Are We There Yet? On Traveling for Thanksgiving

Alpine Larch in the fall.  Image from The Spokesman/Review of Spokane, WA

Nancy G.W. Baker is a forest landowner in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandfather's house we go;
the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.
Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather's house away!
We would not stop for doll or top,
for 'tis Thanksgiving Day.       

"The New-England Boy's Song about Thanksgiving Day,"also known as"Over the River and Through the Wood," is a Thanksgiving poem by Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880).Originally composed as a poem, it appeared in her Flowers for Children,Volume 2, in 1844; it’s been set to music, and Grandmother and Christmas are often substituted in modern versions. It was written when transportation methods (another verse suggests that upsetting the sleigh in a snowbank is no big deal) and fall weather (New England’s Little Ice Age: “oh, how the wind does blow! It stings the toes and bites the nose as over the ground we go) were more than a little different from our current 21st century excursions to granny’s house.

I recently returned from a modern-day trip through New England’s late fall. The autumn color was on the wane; in northern Vermont the spruce provided a dark backdrop to belatedly golden tamarack and, in the distance, the Presidential peaks in New Hampshire were glistening with snow. Snug inside a modern vehicle, I was reminded of childhood Thanksgiving trips to my own grandparents’ house and how I was excited not only by the anticipation of great food and playing with my cousins, but by the trip itself. With no car seats, air bags or even seat belts in the family auto, and given that I generally got car sick in the back seat, my mother became a true “back-seat” driver and I was appointed my dad’s navigator, given the map, and the front seat. (I’m not suggesting that the front seat position is safe for a child: I have a chipped front tooth from a run-in with the radio dial and several concussions from incidents resulting in totaled vehicles.) But there I was with my finger on the map, and my eyes trained on the landscape. Not simply taught to find the way to grandma’s, but instructed to use the landscape to do so: “What’s that tree?” “Look at the twiggery!” Why is that particular tree there and how come it’s not here? Which way is the water flowing? Where is it going? Why might we look for ice on the road as we ascend the Allegheny Front? Why does tamarack lose its needles in the winter unlike other conifers? 

Next week, when my young cousins arrive from Ohio for the holidays, one look in the back of their van with its menagerie of stuffed animals will tell me their parents have taken note of this suggestion from 2014’s internet: “Just this once, go against your parenting books and let the television baby-sit your kids. Portable DVD players might just be the key to your sanity on a long trip – you may want to go as far as to get one for each child. No arguments about whether to watch "Dora the Explorer" or "Spiderman" means peace and quiet for you.”


“Whatever you were planning on bringing in the way of snacks -- double it. And toss the rules about junk food on the roadside – this is one time to let your daughter have another cookie or your son another juice box. One day of poor eating cannot destroy a life of healthy habits. Pack their favorite healthy snacks, and keep the junky ones for when you get desperate.”

I think I have a better idea. I’m suggesting that on this year’s holiday tour, you make sure the kids can see out the window, lay off the internal vehicular entertainment for a while, and actively turn your youngster’s attention to the fascinating excursion that’s going on outside. Oh yes, this is going to take your participation too! Each iteration of the trip to see grandpa will be different: Gee, you might see a hawk (or moose, deer, bobcat! Or turkey! Or road kill!), and which way does that water flow and where is it going? What’s that tree? You’ve just got to look at the twiggery! And everybody learns why the tamarack (or larch or cypress, or dawn redwood) loses it needles before we all get to the turkey and pie. Are we there yet?

Over the river, and through the wood—
now Grandmother's cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

Find more info on the strategy of deciduous conifers and tamarack at