Old Bedford Village: Drums in the Forest

Last weekend we went to Old Bedford Village.  This is a historical reenactment village in central PA, similar to places such as Colonial Williamsburg, Old Sturbridge Village, or Strawbery Banke.  This weekend was Drums in the Forest: a reenactment of Braddock’s Defeat held every 5 years in the forest just outside the village.

We arrived in the midst of the reenactment.  As with most publicly viewable reenactments I’ve seen, this one seemed heavy on the show and light on accuracy (or, maybe I’m just an eternal critic who doesn’t know what he’s talking about).  It seems that when you’re reenacting a specific event, it’s hard to find enough properly uniformed troops, these days.  There were plenty of irregulars, but there didn’t seem to be enough properly uniformed British.  Truthfully, if I were tromping through these woods I’d leave my bright red coat at home too.

There was lots of smoke and plenty of muzzle flashes, but I had a hard time avoiding the image of a bunch of boys running around in the woods yelling “Bang!” (and this is coming from a “grown man” who plays with toy soldiers as a hobby).

Although I found the reenactment a bit disappointing, I consider that to be my fault and not theirs.  The whole family thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the village, and I was able to have fun once I managed to put things into perspective.  The permanent installations provided many good demonstrations of period industry and craft, and all of the reenactors looked and acted wonderful as long as I ignored the context of the massacre they attempted to demonstrate.  The reenactor’s tent encampment would have been a lot more interesting to me than the reenactment itself, but since they were actually living there (for the night), it felt like a big invasion of their limited privacy even though they probably expected it.  I expect the reenactors probably call us all “muggles” and complain about us behind our backs.

Personally, I find the individual demonstrations of professions such as leatherworking, weaving, cooperage, candle making, tinsmithing, and basketmaking in the context of the homes or shops where they were done a lot more interesting than presenters talking to an audience about what was done and why.  Orating about period Colonial dress is not as compelling to me as seeing the place someone lived, and experiencing the limitations of their life that inspired the solutions they implemented in their industry. 

The buildings at Bedford have interesting stories as well.  Some of them were moved, log by log and stone by stone, from other locations to this site.  I’m reminded of the family who tore out their new house’s “modernized” drywall to find a log cabin underneath… and they were wondering why it was so hard to run wires through the walls?

Game report: Skirmish at Jumonville Glen

Family Game Night at Martine’s school was postponed due to weather, so we didn’t play the Jumonville game until last night. It went as well as I expected: successful, but very hectic with a group of 1st-4th graders.

The format of game night was basically a free-for-all: anyone could bring games and play with opponents they found, or borrow games from the school. My game was an oddball. I set it up and waited for people to walk up and decide to play. Lots of kids and a few parents and teachers were interested in the game before it started, and a handful of kids stayed to play.

When I started handing out figures and explaining the rules, there were 6 kids from 1st through 4th grades, Daniel, and me. I decided on 8 players worth of soldiers with the idea that Daniel and I could step out if anyone else wanted to join in.

People came and left a lot between the instructions and the first few turns. We ended up with 4 kids and three adults who pretty much stayed for the whole game, and a few kids who came and left.

The game itself went relatively well. It took maybe an hour and fifteen minutes including instructions. The French started at the base of the cliff, and the Virginians and Indians were at least a foot away. Early on, the battle was relatively even. Then the French got a long run of turns in a row, and did some real damage. We played until the bitter end: the last Indian soldier, dubbed “sniper,” took out 2-3 French before finally being shot for his last hit point

I learned a lot about running games for kids. First of all, most kids of this age don’t want to listen to instructions at all. I’m not sure whether it was a good idea to remove Blood and Swash’s “roll for your soldier’s ability scores” process or not. On one hand, it was some setup time that was avoided. On the other hand, it would’ve gotten the kids to do something while learning about their soldiers’ abilities, instead of just listening to me talk.

I think it might work best to set things up ahead of time, and introduce the rules by playing the first turn. Describing the rules to players who are just going to leave is a waste, and you’ll have to re-explain for people who walk up anyway.

