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Back Story: Learning history on the road

Lyndon B. JohnsonSanta Claus (fictional character)White HouseAbraham LincolnUniversity of Maryland Medical Center

Sharon Boston, media relations manager at University of Maryland Medical Center, normally spends her days fielding requests from the media. But when it comes to weekends and vacations, it's a safe bet that she's on the road, traveling to visit homes once occupied by presidents, writers and other historic personages.

Boston cheerfully bills these perambulations that she began in 2001 — some right here in her own backyard — "Nerd Trips."

She also writes an illustrated blog she fittingly calls, "Nerd Trips! Roads Less Traveled To Presidents, Poets, & Other Historic Persons."

"I do six or seven Nerd Trips a year, and I also do an annual girls weekend Nerd Trip with friends," Boston, 43, who grew up in Reston, Va., said in an interview the other day. "People are always telling me I should go here or there. That's where I get some of my ideas."

Boston was an English major at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. After graduating in 1992, she earned a master's degree in journalism the next year from Northwestern University.

For the past decade, the Medfield resident has been media relations manager at the medical school.

"I've always been interested in history and architecture and visiting historical sites. You learn more about them than just reading about them," she said.

Boston was working as a TV news producer in Cleveland in 2001 when a newsroom co-worker asked what she was doing that weekend, and she replied she was going to visit the home of President James A. Garfield.

"The next time he asked me, he said, 'Are you taking one of your nerd trips Memorial Day weekend?' " said Boston, who in fact was planning a visit to the home of President Rutherford B. Hayes in Fremont, Ohio.

"The Hayes trip — he was the president who started the tradition of the Easter egg roll at the White House in 1878, by the way — was the first official Nerd Trip," said Boston, who enjoys not only visiting homes but collecting arcane facts about their former owners.

"Then my Nerd Trips grew into a casual hobby," she said, adding, "Many of the places I visit don't always have fancy gift shops and are not high-tech or slick," which means she does a lot of research on her own.

After friends urged Boston to write about her visits, she launched the Nerd Trip blog in 2010, complete with a Nerd Trip logo. She has 12 categories of trips, so readers can call up "Authors/Poets," "Presidents," "Baltimore Sites," "Nerdy News," "Not So Nerdy Trips" and "Mini-Nerd Trips," to name just a few.

She also includes color photos of the places she has visited, including photos of herself at the sites holding a Nerd Trip sign. She takes the trips with her family and friends.

The blog posts, which are breezily written and informative, always contain off-beat and amusing facts. After visiting the Flag House in Baltimore, she wrote that she saw the original bill of sale for the Star-Spangled Banner. It was for $405.90.

On another Baltimore jaunt, she pointed out a gorgeous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington at the Walters Art Museum.

I found her visit to Santa Claus, Ind., which she says is right down the road from President Abraham Lincoln's boyhood home and calls itself "America's Christmas Hometown," most fascinating. Everything has a Christmas-themed name.

There is a mall called Kringle Place, a Santa Claus Museum, Lake Rudolph Campground and RV Resort, and Santa's Candy Castle. The town is even home to Holiday Foods.

Boston calls Virginia "Nerdvana" because so many presidents were born there.

She has collected some marvelous presidential arcana: William Howard Taft was the nation's fattest president and had a proclivity for "nodding off in public," she writes, and President Andrew Johnson was always well-dressed because he had been apprenticed to a tailor.

When she visited Lyndon Johnson's Texas White House, she learned that Johnson, who she wrote "liked being connected," had a telephone installed under his dining room table.

Roaming the grounds of Johnson's estate, which is still a working farm, she looked at a brochure that warned visitors that "Nature can post hazards: beware of fire ants, cacti, armadillo holes, etc."

"I wonder what hazards are hiding under etcetera?" she wrote. "This is what I Iove about Nerd Trips, the fun sights you'll encounter and the unusual things you learn, particularly the personal side of people who have shaped our history."

Much more travel lies ahead for Boston, who said she is looking forward to roaming through New England and filing more Nerd Trip stories.

For those interested in reading Boston's blog, go to http://www.nerdtrips.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Lyndon B. JohnsonSanta Claus (fictional character)White HouseAbraham LincolnUniversity of Maryland Medical Center
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