Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Polar Express {Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in Bryson City}

This post is about our experience on the Polar Express train ride at the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in Bryson City, NC. You probably gathered as much from the title. An alternate title I considered for this post was: That Time Our Children Got So Delirious Off Sugar and Holiday Excitement That One Nearly Fell Out the Window of a Moving Train. But that seemed a little long.

This Christmas we traveled to my parents' house in Tennessee and decided to make a whole vacation of it by scheduling stops along the way. After two nights in Asheville, we headed to Bryson City for the day.

Many friends have asked my opinion of the Polar Express ride wondering if it would be a fun excursion to attempt with their kids next year. Rather than offering a flat Yes or No, I will paint a picture of our experience - complete with pros and cons - and let you be the judge on whether or not you'd like to venture to the "North Pole" as well.

The Polar Express train ride is inspired by a children's book (and subsequent movie) of the same name. In the book, a young boy is awoken by a train whistle on Christmas Eve. Still in his pajamas, he goes to investigate and ends up taking a trip on the Polar Express all the way to the North Pole where he meets Santa and receives a gift of a silver bell from Santa's sleigh. 

The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad has done a fantastic job of recreating this magical journey, including costumed characters from the book, treats on the way and a visit from Santa. They even encourage kids to wear their jammies on the trip!

The GSMR website instructs arriving at the station one hour before departure. This is not a suggestion to trap you in the gift shop for an hour before your train leaves. They are serious. In true Hargett fashion we pulled in 30 minutes after the recommended arrival time.

In my head I was thinking that we would just pull up to a quaint little train station, hop on board and be on our way. I was wrong. There is nothing little about this operation. There were 35 different train cars on our Polar Express expedition holding nearly 2,000 passengers in total. In comparison, the population of tiny Bryson City totals about 1400. Bryson City is the train station along with several charming shops and restaurants nearby.

The reason you do not see thousands of passengers milling about in these photos is because by the time we found parking, hauled our 3 kids and an extra-large diaper bag to the depot, picked up our tickets and located our train, everyone else was already on board. 

PRO: When you arrive late you avoid long lines.
CON: When you arrive late you must bypass all the adorable photo ops around the station. Although John would probably consider that a pro as well.
The last ones to board.
We finally made it! The kids are getting EXCITED!! Mommy & Daddy are getting TIRED!
The train is composed of beautifully restored vintage coaches dating from the 1920s to the 1940s. Upon booking your ticket, you will have the option of selecting a seat in coach, crown class or first class. We decided on first class for one reason and one reason only: TABLES. First class is the only option that provides large dining tables between the seats. You see, just as in the literary inspiration, this Polar Express also serves hot chocolate to its passengers. And the hot chocolate does not come in sippy cups. Therefore, we figured that if there were a table on which to rest our drinks, we could all possibly avoid wearing our hot chocolate all the way to Tennessee.

You know what else is included in the first class experience? Bags of treats. LARGE bags of cookies and chocolates and peppermints and marshmallow Santas and other things comprised purely of sugar. The children immediately spotted them and began to hyperventilate with anticipation. They did not care that we were on a train dating back to 1949 that was once a lounge car on the historic Pennsylvania Railroad. Their sole ambition was to stuff as many sweets into their tiny mouths as humanly possible. "This bag is as big as my head!" shouted one. "CANDY! CHOC-WIT! SANTA! CANDY!" screamed the other.

Well, we couldn't leave her out.
And then, after the conductor came by to punch the golden tickets, the hot chocolate arrived.
Turns out you get to keep these giant souvenir mugs too,
which is great because nobody ever has enough mugs at home.
"Mommy! This is as big as my head, too!"

PRO: The table makes a nice barrier between you and your children when they start convulsing all over the seat from the sugar overdose.
CON: No one tells you to bring an additional bag to cart off all the stuff they give you in first class.

After ensuring the children had consumed enough sugar to keep a small bakery in business for a year, the story of the Polar Express was read over a loudspeaker.

PRO: If you bring your own copy of the book, your children can read along.
CON: When they start fighting over who gets to turn the page, you will be forced to take the book away and somehow stuff it back into the bulging diaper bag that is now crammed with 5 gargantuan mugs and some half-eaten gingerbread men.