I got a hint of another problem when playtesting with Martine, but it was more obvious with a group of kids. Kids have short arms, and they’re short. It’s not easy for them to reach figures in the middle of the table, especially without dragging their arms over all the terrain. The Blood and Swash games they play with kids at conventions did a great job solving this problem I didn’t know I’d have: the games are in a very small (1-2′ square) model bar room, with outside walls. The outer walls require kids to lift their arms high enough not to hit any of the contents of the game board. A ship’s deck model with railings on the sides might also work well for this.

The useful attention span of these kids was also only about an hour. Things can’t go on longer than that without losing steam.

As for the rules themselves: we ended up making some mistakes, though the players were mostly insulated from this. In an earlier playtest, I could never remember to tell players to activate 2 soldiers on face cards, so I didn’t even try to implement this rule last night.

The other big rules mistake I made was allowing charging into close combat without any bravery tests. I forgot this the first time someone charged, and so I skipped it completely from then on. It didn’t really make the game worse, but it was simpler and different: we had a lot more close combat than in playtesting. One tactic the “free charge” ended up allowing was leaving close combat to charge a different soldier in order to get the charge bonus for fighting. I didn’t have a rule that said you can’t leave combat, because most of the time it would not be beneficial to do that anyway… as long as you have to make a bravery test to charge again.

I had enough d20’s for all the players to use, and I said players could keep them if they stayed for the whole game. Obviously for most of the players who left in the middle, this wasn’t enough motivation. But I think there was one player who was staying on in the end only to get the free stuff. It’s probably worth doing this again, but I won’t have any expectation that it’s going to keep everyone playing forever.

I didn’t have any figure casualties, not even a bent musket. 3 of my trees broke off, but I mostly expected that; I’m surprised they didn’t break off earlier when adults were playing.

Overall I’m quite happy with how it went, and I’m really glad Daniel was there to help me herd the cats. Thanks! In the end, it was probably just an excuse to paint figures and terrain that seemed interesting, but we had at least 2-3 games worth of “playtesting” as well as one “real” game so that’s worth it. I’m not likely to try anything with more complicated rules at an open game night, at least until some of the players really show they’re interested in learning more.

Hot Dogs vs. Monsters

Last Sunday, Martine and I playtested the French and Indian War scenario I intend to play with kids at Martine’s school’s game night. She got bored in about an hour, which is probably good: I expect the game to take about that long, but her behaviour would be a lot better if she were around someone other than her parents. I hope it will play a bit faster with 4-8 players controlling 2 figures each, instead of 2 controlling 8 each.

After that, she wanted to do a craft, and wanted me to give her ideas. So, I drew a goblin and made a little stand-up guy. She took that idea and ran with it: she made a hot dog, whose combat prowess allowed it to deflect any weapon my Goblin was holding, and also to penetrate my shield.

Pretty soon she had an army of 7 hot dogs (with buns, of course) and one boss: a floating green tentacle beast. I had 2 goblins, a troll, 3 skeletons, a wolf, and my boss was a beholder (a giant floating eye with tentacles, I think it inspired her boss).

Then Martine asked me to make 2 trees and some rocks. She made a map to set up the board, a movement ruler and a rock-throwing ruler, and found a cardboard box to use as a playing field.

Then, she taught me how to play:

Hot Dogs vs. Monsters, version 1.0

  1. Players alternate turns.
  2. On your turn, do 2 actions.
  3. One of the two actions must be a move.
  4. You must move the full distance unless blocked by a rock or an enemy warrior.
  5. If you’re blocked by a rock, you can use an action to throw it out of the way to the side.
  6. Use an action to fight an enemy warrior touching you by rolling d10 and allocating that many damage points to the enemy.
  7. An enemy warrior with 8 or more damage dies and is removed from play.
  8. You can’t fight warriors who are even partially in the trees.
  9. You can only fight with the front of your warrior, but enemies can attack your side and rear.
  10. Bosses can’t fight each other.
  11. The game ends when one army is completely destroyed.

