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My first true railfan trip…

August 22, 2021, 10:14 AM

I recently came to the realization that it has been a little more than twenty years since my first true railfan trip on the DC Metro system, on July 28, 2001.  Mind you, I had ridden the system plenty of times before that, and I had photographed the system a few times prior to this, but this was my first time going in with the rail system itself as the destination, rather than as the means to an end.  I explored around in DC and Virginia, photographing stations, making recordings of the door chimes, and exploring new areas of the system that I had never been to before.  Back then, there was no Silver Line, the trains were still orange and ran in four and six-car consists, and they stopped in the center of the platforms rather than at the end like they do today.  I was using my original Mavica for the photos, which saved photos at 640×480 resolution onto 3½” floppy disks.  To record the door chimes, I used a boombox-style tape recorder and recorded it to a cassette.

As I recall, I started at Vienna, stopped off at Virginia Square, went down to L’Enfant Plaza, took the Yellow Line over the bridge to Virginia, got out at Pentagon, checked out the bus bays at Pentagon, briefly took an escalator up into the Pentagon from the station (and then turned around because I didn’t want to visit the Pentagon), went to Pentagon City, visited Pentagon City Mall, then headed to National Airport and Franconia-Springfield.  I stopped at Arlington Cemetery station, and then headed towards Vienna, stopping at East Falls Church and West Falls Church along the way.  Then I got back in the car and headed down to Woodbridge to visit Potomac Mills, where I was trying to get a new optical drive for my computer.  I didn’t find anything at Potomac Mills, but I did remember an optical drive that I had passed up earlier at the Babbage’s store at Pentagon City.  So after leaving Potomac Mills, I drove over to Franconia-Springfield and got back on the Metro, riding back up to Pentagon City and buying that optical drive.  I then stopped at Crystal City and King Street stations on the way back to Franconia-Springfield.

I had a number of firsts on that trip.  I rode between Pentagon City and Franconia-Springfield for the first time, and logged my first visits to Franconia-Springfield, King Street, Crystal City, Pentagon, Arlington Cemetery, Virginia Square, East Falls Church, and West Falls Church.  I consider that a pretty good amount of new territory covered.

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A fence appears around Staunton Mall…

July 17, 2021, 8:44 AM

While Elyse and I were on that trip to Staunton that I discussed earlier, we stopped by Staunton Mall to check in on the progress there.  It would appear that the redevelopment plans for Staunton Mall are for real, because asbestos abatement appears to be happening in a few places, and a perimeter has been established around the building in preparation for demolition.  Recall that I declared Staunton Mall to be a dead mall back in 2009, but it took until 2020 for the mall to finally close.  That fence around the entire mall building, save for Belk, is a major step towards demolition and redevelopment.

Fencing in front of the former Wills/Books-A-Million store.
Fencing in front of the former Wills/Books-A-Million store.

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My first time eating at a real restaurant in a very long time…

July 9, 2021, 3:50 PM

Recently, on a trip to Staunton, I had my first meal in a full-service restaurant since my weight loss surgery in December 2019.  We were visiting family, as my sister and her husband were in from Chicago.  So our party consisted of Elyse and me, my sister and her husband Chris, our parents, and Chris’s parents.  Nice group all around.  We ate at Zynodoa, which is a higher tier restaurant than I typically go to, but it was a good experience overall.

I would say that the timing of things tended to work against restaurants in general.  I had my surgery on December 6, 2019, and so things were still healing for most of December.  I was figuring out through trial and error about what foods would be tolerated by my body, and also determining portion sizes.  When Elyse and I would go out, we typically would stop in at a grocery store with a food bar if we needed to eat, like Harris Teeter, Wegmans, or Whole Foods.  I was typically able to get out of there for about five bucks (I would jokingly refer to myself as a cheap date).  Doing that allowed me to try out a variety of different foods, and only get the amounts that I needed (remember, my tummy is tiny now).

Then the pandemic restrictions came along, which took eating in restaurants out of the picture entirely.  I’ve never been one to do take-out from restaurants.  If I’m eating food from a sit-down restaurant, I’m more than likely going to be eating it at the restaurant.  If I’m getting it to go, I’m going somewhere else, like a grocery store or something else cheaper than a full restaurant.  Thus if I couldn’t eat on the premises because of various rules in place, a full restaurant was of no use to me.  And if I’m getting food to take home, I might as well just eat the food that I already have at home.  All of that said, the pandemic rules came about while I was still forming new habits after having my surgery, and that meant that full-service restaurants were more or less out of the picture, i.e. they didn’t exist as far as I was concerned.

