Chicago Day Trip: Pig Racing, Groundhogs And A Few Hippies In Woodstock, IL

woodstock illinoisThere is nothing like a really good pig race on a glorious autumn afternoon in the Midwest. I have to admit, I had never really associated pigs with speed until I happened upon my first ever pig race while on a family outing at the All Seasons Apple Orchard and Pumpkin Patch in Woodstock, a graceful small town built around a picturesque square about an hour northwest of Chicago. But those pigs could really fly (as the video below proves).

Last weekend, my wife and I took our two little boys, ages 3 and 5, to All Seasons and several other stops on Woodstock’s annual Autumn Drive. We didn’t make it to all 14 stops because my children had to be dragged, practically kicking and screaming from All Seasons, which, aside from the pumpkin patch and apple picking, also has slides, a petting zoo, go karts, swings, pig races, jumpy houses, hay rides, a corn maze and a host of other kid friendly activities. For $10 (children 2 and under are free and it’s $7 on weekdays), your kids get to run wild for as long as they like and three heats of pigs race four times a day.

all seasons farm woodstock illinoisThe place is open daily through Halloween and serves pretty good pulled pork sandwiches, corn on the cob and apple cider donuts. But if you head out to the farm, make some time to explore the town of Woodstock, where the movie “Groundhog Day” was filmed. (Each year, the town hosts a commemorative event called Groundhog Days in honor of this connection.)

The town center features a great green space that features two gazebos, trees that right now have gorgeous red and orange leaves and a plaque dedicated to Gobbler’s Knob, the place where the groundhog from the film lived (see video below).

Woodstock is so nicely preserved that five years ago, the town was named one of a dozen “distinctive destinations” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. And a number of notable figures have lived in the town. Orson Welles, who turned down a scholarship offer at Harvard because he wanted to travel, was educated at a now defunct boys school in the town and returned to the town on several occasions to direct theatrical performances at his alma mater.

The real show stopper in Woodstock is the stunning Victorian style opera house, which was built in 1889 at a cost of just $25,000. These days, the venue is mostly used for live theater, but they occasionally put on an opera as well. Paul Newman cut his teeth doing live theater here in 1947. And if you’re looking for a seasonal offering, they’re hosting a one-woman performance of Dracula on Sunday October 28 at 2 p.m.

You might imagine that a town called Woodstock would be filled with hippies. On this score, Woodstock is a mild disappointment, but there are some signs of crunchiness if you look hard enough. I saw two guys with ponytails in the square and there’s a vegetarian restaurant, a gluten free grocery and a shop that has some tie-dye T-shirts. And many of the downtown shops close early, even on Saturday afternoons, so the hippie work ethic is apparently alive and well.

If you don’t have wheels, you can get to Woodstock via Metra’s Union Pacific line. One stop down the line in Crystal Lake, you’ll find Taqueria Las Cumbres, as authentic a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant as you’ll find anywhere in the Midwest. Go with the al-pastor tacos if you’re having a pig themed outing; otherwise, don’t miss the chicken and shrimp fajita dish.

[Photo and video credit: Dave Seminara]

Groundhog Day 2011: Bring on spring!

groundhog day 2011As winter throws its weight around unlike anything we have seen in years, even people who have never believed in Punxsutawney Phil’s powers of prognostication were thrilled when Groundhog Day 2011 resulted in our furry friend forecasting an early spring. Phil didn’t see his shadow (mostly because of the gray skies and icy rain), so six more weeks of winter aren’t in the cards this year. That was welcome news to most Americans, as everyone from the Dakotas down to Texas over to the Carolinas and up through New England are sick and tired of the cold.Snowfall across the US has reached record levels, so even if you don’t believe that a groundhog can predict the weather, surely you can appreciate that any sign of hope is welcome. On behalf of everyone who has had a flight canceled, spent hours digging out their cars or slipped on some ice, we salute you, Punxsutawney Phil. But if you’re wrong, we’ve got some groundhog stew recipes ready.

Photo by Flickr user alemaxale.

It’s Groundhog Day on Foursquare: Pennsylvania Tourism sponsors new badge

FoursquareSocial media fanatics don’t have to see Punxsutawney Phil’s prognostication live to snag location-based service FourSquare’s latest badge. Sponsored by the Pennsylvania Tourism Office, users checking in anywhere in the world by badge by following visitPA on Foursquare and using the word “Groundhog” can snag the inaugural PA Groundhog Day badge on February 2.

Pennsylvania became the first state to partner with Foursquare last May by populating the network with more than 200 state tourism attractions and creating three custom badges: “PA Shooflyer” (dining), “PA Retail Polka” (shopping), and “PA 4 Score & 7” (history). Since the launch, visitPA has amassed more than 30,000 followers and has awarded more than 12,000 badges.

In a tradition dating to the 1800s, Groundhog Day is celebrated each Feb. 2 in Punxsutawney, Jefferson County, about 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh in the Pennsylvania Wilds. According to folklore, if the groundhog emerges in the early morning and sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of wintry weather. If he does not see his shadow, there will be an early spring.

A Webcast of the Groundhog Day festivities will be available, including links to Punxsutawney Phil-related videos on YouTube.

Here’s to hoping for spring’s prompt arrival!

Cockpit Chronicles: Groundhog day – The St. Thomas turn (with video)

One of the benefits of working as an airline crewmember, whether it be as a pilot or flight attendant, is the chance to get to know a city in a manner that’s second only to living there. But when we’re given the option to fly a month of ‘turns’ – those one day trips with flight times occasionally exceeding eight hours, many of our Boston international pilots forgo the London or Aruba layover for a line with 9 or 10 turns in it.

