Monday, November 29, 2010

We Love Trains

Here's the truth about traveling by train with small children: it is so incredibly convenient and pleasant, that if you try it, you may never, ever want to get on a plane or strap yourself into a car again.  Honestly.

How can it be so convenient to travel by train with children, even here in the car-centric western US?  Let me count the ways:

1) Amtrak has less invasive security procedures, at least in our experience.  There is no need to wait in long lines at security checkpoints.  You may have your luggage or personal effects examined, but you're not likely to be asked to remove your shoes or go through a naked body scanner.  If you have your ticket in your hand and only carry-on baggage, you can simply wait for the train to arrive, and then hop on.  It's basically as simple as getting on a city bus or light rail car.

One particularly pleasant aspect of these security policies is that you may wait to board the train with friends and family who are seeing you off at the station.  I've traveled to California on Amtrak with Little and Bigger twice in the last year, both times without my husband. (He had to work while we traveled, and wasn't home in time to wait with us at the depot.)  Both times, Grandma M was able to wait with us by the track, and then help us get our luggage to our train car when it was time to board.  If you have squirrely little children or awkward luggage (and I usually have both), an extra pair of eyes and hands is lovely.  Plus, if your train is late (as mine was on my most recent trip), there is another adult to split a burger and a beer with while you wait for the train.  (If you're in Eugene, I recommend the bar menu at Marche as a late-train cure-all.  They are also always gracious about seating children for an early dinner.)

2) Train stations are centrally located in many west-coast cities, while airports are often on the outskirts of a city.  I assume that this is because train stations often predate airports, and require comparatively little space.  You don't need to schlep to the edge of town to make your departure when you go by train.  When you arrive at your destination, you are often in the middle of the city, at the hub of its public transportation services.   We are close enough to the center of the city that we have walked to or from the train station many times.

3) You can bring your bike on the train.  This is particularly convenient between Eugene and Seattle, where the Amtrak Cascades has simple bike racks right on board.  On some trains, you are required to pack your bike in a box provided by Amtrak before travel.  

4) You can move about a train freely, anytime.  I have traveled with my sons on Amtrak from the time they were infants on.  If you travel by car or plane with your children, everyone has to be seated (in rather cramped conditions) for most of the trip.  There are car seats and seat belts involved, and when someone needs to use the bathroom, you must either find a rest stop (if going by car) or check to ensure that the path is not blocked by a food cart (on planes).  If you want to stretch your legs or get something to eat, you may have to wait.  Not so on the train.  When Bigger was a year old, he spent most train trips walking up and down the aisles with me, smiling at all the people, getting something to eat in the snack car, and befriending all the kids and grandparents on board.  He had a blast, and when he was tired, we could sit down in our seats and nurse (also not possible in a moving car). 

5) Finally, we love to take the train because it is fun.  There are huge windows by each seat, plenty of room to relax, and no one has to drive.  We can read, knit, talk, or doze with plenty of elbow room. We can visit the snack car for cookies and milk.  There are viewing cars (and sometimes nature guides) and dining cars on longer trips.  You or your children can even watch on-board movies or hang out in the video game parlor if that's your bag.

Have any of you out there had positive (or not so positive) experiences on the train?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Snow Day!

We had all sorts of bicycle errands planned for today: grocery shopping, a park trip, and a run to the library.  When I woke up, though, I saw a light dusting of this outside.

Snow!  In Eugene!

While I believe that cycling in the snow can be fun, practical, and safe (check out Dottie from Let's Go Ride a Bike, and Julian on Totcycle), I didn't have the confidence to set out on my bike today.

The reason I chose to walk rather than bike today is that the ride quality of my current family bike setup leaves something to be desired.  Frankly, in slippery conditions with a full load (meaning kids + groceries or other bulky cargo) it's like riding a bag of squirrels.  I LOVE riding my bike -- don't get me wrong.  And with a few inexpensive improvements (namely rear panniers to replace the high-center-of-gravity milk crate and a cargo bike kickstand for stability when loading and unloading), this bike could get me where I want to go with greater agility and grace.  Well, greater agility anyhow.  This bike is lots of fun, but it's more circus pastiche than elegant vehicle.

Actually, do you know who loves this bike? Teenage boys.  Every single time I go out for a ride with my son's bike on our tandem coupler, at least one teenage boy notices and appreciates our bike.  Using slang that makes me feel very, very old.  ("Sick bike!")
Anyhow, I'm looking forward to upgrading to a bike designed to carry lots of kids and cargo soon.  My Workcycles Fr8 should be arriving in March.  March!  How terribly long for such an impatient me to wait!

In the meantime, Grandma M very kindly combined our shopping with hers and dropped off all the groceries we will need for our holiday feast tomorrow.  Thank you, Grandma M!  Austin took the morning off from work to play with Little in the snow.  The last time it snowed here, Little was only a few months old, so the experience of seeing familiar streets and gardens covered in snow felt very new to him.

Bigger had spent the night at Grandma M's after our bus ride, so he was snowed in (if less than an inch of snow and ice can be described that way!) in Creswell.  He had a grand time taking care of the chickens, horses, and other animals down there.  Here he is checking out some snow on a cold frame and helping to clean out the chicken coop.

