It seemed like no big whoop back in February when I casually informed the boys we'd be staying home over spring break. As I've mentioned before, we've been cutting back--just like everyone else--and big ticket vacations have been a top line casualty. But as break week neared and my husband Paul announced he'd be off on business for the duration, I became fearful that sitting around staring at dirty laundry might make me crazy enough to eat my own young. And god knows what my young might do to each other.
I also happened to have just finished up a story for Family Circle on historic family vacations. And I have to admit, what I had initially taken on as a hohum, eat-your-vegetables assignment turned out to be fascinating and inspiring. Not only was I eager to explore more; I was itching to take my boys for a test run and see if American history really could turn them on if I brought them to where it all actually went down.
So, I chewed on some ideas. And one word jumped out at me: Gettysburg. Just a 3.5 hour drive away in PA, this pivotal Civil War battle site didn't demand air tickets and was far more affordable than Revolutionary Boston or Philly. It would get us outdoors in the spring weather and the terrible violence that occurred there might just appeal to my testerone-tinged lads. When my 13 year old came home from school that day, I excitedly ran my big idea by him. He rewarded me with this heartwarming response: "An educational vacation? Can't you ever write about anywhere that's fun???"
It took great maturity for me to refrain from spitting back that I personally would rather ditch him and his brother and spend the week at Canyon Ranch. But after taking a deep breath (and a Klonopin...kidding), I took his diss as a downright challenge: I would get him and his brother to Gettysburg and make one of the most tragic chapters in American history an absolute gas.
I kicked things off by borrowing my father's Civil War tapes (yeah, Ken Burns' thing) and popped the Gettysburg chapter into the VCR. The boys both fell asleep faster than you can say Little Round Top. Next, I tried Glory--granted, it had nothing to do with Gettysburg-- but it was much more of a turn on for them and--thanks to Denzel Washington--for me, too.
The next morning, we loaded the car and headed out.....in the cold, pouring rain. As I drove, I wondered what I was in for. Would we get to see the battlefields at all? Would the boys commandeer the car and head for the Camden Aquarium? We pitstopped at Cabela's--that amazing hunting/camping/yahoo emporium on 78--continued on our way and arrived in Gettysburg at about 1:00 PM. Forty eight hours later, my sons--I swear--threw their arms around me, thanked me for an amazing trip, and told me, and I quote, "Gettysburg was a blast." Here's how we did it:
1. We passed up elegance for elbow room. Many a vacation with kids has taught me that when indoor amusements in the area are limited and weather can't be counted on, the place you're staying should be entertaining in and of itself. For kids that doesn't mean the chintz and charm of a B&B or historic inn; it means a sprawling spot with an indoor pool and room to run around. We holed up at the glitzy new Wyndham and--while it's marooned in what looks like a vast parking lot outside of town--it fit the bill perfectly. Rates for very spacious rooms with two queen beds run as low as $129 per night on Travelocity. If you really must have a historic hotel fix, the Gettysburg Hotel is smack dab in the middle of the historic downtown. It's a Best Western property, so nothing too exotic, but it's got some charm.
2. We got basics under our belt and out of the way. That first afternoon, with the rain teeming, we headed straight for Gettysburg's new visitors' center, watched the requisite film, examined the famed Cyclorama (a huge 360 degree painting of the battle) and toured the rambling, surprisingly interactive exhibit rooms. The boys actually got a kick out of all the guns and weapons. I'd say if you come, don't let this eat into a whole day. You need just about 2 hours before you get museum burnout.
3. We found ourselves a great private guide. Having someone who is tuned into you and your interests, who can field your questions, who can skip what bores you and build on what thrills you, can make all the difference between a tour being something about dusty hot old ruins or graveyards or a thrilling journey where history comes alive. I truly believe that on just about any vacation with an educational element, this is the place to splurge. And splurge we did when we took the boys to the Acropolis in Athens last summer--6 hours with our own guide was a steep 350 Euros. Now, here's the beauty part about Gettysburg: The destination has an army of licensed and legit guides who will drive your car through the battlegrounds, lead you out into the fields and tell you all the tales, for a mere, get this, $50 for a group of 1-6 people. Hell, the tour busses charge $20 per adult and you're stuck gagging on fumes. I requested a guide in advance who could thrill a couple of boys and landed amazing Renae MacLachlan, who not only shared lots of gorey, boy-friendly details, but had them acting out Pickett's charge across the Bloody Angle and scurrying along the sniper perches at Devil's Den. When she shared the story about how the mysterious sound of popping corn on the night of one of the battles turned out to be the sound of buttons popping off the uniforms of tens of thousands of bloated corpses, I could swear I saw both of my boys turn a shade green. Here's proof positive Renae succeeded at her mission: My boys asked so many questions, the tour ran overtime to almost 3 hours. And they each expressed a sadness, compassion, and empathy for the young men who lost their lives on those bloody battlefields. If you go, you can ask ahead of time for a kid-friendly guide (http://www.gettysburgtourguides.org/; (717) 337-1709. Or, just contact Renae directly: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-3380719. She's great.
4. We got physical: Several local outfits hire those very same licensed guides like Renae to lead group bike tours through the gorgeous, rolling countryside where the battlefiels are situated. For kids and teens--who generally detest seeing the world through a car or bus window (heck, so do most grown ups)--this is an amazing way to go. Ben and Noah and I joined up with an outfit called Gettysbike and headed out with just one other family in the group. The whole formula was a win: other kids and adults to socialize with, a great guide, beautiful scenery and plenty of riding time to get our ya yas out between each lecture pitstop. Unfortunately, about 25 minutes into the trip, the skies opened up and--since we'd already done the tour with Renae--the boys and I turned around and rode back into town. The other family sojourned on with the guide and had a great time. I heartily recommend this if your kids are decent bike riders and can keep up with a group. Three-hour tours with Gettysbike, including the bike, run $61 per adult and $26 for kids 10 and up. http://www.gettysbike.com/
5. We didn't overdo it. I knew there were other sites to see after the bike tour--the historic Gettysburg homes where families nursed wounded soldiers, General Lee's headquarters, etc. But I also knew when to stop pushing. So on our last morning I followed the boys' lead, took them for a big breakfast at Perkin's Pancake House and headed back to the giant boulders at Devil's Den, where they scrambled over the rocks for good hour before we piled back into the car and headed home. As we sat in traffic on Route 78, Ben tapped me on the shoulder. I could see him grinning sheepishly in the rearview mirrow. "You know mom. I need to apologize for the way I reacted when you told me we were going to Gettysburg," he said. "You see, I thought we were going to drive hours and hours to some random place in Pennsylvania just to see the spot where Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. I had no idea there had been a battle there." Oh geez. Am I glad I took them.