Virginia Beach – June 2017

We were so excited!  We were finally able to make camping reservations for two nights at First Landing State Park.  This is a place we’ve visited many, many times, and camping there has been a goal for the past couple of years.

As fate would have it, our plans had to change the day before our trip when we realized that we would not be able to tow our trailer to the beach with either of our vehicles (long, frustrating story).  We were still determined to get our ocean fix, however, so we booked a room (for just one night) at a motel we’ve stayed at before in Virginia Beach.

We left home around 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, June 28th, and took the slower, more “scenic” route to Virginia Beach along Rt. 5, southeast of Richmond, VA.  This is an especially pretty drive in the Fall when all of the leaves are changing colors, but it’s a nice, low-stress/low-traffic route any time of the year.

One of the highlights of going this way is crossing the James River on a ferry near Jamestown.  Established in 1607, Jamestown was England’s first permanent colony in North America, and you can see replicas of the ships–as well as other parts of the settlement–from the ferry.


Two ferries run back and forth across this wide stretch of water, and as we drove onto the “Surry,” we could see the other ferry heading towards Jamestown.


Various types of sea birds hang out near the docks, and I can usually get some good pictures.  This time was no exception:



It takes 15-20 minutes to cross the James River, and some of the gulls get their exercise by following behind the ferries, hoping to catch fish that are churned up by the propellers.


After crossing the James River, the rest of the drive to Virginia Beach winds through Surry, Smithfield, and other small towns.   All in all, this route adds about 30 miles and almost an extra two hours to the trip, but sometimes the slow pace and extra travel time beats all the congestion and traffic in the Hampton Roads area.

We arrived at our motel just before the 3:00 p.m. check-in.  Located in Virginia Beach Town Center–10 miles from the oceanfront–we’ve always found it to be clean and comfortable.  The biggest draw is that it makes a summer trip to the beach more affordable, since a similar room right on the beach during this time of year costs 3x as much!

We quickly changed clothes and headed to the beach.  And as we always do when we’re by the ocean, we let the tide wash away TIME–at least for a little while…..




Absolutely blissed out!  It was so nice to just relax and focus on the sound of the waves….


The weather was perfect–just about 80 degrees with a nice breeze.  We could have stayed out there for hours….

That evening we went to one of our favorite seafood restaurants for dinner.  All-you-can-eat crab legs?  Yes, please!


After dinner, it was back to the oceanfront to walk off our meal on the Virginia Beach boardwalk.  It was surprisingly cool, and we were glad we’d brought our sweatshirts!


The next morning, we checked out of the motel and drove to the campground at First Landing State Park.  We knew a friend was camping there, but we had no idea which site he was in.  We cruised through, looking at all the campsites, RVs, trailers, and tents (maybe some day we’ll camp there!), and as we drove back by the entrance of the park towards the visitors center, we saw our friend driving in!  The timing was so coincidental; 15-seconds either way and we would have missed him!  He was more than a little surprised to see us. 😉

This state park has over a mile of beach on the Chesapeake Bay.  The gentle waves make it a perfect spot for families with young children, and the water is much warmer than the ocean at this time of year.  I wandered around taking pictures while the guys got in the water.


The 60x zoom on my camera allowed me to take some surprising clear pictures of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which you can see from the park.




We spent an hour or so on the beach, then Jim headed back to his campsite to pack up.   Our next stop was the section of First Landing State Park that’s accessed from 64th Street.

We always love walking along this pretty trail, and you never know what you’ll see.   Sometimes there are lots of birds (gulls, herons, ospreys, etc.), but we saw very few this time.  We usually visit in the early morning or late evening, so perhaps the birds are less active during the middle of the day.  Regardless of the reason, it was still an enjoyable walk. 🙂




It was low tide, and we watched a whole army of tiny crabs scuttling across the mud:


As usual, we stayed a bit longer than we’d planned to, so after driving west through Ocean View all the way to the end of Willoughby Spit, we decided to take the “faster” route home by getting on I-64 West.  Didn’t happen….  First surprise was that the entrance ramp at the end of Rt. 168 was closed, and the second surprise was seeing a long–literally miles-long–backup at the east entrance to the tunnel.  Not good….

