Monday, April 18, 2011

A Tale of 2 Hotels

This past weekend, Liz and I took a weekend respite from our hectic work schedules to get away for a couple of days in the VA mountains. Liz had purchased a one night stay at the Homestead, a plush resort in Hot Springs. The small sleepy town is famous for a few things - the multitude of warm mineral rich springs, the home of legendary golfer Sam Snead, and of course, the Homestead itself. To extend the weekend, we decided to drive up on Friday evening and stay over in Lexington, home to VMI and the College of Washington and Lee. The original plan was to explore Lexington on Saturday morning and then head up to the resort that afternoon. It turned out being an experience in social spectrums and as plans go, ours changed on the fly.

The Ugly Truth - William Shatner Isn't Always Right
This will be crushing news to any Star Trek fans, or even those that look back favorably at TJ Hooker, Captain Kirk isn't the best source of travel planning. In order to save a few bucks, we booked our hotel stay in Lexington through Priceline, a website that I have used often in the past to make travel arrangements. This time; however, we decided to try the "name your price" service and leave it to the captain of the enterprise to find us boarding. The result was a night spent in a HoJo that may have possibly been last updated when many young geeks in the making were still excited about a new episode of the original Star Trek airing.

The lobby was furnished with 70's era couched and coffee table. Sadly, it was more modern than the room in which we were about to spend the night. The stench upon opening the door was the first sign that the evening would be mildly uncomfortable. It caused me to check under the beds to see if there was possibly a decomposing corpse left behind by the last occupant. The single light illuminating the room was sickly issuing from a broken shaded ceiling lamp. Thankfully there was nothing scurrying about the room. An 80's era television and dorm room fridge were the extent of luxury items. We had to laugh at the thought that the room was eerily similar to one you would find in a low budget teen slasher film. It really brought it all together when I heard Liz in the bathroom acting as a plumber and fixing the broken toilet.

The one amenity the hotel boasted was the on-site miniature golf course just outside of our sliding glass door. The photo below is of it in all of it's majesty. I don't think Sam Snead built his golf legend start here. The funny thing is that we were in the heart of the most beautiful country in VA and this was the BEST view that we had! I'd be willing to bet that the 18th hole isn't officially sponsored by NASA.

For a change of scenery, we drove into Lexington for dinner. This was a much anticipated moment because I was going to get to enjoy the best bowl of French Onion soup known to have been created in the states. For those that went to school in the western part of VA, or like me had a sister that went to Radford, you probably already have figured out that I'm talking about Macado's. It has been almost 20 years since I last tasted a rich, cheese covered bowl of heaven. I think I started salivating before leaving VB. Well kids, I'm sad to report that they changed the recipe. There must be a cheese shortage! The only cheese was on a piece of french bread that was provided with the soup. It was still tasty but...why Macado's, why?

Ugliness, Part 2
For the second stage of our trip, I can't blame Shatner; however, Mother Nature is at fault. When we woke (well, I'm not really sure we ever truly fell asleep) Saturday morning, we decided to scrap our tour of Lexington in order to try to beat the massive storms that were moving in from the west. As those of you in VA and NC know, the storm system resulted in numerous tornados that devastated much of eastern NC and VA, costing several people their lives and many others their homes. Homestead was an hour drive up through narrow mountain roads from Lexington. For us it made winding up the mountainside in near zero visibility being buffered by 30-knot winds somewhat of an adventure.

In hindsight, I wished I had stopped to capture the massive rapids of the flooding river but getting the camera gear out in the driving rain didn't seem like a great idea at the time. When we pulled into the Homestead, we were greeted by menacing skies. For a moment, the massive building juxtaposed against the stormy skies conjured up images of the Shining. It was oddly beautiful and scary at the same time.

Between the breaks in the rain, I managed to get out to shoot a few photographs as the storm passed through. It is hard to do something like this justice. Standing there it looked even wilder and more menacing.