It’s a remarkably playable game, considering she’s 6 years old and made it up as she went along. There are even discernable tactics possible: hide in the trees one turn, and next turn jump out and attack before they can attack back. The rocks didn’t seem to affect play much, I’ll lobby to remove them next time.

As far as the rules: I think they were inspired by Hibernia as well as the French and Indian War game. In Hibernia, you take 2 actions per turn, and they’re both movement (and possibly fighting) actions. The miniatures game gave her the movement ruler, die rolling, and damage mechanics.

We haven’t finished a game, and might never finish it with these rules, though she did teach her friend how to play today. She had a wonderful time creating it, and I think that’s the most important part.

Fort Ligonier Day 2009

In August, we visited Pam and Bob in Ligonier for the weekend. While I was there, I learned there was a reconstructed French and Indian War fort there: Fort Ligonier. Who knew!

Every year, they have a weekend long celebration in Ligonier called Fort Ligonier Days. We went down last weekend, and went to Fort Ligonier Days on Sunday. There were a variety of arts and craft vendors around town, as well as special events at the fort itself.

Most of the craft vendors were’t my thing. Some of the artists with shops in town have much better work than the people they invited for the weekend. They did have an interesting blacksmith doing demonstrations, though.

I was more interested in the events at the fort itself. Besides reconstructing the entire fort in its exact original location, the owners have also crafted reproduction cannons, wagons, and other buildings on site. They held an artillery demonstration twice each day during the weekend, when they fired the reproduction Big Guns. They fired a wall gun, a swivel gun, a 6 pounder cannon (shown in the picture above) and a 12 pounder. I wouldn’t have wanted to be driving by during the demonstration: the guns are set up in “SUV hunter” positions on the highway side of the fort, and they’re loud!

Later, they held a small reenactment of a French and Indian attack on the British-held fort. During the war, the fort was attacked twice but the British held it both times. In the fort there were British and provincial troops, and the attack was made by a group of French who were camped outside the fort (as shown in the image to the right).

The French grenadiers threw grenades over the wall to get the defenders away, scaled the wall with ladders, and then blew up the gate to open it for the rest of the troops to enter. They then demonstrated standard European style combat with two firing lines. They fired their muskets (with blanks) but didn’t simulate casualties.

The fort is quite interesting. It’s located literally across the street from Bob and Pam’s house, right in the middle of town. It is completely unrelated to the government: privately owned, privately funded, and not a park of any sort. They allow tours through the reconstructed buildings on the premises (for an entrance fee), and have reenactments by volunteers several times per year.

Just before Fort Ligonier Days, I learned a bit more about the French and Indian War. Have you ever heard of “Braddock’s Last Stand,” aka the Battle of the Monongahela? Neither had I. But it happened only a few miles away from our house! Unfortunately the “battlefield” (it was woods, not a field, at the time) is now under a hundred years of city and steel mill, near the appropriately named Braddock, PA.

General Braddock was marching from Fort Necessity towards Fort Duquesne. Just after crossing the Monongahela, his slow-moving column was attacked by French and Indians. They were decimated because they maintained their European line formation and tactics during a wilderness skirmish. Braddock was wounded, and died shortly afterward outside Fort Necessity. A little-known officer named George Washington led the retreat, and learned from the mistakes made that day.

I’m not sure if I learned more about the American Revolution as I was growing up, or if I just remember more of it; in either case I’m sure it’s because New England seems to have a much greater affinity for the Revolutionary war than the French and Indian war.

Sunflowers

Martine’s birthday party last weekend ended up being a lot of fun for kids and adults alike. Between slaying the home made dragon piñata with a sword I turned, and cutting the castle cake, Martine posed next to the ample sunflowers for a few pictures.

Yes, they’re as big as they look: taller than me, anyway. They were volunteers, and they’re sort of taking up all the sun. The flowers aren’t all there yet, but they’re getting there. We’ve had a lot of rain this week so they’ll probably sprout up again.

