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Back East or back home - What do you like?

Posted: August 27, 2011 - 6:13pm

Ah, summer vacation! Nothing like getting out of town to make you appreciate what you’ve got going on back home.

We took our vacation back East. I chuckle whenever I hear that term, especially spoken by someone who’s never been east of the Rockies. Pittsburgh’s practically in the Midwest, but it’s in the Eastern time zone, so it counts as “back East” to me. I could correctly say “down south,” too, from my vantage point in Juneau. We used to call Pennsylvania “up north” when I was growing up in Florida — it’s all a matter of perspective, I guess. Well, wherever it is on the compass, Pittsburgh is where we went.

It’s always fun to notice the differences between back East and back home. The No. 1 biggest eye-opener has got to be the traffic and the roads. In Juneau you can drive for 40 miles and hit the end of the road in both directions. It’s hard to get lost, except for a few neighborhoods in the valley that require GPS navigation at all times. In Pittsburgh you can drive for 40 miles just to get to the mall, not counting all the side streets you had to turn around on when you got turned around. Make that 40 miles up and down hills and through intersections that don’t understand the concept of the right angle, all the while dodging drivers who make Mad Max look like a little old lady out for a Sunday drive. My brother-in-law’s signature line, “I know a shortcut,” was enough to strike fear into his toughest passengers.

Then there’s the difference in city size. Pittsburgh has a population roughly 10 times the size of Juneau. In Pittsburgh you can go to a baseball game with 29,000 other Pirates fans, and not see a single familiar face in the stands. I felt foolish scanning the rows looking for a friend, but I just couldn’t believe that I could be in a crowd the size of Juneau, and not see anyone that I know. The entire population of Juneau could fit into PNC Park and still not sell out the baseball game. They probably wouldn’t all root for the Pirates, though.

Our family’s quest on vacation was to take in experiences that you can’t get in Juneau. We went to an amusement park with real wooden roller coasters and the last Flying Coaster ride left in the country, aptly named the “Kangaroo.” You sit in this little car attached to the hub of a wheel, zoom around a circular track and up a ramp, and hop off a mini ski jump at the end. You fly up out of your seat, screaming with excitement, trying not to wonder why every other amusement park in the country has phased out this particular ride. Best not to ask too many questions from the top of an amusement park ride.

We even visited the White House — a surprisingly anticlimactic destination. To get on the tour list you have to provide your full name, social security number, place of residence, gender, and date of birth. I expected them to ask for my favorite flavor of ice cream and the address of my kids’ first babysitter. You have to pass through three checkpoints just to get inside. After all that, we found out that the tour is self-guiding — we could wander around the White House at will. I guess if we’d decided to swipe some presidential silver, they’d know where to find us, right? Of course, uniformed guards manned each room with appropriate solemnity, and only a handful of rooms were open to visitors. We finished the entire tour in half an hour. The highlight was a First Family sighting — we saw Bo the dog, posing for photos like a seasoned politician. Of course, we couldn’t take a camera into the White House, so Bo’s privacy remains protected.

But the best part of vacation, hands down, is the chance to skip out of work and other responsibilities, and just play. You can get that gift of time back East or down South, but it’s something very precious back home.

• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother and aspiring author who lives in Juneau. She likes to look at the bright side of life.

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