Way, way back in 2013, my sainted in-laws took Jeff, Eleanor and myself on a trip to Washington D.C. and a other assorted U.S. history-related sites (like Monticello and Colonial Williamsburg). It was a lot of fun, but I spent much of my time there wishing that I could go on a similar trip with my whole family.
Perhaps when Katie turned eight, I imagined, we might do another similar East Coast trip, but perhaps to the Boston area, instead?
Little did I know that such imaginings might one day become reality! Last fall Brian and I unearthed a killer deal on airfare to Boston ($230 per person, round trip!) and we began planning a fast and furious Magical History Tour.
(It didn’t hurt that we had friends in the region that we wanted to visit, too.)
So here begins a lengthy travelogue, which are possibly the worst kind of blog post, so my apologies in advance.
My first priority was to amend a mistake I made back in 2007 when I had the chance to visit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and then didn’t. I’ve regretted that decision for the last decade.
Regrets no more! On our first day in Massachusetts, we immediately pointed our rental car towards Amherst and the museum.
It’s a tiny little place — only two galleries — but beautifully curated. My teenagers were especially pleased by their temporary exhibit, which is all about graphic novel author/illustrators.
I especially enjoyed the museum’s reading room, which features a library of picture books alphabetized by illustrator’s last name (usually it’s by author). Cheeky, that.
Admittedly, I was slightly disappointed by the small number of artworks on display. The museum has something like 4600+ original illustrations in its collection. Only a tiny fraction of those were available for viewing by the public. It seems a lot of what the museum does is create moveable exhibits that tour children’s museums around the country. Which is fine, I suppose.
The museum bookstore had the biggest collection of Very Hungry Caterpillar merchandise, ever. But their bookstore was AMAZING — one of the best children’s bookstores I’ve ever visited.
They had a bumper sticker that says “The Pigeon Is Not Authorized to Drive This Vehicle,” along with a drawing of the Mo Willems pigeon. Of course we had to get one. It was practically written in the stars. It’s on my van now.
Amherst is also home to the Emily Dickinson Museum, so of course we had to make a stop there as well. It was fascinating to see the research that historians have done to learn about what Emily Dickinson’s life and habits were like — she’s still very much an enigma in many ways. Her brother’s next-door house was also part of the home tour, and it’s been marvelously preserved — an incredible time-capsule of well-to-do Victorian-era life in New England.
(Spoiler alert: this was but the first of many, many historic homes we toured. I thought I was boring the kids to pieces, but on the way home, William listed the home tours as his favorite part of the trip. He really enjoyed seeing what day-to-day life was like for people long ago. And yes, I did a series of mental fist-pumps when he said this.)
That evening we rode the T into the city to see the Red Sox play the Detroit Tigers at Fenway Park.
We had to do a bit of arm-twisting to commit ourselves to taking everybody to a ballgame. I am not a sportsing person. Brian is to an extent, but he’s not a big baseball fan. All of the kids groaned at the idea (especially Eleanor) but we heard so much positive feedback from friends and family members who have gone to games there, that we decided to give it a try.
I’m so glad we did! My brother told me that his experience there was “magical,” and I have to concur. There’s some seriously deep nostalgic Americana going on with that place. It’s so tiny and charming, and everybody feels like they are having a laid back party. We ate overpriced hot dogs and the most delicious kettle corn I’ve ever had. The audience did “the wave,” and someone got engaged on the JumboTron. What more could you ask for?
Oh, and there was a baseball game. (Katie actually giggled in my ear during The Wave and said, “we are not paying attention to baseball, mama!”)
The Sox won! Yay!
We actually left before the game was over (since we had a very long trek back to our hotel, and we didn’t want to do that at midnight) and the kids, who had been grumbling and frowning on our arrival, then begged and pleaded to stay one more inning.
My bestie Libby lives in the outskirts of Boston, and she was more than happy to pull her kids out of school for the day and meet us in the city for some hard-core touring. It was so fun to see her again! And much was the marveling at how big our kids have grown, etc. etc.
We started our day at the U.S.S. Constitution!
