Discovering The Soul of Trains.

Last Sunday was our annual trek out to Calera to visit Thomas the Train. But this year, we managed to get there earlier than usual, and it was much less crowded than it has been in the past. These two factors gave us ample opportunity to explore everything else at the location – something we’d never really done before.

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The destination in question is the Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum. I will readily admit that I have a subconscious avoidance-reaction to any location with the word “Museum” in the title. This can be traced back to my childhood where I, a very efficient and quite impatient child, had to wait on my mother, a person with zero concept of the passage of time (literally – it was a big eureka moment for my parent’s marriage when they figured this out) who greatly enjoyed reading every placard, and observing every angle of the most obscure artifact. Combine this with the fact that I was homeschooled and therefore visited all the museums with my mother and…I have an aversion to the word Museum.

(I’m sorry I was such a naggy kid, Mom. I fully appreciate all your efforts now. But I’d rather appreciate them NOT at a museum, if you don’t mind.)

So that also may be why I’ve never explored the location of our Thomas trips before.

But I can now say definitively that, Thomas weekend or not, every little (and big) train lover needs to visit this museum. Admission is free, and they have some fantastic artifacts of train culture gone by, almost all being open to being climbed upon and explored up close.

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(And very few placards to be read.)

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They have rows of old rail cars, engines, and cabooses to check out,

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and train tracks to (safely) play on – because what kid doesn’t want to play on train tracks?

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(Notice Thomas chugging into the station in the top left corner in the above picture. He’s pretty cool, too.)

They have old railway crossing signs that still function, manual track-changing cranks that really do shift the tracks,

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and really, really fantastic trains. It’s basically the best playground ever for the train-obsessed.

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And all those families who want to get their family photos made on train tracks? This would be the place to do it. (I emailed the museum to see if they allow that, but I haven’t gotten an answer yet. I’ll update if I do.)

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Seeing Thomas, of course, was fantastic as well,

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Along with meeting Sir Topham Hatt,

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getting to buy Thomas umbrellas,

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And some Masters-Level golfing.

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As usual, Thomas got a Hero’s welcome from Noah…and Ali. Because you don’t get too old for your first hero.

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And this year our ride took place on the Double Decker train car, which was pretty much thrilling.

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(And it had a nice view.)

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The train cars used for Thomas’ rides belong to the Museum, and so there are other opportunities to ride on them, as well.

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Since Sunday, Noah has asked me daily if we can go back and visit the trains. He knows he only gets to visit Thomas once a year, but now that he’s discovered everything else out there, he’d very much like to take a daily trek to the train yard, peeking into windows and imagining all sorts of adventures.

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And I have to admit…I kinda want to go back, too.IMG_5512

(Especially if I could figure out how to photograph a sunset behind those trains.)

Disclaimer: This post was not sponsored or requested by anyone. I’m just so thrilled that I discovered that I, too, can enjoy museums that I wanted to share it with you. Plus it’s a really fun place to take pictures.

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Your Official Invite to My Reality Show.

I’ve always been a technological early adopter. From texting before it had a name, to joining Twitter in 2008 and scrolling through every user in Birmingham then writing my first tweet: “I don’t think Birmingham is ready for Twitter just yet.”

(And we weren’t. But I came back year later, and we were.)

But in all of my technological experimentation, I’ve never been as quickly convinced that something would be world-changing as I am about a new free app/social network that released last week: Periscope – an app that provides an easy platform for interactive live-streaming.

(Note: This is not a requested/paid review of any sort. I am just this excited about it.)

Some of you are saying “but Periscope is not what you said its name was last week…”

You are correct. The week before last, I discovered Meerkat, a similar app, and even encouraged you to join me, which some of you did. I knew Periscope was coming, and that the Twitter-Owned app was going to have the advantage, since a) they’re Twitter-owned and b) Twitter wasn’t playing nice with Meerkat.

And sure enough, everyone that was early adopting Meerkat with me jumped ship to Periscope. I did too, and although I still prefer the look and a lot of the features of Meerkat, there were some nice features in Periscope, too. And, they are owned by Twitter. So they will most likely win this battle.