Behind them, the hops are doing fine. They’re not ready for picking yet, but some of the flowers are pretty close. I won’t get the “average 1 lb” yield this year, but I wouldn’t use that many hops in a year anyway.

The sunflowers are also obscuring our tomato plants, among other things. Those are getting too big for their racks again. It’ll be gazpacho season soon.

Pack Monadnock

Martine hiking on the Wapack Trail

Shortly after I bought a new bicycle in New Hampshire, I decided to go on a bike ride. I think it was still the 4th of July, the same day the bike shop was inexplicably open for me to buy the bike. A few miles later as I climbed up a hill, I had a flat tire. Bah.

Luckily I found dad’s patch kit, and hacked the pump into working well enough for Presta valve stems instead of Schrader valve stems. It was enough to get me home, but not enough to inspire confidence for a longer ride. A close examination determined that I needed a new rim liner: the one that came with the bike was unsuitable for double walled rims.

After the stores opened up and I got the needed supplies, I set out again on Wednesday. This time, I was bound for the top of Pack Monadnock, a small peak nearby.

This whole “peak” thing may require a bit of explanation for those of you who live way out West in the Pittsburgh area. Unlike here, New England has peaks instead of just ridges. Even where there are a lot of hills in Pittsburgh, none of them lead to a distinct high point with a scenic view in all directions, topped by Big Sky. Peaks provide a much greater sense of accompishment than ridges and rolling hills.

And so it was that I set off towards Pack Monadnock, south summit. My route took me primarily on back roads, and I very quickly realized another difference between cycling in New Hampshire and cycling in Pittsburgh. In the city, I need to go on long rides just to find a little bit of “middle of nowhere.” Even then, I’m really just riding through specially zoned suburbs and not the True middle of nowhere. In New Hampshire, I hit the edge of Nowhere within a few miles. If I lived in New Hampshire I’d probably get lazy, because I wouldn’t have to ride nearly as far to find a nice winding, hilly forest road.

Wait a minute. Where’s my pump? I forgot it! Oops, I probably won’t need it, right?

The day was warm, but the ride was cool and shady under the trees. When I got to Chase Rd. it looked a bit more like an overgrown grassy entrance road to a 200 year old cemetary. Luckily there were a few summer employees there. “This is a through road, right?” “Yep. A bit rocky though, be careful.” Soon it changed from grass to gravel, and then a proper dirt road through the woods.

Next came the first challenging hill. I pretty quickly wished I had my wimpy Pittsburgh gearing, but the Nishiki’s lowest gear was the bike boom standard 40/28. This hill was too soon, I wasn’t warmed up. Or maybe I was out of shape already? Whatever the case may be, I had to rest. Already? How would I ever get up to the top of Pack Monadnock? What a wuss.

The rest of the ride to Miller State Park was uneventful but enjoyable. There were more sections of dirt road, and almost the whole ride was through forests. Just before the park entrance there were a few miles of 8% grade, but that wasn’t too steep. That’s good at least.

Once I entered the park, the road was closed. This was half expected. But bicycles are small, so I decided to see if there was any good reason for the road to be closed or not. It turns out there wasn’t: people were hiking on the road, and a car even came up and passed me on the way.

The last 1.25 miles had about 800 feet of elevation gain, and wasn’t a constant slope. That’s an average grade of around 12%, which is nothing to scoff at. It was hard, and I had to stop several times. Most of the time it didn’t feel as steep as the Dirty Dozen hills I’ve done around here, but it was longer than most of them, and I had a much higher low gear.

I got to the top, looked around, and then went back down. I continued on Route 101 for a while, down the 9% grade on the other side, and missed my intended turn onto Mountain Rd. That turned out to be a good thing, because Mountain Road was another tiny dirt road which was much hillier than the route I ended up taking, and I was basically out of water at this point.

The first store I hit was in Temple, where I got some liquid and energy, and continued on. Eventually it started raining a bit. It was enough to earn me a skunk stripe and remind me why all my bikes have fenders, but not enough to soak me through from the top.