It wasn’t our first time visiting this ship; we made a visit with Libby and her family back in 2007. Jeff was five years old and obsessed with history, and he loved the USS Constitution so much that he vowed then and there that he would be a “powder monkey” when he grew up.
(He has since changed his mind.)
We had lots of fun climbing through the different levels of the ship listening to the servicemen on board who told us the (very extensive) battle history of the ship, and why it’s called Old Ironsides. (It’s because it’s constructed of live oak, which is stronger than the regular oak that the Brits used.)
Afterwards, Brian, Jeff & William broke off from our group to take a quick gander at the Bunker Hill Memorial (which they were interested in since reading about Bunker Hill in One Dead Spy.)
We met back up at Faneuil Hall for a very, very crowded and busy lunch. We ate on a bench and felt incredibly lucky to have that bench. Geez.
Afterwards, we wandered back through the North End (aka Little Italy) to try out cannolis at Mike’s Pastry. The kids each chose a different flavor (there are twenty or so different kinds).
Our destination was the Old North Church. We arrived just in time to hear a docent give a history of the church. I was pleased to see that there was once a time when churches had pews with doors that locked. Would that I could have had such a thing when my children were toddlers.
And for some reason, the Old North Church recently built a restored colonial-era chocolate shop — Captain Jackson’s Chocolate Confectionarie or somesuch. Whatever — the point was that we got to see a cool demonstration of period chocolate-making techniques, and then get free samples of hot chocolate. (The mixture was so delightful that I bought a bag to take home. I’ll save it for Christmastime.)
At this point, it was time for Libby and her kids to head home for some after-school appointments. We decided to keep touring on our own. The next site of interest on the Freedom Trail was the Paul Revere House.
I found this house not so interesting because of Paul Revere (who, really, wasn’t all that interesting a person) but because it’s one of the few Tudor-era buildings in the U.S. Dark exposed wood beams! Purple diamond-paned windows! Fireplaces big enough to roast an ox! Be still my heart.
Annnnnnd for some reason, there’s a bonus bell displayed outside that was made at the Revere forge. Liberty and all that.
We had hoped to have time to ride the swan boats in the public gardens that day, but they closed early that day. Oh, well.
But at least we got to see the Make Way for Ducklings statues! This was a surprisingly big deal for me. They were all decked out in bumblebee suits and tiny handknitted hats for springtime.
On the drive back home, we drove through the Harvard campus and stopped to take a photo at Peabody Terrace, where Brian’s family lived when he was born. Aww.
We finished up the evening at Lizzy’s Homemade Ice Cream, where I got to have a big scoop of the Sweet Cream flavor (which I’ve only seen at ice cream shops in New England).
ENOUGH of Ye Olde Colonial times — make way for the Industrial Revolution, baby! We headed north to Lowell to see the National Historic Park there.
The big thing to see there is the Boott Cotton Mills museum. They have a whole factory floor of period weaving machines there, and keep them running so that guests can see, feel, and HEAR (boy howdy hear) what it was like to be a textile factory worker in the 19th century.
Eleanor was especially interested because she recently learned about Lowell in her Social Studies class. I’ve been interested ever since I read Katherine Paterson’s Lyddie (one of those rare books I think EVERYONE should read).
The park rangers gave us all earplugs, which was wise. The racket was powerful — and only about a dozen of the hundred-odd machines were on! I told the kids to imagine 10x the noise, fourteen hours a day, six days a week. That’s the foundation the textile industry was founded upon. Think about that the next time you shop for clothes.
There was a museum upstairs with more information about the Lowell textile industry. Everyone was very interested in trying out this little tabletop loom.
After the museum, we then had a challenging time finding lunch. We initially wanted to go to a diner where Jack Kerouac was rumored to haunt, but it closed at noon (!). A second diner was supposed to be open until 2:00 p.m., but when we arrived, it was also closed (!!). So we settled on a place called the Purple Carrot that had tasty food, but was unfortunately understaffed and so our food took a little on the side of forever to get to us.