The Beautiful - Living the Life of the Privileged
OK, I'll be first to admit that I am probably more comfortable in a beach bar with sand covered floors, but there is something to be said for experiencing a place like the Homestead. Im kicking myself for not taking more architecture shots of the interior but truth be told, we were so busy trying to fit in everything we could within 24-hours, I didn't get the time to spend behind the lens. Maybe one day I'll be able to afford to spend several days there but for now the handful of exterior shots will have to do.

We arrived on at 11:00 and the staff graciously let us check-in early. While not extravagantly big, our room was very nice in every detail. I may be a simpleton, but I really dug the idea that the closet light came on automatically when you opened the closet door. It is the small things that keep me happy.

The hotel, itself, is an architectural masterpiece, sprawling over several city blocks. I had to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to stop getting lost. Everything is big! The grand hall when you enter leaves you breathless and that carries throughout the rest of the building. We swam in the indoor pool fed from the mineral springs, lunched in the casino overlooking the golf course, had afternoon tea in the grand hall, dined at Sam Snead's Tavern, had cocktails in the President's Room, explored the Garden Hall at night, and even crashed a wedding reception after party in the Player's Club.

The next morning after breakfast in the main ballroom, Liz headed off to go horseback riding and I ventured around the gardens to photograph the building in the clearing morning.

The following view of the Magnesia Spring just one of the thousands of romantic vistas the Homestead affords. "Afford" in this case is relative. ;-)

I wrapped up the morning with a 28-frame pano from below the main building before we packed it in to head home. Personally, I still prefer to vacation at a location with sand and surf; however, it is nice to have a change every once in awhile even if it does mean occasionally having to wear a blazer for breakfast. If you get the opportunity, it is a nice escape.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Chesapeake Dog Shelter: Images for Hope

As many are aware, I owe the rekindling in my interest of photography to some loveable mutts at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Control facility many years back. I had just moved to Charlotte and was slightly bored. During this time, I was still shooting film and would often travel to the mountains on weekends to hike the trails and shoot the waterfalls. It was a fun time filler but the drives were becoming longer each weekend and the expenses increasing. As far as photography, I was capturing some interesting images but nothing that really garnered any personal excitement.

One Saturday morning on a whim, I ended up driving out to the city animal shelter to see about volunteering. Honestly, I was there for less than noble purposes seeing it as an opportunity to meet other people in the area. The animals were really secondary in my mind. After talking with the volunteer coordinator for a bit and looking at some of the bad photos used for their adoption site, I got this idea that maybe I could help by leveraging my photography talents to produce images that made the dogs look more desirable. With hundreds of dogs passing through the shelter, the staff didn't have a lot of time to devote to taking images and a lot of the time, they relied on web cams captured at the time the dogs were brought into the facility. These grainy images sometimes had the dogs still attached to the catch pole, something that made them look more menacing than adoptable.

I discovered a lot about animal photography as well as myself during the next 2-years. I've covered this in previous posts regarding how to photograph your pets. What I discovered about myself...well, simply put, I discovered there was more to life than my own selfish desires. With a camera and some patience, I could truly make a difference in the community. The images that I created during that time helped improve the rate of adoptions from the shelter. I quickly moved into the digital age to make it easier and more efficient to get the images uploaded to the adoption sites. It wasn't long thereafter that people were seeking me out to take images of there furry family members.

In 2006, I left Charlotte and returned to Hampton Roads. I briefly volunteered at the VB Animal Control before work and life got in the way. It wasn't until the passing of Mahala last summer, my best friend that I adopted from CMPD, that I started thinking about how much I missed helping lost pets find good homes. So earlier this year, I started volunteering at the Chesapeake Animal Shelter and with the Chesapeake Humane Society. I had forgotten the amazing feeling of making the difference in an animal's life. With every click of the shutter, I'm reminded of just how precious life can be, whether it be a person or an animal. I'm looking forward to working with them for some time to come.