In the end I rode about 40 miles, and had a great time. I didn’t need the pump, which is good because I didn’t have tire levers either. I did have a cell phone, but I’m not sure I had any coverage where I was riding. The only technical problem I had was easy to fix: the clamp-on downtube shifters were apparently a bit loose and slid down the downtube.

A few days later, we drove out and hiked to the top with Grandpa and the kids. This time I wasn’t riding a bike, but I was on very rocky trails with Ezra on my back. We took the steeper, rocky Wapack trail on the way up, and the tamer Marion Davis trail on the way down. As usual, we came across several stone walls. Even way out here in the middle of nowhere, halfway up a difficult rocky forested slope, the land was once cleared and used for the grazing of cattle. The trees have grown back across much of New Hampshire over the last few hundred years, but I bet the originals were much larger.

This was also a very good trip, and I’m glad we did it. It was good to get Martine out in the woods, that’s usually difficult. She did a good job of keeping up with us on the hike, and then she was full of energy for the rest of the afternoon when we got back.

Mount Monadnock, from the summit of South Pack Monadnock

Going up Pack Monadnock stood out as one of the most enjoyable parts of our trip to New Hampshire, I’m glad we decided to do it. Maybe next time we go out, the kids will be old enough to get up Mount Monadnock, which has several miles more hiking along its shortest route. Both of these are small mountains compared to the presidential range in the North, but they’re accessible and very scenic, and that counts for a lot when we have kids in tow.

Higgins Armory

There is a hidden treasure in Worcester, MA: the Higgins Armory Museum. I’ve wanted to go here the last few times I’ve visisted my parents in New Hampshire, but never got around to it. This time around, we made it a priority.

The Higgins Armory holds the second largest largest collection of Medieval/Renaissance arms and armor in North America, and it’s the only museum here which is dedicated to these arms and armor.

Mister Higgins was obsessed with steel fabrication, and founded a pressed steel manufacturing company. This venture made him rich enough to start buying up suits of armor. Eventually he had enough pieces to dedicate a building to their preservation, and the museum was born.

The museum has a great collection of arms and armor, primarily from the “Knights in Shining Armor” period. Interpreters are quick to point out that the period when full plate armor was used was relatively brief: a few centuries in the late Medieval period and beginning of the Renaissance, in Europe.

They have examples of several main categories of plate armor. Field armor is articulated, and provides full coverage without hampering movement during battles. Tournament armor was used for sporting events such as jousting. It was much heavier, and provided superior protection but only the minimum mobility required. Parade armor was light weight and provided almost no real protection. It was used mainly for decorative purposes and bragging rights. They also have a variety of weapons used by fighters wearing plate armor, and weapons used against fully armored combatants.

The Higgins Armory’s strength also reveals its weakness. Plate armor was used during a very short period in a very small part of the world, and the museum mostly ignores weapons and armor used in other periods of time and/or outside europe. They have a few samples of ancient and pre-medieval arms and armor, but nothing substantial. They have only one suit of Japanese samurai armor, but they do have a very interesting helmet patterned after a seashell.

Even in Europe during the late Medieval period, full plate armor was reserved for the rich elite troops. Most combatants were extremely lucky if they got brigandine coats or mail armor. There were a few token pieces of brigandine and mail, but it was obvious that Higgins was most interested in armor which might be reproduced using his pressed steel construction techniques.

Overall, I’m glad I went to the Higgins Armory. Unfortunately I expect “all the rest of the armor” is much less well preserved, even traditional Samurai armor. It’s probably best to live with reconstructions and illustrations for older types of armor, and to go to Higgins if you’re interested in full plate armor.

Washington DC vs. Pittsburgh

Going back to Washington DC reminded me that Pittsburgh is a small city. That’s one of the reasons I like it here. I really enjoyed some aspects of DC and wish we had them here, but Pittsburgh is also better in some ways.

Here’s a bit of a comparison.

Public Transportation: DC Wins

The Metro just kicks butt. It’s convenient, goes “everywhere” (it seems), it runs regularly and tells you when to expect trains to come, and it’s very clean compared to most subways I’ve been on. There are also buses to get you where the train doesn’t.