PRO: If it happens to get a little stuffy in your car, you can simply open a window for a nice breeze.
CON: When your 2-year-old discovers the window is open, he will promptly throw out several pieces of candy, part of the Christmas centerpiece and nearly tumble out himself, forcing you to shut said window and just sweat it out the rest of the trip.

Then, we arrived at Santa's Village at the North Pole.
Confession: I stole this photo (and the one below) off the internet.
You do not actually get off the train at the North Pole.
Also, our ride was during the afternoon, so we missed all the pretty lights.

 PRO: An afternoon train ride is a nice option for little ones who tend to get fussy in the evenings.
CON: The afternoon ride is missing some of the magic of seeing the North Pole by Christmas lights on a dark evening. Also, in the daylight your children see ALL the scenery of the western NC mountains and you're pressed to come up with a plausible reason as to why there are so many trailer homes at the North Pole.

Even with the sweets and the excitement of nearly falling out the window, the boys' favorite part of our journey was when Santa himself hopped on our car.

Santa and the rest of the GSMR staff were incredibly friendly and enthusiastic. Even though it was probably something like their 800th trip to the North Pole, they were all upbeat, enthusiastic and ensured that each passenger had an extra-special experience.

"And I want nunchucks for Christmas and my brother just wants Play-Doh."

The book was extracted from the diaper bag again
to be signed with a special message from Santa. 

PRO: Just like the boy in the book, each passenger receives a silver sleigh bell. The bells are engraved with "The Polar Express" and the date. The waiters lead the passengers in singing Christmas carols and the children shake their bells all the way back to the station.
CON: The children shake their bells ALL THE WAY BACK TO THE STATION.

Mommy & the kids as we pulled into the station.
Daddy and the diaper bag as we pulled into the station.

The one thing I've learned about traveling with little children is that you must throw all expectations out the window. In fact, if you anticipate the worst possible outcome, anything better ends up being a rather pleasant experience. We had no major injuries or meltdowns AND there was candy and Santa. All in all, I'd call that pleasant experience. It was a day filled with new experiences and family togetherness. And if you measure the success of an outing by the exhaustion level of all participants at the end, then the Polar Express takes the Christmas cake for sure.

The Polar Express in Bryson City is best suited for children ages 3-8, particularly if they love the original story or have an affinity for trains.

For us, we may brave the Polar Express again one day...but only when all of our children are able to hold their own mugs. 

“At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I've grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”
-Chris Van Allsburg, The Polar Express

Monday, December 30, 2013

One Cookie, Three Ways

I love to bake. I love the idea of taking separate ingredients - eggs, butter, flour, sugar - and combining them in all sorts of interesting ways to assemble a unique creation, much like an artist combines a canvas, brushes and paint to create a work of art. Except you can't eat a painting. Which is probably why there are more bakeries than art galleries. People can squabble for hours over their opinions on a piece of artwork, but it only takes one bite of a cookie to know if you've got a winner.

I would be happy spending hours in the kitchen baking perfect treats, but let's be honest. My free time and energy level often fall short of my ambition. I want to spend just enough time in the kitchen to satisfy my creative itch, so I've starting devising shortcuts and tricks to only make it look like I've spent hours slaving away. 

This year I came up with a recipe for Chewy Chocolate Cookie Dough that can be used to create 3 distinctly different and delicious cookies: Peppermint Blossoms, Chocolate Salted Caramel Cookies and Chocolate Stuffed Peanut Butter Pillows. 

The chocolate dough bakes up thick, dense and rich - think brownies in cookie form. YUM. Each recipe adds a unique ingredient that sets each cookie apart. TRIPLE YUM. When you roll up to a Christmas party with a tray of these bad boys, your friends will think you've been baking for days. You don't have to tell them that you whipped up all these suckers at nap time.

For the Chewy Chocolate Cookie Dough, begin by mixing flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

Then, melt a stick of butter in a saucepan and add cocoa powder and sugars. The mixture will resemble coarse sand.

Add yogurt and vanilla!

 Now add the whole mess to your flour mixture.

Hopefully you have a mixer. If not, add it to your Christmas list pronto and break out your mixing spoon for now.

The dough should look something like this when finished. Form it into a ball. You can also refrigerate the dough if you are not ready to use it yet.

Watch out for little munchkins who try and steal your baking supplies.

