhowers weren’t much for stuffiness and formality.

During December, the house is all decorated for Christmas using the Eisenhowers’ decorations.

This is a snow-dusted Christmas tree with Christmas gifts, in a wood-and-glass case, lit from the inside. The gifts below the tree have the names of the Eisenhowers’ grandchildren on them. The volunteers didn’t know who had made this for the Eisenhowers, but given that the youngest grandchild’s name is missing, they date it to before that child was born.

Another interesting type of knickknack was presidential figurines. Apparently, miniatures of American Presidents and first ladies were given away in cereal boxes at one point in time, and Mamie collected them. So in a display case, along with the aforementioned Christmas tree and many other curios, you can see George and Martha Washington, Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower, all in precisely detailed miniature.

After the Eisenhower tour, we returned to the visitors center. As we would learn later, the building will soon be demolished, so that the hallowed ground of the battle can return to its natural state. You hear the word “hallowed” a lot in Gettysburg, and it’s appropriate. The wide open fields contribute, where with a bit of imagination and some careful reading of the interpretive signs, you can picture in your mind’s eye the advances and retreats of the armies. But the hundreds and hundreds of monuments contribute as well, where you can picture veterans and loved ones of the dead returning to the scene of the battle to erect memorials to their brigades, their regiments, even their states’ soldiers, choosing to build something not only in remembrance of what happened at this place but the entire war.

You can buy a CD narration for a two-, three-, or four-hour tour of Gettysburg, and there are different driving routes to match. We only had a little over an hour before sunset, so we didn’t buy the CD and did our best to zip through the area. One of the first of the hundreds of monuments was a statue of Abner Doubleday.

A colonel during the war and later promoted to major general, Doubleday is now most famously known as the inventor of the sport of baseball. The Baseball Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, New York, because Doubleday supposedly invented the sport in a cow pasture in Cooperstown in 1839.

However, the main testimony linking Doubleday to baseball was provided by a guy who later shot and killed his wife and then wound up committed to an asylum for the criminally insane for the rest of his life. Those in charge of the sport clearly had an interest in linking its origins to a Civil War hero. And Doubleday himself never indicated a personal tie to baseball in his extensive writings. Historians now generally believe that baseball evolved from two earlier sports, cricket and rounders, rather than being invented in Cooperstown.

The late-afternoon light was pretty on the eternal flame and cannons:

There are several towers around Gettysburg that were built for military purposes, and since then have been used for military training and as overlooks for visitors. One offered a great view of the Eisenhower farm.

As the last light faded, we realized that although our quick afternoon tour of Gettysburg had been fascinating, there was still a lot more to see and learn. We still didn’t feel like we had a good understanding of how the battle had progressed, for instance, or even why it began. There were a couple of things working against us: First, the tour of the Gettysburg battlefield and monuments is designed for vehicles, so it’s a loop. When the Union and Confederacy were fighting, on the other hand, they weren’t concerned with auto tour convenience, so the battle moved around with no apparent order, sometimes flaring in multiple places at once. Due to this lack of foresight on the part of the generals and colonels in the war, the resulting vehicle tour is not in chronological order at all – you start the tour by learning about the first day of the three-day battle, but then the tour jumps to Day Three, then back to Day Two, and so on. The visitors center had a light show that showed the movements of the troops in chronological order over the battlefield – we didn’t see it, but in hindsight it might have been a useful initial overview to put the different sites on the tour into context.

Second, because of Gettysburg’s historical importance as the bloodiest battle and a key turning point in the war, hundreds of monuments and interpretive signs have been built, with precise detail about particular brigades and events, like this one:

Trying to understand the battle from reading these signs on the auto loop tour, then, is like trying to understand American history by reading a stack of newspapers in random order. Reading more about Gettysburg later, we learned that General Lee’s Confederate army had crossed over the Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania and was marching east toward Philadelphia when General Mead’s Union army encountered them by chance and engaged them on July 1, 1863, at Gettysburg. Reinforcements for both sides arrived in the next day, and at the peak, nearly 70,000 soldiers were fighting. By the end of the day on July 3, Pickett’s charge had failed, and the Confederate army was turned back.

After Gettysburg, we drove toward Lancaster County, which is the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country. We arrived at night but drove through the town of Lancaster anyway to see what we could see. The town itself, as it turned out, was disappointing – the business district looked like that of any poor town, with iron bars in the windows to prevent robberies of the dirty convenience stores.