Pittsburgh’s mass transit, on the other hand, is primarily bus-based. The buses are slow, usually late but always unpredictable, they drive poorly, and they almost never go where I want to go without transferring in downtown first. Believe it or not, we do have a few actual subway stops downtown, but most of the light rail is above ground and used for a few distant routes, instead of covering a wider area within the city. I won’t even get into the funding issues and periodic strikes.

Museums: DC Wins

DC wins primarily because all of the Smithsonian institute museums are free. It’s difficult to compare different collections of unique items, so for the most part I won’t try. But having the ability to walk into any museum any time is quite nice.

Pittsburgh has great museums with great collections, but apparently Andrew Carnegie was more interested in letting everyone into libraries for free, than museums.

Dinosaurs: Pittsburgh Wins

I said for the most part I wouldn’t compare museum collections, but in some areas there is a difference worth noting. DC has a much better collection of spacecraft and aircraft, for example. But the National Museum of Natural History’s collection of dinosaur fossils isn’t as large or well presented as the collection at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. DC has more mammal and non-dino fossils, but Pittsburgh wins in the dinosaur category.

We just opened a brand new dinosaur wing within the last few years, with some really nice, large displays. It’s a lot better than I remember from 15 or so years ago. We have at least 3 T-Rex’s, including one juvenile, and several huge plant eaters. The dinosaurs are displayed in appropriate chronology, not predators eating prey that’s been extinct for 10 million years. There’s also a large window into the actual fossil lab in the museum, where you can watch the technicians accidentally destroy irreplaceable specimens.

Sports:

Ha, just kidding! Same with newspapers.

Beer bars: Pittsburgh wins

See also my review of the Brickskeller. Maybe I just didn’t find the right place to buy beer in Washington DC, in which case I’d definitely accept a rematch. However, Sharp Edge is world class when it comes to Belgian beers on tap: I haven’t found anywhere else in any city with as many different good Belgians on tap.

Zoos: DC wins

The National Zoo is also free! You can walk in off the sidewalk like you’re entering Frick Park. Frick Park with Pandas, that is. People go to the zoo to jog or just generally hang out as you might do in any public park, it’s not just a trip destination. This would be a lot more convenient than the Pittsburgh Zoo, where you have to spend the whole day there just to make it worth the price of admission.

I generally don’t like zoos, but both the National Zoo and Pittsburgh Zoo are a lot better now than I remember zoos being when I was a kid. From outside appearances, at least, the old school “stark concrete enclosure” look is gone. Now they’re all “well-landscaped concrete enclosures.”

Transportation Bicycling: DC wins?

I seemed to see a lot more bicycles ridden and parked on the streets in DC, than I generally see in Pittsburgh. This seems to suggest more people in DC are riding for utility/transportation purposes instead of just recreationally. However, I really didn’t see enough to be sure, and I’m not sure how their cycling infrastructure (lanes, signage, driver awareness etc) is. They seemed to have a bike sharing/rental type program there, but I didn’t get any info on it.

Recreational Bicycling: Pittsburgh wins?

Okay, so maybe I wasn’t kidding about the sports.

Pittsburgh might win in the recreational department, for the same reason that DC might win in the Transportation department: Pittsburgh has more hills and is a smaller city. It’s a lot easier to get around in DC, but I’d expect it to be harder to find a long scenic route (meaning “all trees, no buildings”) in DC than in Pittsburgh. I’m not even sure where to start looking for a winding, hilly road in DC.

Both Pittsburgh and DC seem to have a lot of rail-trails down by the rivers. I’m not sure how DC’s in-city mountain biking opportunities are. We’re each on one end of the Great Allegheny Passage trail, but I’d guess DC wins for trail access due to our sections of missing trail before the Boston Bridge. DC also seems to have a larger, more visible tourist bike rental trade as well.

I’d really like to spend more time cycling around DC, because I think I’d get a much better idea of the place. We were only there on a weekend, but the traffic didn’t look that bad (except at the circles) and the streets seemed pretty wide.

