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A long-awaited resolution to a surprisingly contentious issue…

November 18, 2022, 10:00 AM

Sometimes, when it comes to elections, the ones that we lock onto most are little local issues.  For me, it was the courthouse issue in Augusta County, Virginia.  For those not familiar, Augusta County is the area where I grew up, and the courthouse is located in Staunton.  That means, due to all cities’ being independent from counties in Virginia, the Augusta County courthouse is technically located outside of the county (though that is not unique to Augusta County by any means).  As I understand it, for quite some time, Augusta County has been short on space for its courts, and has been looking to replace its courthouse with something bigger and more modern.  Then to add another wrinkle to this, the rest of the Augusta County government had moved out to nearby Verona, located just north of Staunton, long ago.  When we moved to the area in 1992, the Augusta County Government Center was a relatively new building in Verona, and since then, a regional jail has been built in Verona, the sheriff’s office moved to Verona, and the school system headquarters moved to Verona (though the schools moved from elsewhere in the county, not from Staunton).  The only thing left in Staunton was the courts.  The kicker there was that the location of the courthouse determined what town was the county seat, and moving the county seat required a referendum to be placed before the voters.  And as you know, voters can be an odd bunch.  Sometimes they perform the way you want or expect them to, but sometimes they don’t.  And generally speaking, some things will never pass by referendum.  If you’re raising taxes, for example, it will fail when taken to the voters, because in all fairness, who is going to vote to raise their own taxes?

The problem with the courthouse in Augusta County has been longstanding.  The Augusta County courthouse had fallen below state standards for court facilities some time ago, and because of that, the county had been given a “show cause” order to improve the courts.  County leaders also stated that they were unable to renovate their existing court facilities to meet current state standards.  Thus it was necessary to build a new courthouse.

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And the outer walls begin to fall…

November 3, 2022, 8:09 AM

On October 26, Elyse and I took a one-day trip down to Augusta County in order to change to the “permanent temporary solution” for my car problem, i.e. Mom’s Scion xB, following the HR-V’s untimely demise in an accident two and a half weeks prior.  I don’t necessarily like doing these sorts of trips in a single day because it’s a lot of driving and I’m not 25 anymore, but that’s all I had time for based on my schedule.  I also couldn’t really postpone this trip, because things were going to get a bit more expensive for me if I didn’t do this trip when I did.  For those not familiar, when you have Progressive for your insurance and your car is totaled, your rental coverage ends three days after you are notified of your car’s total loss.  That notification occurred while Elyse and I were on a weeklong trip to Tennessee, and so Progressive, taking my length of time as a customer (18 years!) into consideration, they extended my coverage until the day after we got back from our trip.  Then Enterprise Rent-A-Car would let me pay the insurance rate for my rental for another week beyond that, after which I would have to pay the (much higher) retail rate.  My original plan was to switch cars on the way back home, returning the rental car in Staunton, and then doing the last leg of the return trip in Mom’s car.  As the trip continued on, though, I soon realized that we would be cutting it far too close with that plan, considering that it was also our Roanoke day, so I opted to postpone the car swap by a week and do the visit with my parents on the way home as we had planned to do it prior to the accident, i.e. it would just be a visit.  So the primary focus of this trip was just to swap cars, on the day that the retail rate would have gone into effect, i.e. if you don’t return this car right now, you will be paying a lot more for it going forward.  The addition of this new trip down also changed the plans for the last day of the Tennessee trip.  Since there would now be an extra trip down to Staunton, I skipped a Staunton Mall update that I had planned for the return trip to save time, since I would be going right there the following week.

