Our Carnegie Mellon Visit! Spring Carnival, Fringe, and Pittsburgh Sightseeing

Loaded up and ready to escort Jacob to freshman registration at CMU - in August 2013!

As always, time marches on and affords little sympathy to those of us wishing to slow down a titch. We delivered Jacob to Carnegie Mellon University 2 1/2 years ago and the memories are still fresh: picking up our “Pack & Hold” order at Bed Bath & Beyond where a salesperson thought Matthew was the older brother (LOL!)…dragging the boys out of bed early for a delicious breakfast together at Pamela’s Diner…witnessing both Jacob and Matthew earn the “I GOT IT at the National Aviary” button (splat)…walking the 1/2-mile from the Shadyside Inn to freshman registration carrying all of Jacob’s dorm set-up - what a sight!

Push the fast-forward button and Jacob is now a junior, on-track to graduate next year with a B.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) with a focus in Computer Science and a minor in Philosophy. Although he plans to stay an extra semester to earn an M.S. in ECE, his days at CMU are rapidly coming to a close. We are both so very proud of Jacob’s accomplishments in college, not the least of which is his campus involvement.

Group selfie Jacob's freshman year. I grabbed this from Jacob's Facebook page; it was originally posted by Kiran Pandit.

College is what you make it and Jacob made a concerted effort from the get-go to stretch out of his fairly reserved demeanor. What does that mean in practical terms? He talked. A LOT. When he called us at the end of freshman orientation week he tiredly proclaimed with hoarse voice “Talking is exhausting.” Ha! It is, as is being “on” all the time, but the effort clearly paid off. He sounded enthusiastic and confident and had laid the foundation for solid friendships.

That happy, relaxed, post-orientation conversation was a far cry from the text we received Jacob’s first night on campus. After students were settled and the day’s talks completed, each dorm held a party. Jacob later revealed that his party was a mad crush of people packed into the dorm’s main floor. With loud music and everyone trying to be heard, all Jacob could manage were brief, shouted, surface-conversations consisting of “What’s your name?”, “Where are you from?”, and “What are you majoring in?” His text around midnight simply stated I might have to join a fraternity which we interpreted as Making friends is going to be harder than I thought. Things quieted and mellowed of course, and the remainder of orientation week allowed ample time to engage and get to know people.

As an aside - Jacob’s early resolve may have been partially influenced by Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture”, which was required summer reading and the subject of a small-group discussion during CMU orientation. Mr. Pausch was a Computer Science professor at Carnegie Mellon who gave a speech titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” soon after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Among the many encouraging messages, Professor Pausch stressed the importance of seizing every moment since “time is all you have…and you may find one day that you have less than you think.” Powerful stuff at any time in one’s life, but perhaps particularly meaningful when embarking on a new chapter. Here’s the video of Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture”.  Aside from personal inspiration, the video offers insight into a few of the innovative courses and degrees offered at Carnegie Mellon; it left me shaking my head in wonder.  Engineers and artists are both creative, just in different ways (think left brain vs. right brain) and when you bring them together, the results can be boggling.

A Fringe apple-picking outing. I grabbed this photo from Jacob's Facebook page; it was originally posted by Kaitlin Wilkinson.

Moving into the academic year, Jacob quickly settled into both classes and social activities. As it happens, he did not join a fraternity instead choosing Fringe, an active, co-ed social club on campus. Little did we know what a massive role Fringe would play in Jacob’s CMU experience! Many of Jacob's closest friends are fellow Fringers that he met freshman year.  The group fields intramural teams and coordinates fun social gatherings like apple picking, Fringe-giving (a pre-Thanksgiving potluck), and late-night half-price food runs, while also enthusiastically participating in the long-standing Spring Carnival traditions of Booth and Buggy. Jacob’s done it all but really threw himself into Booth freshman and sophomore years, is currently president of Fringe, and competed on a Buggy team for the first time this year.

Jacob, Julie and Matthew showing off the new Fringe tank tops

With graduation just over one year away, this April seemed like the best opportunity to finally see Spring Carnival in all its glory. Chris and I bought our plane tickets and over the space of a couple months, our party of two grew to a party of six: my mom and step-dad decided to join, then Chris’s mom, and just two days before Carnival, Matthew had his pass approved and received a green-light to travel from West Point to Pittsburgh for the weekend. Yee-ha!

I struggled with how to organize this article, and finally decided to start with Booth and Buggy, then summarize the Pittsburgh sights we’ve seen over the last few years. We’ve been lucky to visit for both business and pleasure, and each time discover a bit more about this wonderful city. So without further ado…Spring Carnival!

Wait. One more ado: If you haven’t yet read my previous article “Carnegie Mellon’s Super-Cool Spring Carnival Traditions: Mobot, Booth and Buggy”, hop over, read it, and then come back. It lays the foundation for this post.