Road Trip: Washington DC

We’ll be driving up to New Hampshire at the beginning of July, but neither Ezra nor Martine have been on any long car trips in years. We decided it would be a good idea to try a moderately long trip before getting in the car for the week and a half drive up to NH (or, so it would seem). So, this past weekend we went to Washington DC.

The drive down on Friday night was somewhat challenging, complete with the requisite bathroom emergencies. Marla booked a hotel halfway between Dupont Circle and Farragut Square. We arrived long after bedtime, and put the car into valet parking until Sunday. Then, the kids stayed up way too late. Everyone was too excited to sleep, but ended up waking up too early as well.

Saturday, we got one-day Metro passes, and went wherever we wanted. Ezra was free, and Martine enjoyed being able to use her Metro pass herself. It turns out Race for the Cure was going on that morning, but the resulting crowds didn’t pose any problem. There’s something going on every weekend in DC, they pretty much have everything under control.

The plan was to go to Smithsonian museums on Saturday, so we started with the Air and Space museum before lunch. Martine was interested, but too tired to pay much attention. Ezra also liked what he saw, but will probably never remember any of it. Martine enjoyed a ride on the carousel on the Mall, and then everyone else went back to the hotel for a rest/nap time while I went out to Chinatown to find lunch.

The hotel was only a block or so from the National Geographic Explorer’s Hall museum type place, and they were having an exhibit with lion and leopard photography, so we went there first in the afternoon. There were some great photos, as well as the first video evidence ever of a pack of lions trying to take down an elephant. They wounded the elephant but didn’t kill it.

Next was the Museum of Natural History. Martine was a lot better after her food and rest time, and enjoyed the animals and fossils quite a bit. We stayed there for several hours, and of course couldn’t see everything in the time we had.

For dinner, we went to the Brickskeller, an early (ca. 1957) beer bar specializing in having as wide of a selection of good beers as possible. We chose not to stay in the Inn there because the reviews were not very good. The bar/restaurant was adequate, but I’m glad we have the Sharp Edge and D’s in Pittsburgh instead. On the walk back to the hotel we stopped at Tangysweet for frozen yogurt. I enjoyed the green tea flavor.

On Sunday, we settled the bill, got the car, and drove towards the zoo to find breakfast. It turns out we parked for free halfway between the zoo and the nearest metro stop, so we just left the car there and went to the zoo. We had a long, good day at the zoo, and the kids were satisfied enough that we had a good drive home as well.

Judging the weekend as a dry run for a longer car trip, I think it was a success. We have some ideas on how to make the trip to New Hampshire more manageable, and the kids have a bit of practice sitting still for too long.

As a weekend out with the family, it was basically fine, but I think we’d get more out of the experience if the kids were older. There’s far too much to do in a weekend, so it feels like no matter what we picked, there might have been something else better to do instead. But it’s folly to compare our actual experience with what might have happened if we chose to do something else. Instead, we’ll come back again some day.

Some things I’d like to do but didn’t:

(Stop back later for pitctures.)

First Impressions: Kid-backing

On Saturday, five families met outside Hofbräuhaus for a family bike ride on the South Side trail. It was the first “real” ride with Martine and I on the tandem, and it was instructive, if not very strenuous. But first…

The tandem didn’t need much work to make it road worthy. I replaced both seat post clamps, which were cracked. A shorter stem made the front end fit a lot better for me. I rewrapped both handlebars and replaced a few cables and the rear chain. I changed the larger front chainrings from “two adults go fast!” to “one adult needs help carrying a kid.” Finally, I mounted wider tires: Panaracer Paselas, 32mm wide. I might be able to fit fenders above these tires, but probably not (and this might not bother most of you anyway).

Martine and I talked about how riding the tandem together would require cooperation from both of us. After a few laps around the block in the morning, it was clear that we needed to adopt some short, clear signals to aid communication.