It was while we were waiting that we noticed that Katie had a huge hole in the toe of her shoe. So our next stop after lunch was a quick trip to Target for shoes (and my required dose of Coke Zero).
Which is all a way of saying that our tourism stride was interrupted and we didn’t see as much as I would have liked that day. But at least Katie has cool rainbow sparkle shoes now.
After all that, we drove down to Concord to see the Orchard House, aka the home of Louisa May Alcott and her family. Despite my best efforts, nobody else in my family has read any of LMA’s books, so I was concerned that everyone would be bored by (yet another) historical house tour.
But on the contrary — the Alcott family is interesting enough that their home is full of curiosities, and everyone found it really interesting, especially all of the drawings and paintings that “Amy” made all over the walls, as well as all the handmade custom modifications the family made to the house and furnishings.
(By an astonishing coincidence, we saw another family from our stake back in Shoreline leaving Orchard House right as we were arriving. Crazy.)
Admittedly, my favorite part of the tour was overhearing the Orchard House docents chatting in the gift shop, gushing with excitement over the new film adaptation of Little Women that’s coming out this Christmas. It brings me such joy to see fans find their fandom.
It began to get seriously drizzly rainy by the time we pulled up to the Minute Man National Historic Park, so we were more than happy to spend time watching the cool interactive media presentation at the visitor’s center. It was nice to see the full geographic connection between the Old North Church and the Battle of Concord.
Afterwards, we trekked through the rain to see the (reconstructed) North Bridge, where the battle took place. Brian called out “everyone who’s wearing red should go stand on the far side and prepare for everyone else to shoot at them,” and it took a few moments for Eleanor to realize that she was the only one wearing a red coat and shout, “hey!”
It was a lovely, peaceful stroll around the pond. . . or would have been if I didn’t learn the hard way that my shoes also had holes in the soles. A squishy walk for me. My shoes got so waterlogged that I had to borrow Brian’s spare pair (brown dress shoes!!) for that evening and the next day.
That evening, we headed back into the suburbs — Eleanor had been invited to Beth’s birthday party (Libby’s daughter) and we had dinner with Eric & Abby, who were our good friends in Pittsburgh. In the eleven years since we’d seen them, they’d had two children, and it was fun to compare notes about how much everyone had changed.
(Alas, their gregarious seven year son, Nathan, developed a bit of a crush on Katie and kept trying to hold her hand, which she wasn’t wild about. “He keeps trying to be my boyfriend,” she explained. I understood her distress, but privately found it adorable and hilarious.)
Our goal on this last day was to head as far down Cape Cod as was physically possible and still make it back in time to have dinner with Libby and Scott.
So! Onwards at the break of day to Plimoth Plantation! First, a quick stop to see the “real” Plymouth Rock. Which I understand is about as “real” as Washington’s cherry tree, but what kind of red-blooded American tourist would I be if I didn’t stop and see Plymouth Rock??
Would you believe it’s in a sand pit in the middle of this Grecian temple??
There’s a ranger whose job it is to make sure nobody jumps down and tries to chip away a souvenir. I’m giving myself infinite kudos for not snorting with laughter during our visit.
Thus my personal Liberty Bell/Mount Rushmore/Plymouth Rock triumvirate is complete! USA! USA! USA!
Eric and Abby met us with their children at the Plimoth Plantation, since they had never been to visit. (Nathan was wearing a sweater vest, which he apparently chose as a way of trying to impress Katie. It didn’t work.)
FYI — tickets at Plimoth Plantation are expensive enough for a family of six that it’s cheaper to buy a membership. So, now we can visit whenever we want for free? Lucky us?
As far as living history museums go, Plimoth Plantation isn’t the largest, but whoa the dedication of its staff!
The museum recently added a Wampanoag village to its grounds, and the interpreters there were really interesting. They were all people of Native American/First Nation heritage, and were really open and frank about their interpretation of U.S. history (“we don’t see borders the way you do,” one man said) as well as what brought them to the museum (“my girlfriend is Wampanoag, so we came here together,” “my mom wrote a grant about preserving the Wampanoag language”). They were very much 21st century people talking about the past.