Once we got out of town and onto a country road, we noticed a slow-moving vehicle ahead, with its hazard lights on. Even though the road had a solid double line down the middle, the car ahead of us passed the slow vehicle, so we did, too. As we passed, we realized that it wasn’t a car or truck but a carriage, pulled by a trotting horse! We passed three or four other horse-drawn carriages before arriving at our bed and breakfast. Although the Amish are generally against mechanization and electricity, the state requires them to run their carriages with hazard lights on for their own safety.

The Verdant View Farm Bed and Breakfast was our destination for the night.

We sat up for a while chatting with the couple who owned the place, Ginnie and Don, before heading to bed. The man was excited to pop some corn for us – they actually grow popcorn corn and pop it right on the cob! Some trial-and-error had been required, though, to figure out the process of popping corn on the cob. They first butter the cob and put it in a paper bag. But popped just like that, the microwave overheats and shorts out – they shorted two microwaves this way. Then they hit upon the idea of putting a mug of cold water with ice into the microwave, next to the bag of popcorn. The water absorbs some of the microwave’s energy and prevents it from shorting out, and you get not only a bag of popcorn but also a cup of hot water for tea! We ate tasty popcorn and drank tea to go along with the dinner that we cooked for ourselves.

The bed and breakfast is actually a working farm, so the next morning we got up at 6:30 a.m. to help out with the farm chores. As it turned out, “helping out” mostly meant watching the woman who runs the place and one of the farmhands, but it was a lot of fun. When we got out to the barn, Ginnie apologized for not having offered us fresh milk the night before. One of the farmhands hadn’t claimed his morning coffee yet, so she gave it to us. The “coffee” was really mostly fresh cows milk with a splash of coffee added in. Ginnie deemed it to be too cold, so she “warmed it up” with a few squirts of milk directly from the cow!

They showed us how to milk a cow by hand, and we both tried our hand at it, grabbing one teat near the top and squeezing it all the way down, and marveling at the milk squirting out as a result. It was pretty clear that even if we got good at milking and could do it quickly, hand milking would take way too long with 45 milk cows needing to be milked twice a day. So it wasn’t surprising that they had machinery that could milk six cows at a time – even so, it still took a long time for all 45 cows to progress through the milking process.

Some of the milk was set aside and loaded into half-gallon baby bottles – this was for the three calves. Along with the farmhand, we each got to feed a calf out of a baby bottle – just tip the bottle up and a minute or two of non-stop sucking later, it’s dry. Then load it up again and feed the calf again – each calf gets two bottles in the morning and two in the evening, for a total of two gallons of milk a day!

Here are the little guys, full and happy, taking their after-breakfast nap:

Although the farm is a working farm, it’s managed in part as an attraction for the tourists who stay at the bed and breakfast, so there are a variety of other farm animals. We got to feed corn to a donkey:

We also were supposed to feed the goat, and when we got outside, the goat walked right up to us – it had broken its chain free! Brian grabbed it by the chain and walked it around the back of the farm, trying to figure out where to tether it. The goat wasn’t very big, but boy, was it strong, and stubborn, too! When it dug in its feet, it took all of Brian’s strength to get it moving again. Eventually we found the spool that acts as its goat house and got it reattached. It was rainy and chilly, so the goat went inside and peeked out:

The bed and breakfast was a lot of fun. Sarah had been around farms growing up, but Brian hadn’t, so seeing the milking operation and feeding the calves were novel activities. And we had the place pretty much to ourselves – a mother and daughter were the only two other people staying there on a Saturday night in December.

After we left the B&B, we drove east, taking a scenic drive through rolling hills and farms. It was a cool, rainy Sunday, so there wasn’t much activity outside, but we did see a couple more horse-drawn carriages. The carriages are pretty nice – they’re entirely enclosed, keeping the passengers sheltered from the elements.

Around midday, we arrived at Valley Forge, just west of Philadelphia and our destination for the afternoon. This is where George Washington’s Revolutionary War army spent the winter of 1777-1778. Given that the Revolutionary War lasted eight winters, though, and we hadn’t heard of any of the other winter camps, it wasn’t initially clear to us why Valley Forge has become so well-known. The winter at Valley Forge was harsh, but a later winter during the war was even harsher. Supplies were tight, but people generally had enough to eat. Nearly 2,000 soldiers did die, though, most of those during the months of March through May, when the weather was warmer and supplies more abundant, indicating that most of the deaths were due to disease rather than cold or starvation.

What made Valley Forge so important, we decided, was that it became a symbol. 1777 was pretty early in the war, when the outlook for defeating the British seemed bleak – the colonial troops were a ragtag bunch, without much discipline or organization. They were undersupplied and didn’t have the support they needed from the Continental Congress, so Washington wrote a series of eloquent letters, explaining (and sometimes exaggerating) the hardships faced by the troops to get better support.