So I’m sorry, Most Loyal Readers Who Followed Me to Meerkat – for now, I’m moving to Periscope. As much as I’d like to support the underdog, I must be realistic.

Now. For those of you who are completely lost.

Why is this so great?

Because it allows a whole new level of interactivity that we, The Internet Population, have never experienced before. We get to share real, live moments.

So, instead of looking at my still, quiet photos of our visit to The Botanical Gardens that show my toddler when he’s being bribed to smile,

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And instead of not having any idea that Ali had just burped ferociously loud right before this picture,

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You can experience it all with us, uncut and unedited – and get to hear and see Noah’s angry attitude and Ali’s burp, type messages to us, and we can answer you verbally. And then we’ll basically be BFF.

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Yes. This is a Meerkat screenshot from my pre-Periscope days. But Periscope works basically the same way.

Perhaps this sounds like the greatest waste of time in the entire universe – and maybe it is. This leap forward in social sharing has definitely made me revisit the always-open discourse in my mind of how much is too much, and when should I just live my life and leave the internet out of it. But at this point, the kids find it fantastically fun to do once a day or so (they like interacting with people who talk to them), and it’s a great way to get to know you all better.

I have some fun ideas for the future – such as taking you all jeans shopping with me, telling live stories (I actually already tried this yesterday with mixed and somewhat awkward results, but I REALLY want to get better at verbal storytelling so you get to watch my struggle in the meantime), sharing my sunsetting adventures with you, letting you see what our school day looks like, and whatever other adventures happen to come our way.

And I’d love to see your streams, too!

Plus, as Jimmy Fallon on Periscope has shown us, you can have deep, stimulating conversation with the internet through this app.

Jimmy Fallon Periscope

So clearly it’s going to be a hit.

If you’re willing to join me on this little experiment, here’s what you need to know:

1. You’ll need a Twitter account to sign into the app, but you don’t really have to use it again after that.

2. Download the app called “Periscope” – make sure you get the one created by Twitter – there’s another one out there for spying on people and I would never encourage spying on people. (It’s only available on iPhones right now – sorry, Android users.)

Periscope

3. Allowing Push Notifications is pretty much a must, since it’s a live stream (unless you stay really current on your Twitter feed.) However, live streams are available to watch on Periscope for 24 hours after filming (Scroll down on the first tab to “Recent” to see the day-old streams of anyone that you’re following.) So if you miss it, it’ll still be there for a little while.

4. Follow me – my name is ObjectivityRach – just like on Twitter and Instagram.

One last disclaimer. I could be completely wrong and watching me do my life might be the most boring endeavor ever construed. And I might be so awkward that you’re all like “we’ve been reading her blog because…why?!”

If so, forgive me and we can just go back to knowing each other as words on a screen. Promise?

10 Best Hikes and Runs in Birmingham.

10 Best Hikes and Runs in Birmingham

It’s the first day of spring, guys. I can nearly feel all of the viruses and bacteria of this infested winter die. Isn’t it wonderful?

And it’s time to get back outdoors and enjoy our beautiful state. We’re blessed with winters that are mild enough to allow us to comfortably be outside regularly, but the blooming of spring and the warmth of the sun make it so much more invigorating.

Hiking and running are favorite activities in our family, and Birmingham has some spectacular places to explore on foot. Below are our ten favorite places to get outside on a beautiful day, in no particular order.

1. Moss Rock Preserve. (Hike, Walk) – Located in Hoover, it has 12 miles of hiking trails, a boulder field that is kid (and teenager) heaven, and many waterfalls. Moss Rock is a perfect place to go to enjoy nice weather, but it is almost completely shaded, so dress for it to be about 5-10 degrees cooler than it really is.

Moss Rock Preserve Boulder FieldLocated just below the boulder field, this is one of my kid’s (and their cousin’s) favorite places. I wish I was their height so it could be mine, too.

Moss Rock Preserve The creek always houses fantastic reflections from the tree covering above.