We decided that “Coast!” meant either “stop pedalling now” or “I’m about to stop pedalling.” Martine uses this to mean “my foot fell out of the toe clip, please stop whacking it with the pedal.” I most often use it to mean “stop pedalling backwards while we’re stopped, you’re hitting me in the shins,” but I should be telling Martine that I’m about to stop pedalling while we’re riding.

I try to say “shift” when I’m about to ease up on the pedals to change gears, but truthfully I can hardly feel Martine’s pedalling unless she’s trying to backpedal, or standing up to pedal (“Coast!”).

After our test ride around the block, we packed up the car with the tandem and Marla’s bike on the roof, and drove to the Eliza Furnace trail parking lot. We rode over to Hofbräuhaus, and I bought a pair of gloves at REI that didn’t smell like “homeless person.”

Soon, everyone arrived and we set off towards Station Square. It quickly became apparent that we on our tandem, and Daniel and Levi with their trail-a-bike “brought guns to a knife fight.” Martine and Levi were antsy to start riding quickly, but everyone else was sensibly keeping pace with the other young kids who rode their solo bikes.

The ride was uneventful, but Martine wasn’t satisfied going as slow as we were. Next time, she’ll bring her solo bike too, if we can figure out how to get all the bikes onto the car.

At Station Square, we hung out and looked at the fountains, and generally got in the way of racer wannabes barreling through the pedestrian area at unreasonably fast speeds. This is a great place to take a panoramic picture of downtown, and some tourists were happy to do us the favor. (They didn’t even steal the cameras.)

On the way home, Daniel and I decided to leave the rest of the group in order to indulge the kids’ need for speed. We took them across the Smithfield Bridge and up the Eliza Furnace trail, then across the Hot Metal bridge to meet everyone else at Over The Bar (OTB), Pittsburgh’s first bicycle-themed bar.

Martine was clearly in need of food or sleep on the way back. We made it back without any serious incidents, but that portion of the ride taught me she has far more opporuntities for mischief on the tandem than on the trail-a-bike: she can reach my pockets (wallet), my back (poke, poke), and all sorts of things she shouldn’t be fiddling with.

OTB is a nice place, I’ll probably go back. I work only a block away… why didn’t anyone tell me East Carson St. was under major construction? I feel lucky to miss that traffic nightmare two times a day five times a week. Bike parking at is limited to standard on-street parking meters and telephone poles, but at least it’s still easier than parking in a car. This year’s EEBC Keg Ride ended at OTB as well. I have no idea where they parked 400-500 bicycles for that!

At OTB, the food is fine and the beer selection merely adequate, but it has a friendly atmosphere. It seems to be all-inclusive in terms of the type of cyclists it caters to. They serve hamburgers with peanut butter, but also veggie burgers and salads; Pabst Blue Ribbon pounders, but also local micro brews. The meals are all named after stereotypical bicycles, cyclist categories or local outdoors/activist groups. I believe I ordered the Tour de Greece, a somewhat anatopistic meal (don’t worry, I had to look it up too).

After everyone ate, we went back to the fountain at South Side Works to let the kids play and cool down. It was all fun and games until someone found an eye… I mean, until Levi fell and hit his head. No one suffered any permanent damage, as far as I know.

We rode back to the car, and Martine agreed to ride all the way home with me on the tandem. We took one of my normal commutes home from work on the roads, without incident.

Overall, I think the kidback tandem setup presents a greater opportunity for us to go on longer rides together. It is a bit easier to pedal than the trail-a-bike, but the handling is very different than either a solo, or the trail-a-bike. The length of the bike makes me feel like I’m strapped to the front of a locomotive, and it’s extremely front-heavy. I hate to flog this particularly dead horse, but I think the tandem would really benefit from a much lower trail geometry (a greater fork offset). I’m used to low trail on my solo bikes, and even tandems with an adult on the rear are better off with lower trail to compensate for the weighted front end.

Oh yeah: it is possible (but difficult) to get the tandem in and out of the basement. I carry it upstairs nearly vertically with the front seat tube over my right shoulder, and carry it downstairs backwards in the same orientation.

There are a few minor kinks to work out in my front end setup, but I look forward to more rides with Martine this summer.