It’s tough to pass up a schedule that allows you to be home every night and have a good deal of time off as well.

As a result of the popularity of these turns, they’re not always available to choose when you’re as junior on the seniority list as I am. But my seniority must have improved since the beginning of the year, since I’m able fly FO (First Officer, as opposed to FB, the relief pilot) lines to St. Thomas.

Some might consider it torturous to see a glimpse of warm weather during a walkaround inspection lasting less than ten minutes, only to come straight back to the northeast and land while it’s snowing.
But for the entire month of February, I’ve been doing just that – flying trips to and from St. Thomas, and occasionally trading for a different day or different destination, such as San Juan. I’ve kept an eye open for an opportunity to ‘chronicle’ the trip, but the flights have been rather uneventful and amazingly consistent.

So consistent in fact, that I feel like I’m experiencing a pilot’s version of the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day.

Wake up at 5, depart at 9. Answer a Plane Answers question during the 1 hour crew rest break. Fly a visual approach to runway 10 in St. Thomas, park at gate 3.

I’ll debate whether the view is interesting enough to go outside and snap a picture, and then decide I have plenty of St. Thomas ramp pictures already so I check my e-mail on the phone before doing the interior preflight. The FB comes back in from inspecting the outside, followed by the captain with the paperwork he collected from operations in the terminal and we’re again departing to Boston 5 minutes before our scheduled time.

The flight home might include sleeping on my break, and then returning to the cockpit just in time to watch the sun set before getting ready for the visual approach or ILS to runway 27 back in Boston.

Taxiing in, we maneuver around the same outbound US Airways flight, before finally parking at gate B31.

The FB races out of the cockpit like he’s late for a date, which is entirely expected of that position since there’s nothing left for him to do, except maybe to take the trash bag out of the cockpit as he leaves.

But now, after 10 of these trips in a row, I’ve learned to enjoy the repetitiveness of the flying. It’s refreshing to be familiar with each VHF frequency you’ll dial in as the airplane progresses through the various ATC boundaries. I don’t even mind the same turkey wrap or chicken caesar salad meal option we get on each leg.

And while the captain and relief pilot are occasionally different people, airlines insist on standardized callouts and actions, so even that doesn’t offer much variety.

Last night, however, we had a little experience that finally made the trip one that will stick in my memory for a long time. As we were descending to 24,000 feet (flight level 240 in pilot speak) we leveled off just above a cloud layer.

I call this cloud skimming, and anytime we’re above 10,000 feet, I like to pull out my camera to capture the sensation of speed that 300 knots provides when you’re just a few hundred feet above a layer of clouds.

But today, of all days, I chose to leave my new, amazingly wonderful, mind-blowing Canon 5D Mark II digital SLR slash HD video camera at home. I figured I knew everything that would happen today, right down to the approach and gate we’d be using, and since I had taken enough shots of anything even remotely interesting during the previous flights, today seemed like the day to shed the extra three pounds.

Never again! I was forced to pull out my $210 Flip Mino HD video camera, which I love for it’s simplicity and incredible portability, but I know the 5D’s HD mode would have been even more beautiful.

For those learning to fly, a quick note. After you get your private license, you might be thinking about adding an instrument rating to your ticket. You’re probably weighing the costs and benefits of such an investment. Let me tell you that, in addition to improving your flying skills and your options during long cross country flights, you’ll also be able to experience scenes such as the following that just might make all the studying and checkrides worth it.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out Plane Answers.

Groundhog Day: Phil and Spanish Joe say six more weeks of winter

According to folklore, if a groundhog sees it’s shadow on February 2nd, there are six more weeks of winter. Actually, there would be six more weeks of winter anyway, so that’s beside the point. Here is the forecast from Punxsutawny Phil in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The famous groundhog presented the news this morning at 6 a.m. Phil did see his shadow.

The tradition of Groundhog Day has its roots in Celtic and Pagan traditions. February 1 is the date that marks the movement of weather away from winter towards spring. The pagan festival Imbolc , celebrated on the 1st is similar to the Catholic holiday Candlemas that dates back to medieval times. As Christianity edged out pagan beliefs, some cultural traditions persevered.

Nowadays, through the changes of time, we have been left with the tale of the groundhog and his shadow. Besides asking Punxsutawney Phil for the winter weather forecast, you can ask Spanish Joe. Although, Punxsutawney Phil has made Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania the place to be on February 2 because it has the largest Groundhog Day celebration ever, Spanish Joe has a following.

Spanish Joe is the only psychic groundhog in Ontario, Canada. It is said he can predict what the weather in Canada will be like all year long. He’s called Spanish Joe because he lives in the town of Spanish. At first, when I read his name, I thought he’d be wearing a sombrero, but no–Spanish Joe looks like any other groundhog. Although, as the story goes, Spanish Joe became Spanish Joe only after he was run over by a Greenpeace protest bus. It’s an odd story, but not much more unusual than any other groundhog story connected to Groundhog Day.

For a snippet of another odd, but also hysterical story, here’s a clip from the movie Groundhog Day. The movie takes place in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on Groundhog Day over and over and over again, and was named by Stanley Fish of the New York Times as one of the 10 Best American Movies. Bill Murray is in top form in this one.

This is a scene well after Murray’s character finds out he’s living the same day over and over again. Part of the Groundhog Day Festival is shown. You have to love the polka music.