Moss Rock Preserve FernsTrue to its name, there are all kinds of moss (and ferns) to be discovered.

Moss Rock Preserve Waterfall

Moss Rock Preserve WaterfallWaterfalls are in abundance. Try to go after a good rain!

Moss Rock Preserve Boulder FieldThe boulder field is situated on a steep incline, so it’s easy to go out onto the top of the rocks.

Moss Rock Preserve Boulder FieldThere are some passes through those boulders that only tiny people can fit. You have been warned.

Moss Rock Preserve Rock DesertThe kids call this “The Desert” – it’s a solid rock slab going uphill. It’s great for games – all sorts.

Moss Rock Preserve Boulder FieldThe top of the boulder field is a great place to stand and stare. For obvious reasons.

Moss Rock Preserve Boulder Field

Pros: Plenty of paths, lots of interesting things to discover, lovely waterfalls.

Cons: There are a lot of creek crossings with no actual crossing. Rock balancing is a must, and sometimes, when the water is high, it can get a bit treacherous for little legs.

2. Red Mountain Park. (Hike, trail run, walk.) There are so many trails to be discovered here – long and short, difficult and flat. There are beautiful overlooks, historic mining relics, rail ruins that make the perfect photo backdrop, and plenty of surprises to discover on your own. They also have fantastic adventure opportunities, such as a zip line course and an 80 foot climbing tower.

View from Grace's Gap Red Mountain ParkThe view from Grace’s Gap, one of the many overlooks, is a thrill. This is the zoomed in view.

View from Grace's Gap Red Mountain Park…And this is the actual view.

SkyHy TreeHouse Red Mountain ParkThe SkyHy Treehouse is my kid’s favorite part of the park. The suspension bridge is just sturdy enough to feel comfortable, and just flexible enough to give an eight-year-old an adrenaline rush.

Red Mountain Park Mining RuinsThe mining ruins make every trip out to Red Mountain Park count as a school day. Alabama History for the win!

Red Mountain Park Rail RuinsThis old rail bed, more overgrown with forest as you walk further, fulfills every kid’s dream of playing on train tracks.

Pros: Many different walks, 12 miles of trails, many terrain options, great views and activities.

Cons: Many trails are not easily accessible with a jogging stroller. Also, keep this trail map handy on your phone – there are so many trails that overlap and cross each other that it’s sometimes difficult to keep it straight.

3. Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve. (Hike, trail run, walk) I’ve lived in Birmingham all my life and am ashamed that my first visit to Ruffner Mountain happened in my 30s. It’s another great nature preserve with many trails – many more than I’ve traversed. We almost always take the same one – we park on the backside of the preserve (at the baseball fields) and take an easy .65 mile hike to the Birmingham overlook. It’s a relatively easy trail that has a couple of different-facing views on the way. And the overlook is one of the best spots to catch a big sky sunset in Birmingham.

View of Birmingham from Ruffner Mountain

Ruffner Mountain Nature PreserveThe colors are beautiful all year long, but especially in the fall.

Ruffner Mountain Nature PreserveThis overlook faces an old quarry.

Ruffner Mountain Nature PreserveEven Winter Walks are beautiful at Ruffner Mountain.

Pros: Close to the city, many different trails.

Cons: A lot of altitude changes.

4. Jemison Trail. (Walk, run) This lovely two mile trail in the heart of Mountain Brook is fantastic for exercising. It has many different parking and entry points, wide paths, flat trails, a creek for distraction, and numerous park benches along the way. Also, if you have kids with you, plan your walk/run so that you can go out into Mountain Brook Village, and bribe them with a stop for candy at Swoop halfway through – it’s a multi-generational tried and true way to get kids to love exercise.

Jemison Trail is one of the best runs in the city because of its easy access and extreme mileage variability. It can be made into a 4-6 mile loop using Montevallo Road as the other side, or it can be combined with Lakeshore Trail to get a 10-12 mile loop, or climb the mountain to the top of the city and visit all three Mountain Brook Villages for an 8-10 mile loop.

Jemison Trail Stepping Stone BridgeThe stepping stone bridge about halfway through the trail.