Back in Eugene, we walked through the snow to get ingredients for Austin's eggnog waffles, and then later through the slush to drop off the weekly egg order for Little and Bigger's teachers and pick up our CSA from Open Oak Farm.  (They still have spaces available, if you are reading this locally...)  By the time we returned from picking up our CSA, it was dark outside, and quite chilly.  Perhaps it was in the twenties?  We were pretty warm in our regular cold weather uniforms, with an extra layer of wool sweaters or long underwear thrown in, and gore-tex mittens for Bigger and I.  Little made do with a mismatched set of mittens we dug up from last year's winter clothes.  We tied them to a length of yarn that we had threaded through his sleeves so that he wouldn't lose them, which worked well.

There were lots and lots of cyclist out on the Amazon bike path.  They were going perhaps a little slower than usual, but otherwise, things seemed fairly normal, even with lots of ice patches on the path.  Alas, my camera was feeling irritable and would not capture any of the bikes, only their tracks in the snow.

If it snows again this winter, I'd be curious to try cycling in it.  And I've had a few too many frustrating experiences with stability on my current family bike to ignore the upgrades I know I need any longer.  Does anyone out there have thoughts on how I could make my bike less wobbly when loaded up with cargo?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Over the river and through the woods... Grandmother's house we went.  This afternoon we took the bus to Creswell to visit Grandma M.  The boys love buses almost as much as they love Grandma, so there was plenty of excitement in the air while we waited to catch the bus to the downtown (Eugene) station.

Today the weather forecast included the possibility of snow, so you might think we were feeling the chill as we walked to, and then waited at the bus stop.  Actually, with only minimal forethought, we were quite warm, even when the wind picked up a bit.

The boys wore their standard cold weather uniforms: soft woolen caps, sturdy pants with silk or capilene long underwear, soft woolen socks, Bogs boots, and rain coats with either a thick fleece or wool layer underneath.  (Mittens are also a part of this set-up, but they were removed in these photos for snacking.)  We probably spend a little more on cold-weather clothing than most families in our income range, but we spend a lot less on mass-produced plastic toys, movies, etc.  We consider an investment in cold-weather clothing as the cost of year-round access to the outdoors, which is the most stimulating and fun "toy" imaginable.  Plus, we get at least four years out of each item of clothing, since Bigger passes things on to Little in good time.  Our team of grandparents supplies some of these items each year for birthday and holiday gifts, which we very much appreciate.

There's little photographic evidence, but I wore my standard cold weather uniform: soft wool tights (sweater tights from Sock Dreams in Portland today), an extra pair of wool knee socks, tall boots, a simple dress, a cardigan, and a hooded wool coat.  I'm still getting the hang of taking my own photo, so you'll have to use your imagination.

While waiting at the bus stop, we find it best to have...

...a snack.  Little in particular seems to be eating nonstop these days.  We also always bring... imaginary border for our kingdom.  Beyond that crack in the sidewalk lies a perilous no mans' land (and a busy street).

We typically pack at least one book for bus trips.  Our current favorite is a selection of stories by Margaret Wise Brown that Ritta got for the boys.  (Thanks, Ritta!)  It hits the ultimate traveling book sweet spot: compact size, sturdy binding, excellent literary quality, and it's an anthology (meaning lots of stories are available for long trips).  What more could you ask?

Of course, we also bring correct change for the bus (though these boys are young enough to ride free), and aim to arrive a few minutes early.

Today we did not need our book, as the boys were enthralled with the bus and its inhabitants.  On the ride downtown, our bus was packed.  We sat at the back, where the seats are elevated, and talked about our plans for the evening and all the things we saw out the window.  The bus was a little late, so we had to rush to make our connection to Creswell.  I think that next time I will give myself more time to transfer.

Creswell is a small town about half an hour from downtown Eugene, by car or bus.  During our ride there, freezing rain dropped in fat circles on the window.  Bigger and I chatted while Little dozed for a minute or two.  People were knitting, reading, and fiddling with their cell phones (though no one was talking on one, thankfully).  It was a pleasant and cozy ride, and I was glad that someone else was driving through this weather so that I could relax.  We arrived 35 minutes after leaving the station, and met Grandma M. at the stop.  When we walked into her place, there was a fire in the wood stove, and dinner waiting for us in the oven.  Is that a tired mother's fantasy, or what?

Little dazzled the company at dinner with the sequel to this bus stop dance.
One of the goals I have for this winter is to take the bus to Creswell more often, in part because I hope that transit service to this part of Lane County will be improved.  On the weekends (when we most often go there), there are only two (on Sunday) or three (on Saturday) bus trips there per day.  Not only is Grandma M. a big attraction in Creswell, it now has a year round Tuesday farmer's market and Heidi Tunnell's Tuesday bakery, Wednesday dinners, and winemaker barn dinners.  I would love to see more frequent bus service to Creswell so that we could get to these events more easily by bus. 