For this particular Staunton Mall visit, noting the pace of the progress that I had observed in June, August, and September, I already had a decent idea about what to expect.  I figured that by my next visit, the remainder of the mall’s interior would be gone, and they would probably then start working on demolishing the exterior walls, which had remained mostly intact up to this point, which meant that Staunton Mall still largely looked like Staunton Mall from the road during most of the demolition up to that point.  I also knew that I didn’t have much time on site this time around, and that the demolition crew would more than likely be on the property.  Therefore, this was to be a high-level visit solely by drone, flown from well above the property where I could see my vehicle around the entire mall without having to reposition myself, and staying well clear of the demolition crew, since I didn’t want to get in their way at all, and I also didn’t have any time to discuss any special access with them, as I did in September to photograph what remained of the mall’s interior.  All of that said, I made a quick ten-minute flight where I flew from the Orchard Hill Square shopping center across the street, and made a pass across the front of the mall, looped around the entire property, and then dipped down near the Belk entrance where there were no workers present for a momentary peek at that area before returning to the launch site.

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A little adventure in Virginia, mostly in the woods…

October 6, 2022, 8:06 AM

From September 13-15, Elyse and I had a little weekend adventure in Virginia, where we went down to Augusta County stayed in Staunton like we usually do.  This one was a little different than most because it was partly a solo adventure.  Prior to this trip, Elyse had been down in Roanoke attending to business related to a nonprofit that she volunteers with, so she traveled up from there on Amtrak, and we met up in Charlottesville.  My original plan was to go the easterly route down, taking I-95 to Fredericksburg and then taking Route 3, Route 20, US 15, and a few other routes that would take me through Locust Grove, Orange, and Gordonsville.  However, at the last minute, I had a change of heart, deciding that (A) I didn’t feel like wading through traffic on the Beltway or 95, (B) that easterly track would get me to Charlottesville far too early, meaning that I would have to kill time before Elyse would arrive, and (C) I had ideas that necessitated taking other routes.  So I took the westernmost route, which primarily utilizes I-81, and took the “alternate” version of that, which goes through Harpers Ferry and Charles Town in West Virginia via US 340, and then taking Route 7 to meet I-81 in Winchester.  Yes, I’m going north to head south, but the distance and time for going out to Harpers Ferry is almost the same as it is to go through Northern Virginia on I-66, so it works.

My first point of interest was a relatively obscure sign in the middle of a field in Verona:


Image: Google Street View

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An unexpected Staunton Mall update…

August 13, 2022, 10:00 AM

On Thursday, August 11, 2022, I made what you might call an unexpected trip down to Augusta County.  Since the previous Sunday, Elyse had been down in Roanoke attending to some business related to a nonprofit that she is involved with, and was supposed to come back on Wednesday evening via Amtrak.  However, due to some heavy thunderstorms across Virginia that day, her Amtrak train was significantly delayed due to flooding and fallen trees, which meant that she only got as far as Charlottesville before delays on top of more delays meant that she would not arrive in Washington for many hours.  She ended up getting off the train in Charlottesville, and stayed overnight at my parents’ house.  That was a strange thing, with Elyse sending me photos from my old bedroom and all, while I was at home in Maryland.  Then since I was off on Thursday, I ended up coming down there to scoop her up and bring her home.  I figured that this was a good excuse for a road trip, so I gathered up my DSLR and my drone and hit the road.  We did a lot of stuff on this one-day trip, including spending quality time with the parents, but photographically, my main push was to get another update for Staunton Mall, after I had previously given an update in June.

Since my last visit, the mall has continued to be hollowed out.  When I visited in June, the interior walls were mostly demolished, with only the exterior walls remaining, from JCPenney to just past the Peebles.  From the end of Peebles to Montgomery Ward was where most of the demolition was occurring, as the roof was off of the mall corridor, while the stores were mostly still there.  The Wards building and the Belk wing were still mostly intact.  Now, the Wards building has been hollowed out to the exterior walls, as has the Belk wing up to the mall entrance next to Family Barber & Beauty.  I imagine that there is a reason behind the way that they’re doing this, demolishing the interior while leaving the exterior mostly intact until the end, but I don’t know what the reason is.