We thought that maybe the tunnel on Rt. 664 would be less congested, so we wove our way south through Norfolk to get there.

We went through one tunnel….


…and just before heading into the second tunnel, I realized that we were crossing the James River!  Again!  As many places along the James that we’ve visited, I’d never realized that it empties into the Chesapeake Bay right at Hampton Roads!


As it turned out, all of our running around with the intention of having a quicker trip home didn’t save any time or any miles; in fact, it was almost exactly the same distance as our trip the day before on Rt. 5.  And as we looked at the 3-mile-long backup of cars trying to get into the Hampton Roads area from the west, we started to wonder if we’d really want to tow our trailer into this mess, regardless of the route.  Dunno….

There was a lot of traffic and non-stop construction from Hampton Roads to west of Williamsburg on I-64.  Finally (just west of Richmond), things settled down and the rest of the drive home was much easier.

We’re so glad we had the opportunity to get our ocean fix at Virginia Beach this summer–even if just for one night!–but it’s always nice to come home to our mountains, too. 🙂


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Appomattox, VA & Holliday Lake State Park – June 21, 2017

Wayne and I had been trying to find a weekday to do some genealogy research in Appomattox, and finally we were able to make the trip on the Solstice.  As with most of our travels, the journey can be as interesting as the destination, and this trip was no exception.  (To better see our route, you can click this link for an interactive map, and you can also click any picture to enlarge it.)

The first bit of beauty on the drive was a field full of chicory in bloom on Plank Road, just west of Rt. 29.  These beautiful blue flowers were everywhere!


The mountains kept us company on the way down Rt. 29 South, and we crossed the James River (for the first time) just before getting on Rt. 460 East near Lynchburg.


Our primary destination was the court house at Appomattox–not the famous, historical court house east of the town, but the one where Appomattox County deeds, wills, and marriage records are kept.

Wayne’s great-grandmother, Laura Bell Ferguson Wright (1861-1914), lived in Appomattox all of her life.  In the e-book, Appomattox Virginia Heritage, it’s said that Laura and her children lived in the McLean House–the house where Lee surrendered to Grant in April 1865 during America’s Civil War.  While we cannot prove this (and facts about the history of the McLean House seem to disprove it), we do know that she lived in the community of “Clover Hill,” which is now the site of the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park.  (More information about Appomattox County may be found here and here.)

We literally spent hours at the court house, and over the next few weeks I will be transcribing several deeds that we found.  These documents should complement our previous research at the Virginia State Library in Richmond, Virginia, and from online sources.


We also tried to learn more about Laura’s husband, Christopher/Richard Wright.  While I do not think that Laura had two Wright husbands, the name Christopher Wright appears in some early documents, and Richard/Dick Wright in later documents.  Given that a fire destroyed most of the federal census records from 1890, AND given that many early records from Appomattox County were lost when the old court house burned in 1892, we may never be able to get a clear, accurate history of this Wright family line….

Laura’s husband, Richard Wright, died in 1894 when his children were quite young. One of the “six little children” left by his death was Wayne’s grandfather, Willie T. Wright (1888-1924).

Unfortunately, Willie T. Wright also died young, leaving a wife and young children.  His widow, Annie Carter Wright (1894-1977), remarried about a year after his death, but she was buried beside her first husband and her parents in Liberty Baptist Church Cemetery in Appomattox.  We stopped by their graves on our way out of town.

Just beyond the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park (which we did not visit on this trip) is Clover Hill Village, a “living history” center established by the Appomattox County Historical Society in 1991.  Unfortunately, the buildings are only open Friday through Sunday and no one was there, but we were able to wander around the grounds and look at the various structures that have been moved to the site.

Continuing east on Rt. 24, our next stop was at the New Hope Baptist Church near the community of Vera, Virginia.  Laura Wright was a member of this church, and while she was not buried there, her younger sister, Joe Ella Ferguson Harris, was.