And the victory over the British truly was an amazing achievement – a ragtag bunch of colonists ultimately defeated one of the greatest militaries in the world. As historians wrote the early history of the country, it was natural that they would latch onto symbols to stir the patriotism of the citizens of the young country, and Valley Forge became the symbol of the hardships and suffering faced by the colonial army in their quest for independence.

In addition to learning about the historical importance of the site, we also got to goof around in the visitors center. Here’s Sarah as a colonial solder:

After leaving the visitors center, we embarked on a five-mile driving tour of the park. This tour was easier to understand than the Gettysburg tour, since there was no out-of-order battle action to piece together.

At one of the first stops, we encountered some very small British soldiers. They had arrived just a couple centuries too late to attack the colonial army, but they were running around just the same:

We got them to stand still just long enough to take a picture:

The National Memorial Arch is the main monument in the park, dedicated in 1917 to the soldiers’ “patience and fidelity”:

General Anthony Wayne commanded the Pennsylvania troops. This statue sits in the area where they camped, and Wayne faces toward his home nearby. Sarah jumped in the picture to show the magnitude of the statue:

Valley Forge is so named because of an iron forge that was built along Valley Creek in the 1740s. The owners of the forge reluctantly allowed the colonial army to turn it into a supply base, with assurances that it would be safe from the British. Nevertheless, the British came through in the summer of 1777, stole what they could from the forge and nearby mills, and torched the rest. The forge owners, along with some colonial troops, tried to turn back the British, but to no avail, and the owner of the forge was financially wiped out.

Some of the homes at the forge site were spared, however, and when Washington selected Valley Forge as the site for the winter encampment, he turned the Isaac Potts house into his headquarters:

We toured the inside of the house, which is furnished with period pieces and replicas to look like it may have looked when it was the headquarters.

Valley Forge’s historical significance is mostly symbolic, but one thing did happen there to impact the outcome of the war: The troops were trained and turned into a more professional army. The former Prussian officer Baron von Steuben arrived in February and delivered a hands-on training program, first focusing on training Washington’s personal guard forces, and then using them to help train the rest of the troops. Here’s a statue of von Steuben:

Southern Pennsylvania, and in particular the protected areas of Gettysburg and Valley Forge, is home to a lot of deer. This one posed for us near the end of our tour:

After we left Valley Forge, we drove a mile to what our guidebook called the largest retail shopping mall in the U.S., King of Prussia Mall, just to take in the spectacle. We thought the largest was the Mall of America in Minneapolis, but whatever – King of Prussia was huge. The merry-go-round at the center of the mall was painted with Valley Forge scenes like the National Memorial Arch, and Santa was meeting a long line of kids and posing for pictures at the base of the merry-go-round:

After walking through the rest of the mall, foraging for free chocolate samples and buying a few postcards, we set out for New York City, where we’d be spending the next two nights in a friend’s Manhattan apartment!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Cuyahoga Valley

We left New Lenox on Thursday, December 6, heading to Maine to spend Christmas with Sarah’s family. Our first stop along the way was Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio. Who knew Ohio had a national park? The park is only 10 miles from Cleveland. The park was very different from most of the national parks we’ve been in. It was more developed and it was often difficult to determine where the park ended and towns picked up. The park is built around protecting the heritage of the Erie Canal as well as providing a recreation area for Ohio residents.

We arrived in late afternoon, just in time for a quick stroll around Kendall Lake before we checked into our accommodations for the night. We were staying at the Stanford Hostel, which provides the park’s only accommodations and is in an old farmhouse. When the park was created as a national recreation area in the 1970s, the park service started acquiring land in the area, sometimes by eminent domain. At some point this farmhouse was acquired, but then it sadly sat empty for seven or eight years while the park service tried to figure out what to do with it. Eventually, they partnered with Hostelling International and turned the farm into a hostel. We found this out from the very friendly, and chatty, hostel keeper.

The hostel holds 38 people, but the first night there were only three of us there so we got our own room. There was also a huge kitchen, which we used to cook ourselves some chili for dinner. We also finished decorating the hostel’s Christmas tree, which made our third tree decorating experience of the year. Here’s a photo of the hostel:

After dinner, we went to one of the park visitor centers for a presentation by AP Photographer Mark Duncan that was sponsored by the Cuyahoga Valley Photography Club. One of the differences between Cuyahoga Valley National Park and the other parks we’ve been to was the number of evening programs. During the day, a lot of things were closed because it was off season. There were programs every evening though, probably because it is an easy drive for Clevelanders after work. Anyway, Mark Duncan gave a fascinating presentation. He told the story of his career through his photos. Much of his career has been spent photographing sports, primarily baseball (including some World Series games and Pete Rose’s record-breaking 4,192nd hit), but also the Olympics, basketball, and other sports. He had a knack for capturing action shots like full layouts by baseball players, interesting angles like a birds-eye view of a slam dunk (LeBron James was a favorite subject), and compelling compositions like the joy of victory with the pain of defeat in the foreground. Not all of his experience is photographing sports; he’s done feature stories, covered international events, followed politicians, and captured human interest stories. It’s hard to describe in words, but it was a fascinating presentation.