Jemison Trail CreekThe view from the stepping stone bridge.

Jemison Trail The trail is half paved, half gravel.

Water Wheel House in Mountain BrookThe water wheel house across the road from Jemison Trail – you’ll also notice a sketch of this house on the doors of Mountain Brook Police cars – interesting, since it’s actually a private residence. I’d feel pretty safe if my house were on the side of every police car in my city.

SwoopA Swoop fan for life – her future running career has been powered by the promise of their candy.

Pros: Super flat, convenient, mostly paved.

Cons: Right against the road, therefore not so rustic. Also, if there’s been a heavy rain, the stepping stone path over the creek is covered up, so plan accordingly.

5. Lakeshore Trail. (Walk, run, bike) This 2.5 mile sidewalk is perfect for an easy, mindless run. It semi-connects to Jemison Trail via Brookwood Mall, and also skirts alongside the creek. Being in the flood plain, there’s also often a “lake” on the other side, convenient since there hasn’t actually been a lake at Lakeshore Drive in quite some time.

Lakeshore Running TrailThere are several places along the creek that have beautiful vistas.

Lakeshore Running TrailThe “lake” when it was frozen over this winter.

Bridge at the End of Lakeshore Running TrailIf you go out the Green Springs Highway side of the trail and turn right onto Old Green Springs Road, you will find this always changing and entertaining bridge – that is, if you like graffiti.

Pros: Super flat, can be used by runners or bikers, mileage marked every .25 miles.

Cons: Not too interesting for children, less rustic.

6. Boulder Creek Nature Trail. (Hike) Situated right behind the Vestavia Library in the Forest and accessible from their back door, this nature trail feels surprisingly remote to be right off Highway 31. Ali and I recently checked it out for the first time, and were quite surprised at its depth and natural beauty. It flanks both sides of a fairly steep ravine through which Patton Creek runs, has a nice waterfall at one end, and is quite a beautiful hike.

Boulder Creek Nature Trail at Vestavia LibraryPatton Creek in the bottom of the ravine

Boulder Creek Nature Trail at Vestavia Library

The origin of the name “Boulder Creek” becomes apparent quickly.

Boulder Creek Nature Trail at Vestavia Library

Boulder Creek Nature Trail at Vestavia LibraryThere are some seriously steep moments on this trail. Thank goodness for hand rails!

Pros: Beautiful, convenient, surprisingly scenic.

Cons: Not stroller accessible, narrow trails along ridges, a good deal of altitude change.

7. Irondale Furnace Trail. (Walk, Run) – Starting on Stone River Road in Mountain Brook, this gem of a trail is difficult to find, but well worth the effort. It’s only 1 1/3 miles long, but it’s stunningly gorgeous (especially in Fall and Spring), and has its own set of ruins halfway down the trail. It can also be combined into a running loop, as it empties out onto Old Leeds Road near the Jemison Trail/Montevallo Road loop referenced earlier.

Irondale Furnace Trail

Irondale Furnace Trail

Pros: relatively flat, convenient, not crowded, an easy walk.

Cons: Short and hard to find (Reference the map at the bottom of the post.)

8. Aldridge Gardens. (Run, walk) – Aldridge Gardens is a gem of Hoover that I’m constantly surprised by how many people have never visited. The perfect place for letting kids run off some energy, it has an endless supply of fish, ducks, and turtles to feed, a beautiful lake for practicing your reflection photography, a half-mile walking trail along the lake, and the wonderful hidden secret of The Fairy Garden.

The Fairy Garden is something that must be experienced rather than photographed, but it is a settlement up the hill on the far side of the lake (take the upper trail and it will lead you right to the fairies.) It includes fairy houses and settlements, and three giant bins labels “Rocks”, “Sticks”, and “Pine Cones.” Kids collect and sort the items so that the fairies have building supplies the next night. There must be fairy magic involved because it’s endlessly entertaining. So if you want a nice walk around the lake and then an opportunity to sit in silence for a few minutes, take your kids up to collect items for the fairy construction workers.