In some of the deeds we found at the court house, we discovered that Laura Wright’s sons owned a 140-acre farm that was described as being 7 miles east of the old Appomattox Court House and approximately 2.5 miles away from Hollywood Baptist Church.  Almost exactly 7 miles east of the National Historical Park on Rt. 24, we saw a sign for the church,  stating that Hollywood Baptist was 2.7 miles down Rt. 618.  This farm was at the intersection, and while we can’t say, for sure, that this was the Wright property, it certainly seems likely. (Images are from Google Maps.)


We continued to drive east on Rt. 24, and when we saw the sign for Holliday Lake State Park (Rt. 626), we impulsively decided to check it out, crossing our fingers as we made the turn.

In late February 2016, we’d set out for a day trip to this park, but just before we got there we found an injured hawk in the middle of the road.  I’d cautiously wrapped it up in Wayne’s sweatshirt jacket, and then two rangers at the entrance to the park helped us put the hawk in a large box.  They also called the Wildlife Center of Virginia for us since we had no cell phone service.  You can read more of the story here.

This time we encountered no injured hawks or other wildlife, and we were finally able to explore this beautiful state park.  We were very impressed with the campgrounds, and we made note of our favorite sites, for possible future reference.

We were even more impressed with the lake, which was much, much larger than we’d anticipated.



We ordered sandwiches from a concession stand near the beach, and while waiting for our order, we noticed two park rangers in the parking area.  Wayne encouraged me to walk over to see if they were the rangers who’d helped us with the hawk, and they were!  Wayne snapped a picture of us as we were chatting.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Holliday Lake State Park, and like other Virginia parks that we’ve visited, we can say that this one is also a little “gem.”


We made our way back to Rt. 24, and then turned north on Watt Abbitt Road (Rt. 654), which wound its way towards Rt. 60 West.  This allowed us to cross the James River again, this time near Gladstone, VA.


As we’ve done before, we took a shortcut from Rt. 60 to Rt. 29 via Tye River Road (Rt. 657).  Truthfully, it’s not much of a “shortcut,” but the mountain views are worth the extra travel time.


We wondered what happens to the animals that are displaced when huge tracts of trees are cut down (as they are in this area with all the commercial logging that goes on), but I guess some animals adapt well to the changes.  This Red-Shouldered hawk was too far away to get a clear picture, but from its vantage point on the top of a dead tree, it was probably able to have a successful hunt.  When I tried to re-focus on the hawk, I inadvertently zoomed in on the wrong dead tree, and I didn’t know I’d gotten a picture of a woodpecker until I downloaded my pictures!


There are such pretty places along this road…


We finally made it back to Rt. 29 and started the drive north towards home.  All in all, it was a productive and beautiful day–and a great way to spend the longest day of 2017.  🙂


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Campgrounds and Coincidences – May 29, 2017

We thought about working in the yard; we really did!  But with a basically sunny day–after so many rainy weekends–we decided to go for a drive, instead.

We headed west on Rt. 250 and got on the Blue Ridge Parkway at the top of Afton Mountain.  We’re within 10 miles of the north end of this 470-mile road along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and we go often!

We stopped at the first overlook on the Parkway to eat a quick breakfast that we’d picked up at a convenience store on the way.  We then continued south for a few more miles and turned right onto Reids Gap Road.

This narrow, curvy road offers some amazing views as it winds its way down the mountain to the Shenandoah Valley. We stopped to take this picture, and the ridges you see in the distance are the Allegheny Mountains, which are on the other side of the valley. (You can click on all of the pictures in this post for a larger view.)

When we got to the bottom, we turned left on Love Road (Rt. 814) when we actually should have turned right.  Whoops!  Oh well, when we reached the Blue Ridge Parkway again (south of where we’d turned onto Reids Gap Road), we simply turned around and drove back on Rt. 814 to Rt. 664, and then on to Sherando Lake and Campground.

Sherando Lake is truly a special place.  We camped there for the first time last September (pics from our camping trip are here), and we hope to camp there again sometime this summer.

Driving in, I wondered if I’d see my cousin, Mary, and her husband.  Sherando is their favorite campground, but when we drove through, checking all of the sites, we didn’t see them or their trailer.  I was surprised to see that a majority of the sites in the campground were vacant, but given the time of day, I guess most Memorial Day weekend campers had already checked out and headed home.