Caught ya!!


Chewy Chocolate Cookie Dough
-adapted from this recipe
-I was able to make a dozen Peppermint Blossoms, a dozen Chocolate Salted Caramels and about 18 Peanut Butter Pillows. If you use the recipe for just one cookie, it will probably yield 3 dozen.
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2/3 cup plain yogurt
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350ºF. Mix together flour, baking soda, and salt; set aside.

Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat; stir in cocoa powder and sugars (mixture will resemble coarse sand). Add yogurt and vanilla, stirring to combine. Add flour mixture, stirring until moist. Form dough into a ball. Optional: cover ball of dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.

(need one bag of Hershey's Peppermint Kisses)

Roll chocolate dough into balls (about 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter) and space apart on a cookie sheet. Bake at 350ºF for about 6 minutes. Immediately press one peppermint kiss into the center of each cookie. The candies will become soft, so the cookies must cool until the candies harden up again.

(need a bag of chewy caramel candies and some sea salt)

Slice caramel candies in half. Wrap chocolate cookie dough around each caramel half. Slightly flatten the top of the cookies and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake at 350ºF for about 6 minutes. Remove from oven and cool.

(need one batch of peanut butter cookie dough - store-bought or use the recipe below)

Roll chocolate dough into small balls (about 1/2 inch in diameter). Wrap peanut butter dough around the balls  and flatten the cookie slightly. Bake at 350ºF for 6-8 minutes. Remove from oven and cool.

Also, cookies will always come out better if you use a Darth Vader spatula.

Peanut Butter Cookie Dough

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
Mix butter, peanut butter, sugars and egg thoroughly. Blend all dry ingredients; stir into peanut butter mixture. Chill dough. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Not Another Christmas Letter

No smash, Hulk!
Christmas is in full swing around here. We're baking cookies, counting down the days on our advent calendar and trying to keep superheroes out of the manger scene. 

I'm also in the process of sending out Christmas cards.

In an age dominated by digital greetings there is just something extra special about sending and receiving cards in the mail. My boys love running to the mailbox in search of Christmas cards each day. We display them on the back of our front door and it's kind of like our friends and family are right here with us, celebrating alongside us every day (in a cheery, non-creepy way, of course).

Despite several attempts by our children to thwart our family pictures this year, we did manage to get ONE successful photo for our Christmas card. And by "successful" I mean that everyone is looking and no one is crying.

I thought about sending one of those Christmas letters as well to update everyone on our year, but thanks to the magic of social media, the fact that you're reading this implies that you're pretty well caught up already.

So instead, I whipped up a little quiz to see how well you've been paying attention. Once a teacher, always a teacher, you know. And, in true elementary-school teacher fashion, I am giving away a prize for top scores!

If you answer all questions correctly, you win a lovely evening on your own with these 3 children:
Yes, this WILL happen if you attempt to use the restroom.


1. The Hargetts, in 2013:
    a) were written up extensively in "Parenting Magazine"
    b) had a baby and bought a minivan
    c) arrived embarrassingly late for church every Sunday 
    d) B and C only

2. Our family, having a passion for travel, 
    a) spent the summer abroad in Copenhagen 
    b) visited museums and monuments for a week in DC
    c) took an invigorating walk around the loop at Country Park
    d) drove around the block

3. Jack, our boisterous 4-year-old, has spent the year:
    a) rejecting vegetables in any form
    b) fighting bedtime 
    c) perfecting his ninja moves
    d) doing all of the above while wearing a superhero costume

4. Henry, our precocious 2-year-old with a tendency to snack on the inedible, has:
     a) eaten a tube of red lipstick
     b) eaten a piece of goose poop
     c) eaten his sister's umbilical cord
     d) eaten all of the above

5. Sweet Elise joined our family on March 15th of this year. At almost 9 months old she
     a) can recite the pledge of allegiance 
     b) just learned to clap
     c) owns 47 hairbows
     d) is our favorite child

5. Anna, domestic goddess extraordinaire, has 
     a) changed approximately 3,000 diapers
     b) taken 3 showers
     c) eaten every meal over the kitchen sink
     d) did all of the above without once complaining or posting snarky comments to Facebook

6. John turned 40 this year and his wife thinks he's more handsome than ever! This year he
     a) changed approximately 5 diapers
     b) singlehandedly tackled our mountain of laundry each week
     c) was selected as "Mr. October" for the Men of Greensboro Calendar
     d) wants you to know that the answer is 'B'. He really does do all the laundry.