I followed the same process that I did before when it came to documenting the demolition of Staunton Mall.  I first drove around the property in order to figure out what was worth checking out, and then took the drone up for some flights near the areas that I wanted to photograph.  After all, why send my soft, vulnerable little body in there where things are unstable and could fall on me, when I can send a robot in my place and live vicariously through its eyes, while remaining in a place of safety at all times.  In this case, I parked in front of Boston Beanery to check out the south end of the mall, and then repositioned in front of Family Barber & Beauty to do the north end of the mall.

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Staunton Mall demolition update…

June 10, 2022, 3:15 PM

This past weekend, while Elyse and I were on a trip down to Staunton, we visited Staunton Mall in order to check up on it to see how its redevelopment was going.  You may recall that Staunton Mall had been on a long, slow decline before finally closing in December 2020I published a photo set about the mall based on my final visit, documenting as much about the mall as I could so that it could be remembered, and including older photos from years past.  My last update was from July, and covered the fencing off of the mall building (sans Belk, which remains open), and asbestos abatement in some of the anchor spaces.

Now, demolition has begun in earnest, and a little more than half of the mall is gone.  Interestingly enough, the mall is being demolished from the inside out, as the interior walls and roof have, in large part, been demolished, but the exterior walls, as well as the spaces closest to those exterior walls, are mostly still intact and recognizable.  I have no idea why they’re doing it this way.  I would have expected the exterior walls to come down along with the rest of everything, as they’re clearly working from south to north.  The JCPenney end of the mall is mostly gone except for the exterior walls, while the section between the food court and Wards is only partly demolished, and the 1980s expansion is, for the most part, still intact.  And, of course, Belk remains open for business.

We visited the mall twice: once for Elyse, and once for me.  In Elyse’s case, she was going for something very specific: the panel in the elevator at the JCPenney store.  For those not familiar, Staunton Mall was a one-level facility, however, the JCPenney store had a very small upper level on the west side of the building, which housed the store’s administrative offices.  It’s why the front side of the store was so much taller than the rest.  Elyse rode this elevator for the first time in 2016, and again in 2020 just before the store closed.

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Exploring the penthouse suite…

October 9, 2021, 10:00 AM

Since last October, whenever Elyse and I have traveled down to Augusta County, we’ve stayed at Hotel 24 South in downtown Staunton.  If you’ve followed this site over the years, you might recognize the place.  Under its original name, the Stonewall Jackson Hotel (the name was changed to Hotel 24 South in September 2020), I photographed the neon sign that used to be on the roof of the building back in 2007, and my sister had her wedding reception there back in 2010.  The building dates back to 1924, and was renovated and expanded to its current form in 2005, restoring its original use as a hotel after having served as an elder care facility for a time.

However, during the 2005 renovation, one section of the building was skipped over: the penthouse suite.  As I understand it, the penthouse suite was never available for rental to guests, but rather, was intended as the owner’s private residence.  I was made aware of the penthouse’s existence by some friends of mine, and we located the door to access the space on our December trip (the primary focus of that trip was paying last respects to Staunton Mall).  At that time, however, the entrance was locked, but we did learn that the penthouse space was excluded from the renovation due to lack of elevator access.  On our next visit, in March, they were doing maintenance work on one of the hotel’s elevators (a mechanical room for the elevators is also up there), and as such, the door was open.  So Elyse and I took a quick tour of the space before we went out for the day.

My impression of the space, based on the vintage architectural and decorative elements present there, is that it has not been used for anything resembling its intended purpose for a very long time, though it is not abandoned.  Rather, it appears that the current hotel management uses the space for storage.  The space does have modern ventilation, as evidenced by a modern air duct running through the hallway to the living room, and it did not smell old or musty.

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Categories: Staunton

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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Categories: Family, Staunton, Weight loss

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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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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Just when you thought that the mountain couldn’t look any worse than it already did…

April 16, 2017, 5:37 PM

On Tuesday, April 11, I got together with Elyse and Melissa, and we headed down to Virginia for the day.  The plan was to get together with my parents, plus visit Afton Mountain and downtown Staunton.