The lack of campers in the campgrounds, however, was more than offset by the number of people at the lake and in the picnic areas! Since parking spaces were limited in the beach area (and we didn’t plan to swim anyhow), we drove up to the dam above the lower lake.  You can see the beach at the far end.

We saw a large bird flying high above the lake, and it appeared to be an osprey, even though I couldn’t get a clear shot.  Just recently, I’ve seen a few ospreys at other local lakes, so I guess it’s possible….

After leaving Sherando Lake, we headed north towards Lyndhurst, then turned left on Howardsville Turnpike (Rt. 610) towards Stuarts Draft.  This is another pretty valley drive, and our next stop was at Shenandoah Acres Family Campground.

I went to this lake with my parents when I was a kid, and when my sons were young, we spent a fun day there in the 1990s with some family friends.  In 2004, however, the lake was drained and the property was basically abandoned–for years.  Now, with new ownership and management, Shenandoah Acres is thriving again!  The campground boasts close to 300 sites, and we enjoyed driving around, looking at all of the different types of trailers and RVs.  Our favorite sites were in “The Loop.”

After touring the campground (our second of the day!), we drove towards The Cheese Shop, which is also in Stuarts Draft.  Wayne has been there many times, but this was the first time for me, and I was so impressed with all of the spices, herbs, and non-GMO offerings they have.

We bought an assortment of things–including some cheese–and as we walked out to the car, I had a nice episode of “coincidence”:  While I hadn’t seen the cousin I’d been thinking about at the campground, my cousin’s daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren had just pulled in!  We had a nice, but brief, visit in the parking lot. 🙂

Since it seemed that “campgrounds” had become the day’s theme, we decided to check out yet another one near Staunton, VA.  We took scenic backroads from the Cheese Shop to Rt. 11.

The Staunton/Walnut Hills KOA is a relatively small campground off Rt. 11 south of Staunton.  A couple of friends who’ve stayed there had told me about the ducks that hang out near the lake, and sure enough, there were ducks everywhere. We especially liked sites 26-33 along the lake.

So after touring these three campgrounds (Sherando, Shenandoah Acres, and Walnut Hills), we talked about the things we liked about each one and where we’d like to try to go next with our trailer.  Sherando is still probably top on our list, but I think we’d enjoy Shenandoah Acres, too.

As we started for home on Rt. 250, Wayne asked if I’d like to stop at the overlook on Afton Mountain.  This is another favorite spot, which offers beautiful views of the Rockfish Valley.


There was a gorgeous Airstream trailer parked at the overlook, towed by a Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Very, very nice set up….  Yeah, a girl can dream….

When I looked at the sign on the back window of the trailer, however, I had a flash of “alternate reality” or whatever!  We’d been looking at campgrounds and trailers all day, and suddenly there “we” were!  WOW!

The trailer’s door was open and a woman was reading, sitting on a couch across from the door, so as Wayne walked by, he said hello, and the three of us ended up talking for a few minutes. Turns out her first name is Barrett, and she laughed when I told her my last name is Barrett–and that I’m an art teacher.  She said she’d be spending the next three days doing en plein air painting, and I told her that our school has offered en plein air painting events for local artists.  Small, funny world. 🙂

After we got home, I looked up her website, and it’s most impressive.  Check it out:

Pretty darned cool coincidental ending to our campground-themed day!

Here’s a map showing our route today, and you can click here for an interactive map:

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I Think We’ve Finally Got a Clay Program!

I’ve been at my school since 1999, and over the years we’ve used the polymer, oven-bake clay, Sculpey (frequently), and a self-hardening clay (once), but never “real” clay for sculpture projects.  Finally, finally, that’s changing!

In September 2016, a potter and school art teacher emailed me and introduced herself.  Ruth said she’d gotten to “know” me through my website (, and wondered if it would be okay to come spend a day at school with me when she and her husband were in Virginia visiting relatives.   They planned to come in October, and she offered to do a clay workshop with my students.