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When your drone starts to act up…

June 7, 2021, 11:20 AM

On Tuesday, June 1, Elyse and I went on a little adventure in Prince William County, Virginia, where the goal for me was to photograph some old AT&T Long Lines infrastructure up close with the drone.  First of all, for those not familiar, AT&T Long Lines is a now-defunct system from the mid-20th century used for telecommunications via microwave transmission.  It has long since been replaced by more modern systems, but many of the towers still remain.  Some have been converted to cell phone towers, with varying amounts of the old Long Lines infrastructure abandoned in place.  I’ve photographed about six of these things in varying degrees of detail, mostly in Virginia, both ground-based and with a drone.

On this particular day, I had two towers in my sights: one near Dumfries, and one near Manassas.  The Dumfries one was directly off of Route 234, and the Manassas one was a little bit further off of the beaten path.  The Dumfries tower was in full form, with its horn antennas still attached, while the Manassas tower had lost the old horn antennas.

Here are some of my photos of the Dumfries tower:

AT&T Long Lines tower near Dumfries

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Categories: Cameras, Northern Virginia

A flight over JMU…

May 15, 2021, 2:12 PM

On May 10, while Elyse and I were on a weekend trip down to the Shenandoah Valley to see the parents and such, we stopped at JMU, and I took the drone for a flight over the far side of campus across Interstate 81.  That is a part of campus that has definitely changed since I was a student, as it’s a lot more built up than it used to be.  There are lots of buildings over there that weren’t there when I attended.  There’s also a new indoor arena over there called the Atlantic Union Bank Center, or, as the folks on Reddit have taken to calling it, the “Algerdome”, after JMU’s current president, Jonathan Alger.  I flew from a facility that was new since I was there, on the roof of a massive parking garage next to the Algerdome, built on the former site of Blue Ridge Hall.  That higher vantage point was helpful because it gave me a better line of sight to my aircraft and a better signal for my remote, as there were fewer buildings getting in my way up there.

And here are the photos:

Potomac Hall

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Categories: Harrisonburg, JMU, Photography

Paying my last respects to Staunton Mall…

December 14, 2020, 9:00 AM

On a recent trip to Augusta County, Elyse and I stopped over at Staunton Mall to pay our last respects to the place.  For those not familiar, Staunton Mall recently changed owners, and in late November, the new owners gave all of the remaining tenants a 30-day notice to vacate, except for Belk.  The last day of operation for Staunton Mall will be December 24.  So we stopped in and documented the place fairly extensively.  Before I get started, please note that this Journal entry will be a very high-level look at the mall.  I took over 1,200 photos of the interior and exterior of the mall, including at least one photo of every single storefront, and I’m going to give the place a more complete treatment as a photo set for Life and Times.  But this ought to hold everyone for now, because the more complete treatment is going to take a while to put together.

The thing about photographing retail settings is that stores typically don’t like it when you photograph in their facilities.  The usual reason cited is to protect trade secrets, which is usually bunk, because, as I understand it, a company has to put actual effort into keeping trade secrets a secret.  If it is in plain view of the public, then it is not a trade secret.  But that doesn’t stop stores from chasing off photographers.  After all, it is private property, and they can choose to exclude whatever activities that they want.  For my purposes, it just means that I have to be a bit more stealthy when I photograph, and shoot with my phone rather than with the big camera.  The way that I typically operate when I do this is to go from lower risk to higher risk as far as getting caught goes.  After all, once a place gets wise to me, the photo shoot is over, because they’ll never leave me alone again as long as I remain there.  In this case, since I had the drone, I considered the aerial photography to be the least risky as far as getting caught goes, since I could accomplish that mostly from off of the property.  Then after I finished flying around the mall, I photographed the exterior from the car with my real camera.  Then I went inside the mall and did my documentation of the interior with my phone.  I suspected that I wouldn’t have any issues with security personnel based on reports from others that there were no security people to begin with, and I was pleased that this ended up remaining the case.  I’ve seen so many cases where stores and/or entire shopping centers are closing, and employees still get on people about photography.  I can’t help in those cases but to think, why do you still care?  After all, the people in question are losing their jobs soon, and so they’re continuing to defend their employer because… why?  No matter what you do, at the end of the day, you’re still losing your job.  So why are you still loyal to and defending a company that clearly has no loyalty to you?  It doesn’t make sense to me.

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Going behind the pylons…

November 19, 2020, 11:31 AM

Back on November 6, Elyse and I took the drone out for a spin again, and I did some photography.  This time, we went out to Leesburg, and took a late afternoon golden-hour flight around a familiar landmark: the former Walmart off of Route 15.  This is a typical 1990s-era pylon-style store, and it closed in May 2019 when a new Supercenter opened elsewhere in the Leesburg area.  Because of the proximity of the location to Leesburg airport, I had to notify the airport of our activity using their online form, and then, whirlybirds away.  I flew up and around the building, and even investigated the roof a little bit.