We left the house at 9:30, and took US 29 down to Charlottesville.  First stop was Moe’s Original Bar B Que, where we had lunch with my father.  Fun time, and my father seems to have a sixth sense when it comes to finding good barbecue.  Every barbecue place that Dad has taken me to has been wonderful, and this was no exception.

From here, we took US 250 across to Afton Mountain.  There, we went to the second overlook, i.e. the Rockfish Valley Parking Overlook, to get some views.  I tend to avoid Afton Overlook, the first overlook, after being propositioned for sex there one night back in 2005.  The second overlook, which is a mile and some change further down the road, tends to attract fewer undesirables.  I suppose it’s because it’s further away from civilization than the first one, which is a minute’s drive from the freeway.  In any case, the view is awesome:

View from Rockfish Valley Parking Overlook

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Google Camera is my new favorite toy…

September 6, 2014, 12:38 PM

I recently went on a trip down to Stuarts Draft to see my parents and sister, as well as my sister’s friend Vickey, and I came armed with a new app for my Android device: Google Camera.  If you’ve never used it before, Google Camera is a camera app that will function as a regular camera plus do a few other things.  Besides shooting regular still photos and videos, it will also do a lens blur effect, it helps in shooting panoramic photos, and it also shoots “photo spheres”, also called “spherical panoramas”.  That last one is what I took for a spin on this trip.  Those are the ones that I can post on Panoramio, and I believe that they go in as Street View (but don’t quote me on that just yet, because they haven’t fully propagated to Google Maps/Earth as of this writing).

Shooting them is surprisingly easy.  Here’s a screenshot of the app in action, taking a photo sphere at my place:

Google Camera app in action

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Staunton Mall sold for $4.5 million?

March 15, 2014, 10:16 AM

So according to The News VirginianThe News Leader, and WHSV, Staunton Mall has been sold to a Delaware LLC for $4.5 million.  Little is known about the new buyer or their intent, however, according to The News Leader, “The sale includes permits for development and land rights and assignment of leases, rents, deposits, profits and other agreements.”  This makes me wonder if someone is finally planning to redevelop Staunton Mall into something better and/or more modern.  At this point, we can only speculate. That said, Staunton Mall does look pretty dismal right now, shown in this file photo from January:

Staunton Mall, from center court facing south towards JCPenney, January 2014

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Categories: Staunton, Staunton Mall

A train ride with far more excitement than you might expect…

September 19, 2012, 9:21 PM

This is also why, when I’m traveling on a public mode of transportation, the idea is to leave early so that I can be at the boarding location in plenty of time, just in case anything goes wrong in the process.  Today was one of those days where something went wrong.  I described it as a “clusterf—“, and I think that was putting it nicely.

First of all, though, to set things up: I’m in Stuarts Draft right now, and I went there on Amtrak’s westbound Cardinal.  To get there, my plan was to take the 51 from my house to Glenmont, and then take the Red Line to Union Station. Initially, things went well.  I caught the same 51 that I usually get to go to work, and caught my Red Line train.

And then things went downhill from there.

The Red Line was having a power problem on Track 2 at Brentwood Yard.  Thus they had to single track through the yard, during morning rush hour.  Whenever you hear “single tracking” and “rush hour” in the same sentence, by the way, that’s never a good sign.  So at Glenmont, we sat for several minutes before we started the run – much longer than usual.  Then we proceeded to Wheaton and held again.  No hold at Forest Glen.  Then we held for about ten minutes each at Silver Spring and Takoma.

And then things got worse.  There was a second power problem on the Red Line at Van Ness-UDC, with single tracking over there, too.  Lovely.  By this point, Metro was telling people in the e-alerts to consider taking the Green Line.  That’s when you know it’s bad.  With two areas of single tracking, I bailed at Fort Totten and took the Green Line.

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