Wow!  I get a lot of emails through my website (which averages about 5000 visitors per day), and most are from art teachers around the country/world who want more information about the various lesson plans I’ve shared.  This was the first time anyone (especially someone over a thousand miles away!) had asked about meeting in person (yikes!), coming to my school, and interacting with my students….  Despite my online, “out there” presence, in real life I’m very low-profile, private, and reserved, so I was more than a little antsy and suspicious!

After some well-justified snooping (I verified that she was who she said she was, and taught where she said she did), I also checked with some people at my school to make sure this would be okay.  As Ruth and I exchanged more emails over the next few weeks, however, I started getting excited about meeting her, and I began to feel that I “knew” her, too!

Prior to her visit, I purchased some low-fire white clay, a couple of rolling pins and some canvas to cover the tables while wedging the clay.   I still wasn’t quite sure what Ruth had in mind, but these were the supplies she’d requested, so I was at least somewhat prepared.

She arrived just before my first class on Monday, October 17th, and we greeted each other like long-lost friends.  Too cool!  There wasn’t really time to chat much since kids started coming in the room, but as she unpacked her supplies, I saw that she’d brought various clay tools–and leaves.

Leaves?  Like the plural of “leaf.”  Real leaves.  She also brought an example of a ceramic leaf, and she explained to me (and to the students) that it was made by rolling out a 1/2″ slab of clay, placing a leaf on it, tracing and cutting out the shape, and then firing it, and glazing it, and firing it again.

With that introduction, she got the kids wedging chunks of clay (which involves kneading and pounding the wet clay to remove any air bubbles in it), and next came the rolling, tracing, and cutting part:

As each student finished cutting out his or her leaf (and adding little “feet” to the bottom of it), I placed it on a cart to dry.

Our little tabletop potter’s wheel doesn’t work particularly well, but after making the leaves, Ruth demonstrated how to use the wheel, and the kids got a chance to try, too.  Each class had SUCH a good time! 🙂

When Ruth first contacted me about doing a clay workshop, I told her I had a kiln, but that it probably hadn’t been used in at least 20-25 years–and certainly never by me.  No one seems to know if it was ever used in the school’s art program (the tabletop wheel was there, too, when I got there…), so I’d always assumed that it had belonged to a former employee.

I’d had it checked out a couple of times over the years by “clay people” who said it appeared to be in good condition, but since I don’t have a strong clay background–and had no experience with kilns–I’d just never tried to use it.  (When I moved into my “new” art building in 2008, a separate “kiln room” was added, at my request–though that still didn’t push me into actually using it.)

At the end of the school day when Ruth’s husband came to pick her up, they both checked out the kiln and said it appeared to be in excellent condition and safe to use.  Ruth gave me a box of 04 cones, and I told her I would have a million questions for her, but I was ready to try it!

We all got together for dinner that evening (Ruth, her husband, Wayne and myself), and how I wish they lived closer!  We could have talked for hours and hours, but such things happen when you bring together artists and musicians, and people who are sincerely caring and engaged.  Bottom line, I think we’re part of the same “tribe.” 🙂

I started reading about kilns, in general, and also about “my” kiln, in particular.  By watching a variety of YouTube videos and with Ruth’s help via email, I slowly gained confidence in my ability to safely and successfully do a test firing.

When I decided to plug it in for the very first time, I realized that I couldn’t plug it in!  While it was the right voltage (240), the shape of the receptacle didn’t match the shape of the plug.  Well, darn!  There was a bit of a delay as I waited for the maintenance staff to purchase and install the proper receptacle, but finally on December 7th, I was ready to do my first ever firing of a kiln.   How exciting!

I’d used kiln wash on the shelves, made sure the cone supports were adjusted properly, put an 04 cone on the supports, turned on the breaker, opened the windows in the kiln room, set the controls for an automatic, low-fire ceramic firing, set the Kiln Sitter–and pushed the button.

YAY!  The red light on the Kiln Sitter came on and there was a slight buzzing sound as this old machine came to life, doing what it was designed to do.  Happy dancing, for sure!