A pre-flight capture, with the HR-V at right.
A pre-flight capture, with the HR-V at right.

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Flying over the Shenandoah Valley with a drone…

October 25, 2020, 10:45 PM

Elyse and I recently made a trip down to Augusta County to see my parents, and we both photographed a bunch of stuff with my drone while we were down there.  So all in all, we had a pretty productive time.  I have gotten pretty proficient in flying my drone around things, and I’ve gotten some nice photos.  The goal of the drone photography this time was to duplicate a lot of what I did in my earlier entry about the area in Microsoft Flight Simulator, but in real life.  All in all, I had a good time, and I liked the results, as I flew around Staunton, Waynesboro, Afton Mountain, and Stuarts Draft.

In Staunton, I first got aerials of the old DeJarnette Center, which is an abandoned children’s mental hospital that closed around 1996 in favor of a newer, more modern facility nearby.  If this place sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve photographed it before.  So here it is:

DeJarnette, viewed from the air

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Flying over the Shenandoah Valley…

August 27, 2020, 11:25 PM

Recently, Elyse got a copy of the new Microsoft Flight Simulator game, which, among other things, features real landscapes based on map data.  However, it’s not without its issues, since, if it doesn’t have good data for buildings and such, it attempts to fill in the gaps by rendering a building, taking a guess as to what kind of building it’s supposed to be.  When there is good building data, the buildings look correct, as is the case in much of Howard County, Maryland.  Down in Augusta County, that’s not the case, and most of the buildings are rendered by the game, doing its darndest to make a good guess.  To accomplish this evening’s field trip, Elyse dropped us at Eagle’s Nest Airport, which is a privately-owned airport just outside Waynesboro.  I didn’t have to fly the plane.  Rather, we left the plane on the runway, and just flew around with the camera.  I didn’t want to have to fly an airplane, after all.  I just wanted to have a little eye in the sky.  So from Eagle’s Nest, I quickly got my bearings, and made a beeline to Stuarts Draft.

First thing that I took a look at was my old middle school, Stuarts Draft Middle School:

Stuarts Draft Middle School in the flight simulator

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A trip out to Hampton Roads…

April 19, 2020, 10:15 AM

From April 3-6, Elyse and I made a trip to the Hampton Roads area of Virginia to visit friends and do some photography.  The way I figured, the trip was already paid for, and so as long as we took adequate precautions, I saw no harm in running it as planned.  After all, I go out every day to go to work transporting the public, so it’s not like we were “breaking quarantine” or anything, since I’m out in the environment on a regular basis throughout all of this.  All that said, if you don’t like that we took this trip, keep it to yourself, because I don’t want to hear about it.  On our trip, we stayed in Williamsburg, and had a fun time, mostly photographing architecture and infrastructure with friends Aaron and Evan Stone.

Meanwhile, leaving the house, I had the worst shotgun passenger ever:

"I don't like that!"

I mean, despite his sour disposition, you really didn’t think that we’d take a trip without bringing Woomy along, did you?  Elyse quickly threw him out of the front seat so that she could ride, and so Woomy rode in the cup holder.

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Stack ’em up?

April 1, 2020, 1:25 AM

So my latest experiments with photography have been with stacking exposures.  For those not familiar, the general idea behind stacked exposures is to take several short exposures instead of one long exposure, and then “stack” them on top of each other in order to simulate a photo with a longer exposure.  It is useful in situations where a true long exposure is impractical, such as when shooting in daylight.  The way it’s done is that you take all of the shots that you intend to stack out in the field, preferably using a tripod and a remote control for the shutter, and then do the stacking at home.

Whenever I test a new technique, I typically will shoot photos of something that I’ve photographed before.  This way, I already know what the photo is supposed to look like, and I know what works as far as angles go.  That eliminates a few variables so that I can just focus on the technique.  In this case, I did two field trips.  One was out to Point of Rocks and along Route 7 in Virginia and ultimately into DC, and the other was to Burnt Mills Dam off of US 29 in Montgomery County.  The Virginia trip was mostly for nighttime shots, and the Burnt Mills trip was for daytime shots.

At Point of Rocks, Elyse went trainspotting at the nearby MARC station while I wandered around with my tripod to photograph some stuff.  My focus was on the Point of Rocks Bridge and the Potomac River running under the bridge.  My focus was mainly on smoothing out the water.