Aldridge GardensThe colors light up in Autumn and Spring at Aldridge Gardens.

Aldridge Gardens in the Spring

Aldridge Gardens Totem PoleThis guy is always hungry, waiting for thoughtful kids to come place rocks in his mouth.

Aldridge Gardens Turtle and RabbitThe animals are very kind to the children. Except for the hissing Geese, if you don’t have food for them.

Aldridge Gardens There are plenty of benches for walk breaks.

Aldridge Gardens

Pros: Perfect for children, many different gardens to explore, beautiful scenery.

Cons: Trails are relatively short.

9. Oak Mountain State Park. (Hike, Walk, Run, Bike) – Oak Mountain is the most diverse state park I’ve ever visited. With 9,940 acres, they have easy walking trails, steep hikes, a 22 mile biking loop, and dozens of activities – it would take many visits to run out of new things to try. We have not yet put Oak Mountain to nearly the use it deserves, but the trips we have taken have been perfect.

Oak Mountain State ParkThe Lake Trail is 2.3 miles long, and is a great trail for running, walking, or biking. It goes over a dam on the lake with the amazing view below:

Oak Mountain State Park

Oak Mountain State Park King's ChairThe hike to King’s Chair along the Blue trail is well worth the climb – and there is certainly a climb.

Oak Mountain State Park The lake is always relaxing to sit along, and includes a beach.

Oak Mountain State Park The architecture of some of the buildings have a magical, old-world feel to them.

Pros: Endless supply of every sort of hike, bike, run, or walk.

Cons: Make sure you have a map if you set out on a new trail – there are so many connectors and trails that it can get confusing.

10. The Chief Ladiga Trail (Run, Bike, Walk) – This is the furthest recommendation from Birmingham, but there’s a good reason for including it. IT IS AMAZING. The Chief Ladiga Trail is a Rails to Trails project that goes from the Weaver-Anniston city line to the Georgia-Alabama state line, for a total of 33 miles. It then connects with the Silver Comet Trail in Georgia, which is a 61.5 mile rail to trail that goes all the way to Smyrna, right outside Atlanta.

Chief Ladiga Trail Talladega National Forest

Since it is a Rails to Trails project, the grade is nearly nonexistent, it’s relatively straight, and it goes through beautiful countrysides and small towns. A good chunk of the trail travels through the Talladega National Forest, which is simply stunning.

We have biked and run 20 miles of this trail at different times, and plan on biking or running the entire trail (and the Silver Comet Trail) as we have the opportunity.

Here are some sights along the trail in the Talladega National Forest:

Chief Ladiga Trail Talladega National Forest

Chief Ladiga Trail Talladega National Forest

Chief Ladiga Trail Talladega National Forest

This post has been just a taste of all of the great places to hike and run in and around Birmingham. A few other places that are well worth the visit include:

The Botanical Gardens – they have way more trails than you might think, and the gardens are very invigorating.

Botanical Gardens

Downtown – a run through Birmingham will give you a whole new appreciation for the beauty of our city, and you will notice many things you’ve never seen before.

Downtown Birmingham

Star Lake – Although it’s a short loop, it’s a beautiful one, and easy to get to. It’s great for a small window of time to exercise.

Star Lake

The Tuscaloosa River Walk – if you find yourself in Tuscaloosa, you must check out the beautiful path along the river.

Tuscaloosa River Walk

So get outside, Birmingham, and enjoy Spring.


More Resources:

– Here’s an interactive map of all of the places mentioned in this post:

35 Things to do in Birmingham
38+ Places to find Birmingham’s sunsets
Five Star Trails: Birmingham, book by Thomas Spencer – if you want all of the details, down to where to enjoy the annual run of the spotted salamanders and what flower blooms when and where, then check out this book. It opened my eyes to several trails I’d never even heard of, and helped create my bucket list of trails to visit soon.
Picture Birmingham, over 500 photos of Birmingham (including many from above), indexed by location, and available on prints, canvas, note cards and more, with 100% of the profits donated to The WellHouse to help rescue victims of human trafficking.