When I checked it after 5 minutes, there was a little tendril of smoke coming out of the vent hole in the lid.  No worries–just burning off some dust or something.  Well, five minutes later the whole kiln room was full of smoke, and the fan in the window couldn’t pull it out as fast as it was pouring out of the kiln!  Not good!

I turned off the breaker to cut power to the kiln, but by that time smoke was coming out under the door of the kiln room and filling my classroom.  REALLY not good!

Long story short, multiple windows were opened, multiple fans were set up, and my classes had to meet in a different building that day.

When we finally opened the kiln late that afternoon, the shelves with kiln wash on them were a dark, grayish-purple in color, and there were significant “scorch” marks along the inner lid and the upper kiln wall.  What the hell had happened?!


I contacted Ruth and other potter friends, as well as a kiln repair service in Richmond.  No one had EVER heard of such a thing happening before, but the best guess was that at some time (perhaps during the many years that it been stored in the basement of another building) something flammable had been spilled in or on the kiln.  At no point were there visible flames, but who knows what was happening inside.  The elements appeared intact, however, and there was no obvious damage.

I was determined to try this again, but I decided to wait until March 17th, during our Spring Break.  With no students at school, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about abandoning my classroom for the day.  Knowing that there could be heavy smoke again, I set up two exhaust fans in the windows, and I also opened other windows and turned on other fans.  And as an extra precaution, I took the fire extinguisher off the wall and put it within easy reach….

One more time I turned the breaker on, put an 04 cone on the cone support, set the timer and the other settings, and pushed the button.  One more time, the red light came on the Kiln Sitter, and it made a slight buzzing sound.  AND one more time, a little tendril of smoke started coming out through the vent hole in the lid.

Next, some smoke started coming up between the bricks on the lid….  Curious….

But that was as bad as it got (not bad at all!), and the two fans were able to pull the smoke out of the room.  I’d brought some work with me–just in case things went well–so I settled in for the day.  I had no idea how long it would take for the cone to bend, or if the Kiln Sitter would actually turn the kiln off (as it was supposed to do when the cone bent), but after 4-1/2 hours, I heard a click!  It worked!!

The next day when I went into the kiln room, I took this picture of the top of the kiln.  No idea why smoke had come through the lid, but each brick had been well defined by the smoke:

When I opened the kiln, I was surprised by how clean it was; the scorch marks had completely burned off!

And the cone had bent at the correct angle, meaning that the kiln had reached the correct temperature and then turned itself off.  Excellent!

On Friday, March 24th, I put fresh kiln wash on the shelves, and loaded the kiln with the greenware leaves that Ruth had helped us make in October!  I set the fans in the windows, pushed the button, and 7-1/2 hours later, the Kiln Sitter turned off the kiln and we had our first ever successful bisque firing!

I ordered an inexpensive 6-pack of solid color, low-fire glazes, and the kids were finally able to paint their leaves.  (A student asked if this was a graded project.  Hahaha–no!)

On April 13th, using an 05 cone, we did our first glaze firing:

When I opened the kiln on April 14th and saw all of the brightly colored, shiny leaves, I knew that a new art offering had been created at my school for the upcoming year, even if it HAD taken us 5 months and some semi-disasters to get there!

Will we still use Sculpey for some sculpture projects?  OH yes, because it is a WAY cool sculpture medium that the kids really enjoy:


But will we also use “real” clay?  Absolutely!

One of Ruth’s gifts to me in October was a notebook filled with her clay lesson plans, pictures, and project ideas.  In October, I looked at this collection with trepidation; now I look at it with anticipation!

I can’t thank her enough for reaching out to me across the internet (and miles!), and for sharing her time, talents, and passions with me and my students.  With her help and motivation, I’ve not only added a new art experience for our program, I’ve also gained an all-things-clay resource, a new friend, and an on-going connection with a warm, genuine kindred spirit. <3

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Camping Adventure, April 8-9, 2017

We were able to go on our first camping trip over the weekend.  Since we took our travel trailer, pics are posted on a blog I started about the trailer’s restoration:

Impromptu Camping Trip, April 8-9, 2017

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