On the other hand, the residents of the Pilgrim village were hard-core dedicated to being their characters — real people, on a particular day and year in the past. We walked from house to house, asking them questions about their situation, habits of living, what brought them to the New World, etc. and it was mighty impressive how much each interpreter knew about their particular character’s situation.
The crowd favorite, of course, is Miles Standish. He had a pencil-point moustache, a cape, a rapier, and spent a long time describing a horrible siege of a Dutch village by the Spanish. He scoffed at the idea of the Pilgrims immigrating for religious freedom (indeed, very few of the villagers listed religion as their reason for coming to North America).
I also admit that the children and I began singing “Trogdor” as soon as we saw all the thatched-roof cottages.
After wrapping up our time in Plimoth, we headed down the darling Old King’s Highway for a driving tour of Cape Cod’s coastal villages. My friend Libby said afterwards, “think of every cliche you’ve seen about Cape Cod from movies and TV — and then multiply it by ten. That’s the actual Cape Cod.”)
SO MANY SHINGLE WALLED COTTAGES!! I told the kids they could shout “awww!” every time they saw something charming or adorable. Everyone then kept “awww!”-ing for a solid five minutes, until we all agreed that our throats would wear out if we kept expounding on the cuteness. Cape Cod is cute. The End.
For lunch, we stopped at a place called Seafood Sam’s. The guy who took our order was a stocky gentleman with grey hair and a double-heart tattoo on his forearm. He looked like he just stepped off a boat, and spent a good amount of time telling us that the fried clam bellies from Cape Cod were the world’s best. Ditto the lobster rolls. He was incredibly charming in his own gruff way, and I think half the price of the food was just for the privilege of talking to him.
The next stop on our driving tour was to see the Edward Gorey House. I was a little apprehensive about this stop, because, like the other literary houses we’d visited, the kids weren’t too familiar with Gorey’s work.
But once again, my fears were unfounded. The Edward Gorey House is CRAZY. The museum curators have done a bang-up job making fascinating displays of not just Gorey’s art and history, but of all the kooky stuff he delivered. Everything is displayed to highlight his quirky, kind of dark sense of humor.
The kids “got” the joke right away, especially when presented with a Gashlycrumb Tinies scavenger hunt. There were little references to all twenty-six dead Gashlycrumbs hidden throughout the house, as well as giant cut-outs of many of his characters.
I basically had to drag the kids away when it was time to go. The museum is small (only the first floor of the house) but we could have easily spent another hour there.
Onwards, onwards, onwards — finally, we made it to the Cape Cod National Seashore. We only had an hour to spend there, but the kids said that they wanted to “touch the Atlantic Ocean,” and by gum, we were gonna do it!
At the visitor’s center, there was a quote from Thoreau, saying that when you’re on the beach at Cape Cod, “a man may stand and put all of America behind him.”
Brian and I think that’s a quintessentially East Coast thing to say. I can’t imagine anyone in Washington (or California, or Hawaii) standing on the beach and getting such an impression.
I’m also pleased we were able to squeeze in a token lighthouse sighting. True, we have picturesque lighthouses on the West Coast, too, but this one! With the little cottage behind it! Who are you to resist it, eh?
It’s a good thing we had dinner with friends waiting for us back in Boston, or I don’t think we would have turned back for a long time.
We had to wake up at four in the morning to make it back to the airport in time for our very early 6:45a.m. flight. Urgh. At least the lines for security weren’t very long.
And we had time to get a box of Dunkin Donuts before boarding. Very important New England experience.
Also fortunate: it was a direct flight, hooray.
We were all a little dazed when we tumbled out of the SEA-TAC airport and realized it was only 11:00 a.m. On the way home, we did the mental math and realized that if we headed down to Richmond Beach right away, we could say that we’d touched the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in the same 24 hour period.
Yes, I know we’re fudging a bit with Puget Sound. But it has saltwater and whales, so I says it counts.
It’s lovely to be back home, but I think our visit was all too brief. It’s making me feel optimistic about choosing more adventurous travel with our kids in coming years, however. Time to start planning.