It was really cold outside and back at the hostel, we were thankful to have a roof over our head instead of sleeping in our tent. In the morning, we bundled up and hiked from the hostel to Brandywine Falls. It was about 5 miles round-trip along a pleasant wooded trail. It had snowed overnight and the falls we cloaked in snow and ice.

The ice formations almost looked like cave formations:

Continuing along the loop, we followed the stream for a while before crossing to the trail back to the hostel. Here’s Brian crossing the stream:

After our hike, we jumped into the car to explore some other areas of the park. We tried to visit the Boston Store Visitor Center, but it was closed for the season. Next we drove by the Hale Farm & Village area. This is a cluster of historic buildings that is run as a living history center. Unfortunately, it too was closed. Sarah did take a photo of some of their Christmas decorations though:

Next, we were on to Sarah’s Vineyard. The park service leases several plots of land to be run as sustainable farms, and this is one of the businesses in the program. Sarah was excited to taste her namesake wine. The wine tasting was in a beautiful barn that had been restored, or rebuilt where necessary. It, too, was decked out for the holidays:

We tasted several of their wines and chatted with the woman who worked there for a while. It was good to be inside long enough to warm up. Some of the wine was quite good, including a blueberry wine named after Brandywine Falls, where we’d hiked in the morning, and others we were less excited about.

After dawdling at the Vineyard, we went back into the town of Peninsula where we found a tiny bookstore with free coffee and a newspaper. Perfect! After sipping some coffee, we started the architectural walking tour of downtown Peninsula, which had about twenty stops in less than a mile of walking. A detailed brochure told us about the style of each house as well as the history of the house. We thought the most interesting was this Craftsman-style house:

The house is the “Vallonia” style, which was purchased from the Sears catalog in 1926 for $2,076. The house arrived by train and final assembly was done onsite. We had no idea that “Craftsman style” of houses referred to a house from the Sears catalog. The characteristics specific to this style included the exposed rafters, steep gable roof, and front porch with full posts.

At this point, it was about 4 pm and we were cold and running out of ideas of things to do. We couldn’t go back to the hostel yet because there is a lockout from 10 am to 5 pm. We decided to chill (or rather, warm) at a popular local establishment, the Winking Lizard. Sarah had a yummy hot chocolate with whipped cream and Brian enjoyed a Christmas ale. The place was hopping. There was a group of a half dozen people in one corner playing a very rowdy game of shuffleboard. I never knew shuffleboard could be that loud or involve so much trash talk.

After dinner, we went on a ranger-led hike of the Ledges area of the park. There were only four people that showed up for the hike, plus the ranger. Each of us was given an old-fashioned candle lantern to guide our way. The path was snowy but not too slippery. Though it was cold we were bundled and kept moving fast enough to stay warm. It was hard to see a lot with just the lantern, but we could make out the outline of the ledges above up. We also got to go into the crevices of the ledges at one point and see the carvings that were left by the Civilian Conservation Corps workers who built up many of the park structures and trails during the depression. The ranger was very knowledgeable about the CCC and gave us a history lesson as we walked. The ad for the walk promised a bonfire, cocoa, and storytelling when the walk was finished, but the ranger knew nothing about it. The bonfire and hot beverage would have been nice, but the walk was certainly worthwhile by itself anyway.

After the hike, we drove back through Peninsula and noticed that the nearby train station was all lit up with Christmas lights. These days, the trains through Peninsula are sightseeing trains run in partnership with the park. They run a variety of specials, including a scenic ride, a wine-tasting train, a character train where you learn about life in the 1800s, etc. They also run seasonal trains, and as it turned out, the “Polar Express” had just pulled into town, so the area had transformed into a winter wonderland with lots of lights and locals dressed as elves. Less than 15 minutes later, all the lights were off, props taken down, and people dispersed. It was an impressive sight. We didn’t get any pictures of the “Polar Express,” but here’s what the train station looked like during the day:

The next morning, we were up early and off to Pennsylvania for our next stop.