Archive for March 2006

March 23rd, 2006

Meet Virginia

Steph and I went to visit her mom, stepdad, and brother this past weekend. They live in Hot Springs, a very, very, very small town in Northern Virginia. It’s about a six-hour drive, usually involving going north through North Carolina, then cutting northwest once you’re over the Virginia border (there are about 10 different ways you can go, all of which take the same amount of time), and heading up into the mountains, where, at many points, there are no signs of civilization.

This may sound pretty uneventful, but our ventures up and back are never without some type of incident. There’s always something along the way giving us white knuckles. Over Christmas it was ice covering the steep mountain roads. This last trip the “Check Engine” light in Steph’s Hyundai came on, for some unknown reason, in the middle of nowhere. We drove home with it staring back at us, knowing full well that you can’t get cell phone reception for almost half the trip home, so there’s no way to call for help when you get in trouble…. Good times.

Also, we have yet to complete a trip to Steph’s family’s without getting lost at least once. Partly because we’re always trying new, unfamiliar routes. Partly because we’re always get into serious discussions (“where we are going with our lives,” etc.) on long car trips, to the point where we’re no longer looking out for the requisite highway signs.

Not that the signage is very helpful, in this case. The roads in these parts are really only meant for people who have lived in the area all their lives and just know where they need to go. On our journey up last fall, we decided to take all back roads once we got to the mid-section of Virginia. Well, somewhere in there, we missed whatever highway it was that would have taken us west. (I maintain to this day that the turn we were supposed to make had no label whatsoever.) Once we realized we were off course, I consulted the map. I found what looked like a reasonable route from where we were. No need to back track. So we kept going. Soon, even the few little homes and farm operations that had kept us company on most the trip had disappeared. Then it got dark. And out came the deer. I was already on edge, waiting to hear those first few notes of “Duelin’ Banjos,” and these groups of deer darting across the road every few minutes were not helping. We kept plugging along. At certain points the car was at what felt like a 45-degree angle, heading up some very steep inclines. The car’s 4-cylinder engine was straining for every last bit of torque. After driving in these conditions for hours we got to a place where deer were just hanging out in the middle of the road…. Have you ever driven up to a deer that doesn’t so much as flinch? Not the most comforting experience. We’d pull right up and honk the horn and they’d turn, look at us for a minute, and then slowly saunter off the gravel. (The “highway,” by the way, had deteriorated into a gravel road many miles before this.) The needle of the gas gauge was fast approaching “E.” Then, I swear to you, we started to hear howling in the distance. Wolves or coyotes or something. Who knows where we were? I hadn’t seen any indication of what road we were on for 90 miles. Then we passed a group of deer that were just leaning against a guard rail, smoking…. But wait, the road is sloping downward! We’re heading down the mountain! Oh my God, there’s The Homestead! We’re saved!

And this is basically how the trip up to Hot Springs works. Every time. If it’s daylight and your car is working ok, it is one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Of course, after many hours of it, you become less enthralled and more concerned that you’ve been driving in circles…. There’s a lot of it and it all looks very similar. If you go far enough down 220 (the only path to and through Hot Springs) though, the little two-lane road eventually runs smack into a huge, ornate, mansion-type building. This is the one major attraction Bath county has to offer: The Homestead. It’s a resort, nestled high in the Blue Ridge mountains, where you can go to get away from it all — if you can afford it. Based on the number of Land Rovers I’ve seen zipping about and the number of ladies I’ve seen walking around in fur coats, it’s a bit pricey.

The Homestead is where almost everyone who lives in Hot Springs works. Steph’s step-grandad, Mac, works there as a cook.

The scene when you come over the mountain and first see this behemoth really sticks in your mind. This is why I recognized a snapshot of it in a box of photos that my family received after they’d been cleaned out of my grandma’s house. I didn’t understand why grandma had this picture, since she’s been a resident of Michigan all her life, but it turns out it was from she and my grandpa’s honeymoon! They went to The Homestead! (Steph’s mom and step dad Larry came up to The Homestead for their honeymoon, too, though they were still living in North Carolina at that time!) And, get this, my dad was born nine months after my grandparent’s honeymoon, so when I go to visit my in-laws I could be in the very town where he was conceived!

I’m sorry, but when we’re all finally in the same room I’m going to suggest we lock arms and sing a rousing chorus of “It’s a Small World After All.”

I’ll be singing the loudest. After the crazy trips I’ve had to that town, I’m just happy to still be alive.

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March 15th, 2006

The Gift that Keeps On Giving

Mom probably wouldn’t want me telling you this, but she had a birthday recently. Anyway, turning the focus back to me, I think I got her a really unique gift this year. The gift of bats. Well, hopefully.

I built her four bathouses…. And before you pass judgment on my present, know this: the woman requested bathouses. You would too if your backyard were a marsh. If every time it rained the creek flooded, creating pools of water that sat and stagnated for days and weeks at a time, attracting unholy amounts of mosquitoes. According to this, bats eat mosquitoes. “Bring on the bats!” Ever since we learned this information, that’s been the consensus around here.