Chris and I arrived Thursday afternoon and missed the impressive Buggy Design Showcase and festive Midway opening featuring the Kiltie Band, Carnegie Mellon’s “band without pants”. A bummer, but we found plenty to explore over the next 48 hours. In the end, we visited the main Carnival and Midway areas twice, once Thursday evening when things were quiet and again Saturday afternoon when the place was hoppin’.

Thursday proved to be a nice time to check out Fringe’s booth and a few others while they were still fresh and presented as the groups intended. We wandered through the booths again Saturday afternoon and by then, most were bedraggled from high throughput.

This is a screenshot from the CMU Spring Carnival website (springcarnival.org) showing Fringe's bridge booth from 2014. So cool!

Booths require serious team effort to pull off and the results can be impressive; take a look at these favorite booths from year's past.  There were 25 booths in all this year ranging from half-size “blitz” booths to full two-story structures. Jacob helped build Fringe’s booth but his involvement paled in comparison to freshman year (2014) when he jumped in with both feet and took charge of electrical for their two-story structure titled “Pittsburgh”. I guess technically it was 1 1/2 stories since it was a bridge (with no roof) modeled after one of the iconic, yellow Pittsburgh bridges. Did Jacob know anything about wiring before he went to CMU? Not a bit! But the Carnival Committee arranged for guidance and Jacob picked up a valuable new skill set through hands on work. The booth was phenomenal and won the “Best of the Best” award, a special category created for the 100th anniversary of Carnival.

Group shot with all of Fringe's Booth and Buggy awards. Great year!

The group must have been riding high from that success since they built a full two-story “Sherlock Holmes” booth in 2015; Jacob also upped his game and oversaw both construction and electrical. That monumental effort must have pushed them over the edge since Fringe went back to a one-story this year! Their 2016 Lego-themed booth was small but mighty; it won three awards including Safety, Environmental, and 2nd overall for Independent booths. Nice job! I LOVED their 3-foot Lego statues of Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Player1-guy. Adorable!

Spring Carnival and Booth felt very familiar to me and Chris since our alma mater (Washington University in St. Louis) also has a long-standing student-run carnival tradition - what are the odds? Chris served as construction and electrical chair on Thurtene, our carnival’s overall organizing body. Hey, maybe that’s where Jacob gets it!


Jacob with his fellow throwers. I grabbed this photo from Jacob's Facebook page; it was originally posted by Zach Hernandez.

I first heard about Buggy Jacob’s freshman year when he hoped to take part, but couldn’t since spring Track & Field competitions overlapped with Carnival weekend. Luckily, Jacob loved just about everything about throwing javelin for CMU: the workouts, the coaching, his fellow throwers, traveling to competitions…. That made it all the more painful to give up this year due to a partially torn labrum in his right shoulder. He tried physical therapy and considered surgery, but ultimately made the difficult decision to move on. There’s always a silver lining though and in this case, it was Buggy. After two years of being surrounded by friends deeply immersed in this unique competition, Jacob could finally participate.

Jacob pushing Bissa on Hill 2

We arrived at Buggy prelims at 9:30am Friday and stayed through the final heats which wrapped up about noon. What a morning! We had perfect weather with crisp blue skies, a light breeze, and temperatures in the mid–50s. My mom was amused by all the students in shorts and tank tops and commented “The sun comes out and they all take their clothes off!” Ha! In their defense, the week before was brutally cold so the 50s must have seemed balmy in comparison.

The Fringe A Hill 5 pusher bringing Bissa across the finish line. Note the catchers at the far right!

Spirits were high and the atmosphere festive. We wandered, asked questions, cheered teams on, and generally marveled at the spectacle. It didn’t take long for me to fall head over heels for this competition. What’s not to love? In the space of a few hours, we saw the thrill of victory as one team set a new course record, and the agony of defeat when another was disqualified for a pushbar violation. The Hill 5 pusher must be touching the handle when the buggy’s nose crosses the finish line, but pushers sometimes give too strong of a shove and can’t catch up in time. Apparently there have been some cringe-worthy finishes when Hill 5 pushers dive for the pushbar, willing to sacrifice body and limb (and face) for their team. In another stunner Friday, one of the powerhouse teams lost a wheel on the course and came to a dead stop coming through the chute!

The Fringe t-shirt listing all the buggies that raced this year

Fringe had its fair share of highs and lows in both prelims and finals. They had five buggies running in prelims: Bissa, Bolt, Balius, Beacon, and the brand new 2016 buggy named Boson. Most posted solid times and at the end of prelims it looked like one women’s team and three men’s teams made finals. Incredible! The bubble burst later when the men’s B team (pushing Boson) was disqualified due to either contact or passing in the chute, I’m not sure which.

Kincaid pushing Boson on Hill 2 in prelims Friday

In their heat, two buggies were too evenly matched placing the vehicles uncomfortably close during freeroll. Drivers have limited visibility and the buggies made contact a couple times. No one was hurt and both buggies finished, but Fringe B was DQ’d. The team was frustrated by the decision, not only for the missed opportunity to race in finals, but for the assumed disqualification from the Design Competition. It was a sad state of affairs that cast a pall.

