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The Huckleberry Railroad

Actually, we kind of like touristy kinds of things. It's something I come by naturally; while other families might have steered far clear of Wall Drug, my family followed those signs, which started 500 miles away on remote and well traveled highways alike, to get our free cup of water and snap a few photos. Jon and I have mostly stuck to national parks on our own travels, but every once in a while a sign with enough bright touristy appeal will take us off the beaten road and right into the trap. One of our most regularly beaten paths, of course, is the line of highway between here and "up north" in Michigan, and we've become familiar with the traps along the way—mystery spots, overlooks, and discount malls alike—but the one sign we had yet to follow was for The Huckleberry Railroad and Crossroads Village. Having our four year old train lover always with us it's hard to believe that we'd resisted this long, but until this past trip the timing had never been right; often we've tried to spend every last moment possible in north country and then we've passed the railroad sign too late in the day to stop, or else it's been winter and the place was closed. But this time we planned ahead and left Petoskey with a stop at the Railroad in our sites for just after the lunch hour.

So let me just say that sometimes there's good planning, more often even the best-laid plans go awry, and then, once in a blue moon, there's something far better than well thought out plans—there's good luck with a sprinkling of good timing. We left Petoskey knowing that the forecast was for showers and storms and a 90% chance of rain that afternoon, but as we neared the park in a determined drizzle, we could see blue skies behind the last of the afternoon clouds. We decided to go for it. What does a little rain matter when you're riding a train, right?

I can think of only one thing that would make a tiny, out-of-the-way attraction like Crossroads Village busy beyond belief on any given day, and that would be the Day Out With Thomas Celebration Tour, but since it visits each railroad only one weekend each year, what were the odds we'd run into that trouble? Yes, we really are one in a million. As we approached the two ticket booths we were pretty sure we'd be out of luck, but instead were informed that there were a handful of tickets for the last train of the day. Great! We only needed three, after all, and now all we had to do was come up with something to do while the rain blew past. We walked past the incredibly long line of families waiting to board the 2pm train in order to use the bathrooms, and afterwards regrouped on the suddenly deserted (and covered) platform to form a plan. Then, through the rain and the whistle of the train, came a quiet "psssst" from one of the sharply dressed train conductors; "Want to ride in the caboose?" he asked with a wide smile showing underneath his ancient-looking but appropriate handlebar mustache.

Uh, yeah. He was not bothered by the fact that our tickets were for a much later train, and he ushered us quickly down the line, handing us into that happily bright red last car, and then boarded with us. I figure the rain worked for us in two ways. First, it kept the ticket sales down so there were a few left for us, and second it sent some of the people with pre-purchased 2pm train tickets home so that we got to enjoy our 40 minute ride while the last of the rain showers blew past.

I remember Calvin's first swimming class, back when he was only 6 months old; the teacher was concerned that he was afraid of the water because he didn't crack a smile once during the first few weeks, but he wasn't afraid—he was absorbing and taking stock of the situation. It was this experience that kept coming back to mind as we sat in the little caboose for 30 minutes before seeing anything that even remotely resembled a smile, and even at the end of the ride our little thinker was only vaguely pleased in a visible sense. I hoped that our friendly conductor wouldn't be disappointed, thinking that the little boy chosen for such a coveted seat was ungrateful or uninterested, but the story of the swimming class seemed a bit much to share at the moment. In any case, Calvin thanked him for the ride as we descended once more to the Crossroads Station platform.

Again with the timing, our need for indoor entertainment had come to an end; as we had pulled up to the station at the end of our travels, the rain had stopped and the sun come out to shine through the thick air of a now warm and steamy afternoon.

Once stopped we explored the caboose a bit (something we missed out on doing at the front of the journey since we boarded last minute) and then spent a few more minutes exploring some of the retired cars near the station while we waited for the next train to board and depart so we could watch it.

There's not a whole lot more to Crossroads Village than the Huckleberry Railroad itself. Really it was like a much smaller version of Greenfield Village with much less attention given to the old buildings and their stories. I wonder if we had visited on a less cartoony weekend if maybe things would have been different.

My very favorite find of the day was the old farmhouse. It wasn't so much the farmhouse, though, as the lady and her vacuum inside. Look at the name on that vacuum, and then look at the floor she was in the process of cleaning when we walked through (with dirty feet, I'm sure).

They don't make vacuums like that anymore (in more ways than one).

The upside to the Thomas situation, though, was the activity fair. Attentions may have been drawn away from the beautiful old buildings and their lessons, but after a morning in the car an afternoon of craziness might have been just what the sane-parents fairy ordered. Bubbles, model trains, and even a little ice cream sent us back to the car well exercised, both mentally and physically, and well fed.

And would you believe, after all the good luck we'd already had, and even though I parked the car without a second thought for any more than the rain and the crowds, when we walked back to the car through a baking, sunny heat, we found it parked in the shade. Who put that tree there? Thank them kindly, please. Yes, sometimes luck far surpasses the benefits of planning.

It was also at this time that we finally learned how much Calvin really had enjoyed that train ride. "Can we come back next week? Please?"

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