But for now, the times that we do bus down there are hundred times more interesting and enjoyable than a drive would be.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

How-To: Helping Your Child Nap Comfortably on a Bobike Mini

I spent much of the evening up with the fella pictured above, trying to help him fall back asleep.  Perhaps I should rename this post: "How To: Helping Your Child Nap a Little Too Comfortably on a Bobike Mini".

I'll save an exhaustive review of the Mini for another post, but let me begin by saying that we love this seat.  LOVE it.  When my two-year-old (let's call him Little) rides up front, it is easy for us to talk to each other.  I notice right away if something is making him uncomfortable, or if he needs something.  I can kiss his cheek or pass him a snack without fuss at red lights.  The (easily removable) windscreen we added this fall protects him from the rain and wind.  Most importantly, he is right where all the action is, dinging the bell, enjoying the view, signaling turns when the mood strikes.  He is fast outgrowing this seat (he is very tall), but we love having a kid up front so much that we just ordered a front kid saddle for the bike that will replace our current mama bike in March.  Here's a link to the saddle (and the bike, a Workcycles Fr8):

I purchased the Mini in the spring, but rode around for a few months before I got the hang of helping Little nap comfortably in it.  At first, I would try to use my arm to cushion his head when he drifted off.  This was quite uncomfortable, and occasionally prevented me from signaling turns properly.   I knew that Bobike made a headrest for the Mini, but I couldn't find anyone in Oregon who carried the more padded version I was after.  (Here are links to the two versions I've seen: with cushion attachment, without cushion -- scroll down the page a bit to see the without cushion sample on that second link.)  Only an unpadded version was available through the shops I checked with.  Then one day, it dawned on me that I didn't need a headrest.  I just needed a little pillow. 

We have a couple of favorite pillows.  Because we are always trying to pare down the amount of stuff we are hauling, our pillows are typically improvised from things we were planning to bring on the bike anyhow.  In the photo above, Little is resting his head on a knit cap that has been stuffed with a small pocket sling.  Knit caps are excellent for this purpose, as long as they are not made of cotton.  Wet cotton would, of course, make Little's face cold if it was sprinkled with a little rain during the ride.  Our favorite pillow component for Little is actually a SmartWool cap belonging to his older brother (call him "Bigger").  As the weather in this photo was chilly and wet (mid-thirties to upper forties, I believe -- brisk for Eugene), Bigger had his nice warm cap placed very sensibly on his noggin.

 (The helmet is on loan from Paul's Bicycles, who very kindly offered us the use of this rental helmet -- free of charge -- while we are waiting for Bigger's new, special order helmet to arrive in their store.  The Nutcase helmet he had previously been using just didn't fit him, but that's a story for another day.  Actually, this one looks like I didn't adjust it properly to accommodate his cap, as it is sliding back and to one side on his head.)

We also like to use a small wet/dry bag that we used to carry Little's cotton diapers before he was potty trained, but that's out for the winter as it is cotton on the outside.  These days, it is stuffed with his change of clothes, which are equally soft and comfy, and could work as a winter bike pillow in a pinch.

If we are traveling around Little's nap time, I simply put the sling and cap just inside my bag or purse, so that I won't have to dig around for it.  Then, when he starts to nod off, I can easily reach into the crate behind my saddle to retrieve the pillow.  I rest it atop my handlebars below Little's head, then gently guide him into the most comfortable position.  Simple!  I can't believe that I ever thought I needed a $40 metal and foam product to help Little nap comfortably on the bike.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Corners of My City

The other day, I snapped this photo of my children, enjoying a moment in one of their very favorite places in the whole world.  This is a phone booth near a store we frequent.  Each week, after we lock up our bikes, my older son carefully opens the door to the phone booth, I scan it for anything unsafe or unusual, and then we gleefully pile inside.

In the last few weeks alone, this phone booth has been transformed into a rocket ship, an Amtrak sleeper car, a squirrel house, a busy restaurant serving only pancakes and pumpkins, and one of Saturn's moons.  This phone booth has revived the spirits of a frustrated toddler, given an exhausted mother a moment of peace, and illuminated the grayest morning in recent memory.  Even a mention of the phone booth can distract the most determinedly cranky child for a few minutes.  It is our errands day sanctuary.

Before I started to run this errand (and all others) by bike, I don't believe we ever set foot in this place.  In the rush of getting from car to store, we hadn't ever considered stopping to look over this little corner of our city.  But when a family arrives by bike, it is easier to see things.  You are moving at a pace from which it is possible to get a good look at what is around you.  You stop and park your bike and spend a couple of minutes locking up while the children have a 360 degree view of their world.  The children start to point out the big birds' nest on that one streetlamp.  They know the places where herons sometimes fish.  They give names to the engines at the fire station and put squirrel houses in the phone booth.

Why do I choose to get around my city by bike?  There are many reasons, but perhaps the most important one is this: it's fun.  My greatest fear about making the leap from car to bicycle transport was that my children wouldn't like it.  I had no idea that it would become the one part of our day that I can count on to improve everyone's mood.  In the rain, in the wind, even on what used to be our most tedious errand, we love to get out on our bikes.  For hundreds of reasons.  And one of them is this little glass-walled spot.