8. During our annual family beach trip we
     a) worked on our tans and read stacks of novels while the children frolicked in the waves
     b) chartered a boat for a deep-sea fishing expedition 
     c) checked out all the hottest night clubs
     d) spent most of our time trying to keep sand out of places it does not belong: the snacks, the bedsheets, Henry's mouth, tiny bottoms, etc.   

9. In our spare time, we
     a) read classic 19th century literature which we discuss around the dinner table
     b) handcraft custom cabinetry from reclaimed barn wood
     c) watch tv
     d) rehearse Italian operettas on the back porch

10. Our hopes and wishes for 2014 include
     a) another baby
     b) an uninterrupted night's sleep
     c) peace on earth...or at least in the bathroom
     d) another year of your continued friendship!

Are you done? Ok, let me see your answers.

Well, look at that, you got them ALL CORRECT!
Congratulations! Please comment below with evening of your choice to claim your prize.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Just Shoot Me

When you live in a house with 3 little ones there always seems to be someone crying. Sometimes it's even one of the children. It's actually a rare occasion to have everyone perfectly content and happy. In fact, I think the only time that happens is when we all go out for ice cream.

I know this. If ice cream is not invovled, someone will be screaming. Still, I scheduled a family photo shoot for us with the utmost optimism. 

I thought I had it all planned out. I selected our outfits a week beforehand (you know, coordinated, but not too "matchy-matchy"). I perfectly timed our session not to interfere with anyone's nap. I even let the kids watch cartoons for an hour before the photographer arrived (everyone stays clean and happy if they're sitting on the couch with eyes glued to the TV).

My friend Vickie is an amazing photographer. She has been taking photos for us since Jack was a baby and she has captured some of my very favorite images of my children. However, every year we make her job a little bit harder by adding an extra baby to the shoot. 

This year, I'm impressed she didn't call it quits after the first 10 minutes. Truly, she is a saint. 

It all started with Henry. He was absolutely livid we suggested he abandon his blankie and paci for 10 minutes while we attempted to take a decent picture. And, since tantrums are contagious, other family members soon began to find things to whine about. Jack wanted to know why he couldn't hold a giant stick in the picture. Elise decided she needed a snack and attempted to search for one under my cardigan. John complained that restraining wiggly children made him sweat profusely. 

I may have snarled some threats through clenched teeth which, of course, only made them howl louder.

It may look like I'm smiling here, but I'm actually making threats.
It's a skill they teach in Motherhood 101
And here is another of Henry upset and Jack looking constipated.
We even attempted to stage a very natural family moment by the pond (because we always get dressed up in coordinating outfits to throw corn to the ducks), but after Henry nearly toppled in, only missing the water because Daddy had the wherewithal to reach out and grab his sweater, he became hysterical and we had to call it quits. 

In the end, it was Vickie's unwavering patience and some good old-fashioned bribery that saved the day. 

After what felt like 50 million clicks of the camera, this was the ONE successful family photo of the shoot. And by "successful," I mean that everyone is looking and no one is crying.
If it appears that Henry is sucking on a piece of candy given to him by his desperate parents
in an attempt to thwart a meltdown, well, you would be right. That is exactly what is happening.
I was thoroughly convinced that all our photos were going to come back with images of sweaty, bedraggled parents and screaming, runny-nosed children, but when Vickie (aka The Miracle Worker) sent me the pictures, I was once again blown away by her incredible talent. 

The candy pacified Henry long enough to take this shot.

Of course, as soon as we sat Elise down, Henry was off and running.

Henry making his escape.
Although her brothers nearly sabotaged our shoot, this girl ended up stealing the show with all her happy little smiles. Also, that fact that she's not yet mobile helped tremendously.

"Elise, would you like to take some pictures by yourself?"

"Wait...just me? You mean...."
"I LOVE IT!!!!!!"

Ultimately, we did end up with some images that we will treasure for years to come. 

Still, the next time we decide to take family pictures, I'm just going to have Vickie meet us at Ben & Jerry's.

*To see more of Vickie's work, visit her at victorialeighphoto.com