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The signs of social distance…

March 28, 2020, 12:40 AM

In the era of social distancing brought on by the novel coronavirus, I have definitely observed some changes in how the world looks.  As a person who works in an essential industry (people still have to go places, yo), I still get out quite a bit.  In my work, service levels have been reduced, and all trains are now eight cars in order to allow people to space themselves out, plus it’s strange to go through some stations in the middle of the day and pick up nobody.  It’s also strange seeing the message boards on the Beltway advising people in big letters to stay home.  It’s also strange to see so many people wearing gloves and surgical masks, even though those don’t do anything when the general public wears them as a preventative measure, and may actually be harmful if the person wearing them thinks that it excuses them from things like not touching their face, washing their hands, and so on.

In any case, most of the time when I’m going out, it’s to pick up a few things at stores, mostly on my days off of work.  The first thing that I noticed was the panic buying, as seen on March 14 at the Target in Rockville:

The toilet paper aisle, picked completely bare.
The toilet paper aisle, picked completely bare.

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These photos could have been taken anywhere…

February 28, 2020, 8:30 AM

While on an outing on Thursday, I stopped to photograph the former Walmart store in Leesburg, Virginia.  I had been planning a photo shoot here ever since the store closed in May 2019, upon the opening of a new Supercenter store elsewhere in the Leesburg area.  I was drawn to this location because, unlike a lot of former Walmart stores, this one left a massive labelscar on the building due to repaintings over the years, as revealed in photos taken by Aaron Stone.  Other Walmarts that closed have had lesser labelscars, and Walmart has also been known to paint out their labelscars.  But this one had “WAL★MART” still easily readable in blue.  I felt something of a sense of urgency in getting down to this location, because who knows how long a former Walmart will sit idle.  Other former Walmart stores in the DC area have been scooped up relatively quickly, such as the former Manassas Walmart, which was quickly converted to other uses.  So who knew how long this might remain in this form.

Arriving on site, I couldn’t have gotten better shooting conditions.  The skies were partly cloudy, with only a small amount of cloud cover, which worked to my benefit.  Completely clear skies make for slightly bluish photos that need to be color corrected in post-production, while partly cloudy skies tend to lend to more accurate colors that require less work at the computer.  My only complaint about the conditions was that it was cold and windy, which was not fun to shoot in.  By the time I finished this shoot, which took about 25 minutes to do, I was quite cold.  It took me some time to warm back up once I got back in the car.

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Categories: Loudoun County, Walmart

The remodeling of a Walmart store…

February 19, 2020, 4:33 PM

Back in 2005, I was living in my parents’ house and working for Walmart.  I tended to go out a bit after work in order to unwind, and when I did, I would usually do a circuit that took me from my store in Waynesboro up Afton Mountain, down the Blue Ridge Parkway as far south as Route 60, go west on Route 60 to Lexington, and then head back home via I-81.  When I did this, the Walmart in Lexington tended to be one of my stops, as it was a logical place to get up, walk around, and shop if I needed to (I didn’t like shopping at my own store because I didn’t feel like a customer there, nor was I treated like a real customer).  For a few months that year, Walmart remodeled that store from the late-1990s design that it was given when it was expanded to a Supercenter to the then-current store design, which was the mid-2000s black signage with brown walls.  For some reason, I documented this remodel throughout the process via cell phone photos.  So here it is.  Forgive the quality, because cell phone cameras at the time didn’t take much better photos than a potato, and using Big Mavica would have been too obvious.

Prior to the remodel, the Walmart in Lexington was a typical 1990s pylon-style Supercenter, with a gray and blue color scheme, and late 1990s signage.

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Categories: Virginia, Walmart

A Facebook comment should not bother me this much…

February 11, 2020, 11:11 AM

Recently, I commented on a post on the Facebook page for WHSV, the local ABC affiliate for Harrisonburg, Virginia, and got some unusual feedback.  The original post was for an article about Trump’s participation in the “March for Life“, an anti-choice demonstration held annually in DC on the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade.

Before I continue, though, it seems worthwhile to explain my stance on the matter of abortion.  My stance is that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.  But ultimately, it’s not my call.  What other people do with their bodies is their business, and it doesn’t affect me.

I also believe that abortion is more or less a settled matter, but that it has value for the GOP as a campaign issue.  In other words, the Republican Party will talk a big game about it, but ultimately, no one is going to ban abortion.  Ever.  Why ban it and settle the matter decisively in your favor, when you can bring it up as a campaign issue every election cycle and raise money and get people to vote based on it?  To actually ban abortion would be to kill the golden goose, and also hand a massive fundraising opportunity to the Democrats.  Maybe I’m a bit cynical about the whole thing, but I imagine that if they were really going to act on that issue, they would have done it by now, during the various periods where the GOP has controlled both houses of Congress and the White House.  That they haven’t done that tells me that they are not interested in settling it.

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