I found those plans online a few weeks before Mom’s birthday. I did not, however, consult them very carefully before I went out to get the materials. I went ahead and bought a full 4×8 sheet of plywood. I figured I’d quarter it and build four small birdhouse-type things. Then we’d have four little bat families take up residence in our yard. Each night, the four Papa Bats would put on their hats, pick up their bat-brief cases, get pecks on the cheek from the misses, and leave their houses for the office. Then on their way home from doing whatever it is bats do to make ends meet, they’d all pick up a few mosquitoes and bring them home for dinner. Eventually, this would put a nice little dent in the population.

Well, I was right about one part of this: you can get four houses out of a 4×8 sheet of plywood. Only there is nothing small or bird-housey about them. You see, bats like to be tightly confined, so the houses only have a depth of about one inch. All your wood can go into the width and height dimensions. “There’s enough room for four bat families, right here,” I thought, after cutting and laying out the back, sides, and front for the first one. It seemed like most of the wood should have been used up, but three-quarters of the sheet was still left. I kept going. I figuring I’d just use it all. The more bats the better, right?

I cut out another. “Ok, that used up a good chunk of the sheet…. Wait, do I still have three-quarters left?” (I swear it grew when I turned my back.) I cut out everything for what seemed like five more houses. At this point I was getting tired. I was sure I was done. I looked over my shoulder. A quarter of a sheet remained, beaming at me from the sawhorses.

I tell you, it was like that loaves and fishes thing. Only with construction materials. I just kept cutting and cutting yet there was always enough left to make one more house. Not that I’m saying I performed a miracle or anything. I don’t have any supernatural powers, you know that. All I have is gadgets…years of training…a tool belt…. Actually, I’m sort of like…. (Are you really going to do it, Witchger? Are your really going to go say “Batman?” Then make some joke tying it into the fact that you’re building bathouses? I can’t let you do that. It’s too much. Pick someone else, quick…) um…Tim Allen. (Hmm…)

Anyway, now we have four gigantic bathouses to put up on the back side of our house. Each bathouse can hold 200 bats, by the way, so, potentially, we could have 800 bats hanging around (ha!) the yard. That’s a lot more than the 12 I initially estimated. If our mosquito problem isn’t fixed by 800 bats swarming around so thick they block out the sky, creeping us out, and covering everything with guano…. Hold on. That’s a lot of bats. I better be prepared for this. What eats bats? Just a minute, I’ll consult Google….

Ok, I’m seeing owls. Looks like owls eat bats. Anyone got any good owl house plans? Then of course we may need some…hold on…. Says “Owls have few natural predators…” Wait, here we go: wolf and fox houses. And having just seen Grizzly Man, I know that bears will eat wolves and foxes. So if the wolves and foxes get out of control, we’ll build some bear houses.

What’s that? “That sounds insane?” Please. Do me a favor and brush up on your ecology. Looks like someone’s never heard of “The Food Chain.”

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March 9th, 2006

They’re All Full of Scrap

So, yesterday I found myself at something called the “Design-2-Part” Tradeshow at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds. Kevin and I were invited-2-attend as guests of Marian, Inc., so we decided-2-go.

Marian is a company out of Indianapolis, which is owned and run by Witchgers (and yet somehow manages not-2-collapse on itself). I’m not exactly sure how these particular Witchgers are related-2-us. They’re my grandpa’s older brother’s kids. What does that make them? Our cousins? Uncles? Cuncles?

Whatever they are, Marian, Inc., and all the rest of the companies at this show, develop ways to make, and then manufacture various odds and ends that are eventually assembled-2-make (ok, I’ll stop now) actual products. So this show was about parts…random metal, plastic, and rubber parts, and how they get made. For a Witchger, it was heaven on earth.

All you had to do was walk around and people would accost you with dramatic descriptions of their company’s casting, stamping, spring-making, chemical-etching, laser-cutting, milling, lathing, punching, drilling, die-making, silkscreening, circuit-board-building, and/or sand-blasting abilities.

As if that weren’t enough, the give-aways were amazing. You got a handsome canvas tote bag and, from booth 1, there was free crap to put in it. Ask the sales rep where he’s from, and boom…! You get a yo-yo. Or a pocket knife. Or a metal box full of the weird-looking parts that his company makes. I was all over it like a powder-coated finish on a steel motor housing (which, as anyone who has been to a part convention knows, reduces wear and corrosion).

The companies all brought their flagship parts with them to display, so there was junk laying everywhere. It was sort of like being at The Scrap Exchange, except there was someone there who knew the real use for that piece of foam that looks like a giant human ear…. Wait, please tell me you’ve been to Durham, NC’s “Scrap Exchange.” It’s one of the few places where you can wander around bins and shelves overflowing with industrial surplus, letting the right side of your brain gorge itself on all the amazing things you could make, then buy grocery bags full of the stuff for pocket change, and then bring them home where…where…well, where they will sit untouched in a closet for months until someone eventually throws them out…. It’s The Scrap Exchange way.

If you’ve never been, you have to go right now. Stop reading this website, get off your butt and go. (The only way you are exempt from my badgering is if you have been to The AxMan in St. Paul, Minnesota. In this case, The Scrap Exchange will actually be a let down for you. The AxMan is The Scrap Exchange on steroids and crack.) You know you need to get out more. There’s a world beyond the internet. Hurry, before it’s too late….

Speaking of which, I need to pack. I’m heading up to see the soon-to-be in-laws in Virginia and, get this, going to the Highland County Maple Syrup FESTIVAL. See you suckers later. I’ve got-2-go.

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