Matthew helping move hay bales off the course

The emotional roller coaster continued Saturday at finals. It was another gorgeous day and we arrived at 9am just as the exhibition heats were getting under way. The morning began on a high when it was revealed that despite the DQ, Fringe was still eligible for Design Comp. Woohoo! Excitement mounted as the women’s team raced well as did men’s C, but the group deflated when men’s A (pushing Bissa) ended up a few seconds slower than anticipated. Jacob felt particularly bad, taking responsibility for the shaky transition hand-off from Hill 1 to Hill 2. The group didn’t remain dejected for long though and rallied to clean up the hay bales lining the chute before heading off to their team barbecue.

We didn’t see Fringe-folk again until 4:30 at the awards ceremony, but they arrived en masse, animated, and upbeat. Despite earlier disappointments, Fringe ended the day on a serious high and walked away with four trophies: they won the Spirit award along with 1st place for Design Comp, 2nd place in women’s, and 4th place in men’s. Impressive! I’m already psyched for next year. We probably won’t travel to Pittsburgh for the races, but I’ll watch it live online and cheer on my favorite team - go Fringe!

Other Campus and Pittsburgh Highlights

Group shot during our campus tour!

Since it was alumni weekend, there were gobs of activities scheduled on Friday and Saturday but we spent the bulk of our time at the carnival and buggy races. Our few on-campus activities not previously noted:

  • Jacob reserved a couple hours after Friday prelims to gave us a fabulous campus tour before heading off to shop and prep for the Fringe barbecue.
  • We pre-registered for the “History of Buggy” presentation on Saturday at 12:15 and I was delighted that finals finished in time to head over. My goodness, I’d wager that our presenter knows more about Buggy than just about anyone alive. The material was fascinating but too detailed by half for us; the session was running 30 minutes over when we quietly left and we’d only made it up to the 1980s!

Matthew, Cori, Jacob, Mark and Grant

  • Chris’s cousin Mark and two adorable kiddos met us Saturday afternoon at Carnival. We thoroughly enjoyed the 2 1/2 hours spent catching up, walking through Booths, and watching the kids run from bouncy houses to spinny rides and back again.

We ate out a bunch obviously, and there are a plethora of great restaurants in the area. A few favorites include Pamela’s Diner for breakfast, and though Jacob likes Cafe Moulin even more, I have yet to visit. For dinner, we’ve recently enjoyed Fuel and Fuddle, BRGR, Gaucho Parrilla Argentina, and Burgatory. Astonishingly, I’ve been to Pittsburgh three times and still haven’t eaten at Primanti Bros.!

Enjoying a drink overlooking Pittsburgh. See the cute Incline car in the background?

We took part in two classic Pittsburgh activities Sunday including:

  • Taking a ride up the Dusquene Incline: This has to be the sightseeing deal of the century at just $5/person round trip, and the view of Pittsburgh from the top of the hill is spectacular. After perusing the small museum, we popped into a restaurant a couple doors down and lingered on their sunny deck, sipping cold drinks while basking in the sun. Heaven.

Lynne and Chris at PNC Park

  • Watching an afternoon Pirates game at PNC Park: We showed up sporting our Cubs gear (!), but cheered the Buccs on to victory over the Brewers.

On previous trips we had more time to sightsee and visited:

  • The National Aviary: We loved the live bird show but beware - birds like to lighten their load before take-off so don’t sit on bleacher seats positioned under tree branches!
  • Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens: Jacob and a bunch of other students walked over from CMU freshman year when the Phipps Corpse flower bloomed. Pretty lucky timing considering it only blooms once every 10 years!
  • The Andy Warhol Museum: Friday admission is half-price, 5pm–10pm.
  • Mattress Factory: A contemporary art museum with “experimental lab featuring site-specific installations”. Exhibits are always changing, so you never know what cool things you’ll find. I loved the creative give shop.

Chris also made a special trip in December 2013 to see a Steelers game at Heinz Field. He, Jacob and few friends nearly froze, but they swear it was worth it!

Finally, our lodging. We were a bit spread out this trip with Matthew staying in Jacob’s apartment, mom and David staying at the Shadyside Inn, and the rest of us 20 minutes away at the Holiday Inn Express Waterfront, but we met up daily at CMU. Each hotel has its merits: the Shadyside is within easy walking distance of both campus and eclectic Walnut Street, and while the Waterfront area is further away, it’s chock full of big-box stores (which were especially convenient for freshman year shopping).

That was a long and winding trip down memory lane! In summary, if you have a Tartan or future-tartan, Spring Carnival is a great time to visit Carnegie Mellon in particular and Pittsburgh in general. I really enjoy this city, but every time I’ve visited it’s been sunny and moderate so perhaps I haven’t yet fully experienced Pittsburgh… :)